4 years of experience or a fresh start: What do South Berkeley voters want?

South Berkeley voters will have to decide whether they are happy with the leadership of four-year incumbent Ben Bartlett, or whether they want something new.

District 3 Berkeley City Council candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Ben Bartlett, Deborah Matthews and Orlando Martinez
District 3 candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Ben Bartlett, Deborah Matthews and Orlando Martinez. Photos: Courtesy

In two weeks, South Berkeley voters are slated to decide whether they are happy with the leadership of four-year incumbent Ben Bartlett, or whether they are ready for something new.

Two people are running against Bartlett for the District 3 seat: longtime resident and former zoning board chair Deborah Matthews and Orlando Martinez, a construction manager who moved to Berkeley with his wife about three years ago.

Of the three South Berkeley candidates, Bartlett has the deepest war chest and has focused throughout his tenure on issues related to innovative technologies and addressing racial disparities. Martinez has taken a fairly strong stance against new taxes, and sees modular construction, which will reduce building costs, as the answer to many of the challenges in the city. Matthews appears to show the broadest support for housing at all income levels, and wants to see more attention paid to crime and community safety.

How will South Berkeley candidates approach housing?

All three South Berkeley candidates have said affordable housing is one of the biggest issues for the district. But they have different takes on how to address it.


In a recent forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville, the trio tackled the topic of housing, and also answered questions about the Here There homeless encampment on Adeline Street, crime and taxes, among other subjects.

Matthews said she has a nine-point plan that will see more housing built in the district and also help dismantle historic inequities that have resulted in displacement. Of the three, she appears to be most receptive to housing overall. During the September forum, Matthews — a real estate broker — said the city must build housing for all income levels and take steps to streamline and expedite city processes so projects can get built faster.

Matthews also said the city spends too much time delaying projects, filing lawsuits against them, and piling on too many fees for developers.

“We’re not building housing and that’s what needs to happen,” Matthews said. “Let’s do the right thing: Build.”

Bartlett focused, in his remarks, more on housing geared to lower-income levels.

As one example of what he’d like to see more of, Bartlett brought up the project at 2001 Ashby Ave. — the longtime home of the Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union — which is slated to be replaced by a 100% affordable housing project that includes units for tenants who were formerly homeless.

A rendering of The Maudelle Miller Shirek Community building at 2001 Ashby Ave., as seen from Ashby and Adeline Street. Image: MWA Architects

Bartlett repeatedly brought up the critical need for more “step-up housing,” like the 39-unit complex at 1367 University Ave. that is slated to house people who were formerly homeless and provide them with a range of services to help them succeed.

Martinez, a construction manager, echoed Bartlett’s enthusiasm for the project on University, which is being built using modular construction. That approach to building is significantly less expensive than traditional methods. Martinez said he’d like to see Berkeley embrace modular construction much more broadly so that more housing can be built around the city.

Matthews says more must be done to tackle crime

The subject of public safety came up multiple times during the September forum. One person wanted to know how each of the South Berkeley candidates would approach the growing number of people on the streets who are in mental health crisis, and said the situation had made them feel less safe in the neighborhood.

Bartlett said circumstances have been exacerbated by the state’s economic meltdown, and noted that mental health services simply hadn’t kept up. He pointed to legislation he wrote earlier this year, as part of the city’s broad efforts at police reform, to create a new “Specialized Care Unit” that would send people other than police to help those in crisis.

He said the city also needs more housing like 1367 University, with its wrap-around services for people who need more support. Amid ongoing coronavirus concerns, he added, “it’s hard to put people away.”

“We’re stuck in a tight space right now,” Bartlett said.

When it was her turn to address the situation, Matthews said her approach would be to increase services and training to vulnerable people and youth to keep them out of institutions and trouble.

Matthews also took what was perhaps the night’s strongest stance in favor of police enforcement, noting that violent crime has been an ongoing issue for South Berkeley, including during the incumbent’s tenure. She said the city must do more to “make sure that we’re continually addressing the issue of crime.”

“We have had from our current councilperson one town hall meeting addressing crime,” she said. “That is just unacceptable.”

Sgt. Spencer Fomby (left) speaks about public safety to a crowd at the Starry Plough, February 2017. Photo: Emilie Raguso

That meeting, which drew more than 100 people, took place at the Starry Plough in early 2017 following a spate of robberies in the area. During the meeting, Bartlett and the mayor pledged to bring back the department’s crime suppression unit, which had been disbanded. That never happened.

Bartlett said, during the September forum, that he held one large town hall about community safety but that “the after-effect was so racist and so uncomfortable” that he shifted to smaller meetings with people on impacted blocks “just to limit the more base instincts.”

Martinez said his solution would be to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city and also expand youth programs.

All three South Berkeley candidates said they support Measure II, which will reform Berkeley’s approach to police oversight if it is approved in November.

Different takes on the Here There encampment

During the forum, a representative from the League of Women Voters asked the candidates whether they support the Here There camp at Adeline Street south of Alcatraz Avenue.

Martinez and Matthews both said they do not support it because the location is too dangerous.

Martinez also said he was concerned about all the trash in the vicinity of the camp, and does not believe the city has done enough to clean it up. Martinez said he felt the city had passed the buck and failed to take responsibility for the situation.

“It’s important for us to be compassionate,” he said, “but at the same time, there’s really been no action plan to really do something.”

tents on a sidewalk with the BART train in the backgroun
The Here There homeless encampment at Adeline Street near 63rd Street in March 2020. Photo: Kyle Martin

Matthews noted that the neighborhood prides itself on its generosity, which is how it should be. But she went on to say she is worried someone at the camp could get killed and described the status quo as “an accident waiting to happen.” Motorists sometimes drive through the area at 45 mph, she added.

“From a safety issue,” Matthews said, “it doesn’t work in that location.”

When it was Bartlett’s turn to speak, he chose his words carefully.

“The city has been in multiple lawsuits involving that camp. They are very lawyered up,” said Bartlett, who is an attorney himself. “Speaking on the record about it is tricky.”

(Council members can be legally limited as far as what they can say about litigation in which the city is or has been involved.)

Bartlett said the Here There camp has been a national model due to its rules about sobriety and other community standards. He did acknowledge, however, that the “overarching radius” around the camp “is definitely problematic.” He said the city had been working with representatives from the encampment to try to make improvements.

“The camp is beloved by the neighborhood,” Bartlett said. “Many community members love them. Some hate them, but many love them. And they have their defenders.”

Martinez says no to most new taxes

Of the three South Berkeley candidates running for District 3, Martinez has expressed the most reticence about new taxes.

In response to a question about state Proposition 15, which would increase business taxes, Bartlett and Matthews both said they absolutely support it.

“For many, many years the tax burden has always fallen on the small property owners,” Matthews said. She said measures like Prop 15 will lead to a more equitable situation.

Bartlett noted that businesses with less than $3 million in California property are exempt from the law, and said he sees it as a way to repair some of the damage that’s been caused by 1978’s Proposition 13.

“In a sense, it’s economic justice,” Bartlett said. “I’ve advocated for something like it for a long time.”

Martinez did not say which way he planned to vote on Prop 15, but said he is also considering the economic challenges faced by businesses across the state amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have to really be careful as we go forward,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s not a good idea. It takes away some of the burden on our local residents who are in need. We just have to be responsible about it.”

Fiscal responsibility was a theme that ran through a number of Martinez’s answers during the forum.

When asked about the sorry state of South Berkeley’s streets, Martinez pointed out that voters had given the city significant amounts of money over time to address Berkeley’s failing infrastructure. He said he wasn’t confident that elected officials are making the right decisions, even though voters keep giving the city more money to tackle the work.

“Maybe the funds aren’t enough, but that’s not a good enough excuse,” he said. “We need to be responsible about where we invest that money that has been set aside.”

Martinez took an even stronger stance when the candidates were asked about Berkeley’s Measure HH, which will raise the cost of gas and electric services from 7.5% to 10%. Bartlett and Matthews both said they are for it.

Martinez said, for him, Measure HH is much too broad, and that there is not enough oversight built into it. The money, which proponents pledge to use to create a new Climate Equity Action Fund, will go into Berkeley’s general fund, meaning the city can — theoretically — use it without restrictions.

“We can’t just introduce these measures and have this broad picture of how we’re going to spend this money,” Martinez said. “There must be a clear and decisive avenue as to how this will be invested.”

Martinez has signed onto arguments against all four of the tax-related Berkeley propositions on the ballot: Measure FF for fire and disaster services (this requires a two-thirds vote); Measure GG to tax the passengers of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft; Measure HH on gas and electric utilities; and Measure LL to increase how much of previously collected taxes the city can spend.

During the September forum, Martinez said he would bring the oversight to financial decisions that he believes the city has been lacking.

“I love the word ‘accountability.’ I live by it every day,” he said. “We keep increasing the city payroll. Where’s that money going?”

Matthews says South Berkeley needs a “fresh start”

During the September South Berkeley candidates forum, Matthews didn’t hesitate to remind voters that, of all three candidates, she has lived in Berkeley the longest. She has been a resident of the city for the past 40 years.

Matthews was a longtime member of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board and, when she was its chair, kept meetings running smoothly and got along well with her colleagues there. She was often receptive to building projects that came before the board, consistent with her emphasis on the need to build more housing at all income levels.

After leaving that post, she was later appointed president of the Berkeley Democratic Club, becoming the first African American woman, in 2019, to serve in that role in the group’s 85-year history. The group has about 500 members and says it is Alameda County’s oldest and largest Democratic organization.

During the candidate forum, Matthews needled Bartlett on several aspects of his record. In addition to pointing out his singular town hall meeting on public safety, she also reminded viewers that he had run for a state Assembly seat less than a year after he was first elected to the Berkeley City Council in 2016.

Matthews called that a breach of public trust and said she would take a different approach to the job: “It is time for a fresh start in South Berkeley,” she said.

It’s not the first time concerns have been raised about Bartlett’s political ambitions. In 2017, when he announced he would run for the Assembly District 15 seat that was to be vacated by Tony Thurmond, a number of local residents questioned his motivations.

“After initially supporting Mr. Bartlett and attending a canvassing meeting of his, it was clear to me that his first hope was not to help the City of Berkeley on our Council, but to grab a seat at the table for personal gain,” wrote Ryan Mykita in the comments on Berkeleyside at the time of AD15 announcement. “What recourse do we have to remove him from District 3 now that we know for sure he is cheating on us?”

The past four years have seen good times and bad

Bartlett told Berkeleyside that he ran for the Assembly position because multiple people who were concerned about the potential loss of African American representation in that seat approached him and encouraged him to do so. He said the experience made him a better politician, which has led to the unanimous passage of his proposals on the Berkeley City Council.

During his first four years on council, Bartlett has worked well with his colleagues. He has steered clear of the sniping and infighting that has frequently detracted from a variety of their discussions. One indicator of his strong relationships is that the entire Berkeley City Council has endorsed his 2020 candidacy. Bartlett has also secured extensive endorsements from significant political groups in the city and beyond.

Bartlett is easygoing and charismatic and has brought forward a number of notable proposals during his time on council. His efforts to bring blockchain technology to Berkeley have brought him national attention. Earlier this year, his George Floyd Community Safety Act legislation laid the groundwork for a variety of police reforms the city is now working to develop.

In 2018, Bartlett helped broker a complex deal for a controversial housing project at 2902 Adeline St. that, if built, will bring what has been described as the most robust community benefits package to the neighborhood that South Berkeley has ever seen. That project is apparently on hold, however, and some say the robust benefits package rendered it financially infeasible.

Bartlett has also been credited, more recently, with his work to help secure funding for the 100% affordable housing project at 2001 Ashby: He helped move the project through the city process and advocated for allocating “predevelopment” money to a nonprofit developer so plans could proceed more quickly.

Unlike some of his colleagues on the dais, Bartlett does not flood council agendas with his proposals, nor does he spend extensive time making remarks during council discussions. His selectiveness can be a welcome trait when meetings regularly run beyond their five-hour allocation. Bartlett generally keeps his remarks brief and often focuses on how projects or policies will allow Berkeley to take a more innovative approach, or how they will address historic racial inequities that have taken place in town.

But the past four years have not been without some troubles for Bartlett. The most public hurdles came in 2018 after Berkeleyside broke the news that he had run a red light in South Berkeley, then urged the cop who pulled him over to give him a break because he was supporting a raise for Berkeley police officers.

During that interaction, Bartlett also texted the police chief and asked him to intervene, Berkeleyside learned by seeking documents through a Public Records Act request.

It later also came to light, through another Public Records Act request, that Bartlett had previously asked police not to ticket his Uber driver when a Berkeley officer pulled her over in 2017: “Bartlett immediately identified himself as a Council Member. He did not want the driver to be ticketed,” police wrote in an email about the interaction.

With respect to the 2017 incident, Bartlett told Berkeleyside he had not been trying to abuse his authority, and that his driver was a single mother who was struggling to get by.

As far as the 2018 incident, Bartlett apologized repeatedly and said the situation had prompted him to seek therapy. He told Berkeleyside at the time that the stop “triggered a traumatic response” that began with his “rant” to the officer and continued in his texts to the chief: “I just wanted to get away from this moment.”

The other question some community members have repeatedly asked Bartlett about in recent years — including during the September forum — has centered around a condo in Richmond that, according to property records, he and his wife bought in October 2016 in the weeks before he was first elected to the Berkeley City Council.

Bartlett’s wife, Yelda, has posted in his defense on NextDoor, explaining that she moved to Richmond at that time for personal safety reasons that required her to seek a restraining order against someone outside the family. Bartlett remained in their Berkeley apartment, she wrote.

Bartlett, his wife and their 1-year-old daughter are now living together in Berkeley again. He provided multiple documents to Berkeleyside to corroborate the situation as his wife described it.

“My wife was threatened. She needed an alternative place to be,” he said. “I’ll do what it takes to protect my family.”

Bartlett’s coffers run deep

Each of the three South Berkeley candidates has very different financial circumstances.

Bartlett, who is not using public financing, has raised about $42,000 in contributions for his 2020 run, according to campaign finance records through Sept. 19.

Only 27% of those contributions, about $11,000, came from Berkeley donors. Another 31% — or $13,000 — came from donors in Oakland, San Francisco and Emeryville. Eight percent of the money Bartlett has raised came from outside California, according to the filings.

Matthews has raised about $20,000, which includes about $15,000 in matching funds from Berkeley’s public financing program, which voters approved in 2016. As a result, about 95% of her money is from Berkeley donors and the city.

Martinez has reported only one itemized contribution as of the latest filing period. That was a contribution he made to himself in the amount of about $420. During the same filing period, Martinez spent roughly that amount on campaign lawn signs. Documents also reference an unitemized contribution of about $50.

The contributions and expenses exactly even out, leaving the Martinez campaign with an ending cash balance of zero. The campaign has listed no other financial information.

Martinez applied for public financing but did not qualify for it: Candidates must secure at least 30 contributions from Berkeley residents of $10-$50 to participate in the program.

Bartlett’s financial picture is much more complex. He began fundraising for his 2020 campaign in March 2017, just five months after he was elected to the Berkeley City Council. From 2017 through 2019, Bartlett raised about $7,500 for his 2020 campaign.

The bulk of his fundraising has taken place this year, when he brought in about $34,000. Bartlett has also loaned himself $6,750, which he has not yet repaid.

Bartlett’s deeper war chest has given him much more flexibility to spend than either of his opponents. He has racked up about $43,000 in expenses compared to Matthews’ $6,000.

According to the latest filings, Bartlett has spent about $13,000 on campaign literature, mailings and miscellaneous campaign paraphernalia. Neither Matthews nor Martinez has filed any expenses in these categories.

Bartlett is the only one of the three to have a campaign consultant, the Fullerton, California-based NewWave Strategies, which has been paid about $5,000.

Bartlett has spent about $5,200 on office expenses, compared to Matthews’ approximately $600.

The biggest expense for both of those campaigns has been professional services, which includes legal and accounting fees. Bartlett has spent about $8,100 in this area, while Matthews has spent about $5,100.

For South Berkeley candidates, the thorny issue of gentrification

Perhaps the most pointed moment during the September forum arose in response to the question, “Do you see gentrification as an issue that faces the district?”

Martinez went first.

“I don’t really see gentrification as an issue,” he said. Martinez said he’s working to restore the 1927 home he and his wife bought, and that Berkeley is an inviting place. “I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said, in closing.

Bartlett and Matthews both took the opportunity to push back hard.

“For me, gentrification is a problem. And it’s personal,” Bartlett said. “When you hone in and look at it closely, you can see the brutality of it.”

He said gentrification is what originally pushed him to run for office — after his mother and her elderly Black neighbors were pushed out of their housing amid “cruel conditions.”

“Gentrification is more than a word,” he said. “It’s about community and being uprooted in your community by forces outside of your control.”

Matthews, too, said it was an issue that hit close to home. That’s one reason she would like to create an African American cultural district in the Lorin, adding park space, slowing down traffic and highlighting the neighborhood’s rich history.

Matthews also said, if elected, she would emphasize getting more people of color appointed to the city’s commissions and committees.

“It is a very painful situation when you watch and see the historical fabric of a community totally be ripped apart,” she said.

Martinez later told Berkeleyside he hadn’t really been able to make his position clear during the September forum.

“I’m completely against people being pushed out because of these owners and developers wanting to make a buck on their end,” he said. “Obviously people deserve a place to live.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.