By Judith Scherr
A June 2012 grand jury report that slams the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board is at the center of the two-slate race for four seats on the board that oversees the city’s rent control law.
Berkeley Tenants United for Fairness, TUFF, joined forces over support for the report’s conclusions that the board “lacks oversight and accountability,” and that it’s up to Berkeley voters to “change the direction of the BRSB.”
The Tenant Convention Slate, TCS, chosen by a nominating convention in July, blasts the report, saying it “relies on inaccuracies, half-truths and innuendo,” and is based on policy concerns rather than evaluating the board’s implementation of the rent control law.
TUFF candidates are Nicole Drake, incumbent and aide to Councilmember Linda Maio, Judy Hunt, nonprofit executive, Jay James, mechanical engineer and Kiran Shenoy, attorney and police review commissioner.
Three incumbents and one new candidate make up the Tenants Convention Slate. Incumbents are: Igor Tregub, mechanical engineer and Berkeley housing commissioner; Judy Shelton, artist, and Asa Dodsworth, former commissioner on the zero waste board. Candidate Alejandro Soto-Vigil is aide to Council member Kriss Worthington and vice chair of the Berkeley Housing Commission.
The five rent board members whose terms end in 2014 are allied with the TCS.
At issue: director’s salary
One of the issues examined by the grand jury is the rent board director’s $183,000 salary.
TUFF candidate Jay James, who lives in a rent controlled apartment and owns minority shares in rental properties, said he was particularly irked when he learned the director’s salary was so high. He agreed with the grand jury finding that the salary was too high, when compared to several city department heads who earned salaries in the same range, but managed larger staffs and had larger budgets.
The director’s salary “seems like a clear symptom of the problem described in the grand jury report,” James told Berkeleyside, explaining that he was running for the seat to fulfill a “civic duty.”
The Tenant Convention Slate supports the September 21 rent board response to the report. On the issue of director salary, they argue that the city’s human resources department, not the rent board commissioners, sets compensation and that the rent board director’s salary is within the range of salaries of city of Berkeley managers with similar responsibilities and expertise, and also similar to managers of rent control programs in cities with similar rent control laws.
Nonetheless, TCS candidate Alejandro Soto-Vigil says his slate agrees that the director’s salary is too high, just as they believe the salaries of many of the city’s department heads are also too high.
“We should not be giving exorbitant salaries to executives,” Soto-Vigil said.
In the response to the grand jury report, the board said it would review the salary when renewing the director’s contract.
James credits pressure by TUFF for the board’s willingness to take another look at the salary.
“Actually, because of our slate running, you can see the incumbents on the other slate are changing their tone, saying, ‘O yeah, now it’s too high,’” he said.
Another issue that separates the slates is TUFF’s contention that the board maintains a high registration fee ($194 per unit), while the work load has diminished: state law has restricted the number of units under rent control.
James contends that not only does the board have less work to do than in the past, but that it spends too much time on inconsequential issues, such as taking a position on non-rent control issues, such as its support for Berkeley Measures N and O (swimming pools) and, he said, spending time “highlighting the attendance of rent board commissioners.”
TCS incumbent Igor Tregub said the rent board taking a position on citywide business is similar to the city council taking positions on state or national issues and serves to make the public aware of connections between housing and other issues.
Tregub defended the time the board took to craft new rules on commissioner absences after Commissioner Nicole Drake — running for re-election on the TUFF slate — had multiple absences from commission and committee meetings.
Drake said many of her absences were due to medical necessity and exigencies of her day job at City Hall and argued that the board targeted her absences in retribution for her support for the grand jury report.
On the allegation that the board’s work load has diminished, Tregub acknowledged that there are fewer units under rent control, but he says the board’s work has increased due to the economic downturn. There have been more tenants and small landlords seeking help due to foreclosures, he said.
Who is served?
The board is tasked to serve both tenants and landlords, but James contends, “Landlords are underserved under the current board.”
But in a recent Daily Cal op-ed, Tregub argues, “The board is equitable to both landlords and tenants. Small landlords, in particular, are viewed as a special type of property owner that merits particular assistance. The board regularly provides workshops tailored to their needs and keeps a lawyer at the front desk to answer technical questions.”
Tregub says TUFF supports landlords and points to Berkeley Property Owners Association president, Sid Lakireddy, who called on its membership to support the slate: “I urge you, I plead with you, please go to www.Berkeleytuff.org and donate what you can to each individual candidate,” he wrote. “This is the best chance we have to change things and they need your help!”
Visit Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board website for more information on the board and its organization.
Grand Jury criticizes Berkeley rent stabilization board [06.26.12]
Rent board makes minor changes after critical report [09.11.12]
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