Last week, many Berkeley residents received a mysterious pamphlet in the mail.
For some, it stood out among the countless splashy mailers promoting presidential candidates and local measures. This one did not reference any ballot item, and it did not say who sent it — just “your Berkeley neighbors…trying to carve out a healthy, happy and safe quality of life in the city we love.”
The pamphlet, labeled Vol. 1 of a publication called Better Berkeley Times (not to be confused with the Berkeley Times newspaper), includes sections on property taxes, homelessness in Berkeley and city infrastructure. Generally, the authors are critical of Berkeley’s spending in these areas and allege mismanagement of public funds.
One column asks whether the high cost to run the Pathways homeless shelter is “worth it.” Another article says “tens of millions of dollars have been given to the city through both local and county bond measures” for infrastructure improvements, while roads continue to deteriorate. Other pieces point out the cost of both Berkeley’s retirement contributions for employees and that of building an affordable housing unit. The pamphlet opens with a segment on Berkeley’s RV-dwelling population, saying many of the vehicles’ license plates are from out of state, and suggesting Berkeley should reconsider using its resources to support this group.
Several confused Berkeleyside readers wrote in, asking who was behind the substantial mailer.
“If you’re a neighbor, be neighborly — don’t make me search for who you are and who’s paying for it all,” said Ira Serkes on Facebook.
Another reader said the pamphlet raised “good questions,” but they wanted more “transparency.”
Enter Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a Berkeley homeowner who got the mailer last week. Edwards-Tiekert is a KPFA host, but said he was just doing some personal sleuthing when he discovered who created Better Berkeley Times.
“I was just really confused because it’s a decent amount of money to send out a four-page glossy mailer,” he said in a phone interview. “I looked up the mailing address — it was a P.O. Box in a UPS store in Berkeley.” Likewise, the two websites listed in the pamphlet were registered anonymously.
That final step revealed the creator: Krista Gulbransen, the executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA). Gulbransen’s Oakland home address also appears elsewhere in Better Berkeley Times communications.
BPOA is a landlord group representing around 500 Berkeley rental housing providers. Gulbransen told Berkeleyside it was BPOA’s political action committee — the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition — that paid for the mailers, which were sent to homeowners in Berkeley. She said the group is “happy to be the face of the publication,” to protect the privacy of the 60 or so other individuals who she said contributed to the project in addition to the Rental Housing Coalition. Berkeleyside reached out to some people who’ve previously advocated around the issues addressed in the pamphlet, but they said they were not involved in the effort.
“It wasn’t so much about being anonymous,” Gulbransen said in a phone interview. “We wanted, at least on first blush, that people wouldn’t go straight to shooting the messenger. It is unfortunately our experience that if you express your opinion in Berkeley, the messenger is often dismissed.”
Gulbransen said that if people went directly to brushing off the senders as “big, evil landlords” they wouldn’t engage with the content. She also pointed out that there isn’t a group in Berkeley for homeowners who don’t have rental properties.
The Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition political action committee was created in 2015 to fight a fee hike for registering rental properties. A year later, it raised nearly $900,000 to defeat Measure U1, the ultimately successful measure raising business taxes on rental units to fund affordable housing and to support a competing measure proposing a much smaller increase. Gulbransen said the PAC is just one part of the Better Berkeley Times effort, along with many other concerned citizens, “some who’ve been in Berkeley 40-50 years.”
“At the end of the day we believe there’s a larger faction of people that have frustrations around the increased costs of doing business in Berkeley or owning in Berkeley,” she said. “The goal of this was to spark conversation — and it has.”
Some recipients of the Better Berkeley Times suspect there was another goal too. The mailer came just a few days before Berkeley voters were set to decide on three ballot measures — two property taxes and a bond measure — supporting the Berkeley Unified School District. The anonymous pamphlet does not reference explicit ballot items (it would have been subject to finance disclosure requirements if it had), but it criticizes the extent and application of existing property taxes. It was only sent to property owners, as well.
“There are only three things on the ballot in Berkeley, and they’re all various forms of taxing real estate,” Edwards-Tiekert said.
He questioned whether any group launching a publication unrelated to the election would pick a week when printers are booked and mailboxes are stuffed to send out its first edition.
“It’s going out right before Super Tuesday,” he said. Would you try to reach your neighbors about a non-election matter “when you’re competing with, like, eight Bloomberg mailers?”
Plus, there’s the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition’s history of getting involved with local measures.
Gulbransen maintains that the timing was coincidental, and that Better Berkeley Times was not designed to dissuade people from voting on the BUSD tax measures.
“I’ll be straight up — I know that it appears as such and I’ll never be able to convince someone otherwise,” she said. But she said the inadvertent “impact” of the mailer could indeed be no-votes on the ballot measures.
BPOA has not taken a stance on BUSD’s taxes and bond (Measures E, G and H). In fact, the board president, Mark Tarses, told Berkeleyside by email that he planned to vote yes on all three. He also said that he received the Better Berkeley Times mailer himself and didn’t think BPOA had paid for it (the Rental Housing Coalition is a separate arm, Gulbransen said).
Gulbransen said BPOA doesn’t usually weigh in on tax measures supporting Berkeley schools, but noted that she gave a recent interview to KQED expressing concerns about the impact of the proposed measures (two of which replace and slightly increase an existing tax and bond) on middle-class homeowners.
Gulbransen said there aren’t solid plans for a second Better Berkeley Times edition or related advocacy yet. But she said the group received “well over 700” responses from homeowners interested in the issues raised in the first.