22-year incumbent, 2 challengers eye District 1 council seat

Michael Drummond/Kayla Baskevitch/Ariel Hayat/Staff
Linda Maio (right) faces challengers Merrilie Mitchell and Alejandro Soto-Vigil for the District 1 seat.

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Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series on contested City Council races this election. The final installment will be published in Thursday’s paper. Read about District 7 here.

In West Berkeley, home to a steel and asphalt company, environmental issues lie at the forefront of the race for the District 1 council seat.

The district encompasses the area from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the waterfront, bounded in the north just past Gilman Street and in the south by University Avenue. Vice Mayor Linda Maio has held the seat for more than two decades and faces challengers Alejandro Soto-Vigil, a rent board commissioner, and activist and gardener Merrilie Mitchell.

Mitchell also ran for the District 1 seat in 2010 and 2006, receiving about 8 percent and 23 percent of the vote, respectively. So far this year, Maio has raised $15,809 in monetary contributions, and Soto-Vigil has raised $11,065, according to the most recent campaign disclosure documents. Because she has raised fewer than $1,000, Mitchell is not obligated to report her contributions.

Soto-Vigil and Mitchell have a history of disputing the current council’s rulings. Although the three candidates’ ideas overlap in their emphases on environmental concerns, they differ on fundamental issues, including their stances on several controversial ballot measures.

Tracking their records

With 22 years under her belt, Maio has served on council longer than any other current council member. Soto-Vigil, meanwhile, has served on several public entities, including the Public Works and Housing Advisory commissions in addition to the Rent Stabilization Board, and hopes to represent a new generation on the council. Mitchell has never held public office but emphasizes her history of activism.

Maio said that unlike her opponents, her platforms are backed by a record of accomplishments.

“You need to have a track record,” Maio said. “What progress have you made, what things you have made happen — it’s very easy to talk about things that you want to do.”

But Soto-Vigil said he has his own track record, noting that as a legislative aide for Councilmember Kriss Worthington, he fact checked, submitted and sometimes drafted council items.

“I don’t believe by any moment that (Maio’s) done more work than me in the last five years,” Soto-Vigil said. “At the end of the day, I go door to door, and I talk to residents I know what’s going on.”

Soto-Vigil, 35, emphasized that as a father with young children, he would represent a new demographic on the council, whose current members either have adult children or no children. He wants to impose a higher tax on landlords who own a significant amount of property as part of an effort to create more affordable housing.

Mitchell said Maio used to be her role model but has since become too aligned with the mayor. Mitchell plans to bring fresh ideas to the council, such as her proposal to end all council meetings by 10 p.m. And unlike Soto-Vigil and Maio, she said, she does not belong to any “machine.”

“We have a machine in Berkeley,” Mitchell said. “We have a political machine that has been in power for a long time.”

West Berkley air and citywide solar

What Maio considers one of her greatest accomplishments on council is the object of criticism from Soto-Vigil. Maio’s office recently negotiated changes expected to bring a 30- to 50-percent reduction in odor emissions from Berkeley Asphalt, a plant in West Berkeley that has for years been the source of resident odor complaints. The agreement follows previous changes intended to reduce odor initiated by the city after Maio forwarded resident complaints to staff.

“Our changes now have resulted in very markedly reduced odor complaints — almost none,” Maio said. “Not that we still don’t have work to do, but the reduction in volatile organic carbon emissions is a very lasting thing.”

Soto-Vigil, though, said these changes need to be better communicated to residents and wants to hold a public hearing on the issue. He said that if elected to the council, he would be more accessible to his constituents than Maio.

“At the end of the day, it’s about communicating with your constituents,” Soto-Vigil said. “If you don’t put your cellphone on your (campaign) literature, well, guess what? You ain’t for real, and I’m trying to be for real.”

He also brought up a 1999 settlement that ordered the city to monitor the plant’s efforts to reduce nuisances. This summer, Soto-Vigil helped dissatisfied West Berkeley residents request information about whether the city had complied. According to Maio, though, that settlement has expired.

Mitchell also criticized the reduction, saying a 50-percent cut to emissions does little because the initial amount of emissions was so high.

One of Maio’s current projects is an effort to prevent the transportation of crude oil shipments through Bay Area cities, including Berkeley, due to the potential danger of the oil exploding into residential areas. Maio and Councilmember Darryl Moore brought this issue to City Council in March, and the council voted in opposition to such transportation. Now, Maio said, she is working on getting state representatives to help halt the shipments.

“It’s not OK for them to ship this stuff alongside where people live,” she said.

Soto-Vigil, too, has plans to further help Berkeley’s environment. He suggested the installation of more solar panels across the city, possibly funded by increased tax revenue. And although Maio won the Sierra Club’s endorsement, Soto-Vigil pointed out that he has been working with environmental activists.

“I’m fine with Sierra Club not endorsing me,” Soto-Vigil said. “Are you going to be working with activists, or are you going to be working with advocacy groups?”

Meanwhile, Mitchell called the city’s current climate action plan “phoney baloney” and argued that the reduction of parking spaces Downtown harms the environment by forcing people to drive farther to shop.

With and against the tide

Both Mitchell and Soto-Vigil portray themselves as against the council’s current direction. Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Moore, Laurie Capitelli, Gordon Wozniak and Susan Wengraf — often termed, along with Maio, as the “council majority” — have endorsed Maio’s campaign.

“I have deep relationships with other policymakers — people who make things happen — like Tom Bates,” Maio said about her relationships with the mayor and other local and state officials, which she credits as among her strengths as a candidate.

Mitchell and Soto-Vigil, on the other hand, have been critical of the mayor and those who frequently agree with him.

“That majority needs to be broken up,” Soto-Vigil said. “Once you break up that lock-step majority, then you’re able to do more with more people.”

Soto-Vigil disagreed with Maio and the rest of the majority on Measure S, a redistricting measure on November’s ballot that would make District 7 a more concentrated student district. He helped suspend the redistricting plan when it initially passed in December, criticizing the map’s exclusion of Northside student cooperatives and dorms from the student district.

He, along with Mitchell, also disagrees with the majority’s opposition to Measure R, a ballot measure that would add more stringent environmental requirements and wage standards to Downtown development. Supporters say the measure will make development more equitable and better for the environment, while opponents argue it would hinder development.

Both Soto-Vigil and Maio support Measure D, a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on the distribution of sugar-sweetened beverages, which the entire council and every council candidate except Mitchell endorses.

Supporters of the tax cite the link between soda consumption and childhood obesity and say the funds can go toward anti-obesity and anti-diabetes initiatives. Mitchell, though, does not trust the council to spend the tax money wisely and said the measure needs to designate a specific purpose for the funds.

“Nothing is designated for the kids right now. It’s just talk,” she said. “It’s wrong to play politics with the kids of the city.”

According to Maio, who is co-managing the Measure D campaign, the measure was designed not to designate the tax revenue for a specific purpose because doing so would require a 2/3 vote to pass. In its current form, it only needs more than 50 percent of the vote to succeed.

The winner of District 1’s race also needs more than 50 percent of the vote. Inaugurated in 2010, Berkeley voters are now able to rank their first, second and third choice votes. Polls open Nov. 4.

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