Opinion: Berkeley planning process cannot include backroom deals

With recent decisions, Mayor Arreguín and the majority of the City Council have demonstrated their commitment to a public process that consists of backroom deals and disregard for the rule of law.

By Cody Little

Cody Little is a Navy veteran, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and a pro-housing activist.

Mayor Arreguín and his allies on the City Council are committed to a planning process that relies on ad hoc private negotiation while unnecessarily delaying construction of any new housing. On March 7, the Council held a public hearing to decide whether to allow construction of new housing at 2902 Adeline St. The proposed project would provide 50 new housing units to the community. Eight of these units would be made permanently affordable to low-income households.

To the surprise of many who showed up to speak at the hearing, the appellants announced in their opening remarks that they had reached a compromise with the developer. The compromise included an increase in the number of on-site affordable units and a one-time payment of $100,000 to East Bay Community Law Center, the organization that provided legal assistance for the appeal. This payment, negotiated by Councilmember Ben Bartlett, was characterized as a “voluntary” concession.

Let’s be clear — there was nothing voluntary about this arrangement. Mayor Arreguín made it clear that a check would be handed over or the city would not issue a permit for construction. East Bay Community Law Center is a legal assistance nonprofit that provides much-needed services to disadvantaged communities. This payment was directed to a worthy cause, but what about the next one?

The City Council has no legal authority to insist on such a payment to a third party in exchange for approval of a construction permit, and for good reason. The people of Berkeley have a right to know how the money raised by payments from developers is spent, and this sort of ad hoc deal-making prevents any real government oversight. Normalizing this kind of arrangement degrades the rule of law and unnecessarily prevents much-needed construction of housing.

If not for a last-minute movement of the goalposts by the City Council and opponents of the project, construction likely would have moved forward at 2902 Adeline. Contrast this outcome with the decision made one week prior to deny a much smaller permit to build three homes at 1310 Haskell St. in West Berkeley. In direct defiance of state law, the Council voted 5-2 to prevent construction of these homes based solely on an increase in residential density. The message is clear: in order to build in Berkeley, you have to be extremely well-funded and willing to be subject to arm twisting and backroom deals.

This is this not the kind of public process we should expect. The residents of Berkeley do not want their public servants to demand arbitrary payments in exchange for the privilege of receiving ordinary city services. Rather than continuing down a slippery slope of insider deals, we should be building a transparent system where everyone plays by the same well-established rules.

We need to move past backroom, private negotiations over individual projects and work toward the creation of a city transparently governed by the rule of law. We must demand that our elected officials conduct the business of the city in the light of day, that they make their decisions based on published zoning rules, and that they do so within the bounds of state law. With these recent decisions, Mayor Arreguín and the majority of the City Council have demonstrated their commitment to a public process that consists of backroom deals and disregard for the rule of law.