It’s been too long since I last blogged, May 20, my apologies. I was away for nine days on a bike tour through Central California, and getting both my camping gear and my legs ready for that trip took more time than I had anticipated. Then there was the clean up afterwards…
But now that I am back, I want to discuss four items before the council gets embroiled in the nitty gritty of the budget, which is due by the beginning of the new fiscal year, July 1. I will discuss these four items from short to long, which is not quite the same thing as their order of importance. As always, what follows are the thoughts and impressions of just one city council member. I don’t speak for anyone but myself.
1) Changes in city staff
2) Medium-range planning
3) Homelessness on the Albany bulb
4) CEQA lawsuits
CHANGES IN CITY STAFF
Our fire chief retired recently, and Beth Pollard, our city manager, has announced her retirement, scheduled for August. For now, I can report that a new permanent fire chief should be announced soon, and a decision on an interim city manager should also be made soon. A permanent city manager will not be in place until the end of the year, give or take a month or two.
There are so many accolades that could be directed to Beth Pollard that I don’t even have room to begin right now. Luckily, she has given us plenty of notice. More to follow, I just wanted to give you a heads up.
MEDIUM RANGE PLANNING
At the city council meeting Monday night (June 17), the council will review the goals for its 2013-15 Strategic Plan. My personal take on this is that is has been a good thing, but in ways I did not expect.
Local governments often devote too much of their time to playing whack-a-mole—dealing in a reactive way with the endless stream of short-term problems they must face. The state mandates that municipalities formulate a general plan to guide long-term (two decades or more) planning decisions. But medium-term planning, measure in years instead of decades, can fall through the cracks.
I think a good way to approach this sort of planning would be to have brainstorming session over pizza and beer, where council members could relax and work out informally what they would like to accomplish during the 2-4 years that they are together.
Unfortunately (as I mentioned in a city council meeting recently) this is illegal under the Brown Act. So instead we have to have formal, agendized meeting in which the public can participate, and in which the brainstorming can still take place, albeit a little more formally.
I am usually pretty grumpy about what I call “feel-good” stuff, but I was surprised by this meeting, and I thought the planning session was reasonably successful. I was really pleased to see that in the big picture, the council members have similar views about Albany’s future. Of course, the devil is in the details, but there is a lot of overlap, and I think the council can be effective if it focuses on the areas where the goals are similar.
Some Albany residents have expressed dismay that we have ignored serious short-term issues during this process. That was the point—we needed to look a bit further ahead to more proactive steps we could begin to take. The process was never intended to be inclusive of all the city’s problems. We are wrapping up the strategic planning process for now at the June 17 meeting and switching to the budget process, so it’s back to the nitty gritty.
HOMELESSNESS IN ALBANY
Once again, let me state that I am presenting my personal view here, as just one member of the city council. I don’t speak for anyone else. The council has been formulating a plan for dealing with homelessness in Albany, especially on the bulb. This is controversial for a lot of reasons, but I think the council has moved wisely.
I am not a big user of the waterfront. I could probably count the number of times I have been at the bulb on the fingers of one hand. I don’t own a dog that needs to be walked there, and I prefer my views of the water either from a bicycle or (in the past) a surfboard. I did spend several hours at the waterfront when I taught my teenage son to drive on the Golden Gate Fields parking lot. That is a very important and little appreciated benefit of GGF.
I do understand that the waterfront has been a problematic issue for years. During my campaign last fall, I accepted an offer from an Albany resident who has been exploring the waterfront for decades, and I got a very detailed tour from him. I did note the homeless encampments then, which were obvious, but didn’t seem out of control.
Several weeks later, another Albany resident suggested we go down the bulb and take another look. I was surprised by how much it had changed over the course of 2-3 months. To me the bulb seems to be on its way to becoming a shantytown, not unlike some of the shantytowns I saw while traveling in SE Asia several years ago.
I was alarmed, and I discussed what I had seen with the mayor and the city manager, which is the extent of what I can do outside of a formal city council meeting. Other council members were obviously hearing from Albany residents as well, because when the interim report from the city’s task force on homelessness was presented to the council, we decided to take decisive action, and begin the process of hiring a social services organization to help relocate residents of the bulb (on the agenda for the June 17 meeting).
I thought the approach the council took was necessary. I was ready to move on this issue even before this date, but I felt it was a good idea to hear the information the task force had put together before we acted. Some members of the task force have said they felt “blind-sided” or that the council had colluded in a way that is a violation of the Brown Act. This was not the case. I was just as blind-sided as anyone by the proposals Council Member Wile put forward, although I was glad she did and I supported them once I heard them.
There has also been some talk that the council caved to pressure from the various waterfront advocates. Not true for me. In the past I have been extremely critical of the waterfront advocates’ Voices-to-Vision planning process, and I have never hesitated to say so. I don’t think the waterfront advocates think of me as an ally.
But like the waterfront advocates, I would like to see the bulb eventually become a regional park, if only because it has a regional user base, and I don’t think it’s right for one of the Bay Area’s smallest municipalities to have sole responsibility to provide park services on the bulb for a wide range of regional users.
However, turning the bulb over the park system may be years away, and even if it does take years, I think relocating the residents of the bulb is still the right thing to do. It is an end in itself for me, not just a means to an end.
Resolving the homelessness situation on the bulb isn’t going to make everyone happy. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Sometimes you have to go with the median voter model—as a council member, I’ll know we got it more-or-less right if half the city complains we spent too much money and took too much time, and the other half complains that we didn’t spend enough money, and didn’t give the process enough time.
A very important thing to remember is that we have already been down this road. The homeless population was relocated back in 1999, but the city’s ordinances were not enforced, and the population returned. We’re back to where we were 14 years ago, so this time around the city’s ordinances against camping on the bulb will have to be enforced.
Over the past month or so, both the CEQA lawsuits against the mixed-use project, the lawsuits that helped scuttle the Whole Foods grocery store, have been resolved. Often the point of CEQA lawsuits is to cause delay, not to win on the legal merits, so I suppose in that narrow sense the lawsuits were successful. One was filed by members of Albany Strollers and Rollers (AS&R) and Carbon Neutral Albany (C0A), and the other by Occupy the Farm members.
Let’s dispense with the OTF lawsuit first, which lost in court. That result comes as no surprise, and I would have been shocked if OTF has prevailed on legal grounds. The lawsuit was filed by Albany resident Eric Larsen, and later joined by OTF activist Stephanie Rawlings. I’ve always had very low expectations of OTF, and so far there have not been any pleasant surprises.
Well actually, there is one. The results of this weekend’s 200-mile Terrible Two double century were just posted a few hours ago (as I write this). This grueling event is sponsored by the Santa Rosa Cycling Club and travels over most of the coastal mountain ridges in Sonoma County. According to the preliminary results, Eric Larsen, 39, of Albany, CA, finished in 16 hours and 23 minutes. So congratulations are in order for Eric for that.
I have been more disappointed by AS&R and C0A, if only because I had higher expectations to start with. Their settlement with the University of California was costly. Fortunately, the City of Albany was indemnified under the mixed-use project agreements, so the city’s expenses have been limited. Sadly, the same is not true for UC students and their families, who are footing the bill for both sides of this lawsuit.
Those of us who had served on the school board when Cougar Field was being rebuilt recall there was a CEQA lawsuit by the neighbors against that project, too. That lawsuit was waste of time and money, but fortunately the school district and the community got a beautiful track and playing field in spite of it. Who bore the burden of those legal expenses? Our children.
After that debacle some very wise Albany residents warned AS&R and C0A that they were heading down the wrong path, but that warning wasn’t heeded. I have three main problems with the AS&R and C0A’s actions, which I’ll categorize like this:
1) The waste of money
2) Lack of democracy and transparency
3) The burden on students
These lawsuits are very costly both in terms of time and money, and better use could have been made of the resources that were wasted here. It’s hard to know what the total cost has been, because the city staff don’t typically count billable hours with the rigor of a law firm, but the city did take a big hit in terms of staff time. UC had to cover its own legal expenses, and ended up paying more than $20K of AS&R and C0A expenses. Hard to estimate, but the total cost of this lawsuit is perhaps in the neighborhood of $100K.
The cost would have been somewhat justified if the result was good, but the result was inferior to Albany’s own very open and thoughtful Complete Streets planning process, which provided ample opportunity for both community and expert input. At the closing meeting, the traffic engineers involved clearly stated that AS&R’s cycletrack along the mixed-use project site was not a workable idea.
But again AS&R had a hard time listening. Instead they used the CEQA process to bypass community involvement and make a backroom deal with UC, one that is turning out to be a real headache. One problem is that San Pablo Ave. is a state highway and falls under the jurisdiction of Caltrans. Any cycletrack along San Pablo that falls in Caltrans right-of-way will most likely not be approved, and the approval process may add further delays.
AC transit is another stakeholder that will look dimly on having bus riders, especially elderly residents of the senior housing project, running the gauntlet of crossing a cycletrack every time they get on or off a bus.
Meanwhile in our own planning and zoning process, the Sprouts grocery store has been rotated so that it now faces Monroe St., and a new traffic engineering study is underway to plan how to route semi trailer deliveries safely to the loading dock. A cycletrack north of Monroe St. will now travel along the side of the grocery store and can possibly create safety issues with large trucks entering the site.
I have no idea what the eventual outcome of this process will be, but it might be ugly, and could result in a boondoggle–a cycletrack to nowhere. This is a headache that simply didn’t have to happen.
My final objection to the AS&R/C0A lawsuit is not based so much on my experience as a city council member or even as a UC Berkeley employee, but as the parent of a UC Berkeley student.
At Berkeley, In-state tuition is running about $15K annually, and a dorm room with a meal plan is about the same cost. This does not include any tuition or living expenses during the summer, when many students now have to take classes that were full during the normal school year. Throw in school supplies and overpriced textbooks, and a four-year UC Berkeley undergraduate education now costs about $150K.
Due to years of budget cuts in Sacramento, Berkeley now only gets about 11 percent of its revenue from the state of California. Donation and research funding has risen, but those fund sources have to be carefully restricted to their designated uses. UC Berkeley has effectively been privatized, although it is struggling to maintain its public mission.
Berkeley is surviving because of its national and international reputation. It has increased the proportion of out-of-state and international students (not all of them wealthy), it charges them a ton of money for tuition and fees, and uses that revenue to cross-subsidize in-state students, especially those from low-income families.
So far it is all holding together. But it doesn’t help when groups like AS&R and C0A file dubious lawsuits and then negotiate to have UC pay their legal expenses. Guess whose pockets that money is coming from? Students like my son, and the pockets of the other hard-working Berkeley students that I interact with every day.
Enough said, this entry is already too long. I need to discuss the solar panels that were also part of the C0A lawsuit. As I homeowner with solar PV system, I have very mixed feelings about that aspect of the lawsuit as well. But this discussion will be relevant for our climate action plan and some other pending decisions, so it can wait. Thanks for your patience if you have gotten this far.