All right, the initiative petitions for measures to be placed on the November ballot are down to the wire. This weekend will see the last big push to qualify measures to be offered to voters for their approval. The hysteria among certain members of the Berkeley City Council has reached fever pitch—they’re SHOCKED, SHOCKED that voters, finally fed up with a do-nothing legislative body, seem to be taking matters into their own hands.
Mayor Tom Bates has used his official voter-funded newsletter to play Paul Revere. In a recent “Bates Update” he claimed that the Green Downtown initiative would “cripple the voter-approved downtown plan”. Actually, the reverse is true.
The initiative is backed by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Sophie Hahn, longtime Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Austene Hall and a wide spectrum of members of civic groups, including Save the Post Office, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and a variety of labor organizations. Far from crippling the downtown plan, the measure if passed would turn the downtown plan from promise into reality, adding numbers, details and penalties to vague language, a job the council majority has cheerfully let slide after the enabling measure passed.
Green Downtown requires public benefits from developers taking the Green Pathway, a concept which in theory would allow developers added density and height in return for doing something extra for the public good. For example, they would have to actually build affordable housing units and not just pay into the Housing Trust Fund, and they would have to include family-size units among them. They'd have to include bike parking and pay into an open space fund.
It also restores portions of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance that have been weakened in the downtown. It would restore the due process that was eliminated with a procedure known as Request for Determination. Neighborhoods in the Buffer Zone around downtown and the Historic District would be protected by a requirement that new buildings near them be no closer than 50 feet.
The second important proposal comes in two parts, and requires two petitions to be signed.
One petition taxes large for-profit landlords on windfall profits related to vacancy decontrol. It exempts a variety of landlords, including those with duplexes, those with properties built before 1999 (under rent control), and those with financial hardships. The tax money goes into the General Fund.
The second petition requires that the General Fund give 3 million to the Housing Trust Fund annually. However, it can be suspended in a fiscal emergency.
It’s not only Tom Bates and Laurie Capitelli who are inveighing against the populist view of direct democracy which has been a feature of California since the days of Upton Sinclair and before. It’s true that recently it has been abused on the state level by big-bucks corporate interests, but on the local level it’s still a valuable tool. But whether you plan to vote yes or no on any initiative or referendum, lobbying to keep them off the local ballot is not the answer.
One citizen petition circulator whom I spoke to commented that it’s ironic that one reason that Tom and Laurie give for not signing petitions is that initiatives can only be undone by the voters. She pointed out that they and their Council Majority associates placed Measures R(redistricting), S (prohibiting sitting on the sidewalk), and T (West Berkeley rezoning) on the last ballot.
S and T could have been passed by a majority of the Council, did not need to be initiatives, and the voters turned them down anyhow. S certainly would have made Berkeley the target of a civil rights lawsuit had it passed.
A new West Berkeley initiative is now in process as a response to the losing Measure T. It appears it won’t make it to the November ballot, but apprehensive West Berkeley residents and business owners will certainly try for a later date, having been thoroughly spooked by T. The draft which has been circulating is in the spirit of San Francisco ballot measures aimed at stopping waterfront projects which are exemptions from that city’s general plan. It would preserve the existing height limits in West Berkeley, unless there were a vote of the people to change them.
As for R, we are still paying the price for it and will do so until the people can pass a Charter Amendment to correct it. Most recently, the Berkeley City Council blew $30,000 of taxpayers’ dollars instead of compromising with citizens outraged by the gerrymander offered for new district lines.
Nevertheless, even those losing ballot measures served a valid public purpose. The defeat of S proved conclusively that Berkeleyans still don’t want a punitive crackdown on our problematic homeless population, so the city must continue to pursue better solutions. Measure T put West Berkeley on notice to watch its back, as spot zoning proposals continue to come thick and fast in a desirable location.
What we’ve learned from the redistricting fiasco is that—at a minimum—the city of Berkeley, like the state of California, needs to have district lines drawn by someone other than those who will benefit from them. Councilmember Arreguin’s proposal for an impartial commission is a good start, though the details still need work.
Right now, this weekend, though, look around for a circulator and sign those petitions. A good hunting ground is the Saturday Farmers’ Market next to City Hall.
Final filing day targets are next week, but signatures need to be checked for authenticity before they’re official. You don’t need to decide now whether you plan to vote for these measures in November, but if they don’t get on the ballot you’ll lose your chance to decide.