Berkeley town hall speakers focus on collaboration across levels of government

Michelle Kim/Staff

More than 200 people congregated at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Thursday evening for a town hall meeting that brought together five elected officials at the federal, state, county and local levels to dissect issues deemed relevant to Berkeley citizens.

The five officials took advantage of the structure of the event — the first Berkeley town hall in recent memory to integrate multiple levels of government — to illustrate the extent of their behind-the-scenes collaboration and communication to constituents, drawing on cross-cutting issues such as budget proposals and public safety.

“I don’t think that most citizens know how much we communicate and collaborate,” said Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, the organizer of the meeting. “(The town hall) lets the citizens know how we work together — not just on a sometimes basis, but all the time, to maximize our political leverage on behalf of citizens.”

The budget took a front-row seat at the town hall — two of the invited officials, State Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, were in talks at the budget conference committee in Sacramento and sent their respective district directors, Nathan Rapp and Mark Chekal-Bain, to speak in their stead. Rep. Barbara Lee roused her liberal base with a reference to the partisan process of passing the federal budget.

“If Paul Ryan’s budget were enacted, 70 percent of the safety net would be shattered,” Lee said at the town hall, referring to programs such as food stamps that seek to keep low-income Americans from dropping below certain poverty thresholds.

The speakers also focused on the issues of education and prison reform, as well as the relationship between the two. Lee highlighted her amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill — which passed last week — granting $3 million more for the Second Chance Act, a bill that focuses on reducing recidivism rates, while Rapp called the state’s prison boom a “slippery slope” linked to a decline in public education.

“We as a state went down a very dangerous path when we began investing more in prisons than in education,” Rapp said at the town hall. “Sometimes we don’t really understand that one day our children will be up here speaking and will be up leading this charge to really better our society.”

Mayor Tom Bates, who also talked about Berkeley’s needed street repair and his role on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, brought up 2020 Vision, a citywide effort to close the achievement gap. He said since the program was implemented in 2008, it has helped to close the gap and boost scores across the board, citing it as just one of the city’s efforts to address racial inequality.

But Barbara White, 57, vice president of the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP and an audience member, called the city “two Berkeleys” that don’t provide equal opportunities for marginalized people. White said there has not been much improvement in education attainment for people of color and cited a report from Mason Tillman Associates Ltd. that investigated Berkeley’s workplace after allegations of racial discrimination and unfair hiring practices.

Other speakers acknowledged a sense of regression on the issue of race in the East Bay. Carson called for a greater focus on inclusivity in education and employment, while Lee reflected on her demotion by political commentator Bill O’Reilly to a “notorious race hustler.”

“We need to recognize that race is still a factor in every aspect of American life,” Lee said at the town hall. “We have to sweep race out from under the rug.”

Other issues audience members brought up included urging Congress to ratify a U.N. treaty to ensure equality for disabled people and improving mass transit — especially bus service — in the East Bay.

Carson said he intends to hold similar town halls in the other cities he represents, having kicked off with Albany in April, and asserted the value of reaching out, starting at the city level.

“All politics,” he said, “is local.”

Contact Katy Abbott at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @katyeabbott.