Berkeley mayoral candidates square off about budget, homelessness and more

Five of the eight people running for mayor wait before the start of the CENA/Bateman Neighborhood Association Forum. From left to right: Jesse Arreguin, Ben Gould, Kriss Worthington, Laurie Capitelli, and Mike Lee. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Five of the eight people running for mayor wait before the start of the CENA/Bateman Neighborhood Association Forum. From left to right: Jesse Arreguin, Ben Gould, Kriss Worthington, Laurie Capitelli, and Mike Lee. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Five of the eight mayoral candidates gathered Monday night to air their views on how to lead Berkeley.

The Bateman Neighborhood Association and the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association sponsored the mayoral forum, which drew about 150 people to St. John’s Presbyterian Church on College Avenue. Each candidate got to make a three-minute opening statement (The candidates’ opening statements are interspersed throughout this story. See videos below). They then answered the same four questions. Three candidates – Bernt Wahl, Zachary RunningWolf, and Naomi D. Peet did not show up.

Sutter Health is moving its emergency and acute inpatient care to Summit Hospital in Oakland. The current Alta Bates facility is subject to 99-year agreement between the hospital and Neighborhood Associations. What actions would you take as mayor to influence the future use of Alta Bates and to make sure the 1983 agreement is enforced?

Ben Gould, a Berkeley native and graduate student at UC Berkeley, said the most important thing was to preserve an emergency room and acute inpatient services in Berkeley, but not necessarily at the existing Alta Bates. He would work with hospital officials who are reluctant to pay the costs for seismically upgrading Alta Bates to explore putting those services at Herrick Hospital site or even at UC Berkeley.


Kriss Worthington, who has been a city councilman since 1996, said he understands how to negotiate with Alta Bates/Sutter Health officials because Alta Bates used to be in his district and he has played a key role in recent years in negotiating compromises with them. When word broke that Alta Bates was going to close, one council member brought forward a measure saying, “Let’s consider what to do.” Worthington said he immediately amended that to say, “Let’s take a stand.” He also directed the interns in his office to examine cases around the country where citizens have stopped the closure of hospitals. He used some of that “winning language” in a recent council resolution, he said. Worthington said Berkeley needs to organize the region and get the councils and residents of Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond involved in stopping the closure. “We are all going to be screwed if we let Sutter Corporation take away our hospital.”

Laurie Capitelli’s opening statement:

Laurie Capitelli, who has served on the city council for 12 years, said he “will do everything I can” to keep an emergency room and acute care in Berkeley. He would use the mayoral bully pulpit to speak out against the closure and he also would rally surrounding cities to fight against the closure. Capitelli would explore legal options to stop it as well.

Mike Lee, a community activist for those living without homes, said his first course of action would be to talk to Alta Bates officials. He said he has been dismayed by some “confrontational” city council members and believes their attitudes undermine negotiations. As a 30-year member of the building trades and a man who has started 100 businesses, Lee said he is a savvy businessman. He will find out what it will take for Alta Bates to stay in Berkeley and then work with the community to make it happen.

Jesse Arreguín’s opening statement:


Jesse Arreguín said if Alta Bates closes there won’t be a hospital with an emergency room between Richmond Kaiser and downtown Oakland. “This is a critical public health and public safety issue.” He would explore filing an injunction to stop the closure. He would also form a regional coalition to fight the closure. As to Alta Bates’ claim that they don’t have the funds to do the seismic upgrade, Arreguín said he was skeptical. Sutter Corporation has $14 billion in assets, he said. The hospital can apply for state funds to help with the retrofit. Berkeley can also help, he said.

Mike Lee’s opening statement:

 As mayor, what specific steps would you take to deal with the chronic and increasing homeless problem in Berkeley? Please state your position on the current ordinance governing homeless behavior.

Worthington pointed out that 35% of the calls police respond to are calls to help people with mental health issues. That is not cost effective nor is it the most effective way to help those in crisis, he said. Worthington wants to have more mental health counselors respond to these calls. He thinks Berkeley needs to have a detox center. Berkeley has more than 12 agencies helping the homeless, which means there is a duplication of efforts. He would like to see some consolidation of efforts. He also said Berkeley desperately needs public bathrooms that the homeless can use. He criticized the council majority for cutting funding for these bathrooms.

Kriss Worthington’s opening statement:


Capitelli pointed out that “the homeless problem in Berkeley is complex,” and is made up of many different groups. In addition to those with drug, alcohol and mental health issues, there are people who miss a paycheck or get laid off and lose their housing. Capitelli said he supported measures to set aside $150,000 to let this latter group get temporary financial assistance. “It’s a lot easier to keep someone from homelessness than get them out of homelessness.” Capitelli said he supports the current ordinance governing homeless behavior. “I believe we are a compassionate community but we have the right to demand the minimum standards of behavior in public spaces.”

Lee said the current city council has a “system that is terribly broken,” and it won’t do much to end homelessness. The system is based on charity or criminalization, he said. Berkeley doesn’t have a strategic plan to end homelessness and one of the first things he would do as mayor is create such a plan. Lee mentioned that he and Capitelli had been working to bring tiny houses for the homeless to Berkeley.

Arreguín called the homeless situation “a tragedy, a failure of our humanity.” As the representative for the downtown, he sees the people living on the street all of the time. Arreguín said homelessness is also a regional problem that needs regional solutions. As mayor, he would work with the state to get more money for the city’s “housing first” policy. Arreguín, who headed up a city task force that examined the city’s homeless issue, said he provided leadership to hire five new mental health workers to work with the homeless.

Gould said that Berkeley needed to do more to keep people in their homes. He said he also wanted to see more supportive housing with mental health and other services on site. Gould said there is a sizeable population of UC Berkeley students who are housing insecure, and as mayor, he would work with the university to try and address their needs. As for the existing ordinance, which limits the amount of space a person can occupy on the sidewalk, it is “well-intentioned but possibly too harsh.” Gould would take another look at some of the outlawed behavior, he said.

Ben Gould’s opening statement:

Traffic on Ashby and other south Berkeley streets is gridlocked much of the day. In addition, there is great pressure on housing on the south side of Berkeley. Much if not all of the traffic and housing demand is generated by the University and its growth well beyond the 2020 Long Range Development Plan. What specific steps would you take as mayor to address this problem?

Capitelli said the “elephant in the room” is UC Berkeley. When he attended as an undergraduate in 1965 there were 22,000 students. Today there are 38,000 students. That puts increased pressure on the streets and housing, not just on the Southside, but all over the city. Capitelli said he voted to increase density on Telegraph Avenue between Dwight Way and Bancroft Avenue, which should provide more places for students to live. Capitelli pointed out that UC Berkeley does not pay taxes (except the $1.4 million it agreed to pay Berkeley annually to offset fire and police costs) so the average Berkeley homeowner bears some of those costs. Capitelli wants the Legislature to examine UC’s constitutional exemption to paying taxes.

Lee said Berkeley must examine working with state officials to ease the burden placed on Berkeley from UC’s tax exemption. He also wants to work with UC Berkeley and have them bear their fair share. Lee said UC should have its own fire department and provide medical services to its community.

Arreguín said that 12 years ago he was on a task force that worked with UC to mitigate some of the traffic impacts on Belrose Avenue and other streets. He pointed out that Berkeley had sued UC to force it to assume some of the costs it foisted on the city, but Capitelli and Mayor Tom Bates and other council members reached a secret agreement that only required the university to contribute $1.4 million a year. In reality, it costs Berkeley $14 million to provide services to UC Berkeley, he said. Arreguín said he would renegotiate the settlement with UC.

Gould said it would be hard to build a collaborative relationship with UC Berkeley while trying to extract more money from the institution as well as trying to eliminate their constitutional exemption from taxes. He said that UC student groups have called for the construction of 6,000 more beds. As mayor, Gould said he would try and fine places for those beds He said AC Transit needs to expand its rapid bus service and Berkeley needs to build more, better-protected bike paths. Those efforts could help somewhat with traffic, he said.

Worthington said he worked closely with the neighborhood to register concern about the new Safeway on College and Claremont Avenues. It is in Oakland but has an impact on Berkeley because it is on the border. Berkeley must do the same with the proposed Claremont expansion, said Worthington. He said he sponsored items that allowed more student housing in the Southside, he fought to get money from the expansion of the Caldecott Tunnel for traffic mitigation.  Worthington said the secret agreement signed with UC Berkeley “is hurting Berkeley taxpayers.”

The audience at the CENA/Bateman Neighborhood Association mayoral forum.
The audience at the CENA/Bateman Neighborhood Association mayoral forum.

Several citizens and the city auditor have found that Berkeley’s budget deficits are structural. What steps will you take to address the cost of funding employee pensions and other liabilities?

Lee said he is not a “tax and spend” kind of guy. With Berkeley’s huge deficit, which Lee put at $1 billion, the city should not be borrowing money. Lee said he is opposed to Measure T, which would float $100 million of capital improvement bonds that would be used to fix parks, roads, sidewalks, senior centers, recreation centers and other city-owned facilities. Lee thinks Berkeley needs to curb costs. He mentioned that the city had purchased two “patch” trucks at $200,000 each. Berkeley should have just bought one, he said. When he is mayor, those wanting funds must show a “demonstrated need,” he said.

Arreguín said he has tried to curb Berkeley’s expenditures. For example, in 2009, he voted against increasing the salary of then- City Manager Phil Kamlarz by 8% from $17,903 per month to $19,335 per month, which also bumped up his pension payout.* Arreguín also said he and Worthington had voted against a $200,000 severance package given to former City Manager Christine Daniel. Capitelli voted for both measures. Arreguín also said he had tried a number of times to create a budget commission that could examine and weigh in on the city’s budget, but the city council has never adopted the idea. He said he pushed multiple times to create a special fund for surplus monies that could be used in times of emergency. He wants to create a “fiscal action plan” that will look at Berkeley’s capital needs and its unfunded liabilities for retiree pensions.”

Gould said there are two ways to bring spending under control: cut costs or find new sources of revenue. He suggested that a new tax on cannabis might bring in extra revenue. He advocates redirecting some money currently spent by police into providing better mental health services.

Worthington said that since 2003 he has written numerous proposals to increase the city’s reserves and that Capitelli voted against or abstained in five out of six of those proposals. He said the city council is dragging its feet implementing new taxes on short-term rentals, and those funds could be used by Berkeley. Worthington said he is in favor of U-1, an increase in the rental unit business tax.

Capitelli said the best way to help the city’s finances is to broaden its tax base. He mentioned that the new hotel that will be constructed on Shattuck Avenue and Center Street will bring in $3 to $4 million in new revenues each year. The apartment complex at Harold Way, which Capitelli supported, will pay $10.5 million into the Housing Trust Fund and will pay for the construction of 90 low-income.

Capitelli then questioned some of  Worthington’s actions on council, which launched the only spat of the evening. Capitelli said both Worthington and Arreguín had suggested using $5 million from the city’s reserve funds to fund various programs even though Berkeley only had a $400,000 surplus. Capitelli insinuated that the move was not fiscally sound. Capitelli said he pushed to leave the funds in reserve for emergencies, like repairs after an earthquake.

When Worthington came to the podium to answer a question about Accessory Dwelling Units, he used the opportunity to challenge Capitelli’s assertions. Worthington said the way Capitelli had described the situation showed that he did not have a good grasp on the budget. Worthington said he never suggested using $5 million from the reserve fund. Instead, he suggested using at least $500,000 from a Public Works Fund that had $13.5 million sitting in the bank. Worthington had also suggested that as funds come into the Housing Trust Fund, $2 million of that be set aside for the homeless and low-income center proposed for Berkeley Way. He was “reserving” the funds, not spending them, he said.

*Arreguín did not name Kamlarz or Daniel by name but Berkeleyside asked him for more specifics after the forum.

Learn about the other candidate events that have been scheduled before Election Day.

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