Berkeley City Council identifies infrastructure, public safety as top legislative priorities

photo of the Civic Center
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
Following recommendation from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, Berkeley City Council held a meeting to identify legislative priorities and develop consensus over a legislative platform.

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Berkeley City Council identified the renewal of the city’s infrastructure and public safety as top legislative priorities heading into the next two-year budget cycle at a special meeting held Nov. 4, while reiterating a common commitment to environmental action and equity.

The Council held the meeting to identify legislative priorities and develop consensus over a legislative platform following a recommendation from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, who emphasized the need for clear priorities to work through the hundreds of open legislative items sent to her and her staff from City Council.

“At this point, our organization just needs you all to give us clear, simple direction,” Williams-Ridley said at the start of the meeting. “That is all we’re asking.”

After a lengthy discussion over the priority categories and their meaning, the council identified six broad policy categories.

The six categories were ranked, in order, as infrastructure, public safety, houselessness, transportation, housing and lastly, economic development and recovery, with the final two categories tied.

Using the presentation and live polling program Mentimeter, the council members were asked to rate nine policy areas on a scale of 1 to 5. The process was facilitated by outside consultant Rod Gould from Management Partners, identified as a local government consulting firm on its website.

Some council members expressed their disapproval of the rating system and the choice of categories, as issues such as climate action and equity in core services did not score highly enough to rank among the six top categories and the public did not have access to the specific ratings assigned by each council member.

”We have an obvious sole frontrunner,” said City Councilmember Rigel Robinson during the meeting, noting the council’s “unambiguous support for infrastructure renewal.”

Public safety was the second-highest-rated priority, but several council members noted the multiple interpretations of public safety as a legislative priority, emphasizing the distinction between public safety operations and the work of reimagining public safety.

At one point in the meeting, council members also considered separating traffic safety from public safety operations and criminal enforcement.

The council debated whether equity and climate and environmental action should be categorized as legislative priorities, core services or overarching principles.

“I just don’t think those are things that you rank,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn during the meeting, referring to climate and environmental action and equity, which she considered “existential threats.” “They have to lay over everything we do and infuse everything we do.”

Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Ben Bartlett pushed back against removing equity as a legislative program because it was already an “overarching principle,” emphasizing the need for the explicit allocation of city resources.

“Without an intentionality towards achieving a universal baseline level of services, it may not happen,” Bartlett said during the meeting. He pointed out that his district had recently lost a bus route primarily used by low-income seniors.

The six policy areas will offer city staff direction in preparing an operational plan to return to the city for public review and discussion Dec. 2, Gould said during the meeting.

Following the priority-setting work session, council members met with city lobbyist Niccolo De Luca of Townsend Public Affairs to offer direction and feedback on a memo regarding the city’s state and federal legislative platform, in order to align City Council’s priorities with lobbying efforts during the next year.

City Mayor Jesse Arreguín commented on the importance of regional coordination and securing state funding for the unhoused. Hahn referred to the city’s houselessness situation as “medieval” and added that the city needs the state to provide funds for long-term rent subsidies.

“We know how to rehouse people in Berkeley,” Hahn said during the meeting. “The state needs to pick up its piece of this.”

Arreguín also expressed support for the allocation of state funds to cities proportional to the size of the unhoused population.

The memo, summarizing the city’s 2022 legislative platform, will be returned to City Council for review during a regular meeting.

Contact Alexander Wohl at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @dc_arwohl.