Public officials are supposed to recuse themselves from voting on issues or projects in which they have a "conflict of interest." That typically means a financial conflict of interest like, say, when a city councilmember has a personal investment in a development that's seeking city permit approval. But should decision makers be able to recuse themselves if they have an ideological conflict of interest? In Berkeley, apparently, the answer is yes.
Over the past two months, three members of Berkeley's zoning board have opted out of voting on a permit for a Curves franchise seeking to open on Solano Avenue. While there were concerns raised by neighbors about the new location posing parking and noise problems, the members in question had a completely unrelated conflict: They had issues with the conservative politics of the fitness chain's founder. At least that's what insiders say -- the boardmembers are playing coy.
For Feeder readers with a Y chromosome unfamiliar with Curves, it's a rapidly expanding chain of women-only gyms that offers the promise of a thirty-minute workout without men, mirrors, or judgment. Think of it as a ladies' Starbucks or McDonald's of the fitness world. It was founded in 1992 by Gary Heavin, a born-again Christian from Texas -- whose surname just happens to be evocative of both the Lord's paradise and a good, solid workout.
Things were grooving along for the chain until late April, when the San Francisco Chronicle ran two columns, which have since undergone major corrections, falsely suggesting that Heavin was a major contributor to militant anti-abortion groups.
Meanwhile, a local women-owned franchisee from Benicia, AK Enterprises, wanted to open a new Curves at 1820 Solano Avenue, and sought approval from the zoning board, whose nine members are appointed by the city council. When the proposal came up in June, two boardmembers -- Dave Blake and Christina Tiedemann -- left the meeting without saying for the record why they'd left. Their exit was as good as voting "no" on the whole thing because there weren't the necessary five votes required to pass the item (a third zoning boarder was ill and absent). The result: The new Curves outlet was held up.
The proposal came up again in late July. This time, city staffers asked that Blake and Tiedemann state for the public record why they were opting not to vote. Unfortunately, the two did not make their reasons explicit. In a phone interview, Tiedemann, Mayor Tom Bates' appointee, told Feeder that Heavin's politics played a role in her decision, but refused to elaborate.
Blake, Councilwoman Linda Maio's appointee, was also cryptic. As a zoning boardmember he is acting in a quasijudicial capacity, Blake said, and stating his reasons, he felt, might influence the votes of his colleagues. "The best thing to do was to say, 'I'm biased, I'm out,'" he said. Zoning board chair Andy Katz abstained from voting for equally murky reasons, also citing his inability to be objective.
Fellow boardmember Bob Allen says that at least in Tiedemann's case she made it clear to him personally that she felt compromised by her opposition to Heavin's conservative politics. Allen, an architect, believes personal views on reproductive rights shouldn't factor into deciding a pedestrian land-use issue such as this. In a highly politicized town such as Berkeley, boardmembers would have to constantly step aside if they disagreed with an applicant's politics. "I didn't agree with recusing yourself for that reason," Allen says. "If that were the case, I can't imagine we could vote on anything. Where would it end?"
In the past month, feminists in the Marin County town of Tiburon objected to another Curves franchise, in part because of Heavin's politics. But Tiburon planning commissioners, who approved the Curves permits, made it clear that they did not consider Heavin's politics a factor.
As for Berkeley? Well, Solano Avenue will be getting a new Curves in the near future, thanks to a razor-thin majority vote last month.
Heavin and Ruth
Kimber Smith, co-owner of the new Solano Avenue Curves, sounds confident that her new franchise will do well despite any political controversy. But she might want to talk to the owner of the Rockridge Curves franchise, Anne Marx, before getting her hopes up too high. The last few months have been a roller-coaster for Marx, who ditched her contract-law practice to open a Curves last year.
Marx saw more than a dozen members quit her gym shortly after Chronicle columns by Jon Carroll and Ruth Rosen tied founder Gary Heavin to "the most militant anti-abortion groups in the country." Shortly thereafter, the Chronicle ran a lengthy correction conceding that the Curves founder hadn't in fact given any cash to loony right-wing fetus-wavers, although he had donated to a Texas group encouraging adoption as an alternative to abortion. In a story on the issue that appeared on Salon in May, the director of the Central Texas branch of Planned Parenthood was quoted as saying she felt a lot of "misinformation" had been spread about Heavin's donations, and pointed out that he also gave a lot of dough to a health clinic that treats indigent and uninsured patients.
Although franchisee Marx, who calls herself pro-choice, has done as much as she can to combat the "misinformation" by talking to her members, she says her business has suffered. In a recent letter to loyal customers, she wrote: "[W]e were heavily hit by this. ... Buddy referrals at Rockridge have dropped to zero almost. Our appointments are down."
SAP Suckers Sequel
Loyal Feeders may recall this column's detailing of Richmond's $4.5 million software boondoggle, and the city's allegedly unworkable SAP system that forced budgetary number-crunchers to perform their work by hand and abacus ("System Failure," 6/6). This past week, Feeder caught a peek at a news story from The News Tribune of Tacoma. The Washington city spent $51 million to implement SAP's software up there, but also is running into trouble: "Tacoma officials are eager to start work on a two-year budget, but they are struggling to get their new $51 million computer system to cough up key numbers -- starting with how much money to spend."
Some Richmond readers got a chuckle out of Feeder's original SAP item, which noted how former City Manager Isiah Turner had promoted his city's flawed system to other public agencies. While Turner was touting the hypercomplicated system using industry jargon, he had a reputation around City Hall as knowing little about computers. One of the city's designated SAP "super-users" said Turner's computer knowledge amounted to "turning it on and turning it off." Former IT director Mark Hamilton, who left the city shortly after the system was purchased four years ago, concurred that Turner had limited tech skills. "As I recall," he says, "he didn't know the difference between a data warehouse and a feed lot." Okay, not bad. But how about this: He didn't know the difference between a server farm and a dairy farm.
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