Only the best for Berkeley, but how do we get there?

Becky O'Malley
Friday April 07, 2017 - 06:37:00 PM

A number of people that I respect showed up at the last Berkeley City Council meeting to complain about the way the new Berkeley Chief of Police was chosen. In principle, I tend to agree with them. In these troubled times, when Black Lives Matter is a fundamental urban issue, all members of the community should have input on who is chosen for this key job.

Berkeley, like many California cities, is supposed to have what’s usually called a council-manager form of government, with the added fillip of a quasi-ceremonial mayor who functions as an at-large council member and chairs the council meeting. This form became popular, especially in California, in the first part of the 20th century, as an antidote to government by directly elected officials, which was often (and often justly) disparaged as “machine politics”.

What this means, or is supposed to mean, is that the city council makes the laws and the city manager, well, manages the city. That includes hiring everyone under her, up to and including the police chief.

Berkeley’s version of the council-manager format is slightly diluted, in that some commissions, notably the Zoning Adjustment Board and the Landmark Preservation Commission, have what’s called a quasi-judicial function, permitting them to make certain land use decisions which are then appealable to to the city council.

What exactly the role of the Police Review Commission has been or should be is in flux at the moment, but PRC members have claimed with some justification that they should have at least an advisory role in the selection of the new chief. This time, it didn’t happen.

However, I’ve seen enough selection of government staff at all levels to be very wary of the practice of using consulting firms to conduct what’s called a “national search” for city and school district positions. Since I’ve lived here Berkeley has had some notably bad city managers, city attorneys, school superintendents and, yes, police chiefs, all of whom were the products of a search process.  

Promoting from within looks like a better idea. Often, the devil that you know is better than the devil you don’t. 

My all-time fave in the national search category was a woman hired to be the deputy school superintendent in Ann Arbor. An enterprising reporter on the local daily looked up her resume because he thought she seemed a little fishy, and saw that she’d claimed to be both the “Beaver College Renaissance Woman of the Year” and a poet with major publication in the Atlantic Monthly.  

Nope. All phony. This was pre-Google, so maybe it couldn’t happen now, but maybe it could. 

More prosaically, of all the officials I’ve seen in Berkeley, the City Manager I like best was Weldon Rucker. He had worked for the city in various capacities for 28 years and had lived in Berkeley for 40 years before he got the job. A good locally-sourced chief of police was Dash Butler, who spent 30 years with Berkeley’s police department including 11 years as chief.  

And Berkeley’s worst? De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, as they used to say in my Latin class, but let’s note that we’ve gotten some real turkeys lately from national searches. 

So, from a practical point of view, I must admit that the choice of Andrew Greenwood looks pretty good to me. I’m not even sure that those who asked for a broader process wouldn’t have chosen him anyhow, as a known quantity with quite a few local fans. 

An even more important job will soon be opening up. As added to last week’s issue, this news:Berkeley City Attorney Zack Cowan will be leaving his position as of July, according to Yvette Gan, Secretary to the Berkeley City Manager, per a letter answering a citizen's inquiry. 

His predecessor, Manuela Albuquerque, and Cowan, her hand-picked successor, between them go way back beyond the Planet archives, to about 1992 or so. In the process, between them, they made an awful lot of bad calls. For several bad examples, click on this 2007 editorial about Albuquerque, whom I watched in federal court defending a misbegotten Berkeley ordinance which attempted to ban panhandling. Yes, she lost, as anyone who paid attention in their high school U.S. government class ought to have known she would. 

But many citizens had a chance to meet her after she’d applied and before she was chosen. I was one of them, though I can’t remember exactly why I was invited to the nice pre-hire reception where she was introduced to the faithful, possibly hosted by then-Mayor Loni Hancock. Recovered memories are hazy. 

It is certainly true that between the two of them they danced much more than they should have to the tune of the supposedly “ceremonial” mayorality, which became almost a family heirloom in the Hancock-Bates era. What Berkeley needs now is a new broom, a city attorney who’s worked somewhere else, someone who doesn’t have any obligation to the old ways of doing things. It would be a real mistake to promote within the current ever-shifting and far from outstanding city attorney’s staff in this case. 

If you or anyone you recommend would like to apply, details can be found by clicking here. Since the federal government seems to be going walkabout, we need absolutely top talent to protect what we sometimes fatuously call “Berkeley values” with vigor and skill. All hands on deck: let’s look for someone good before it’s too late.