‘A little unrealistic’: Berkeley City Council sees mixed reception since 2016 election

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One year after Berkeley residents elected a new mayor and three new council members to Berkeley City Council, the degree to which the council has translated its progressive ideas into action remains a widespread source of debate.

The council has made significant strides in addressing housing and environmental issues in particular since the 2016 local elections, according to Councilmembers Ben Bartlett, Cheryl Davila and Sophie Hahn, who were all elected last year.

Hahn pointed to legislation passed to reduce toxic materials in Berkeley buildings as evidence of the council’s commitment to protecting the environment. Davila cited the activation of the Emergency Operations Center as one of the council’s greatest accomplishments in alleviating the housing crisis and homelessness in the city, stating that the center expedited the opening of a homeless shelter on Second Street.

“I think we’ve been really deserving of recognition for the progressive victories we’ve made,” Bartlett said.

But Hahn — along with the other council members — said she still sees room for improvement. Limited city resources and “hastily” compiled legislation have been two sources of weakness, according to Hahn.

“People were maybe a little unrealistic … about how much we could do in one year — that we could … address every unsolved problem in a year,” Hahn said. “Some of it has been messier than it needed to be.”

Davila echoed Hahn’s sentiment, calling the council’s actions “a work in progress.” Despite the council’s accomplishments, Davila said she has perceived bureaucracy and a shortfall in understanding of racism among city employees to be obstacles to concrete action.

Promoting education about racism, implicit bias and discrimination is a step the city must take, according to Davila.

“Having those conversations — they might be tough, but in order for us to move forward, especially in this time … it’s really important,” Davila said.

Some Berkeley residents and community members have expressed a greater degree of dissatisfaction with the council’s work than council members themselves. When asked if the council has been as progressive as it promised to be, homeless activist Guy “Mike” Lee laughed.

Lee pointed to the council’s decision this year to continue participating in Urban Shield — a controversial police training program that has been criticized for alleged hypermilitarization — as an example of the council’s failure to enact progressive measures. Bartlett did outline a “progressive alternative” to Urban Shield in August, recommending that the city discontinue its involvement with the training program. But despite such discussions, the city still participates in Urban Shield.

“I would give the council a ‘C’ grade,” Lee said. “They try hard. I don’t believe that they have accomplished anything tangible because there’s nothing really that has gone beyond a lot of talk.”

South Berkeley resident and affordable housing activist Richie Smith, who regularly attends council meetings, said the council should prioritize the most significant items on the meeting agendas by addressing them at the beginning of the meetings. Otherwise, attendees become “disenchanted” and leave, she said.

Last week, the council tabled an item that addressed racial disparity in the Berkeley Police Department because of time constraints.

“(The council members are) kind of lukewarm on being progressive,” Smith said. “We have to keep pushing them by showing up to meetings.”

George Lippman, chair of the Berkeley Police Review Commission, said delayed action on the part of the council has been “unsettling or even disturbing.” According to Lippman, while there are always reasons to delay action, “justice deferred is justice denied.”

“Are you leading towards a progressive vision … or are you with people who want to delay justice?” Lippman said. “That’s an outstanding question. Those are the concerns.”

Contact Danielle Kaye at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.