Politics as usual: Berkeley's moderate City Council faction scored a lot of points a few months back when they accused progressives of gerrymandering Polly Armstrong's district at the last minute. But there are enough smoke-filled room shenanigans in town to indict both sides. Take the case of the December 13 meeting of the Housing Advisory Commission, which for years had been the one commission free of the partisan under-handedness that usually plagues city government.
First, a little background. In 1999, Affordable Housing Associates planned to buy the old Outback clothing store at the corner of Blake and Sacramento and declared its intention to build 33 units of mostly low-income housing. Up stepped Outback neighbor and über-NIMBY Marie Bowman, who led the opposition with a fairly routine array of arguments -- four stories is too high, the lot should be commercial and not residential, there are too many units, etc. Bowman's campaign scuttled the project.
But one year later, Affordable Housing Associates executive director Ali Kashani returned with a new plan that incorporated many of the neighbors' objections. Now the project was three stories; a piece of the ground floor was to be set aside for commercial; and although the number of units increased to 38, only seniors would live there, which would reduce the parking and traffic impact on the surrounding neighborhood. That still wasn't good enough for Bowman, who mounted a new campaign to kill the project.
Fast forward to last month. Kashani asked the city's Housing Advisory Commission to lend him $1.4 million for the project from the city's Housing Trust Fund. Who sits on the commission but Bowman, who was appointed by moderate city councilmember Betty Olds. Since Bowman lives within three hundred feet of the project, she had a conflict of interest and would have to recuse herself from voting. Did she? Not exactly. According to Olds aide Susan Wengraf, Bowman declared that she was taking a temporary leave of absence and suggested that Olds replace her with one Ania Dilmaghani. "We tried to get a replacement who were were familiar with, but that person was busy that night," Wengraf says. "Marie suggested someone that she thought was qualified, and we went along with it."
It's a good thing for Bowman that Olds and Wengraf weren't paying attention. Otherwise, they might have noticed that Dilmaghani, who lives just up the block from the site, had spoken against the project at a commission meeting just a week earlier. What's the point of having conflict-of-interest laws if city commissioners can handpick their own replacements, especially when they know in advance how they'll vote?
In the end, the commission approved the loan by a vote of 6-2 (guess who voted against it?), but several commissioners said Bowman's conduct was shameful. "I was disgusted with what happened and felt it was an unwarranted manipulation of the process," says commissioner Gene Turitz. "The commission has functioned for the last six years in a very open and straightforward way. I don't like when commissioners decide that if they don't like something, they're gonna do whatever they can to mess it up."
Drawing the line: Representative Ellen Tauscher used to have to fight for her congressional seat. In 1996, she spent $1.6 million of her own money to beat incumbent Bill Baker for California's 10th District, which covers parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Tauscher is a Democrat, and the mostly affluent, surburban 10th district, created during redistricting in 1992, was the only district in the Bay Area with a slight Republican majority. She beat Baker, but by a hairbreadth. In 1998, the startled Republican Party did their best to reclaim the seat, spending $400,000 against Tauscher in the final week of campaigning alone, and sending out GOP all-stars like Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Marilyn Quayle, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander to stump on their behalf. At one point, it had looked like Tauscher would face off against a celebrity challenger, former 49ers tight end Brent Jones, but ultimately her opponent was Charles Ball, a defense analyst from Lawrence Livermore Labs. Tauscher beat him, too. In 2000, the GOP's candidate was Contra Costa County's former Republican Party chairman Claude Hutchison; Tauscher beat him as well. In the course of those three campaigns, Tauscher spent $5 million of her own money and district voter registration crept slowly to an almost perfect 50/50 split.
Ten years after the creation of the 10th district, it's time for another redistricting. Some Dems had worried that the district would be reboundaried in such a way that Tauscher's winning streak would finally have to end. Instead, the pendulum swung so far the other way -- the newly redrawn district incorporates a large chunk of Solano County and ships Republican-leaning areas such as Danville and San Ramon to the Central Valley -- that the Republican party isn't even bothering to run a candidate against Tauscher. Instead, the only other people up at the podium will be organic farmer and fellow Democrat Kurt Rasmussen, who readily admits that he isn't in it to win, and libertarian candidate Sonia Alonso Harden, who promises on her campaign Web site that if elected, she will abolish the IRS and the Federal Reserve, repeal NAFTA, and lead in the United States' withdrawal from the United Nations. It should make for some lively debates.
Peggy Come Lately: Last week, 7 Days readers read here first that it was Parks and Rec Director Harry Edwards who ordered the duck mural at Montclair Park covered in red paint a few days after porno-vandals spray-painted their filth all over our winged friends. Two days after our item was published, Oakland Tribune columnist Peggy Stinnett chimed in on the incident. "It was the season's most puzzling who-dunnit," Stinnett began, leading 7 Days to believe a big fat pat on our back would soon follow.
Stinnett wrote, "A Tribune reporter tracked down the accountable city department head. It was none other than the director of Parks and Recreation himself, Harry Edwards, who readily admitted it was a deliberate municipal act."
Well. Ms. Stinnett, it shouldn't be so puzzling why 7 Days removed you from our Christmas card list. Hah!
Walking tall: Ahh the East Bay, where no corporate or government billboard is safe, and the sweet sight of billboard liberation is nigh! Driving to work on Grand Avenue near the Grand Lake Theatre last week we coughed, swerved, and sprayed our windscreen snickering, after spying the latest addition to the billboard lexicon. AT&T's huge "United We Stand" billboard received the sort of welcome that the phone company probably doesn't have to worry about in much of its nationwide service territory. First there was an obligatory red paint-bomb splat. And underneath the patriotic slogan lurked a large scripted addition. The whole thing now reads "United We Stand" "e-wrecked." America stands proud and tall as usual, with its, ahem, swaying lustily.
A legacy of sorts: The Oakland Post, that beacon of service to the African-American community in which feature stories can be purchased at quite reasonable rates, never misses an opportunity to sell an ad. A front-page story in last Wednesday's issue -- announcing a January 9 memorial service for the paper's recently deceased publisher Thomas L. Berkley -- noted that this week's paper will feature a tribute to its former publisher and that "those wishing to salute Mr. Berkely in the Post" can contact the paper's advertising manager.
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