On the Green Beat 

Berkeley's Temple Beth El saga finally moves toward conclusion as City Council hearings begin.

Temple Temple Temple, I Made You out of Clay
It's almost over, folks. Last week began the home stretch for the long, vastly overplayed drama surrounding the proposed Beth El synagogue and school complex on Oxford Street. But now that the first installment of the City Council's public hearing on the subject has been completed, the Beth El controversy is on track to a finish by the end of the summer.

Round One of the hearing took place at the Council Chambers on June 5, before a crowd so large that the cops and the Fire Department had to keep half of it outside due to fire safety concerns. Roughly sixty kids from Beth El's summer Camp Kee Tov frolicked on the lawn along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, scarfing snacks and waiting for the moment when camp leaders would use them to tug at the councilmembers' heartstrings. A mob of onlookers haggled with the cops to let them in the front door, but the officers would have none of it. At one point, an exasperated reporter from the Jewish Bulletin handed a cell phone to a cop and said, "Can you talk to my editor and confirm that you won't let me in?" The cop rolled his eyes and snatched the phone long enough to say, "We won't let her in," before handing it back. "No, he won't talk to you anymore--he's pushing me aside!" the reporter shouted into the phone as the crowd began jostling her.

The overflowing crowd put a crimp in the plans of Beth El leaders, who had hoped to serenade the council with a few camp songs. But after a round of negotiations, Camp Kee Tov organizers reached a settlement. Beth El Cantor Brian Reich strode out to the steps, assembled the kids, and shouted, "I've just come from the City Council chambers. They're going to let the choir sing their song, and they'll be watching from those windows!" as he pointed to the second floor. "And the song will be admitted into the public record!" With that, City Councilmember Polly Armstrong's head popped up in a window, her thumb jutting approvingly skyward, and a gaggle of campers began crooning, "This little light of mine..."

Inside the council chambers, supporters and opponents of the plan took turns pleading their cases long into the night. One Berkeley High student took his five minutes to recite a hip hop-inflected spoken-word poem about a sandbox at the old Beth El site, and councilmembers spent ten minutes arguing about whether the new complex would jut uncomfortably close to a neighbor's house. Will it be four feet from the house? No, twelve feet. Wait, is that twelve feet from the house or the property line? Okay, it's eight feet from the property line, which begins four feet from the house. Thank God we got that cleared up.

City staffers, anticipating the flood of attendees, decided in advance to continue the meeting on June 26, so get ready for Round Two in a week. But a number of City Hall sources say that Beth El already has the council votes needed to approve construction of its 32,000-square-foot North Berkeley project, having patched together a coalition of the four moderates and progressive Councilmember Margaret Breland. There are even rumors that Maudelle Shirek will back Beth El. The conventional wisdom around City Hall is that the project's opponents, which include neighbors worried about the parking and environmentalists who want to daylight the portion of Codornices Creek that would be topped by a parking lot, will be lucky to get four votes. As one City Hall source said, "Beth El's had five votes since this whole thing started."

Next Year on Top of Codornices Creek!
Less dispassionate observers claim that the fix was in from the start, and that Beth El leaders were careful to get all their eggs in one basket long before the controversy made the headlines. Critics of the Beth El project have suggested that two former members of the synagogue--Susan Wengraf, a planning commissioner and aide to North Berkeley City Councilmember Betty Olds, and Michael Issel, who sits on the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB)--resigned from the congregation just before the plans were made public, in order to get around conflict-of-interest rules and be in a position to rule in Beth El's favor. This is all the more noteworthy in light of City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque's November ruling that four members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission must recuse themselves from the Beth El issue because of their highly placed memberships in the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, which had previously criticized a draft Environmental Impact Report on the project. If the landmark commissioners were too close to the issue to rule on it, critics whisper, then how can Wengraf and Issel be seen as anything but interested parties themselves?

In the case of Wengraf, it's tough to make that argument--though it's true that in the late '80s and early '90s, when the Beth El site was owned by the Chinese Missionary Alliance Church, Wengraf led neighborhood opposition to a number of the church's plans to develop the lot. And since Beth El acquired the site, Wengraf has been noticeably on the fence. But in the case of Beth El, Wengraf is simply not in an adjudicator position; the synagogue's plans have never gone before the Planning Commission, and it's difficult to argue that Wengraf's role as Olds' aide has influenced the public debate one way or another. As for her sudden openness to Beth El's plans, perhaps that can be chalked up to the fact that Wengraf no longer lives next door to the site, as she did in 1992.

Michael Issel is a different story. While Wengraf claims she resigned from the synagogue "right after my son's bar mitzvah in 1995," Issel was a congregant until at least 1998, and his wife Shirley Issel--who also sits on the Berkeley school board--was a member of the synagogue's "sisterhood," a prominent governing body in Beth El. Last August, just before the ZAB was scheduled to review the temple's EIR, Issel passed a note to City Attorney Albuquerque: "Since we have no economic interest in, nor are we members of, Congregation Beth El, I would like you to confirm my opinion that I have no conflict of interest in hearing evidence; finding facts; and making a decision based upon the application of existing policy to the facts of the case," Issel wrote in rather lawyerly prose. Albuquerque replied later that same day: "I see no conflict of interest for you to hear the Beth El application based upon the facts you have presented to me in your e-mail. Feel free to consult me again."

On March 7, Daniel Carraco, a longtime critic of Beth El's plans, noticed that despite Issel's claims that he was no longer a member of the synagogue, both he and his wife were listed in Beth El's recently published membership roster. "I believe that Mr. Issel's statement to you that 'my wife was a former member' was less than candid," Carraco wrote in a letter to Albuquerque. "As you have expressed the opinion that 'even the appearance of a conflict of interest' is to be avoided, I find his lack of candor to be less than reassuring of his capacity to be impartial about Congregation Beth El's application."

Issel insists that his appearance in Beth El's roster was a mistake. "Nothing has changed [since the correspondence with Albuquerque] except the skill set of the typesetter at Beth El who made the roster. You can see devils wherever you want, but sometime a cigar is just a cigar."

As for Albuquerque, she claims that even if Issel were still a member of Beth El, that would not be cause for recusal. "I analyze these issues based upon what particular law is triggered," she says. "I look at the conflict of interest, and none of those laws are triggered by mere membership in an organization, only by being a member of the board [of directors] or in a management position. In the case of the landmarks people, I said that all they had to do was resign from the board of BAHA.... But because [Issel] wasn't even a member, that was not a question." As for Issel's alleged extracurricular lobbying, Albuquerque says, "Don't you think that commissioners and councilmembers do that all the time?"

If City Hall head-counters are right, all this may soon be moot since Beth El already has the council votes it needs. Meanwhile, the state Water Resources Control Board just handed the Urban Creeks Council a $200,000 grant to restore Codornices Creek as a habitat for steelhead trout, and researchers from the University of California's Department of Integrative Biology have agreed to help this project. Soon they will need to study the effect of the culvert near Oxford Street.


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