The l979-l980 City Council: The BCA/Carole Davis Majority
Passing the Torch
Several eras came to an end at the April 24, l979 Berkeley City Council meeting. The final meeting of an outgoing Council is always a ceremonial occasion as retiring Councilmembers and praised and presented with their nameplates.
The departure of Mayor Warren Widener and Councilwoman Loni Hancock, the two rival leaders and senior members, with a total of l8 years service, severed the Council’s final ties to the tumultuous l97l election. Widener’s supporters brought him a cake, and the outgoing Mayor thanked the voters “for lifting a heavy burden off my shoulders.”.
Ying Kelley led a parade of emotional tributes to Loni Hancock, calling Loni “a very special and very human leader.” From among the April Coalition’s ruins, only Loni and her politics had survived. As a Councilmember, Loni Hancock set the modern standard for effective representation, backed by a large, mostly volunteer staff that was always in touch with the community. Loni changed the way the Council operated, from instigating citizen review of the budget, to setting up new procedures such as the consent calendar, and even introducing a time for rest – the annual August vacation.
Now a new generation of BCA Councilmembers would try to carry on in her footsteps. They were expected to be the majority, as over seven years of unbroken rule by the Council’s right wing came to an end.
While Hancock and Widener received tributes and presents, no one appeared from the audience to praise the departing William Rumford, Jr.. Rumford seemed totally alone at his last Council meeting, disowned by the people who had elected him in l973 and l975. This was a symbolic lesson for any true independents who sought to represent the conservative coalition on the City Council.
The May Day Inauguration, May l, l979
BCA organized an elaborate “Peoples’ Inauguration” for the new Council on the City Hall steps before an audience of about 300. It included a program that explained the history of May Day, with a classical drawing on the cover full of political slogans, (artwork that later appeared on BCA T-shirts and calendars), an introduction by Supervisor John George, classical and gospel music, the oath of Office by City Clerk Edy Campbell, and Mayor Gus Newport’s inaugural address (echoing the words of Congressman Dellums):
And I tell you quite honestly and joyously, that’s a label I’m proud to wear. And I am confident that I am not alone, and that this city council will be radical, pragmatic and proud.
Shirley Dean also took the oath at this highly partisan BCA event, looking very out of place along with a few of her outnumbered, sign-carrying supporters.
In contrast to the tone of his inauguration speech, Gus Newport usually promised there would be no rash changes. He told the Gazette in an April l9, l979 interview, “People should remember that I am a bureaucrat who analyzes the feasibility of new programs.”
Three days after he took office, the Gazette reported that Newport might be forced out of his Department of Labor position because the agency deemed it incompatible for the Mayor of Berkeley to be their employee. Newport did in fact lose his job as a consequence of being elected Mayor, a harsh financial penalty from which there was no recovery. Being Mayor only paid $600 a month, but this part-time job precluded Gus Newport from holding the conventional civil service positions that had been his livelihood.
Job promises, which were plentiful when Gus was persuaded to run, failed to materialize. The new mayor had to scrounge for other employment to support his family. Gus Newport resented having to pay for the privilege of being Berkeley’s Mayor, but he was stuck for four years.
The Politics of Being in the Majority
For nearly eight years, the very term “Council majority” was synonymous with the conservative coalition. The Council that took office on May l, l979 still consisted of five people who had been elected as BDC candidates (Sue Hone, Gilda Feller, Shirley Dean, Bill Segesta, and Carole Davis), to only four from BCA (Gus Newport, John Denton, Florence McDonald, and Veronika Fukson). Technically, this was not a BCA majority. But politically, there was no longer a BDC majority either.
The intrinsic reality of this Council was that the side Carole Davis supported became the majority. By May l979, Davis had been voting with BCA for well over a year, although she considered herself to be a freethinking independent.
Davis’ true political loyalties seemed very hard to decipher. In April l979, she had endorsed BCA’s Veronika Fukson and BDC Council candidates Taylor Culver, Shirley Dean, and Andrea Washburn, plus the BDC nominees for Auditor and School Board.
Taylor Culver’s election might have changed everything, because he was apparently compatible with Davis. But since Culver, Widener, and Guy Jones all lost, the Council had now dropped from five black members in l973-75 to only two, Davis and Newport. Everyone expected the remaining two blacks on the Council to be allied. Carole Davis went to the BCA victory party election night and was quoted by the Gazette as saying she and the BCA Councilmembers would “work out a relationship.”
With Carole Davis volunteering her cooperation, Mayor Newport and his BCA colleagues had little choice but to accept the political responsibility of being in the majority. Having served four years with Carole Davis, John Denton considered her unreliable and not very principled. (Of course John Denton felt this way about most Councilmembers.) Although reluctant to join with Davis as part of a new majority, John Denton nevertheless did so. Beginning on May l, l979, the BCA/Carole Davis coalition was the one and only Berkeley City Council majority.
For various political reasons, some BCA people have disavowed responsibility for the l979-80 Council and tried to claim that either BDC or no one was in charge. The Widener/Hone forces used to make similar denials that they were the Council majority. The truth is that while Carole Davis was the dominant power in certain areas of personal concern, she generally deferred to her BCA allies for most of this period.
The BCA/Davis alliance was neither tightly disciplined nor stable, but in l979-80, Newport, McDonald, Fukson, Denton, and Davis hired a City Manager, passed budgets, placed measures on the ballot, and met all the tests which objectively define a governing Council majority, one that was four-fifths BCA. Along the way they made mistakes, but compared to their predecessors, this was still the most progressive Council majority in modern Berkeley history up to that time.
The Burdens of Leadership
In his campaign for Mayor, Gus Newport promised to bring “creative leadership” to the City Council. The burden that fell upon him was enormous, not counting his personal problem of trying to find a new job. Gus was supposed to lead a 5 vote majority composed of three Council rookies, including himself, plus two veterans, Denton and Davis, who didn’t trust each other. Gus was in the middle, together with Florence McDonald, his loyalist ally, plus Veronika Fukson. The three of them anchored the majority, united more by inexperience and nervousness than anything else.
Since BCA never expected to win the April l979 election, there had been no advance planning on how to govern the city. The new Council majority needed Loni Hancock’s eight years of experience, but she was gone, along with the large volunteer/community staff of the l97l-77 period. The Councilmembers brought in a new paid/semi-paid staff of BCA campaign veterans: Sean Gordon, Teresa Bergman, Ann Chandler, and Luanne Rogers.
As Gus Newport’s full-time administrative assistant, Sean Gordon became a Council and BCA campaign power from l979 on. While the Councilmembers and their aides went through a period of on the job training, volunteers were not encouraged. The BCA Councilmembers declined to re-establish the huge volunteer staff network of earlier years, preferring to rely upon their own aides, boards and commissions, plus city staff.
City Manager Elijah Rogers resigned in February l979 to become Washington, D.C.’s City Manager under reform Mayor Marion Berry. The old Council had appointed City Attorney Michael Lawson to be acting City Manager.
Lawson believed it was his duty to educate the inexperienced new Mayor and Council in the legal, political, and administrative realities of local government. With an intensity reminiscent of William Hanley confronting the l97l Council, Lawson lectured, cajoled, and pleaded with the new Council not to do anything he disagreed with. Lawson’s painful obstructionism from the City Manager’s chair was far worse than anything the BDC minority could come up with.
The New Council Tackles the Issues
The Council started off with a package of procedural reforms, most of which had previously been defeated by the Widener/Hone majority:
* The Council would now begin each meeting by returning to the agenda items carried over from the previous meeting. This eliminated dead spots on the agenda where proposals from Councilmembers and commissions used to languish for months, even years. (Adopted May l, l979 unanimously).
* Council meetings could no longer continue past midnight without a 2/3 vote. The Midnight Special was not about to make a comeback. (Adopted 8-l, May 8, l979; previously a Ying Kelley motion defeated on May l8, l973.)
* For a $5 fee, the public could once again be placed on the mailing list to receive the Council agendas and minutes. The previous free subscription service, which was free, had been abolished after passage of Proposition l3, making it harder for the public to know what was happening. (Adopted July 3, l979 without dissent).
By informal tradition, the senior member of the Council majority, or else the majority’s leading vote-getter, was appointed to the symbolic post of Vice-Mayor. John Denton qualified on both counts. But Carole Davis also wanted to be Vice-Mayor, an ambition Warren Widener’s side had ignored at their peril. Now Gus Newport had to try and satisfy both Denton and Davis.
Newport’s Solomon-like solution was to create the brand new designation of Vice-Mayor pro tem, or acting Vice-Mayor. The Vice-Mayor presided over the Council in the Mayor’s absence. Now the Vice-Mayor pro tem would preside if both the Mayor and Vice-Mayor were gone. The Council established the new post, appointing John Denton as Vice-Mayor and Carole Davis as Vice-Mayor pro tem.
On June 29, l979 the Council provided $96,000 towards the University Avenue Housing Cooperative (next to the University Avenue Co-op Supermarket). Sue Hone voted “No”. This was the city’s second affordable housing construction project, similar in concept to Savo Island. The Council’s $633,000 loan, approved 6-l-2 on February l4, l980, allowed the organizers to put together a complete financing package. Thanks to the work of project coordinator Susan Felix, the plan to rehabilitate existing housing and build new units became a reality.
The Council adopted a Housing Advisory and Appeals Board recommendation to prohibit the conversion of existing rental units to condominiums unless the rental housing vacancy rate rose to 5%. (Berkeley’s vacancy rate was then estimated at l-2%.) This party-line 5-3 action on November 27, l979 provided tenants with badly needed protection from displacement.
In other cities “condomania” had driven thousands of tenants from their homes. As Florence McDonald’s appointee to the Housing Advisory and Appeals Board, BTU leader Dan Lambert spearheaded this reform. It was a major affordable housing preservation achievement, an atypical example of BTU-BCA cooperation.
Another part of the Council’s anti-displacement effort was an emergency moratorium on the conversion of residential hotels into tourist hotels. (September 23, l980.) The ordinance prohibiting discrimination against families with children was also strengthened by adding city enforcement provisions for the first time. (May l3, l980, 8-0.)
However, the Council overturned the Board of Adjustments and approved a new, market-rate, ten unit condominium in disregard of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance’s requirement that one quarter of the units be set aside for low/moderate income housing. This 8-0 vote on June l7, l980 was based on a highly questionable legal opinion that the NPO’s affordable housing provisions did not apply to new condominiums. Similar legal interpretations in the future would continue to erode other key ordinances designed to protect and expand low to moderate income housing.
Ocean View (a dream deferred)
The new Council tried to move forward on its commitments to housing preservation in Ocean View. A Project Area Committee of neighborhood residents was established on July l0, l979 to advise the City Council/Berkeley Redevelopment Agency, replacing the Redevelopment Commission.
But Acting City Manager Lawson prevented further action to implement the pro-housing redevelopment plan amendments that passed in l978-79 after a laborious process. Lawson “discovered” that the amendments were invalid without the written consent of 2/3 of the West Berkeley Industrial Park bondholders.
While failure to obtain such consent in the previous two years amounted to city staff negligence and the legal argument could be made that the bondholders’ silence was a waiver of their rights, Lawson passionately argued that the Council could make no industrial park changes until the bondholders consented. For the first time, Ocean View Committee-type stalling tactics were being used to preserve the industrial park plan.
The Council capitulated to Lawson’s legal arguments and began a search for the bondholders and their consent. This was a very prudent, cautious approach, but the new delay would last over two years as the bondholders were pursued.
The Council’s most interesting action during this waiting period was the demolition of several badly damaged houses, primarily to make way for the new West Berkeley Senior Center. Nearly five years after litigation commenced over whether the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance (NPO) applied to the industrial park, the Council negated the court decision (Kehoe vs. the City of Berkeley, page 266) by voluntarily adhering to the NPO’s procedures and then demolishing houses which had been deemed unrepairable (and allegedly hazardous) in l975. (votes taken November 20, l979 and May 20, l980).
While everyone waited for the bondholders, the fate of Ocean View and the Industrial Park would be decided by future City Councils not the first-ever pro-Ocean View majority elected in l979.
In a heightened attempt to preserve neighborhood shopping districts and keep them from turning into regional commercial centers, the Council adopted a Restricted Neighborhood Commercial Zone (July l0, l979). The fragile Elmwood shopping area, College Avenue near Ashby, was placed in this zone on April l5, l980. The inadequacy of such measures later became apparent as the commercial neighborhood preservation struggle escalated to center stage in the l980’s.
To halt an unwanted influx of banks and savings and loans into commercial areas, the Council passed a zoning ordinance amendment on December 4, l979 to require use permit public hearings. This was another try at protecting existing small retailers from being driven out of business.
On the fast food front, Carls Jr. was denied a use permit for the corner of Shattuck and University, opposite the controversial (but heavily patronized) McDonald’s. Following a re-run of all the McDonald’s arguments, including the need for new jobs, the Board of Adjustments’ permit denial was upheld on a near party-line 5-3-l vote. Shirley Dean voted against Carls Jr. while Mayor Newport abstained. The politics of fast food would be highly unpredictable as Burger King found out a few years later.
The longest running police policy dispute concerned the use of dogs and helicopters in Berkeley. Police dogs had a very bad political reputation because of their historical role in attacking civil rights demonstrators. A vocal segment of the Berkeley black community opposed any use of police dogs.
Helicopters earned their negative image during Peoples Park in l969 when the south campus area was harassed and teargassed from the air. The purchase of Berkeley Police helicopters had been rejected by the Council in l970.
Political activists in the black and campus communities thus viewed dogs and helicopters as dangerous symbols of police repression. The Berkeley Police Department viewed them both as useful tools whose value had been proven in neighboring cities. If the police couldn’t have their own dogs and helicopters, they continuously wanted to borrow them.
The Council had previously established a policy against the use of both dogs and helicopters. However, the police and several BDC Councilmembers kept trying to reverse this policy. On February l4, l978 the Council authorized the use of dogs and helicopters to catch the rapist known as “Stinky”. A motion to allow far more general use of dogs and helicopters lost with four votes.
On November 20, l979 the new Council reaffirmed the policy against any use of police dogs by a 5-3 party-line vote. The subject would periodically be raised again. in future years.
In addition to dogs and helicopters, the other lingering police issue concerned the continuing refusal of officers to testify at Police Review Commission (PRC) hearings on citizen complaints. Officers were ordered to testify at internal police department investigations, but not in front of the PRC. Over seven years after the PRC’s creation, the new Council majority established the policy on January 22, l980 that officers accused of misconduct should be required to testify at PRC hearings. Efforts to implement this policy produced several more years of controversy.
On December 4, l979, the Council tried to implement the new Berkeley Marijuana Initiative (BMI) in a manner that would not produce a replay of the l973 lawsuit that killed the first such measure. The Council approved a Police Review Commission recommendation requiring Berkeley Police officers to file special reports explaining the circumstances and motivations behind all marijuana arrests and citations. The burdensome reports, intended to discourage enforcement of marijuana laws, were adopted on a 6-3 vote with Segesta joining the majority.
As Acting City Manager, Michael Lawson made only a token effort to cooperate with the progressive Council majority. But the Council didn’t know what to do with him. Even if they dismissed Lawson as Acting City Manager, he would revert to being the City Attorney, a post from which the Council could not remove him. But firing a black Acting City Manager was a step the Council was unwilling to take.
Meanwhile, little progress was being made on finding a permanent replacement for the departed Elijah Rogers. So Lawson stayed on for several unpleasant months, until he finally resigned on September ll, l979 to become Oakland City Attorney.
BCA Councilmembers were tremendously relieved by Michael Lawson’s voluntary departure. His recent conduct had been highly erratic, apparently from the strain of many years in city hall’s pressure cooker atmosphere. Now, without the Berkeley City Council having to do anything, Lawson would be Oakland’s problem.
As Oakland City Attorney, Michael Lawson’s difficulties grew. He was arrested, tried, and acquitted by a jury of petty theft from a blind vendor in Oakland City Hall. There were newspaper reports alleging more thefts from other places. Lawson resigned as Oakland City Attorney. He later re-emerged in Berkeley black community politics as Executive Director of the South Berkeley Community Development Corporation.
Lawson’s departure from Berkeley in the fall of l979 left two vacancies: City Manager and City Attorney. Forest Craven, a non-partisan, veteran city hall administrator, was appointed the new Acting City Manager on September 25, l979 while the Council proceeded with its search for a permanent City Manager. On October 9, l979, the Council established a nine member citizen group to help interview City Manager finalists and advise the Council on who to select. The committee included ex-Councilmembers Jack Kent, Wilmont Sweeney, and Loni Hancock.
The Council’s official job announcement didn’t restrict the position to traditional City Manager types. The Council encouraged a wide open spectrum of applicants, especially local people with administrative experience in comparable fields. This was an obvious affirmative action technique to avoid disqualifying minorities and women. It also represented the Council majority’s view that a good City Manager might be someone with fresh ideas from outside the normal pool of bureaucratic city administrators.
The City Manager appointment turned out to be the single subject of greatest concern to Carole Davis. Her choice for the post was Wise Allen, Ph.D., a black administrator from the College of Alameda, a Peralta Community College. Allen actually lived in Berkeley. Davis and some BCA Councilmembers knew him as an intelligent, progressive individual, but he had absolutely no experience in local government. Allen was one of the finalists interviewed by both the Council and the citizens committee.
Charlene Harrington was another finalist. She had been in charge of regulating nursing homes for the California Department of Health However, her strict enforcement practices outraged the nursing home industry and she was fired by Governor Jerry Brown. Like Wise Allen, Harrington was a stranger to municipal government.
However, finalist John Altshuler, 3l, was an Assistant City Manager from Hartford, Connecticut. Altshuler had worked for a progressive City Council which lost its majority. His administrative experience in local government and good politics made him a strong contender for the Berkeley job, except for one major liability: Altshuler was white.
Carole Davis wanted a black City Manager, specifically Wise Allen. Paul Williamson and Elijah Rogers had set the pattern, aided by the firing of the only recent white City Manager, John Taylor. The black community now expected one of their own to remain in the top city job, and Carole Davis was determined to deliver. It was a partial replay of the BCA Convention fight for Mayor, with race and experience again in conflict.
John Denton favored Altshuler on the basis of superior qualifications, ability to help the Council quickly, and his reduced vulnerability to partisan political attacks. There were strong arguments in favor of both me