Five of Berkeley’s six mayoral candidates faced off on Monday night in a bid to persuade a slice of the Berkeley populace that they were best suited to lead the city for the next four years.
No one issue dominated the discussions, but some of those being debated included the proposed sidewalk sitting ordinance, the city’s unfunded liabilities and how it spends its money, how to boost business locally, the town-gown relationship, and the achievement gap in the school system.
An estimated 150 people turned out to St John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley on an unusually warm evening to hear incumbent Mayor Tom Bates and challengers Council Member Kriss Worthington, local business woman Jacquelyn McCormick, Cal adjunct professor Bernt Wahl, and activist Zachary RunningWolf, share their vision and address questions from a panel of journalists as well as from the audience. (The sixth registered candidate, Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, did not attend.)
The forum was hosted by the Claremont and Elmwood Neighborhood Association (CENA) and the lion’s share of the evening was devoted to questions for the candidates from a journalist panel which comprised Berkeleyside’s Lance Knobel, Becky O’Malley, editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet, freelancer Judith Scherr, Todd Kerr, editor of the Berkeley Times, and Carolyn Jones, reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Perhaps inevitably, Mayor Bates spent much of the evening defending his record, while his challengers suggested they would do a better job. Bates pointed out that he is endorsed by six of the eight council members and four of the five school board members. He added he wanted to keep going in order to continue to work with the schools on its 2020 Vision plan, and to push ahead with the city’s Climate Action Plan. “Things are on the move,” he said.
Worthington was also able to draw on his achievements as a Council Member since 1996 to make the argument that it was time for Bates to step down after ten years. Responding to a question from Knobel about a mayor’s limited powers and the need to build coalitions, Worthington said that 98% of the items he has brought to council have passed. “Clearly council members want to work with me. I put more proposals forward than anyone else, and I have proven I can work with a wide range of people.”
McCormick, who ran against Gordon Wozniak for Council in 2010, argued that “the incumbent [was] not putting Berkeley first.” “Nothing is going to change by shuffling the deck chairs,” she said. In responses to specific questions, she said she wanted to find ways to curb benefits to city employees and stop cuts to youth services. Getting the community more engaged in the political process was also a high priority.
“I sit in every City Council meeting and am continually amazed at the number of people who come to meetings… and their agenda is pushed down continually by council,” she said. “We are losing the soul of Berkeley. Let’s set our priorities and all the drama and circus that happens in Council will end.”
Worthington also had suggestions on how to overhaul City Council meetings. A mayor’s power may be constrained, he said, but he or she has the power to run a City Council meeting. “There will never be a day that I will be rude to the general public.” Wothington proposed controversial issues be addressed in dedicated meetings so that all those with views would be heard. He also favored using technology for better communication with the public. “Frequently the community doesn’t know what the city is planning to do to them. A fundamental solution is a neighborhood notification network,” he said.
Clever use of technology is also important to Bernt Wahl, who works at Cal, mostly helping to start new businesses, and who says he is running for mayor principally to talk about improving Berkeley’s business climate. He proposed that the city work more closely with UC Berkeley and exploit the talent therein, and employ technology such as GIS (geographic information systems) to bring the businesses the community wants into the city. Downtown used to be thriving in the 1950s, he said, and there are tools that can be used to help make it that way again. Software in laptops and transmitter chips in bikes can help them easier to retrieve for the Berkeley police, he said. And he favored a more business-like approach generally to city governance. “I want to see a matrix for what you’re getting for what you’re spending,” he said, and suggested putting budget information online so that it was publicly available. [Ed: the city's budget is online.]
Measure S, the proposal to ban sidewalk sitting in commercial areas between 7 am and 10 pm, was discussed at some length. Four of Bates’ challengers oppose it, while Wahl said, “legislation might not be the answer.” RunningWolf called the measure “mean-spirited.” He suggested that Telegraph Avenue, which would be a particular target for the ordinance, should be turned into a pedestrianized street with, potentially, performers, a farmers’ market, and merchants encouraged to put seating and stalls on the sidewalks.
Mayor Bates said that merchants had asked him to put the measure forward, and cited one example of a business that closed because of the people sitting in front of the store. “Is this going to solve all the problems? No,” he said. “We spend $2.8 million a year on services, we help all kinds of people, and the number of homeless on the street is down by 50%. This is not going to criminalize people.”
Despite their disagreements, there was perhaps one issue on which the five candidates found consensus: the proposed expansion and remodel of the Safeway store on the Claremont-College intersection, a subject close to the heart of many CENA constituents. Bates has gone on record to say he opposes the project. “I am 100% in agreement with the mayor on this,” Worthington said, laughing. Unfortunately for the candidates, this is not a fight that any of them can take on directly in order to prove their mettle, as the Safeway comes under Oakland’s jurisdiction.
Mayoral candidate wants a more business-friendly city [09.25.12]
Berkeleyside launches one-stop, non-partisan voting guide [09.24.12]
Berkeley election activity begins in earnest [09.04.12]
Progressive teacher challenges Bates for Berkeley mayor [08.27.12]
Berkeleyside’s approach to local politics [08.22.12]
Jacquelyn McCormick wants to be a more inclusive mayor [06.18.12]
Visit Voter’s Edge Berkeley, Berkeleyside’s non-partisan voting guide to the ten measures on the Berkeley ballot. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to November 6.