Click Here for Democracy 

A nonprofit Web site's rising influence in Berkeley policymaking has itself become a topic for debate.

Robert Vogel remembers going to Berkeley City Council meetings and waiting hours to speak, getting heckled, and feeling intimidated. He couldn't miss that less. "They are really unpleasant affairs," says Vogel, who last stepped foot inside City Hall in January.

Yet despite his physical absence, the retired software executive is among Berkeley's most active political residents. Vogel says he logs a hundred hours every week to maintain and promote KitchenDemocracy.org, a nonprofit Web site he and his wife, Simona Carini, launched in March 2006. They envisioned it as a virtual town hall where citizens and elected officials could suggest, vote for, and comment on local issues outside the three-ring circus of Berkeley public meetings.

KDers submit "articles" on potential topics, which are vetted by their peers for clarity, balance, and policy potential. If an article is judged worthy, it's off to the "Open Issues" page where people can submit comments along with a vote of "Yes," "No," "Neutral," or "Maybe" — anyone, registered or not, can view the vote tally and comments. A "Decision" page, meanwhile, tracks official city actions on the issues.

Vogel and Carini got things rolling with a debate that hit close to home — literally. For the site's debut topic, they picked proposed renovations to a gas station around the corner from their Elmwood residence. The couple tacked up fliers for their Web site around the neighborhood, and spread the word by mouth and keyboard. They met with District 8 Councilman Gordon Wozniak, who then e-mailed his Elmwood constituents about the site. Since then, the pair has met with dozens of city officials to tout Kitchen Democracy's benefits and encourage them to do the same.

Their dedication appears to have paid off. Besides attracting more than two thousand registered users by Vogel's count, Kitchen Democracy has become increasingly influential in local politics — too influential, some say.

Indeed, many city officials have embraced the site. In the sixteen months since the first Kitchen Democrat signed up, locals have debated and "voted" on 21 Berkeley-related issues, one-third of which were authored by city leaders. Mayor Tom Bates, for instance, polled the KDers on his Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, and presented the vote tally and comments at a council meeting. Cisco DeVries, the mayor's chief of staff, says the site has been especially helpful in soliciting comments on controversial issues: "Politics and policy in Berkeley is a full-contact sport, and that dissuades a lot of people from getting involved. I have seen people hissed and hollered at for making comments at a public meeting."

Several other council members have contributed material, but Wozniak has been Kitchen Democracy's most ardent proponent. He gave $3,000 from his office budget last year to support the site, of which the plurality of registered users live in his district.

Wozniak says he reads every comment, but he's not counting. "What I'm looking for is recurring themes," he says. "What are people's concerns? This is much more useful than a yes-no poll. We have a lot of expertise in our community."

The site also has its critics on the council. Max Anderson says he prefers direct contact with constituents. "I don't use it that much, because I already have pretty good avenues of communication," he says. "And I think that I get a broader sampling than I would with the limited reach of Kitchen Democracy."

Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose South Berkeley district includes the university, is less generous. He argues that the "limited reach" is a fatal flaw. "There was a preselecting bias with the issues when it started, and it was pretty much focused on a particular neighborhood, which votes for the losing candidates in citywide elections pretty much every time," he says.

Kitchen Democracy's "moderate, pro-landlord" bias is unfair to Berkeley's large racial-minority student population, Worthington says. He note, for instance, that while Berkeley residents have consistently voted against changing the city's rent-control laws, 85 percent of KD users in an ongoing poll favored reforming those laws.

Webmaster Vogel says he's tried to make the site more representative, but he argues that the most effective way to do so is for council members to tell their constituents about it, as Wozniak did. To wit, when District 2 Councilman Darryl Moore posted two issues on the site, the number of registered users spiked in that previously underrepresented district, according to Vogel.

In any case, he says, Kitchen Democracy is far more representative than the tiny minority of citizens who show up to comment at council meetings. "Berkeley has got approximately seventy thousand voters, but of those, only ten to thirty show up at City Hall," he says. "If we can turn that number to one hundred or three hundred [online voters], we've increased the participation tenfold."

He cautions, however, that Kitchen Democracy polls are just one of many means by which citizens can connect to City Hall, and should be interpreted as such.

That's precisely the problem, in Worthington's view: Leaders have given the concerns of Kitchen Democracy users too much weight in recent public debates. The most egregious example, he says, involved the Wright's Garage project — developer John Gordon wants to turn the large former auto-repair shop near Ashby and College avenues into a big restaurant, among other things (see "The Wright Stuff," Water Cooler, 6/20).

The project at first seemed doomed since it exceeded Elmwood's quotas on full-service restaurants, and since many neighbors and local merchants were opposed. But the quotas are flexible if a project garners significant neighborhood support. Members of the city's Zoning Adjustments Board found that support on Kitchen Democracy, where 80 percent of 217 voters favored Gordon's project in an online poll.

The zoning board's approval was immediately appealed to the city council, where Wozniak felt compelled to remove himself from the debate and vote because he had explicitly supported the Wright's project on Kitchen Democracy.

For his part, Worthington says he has "serious legal concerns" about the zoning board's use of the poll. "Given that that poll was people voting in reaction to an explicit advocacy agenda by a councilmember who is forced to be recused, how can the results of that poll be used as an accurate barometer of the opinion?" he asked his colleagues at a June 26 council meeting.

Anonymity is another issue. Roughly one-third of Kitchen Democracy commentators withhold their names from postings. Some do so to avoid backlash — on the rent-control issue, for example, one person outed wealthy friends who "have held their Berkeley 'pied-à-terre' for casual and recreational use while having true residency elsewhere." Another wrote, "I have kept my name off because I do not want to expose myself to harassment by the ideologues at the Rent Board."

At least one user, Karen MacLeod, publicly fretted that anonymous outsiders might have inflated the apparent support for the Wright's Garage proposal. "It is absolutely impossible that 98 people living close to this project are in favor of it," she wrote amid the debate. "No adequate parking — come on! I have experienced this before with Kitchen Democracy. People can vote more than once and so can the people trying to ruin our neighborhood, even if they do not live in our city! I could live in San Jose and vote. Using this information is an irresponsible way of representing your constituents. And it is happening too often."

To register, Kitchen Democracy users must provide a name, home address, and e-mail address. While Vogel admits he has no practical way to ensure that a registered address truly belongs to the user, he doesn't believe trying to influence the vote tally would be worth the trouble. DeVries concurs — what he and the mayor ask themselves, he says, is, "Is this a good comment? In this sense, it doesn't much matter whether it's a real person or not."

For Vogel, these controversies are just bumps on the road to a fuller local democracy: "If people see that they can get something done at a local level, then perhaps they will get more involved on a national level." In the meantime, he relishes reading the commentary he's helped to facilitate. It's the happiest part of his day, seeing "how wonderful people's contributions are," the Webmaster says. "That's what gives me the biggest thrill."

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