Proposed amendment to Berkeley city charter stirs controversy

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A possible change to Berkeley’s city charter that would give the City Council more freedom to fill vacancies by appointment has kindled controversy among some council members over whether the change could result in an abuse of power.

Currently, the city must hold an election — likely a special election — to replace a mayor or council member who vacates his or her office. Only if the office-holder has less than a year left in the term is the council allowed to make an appointment. However, with the proposed amendment, as outlined on the Feb. 11 meeting agenda, the council would simply appoint a replacement to serve until the next general election in case of vacancy.

Though the agenda item states that the change is mainly a cost-saving measure, as a special election to fill a vacancy could cost upward of $300,000, Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington have both decried the proposal as taking power away from Berkeley voters.

“This looks like insider politics — to make it easier for somebody (who was appointed) to stay in office for a longer time,” Worthington said. “My opinion is the voters should get to have a say as fast as possible.”

Arreguin and his chief of staff Anthony Sanchez also suspect a political reason for the amendment. Sanchez speculated that if Mayor Tom Bates were to resign early, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, a council member allied with Bates, could be appointed as his replacement, effectively giving Capitelli an incumbent’s advantage come the next mayoral election.

Both Bates and Capitelli are in the majority faction of the council considered by some as “moderate,” compared to the “progressive” minority that includes Arreguin and Worthington. If 76-year-old Bates resigned and left Capitelli as his replacement, he could retire with an ally heading the council.

Bates declined to comment, but Capitelli and Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said the mayor had nothing to do with this amendment.

Capitelli also said he did not know anything about the proposal until recently and believes the measure was probably related to a similar one regarding Rent Stabilization Board vacancies that passed on the 2006 ballot.

“I’m flattered that somebody would think that I’m qualified to be mayor, but I know nothing about this,” Capitelli said.

Arreguin called the timing of this proposal — almost one-and-a-half years into the mayor’s term — “suspicious” and speculated that Bates might have suggested the change in the charter.

“This isn’t really a problem,” Arreguin said. “If this a problem, why are we addressing it now?”

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko, however, indicated that the city staff put this measure on the agenda without consulting Bates or other council members. Chakko said the city clerk was prompted to begin reviewing the charter’s provisions on this issue when they had to fill a council vacancy in 2008.

In the summer of that year, then-Councilmember Dona Spring died, and the council resolved her absence not by appointment or special election but at the general election in November. Arreguin was elected as the new representative of her district.

If the council approves the proposal, it must still be put in front of voters at the next election. According to Chakko, inconveniences in the past two election years prevented the city from doing such. He said city staff did not have the amendments done in time for the election in 2010 and in 2012 did not want to add this amendment to the 10 measures already on the ballot.

Despite the controversy, this kind of amendment is a “fairly typical” way for city governments to cut costs and increase efficiency, as it gets rid of a possible special election, said Michelle Anderson, a UC Berkeley law professor who has studied local government, in an email.

The Albany and Piedmont city charters allow vacancies on the council to be filled by appointment until the next general election. Oakland permits a temporary appointment only if it does not exceed 128 days and if the appointee is not a candidate for the vacant office; otherwise, the city requires a special election in the case of a vacancy.

Wozniak called the proposed amendment to Berkeley’s charter a “good government measure” because of its potential to save money. Nonetheless, he recognizes the fear that the council could abuse its increased freedom to make appointments as a valid concern.

“There’s some merit to the discussion of whether we want to do this or not,” Wozniak said. “(But) I don’t think there’s any grand conspiracy here.”

Melissa Wen covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.