Council Mistakes and Rotten Images
The Council’s Dwight-Derby site policy, although politically burdensome and confusing, still enjoyed sizeable public support and wasn’t embarrassing. But other conduct attributed to the Council, in combination with traditional media hostility and stereotyping of “Berkeley radicals”, resulted in a pair of major public relations disasters that eroded BCA’s image.
The Alternative Olympics Flap
From its origins in the anti-Vietnam War movement, BCA and its predecessors have always considered international, national, and local issues to be inseparable. Thus, after passing countless motions over the years on matters beyond municipal jurisdiction, the Berkeley City Council really does have a foreign policy, one that is firmly left of center.
Usually, City Council expressions on international issues reflect the majority consensus of Berkeley’s citizens. But in the summer of l980 the Council suddenly became embroiled in a major dispute with the University of California that produced contradictory emotional responses on national/international issues, followed by a chaotic blizzard of negative press reports.
The chain of events started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late l983. President Jimmy Carter’s response to Soviet aggression included bellicose cold war rhetoric, a grain embargo, withdrawal of the SALT II nuclear weapons control treaty, reinstatement of draft registration, and an American boycott of the l980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games.
In the Berkeley progressive community, both the invasion itself and Carter’s retaliatory gestures were very unpopular. 63% of Berkeley’s voters supported anti-draft Measure F on the June l980 ballot. In BCA circles, the Olympic boycott was strongly attacked as a symbol of Carter’s new militaristic, jingoistic policies, and also as a wrongful punishment of American athletes who, after years of training, would be denied the opportunity to compete in Moscow. But the Olympic boycott was merely a distant abstraction.
Just after the June 3, l980 election, the local press reported that U.C. Berkeley’s Edwards Stadium would be the site for an “Alternative Olympics” on July l7-l8, l980 featuring international track and field stars from the western countries who were participating in the American-led boycott of Moscow. U.C. Athletic Director Dave Maggard was the man responsible for bringing the Alternative Olympics to Berkeley. Ticket sales were brisk.
But neither Dave Maggard nor anyone else from the University bothered to notify the city government in advance that U.C. wanted to host the Alternative Olympics. City Councilmembers first heard about the event from reporters or read about it in the newspapers, and it terrified many of them. This would be far worse than having the Oakland Raiders play in Memorial Stadium.
Councilmembers had visions of Berkeley under siege as anti-Carter demonstrators fought with security forces while international terrorists descended on the city and thousands of unparkable cars paralyzed the streets. The twin emotions of anger at the University’s arrogance for having unilaterally scheduled the games and fear for the consequences of hosting the event compelled the Council to do something.
As a near-panic atmosphere swept City Hall, the Council scheduled an emergency meeting on June l6, l980 to discuss the Alternative Olympics. Before an overflow crowd, U.C. Athletic Director Dave Maggard explained to the Council that they were making a big fuss over just another track meet.
Maggard asserted that press reports about an “Alternative Olympics” were incorrect, even though the meet was scheduled for the weekend prior to the opening ceremonies in Moscow. Maggard, together with Vice Chancellor Robert Kerley, expressed confidence that the “Berkeley International Classic” would cause little or no inconvenience to the city.
Councilmembers subjected Maggard and Kerley to a vigorous cross-examination, with Veronika Fukson and Bill Segesta taking the lead. They raised one practical concern after another, receiving little satisfaction from Maggard, who Veronika labeled as “naive”. Councilmembers did not hide their disgust with the University, but the subject of politics, whether, international or local, was barely mentioned. The following exchange, quoted in the July 4, l980 express, was typical:
Veronika Fukson: Why didn’t you consult the city before?
Dave Maggard: I think the feeling was that it would not be a problem.
VF: Why not?
DM: Because it was just an international track and field meet.
VF: What about security?
DM: Security is not considered a major problem.
Bill Segesta: Is Israel invited to these games?
DM: I think they may be.
BS: Is there any way of getting a decent security system ready between then and now?
DM: I don’t see that as a problem.
Maggard was not asked about the international political implications of the Berkeley games. Instead, the Council wanted to know about local matters such as housing and parking. The Council’s approach placed the track meet in the context of other city-university disputes (the Raiders, School for the Deaf) not the cold war.
Then the mike was opened up to members of the public, leading to an acrimonious debate full of vicious charges and counter-charges. Some Berkeley citizens expressed strong support for the games and attacked the Council’s politically motivated interference. U.C. Sociology Professor Harry Edwards, organizer of the l968 Olympics boycott by black athletes, said it would be an unconscionable juxtaposition to hold the proposed event in Berkeley at a time when black unemployment, especially in Oakland, was reaching crises proportions. Sandre Swanson, representing Congressman Dellums, promised that the games would be met by massive protest demonstrations. The divided crowd had cheers for both sides, but opponents of the meet predominated, especially at the mike.
After the angry speeches had concluded, the Council adjourned without doing anything. No motions were ever made and no votes were taken on the Alternative Olympics.
The next day, June l7, l980, it was announced that the Berkeley games were cancelled. Depending which press reports you believed, cancellation resulted from (a) the collapse of a companion meet at the University of Pennsylvania, and/or (b) the unfavorable climate created by the Berkeley City Council.
While obviously relieved that this threat to Berkeley’s tranquility had passed, BCA Councilmembers now found themselves under intense partisan attack for having sabotaged the track meet. In contrast to what Councilmembers had actually said and done at the June l6th emergency meeting, newspaper articles attributed the meet’s demise to the Council’s ideologically motivated assault.
The Electric Car Fiasco
While Mayor Warren Widener and City Manager Elijah Rogers held power, Berkeley embarked upon an economic development program. The city was going to sponsor and financially assist new job-creating businesses for Berkeley. According to city staff, the best available project involved manufacturing electric cars. Berkeley had the chance to help develop a revolutionary new electric car design by a Texas inventor. After the new Council took office in May l979, the city’s economic development planners kept working on the non-partisan car program.
In l980, Mayor Newport and his staff decided that Berkeley should advertise its progress in developing this environmentally attractive new technology – the electric car. The Mayor held a press conference to promote the car, publicize impressive test results from a prototype, and take credit for Berkeley’s impending economic/automotive breakthrough.
The initial newspaper reports were favorable since they simply repeated the glowing statements of Mayor Newport, city staff, and other electric car backers. Then the press started acting as if they had found an economic development version of Watergate.
The vehemence of this media attack on both the electric car and the Council was a total surprise to Mayor Newport and everyone else who had voluntarily sought press coverage for the project. City Hall insiders began whispering that Detroit auto manufacturers such as General Motors may have instigated the media ambush to prevent competition from Berkeley’s electric car.
Whatever the reason, local newspapers continued to ridicule both the electric car and the BCA-controlled City Council which was promoting such a boondoggle. The car’s origins as a city staff project under a BDC Council were ignored by everyone as Berkeley officials tried to defend the electric car on its merits.
Conservatives often decry Berkeley’s “unfavorable business climate”, for which they hold the City Council and BCA responsible. But in the case of the electric car, it was the media which created such a titanically unfavorable business climate that the project collapsed. Its economic value having been destroyed, the electric car now became a valuable partisan symbol of BCA’s managerial incompetence.
While the Alternative Olympics and the Electric Car probably generated the Council’s most adverse publicity, other events helped to solidify BCA’s negative image in the press:
- The Rent Board’s chief of staff, Zona Sage, was arrested for spray painting graffiti on a store. She retained her job and ended up paying a court fine for the incident, which apparently arose from a personal dispute between her and the store owner. To rent control opponents, Sage’s arrest symbolized Berkeley’s physical destruction under the BCA-led assault on property rights.
- Mayor Newport was attacked for his repeated travels throughout the world. He went to so many peace conferences and demonstrations in Europe that the press called him “Galloping Gus”. The Mayor had a high absentee rate at Council meetings.
Ironically, Mayor Widener’s numerous trips to Washington D.C. and elsewhere had long been a target of BCA criticism. Widener often charged the city for his travel costs, explaining that he was seeking Federal grants for Berkeley. Newport’s travel expenses were normally paid by his hosts or by private organizations, although it was alleged that Gus went to international peace conferences sponsored by Soviet front groups.
- A favorite charge by BCA opponents was “political cronyism” in city hiring. The names most often mentioned were City Manager Wise Allen, Assistant to the City Manager Eve Bach, and Rent Board Director Zona Sage, plus other Rent Board staff members.
As the election year of l98l began, the continuous bad mouthing of BCA by the press and the center/right opposition was a major fact of Berkeley’s political life.
Carole Davis Parts Company With BCA
After their June l980 election triumph, it appeared that the year-old BCA/Carole Davis majority alliance was extremely solid. Davis reinforced this impression by (l) appointing Measure D supporter Francheska Callejo (a BCA ally) to the Rent Board, and (2) voting with the BCA Councilmembers to pass the l980-8l budget. Most observers therefore assumed Carole Davis would both seek and receive the BCA nomination to run for re-election to the Council in the April l98l.
Carole Davis’ self-image remained that of an independent person whose loyalties and whose vote could never be taken for granted. Having ignored this political fact of life in 1977-78, the BDC Councilmembers drove Davis (and Billy Rumford) into BCA’s arms, ultimately producing a new Council majority. Now, in late 1980, Berkeley history repeated itself as Mayor Newport and the BCA Councilmembers proved equally adept at alienating Carole Davis.
The rupture was primarily traceable to the appointment process for a new Director of Housing and Development. This large city department had previously been headed by Janet Roche, a black woman strongly allied to Warren and Mary Widener. With support from City Manager Elijah Rogers and BDC, Roche built a huge bureaucratic empire that her BCA critics viewed as wasteful and anti-housing.
A champion of the West Berkeley Industrial Park, Roche was also responsible for the 1976 issuance of a permit to demolish a historic building immediately after formal papers had been filed seeking to designate it as a landmark. When she resigned in April 1980 to join Assemblyman Willie Brown’s staff, Roche’s departure was a cause for celebration among the progressive community’s housing activists.
One of those activists was Neil Mayer, formerly a Planning Commissioner and Loni Hancock’s key housing/planning resource person in the early 1970’s. After receiving his PhD in economics from U.C., Mayer had spent five years working for the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank. The first four of those years were in Washington, D.C., but Neil was now back in Berkeley. His continuing job with the Urban Institute involved the creation and analysis of community-oriented housing and economic development projects around the country.
Neil Mayer applied to be Berkeley’s Director of Housing and Development, becoming a finalist. Department heads were appointed by the City Manager, subject to Council confirmation under Charter Amendment E passed in 1975.
Wise Allen’s first choice to replace Janet Roche was a veteran municipal bureaucrat from outside Berkeley, but the man’s name was withdrawn in the face of Council opposition. Then the City Manager proposed to appoint Neil Mayer, a selection supported by the four BCA Councilmembers. But, even after personally interviewing Mayer, Carole Davis would not vote for him.
It was Davis’ position that Neil lacked sufficient administrative experience to run the large Housing Department. At the Urban Institute he was in charge of a section with few people. Davis said “no” to Mayer’s confirmation and meant it. Neil only had four votes since no one on the BDC side would support him either.
The BCA Councilmembers viewed Neil Mayer as extremely well qualified, a man whose appointment was essential to the creation of an effective housing program. To Gus Newport and the other BCA Councilmembers who knew Neil’s abilities, Carole Davis’ obstinacy amounted to perpetuation of the old blacklist which barred progressive people from city jobs. One additional factor was the negative press coverage which Eve Bach’s City Hall appointment had received. Davis declined to lend her name to a similar action which the media and BDC would condemn as more “political cronyism”.
Neil Mayer’s appointment as Director of Housing became a matter of stubborn principle to both Davis and the BCA Councilmembers who remained on opposite sides. Although no public votes were taken, the dispute received inflammatory press coverage.
The rapport between Carole Davis and the BCA Councilmembers evaporated, to be replaced by bitterness and a feeling of betrayal over Davis’ adamant refusal to confirm Neil Mayer. By January l98l Davis no longer considered herself allied with Mayor Newport’s faction. She began siding with BDC much of the time, leaving BCA on the minority end of several 5-4 votes (conversion of three residential units into one unit, January 27, l98l; appointments to the Library Board of Trustees, February l0, l98l). However, on the Rent Board budget she voted with BCA Councilmembers (January 20, l98l).
So the pattern of Carole Davis votes was unpredictable at best.
After 20 months of sharing power for the first time in the progressive community’s political history, BCA lost control of the Council, which no longer had a governing majority. Carole Davis emphatically belonged to neither faction now. Important issues, such as filling the Director of Housing vacancy, had to be deferred until after the impending April l98l election. The Berkeley City Council was up for grabs once again.