Opinion: Berkeley’s new council needs to shake up its Parks and Waterfront Department

Unless the Parks and Waterfront Department gets real, the T1 bond money will be a case of pouring new wine into cracked old bottles.

Parks and Waterfront Department public meeting held on March 18, 2017. Photo: Martin Nicolaus

The city’s Parks and Waterfront Department has had more than two years to fix the Berkeley Pier, one of the city’s most beloved facilities. It’s done nothing. Now it wants $900,000 of T1 bond money for “planning” to make repairs some indefinite time in the future.

For the benefit of the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex, aka the Gilman Fields, the department wants to spend a quarter million dollars of T1 bond money for “planning for new restroom…[and] storage container.” Not to actually build a new restroom but for “planning” to do it.

There is no money in the department’s T1 proposal to actually fix the broken tide tubes that connect Aquatic Park to the Bay. There is a quarter million dollars for “planning” to fix them, some day.

These are just three examples among dozens in the catalogue of proposals that the Parks and Waterfront Department worked hard to sell to the public at the first so-called public hearing on how the T1 bond money should be spent, held at the Frances Albrier Community Center on the morning of Saturday March 18.

It was clear from the agenda that the Department had already decided how to spend the bond money, down to the last penny. Questions from the floor were tightly controlled. Independent proposals were barred from the literature table. Judging by the attendance, there was negligible outreach to minority communities. All public input was corralled into small groups controlled by department staff. The term “public hearing,” in the Department’s dictionary, means that the department speaks and the public does the hearing.

The department does not give the impression of having the capacity to actually get projects done. It seems to see itself largely as a dispensary for consultants to do “planning.” No less than $4.35 million of the Department’s proposed T1 expenditures unveiled at the hearing go for “planning” to be done by outside consultants.

In my opinion, you do not need to pay a consultant a quarter of a million dollars to plan a restroom and a storage building at the Gilman fields. That money is enough to build the projects several times over. You do not need to spend another quarter of a million dollars figuring out that the Aquatic Park tubes need repair. A competent contractor could probably replace the tubes for half that amount. The department’s numbers are a catalogue of do-nothing budget bloat.

Berkeley has a new progressive City Council majority. But the Parks and Waterfront administration that grew up under 16 years of the old administration remains entrenched. Its signature achievement was the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex. That’s a very good thing. But meanwhile practically all the rest of Berkeley’s parks, including the pier, fell into disrepair.

The city’s new progressive majority faces many challenges in tackling the messes left by the old administration. As the initial hearing on the T1 bond money demonstrated, one of those challenges is updating the departmental administrations. Parks and Waterfront, for one, needs a thorough shaking up. Unless that is done, the T1 bond money will be a case of pouring new wine into cracked old bottles.

Correction: Due to an error by Berkeleyside an earlier version of this opinion piece referred to the Parks and Recreation Department as the Parks and Recreation Commission. The subject under consideration is the department not the commission.

Martin Nicolaus is a 24-year Berkeley resident who has published a photo book about Cesar Chavez Park. He campaigns for better restrooms to replace park Porta-Potties, and writes a blog about Cesar Chavez Park and its many attractions at http://viva-cesar-chavez-park.org