The Keystone Cops are running the Berkeley City Council. (So what else is new?)

Becky O'Malley
Friday August 19, 2016 - 02:09:00 PM

UPDATE: The do-over happened at a second special meeting on Friday. See story, August 26. 

Rule #1 for reporting on politics, especially Berkeley politics: Never attribute to conspiracy what incompetence will also explain.

That said, the trail of conspiracy/incompetence which led to Councilmember Laurie Capitelli’s aborted City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago was remarkable, even for Berkeley. I’ve spent the last week asking around, getting lots of answers, only some for attribution on the record, and my conclusion is (drumroll): What happened was just what appeared to happen.

A colossal screw-up, maybe intentional, maybe not. 


Short form summary:

Councilmember and mayoral candidate Laurie Capitelli reneged on a meeting he’d called himself, with the only public notice that he was to be a no-show provided “at the midnight hour” (an hour before the announced start time) not by the city staff, but by the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Berkeley Association via emails to their members.

Evidently those who pay the piper (i.e. actual or potential corporate donors to Capitelli’s campaign fund) called the tune. It’s more, I think, on the conspiracy side of the calculus, but at best it was inexcusably sloppy, a waste of time(=money) for the city staff who had to prepare for the meeting, open the council chambers, etc. 





Long form explanation:

Capitelli engaged in a series of negotiations with SEIU, the public employees’ union, brokered by attorney Andy Katz, who’s run for a variety of local offices both public and organizational, and is now serving in several of them. The goal was to reach consensus on what kind of council resolution was needed to improve Berkeley’s minimum wage and sick leave regulations. As things now stand, there are competing ordinance initiatives for these topics on the November ballot, both likely to be defeated because when voters have too many alternatives they just vote no on everything. 



Katz issued a press release saying that there had been a meeting of the minds, appropriate language soon to be submitted to the Berkeley City Council for ratification. 

A “Proclamation” calling a special meeting of the council for Thursday, August 11, 2016,
6:00 P.M was submitted, with signatures of convenors affixed as follows: 

s/Jesse Arreguin, Councilmember, District 4
s/Laurie Capitelli, Councilmember, District 5
s/Lori Droste, Councilmember, District 8
s/Darryl Moore, Councilmember, District 2
s/Kriss Worthington, Councilmember, District 7

And then, when the appointed time arrived, Arreguin, Worthington and Moore were in place on the dais in the council chambers in the Maudelle Shirek Old City Hall, but (without a word of warning to their colleagues) Droste and and Capitelli were no-shows, so the meeting lacked a five-member quorum. 

Vice-Mayor Maio was in Europe. Mayor Tom Bates was “unavailable” at an undisclosed location. Susan Wengraf pleaded family obligations, though rumored to have been available if needed. 

Retiring District 3 Councilmember Max Anderson, however, was definitely on call at home, ready to come in to make a quorum if needed despite persistent back pain. 

There’s some sort of murky narrative about the timing of the release of the proposed language as it relates to Berkeley’s four-month-old Open Government Ordinance (OGO) which I’m not even going to bother to track for you. I talked to the city attorney who finalized the draft, and even he wasn’t willing to guess what the problem might have been. 

In any event, the escape clause would have been that if six councilmembers had managed to arrive, they could have waived whatever requirement might exist in the OGO and gone on with the meeting. (Moore + Arreguin + Worthington + Anderson + Droste + Capitelli=6). 

Another version of the story is that Capitelli possessed the draft language in time to meet the deadline for publication for a five-member quorum, but held it back in order to torpedo the meeting when he changed his mind about supporting it. Choose your poison pill. 

In any event, the two draft ordinances (one re minimum wage , the other re paid sick leave ) in motion were finally placed in limited release by Capitelli just yesterday. 

Berkeley increasingly seems to be governed by the Keystone Cops. Mr. Capitelli has been on the Berkeley City Council since before the creation of the universe, and yet he orchestrated this farcical performance and hasn’t even apologized for it. 

And, no, I haven’t even bothered to ask him what he thought he was doing, because the sequence between the Downtown Business (error intended) Association’s CEO John Caner’s whiny first press release and Capitelli's abortion of the council meeting with notice only to his patrons in the corporate sector is obvious. He didn’t even tell Andy Katz that he would miss the meeting, it seems. 

As we used to say in law school, res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). 

Oh those wicked politicians, they’re all the same, one is tempted to say. But this case provides an unusually clearcut example of which councilmembers are trustworthy and which are not, and also, which two mayoral candidates operate in good faith and which one doesn’t. (Since Droste, not up for re-election for couple of years, was also a no-show, it seems to indicate that she’s marching to Capitelli’s drummer, but there’s no way to prove it.) 

Meanwhile, the reigning council majority members (Capitelli, Bates, Maio, Wengraf, Moore, Droste) have blithely embarked on their lengthy summer vacation without dealing with the other two of the most pressing issues now facing Berkeley. 

One of them, just today, seems to have resolved itself without Berkeley’s input: Jerry Brown’s attempt to impose pro-developer by-right zoning on cities like ours in return for a trivial amount of funding for affordable housing. A coalition of labor, environmental and housing activists from all over the state seems to have persuaded legislative Democrats to turn him down on what would be a very bad deal for us. 

But Berkeley has still not dealt with the very serious grievances articulated by citizens involved in Black Lives Matter advocacy. The most recent outrage on this front was the way some mid-level city bureaucrats, fronted by an assistant city manager and a press guy and backed up by a phalanx of uniformed police officers, denied entry to the city administration building during business hours to a committee of eight activists who had scheduled a meeting with a councilmember, simply because of an unsubstantiated rumor that they were planning a sit-in. 

If the activists had actually overstayed their welcome by sitting in somewhere, then a foolish city administrator might have tried charging them with trespass, but keeping them out of a public building before they’d even done anything was patently illegal. They said they came to talk, and that request should have been honored. 

The constitution of the US&A, the same one that Mr. Khan carries a copy of, has been interpreted by the courts as forbidding pre-censorship of speech, including symbolic speech, on the basis of content. And what about the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances? This just in: No Prior Restraint. 

. It appears that the City Manager wasn’t even consulted before the doors were barred. The Mayor and Vice-Mayor were Unavailable, as usual. Who’s in charge, anyway? 

Here’s a radical idea: if it was possible to call a special city meeting at the behest of labor activists to deal with wage issues, even if Capitelli bailed at the last minute, how about trying again for a properly noticed special meeting about all three major items of unfinished business left on the table when the council took off? Perhaps five councilmembers would sign off on that. 

This time, however, it might be a good idea to ask the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Association for permission beforehand, since they appear to be running Berkeley these days…. 

I’ll say it again: it’s time for a change. We don’t need any more of this stuff, whether it’s conspiracy or incompetence. The election’s in November: precinct walking in progress this weekend and beyond. 




Background reading

Here's the full set of links. Read them and weep. In reverse order of occurrence, roughly.

Betrayal at the Berkeley City Council (Public Comment) Harry Brill 08-11-2016

Flash: No Special Berkeley City Council Meeting Tonight Re Minimum Wage John Caner, CEO Downtown Berkeley Assn. 08-11-2016

Flash: Whole Lotta Shakin' at a special City Council Meeting tonight? Becky O'Malley 08-11-2016

City of Berkeley News: City Council Special Meeting, Thursday August 11 at 6:00PM Councilmember Kriss Worthington 08-11-2016

Press Release: Berkeley City Council to hold special meeting on raising minimum wage Stefan Elgstrand, Office of Councilmember Jesse Arreguin 08-11-2016

Press Release: HAVE YOUR VOICE HEARD: Council Special Meeting re MINIMUM WAGE, Tomorrow, Thurs, Aug 11, 6pm, Old City Hall, 2134 MLK Jr. Way. John Caner, C.E.O. Downtown Berkeley Association 08-11-2016

Press Release: Agreement Reached on Berkeley Minimum Wage
Attorney Andy Katz led negotiations for Special City Council vote Thursday
Andy Katz, andy@andykatzlaw.com 08-11-2016

Press Release: PROCLAMATION CALLING A SPECIAL MEETING OF THE BERKELEY CITY COUNCIL From Leslie D. Harris, City of Berkeley City Clerk Department 08-11-2016