Opinion: Berkeley’s District 6 residents need new leadership: Elect Richard Illgen

Some of his priorities will be to mitigate Berkeley’s fire risk, accelerate evacuation planning and emergency preparedness

As concerned Berkeley Hills residents, we’ve been following and participating in some of the conversations on the Grizzly Peaks fireworks situation and emergency preparedness. We believe Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents District 6, has shown a lack of urgency and leadership in this matter.

As D6 residents, we need proactive and experienced leadership on critical issues like fire risk mitigation, evacuation planning, and emergency preparedness.  Richard Illgen, a former city attorney in Oakland and former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission, offers engaged and experienced leadership. The stakes are too high and historical D6 leadership action too low to allow “business as usual” on our City Council right now.

Richard has the kind of experience we need to deal with these problems. He is an active problem solver having written legislation and programs to address complex problems, both as a community member and as a 20-year deputy city attorney. As a code enforcement attorney, Illgen has worked on fire and emergency issues, such as reducing the fire threats by requiring overgrown lots to be cleared and developing emergency evacuation protocols. For emergency preparedness, Richard will reduce flammable brush and vegetation, support defensible space, and improve our ability to escape fire danger, all of which maintain property values and lowers fire insurance rates.  In the Oakland city attorney’s office, Richard headed the code enforcement, nuisance, and Neighborhood Law Corps unit. He supported code

enforcement clearing vacant lots and properties with overgrown foliage. He took some property owners to court over clean-ups. Richard also served on the Oakland mayor’s task force with code enforcement and fire department.

Given his vast experience, Richard will help us move beyond words and into immediate action. On Sept. 15, 2020, for example, the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a poorly written, ineffective “emergency” resolution regarding the illegal fireworks and other activity along the pullouts on Grizzly Peak. This dangerous activity, which continues, has been going on since early summer. The incumbent council member put this item on the agenda with only 24 hours notice as an emergency item, preventing meaningful public notice, input and participation, or what we like to call due process when following democratic norms. An experienced municipal law expert, Richard will help craft more meaningful and effective city legislation.

Despite comprising due process at the local level, the lack of existing interagency protocols and agreements with neighboring jurisdictions demonstrates how the incumbent has never, in our opinion, meaningfully and systematically addressed fire risk mitigation in our community. So, it seems the only “emergency” for the incumbent is one of her own doing: she finds herself in a competitive re-election race.

Further, the resolution does not require any interagency protocols, prioritization or enforcement to mitigate wildfire risk and alleged illegal activity along Grizzly Peak. A quick canvas of neighbor comments on NextDoor supports how little this ineffective council resolution did to assuage residents’ fears. In fact, residents formed their own group on NextDoor and have taken it upon themselves to patrol Grizzly Peak themselves.

Some examples of the ineffective language in the incumbent’s Sept. 15 “emergency” resolution language and our commentary:

  • “if a written MOU is required….then ‘every effort’ should be made”
    • Comment: why be vague about mandating what type of inter-jurisdictional agreement needs to be reached? is this the first time our City Council member is facing this issue in the Berkeley Hills or the first time she has decided to act “urgently” on it?;
  • “during fire season as determined by CAL FIRE all 911 calls reporting the sounds of fireworks must be treated as high-priority”
    • Comment: what about including other high fire-risk activity reported like trash can fires and when does this prioritization begin exactly by whom?;
  • “The 9 p.m. curfew on Grizzly Peak should be adopted and strictly enforced”
    • Comment: why didn’t the city of Berkeley do this and/or ask neighboring jurisdictions to do so, and more importantly, why not call out what enforcement needs to happen; and
  • “if implementing a patrol schedule isn’t feasible, then lookout areas should be closed to vehicles for the duration of the fire season”
    • Comment: why didn’t Council just state what needed to get done and direct staff to do so?

But this council resolution also begs a larger question — why was this resolution even necessary?  We have known about the grave and deadly wildfire risk in the Berkeley Hills for decades — as long as the incumbent has been a council aide and held elected office. So why weren’t plans and protocols already in place to address threatening emergency situations like this one and to get automatic cooperation from the various jurisdictions: Oakland, East Bay Regional Parks, UC, and Orinda-Moraga? Why is it, even now, other jurisdictions have patrolled Grizzly Peak, but there does not seem to be any indication that Berkeley has joined these efforts? This despite Oakland’s police department having given authority to other jurisdictions to assist Oakland with the Grizzly Peak turn-out parking restrictions and other codes against risky behavior.


Illgen has experience collaborating with multiple agencies to achieve a common goal like fire risk mitigation. As we have seen, wildfires have no jurisdictional boundaries, so we need to think regionally. Why have we only begun to do so in the fall of 2020?

This continued inaction by the incumbent is symptomatic of the larger issue of the absence of effective leadership on fire risk and emergency issues. It’s been 30 years since the last Berkeley/Oakland hills fire (the 9/15/20 Council resolution also notes the 1923 Wildcat Canyon fire and several other more recent fires). Yet despite these tragedies, we still do not have plans in place for reducing our fire risk or emergency evacuation plans if a crisis does strike, as Wengraf admitted to the Daily Cal on Aug. 25:

“…According to Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, the city of Berkeley does not have a formal, written plan for wildfire evacuation, but is working on one with neighboring jurisdictions. In the meantime, the plan is to simply evacuate people once they receive an emergency notification, Wengraf said.”

So what has she done the last 12 years in elected office if D6 residents still don’t know how to safely evacuate in case of an emergency? This repeated inaction becomes even more baffling when you consider Wengraf was working for a D6 Councilmember when the tragic firestorm in Oakland happened in 1991, claiming the lives of 25 people. She has been exposed to the risk, the tragedy and some of the solutions like undergrounding. After 12 years in office, there is NO meaningful risk mitigation. The City Council only recently acknowledged wildfire prevention and safety as a priority Why are our families no safer or better off from when the incumbent took office?

Illgen will immediately change this situation in D6. After taking office, he plans to have the city manager bring together the various departments involved in public safety, traffic management, and public works to develop emergency evacuation plans. He will propose solutions to mitigate the risk from highly flammable dangerous trees and foliage in the high fire risk areas. He will act to remove the non-native, highly explosive, eucalyptus tree —that still exists in the hundreds in Berkeley — with native, less flammable varieties, which UC Berkeley did as part of a grant from CalFire. Why hasn’t the city of Berkeley received such a grant? This is a situation we can remedy on Nov. 3 by electing new leadership in our district.

Richard Illgen will be a much needed and welcomed sea change in D6 representation, making our community less vulnerable and more resilient to whatever challenge may come our way.  One recent neighbor near Grizzly Peak, exasperated by the incumbent’s lack of meaningful action and complacency, suggested term limits. How else, he opined, can we get career politicians with little interest in serving their constituents out of office?

But we do have term limits. They are called elections. And it’s time for D6 residents to vote new leadership into office.

All of the signatories live in D6. Kiran Jain is a former chief resilience officer for Oakland. Janet Stromberg is chair of the Berkeley Energy Commission. Claire Broome is a retired assistant surgeon general with the US Public Health Service and climate crisis advocate for clean energy. Terri Herson is a sustainability expert. Larry Gallegos is an economic development manager. Shilen Patel works in infrastructure finance.