Don’t consolidate waterfront and parks commissions

The Waterfront and Parks & Rec commissions may seem ripe for consolidation, but they rely on different budgets, different staffs and different kinds of expertise.

It’s coming around again: The Berkeley City Council will consider a measure to consolidate several commissions in order to reduce the demands on staff support resources.

This might be a valid cost-reduction strategy in general, but combining the Waterfront Commission with the Parks and Recreation Commission makes no sense at all.

Although the two Commissions are both served by the City’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, they are supported by different staff and have different funding streams. Nearly all Waterfront Commission staff support is provided by the Waterfront Manager or the Harbormaster, paid for by the Marina Fund, not the General Fund.

The marina is a Special Enterprise Zone — its revenue and expenditures are independent of the City’s General Fund. And, whenever non-marina staff time is used in support of waterfront projects, the Marina Fund, not the General Fund, is billed. The proposed consolidation will not save a penny from the General Fund.

In fact, this particular consolidation will most likely increase the time burden on the non-marina staff. When waterfront staff and parks staff are both present — which will likely have to be the case at most of the consolidated commission meetings — we will have unnecessary and wasteful duplication. Do we want Parks and Recreation staff to sit through discussions on waterfront issues that have nothing to do with city parks? Should Parks & Rec staff be asked to deal with maritime issues well outside of their areas of expertise?

This last point is particularly important: The Berkeley waterfront includes berthing for over 1,000 boats, four restaurants, a large hotel, commercial fish boat support, charter yacht terminals, a boatyard, sailing schools, and a number of other water access organizations and the specialized infrastructure that goes with all of these activities. There is a major ferry terminal in the works. New development projects may be in play as leases from the ’60s turn over. Waterfront staff is well versed in all of these issues — but these issues are largely irrelevant to upland park management.

The Waterfront Commission contains a deep bench of specialized expertise in these areas that would be lost through consolidation. Current Commissioners include board members of BCDC, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Cal Sailing Club, Berkeley Yacht Club, the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center, and a number of other sailing, windsurfing and paddling advocacy and access groups. At the present time the Commission membership includes professionals in naval architecture, coastal engineering, coastal environmental management, waterfront commercial development, recreational boating safety and maritime forensics. And there is a strong commitment on the Waterfront Commission to low-cost public access to water-related activities.

This depth of experience in maritime affairs, both recreational and commercial, has been a valuable asset to the marina. It is largely through the efforts of a knowledgeable and committed Waterfront Commission that the Berkeley Marina remains a welcoming access point for a wide variety of boating, fishing and waterfront recreation, especially for people who cannot afford boats of their own.

Perhaps a more direct way to reduce staff time overload would be to allow members of the commissions, instead of city staff, to take their own minutes, prepare reports and handle other administrative tasks with reduced staff assistance. Any commission with sufficient expertise to make useful recommendations to the City Council will certainly be able to perform these basic functions from within their own membership.

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Paul Kamen is a forensic naval architect who chairs the Berkeley Waterfront Commission. He is active in the Cal Sailing Club, the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center, and founder of CDAWGS (Coalition for Diverse Activities on Water, Grass and Sand).