Gordon Wozniak, council member, prepares to leave post after 12 years

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Jessica Gleason/Staff

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On Thursday evening, behind red velvet rope, Berkeley’s mayor, city manager and several other members of city staff and council sipped wine and buzzed with conversation, occupying a large corner of an otherwise quiet basement cafe.

Many had seen each other two days earlier at the Tuesday council meeting and were gathered here not to govern, but to say goodbye.

Gordon Wozniak, a 12-year council veteran, chose not to run for re-election this year.

One by one, the attendees stood up to speak — Mayor Tom Bates cracked a joke, and the often-stoic city manager announced that she thought she might cry. The room — reserved from the Jazzcaffe in Downtown Berkeley for Wozniak’s farewell party — reverberated with a jovial roar, and Wozniak laughed often, sipping a gold-colored drink and stopping to lift up his grandniece, a small girl in a pink dress.

During his term, Wozniak gained a reputation as the council’s “brain,” having joined after retiring as a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Bates brought up a joke that when Wozniak joined the council in 2002, its collective IQ jumped by a few points.

“We really are losing half of our brain,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli at the party.

Wozniak’s scientific background distinguishes him from the rest of the council. He is known for being analytic and rational, seeking a technical solution whenever possible. But his history of political involvement — beginning with anti-war efforts in the 1960s — is quintessentially Berkeley.

Cleaning house

Wozniak is in the process of cleaning out his office in City Hall. Pulling out files from a black filing cabinet — a big recycling bin stands next to the door — he has drawers and drawers of material to reminisce on, from the contentious issues around Downtown development to sometimes surprising complaints from constituents.

He presides over District 8, which covers the Clark Kerr Campus and the majority of the Elmwood neighborhood and consists largely of homeowner residents.

Wozniak noted that, as a scientist, he is particularly interested in seeking technical solutions to city issues. He took an introductory firefighting course toward the start of the council term, in which he had to carry out a simulated search and rescue, with and without an infrared camera. When he realized how much easier the rescue process was with a camera, Wozniak pushed to have one in every fire engine.

“We really are losing half of our brain.”

— Councilmember Laurie Capitelli

He also takes pride in the work he has done with students and the university. Wozniak noted that the council, when he joined, had a more contentious relationship with UC Berkeley. The city sued the campus in 2005 over a proposed development plan, raising the issue of the plan’s failure to detail impacts on the rest of the city, which ended in a settlement. Since then, the relationship between the city and the campus, he asserts, has improved.

“I always thought the university was a force for good,” Wozniak said. “The university has all these experts … and the city staff didn’t take advantage of that.”

Bates emphasized Wozniak’s work with UC Berkeley, calling his efforts to implement recycling programs in fraternities and sororities one of his biggest accomplishments. Wozniak also worked with interns such as Brad Zamft, then the sustainability coordinator for the Berkeley Student Cooperative. Wozniak sponsored a council item, Zamft said, to give the students a grant to retrofit one of their houses.

Wozniak garnered attention nationally for one of his quirkier proposals, a proposed tax on email aimed at generating funds for the U.S. Postal Service. The students he has worked with also noted his unusual technological savvy. Kristin Hunziker, a former legislative aide of his and a current student at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said Wozniak — despite being one of the older members on the council — communicates mostly by text message.

“He’s very young at heart in the most wonderful way possible,” she said.

Quintessentially Berkeley

While his approach to addressing city issues has been unique, his involvement with politics begins with one of the city’s most characteristic political moments. In the 1960s, when he first moved to Berkeley, Wozniak joined the protest to stop the Vietnam War, right off the heels of the Free Speech Movement.

“Gordon has always been responsive to me…I know that he’s been accused of being part of the ‘Bates machine.’ I don’t think there is such a thing.”

— Mark Humbert, a former president of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association in District 8

At the time, he was a UC Berkeley graduate student studying chemistry. In 1971, he worked on the campaign for a City Council slate that included UC Berkeley student Rick Brown and Loni Hancock, the latter of whom is now a state senator. Called the April Coalition, the slate promoted rent control, the replacement of a property tax with a new income tax and new city services for the poor. A Chicago Tribune article characterized its candidates as “radicals.”

“We were trying to end the war in Vietnam. … It was very low-tech and very kind of making it up as we went along,” Hancock said. “We were all very young and very idealistic.”

Wozniak also met his wife, Evie Wozniak, on the front lines of anti-war politics. They both worked on the congressional campaign for Ron Dellums, a former council member who was elected to U.S. Congress in 1970.

“We met on Valentine’s Day,” Evie said. “A group of us went down into West Berkeley and registered people door to door … Gordon organized it, and he selected me, as we worked in teams of two people.”

In general, Wozniak’s ideas now are no longer considered “radical.” He often votes with the majority of the council, which includes the mayor and four other council members, and is often described as more “moderate,” in contrast to the more “progressive” minority.

“Anything Bates wants, he votes for,” said Dean Metzger, a District 8 resident who said Wozniak has failed to respond to neighborhood issues.

Metzger has been unsatisfied with Wozniak’s help on neighborhood concerns over development. Residents filed a lawsuit against Caltrans after it announced a plan to add a fourth bore to the Caldecott Tunnel, and Wozniak only became involved after the suit, Metzger said.

But Mark Humbert, a former president of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association in District 8 whom Wozniak appointed to the Transportation Commission, described Wozniak as a “moderate, thoughtful voice” on the council.

“Gordon has always been responsive to me,” Humbert said. “I know that he’s been accused of being part of the ‘Bates machine.’ I don’t think there is such a thing.”

120 percent

By the mid-1970s, Wozniak turned away from political activism to devote himself to his research on nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, which he called a “120 percent” job.

He also brought his activism to the lab, which he took to court a few years prior over its refusal to allow political speakers at lunch hour, an event that was eventually termed the Tuesday Forum.

Larry Phair, one of his former colleagues at the Berkeley lab, described Wozniak as being remarkably unfazed when a graduate student they were working with accidentally destroyed a device instead of calibrating it.

“(Gordon said) ‘Did you move it three degrees to the right or to the left?’ ” Phair said. “He was always very calm.”

Phair noted that Wozniak’s retirement from research might have come early, by science’s standards. But Wozniak described the step as “evolutionary.” Before running for council, he had already eased back into politics by serving on what was then known as the Parks and Recreation Commission. His predecessor in District 8, Polly Armstrong, encouraged him to run after she decided to retire.

Wozniak joked, though, that his decision to join city politics again was just a “momentary lapse of sanity.”

Nov. 18, 2014

“Sometimes, it looks a little chaotic…When it works, it’s really magical, and it’s a pleasure to watch.”

— Wozniak of his time on the council

After retiring from council, Wozniak wants to travel more with his wife, particularly to Argentina and Chile. He has two young grandsons whom he plans to babysit more. Six of his eight siblings are still living, and he hopes to spend more time with them.

“It’s time, I think, for someone younger,” Wozniak said about leaving council. “My siblings, they’re getting older. My mother died a couple years ago.”

Growing up in Iowa, Wozniak was the oldest of nine children and acted as a father figure. His sister Lorraine Andersen remembers making peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies for Wozniak, who worked as a lifeguard, when he was 17. His sister Marjorie Frederick said that when she went to engineering school, Wozniak gave her a calculator — a gift she considered extravagant. When his sister Catherine Meighan was about 12 years old and horse-crazy, he sent her money to buy a horse.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, and so that to me was like ‘wow,’ ” Meighan said. “He made one of my dreams come true.”

Now, the siblings get together every couple of years. According to his sister, Louise LorenzWozniak called her about a month ago and talked about driving through the country, or “just taking some other trip.”

“We kind of just left it up in the air,” Lorenz said.

Although his successor, Lori Droste, will not be sworn in until December, Wozniak attended his last City Council meeting Tuesday — a particularly busy one that stretched from 7 p.m. to almost midnight. At the beginning, he stood up, smiling, to a round of applause from the council and crowd. By the end, he had faced some criticism, after dissenting from his colleagues on a measure aiming to highlight the possible risks of cellphone use.

“Sometimes, it looks a little chaotic,” Wozniak said at the beginning of the meeting of his time on the council. “When it works, it’s really magical, and it’s a pleasure to watch.”

As the hours went on, the crowd of public commenters slowly dwindled. As usual, the council moved forward in steps, leaving several final verdicts to be made beyond Wozniak’s term. With a minute left, Wozniak began packing his papers as one last public commenter went up to the podium. The meeting adjourned at 11:45 p.m.

And for the last time, he stood up from the desk.

Melissa Wen is the lead city news reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.

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