Opinion: What sort of person do you want on the Berkeley City Council?

Policy positions are not the only criteria on which someone should be elected. Personal attributes such as humility, open-mindedness, and a respect for facts are also important.

Since we are now in election season or silly season as it is known in certain quarters, I thought it might be a useful exercise to list the personal qualities that seem to me, as a close observer of various iterations of the Berkeley City Council, to be most important in a council member. I repeat – I am not talking about policy positions, but those personal qualities that enable a member of the nine-member Council to work most productively with her or his fellow council members, members of other governing boards in the region, constituents, Berkeley residents in general, and staff.

So here goes.

  • Humility and an understanding of one’s own fallibility. Too many people give far too little consideration to the possibility that they are mistaken in any given case. This is especially the case when positions harden and the best way to accomplish a goal becomes not a practical question but a “matter of principle”. But no one is always right, and it is never too late to realize that. A candidate who does not acknowledge errors – without excuses – is one that should be viewed with a gimlet eye.
  • Council members are elected to work for the residents of Berkeley. If a candidate has no time or care for local issues or constituents – as opposed, to, say, her or his favorite issue or political career – that candidate is probably not going to do the job you’d like them to do as a council member.
  • I have noticed, from time to time, that people aren’t always completely honest. In political campaigns a common way of doing this it to cloak their real views through the use of generalities. For example, pretty much everyone is in favor of “more affordable housing.” Most people are also in favor of world peace. But the real question is how a candidate proposes to accomplish a goal. It is dishonest to just say “I support affordable housing,” without giving any hint what she or he is willing to do about it – only support 100% affordable projects? Vote for any project that complies with zoning standards? Only vote for projects that the neighborhood likes? Sticking to anodyne generalities deprives voters of a basis for evaluating a candidate.

Another way of being dishonest is giving a reason for a vote that is not the real reason; a variant of this is when an official votes in a manner contrary to her or his beliefs. There are almost irresistible political reasons these things happen. Maybe sometimes, under the totality of the circumstances, they are venial sins. But they are always red flags.

  • Openness to facts/educability. We have a fair amount of political dogma in Berkeley. It is well-pedigreed, contains more than a bit of truth, and strikes a responsive chord in most people who live here. But, as much as Berkeleyans hate to admit it, things change. What was a good solution to a problem yesterday may not be today, and what is a good solution today may not be tomorrow. Facts matter, as we are wont to read these days. A candidate who is manifestly resistant to facts is one you might not want to vote for.
  • Too much of Berkeley’s political discourse is based on certitude, received wisdom, and incivility. (A well-known Berkeley activist once wrote an article arguing that a lack of civility was a positive good because anyone who is not willing to put up with public insults and harassment does not deserve to have his or her views heard or considered.) I admire an elegant insult as much as the next guy or gal, but a public policy discussion involving elected officials is probably not the best place for it, whether it is in public or in private.

Imagine what it would be like to have council members who are humble and empathetic, who are able (and willing) to listen and be educated, and who are capable of having civil, fact-based discussions with folks they do not necessarily agree with (including each other), without any posturing, and with honesty about their real goals. It shouldn’t really be that hard to accomplish since all we’re talking about is nine people who generally agree far more than they disagree.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Zach Cowan was the city attorney of Berkeley for 10 years and worked for Berkeley for 24 years. He is a Berkeley resident.