Sidestepping Democracy: A Berkeley Tradition Lives On

The anti-panhandling law, the anti-sitting law, the two-square-feet-of-possessions-only law, and the proposal to equip the smoke-free downtown with ashtrays have one thing in common: the Downtown Berkeley Association. This unelected group was given a free hand in crafting contradictory and unconstitutional legislation.

Commentary by Carol Denney

The anti-panhandling law, the anti-sitting law, the two-square-feet-of-possessions-only law, and the recent proposal to equip the smoke-free area of downtown Berkeley with ashtrays have one thing in common: the Downtown Berkeley Association.

This unelected group was given a free hand in crafting often contradictory and unconstitutional legislation over the decades, burdening the city with serious court costs and targeted individuals much more.

Why? Why would an unelected, ill-informed group of property owners, many of whom don’t live in Berkeley, be given a free hand to craft self-serving, often discriminatory legislation without objection from the City Council? The answer can be found in any analysis of campaign electoral financing; in Berkeley, the candidate with the biggest donors usually wins the race.

Has the election of a new, “progressive” council majority, including new Mayor Jesse Arreguin, changed the tendency to sidestep democracy? Not at all, as observers of a recent Berkeley City Council meeting had clarified when the mayor and his alliance overruled a vote by the Board of Library Trustees for a qualified candidate and instead situated a candidate of his own choosing, proving you can be technically elected and still lose the race if you’re not part of the mayor’s political in-crowd.

The Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) continues to have no embarrassment about its role in supporting mean-spirited legislation targeting the poor, and never misses an opportunity to lobby on its behalf, even hiring homeless clients of Options Recovery Services to hand out misleading slate fliers, handing out more than $5,000 in $100 and $50 cash payments just before the 2012 election and failing to report expenditures, a practice DBA CEO John Caner admitted to in 2013 and for which he was fined.

Mayor Arreguin was a sitting council representative for District Four at the time, and called Caner’s actions “outrageous,” stating “you’re paying people to take their rights away. It’s unacceptable.”

But “not acceptable” is what he called Councilmember Susan Wengraf’s plaintive objection to situating his own preference on the Board of Library Trustees in violation of decades of respecting the historical independence of the library’s trustees and their right to choose and elect their own candidates.

“Restricted Area: Wealthy People Only.”


Berkeley voters who assume the new “progressive” majority won’t play the same role in supporting policies which predominately target the poor should watch the council closely, especially after the absurd fanfare for the all-hat-and-no-cattle “Pathways Project” which leaves anti-poor laws intact and offers no permanent housing.

And if you get the chance, ask the fresh, new council representatives why the DBA’s legislative suggestions are always fast-tracked to the council instead of making the rounds of relevant citizen commissions. If they give you a bland answer that the DBA “represents downtown,” watch your back.

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