Berkeley Citizens React to Council's Inaction on Minimum Wage

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 16, 2014 - 11:46:00 AM

Berkeley’s do-nothing city council has sparked citizens to launch yet another petition drive, another attempt to do by initiative what never seems to get done in the course of Berkeley’s interminable and unproductive council meetings. Just in the last couple of months we’ve seen voters’ petitions circulated to correct loophole-riddled zoning in two areas, both in West Berkeley and Downtown, and yet another pair of measures would enact a tax on excess rents in order to fund affordable housing. Now a different group of backers have announced an initiative drive to give Berkeley the kind of modest minimum wage ordinance already in effect in other cities including San Francisco and San Jose.

None of this should be necessary.

Both Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli have recently inveighed online against the concept of governing by initiative, but they brought it on themselves by not doing their job when they had the chance. 

What’s maddening about the whole thing is that it’s easy to figure out why the council has failed to act in a timely way in each of these situations. 

First, land use: The West Berkeley and Downtown initiatives are a response to a phenomenon well known to those of us who follow the federal government’s pathetic attempt to control the out-of-control finance industry: regulatory capture. 

My late lamented friend Patti Dacey, who was the conscience of the Planning Commission, used to say that her professor in her administrative law class at Boalt opened his first lecture by saying that every regulatory agency was eventually captured by the industry it was supposed to be regulating. This is clearly illustrated in Berkeley by the revolving door between the city’s planning department and the development industry. The reason the existing kinda-sorta-greenish Downtown Plan contains loopholes big enough to drive a bulldozer through is that our hired planners seem to have deliberately created opportunities for themselves and friends before they went out that revolving door. 

Former Downtown Area Planning Advisory Committee staffer Matt Taecker and former city Land-Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades are now backers of a couple of new high-rise building projects which they tout as the kind of development the Downtown Plan they concocted intended to promote. Of course, they’ve also been looking for as many variances to existing zoning as they can get for their projects. 

It’s like federal administrations—sadly both Democrats and Republicans—choosing what populists call the banksters to police financial chicanery at the national level. You might say Rhoades and Novosel are the Larry Summers and Robert Rubin of the Berkeley development scene. 

In West Berkeley, the right regs are in place, but the city of Berkeley and its planning staff have been lavishly dispensing variances. That’s an even harder problem to solve—initiative backers there have now decided to skip the November election in order to craft a more bulletproof proposal for a later ballot. 

Moreover, in both of these cases initiatives which the council itself placed on the ballot, Measures T and R, created the problems which the citizens are now trying to solve. 

Next, affordable housing: The Windfall Profits Tax Initiative is another attempt to do by initiative what councilmembers won’t do. It would collect a percentage of what the big corporate landlords make on the luxury high-rise apartment buildings now in the works Downtown, and apply it to affordable housing for families and other low income tenants. Again, this shouldn’t be necessary. The council has the power to do this without an initiative, but remember that most of the propaganda for the Mayor’s intentionally toothless Measure R, the one that didn’t actually create the greenish plan it promised, was bought and paid for by the Equitable Financial corporation, which owns the majority of the high-rent buildings. QED. 

Which brings us to the latest outrage, the impotent minimum wage bill that was passed by the council last week. It replaced what backers had thought was a well-discussed compromise with Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, Tom Bates’s heir-apparent for what has become Berkeley’s hereditary mayor’s office. 

I’ve gotten a flood of outraged emails from old-line lefties and current activists alike denouncing the action. Here’s a sample, from Harry Brill of the Tax the Rich group which has been holding demonstrations on Solano for many months: 

“Skip Johnson, who is a very conservative columnist for the SF Chronicle recently urged that good minimum wage laws be enacted. He writes that companies who can afford it should be required to pay at least $15 an hour even if they provide health benefits. Pamela Drake, who is one of the leaders of the Wellstone Democratic Party Club writes "It's a sad day when Chip Johnson is more progressive than the Berkeley City Council". “The Berkeley City Council voted by eight to one to enact in its first reading (which it votes to confirm on May 20) a very diluted and weak minimum wage ordinance in the East Bay. Prior to this vote on May 6th Council member Capitelli had promised to support a stronger bill negotiated with advocates of low wage workers. Five of the nine council members also had agreed to support this proposal. Instead Capitelli announced that he decided to renege and then he proceeded to defeat the entire proposal. 

“For those of you who think that on economic issues that the Berkeley City Council is progressive, the hard evidence shows that nothing could be further from the truth.” 

The vote at the last council meeting was a first reading of the ordinance, which theoretically means that it could still be strengthened at the next one. District One Councilmember Linda Maio, who usually sits at the Mayor’s elbow and gently restrains him when his you-kids-get-off-my-lawn style of presiding over meetings gets out of hand, has said that she’d like to revisit the question. 

But longtime council watchers know that Maio is no more than a reliable fourth vote—she’ll join the three progressives only as long as the Mayor has the five conservative votes he needs to prevail in his pocket. If it’s close for some reason, perhaps because one of his buddies is absent, she’ll always vote with Bates to buttress his majority. 

This time outside progressive groups whose support the Bates/Capitelli faction has always been able to cajole seem finally to have had enough. The backers of the minimum wage initiative, members of Berkeley Citizens for a Fair Minimum Wage, are impressive, including two former councilmembers who have endorsed Bates in the past. 

Another group, Raise the Wage East Bay, is using Credo Mobilize to recruit protesters for next Tuesday’s council meeting. Former Berkeley Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn forwarded their letter along with his analysis of what’s happening: 

“…our City Council rejected all the good work done by the Labor Commission, and with Bates, Maio and Capitelli leading the retreat, agreed only to go to $10.75 an hour, and not until 2016. Clearly they listened to the special-interest pleading of Berkeley's Republican-minded Chamber of Commerce. It appears that we have a majority of Corporate Democrats on our City Council, who are ignoring the difficult situation of low-wage workers in an area with soaring housing costs. I have no doubt that if it was put to the voters, a $15 minimum would pass easily in this city.”
The nascent minimum wage initiative will now be hanging over the council’s collective heads like the Sword of Damocles. Like the king in the old Greek story, they’re enjoying their power while it lasts, but if they continue to ignore the clear wishes of their constituents, the sword could fall. 

Tuesday’s meeting should be interesting. 

Meanwhile, initiative petitions are still being circulated, with a probable cutoff early next week. You still have a chance to sign one if you're not afraid to incur the wrath of the Bates/Capitelli apparatus.