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Elisa Cooper

Becky O'Malley
Monday June 26, 2017 - 11:52:00 AM

We are shocked and saddened to receive news of the sudden death of Elisa Cooper, a stalwart,devoted and also brilliantly intelligent participant in the Friends of Adeline and countless other efforts to preserve and improve Berkeley. A friend sent this message:

"She was found dead in her apartment on Friday, June 23. Her last email to me was at 8:23 PM Tues, June 20, written from a Berkeley City Council meeting. When she did not respond to my response to her email, I became concerned (not responding within a day was so unlike her), and I went to her apartment. Another tenant and I looked around and he saw the body through a window. Police arrived, then coroner, etc. Elisa was not in good health, and it appears that she died suddenly in the early hours of June 21 of natural causes." 

One of her outstanding contributions to the public discourse was challenging the endless parade of developer-funded trolls who populate the Berkeleyside comments section. Emilie Raguso has done a quick, thoughtful appreciation of Elisa's life on Berkeleyside which can be found here. 

Elisa will be missed by all of us. We will post more information as it becomes available.

Updated: Berkeley: Changing the Culture of the Planning Department

Tim Hansen
Tuesday June 27, 2017 - 10:22:00 AM

The City of Berkeley is blessed with many hard working wonderful employees. Yet there is no denying that something is fundamentally wrong with the way the Department of Planning and Building works. Berkeley has a reputation for being one of the hardest cities in the Bay Area for business to work in. If you want to do a simple project like build a café which doesn’t require any variances and is supported by your neighbors, it can still take well over a year to work through the permit process. It is so difficult to do business in Berkeley that many architects and contractors charge extra to work here. Many small independent local businesses, cognizant of the difficulty, simply will not invest more in Berkeley. We are becoming more of a bedroom community servicing other cities with no real there—here. 

The cost to our community in terms of lost income, taxes, and wasted time is significant 

Last November’s city election saw a sea change in the council. The previous council majority’s (the Bates majority’s) agenda was causing major tensions in the city and change was in the air. An overwhelmingly progressive majority emerged and a new agenda is called for. 

The old Bates agenda was growth at any cost. “Opportunity sites” were identified and targeted to free up land for large apartment buildings. Others were demonized by Bates allies as NIMBYs and dismissed as not relevant as our city became less and less functional. The Landmarks Ordinance was under attack by city officials to free up more space, and large developers and landowners poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into our local elections to promote their agenda. Small projects in existing buildings began to take longer and longer. Many people began to believe that the only renewal the Bates administration wanted was large apartment complexes, and that the smaller projects were being intentionally undermined to help free up the land. Others view this as a conspiracy theory and, like most conspiracy theories, it suffers from the flaw of attributing more intelligence to an actor than is reasonable. Whatever the cause, there is little debate that our city Planning Department is dysfunctional and has been for many years. 

It is not just the people trying to do a simple project who are having their rights violated. The neighbors impacted by a project also need to be treated fairly. When a project doesn’t live up to the promises made to the public during the permitting process, or when the process drags on for more than a reasonable length of time, people are being mistreated. What follows is a number of suggestions to help end the problems. 


First Step: The City Council Establishes Our Expectations

The new progressive councilmembers should articulate their agenda and hold the city officials to it. The city should have an agenda: It just shouldn’t violate people’s rights. I believe the council agenda’s top priority should be affordable housing, reflecting reasonable growth while respecting neighborhoods, historic resources, providing opportunities for renewal within the existing context, and realizing that the lowest carbon footprint will often be from adapting existing structures. The Department of Planning and Development should serve the whole community in a timely manner and within the limits of the Permit Streamlining Act. 

This is a social justice issue: the cost of doing business with the City of Berkeley is like a flat tax. It isn’t progressive, so those with more limited means more heavily feel the burden. Many simply can’t afford the time it takes and the associated costs. It is very difficult for someone who doesn’t deal with the department on a regular basis to interact effectively. Minorities are disproportionally impacted. This is not acceptable. While the current council majority didn’t create the problem, it is their task to fix it-­‐-­‐it is their task to change the culture so it is fair for everyone. 


Second Step: Department Leadership

The department heads need to give guidance, direction, and supervision to reduce the backlog of pending applications and see that new applications are processed in a timely manner. They should not take on new tasks—like revising our ordinance—until all applications have been processed. If they try to take on too much they simply won’t accomplish much. Set priorities and accomplish one thing at a time. Management needs to set and articulate employee performance standards. 


Third Step: Establishing that There Is a Problem

A metric should be established so the services rendered in Berkeley can be compared to the services in other communities. We should not only look at the time it takes to receive a use or building permit, but also what is required. For instance, to get a permit to put an outlet in a residential kitchen, does a floor plan of the whole house need to be provided? What is required to replace some iron pipes that are leaking and have become congested in an apartment house? What is required in a site plan for a building permit? Does our zoning department regulate use or does it regulate who uses a space? What permits can be pulled online without a plan? Do all commercial electrical permits require a floor plan? How does the cost to the applicant, in terms of money and time, compare to other cities? If a correction letter for a permit is issued, is the specific code section listed? Is the interpretation of our ordinances applied evenly to all applicants? Does the interpretation change without notice? 

There is a large backlog of applications with some going back years. We need to be able to determine that things are getting consistently better. The backlog isn’t going to disappear overnight. Metrics MUST be established and progress measured accordingly. 

Fourth Step: Learn from the Zucker Systems Report:

On page 122, the consultant writes regarding the time it takes to get a Use Permit in Berkeley, "These are the longest timelines we have seen for UP type approvals in our many studies." The consultant, Zucker Systems, has been advising municipal planning and building departments for 35 years (page 1). This is very sobering news. Table 16, Existing and Proposed Timelines for Ups, sets a standard that we should reach in the next year. Table 9, Plan Check Recommended Performance Standards, would be wonderful, but why is it that many of us get our plans through other cities on the first pass, but never in Berkeley? We also should look at the difficulty in getting building permits. Berkeley is known for being the hardest in the Bay Area—not just longest, but hardest. 

Fifth Step: Reject some of the suggestion in the Zucker Report:

I would reject outright Recommendation 89 and 104. Paying for an expedited process is fundamentally unfair to those of lessor means. Buying one’s way to the head of the line is not fair to those who get pushed back. Making those who can afford to pay wait may also help pressure the city to clean up its act. 

Revising our ordinances will lengthen permitting time, as it will add complexity to the process. You should focus first on timely review, then once that is accomplished look to see if our ordinances are in need of revision. Many of the outstanding applications are simple and do not involve complex rules. We need to understand why these simple ones are not processed in a timely manner. 

Setting customer expectations by telling them that the process will take significantly longer than in other jurisdictions will not work. We judge Berkeley by our experiences in other locations and by what we feel is reasonable. Setting as a goal the lessening of the application processing time by a few days when the process can take six months for a simple home business permit or over a year for a tenant improvement is just not acceptable. 


Sixth Step: Case Studies

We should take an in-­‐depth look at a number of cases to see how the department functions and to review personnel performance. As an example, one AUP was applied for in May 2016, deemed complete in August, but the AUP was not granted until Feb. 2017. Why it took 6 months after it was complete for the planner to issue the AUP is left unexplained except that “it is time to get it off my desk.” This is 3 times longer than allowed by the Permit Streamlining Act. Other applications are more complicated, but can give fundamental insight into the failure of the department. One planner, when informed that the area of a restaurant should not count the bathroom area because of a specific code section, replied by asking, “What does it matter?” The same planner, when the applicant asked her what right she had to demand a more detailed site plan in order to approve a building permit replied simply that the applicant could use the more detailed site plan for other projects in future. The lesson learned here is that the planner should be required to specify the specific code section the planner is relying on when making a correction request and that there needs to be an effective way to hold planners accountable. Case studies will point to other needed changes. The focus should be “customer service” first. 


Seventh Step: Incremental Changes

Living up to the Permit Streamlining Act: We should be processing zoning permits and building permits in a timely manner. Our city council should support this as a priority. 

Staff should submit a monthly report showing the age of all outstanding permits. A review of the report should show a steadily declining process time. Neither the applicant nor the applicant’s neighbors should be held hostage to a process that takes years. If more staff is needed, then our council should allocate the necessary resources. 

Landmarks: City staff should stop trying to undermine the Landmarks Preservation ordinance and embrace its spirit. Recently, the Landmarks secretary announced at a meeting that if a commissioner writes a Landmark application, that commissioner would not be able to vote on the application. The commission rejected the secretary’s suggestion and asked where the idea came from. The secretary would not say. 

It is not appropriate for a secretary to simply announce a major change of this nature. At a minimum a public process is needed. It is also not appropriate for the secretary not to disclose the origin of the demand. Staff needs to be held accountable and there needs to be a process where complaints against staff can be dealt with in a fair manner. 

Promises: The city should enforce the representations and/or promises made to the public by developers during the permitting process. The “bait and switch” game should be put to an end by not granting an occupancy permit until all conditions and underlying representations are met. An example of this is the apartment project at Ashby and San Pablo. It was sold to the public as senior housing, but it ended up as luxury apartments with no affordable housing. We need to understand how this could be possible. Another example is the 2211 Harold Way proposal. The EIR shows the theatres being replaced. After getting their use permit, the applicant appealed the need to replace the theatres. This is not consistent with the EIR and should void the EIR process and determination. If the Harold Way project moves forward, the occupancy permit for the apartments should not be granted until the theatres are ready to open. 

Revolving Door Ordinance: The 12 month period is not long enough to end the inappropriate influence that a former City official or city employee may have. Section 2.07.030 should be changed to requiring a 72-­‐month period. It should be a conflict of interest for the City Attorney, or a member of their office, to represent a party in a claim the city is a party to. 

Berkeley represents less than 2% of the population of the greater San Francisco Bay Area according to the 2010 census. Given the inappropriate influence a past employee may have when weighed against other opportunities in the Bay Area, I believe that a 72 month waiting period is appropriate. 

Authorship or Responsible Person Identification: All emails from the department should be signed by an individual so the applicant knows whom to contact for clarification. Contact information should be available online and at the permit service center. Business cards should be either in the open or at the front counter and not stuck behind a far off counter. Staff phone numbers should be by the phone in the lobby. 

Staff to Identify code sections that justify their requirements: Staff should not require conditions for approval for a project that is outside what is authorized or required by the city published requirements for a permit. Staff should be required to justify each correction demanded with a specific code section. Applicant should be able to file a complaint and have the issue resolved in a timely manner. 

On the Division of Building Permits and Zoning Permits: The Zoning Department should not be allowed to use the application for a building permit to demand information they are not entitled to. It is very expensive to develop a building plan set and people need to know that zoning will not be an issue before committing the time and money to develop the planning set. 

Regarding lists: Notification of black lists, white lists, opportunity sites, potential development sites, code enforcement targets or other list should be made public and written notice to property owners given annually. 

Regarding the Zoning Application Data Base System: To help speed things up, applicants should be able to receive plan check comments as the different departments send them in, and they should also be able to correct the comments immediately. Making applicant wait for all departments to respond can add weeks to the permit process when one department is short-handed (fire department.) 

Eight Step: Structural Changes

Establish a complaint desk: The desk should be in the lobby and staffed with a person capable of solving the problems that routinely come up. Complaints should be made available to council as information reports twice annually. 

Building and Planning Review Commission: Putting the planning and building department under a kind of Police Review Commission procedure. This would involve establishing a complaint process for applicants who feel they are being abused. The process should be easy, quick, and effective. 

Funding: Department funding should be through the General Fund and not tied to permit applications. 

Ninth Step: Citizens Initiatives

Many people have lost tens of thousands of dollars due to the slowness of the Department. I believe they would be glad to fund an initiative that attempts to address the problems in our city. I know of no group that would oppose such a move. Putting the Department under a kind of Police Review Commission is one idea mentioned above. 

Another idea is to pass an initiative that establishes that certain projects can be done without a city permit provided certain steps are taken. For instance, any project that doesn’t require zoning approval, if built to code, can be approved by a private inspection service or the appropriate licensed professional and no city permit would then be needed. 

It is time for a change. Tim Hansen

Elisa's Example

Carol Denney
Tuesday June 27, 2017 - 10:14:00 AM

A good friend of mine, the best political strategist I've ever met, years ago made a wry remark to me that one's effectiveness at city council meetings was inversely proportional to one's attendance. But Elisa Cooper, recently passed away, proved him wrong. 

His point was that if you show up at every council meeting and speak on everything on the agenda you court looking silly. People do this. They'll stand at the podium and scream angry questions about agenda items they haven't researched and don't understand in front of a city council constrained by the rules of public comment not to answer. It's a recipe for making everybody look dumb. It also soaks up time. As the evening lengthens, tempers fray and the odds of elegant policy-making get longer. 

But Elisa did her homework. She was consistently present for important community meetings, but she brought more than her own opinions with her so that her short observations were loaded with hard-edged information. If you're a council-watcher, she was among a small handful of activists whose public comments you knew would have nuggets of policy gold. 

These activists slowly, patiently bank information in not just the listening city councilmember's mind, but also Berkeley's active, voting public. There comes an arguably precarious point when if enough of the active, voting public can claw its way through the acronyms and bizarre planning department argot and achieve enough understanding about an issue to become immunized, public relations ploys stop fooling them. Robo-calls stop affecting their votes. Rock solid, first-source information begins to set the foundation for common sense policy. 

People with their ear to the ground of housing policy, like Elisa Cooper, are seeing some of this foundation. Right to Rest legislation moves a little farther each year. Abuses of owner-move-in evictions and assaults on habitability standards have at least a few writers and reporters offering excellent coverage for the interested public. At least some politicians in crucial seats have clarity about the financial and moral bankruptcy of chasing poor people with nowhere to go in circles. 

Elisa Cooper was the only voice who stood up at a Berkeley City Council meeting only a month ago and argued against the Downtown Berkeley Association's contract renewal, which was on the consent calendar, the area of the agenda reserved for non-controversial items. She pleaded with the council to discuss the DBA contract, and was ignored, which is hard. It is much easier to argue for a losing effort if you have a group working with you and can at least commiserate together. 

The DBA is a controversial group, arguably a radical group. It's board, dominated by wealthy property owners, presents even this new council with fresh, unvetted legislation which usually hits the council agenda without bothering to inconvenience relevant commissions. It spent years tearing down community posters, a first amendment violation, until finally challenged. It has no external complaint system for its "ambassador" team abuses, its CEO was sanctioned for violations in a campaign to criminalize the poor for sitting down, and if you're a property owner downtown you have no way to opt out of membership and obligatory fees. It has over a million dollars to play with, a consistently right-wing agenda, and at present the Berkeley City Council expresses no concern about its heavy hand on policy, including their staff in meetings none of the rest of us get to hear about. 

Elisa Cooper kept her eye on all of this. She checked meeting minutes to get voting records clear, she did first-source research so she could develop an elegant ear for phrases freighted with self-serving motives. She played a difficult role, an unsung role, in a relatively indifferent community. 

But Councilmember Ben Bartlett, representative in her district and still in his first electoral year on the council, sent a note of sadness about her loss after her death to his constituent list. The phone lines buzzed between bewildered activists who knew her as the person who could grasp the deepest detail and synthesize analyses into clear language. Elisa Cooper's is one voice at public comment, it is safe to say, that even a council often weary of public comment will deeply miss. 



Berkeley needs affordable housing, not more high-end units

Charlene Woodcock
Monday June 26, 2017 - 12:04:00 PM

To the Berkeley City Council:

I urge approval of Item 41, a modest proposal to begin to address the housing crisis. We need to deal with our urgent low-income and family housing now. In November the voters of Berkeley rejected those who’ve pushed high-end housing developments in Berkeley and instead elected a majority of candidates who promised to address the needs of families and low-income Berkeley residents who are being forced out of their homes by ever-increasing rents and high house prices.

At this point we surely do not need to encourage any project except for those that provide mixed housing that includes low-income and family units, most likely those of non-profit developers. A lower percentage of inclusionary units than 20% or an in-lieu fee lower than $34,000 are simply inadequate to the very serious problem we now have. Additionally, it is well past time that, in the face of climate change, Berkeley as a city ensure that any new building meets much more stringent energy and natural resource efficiency requirements than the very dated LEED Gold standard.

We need non-profit inclusionary projects. We do not need any more above-median-income housing. The 20% inclusionary units or increased in-lieu fee need to be required of all projects in the pipeline or we will reach nearly 3 times the ABA quota for above median housing and you will have betrayed the will of the voters of Berkeley. 

The outgoing city attorney should not be allowed to sabotage the will of the 2016 election voters by including in this policy an exemption for the many projects now in the pipeline. I urge that the council eliminate Paragraph 9 of the city attorney’s Revised Report: Changes to Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee; Amending Berkeley Municipal Code Section 22.20.065: "Except as set forth in section 2, this and future increases in the Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee shall apply only to projects whose applications are not complete as of the effective date of the fee.” 

There is no justification for allowing the many projects in the pipeline to go through the process exempted from the requirements being put forth here to address our housing crisis. To do so would greatly increase the current radical imbalance in housing stock. 

I also urge that you accept the recommendations of the Housing Advisory Commission and support Items 50a and 51a and reject 50b and 51b. 

Thank you.



One More Round with the Berkeley City Council

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:04:00 PM

Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a whole lot worse!

Just call me Cassandra. The above bit of summer-camp doggerel expresses today’s theme. I hate to say I told you so, but folks, I told you last week that voting on controversial topics in the last minutes of a heated public hearing was asking for trouble. If you can’t get to it before 10:30, for heaven’s sake, postpone the vote.

You will see in both last week’s issue and this one very heated diatribes from people who are well known respected Berkeley activists over what happened at Tuesday night’s special meeting on Berkeley’s participation in various federally sponsored police programs.

It’s a good thing the Planet is not printed on paper anymore, because it might burst into flames with this stuff. We’d be happy to run contrary opinions, but as yet we haven’t gotten any submitted for publication.

This isn’t even the topic I warned about last week. That one is due to come up next Tuesday: possible remedies for over-production of speculative luxurious apartment blocks at the expense of affordable housing and to the detriment of existing residents in lower-income neighborhoods in South and West Berkeley.  

And I’m not even going to re-hash the multiple objections to the programs which were up for decision on Tuesday night. I’m going to leave that to our inflamed correspondents. As of now, what they’ve said in this space is NO NO NO, which pretty much reflects what the assembled citizenry told the council on Tuesday night I gather. 

I’m sorry to say I can’t tell you for sure what was said, because contrary to ordinary practice the video of the meeting hasn’t yet been posted, and I was not able to watch the proceedings in real time. 

I have learned that three of the councilmembers who were elected with the support of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance (and this publication) voted with the three holdovers from the previous regime to buy the whole package, including the pricey and pointless armored vehicle pitched to Berkeley courtesy of the now-Trumpified h Homeland Security team. 

If you’d like to know more, here are links to stories in other publications: 

Berkeley council meeting ends in chaos after protests on police Urban Shield program: Tom Lochner , Bay Area News Group 

2 arrests in protest of Berkeley council vote on Urban Shield


Berkeley city council votes to continue participation in Urban Shield
KTVU San Francisco- 

Protesters Take Over Berkeley City Council Meeting

Protesters Clash With Police After Berkeley's Decision to Stay With ...
NBC Bay Area 

Protesters arrested after City Council votes to continue Urban Shield
Daily Californian 

Outcry, arrests after Berkeley City Council votes to stick with Urban ...

All in all, it looks like it turned into the usual mess with which we’re all too familiar from the previous council. Berkeleyans didn’t work so hard to elect new councilmembers just to have them fall into the same stupid traps as their predecessors did.  

Boring as it is, I’ll just repeat myself at this point: 

…, no decisions should be made at these meetings. And the councilmembers must commit to actually listening, courteously.  

Speakers from the public should be given a decent amount of time, enough to make a well-thought-out case for their issues, perhaps three minutes increased to six if someone else yields their time or a councilmember requests it.  

It makes absolutely no sense to get people all riled up, give them no time to say anything except to shout slogans, and then vote when everyone’s tired and angry. The resulting chaos last Tuesday was 100% predictable, and I predicted it, though my warning was aimed at what’s scheduled for next Tuesday. 

For both of these issues (participation in federal police programs and controls on appropriate housing development) things have been made even worse by—oh, as a longtime veteran of civil rights actions, how I hate to use this phrase, but it’s descriptive—outside agitators. It’s noteworthy that the two people arrested on Tuesday don’t live in Berkeley, for what it’s worth. One observer told me she recognized most of the audience early in the evening, but later on the faces were not as familiar. It is true that militarization of police forces harms people who don’t happen to live in town as well as those who do, but still… 

The expected outside agitators for next Tuesday’s vote on housing options are riding horses of another color. By and large they appear to be excessively entitled upper middle-class twenty- and thirty- somethings, mostly White, some claiming degrees from pricey colleges, who wish someone would make it possible for them to live in Berkeley RIGHT NOW at the same level of comfort they enjoyed when living at home with Mom and Dad.  

This crowd is not afraid to advocate building projects which push the older long-term non-White residents of South and West Berkeley out of the way to make room for their own sweet selves. Their pronouncements are larded with ageist references to those who challenge them.  

Proving once again that a little learning is a dangerous thing, they expound the simplistic high-school Econ 1 version of market efficacy, what is pejoratively labelled neo-liberalism in some circles. This is despite a whole flock of recent studies showing that speculative entrepreneurial market rate construction takes at least a generation to trickle down to the lower income brackets, if indeed it ever does. 

Another out-of-town group in the sheep-like Build-Anything-Anywhere (BAA, BAA, BAA) camp consists of paid representatives of the well-paid construction unions, who appear to think that the only purpose of building luxury apartment blocks in prime near-transit locations is to make work for their members, most of whom live elsewhere in comfy single family suburban houses. The building trades have traditionally put a lot of money into candidates who carry water for them—but it’s the job of the Berkeley City Council to put the general welfare first, to be vigilant especially on behalf of those who work here whose wages are not good enough to live here. Can they do that?  

Although the public hearing on Councilmember Kate Harrison’s proposal to require would-be developers to make meaningful contributions to Berkeley’s pressing need for less expensive housing has been formally closed, there will still be the required public comment period when the item comes up on the agenda. People who want to support the idea that new buildings should be required to offer a substantial proportion of units affordable to very low income occupants or instead (“in lieu”) pay a significant fee toward the construction of public affordable housing can and should show up to express their opinion.  

Of course, they did that at the last meeting, didn’t they? Will their voices be heard this time? 

Did the councilmembers who courted progressive support in the recent elections get the message? We’ll see on Tuesday. 






Public Comment

The best way for the city of Berkeley to buy property for housing:
An open letter to the Berkeley City Council

Thomas Lord
Sunday June 25, 2017 - 09:58:00 AM

I am a member of the Housing Advisory Commission (HAC), writing to [the council] in my individual capacity.

As you know, the HAC and the City Manager have expressed conflicting views about financing the purchase of real properties at 1001, 1007, 1011 University Ave., and 1925 Ninth Street.

I am writing to suggest a "third way" -- an alternative means to pay for the purchase of these properties -- with the hopes of reconciling the competing concerns of the City Manager and the HAC.

The HAC recommended against using U1 money to purchase those properties because their purchase will not help to address the real and present housing affordability crisis anytime soon. The City Manager disagrees, pointing to the long term possibility of redeveloping the properties as housing.

(Let me be clear: I think the City was very wise to purchase these properties. My only concern is how best to pay for them.)

I propose that Berkeley institute (by ballot, in 2018) a new revenue source to fund long-term strategic acquisitions of real property: an occupational privilege tax.

As outlined below, a very modest occupational privilege tax in Berkeley could add a net revenue of $2M-$3M per year, allowing rapid repayment of the purchase of the properties around University and 9th, and establishing a perpetual revenue stream to finance future strategic purchases of real property as other exceptional opportunities arise. 

Occupational Privilege Taxes in General

A municipal occupational privilege tax is either a per-employee (employment head-count) tax, or a fractional tax on total payroll. 

Some example jurisdictions which collect such a tax: 

  • Pittsburgh, PA collects a "local service tax" from employees. Employees are taxed at $52 per year, pro-rated for the number of pay periods worked. State law limits the total payment by one person to a maximum of $52.00 per year, regardless of the number of employers that person has.
  • San Francisco, CA collects a "payroll tax" which in 2016 was 0.829%. Exemptions are made for small businesses.
  • Aurora, CO collects an "occupational privilege tax" collecting $2 per month from each employee, and $2 per month per employee from each employer. (Thus, the tax total $4 per month per job.) For employees with more than one employer, tax is collected only for the job with the largest number of hours. Thus, the total tax per person employed in Aurora is $48 per year, $24 from an employer, and $24 from the employee.

An Occupational Privilege Tax in Berkeley

For back-of-an-envelope purposes, Berkeley has about 70,000 jobs. 

Suppose that Berkeley were to collect an Aurora-style Occupational Privilege Tax of $48. Then gross revenue from the tax would be $3.36M. 

A net income of even half as much, $1.68M, would be enough to repay the entire purchase price of the 1001, 1007, 1011 University Ave., and 1925 Ninth Street in just four years. If such a tax were passed in 2018, and began collection in FY 2019-2020, the purchase would be fully repaid by the end of 2023. 

A laughably small tax that can do a world of good

Occupational privilege taxes are easy to make fun of because, superficially, they seem a bit absurd. They are, mathematically speaking, regressive. Further, these are taxes on something normally considered desirable -- jobs. 

In Berkeley, the superficial absurdity is even greater because three of our largest employers are public entities: The University of California, the City of Berkeley, and Berkeley Unified School District. 

The key to these taxes is that -- when they are done well -- they are necessarily and permanently of small incidence. 

In Pittsburgh, it costs employees a buck a week for the privilege of working in the City limits. 

In Aurora, the rate is $2 a month for each employee and another $2 for her employer. 

As shown above, Berkeley could put that level of revenue to very good use, and in ways that can specifically benefit people who rely on jobs here. 

(San Francisco's payroll tax -- not a head tax -- works out to a much higher rate. Perhaps it is suitable for a large city with many private employers that have very high revenues. The percentage-of-payroll approach would not seem to be appropriate for Berkeley.) 


There are many possibilities but to name one: 

Ask the City Manager that the Annual Appropriate Ordinance will: 

  1. Allocate $406,952 General Fund Excess Property Transfer Tax to the purchase for each FY 2017-18 and FY 2018-19.
  2. In consultation with the HAC, consider allocating $125,000 of U1 revenue in FY 2017-18 to help repay staff time developing an Occupational Privilege Tax ballot item for the 2018 election.
Whatever exact approach is taken, it should be simple both to hedge against the possibility that a tax item will not pass at the ballot, and at the same time try to develop a tax proposal that will pass.

SQUEAKY WHEEL: The Form of Infill

Toni Mester
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:16:00 PM
2212 Tenth St.
Toni Mester
2212 Tenth St.

In a rare action on June 13, the City Council remanded an appeal of a two-house project at 2212 Tenth Street in the R-1A zone to the ZAB (Zoning Adjustments Board). Cheryl Davila, the Councilmember who represents this neighborhood in District Two, was recused because she lives within 500 feet of the project, narrowing the vote to 5-4. And so the neighbors live to fight another day.

Two issues were the basis of the remand: whether the tenants in the existing 1,080 square foot house to be demolished were notified of the owner’s intent, as required by city law, and the size of the rear building, a two-story, four bedrooms house.

Adam Fuchs, the owner of the house to the south, appealed on different grounds, asserting that the front building, another two-story four bedroom house, would block light and views to windows on the second story of his home, crowd the lot next door, invite group rather than family use, and decrease availability of street parking for the neighborhood.

The staff replied that the building envelope of the two houses fell within the zoning standards and the use issues were speculative. The project designer John Newton, representing his development firm and the owner, stated that they had already made adjustments to their plan and that the Fuchs’ house actually impacted their project more by shadowing.

Meanwhile back at the Planning Commission, another public hearing is scheduled for July on the R-1A development standards, which have been a bone of contention for many years, with referrals from the Council going back to 2010.

To make a bad situation even worse, the YIMBY groups of East Bay Forward and the Bay Area Renters’ Federation (BARF) have jumped into the fray, even though their latecomer analysis leaves much to be desired. The zoning in the R-1A is a complicated problem that simply does not lend itself to over-simplification. 

Downzoning (The horror! The horror!) 

Our small group, Friends of R-1A, has been working on a revision of the development standards for over a year. We appealed another two-house project at 1737 Tenth Street on behalf of a disabled couple who lacked the ability to fight on their own. That ended with a slight adjustment to the infill house behind their yard, but I wondered whether bringing this trend to the attention of the Council was such a good idea because lines have been drawn rather than problems illuminated, and the zoning questions reduced to the usual anti/pro development dichotomy. Since this matter will be coming to the Council once the Planning Commission hearings are over, we thought it best to acquaint the new Council members with the zoning problems. 

Friends of R-1A is a small group for a reason. Fixing bad zoning requires research, insights, and outreach. It’s technical, not a popular cause sure to rouse the masses. As one ex-Mayor said at a recent meeting with a city official, “Nobody understands zoning. To most people, zoning means the house next door.” I spent months writing a history of the R-1A zoning and compiling a database. We’ve held many small working meetings and two public meetings at the library that each attracted over twenty people and revealed a need for zoning education. Much time was spent just locating the R-1A zones on the map. 

Victoria Fierce from East Bay Forward came to our second meeting in April, tweeting and making bold assertions. She complained that she couldn’t afford to buy a house but later told me that she was paid from donations to the organization. Qualifying for a home loan these days requires a substantial salary, and many buyers are paying cash. After the meeting I tried to talk with her, an exhausting exercise. I said that West Berkeley has always been a working class neighborhood, to which she exclaimed, “Not any more!” That ended what could have been an interesting discussion on rising land values, since she identifies as a socialist. But reason did not prevail. Like many YIMBYs, Ms. Fierce has a simple solution to the complexities of the housing market: just build more. Such magical thinking excludes annoying details like how, how much, what, or where; in other words, to hell with zoning. In May Robert Gammon featured her in an article in Oakland magazine about the “real cause of gentrification.” Her topsy-turvy mindset unfolds in an op-ed she authored for Berkeleyside, in which she argues against raising the housing mitigation fee that is coming up again on the June 27 City Council agenda. One would think that a socialist would approve of exacting fees for the purpose of developing affordable housing. 

I met another EBF activist at a Sierra Club meeting who was a better advocate for their cause. He explained the difficulties of finding an apartment these days, which aroused my sympathy. The market is extremely competitive, and many people are suffering from the shortage, both home seekers and renters facing eviction and disaplcement. To the YIMBYs, restrictive zoning is a cause of the shortage, but zoning can also be a tool for creating housing as well as balancing the conflicting rights of property owners, both homeowners and developers, with the needs of the city and the market. But to champion improved zoning, people need a better understanding of how it works. 

The next YIMBY I encountered was Sonja Trauss of the SF Bay Area Renters Federation at a Planning Commission meeting, during which she accused me of being cynical. I tried to engage her in conversation afterwards and gave her some of our material, which she used in an op-ed in Berkeleyside that accused us of wanting to downzone West Berkeley. Evidently downzone is a word that produces hysterics because the very mention of it on a Council agenda garnered a denunciation in yet another op-ed from Councilwoman Lori Droste and others. 

Downzoning has a specific meaning among planners and in planning law: a change in a zoning ordinance to fewer units per acre: the measure and definition of density. One of Berkeley’s problems is a lack of density standards for our zones, which makes it difficult to figure the state density bonus or to create an additional city density bonus. In a private conversation, Carol Johnson, our former planning director, said that density standards were a top priority for her office. Now that she has left and Tim Burroughs is acting as interim director, we can only hope that this matter receives the attention it deserves. 

The definition of a unit is a measure of housing equivalent to the living quarters of one household and can be as small as a 350 square foot backyard accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or as large as a Claremont mansion. 

Why can’t we all just get along? 

The R-1A was downzoned in 1967 from R-4 after a citywide effort to correct the mistakes of the 1949 ordinance, as I relate in my research paper A Brief and Personal History of R-1A Zoning in Berkeley that is posted on the City website. During the 1960’s over 8,000 parcels were reclassified including the San Pablo park area, which was downzoned from R-3 to R-1. 

When West Berkeley was downzoned to R-1A, development standards for the original accessory unit allowance were not put into place. This omission was magnified when the Council adopted uniform building heights in 1991, which brought every residential allowance to three stories including rear units. This is a grotesque envelope that is at the heart of the current R-1A reform effort as well as the 1310 Haskell Street lawsuit brought by SFBARF. 

In her attack piece on Friends of R-1A, Sonja Trauss wrote, “According to Trulia, 2209-2211 Ninth Street comprises two 1,143 square-foot, four-bedroom two-story building with pitched roofs. Toni is criticizing cheap rental housing, and claiming it is suburban to have two houses per lot, but that one house per lot is an example of compact urban infill.” This is a perfect example of how people talk at cross-purposes when they don’t share a common vocabulary and data. Real estate sites like Trulia, Redfin, and Zillow are infamous for inaccurate information. For reliable data on lot area and building square footage, one must consult the records of the County Assessor or go to the map room of the City of Berkeley website and click on parcel conditions viewer under planning, which takes you to the same assessor’s data. A search of those two addresses reveals that the combined square footage of that project is 4050 square feet on a lot size of 5366 for a floor area ratio (FAR) of .75, more than twice the existing FAR of the neighborhood. And how does she know that the rent is “cheap”? One thing she got straight is that single-family houses are a suburban form, whereas the duplex is more compact and urban, the lower end of the “missing middle” forms that I support. 

Our group’s effort has nothing to do with reducing the number of units, but advantaging the single duplex building over two detached houses for several reasons including cost of construction, locating the parking at the front of the parcel rather than the middle, preserving gardens and safe play space for children and other backyard family activities, and reducing detriment to adjacent properties. Our recommendation is a form related lateral change, neither an increase nor a decrease in the number of units because that is not on the table. The Council did not refer the number of units to the Planning Commission but rather the development standards related to two units. However, our standards could reduce the number of bedrooms and the overall floor area of the two units, depending on the size of the lot. 

I am not unsympathetic to the possibility of increasing the number of units in West Berkeley and elsewhere to enable the “missing middle” forms advocated by Daniel Parolek and Opticos Design, and I am gratified that after publishing an article here “The NIMBYs of Middle Earth” other people like Eric Panzer of Livable Berkeley and Robert Gammon have begun to talk the talk. 

But to actually walk the walk of recreating the bungalow courts of yesteryear and allowing small multiplexes, live-work projects, and townhouses, people will have to discuss zoning in a rational and respectful way. Zoning is a form of technical writing that utilizes exact terms and requires a large “definitions” section in each ordinance. 

The problems of regulating density v. form-based zoning, which the Paroleks discuss on their website must be approached in a thoughtful manner, rather than politics as usual. My inclination is to set density standards for the avenues and move towards a modified form-based code for the missing middle neighborhoods in every zone between the R-1 and the commercial mixed-use transit corridors. So instead of R-1A, R-2 and R-2A, we would have RW (residential west) or R-LM (low to medium) and for the R-3 to R-5, another designation like R-M (medium density). 

The benefit of form-based zoning is reliance on pictorial design, but the drawback is that is supposes a tabula rasa like a brand new subdivision. Berkeley is too old for such imaginings, but our code could surely use design standards and forms. Development is usually regulated by three categories of standards: fixed (so many feet in height and setbacks), variable (proportionate like FAR and % of lot coverage), and design (daylight plane, materials, window placement, roof types). The kicker is usable open space, which comes in a variety of modalities, as I discovered researching the zoning code of thirty other California cities. The resulting matrix can be found on page 53 of the communications section of the April planning commission agenda. 

Upzoning (The horror! The horror!) 

The YIMBYs have decided to advocate for upzoning and want West Berkeley to revert to R-4, which is not only regressive but also irrelevant, inappropriate, and counterproductive. R-4 allows for dormitories, sororities and fraternities, and hotels as well as six story apartment buildings. We want to keep our neighborhoods affordable for working families and to maintain the historical character of West Berkeley. 

Every increase in a building allowance means an increase in land value. A parcel that allows a six-story building comes at a higher price than a parcel where you can only build two stories because the return on investment is greater. The problems of upzoning are two-fold: demolition of historic buildings and higher land costs. The contradiction for those who believe that more building to greater heights is going to drive down rents is that the cost of building begins with the price of the land. 

The allowance for two houses on one parcel in West Berkeley has already resulted in a steep increase in the price of a parcel because building and selling two single-family houses is a lucrative business. When I stated at our last library meeting that the price of a West Berkeley parcel runs around $650,000, I was corrected by an architect-developer who said there is little for sale now under $800,000. That’s an enormous increase in a matter of a year. One of the benefits of improved zoning is to regulate land valuation so that development costs can be better anticipated. 

Stay tuned; there’s a lot more to this story. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley. 

Torture in Yemeni Prisons

Jagjit Singh
Sunday June 25, 2017 - 10:03:00 AM

Explosive new reports on a secret network of prisons run by the UAE in southern Yemen have just been published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Associated Press. Dozens of people, including children have been have been "arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused" in these prisons. 

As a close ally of the UAE, American forces reportedly participated in these interrogations. US special operations forces were dispatched to Yemen shortly after Trump became president. Former inmates describe being crammed into shipping containers smeared with feces and blindfolded for weeks on end. They said they were beaten, trussed up on the 'grill,' and sexually assaulted. The ‘grill’ is a barbaric torture device where the detainees are strapped and rolled over a fire like a rotisserie chicken. 

HRW stated that US forces witnessed the abuses but did not intervene. 

Tragically, we have lost our moral compass and our very soul. The Trump administration is obsessed with enriching the profits of defense contractors by flooding the Middle East with billions of weapons, totally unconcerned by the enormous civilian toll. One can only imagine the rage of surviving family members who watch their loved ones blown to pieces by US weapons. This is raw terrorism and we have been complicit in Middle East war crimes for decades. President Trump has just concluded sale of $110bn of weapons to the Saudis who continue to slaughter thousands of Yeminis with impunity. This must stop. 

The Sins of the Mayor

Steve Martinot
Friday June 23, 2017 - 01:52:00 PM

Slick manipulation of the agenda had already led to outrage. That was a month earlier, when 150 people had come to City Council to drag the city free of federal policing projects. The Mayor promised a ‘Special Meeting” dedicated to the issue, scheduled for June 20. 

Five hundred people showed up for that one, in a larger auditorium. And it ended with the police arresting a few, beating a few more, and dragging the poor City Council free of the people. 

* - * - * - * - * 

The sins of the mayor started at the beginning, and the people, who came to speak against Urban Shield and the federal Fusion Center (NCRIC), paid for them. All seven of the Mayor’s sins. 

[1] He donated the first hour of city council to the police, to use for their own PR performances.  

[2] He renegged on an agreement with the Stop Urban Shield Alliance, manipulating the agenda against them.  

[3] He refused to give equal time to the opponents of Urban Shield, thus showing bias.  

[4] He had the council seated on a stage, high above the public’s podium, so he could look down on the speakers from on high.  

[5] He stopped Cheryl Davila from speaking three times, to the extent that she had to point out, in her small voice, “I feel like I’m being silenced.”  

[6] He made prior decisions concerning proceedings and motions with respect to the "Feds" (aka the NCRIC Fusion Center and Urban Shield), and five hundred people crashed against them.  

[7] In the end, the cops were called against the crowd, as a "punchline" to the council’s votes in favor of the police state, about which the people had spoken and warned.  

The seven deadly sins are gluttony, envy, greed, pride, sloth, lust, and wrath. I’ll leave it to the reader to affix them to their proper number above. 

* - * - * - * - * 

The Mayor’s first sin was to use the hearing, demanded by the people, against them. With 500 people in the audience, he allowed the police and the fire department 40 minutes to present their endless case for why Urban Shield was important and essential. Did the Mayor need to provide the police a captive audience? Why? 

As a captive audience, we relived the old stories of emergencies, and how much help the police needed. As an argument for maintaining contract conditions with the "Feds," it implied that 

The final sin was to vote to maintain those contracts. After over a hundred speakers detailed how that assistance seems unable to provide itself without violence, the vote was violence against the urgency of the people present. And the meeting ended with real police violence. 

The final vote on Urban Shield did not occur until 12:35 am, six and a half hours after the meeting had started. And as the mayor himself voted for maintaining Urban Shield, the people surged toward the stage, unfurling a banner 4 feet high and 40 feet long up on the stage itself, hiding this weak and meek council behind itself. The banner said, “Stop Urban Shield, End Police Militarization.” It had been the backdrop for a demonstration held before the council meeting started. And here it was again, the silent voice of 500 people, draped in front of the council that somehow could not hear actual voices. 

Though the meeting had run its course, and there was nothing to disrupt, someone (presumably the Mayor) called on the police to clear the stage. A dozen cops stormed into the room, pushing people out of the way, and grabbing those youthful bodies that held the banner, twising arms painfully, ripping hands free of the cloth, handcuffing youthful wrists to be led away. To hold that banner had become a criminal activity. 

Outside, faces were bloodied by the police using billyclubs against people who still held the long banner and chanted, “let them go.” 

Thus, the Mayor showed he knew what Urban Shield was all about, why he favored it, and who it "Shielded." 

“Subdue and arrest.” 

* - * - * - * - * 

Five hundred came to oppose NCRIC and Urban Shield,, and demand that the city break its relations with them. The speaker’s line was long. Each speaker got only one minute. People could cede their "minute" to others. But the maximum for any speaker was four – compared to the 40 minutes the police got to do their PR. 

The public speaking process lasted three and a half hours. Three and a half hours is over 200 minutes. Those speaking thus represented over two hundred people (themselves and those who ceded minutes to them). Only one person of all the speakers spoke in support of "the Feds." 

Yet when the Mayor read his proposal for a compromise, he had it ready to hand, printed out, foreseen as his position even against the foreseeable two hundred people speaking against the "Feds" (in person or by proxy). To have had it in hand meant his decision was made without them, way before the hundred speakers began. Would nothing change his mind? 

That is a horrendous thing to contemplate – the machinery of non-representation. 

* - * - * - * - * 

“Subdue and arrest.” That’s a more realistic motto than “serve and protect.” Protect whom? 

One hears a similar question when the city speaks about affordable housing. Affordable for whom? Below market rate? How far below? Protection for whom? 

Subdue and arrest. And cause pain in doing so. And bloody a few faces while defending the institutional right to cause pain. 

These young people, who came and spoke beautifully and eloquently about what it was like to face the horrors of police impunity and militarization here in Berkeley, knew what they were talking about. Against the police, there was no sanctuary. 

* - * - * - * - * 

The crowd followed the cops out into the night, chanting “let them go.” Once outside, the cops went berzerk, pushing and shoving those who still held the banner. Some were hit with nightsticks, others were pushed violently and with malice. We who stood in the second row behind the banner-holders caught them to keep them from falling. One cop came at us with such hate and anger in his face that I expected him to grab the banner itself and start tearing at it with his teeth, falling to the ground and growling as he chewed the banner in his rage. 

But there it was. Speaker after speaker had warned against the police state, and had explained what it was about, what the concept of a “police state” meant to political opposition. It meant the government gives the police the autonomy to do what they likes against the people. And there it was. 

* - * - * - * - * 

What was the demand of the people that was so unsupportable? It was to stop. Stop the brutality, stop the shooting, stop. “Stop stop stop urban shield.” 

That chant – “stop stop stop urban shield” – had the same lilt and rhythm as that other chant, heard in so many other demonstrations, “free free free Palestine.” One could hear each in the other. 


Stop stop stop urban shield. 

Free free free Palestine. 

Stop stop stop urban shield. 

Free free free Palestine. 

Stop stop stop urban shield. 

Free free free Palestine. 

Written down like that, it begins to look like a tattered flag, somewhat the worse for wear from the battles it has seen. Trans-national liberation comes to Berkeley. 

The Trans-national police are what is behind Urban Shield. The FBI operates in Europe and Africa, the CIA interferes in elections on five continents, the DEA makes deals with drug producers throughout the third world, and the NSA surveilles us. The local police are their eyes and ears. Against them, we have been thrust into Trans-national battle. 

* - * - * - * - * 

But the police, during their PR performance in the meeting’s first hour, gave it away. They went over all these emergencies that occur, or that can be imagined, in which they claimed to needed contract connections with the "feds" to get assistance in those emergencies. 

Are we supposed to believe that the "Feds" would not help Berkeley if it were not under contract to the Fusion Center (NCRIC) and UASI? Does this city have to take out membership in a federal police institution in order to get assistence from the government in an emergency? Really? 

You know what that means? It means that the federal government is a shake-down operation. It is there to help only those who sign up under federal agreements. It is like the rackets of the 1920s. In New York City, the mob (Meyer Lansky and Jake Shapiro) did the same kind of thing in the garment industry. They organized an employers’ association, and told each garment shop owner, either you join our employers’ association, or you will get no pick-ups and deliveries from the truckers. Is that what the Berkeley cops are telling the Berkeley City Council? If so, why would the city want to be associated with racketeers, even though they call themselves the federal government? 

But, if that is not so, and the feds would come to the assistance of any city that needed it anyway in an emergency, then the police, in their PR presentation, were running a number on City Council. It would mean they were giving a deceitful and fallacious report. How could city council grant the police any credibility if that were the case? 

Yet the Mayor had his proposal and his decision based on police credibility already in hand when he opened the meeting. 

* - * - * - * - * 

The speakers called upon the Berkeley City Council to do the right thing, to free itself from tutelage to the "Feds." Young people and old activists, newbies and the politically jaded, all came together to demand a civil civilian government, not one controlled by the police. And we couldn’t get it. 

Outside, after the police had taken control, and drove away with their captives, a new chant was spoken in the circle of the people. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.” We stood in a circle, the 60 or 70 of us remaining, shoulder to shoulder with each other outside Longfellow Middle School on Derby St. 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.” The words are those of Assata Shakur, an activist for black liberation, framed on a murder charge in New Jersey during the 1970s, and who escaped to Cuba where she finds sanctuary. The FBI has placed a 2 million dollar bounty on her head. And Trump has told the Cubans, “you want normalized relations and trade? Then you give us back our escaped slave.”  

The Cubans respond, “pedal it elsewhere, Mr. Cop.” 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”

Response to Steve Martinot's Op-Ed Re events at Tuesday's Berkeley City Council meeting

Jacquelyn McCormick
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:50:00 PM

First, the opinions stated are my PERSONAL opinions and experiences. But I am frustrated, a bit angry and willing to put my employment at risk to give another perspective to the events of last Tuesday night. Over the past 6 months there has been partial and inaccurate reporting about incidents in Berkeley from EVERY news source and public point of view. Even those that we consider "friendly" and "unbiased". So, I would like to state what I saw and experienced leading up to, and, including Tuesday night.  

The vote outcome from Tuesday's meeting was the best that could be obtained; just take a second and look at how the votes went down - on every item. Kate and Cheryl did not have the votes to get out of Urban Shield immediately. The Mayor didn't have the votes to suspend for a year and investigate. In defense of the Mayor, he is responsible for EVERYONE in this City - if substitute training is NOT in place prior to pulling out of Urban Shield our community is at risk. One must only look to the protests from the alt right that occured in the spring - and Milo has already announce he is coming back in late August. In order to ensure that the contract would not be extended without ANY oversight or review (which WOULD have passed) and to ensure there was substitute training in place the Mayor accepted the friendly amendment AND THEN he reduced the review from one year to 6 months. Personally, I don't support Urban Shield but this is the BEST outcome from a divided city council and one that will not lock us into longer term participation. 

There are complaints that testimony was not taken into consideration and minds were "made up" before hand. Honestly, many of you on this list ask me prior to council meetings how the Mayor is going to vote. And when I tell you I don't know, then I hear complaints about him being "uncommitted" or "wishy-washy" - so which way do you want it? Also, there was plenty of testimony PRIOR to the meeting - phone calls, emails and MANY wanted to stay in Urban Shield without question.  

The agenda was sent to Stop Urban Shield PRIOR to it being finalized and while still under discussion by City Council members - many who disagreed with order of the agenda AND the participants. EVERY participant went over time - the Mayor allowed that to occur because the Police had gone WAY over (although the police union ended up NOT presenting). AND everyone who came to speak was given time to do so. As a result there was over 5.5 hours of testimony. Should the Council have had more time to debate? Absolutely (IMO), but it was well after midnight. Every Council Member should have had the time to say everything they wanted to say and debate with each other. 

Audience participants at the Council meeting did not consist of our typical passionate community members. While initially there was a mix of new and familiar faces, almost all of the familiar faces left before 10 and there was a distinct change in the crowd. I mentioned it to my co-staff and I actually went into the crowd to let a few familiar faces know that they should be aware. I have heard from some of you that "if they had voted to suspend for a year - everyone would have been happy". That is NOT the case. When that option was presented the crowd started in - agressively yelling, holding "anti-fa" signs and even calling out "fascista". Also, I have been subsequently told, by a reputable source, that he heard plans for rushing the stage AT THE BEGINNING of council debate, so he left and actually told the police to call for back-up. (BTW - directive to the police was NEVER given by the Mayor). Tension in the room was palpable. 

As rollcall for the vote for the amended motion began, and before it was completed, people from the crowd jumped on the stage with the very large sign that blocked council members from sight. In and of itself this was not alarming, and was actually unanticipated. What happened next was not .... Once the sign was up a couple of male members from the audience, unknown to any of us, began crawling up under the sign - at that point council was still in their seats voting from behind. I flew out of my chair to try to keep one of them away and then more appeared. I ran up on to the stage as the vote was completing grabbed the Mayor's papers, returned to the floor (to find a mob running for the stage) grabbed my things and, with the rest of staff, escorted the Mayor outside and drove him away from the scene. Council members at the corridor end of the stage were trapped by members of the crowd who were trying to get on the stage. This was NOT a friendly protest - not by any stretch of the imagination. 

These were VERY frightening moments for everyone involved. In this day and age rushing elected officials by groups who have been violent in the past (there were anti-fa signs raised in the audience during the meeting) and people you do not know is alarming. It is a VERY good thing council was up on the stage (although all of them should have been advised of the street exit). 

We were not around to see what happened next but have heard, anecdotally, from other council, staff and the public. We cannot speak to the actions of the police, at this point, but we will find out what happened. No one was jailed - they were cited and released. There were injuries - that is NOT a good thing - it never is.  

Bottom line: Urban Shield is only in place for 6 months - not for the term of the entire contract. It will be reviewed, alternative trainings identified, and a decision made. NCRIC is another story altogether and the vote was a real surprise to me. Personally, I don't want to go through this again but I will. 


Jacquelyn McCormick is a staff member in the office of the Mayor of Berkeley. 

And Back to Jac--

Margy Wilkinson
Friday June 23, 2017 - 03:03:00 PM

Dear Jac:

The vote outcome on Tuesday was NOT the best that could be obtained – every council member should have vote to end Berkeley’s relationship with Urban Shield. I believe you when you say you did not know what was going to happen but it really felt like the majority of the council and the Mayor were not listening. The “substitute” training is available right now – and the city should start using it right now. More training can be found and/or developed.

I am interested to read what the vote meant – it wasn’t clear from what was said from the stage. 

How is the City divided? There were only 2 speakers out of about 200 who supported staying in Urban Shield – except of course for the Police & the Fire Depts. If there is strong public support for Urban Shield, then the Mayor and Council members need to share that. How many emails/phones did the Mayor/Council receive demanding that we stay in Urban Shield? 

Whatever was sent to the Stop Urban Shield Coalition prior to the meeting should have been the final agenda and should have been adhered to. After that dispute, the Mayor and Council majority never recovered the good will of the community members present. 

Who was in the audience? New people, yes. But many who have spoken countless times. Sometimes the complaint is “we always hear from the same old voices.” Now the complaints is that they weren’t “our typical passionate community members.” You can’t have it both ways – when we are discussing housing issues those who support endless building of “market rate housing” speak frequently. They are rude, shaming, bullying, and they lie. I have hissed when they have said particularly ugly things and been chastised by the mayor. Many of them do not come from “our community.” The speakers on Tuesday all agreed, were mostly young and many were not white. Do they all live in Berkeley? Who knows, who cares? They are passionate about an issue that doesn’t respect the lines of city limits. 

About time limits – I didn’t know that the police had been allotted 15 minutes until late in the meeting. I do know that their presentation seemed endless and extremely biased. It was a grave error for the Mayor not to call time on them. If the police, Harrison/Davila and SUS had all be given 15 minutes at the beginning of the discussion much of the tension and animus in the room would not have devloped. And by participants, if you mean those who spoke during public comment, it is simply not true that people went over their time limits. 

The events at the end could not have been unexpected. I did not hear anything during the course of the meeting, except from Cheryl and Kate, that would have made people feel calm about the situation.  

I am sorry that people I know and like personally were frightened but we live in frightening times and we need to figure out how to preserve our local democratic traditions while dealing with the dangers that abound. 

Finally when Milo comes back I think we should have a massive demonstration – everyone who lives and/or works in Berkeley should be invited to confront Milo and his crowd – not violently but passionately – telling him his hideous ideas are not welcome here. 



Insanity reigns supreme in America (An open letter)

Marc Sapir
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:27:00 PM

(Kriss, this is an open letter--it's public.)

We already knew because it wasn't a guarded secret that y'all on the Berkeley City Council planned to vote last night to continue Berkeley's participation in Urban Shield exercises and even the extremely dangerous NCWIC--the "suspicious activities" national data collection system whose data base can be politicized and gets around to police department countrywide-- (if that program doesn't frighten you nothing can). So the whole deal of a third Council meeting on this subject was a charade--a satire on democracy.  

It wouldn't matter how many petitions were signed, how many people showed up (about 300), how polite or impolite, how raucus or calm the crowd, how good the evidence of the public presentations. You know, as well as I do, that this was decided 2 months ago because you told people that. You also know that you've made us, the public and the Stop Urban Shield Coalition sit through thousands of person hours over 4 meetings (three of them City Council Meetings, of which two lasted until almost 1 a.m.), watching repetitive slide shows by the police chief (and we've seen the Sheriff's slide shows as well at the Board of Supervisors meetings), pretending that you've had open ears and minds, which you did not. You made us jump through these hoops even though you had already made up your minds. I didn't make this up; it's what you and other councilmembers have told people privately and intimated not so privately. 

If we were to put Homeland Security's Urban Shield and its 5 million dollar yearly SWAT performance art show on a Berkeley ballot, which I doubt anyone is going to waste time doing, is it not likely that your position, especially on participating in the Urban Shield militarization scenario exercises and weapons expo and the participation in NCWIC, would be repudiated? You are playing this two ways against the middle. You claim you need more investigation? If a commission or committee of Council advises to pull out of Urban Shield next year you will do it for a year. No biggie, right? Studying a problem that has already been over-studied is such an old typical delaying charade. Meanwhile the real world keeps spinning out of control, as we bomb 7 countries now shooting down a Syrian plane over Syria because they bombed "near" our surrogates in region of Syria the U.S. has staked out for itself. This threatens potential war with Russia and Iran as well as North Korea. Meanwhile thousands of Americans like Hugo and Rodrigo sit newly imprisoned without rights. Do you even know who Hugo and Rodrigo are: upstanding Union members of the Painters Union from Marin, seized on the Job and held now from their wives and children with no recourse to the courts for over a month? What does "sanctuary city" actually mean to you in practice? I didn't see you or Jessie or Wengraff or Maio or other Councilpeople at the rally at the ICE building in S.F. yesterday morning outside the hearing for these two fathers, husbands, family men, whose ability to provide for their families has been taken from them--and they may even be deported or kept in prison for doing nothing? Certainly no one representing Berkeley spoke there at that rally though a rep from a State legislator came all the way from Southern California to give his public support for their rights.

Our mayor sat up there on the Longfellow Junior High School stage Tuesday night like a pompous dictator--like a Mussolini or a Trump--warning the crowd below to behave according to his rules (and yours). But there were barely a few non-disruptive far off snickers as one (only one) citizen of the hundreds in attendance spoke in favor of Urban Shield. And how badly he treated Councilwoman Davila? It was hard not to notice the parallel between how those Republican Senators treated Camilla Harris and how Jesse Arreguin had the nerve, the unbridled chutzpah, to tell Davila to lay off the police chief when she asked him why he left the police killing of Kayla Moore while in custody out of in his presentation by claiming there have been no such police incidents in many years in Berkeley. What do you, yourself, think of his leaving off the police killing of Moore? Are you prepared to make a criticism and public apology for your chief's flagrant omission? Isn't it like the "careless" omissions of Flynn and the stonewalling of Sessions? This is politics in the 21st New American Century. And the reason, in my view, why the Democratic Party can not pull out of its tailspin is because its duplicity, like yours, is just as real and just as transparent as that of the Republicans. Duplicity, such as providing the Stop Urban Coalition leaders an incorrect agenda sequence for the meeting as was done, is the type of behavior that causes the growing outrage everywhere in our society. Is chaos what you want to see happen here? Your dishonesty about the process we just engaged in promotes chaos and creates a lack of trust that we can even try to have any democracy.

I would have thought that those of you on Council who listened to our former mayor Gus Newport's scolding you might have felt some shame as to how long you dragged this nonsense out. I had a small hope that you might reconsider what you were about to do. Urban Shield is a no brainer. Yes, a no brainer as Gus pointed out, unless you think that the police department exists mainly to defend you, yourselves, from the public. Urban Shield participation isn't a legitimate referendum on your support or betrayal of the Berkeley Police department. Any intelligent person can separate out the two separable issues. Supporting the police department doesn't require capitulation to their political and policy desires. The police are supposed to work for the people; they should have no political role in democratic governance. By advancing the politicization of police work in this way your are placing yourselves in support of fascism and endangering the public. No I don't mean the Berkeley Police are fascists. What I mean is that if you don't subordinate policing power to popular will you are furthering the serious political and cultural crisis our nation is facing. That's a general statement about what is happening, not a comment about Berkeley's police department.

I find it ironic that Mayor Jesse Arreguin made a big show of his opposition to the armored van. I say ironic because that's the one part of this whole charade that was of little actual importance in my view. I don't care whether the department gets a bulletproof van. But, as Councilwoman Harrison pointed out I think, the van could be bought without this UASI money--without Homeland Security ties--if you felt it was necessary. Instead you claimed that the city obligated itself to UASI. Do you mean that Berkeley isn't allowed to cancel an agreement to accept money from Homeland Security to buy a van? Why would that be? The van hasn't been outfitted yet. There's always ways to get out of such a deal, but are you afraid to alienate the Feds? If so, why? And if not, is getting the money, their 80 thousand dollars, that important to you or the Police chief and the Union? If so, why?

You and your cohort are playing with fire Kriss. Rather soon Trump and Sessions and Kushner and Manifort and Flynn are all going before the bar of justice for their persistent deceptions and lying. Some will likely go to prison but all will be disgraced. Dishonest and duplicitous behavior like integrating the City with Homeland Security will eventually be exposed here as well, even if there is no legal culpability. This collaboration with Homeland Security and the reactionary Sheriff Ahern has already cost you yourself more than you recognize. Only upon your own vote--yes yours personally, not the rest of Council---was there a huge gasp from the remaining, still sizeable, audience at 12:35 a.m. You had assaulted your own reputation. Did you even pay attention that almost all of the people in the audience of about 250-350 or so were actually Berkeley citizens? That all are strongly opposed to what you were about to do and that they surely represent tens of thousands of others? Do you even care? Do you truly believe that you know more or better than we do about what our City needs in terms of police work? Do you actually think the people of Berkeley elected Jessie (and you and Sophie) to defy the public will and to thus denigrate our intelligence and insights? When I voted for Jessie and for Sophie Hahn, I didn't think that I was doing that old American 2 party dance of choosing some lesser of two evils. I thought--from what I had heard--that we had a chance for a revival of progressivism here that might parallel the outstanding things happening in Richmond where they've made so many gains for their citizens in spite of Chevron's millions against them. Even at 75 years of age and experience I was fooled, yet again. Kris, that you are no longer a progressive leader is a reality that is sure to get wide play. You might lead by following the will of the people rather than your own, that of insiders or outsiders, named or unnamed. And if you can't do that, you should just-- as the saying goes--get outta the way.


THE PUBLIC EYE: Five Months of Trump: The Tipping Point

Bob Burnett
Friday June 23, 2017 - 01:48:00 PM

Five months into the Trump regime, we've reached the tipping point. It may take more than a year to play out, but the presidency of Donald Trump is coming to an end. Meantime, congressional Republicans -- acknowledging the Administration is running out of runway -- have decided to ram through as much toxic legislation as they can while Trump is in the White House. 

Four factors brought us to this tipping point. The first is Donald Trump's unpopularity. The battle lines have been drawn and there is no neutral ground. The majority of American adults (56 percent according to the 538 website) disapprove of Trump's job performance. 

Second, in the face of his historic unpopularity Trump has given up on any notion of broadening his base, of being the President of all the people. There's been no indication that Trump plans any effort at reconciliation between the warring factions in American politics. Instead, Trump has doubled-down on hateful and divisive rhetoric. As a result, an already polarized electorate has become even more deeply divided. Trump doesn't care; he's content talking exclusively to his base while executing an agenda that will, in the longterm, hurt his most dedicated followers. 

Third, Trump is in serious legal trouble. There are two separate legal actions wending their way through the legal process. The first regards emoluments and the second collusion with Russia.  

An under-reported story is Trump's violation of the Constitution’s conflict-of-interest clause (“emoluments”). Writing in the New York Review , ACLU legal director David Cole describes the lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW): "never before in American history has a president-elect presented more conflict of interest questions and foreign entanglements than Donald Trump... Our forty-fifth president has deliberately chosen to undermine the interests of the people he represents in order to further the interests of the one person he cares about most." 

Three emoluments lawsuits have been filed. The first by an ethics watchdog (CREW), the second by the attorney generals of D.C. and Maryland, and the latest by 200 Democratic members of Congress. These lawsuits sail into uncharted legal waters and, therefore, it's unclear what their ultimate outcome will be. (Except to harass Trump for many months.) 

The collusion with Russia track has gotten more attention and seems more promising. There are three independent investigations: one in the House of Representatives, another in the Senate, and a third conducted by Department of Justice independent prosecutor Robert Mueller. Most observers believe the Mueller investigation represents the biggest threat to Trump -- the caveat being that Donald could end the investigation at any time by firing Mueller. 

The collusion with Russia track has four distinct components: the first suggests that Trump has had unsavory financial relationships with Vladimir Putin and his cronies. The background material suggests that Trump has deep ties that he does not want to reveal -- hence his reticence to release his tax returns. Depending upon your perspective, what we know implies that at the worst Trump has been involved in a gigantic money-laundering syndicate and at the best he has displayed incredibly bad judgment. 

The second component of the collusion with Russia track suggests that Trump presidential campaign collaborated with Russians to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. Depending upon whom you read, Trump associates either directly coordinated with Russian actors, to take actions such as hacking the DNC emails and distributing them to Wikileaks, or they knew about the Russian activities and did nothing to stop them. (For his part, among the Washington mega-players, Trump has been distinguished by his apparent lack of curiosity about Russia's involvement in the 2016 election.) 

Recently, a third component of the collusion with Russia track has emerged: Trump's efforts to coverup the entire matter. This was what made former FBI-director James Comey's testimony so riveting. Comey is convinced that Trump removed him from his post because Donald wanted to shut down the FBI inquiry into collusion with Russia. (Trump, in effect, admitted this in his May 11 interview with NBC's Lester Holt )

The fourth component of the collusion with Russia track has been the revelations of what appears to be perjury by Trump associates. Trump confidantes such as Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn apparently lied to authorities when they were initially questioned about their contacts with Russians. While this does not directly bear on Trump it does suggest a broader conspiracy to suppress the truth. 

The fourth factor that brought us to this tipping point is the total abandonment of comity in Congress. It wasn't that long ago that Democrats and Republicans worked together on some matters. Those days are gone. 

The Senate Republican handling of their effort to repeal and replace Obamacare is illustrative of how the situation has deteriorated. Republicans have made no effort to work with Democrats and have fashioned their Obamacare replacement in secret. They plan to ram it through the Senate with a minimum of discussion. 

The good news is that the Trump presidency is headed towards an early termination. The bad news is that the Republican leadership knows this and is determined to ram through as much toxic legislation as they can while Trump is in the White House. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bburnett@sonic.net or @BobWBurnett 

ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Systemic Problems with California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation

Jack Bragen
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:12:00 PM

In late 1984, about a year after my second bout with severe psychosis, I applied for services from State of California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, in hopes of going back to work.  

I was referred by Vocational Rehab to an electronics training program. I completed that, and went on to get my first electronics job, in television repair. My case at VR was closed, and it seemed as though I was to live happily ever after with my new electronic repair career.  

Not so fast. The television repair job ended a year later when the company folded. I did a job search and went to work for a photocopy and office equipment servicing company. The job was too stressful. At about the same time, I experienced extreme stresses in my personal life, about which I am not at liberty to detail.  

I might have just barely scraped by in the photocopy repair company had it not been for my personal problems. I ended up quitting the job in a very irresponsible manner. This was the beginning of having chronic problems with employment. I had experienced numerous traumatic events in connection with work.  

Over a period of years, I obtained numerous jobs, some of which I was good at, while others were too difficult. Department of Rehab was unhappy with me because I kept coming back to them. Their model was that a disabled person would come to them for help, the person would receive training and/or other help, they would get a job, and they would live happily ever after.  

Here's an analogy: If you have a malfunctioning television, and you bring it in for repair, the technicians there will not blame the television, berate it and call it names in order to fix it. The TV set needs to be diagnosed, and that's the only way it will again work.  

In my twenties, I had specific issues that needed to be addressed concerning employment, issues that hadn't been identified at the time. Instead, the counselor at VR blamed me, said I was immature, and ultimately became part of the problem rather than the solution. Family wasn't much better. My parents didn't understand why I kept getting jobs and quitting them. 

There are several problems that I see with the Department of Vocational Rehab. They are not geared to providing ongoing counseling and other assistance for disabled people who are trying to stay in a job. Many persons with psychiatric disabilities should have ongoing help and support in their quest to succeed in employment. Once things are up and running, it is not time to withdraw support.  

It is not automatically a given that a random person, disabled or not, is able to do given job. Some can do some things, some can do others. There are jobs that are too hard for most people, and there are jobs that almost anyone can do. Most jobs are an exertion.  

In order to maintain employment, most people need a "support system" in which people provide encouragement. Most people must be rested before work. Most must make an effort in order to produce adequate performance. And other things are needed. Jobs entail work, this in turn entails that we are ready to produce that work.  

Post-traumatic stress, being on heavy medications for decades, and having been outside the regular work force for a number of years, at this point, mean that it would not be practicable for me to try meaningful, standard employment at this point in life.  

Most paid writing jobs seem to be within a corporate environment, and I could not conceivably adapt to that.  

I am unhappy that Department of Vocational Rehabilitation doesn't address my situation or my current needs. They do not assist anyone in becoming self-employed. They will not pay for college unless you are a full-time student. They will not work with someone who has long term difficulties and long-term need for assistance and support.  

The criteria under which they operate prevents them from addressing the needs of many people with chronic mental illness. Their system entails giving specific assistance with a specific goal, and when it is reached, they close that individual's case. Many people who need career help can't function in accordance with that.  

{A tangential note is that some of the counselors at Department of Rehab routinely underestimate people. My wife, who has a Bachelor's Degree from a very good college was sent to training to become a motel maid. In my most recent attempt at obtaining help from them, they gave me testing, but they would not give me the results of it, and claimed that the individual responsible for scoring me had become ill and had to leave. It seems as though counselors at Department of Rehab have a need to assume that their clients aren't capable of much.}  

On the other hand, the electronics training that I underwent, and the ensuing electronics jobs, continues to help my quality of life to this day. I have adapted those skills to being proficient with computers. (In addition, I took computer repair classes on my own.) 

Computer ability is essential to my current endeavors as a writer. I am not dependent on supposed experts to handle my computer issues. This is a good thing, since I would have no way to pay for such services. Instead, I sometimes help family and friends with their computer issues.  

I am grateful for the services Department of Vocational Rehabilitation did provide. However, I wish they could do more for me, and I believe their system is flawed.

Arts & Events

Julie Adams Debuts as Mimi in LA BOHÈME

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 30, 2017 - 03:18:00 PM

Having attended the first performance of this current production of Puccini’s beloved La Bohème, I decided to attend a second performance for two reasons. My reservations about the first performance all focused on conductor Carlo Montanaro and his tendency to smother the singers beneath all too loud orchestra. So I wanted to see if anyone had prevailed upon Montanaro to tone down his volume. Secondly, I was curious to hear Julie Adams sing her first major role on the big stage of the Opera House. I first heard Julie Adams in 2014 when she sang the role of Blanche DuBois in a Merola Opera production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Though this is an opera I dislike (based on a Tennessee Williams play I detest), Julie Adams made a huge impression on me. In a difficult role, she was excellent. Next, in a Merola Grand Finale, I heard Julie Adams sing a saccharine aria from Eric Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and, more gratifyingly, Susannah’s duet with Reverand Blitch from Carlysle Floyd’s opera Susannah. When she graduated to the main stage at San Francisco Opera, I heard Julie Adams sing minor roles such as Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Kristina in The Makropulos Case, and Karolka in Jenufa.  

Given that all these examples were a bit outside the mainstream soprano repertory, I wondered how the very obvious vocal talents of Julie Adams would fare in more standard repertory. And what more standard repertory is there than La Bohème? So let’s take up first the question of whether the role of Mimi is right for Julie Adams? My answer is a bit equivocal. Julie Adams’ soprano is full, almost hefty, and perhaps it’s a bit too hefty for the frail, tubercular Mimi. Not that Julie Adams didn’t sing grandly as Mimi. She certainly did, at least in the performance I attended on Sunday, June 25. Julie Adams has a lush tone and she excels in hitting the high notes sung fortissimo. However, the role of the frail Mimi, who starts out sickly and dies at the end of La Bohème, is perhaps not the best role to highlight the strong vocal talents of Julie Adams. I can imagine Julie Adams as a Turandot; and I can definitely see her as either a Donna Anna or a Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or even a Constanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Let me be clear: it’s not that there was anything to quibble at in Julie Adams’ performance of the role of Mimi in La Bohème. Yet there is a question about what roles are best suited to a particular singer’s voice.  

Now let’s move on to my other reason for attending a second performance of this year’s La Bohème. After an opening performance that was hampered by the brutal conducting of Carlo Montanaro, for which he was chided by not only myself but also Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, conductor Carlo Montanaro seems to have gotten the message. He toned down the volume as well as the pace of his interpretation of the score of La Bohème; and the results this time around were far superior. The supporting cast was excellent as always; and this time the opera came together nicely as a wholly gratifying experience. It was a joy to hear tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s eloquent phrasing in the role of Rodolfo, something that tended to get lost in the sonic overkill of the first performance. In fact, all the singers benefitted from more relaxed conducting from Carlo Montanaro. Only the overcoat aria sung by bass Scott Conner remained underwhelming. Otherwise, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and vocally exciting production of Puccini’s perennial favorite, La Bohème. 

Joshua Bell Excels in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:46:00 PM

Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which premiered in 1875, is not a symphony. Rather, it is for all intents and purposes a violin concerto, and a very French violin concerto at that. Although inspired by the rhythms and musical colors of Spain, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole possesses all the essentials of French music: the clarity of expression, the richness of orchestral color, and the rhythmic vitality and melodic lyricism handed down through the centuries from Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau to Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. 

In four concerts at Davies Hall June 15-18, San Francisco Symphony featured violinist Joshua Bell in Édouard Lalo’s sumptuous Symphonie espagnole. With Russian Guest Conductor Vasily Petrenko leading the orchestra, Joshua Bell offered a riveting performance of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Playing a 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin, Joshua Bell tore into Lalo’s Spanish inflected rhythms and delivered exquisite renditions of Lalo’s lyrical melodies. The richness of Bell’s tone, especially in the burnished low register, was sumptuous indeed. Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole opens with a deceptively grandiose introductory statement from the orchestra. When the solo violin enters, it too opens on a grand and serious note. Soon, however, the work’s lightness of spirit takes over, and for the rest of this five-movement work the mood is light and airy, though full of demanding technical passages for the violin soloist. As for these latter, Joshua Bell handled the technical challenges with awesome aplomb.  

The second movement, marked Scherzando, offers a seguidilla. (Think of Carmen singing “Près des ramparts de Sevilla” in Bizet’s opera.) Here the strings and harp offer pizzicato plucking to imitate the sounds of a guitar. The third movement, an Intermezzo, opens with the orchestra announcing a grand theme, but this soon gives way to a flamenco-style Habanera. Then comes an Andante, which opens with trumpet calls backed by low strings. This movement features some splendid passages for solo violin in the low register, and it was here that Joshua Bell’s resonant, almost cello-like tone made its full impact. The fifth and final movement opens with gentle notes from the triangle, then launches into a Rondo full of Iberian spirit and fiendishly difficult technical passages, which Joshua Bell handled almost perfectly, with here or there, however, a slight misstep in fingering. In spite of an occasional slurred note, Joshua Bell gave as deeply expressive and gratifying a performance of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole as one could ever hope to hear. This was unquestionably the highlight of a program that also included Glinka’s Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor.  

Glinka’s brief but extremely colorful Capriccio on the Jota aragonesa opened the program. This piece is considered a true fountainhead of Russian music, and in it Mikhail Glinka demonstrated his mastery of inventive orchestration. Indeed, his imaginative instrumental combinations in this work show Glinka’s debt to Berlioz. The Spanish colors include harp and pizzicato strings to suggest the plucking of a guitar. There are many contrapuntal lines heard against the main themes, all combining in a work of great verve, exuberantly conducted here by Vasily Petrenko.  

After intermission Vasily Petrenko returned to lead the orchestra in San Francisco Symphony’s first-ever performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor. Written when Rachmaninoff was only 22 years old, this work was nearly the composer’s undoing. At its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1897, it was so poorly played by an indifferent orchestra conducted by a drunken Alexander Glazunov that Rachmaninoff himself heard nothing but the faults of this his first effort at writing a symphony. He fell into such despair over the failure of this work’s premiere that he suffered a complete nervous breakdown marked by chronic depression and an inability to compose. Cared for at first by his grandmother, then by noted Moscow physician Dr. Dahl, Rachmaninoff gradually returned to physical and mental health, and by 1901 he had composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, a work that brought him everlasting fame. Meanwhile, the score of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was seemingly lost and unregretted. After the composer’s death, however, a score of this work for two pianos turned up and later a score with orchestral parts allowed this First Symphony to be revived, and it received its second performance in 1945, 48 years after its disastrous premiere. Since then it has gained a measure of respect and is often programmed, especially in Russia. 

Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony opens with a four-note motif that will continue to be heard throughout all four movements of this work. In fact, it is used to open not only each movement but also various sections of movements. It thus offers a unifying thread. The work begins with an orchestral outburst marked Grave. This is developed at some length before the opening four-note motif returns to signal a new section marked Allegro. The second movement offers, instead of the usual slow movement, another fast movement marked Allegro animato. In this symphony, the slow movement is the third, a Larghetto. To me, this lovely Larghetto is the only completely satisfying movement of this work. Early on there is a brooding theme heard in the cellos and basses. A few trumpet blasts offer punctuation, then a brief flute solo ensues, soon followed by an exquisite cello solo, beautifully played here by principal cellist Michael Grebanier. After the violins pick up the main melody, this lifting Larghetto comes to a close with gentle pizzicato from the violins. The rousing finale, marked Allegro con fuoco, is far too bombastic for my taste, though it offers impressive pyrotechnics from the percussion section. Throughout this Rachmaninoff First Symphony, conductor Vasily Petrenko led an energetic rendition of a youthful work that in spite of its flaws contains many hints, especially in the lilting Larghetto, of the great lyricist Rachmaninoff would become.

LA BOHÈME: An Opera That Never fails to Move Us

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:37:00 PM

On Saturday; June 10, Puccini’s La Bohème returned to San Francisco Opera, this time with a completely new cast never heard here before in these roles. Rodolfo was sung by Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, whose only prior appearance here was in 2016 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Chacón-Cruz is a lyric tenor who brings an intimate vocal warmth to his portrayal of the impoverished Parisian poet Rodolfo. Unfortunately, however, Conductor Carlo Montanaro opened Act I of La Bohème on Saturday with the orchestra playing so loud that the singers’ voices were smothered. The famed Racconto di Rodolfo, the poet’s narrative to Mimi telling who he is and how he lives, came through only due to our familiarity with the words and music of this great number. Thus we could anticipate the words even if we could not necessarily hear each word being sung by Chacón-Cruz due to the overbearing orchestral accompaniment. The same was true of Mimi’s famed “Mi chiamano Mimi,” though it was beautifully sung, albeit on a very small and intimate scale, by Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi.  

As for the horseplay among the Bohemians inhabiting their garret that opens La Bohème, it was full of wit and gaiety as always. Director John Caird adroitly staged the familiar hijinks, and the stage-set by David Farley was handsomely laid out, though the high windows looking out onto Parisian rooftops sported projected images that were so dark and dingy they could barely be made out. Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen was a moving Marcello; bass Scott Conner was an able Colline; and bass-baritone Brad Walker was a competent Schaunard. Veteran Dale Travis, a bass-baritone, sang the roles of the landlord Benoit and the aging suitor of Musetta, Alcindoro. Travis alone of this cast had previously sung at San Francisco Opera in La Bohème.  

The Act II scene at Café Momus in the Latin Quarter was beautifully staged, complete with a military brass band and the itinerant toy-seller Parpignol, sung here by tenor Colby Roberts. Musetta was capably sung by soprano Ellie Dehn, though Dehn’s “Quando m’en vo’ soletta per la via” was a little less impressive than usual due once again to the loud orchestral accompaniment led by Conductor Carlo Montanaro. Ian Robertson led the San Francisco Opera Chorus and Boys Chorus, while the San Francisco Girls Chorus was prepared by Lisa Bielawa and Valérie Sainte-Agathe.  

Some of the best singing occurred in Act III in the duets between Marcello and Mimi, then between Rodolfo and Mimi, when they encounter one another on a snowy morning outside the tavern where Marcello works as a sign-painter. In an opera full of gorgeous vocal writing, Act III of La Bohème may contain the very finest vocal music of the entire opera. In this production, Chacón-Cruz and Grimaldi were at their best in Act III, and, thankfully, the orchestra did not cover their voices in this Act. Audun Iversen’s Marcello was also at his best here, both in his duets with Mimi and in his venomous spat with Musetta at the close of Act III. 

Act IV of La Bohème, of course, is the quintessential tear-jerker, and it never fails to move us, often to tears, no matter how many times we’ve heard it. This time around was no exception. Puccini’s re-use of fragments of music from the Act I falling-in-love scene between Rodolfo and Mimi is extremely effective here in Act IV, where it has new poignancy due to Mimi’s extremely frail, clearly dying condition. And when Mimi’s voice finally trails off into silence, and her arm drops limply by her side, it is the other Bohemians who first notice that she has died. When Rodolfo becomes aware that they are all anxiously regarding him, he rushes to Mimi’s bedside, embraces her, and cries out in anguish, “Mimi! Mimi!” as the final chords of Puccini’s La Bohème bring this great opera to a dramatic close.  

La Bohème continues at the War Memorial Opera House through July 2. Former Adler fellow Julie Adams will sing the role of Mimi on June 20 and 25.