Mayor Bates: "people will need to start contributing"
Mayor Bates: “People will need to start contributing”
Mayor Bates: “People will need to start contributing”

A couple of items distinguish Mayor Tom Bates’ office from the municipal run of the mill. Among the ceremonial tchotchkes exchanged with foreign mayors, there’s a large bottle of beer labeled AB 3601 and on the wall is a photo of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The Zapata image might be more in keeping with a Berkeley dorm room than the mayor’s office, but it’s in the character of the city that a mayor that is seen as a centrist conciliator has a place in his heart for a revolutionary army leader. (The oddly named beer bottle is a tribute to  Bates’ leading role in passing Assembly Bill 3601 in 1982 which spurred the brew pub movement first in California, then across the nation.)

It’s clear from talking to Bates that social innovations like AB 3601, or the solar financing scheme Berkeley FIRST, are what really get him excited.  He peppers his conversation with references to his long years in the California state assembly, his wife Loni Hancock‘s current tenure in the state senate and — next year — the distinction of being Berkeley’s longest serving mayor.

Berkeleyside sat down with Mayor Bates and his chief of staff, Julie Sinai, last week. The conversation ranged over numerous topics, many suggested by Berkeleyside readers.

Reading some of the questions people would like you to answer, it seems some people attribute to the mayor the powers of a prime minister or a dictator. How would you characterize your powers as mayor?

There’s a nine-member council and I’m a member of the council. As a mayor there are certain innate powers that go with the mayor’s office. First of all the media. The mayor is seen as the principal political person for the city. Second of all, I’m blessed to have the opportunity of having a staff.

I was in the legislature for 20 years, so I have a pension from my time as a legislator. And as such when I came to the mayor’s office I’m not entitled to take a salary as the mayor. So I use that money to have a very talented staff. It keeps me more in touch with what’s going on. And knowledge and information equate to power.

When I came in, I tried to break up the notion of polarized sides that were divided around rent control and other issues. Instead, I thought we should try to deal with problems rather than ideologies. That’s worked pretty well. It’s polarized more in the last couple of years, with councillors [Kriss] Worthington and [Jesse] Arreguin sticking together, but generally we vote all sorts of different ways. It’s not like, “If Tom is for it, I’m against it.”

The other thing that has happened is that, coming from my position as a legislator, I’m used to putting things together. I passed 220 laws and I know how to work across various groupings to make things happen.

Are there things that frustrate you in your role?

The downturn in the economy has really frustrated me. We were doing so many great things and suddenly so many of the initiatives we were going pell mell on have had to be rethought and restructured.

The most important one for me in the one we call the 2020 plan, where we try to deal with the health disparities and the achievement gap. It’s meant that we won’t be able to put the resources and the people power [in place], particularly with our health department being cut back and our mental health department being cut back.  We won’t have the resources to do what I’d hoped to do, which is see real results that occur during the time that I’m mayor. That’s been frustrating.

It’s also true that Berkeley is a difficult place in that you have people who are brilliant on every side of every issue. And there’s also a great feeling of entitlement. They’re used to getting what they want. It’s difficult to get people to realize that if you get 95% of what you’re after, you don’t have to fall on your sword for the last 5%.

Any particular issues you’re thinking of?

I don’t think there’s an issue where I don’t find that. Take the Kapor house. Here you had this issue where you get these Nobel prize winners on one side of the issue with their lawyers and brilliant documentation of the issue, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight a person with his home and then they sue him in court.

I think being in Berkeley you have to learn patience. Things take a long time. Usually the product is better for it, but it’s not always easy. Every zoning issue, every home practically, every use permit, there are some neighbors opposed to something — you name it. They know how to fight and they know how to use the levers of power. That’s OK, but you have to learn that that’s the way it is and it’s not going to change.

The difficult part is that a lot of times as an elected official, the room is full and there are lots of people who are vocally angry on one point of view, it’s very difficult for the council to vote against them. Just the theater part. They are ready to throw you to the lions if you vote for this. People know how to organize and know how to come down. That’s frustrating, getting people to see beyond the narrow interest and the vocal, hard core interest that are present in your face.

“Being in Berkeley you have to learn patience. Things take a long time. Usually the product is better for it, but it’s not always easy. Every zoning issue, every home practically, every use permit, there are some neighbors opposed to something — you name it. They know how to fight and they know how to use the levers of power. That’s OK, but you have to learn that that’s the way it is and it’s not going to change.”

Is it the loudest who prevail, or the majority?

You know, I think in the past, my wife of course was mayor for seven years and I was a legislator for that time. During that period [1986-1994], and after that period of her being mayor, it was last person standing won. So whoever could stay the longest, fight the hardest would win. I don’t think that occurs anymore. I think that’s changed during my time as mayor. At least I hope so.

People will say, “You didn’t hear me. You weren’t listening.” I say, “No, the reality is I was listening. I heard what you had to say. I evaluated it and I decided I wanted to do something different.” I think that has changed for this council to have more backbone and to try to look beyond the heat of the moment, and to make decisions that are more in context of the overall benefit for the city than more narrow interests.

You cite the economic downturn as your biggest frustration. What does that mean for the city’s finances?

We’re really lucky with the kind of income we have for the city. Other cities are seeing their assessed valuation drop. We haven’t seen that occur. We’re also fortunate in that we have a variety of income sources in the city and we’re not dependent on one or two of those sources. We have a business licence tax which we’ve actually increased because we’ve been able to find people who should have had business licence tax and haven’t paid it. We have the hotel tax. We still have people coming to Berkeley, not in as great numbers, but that’ s held up. The sales tax, because we have so many restaurants and so many small businesses, we’ve seen ups and downs and and people have opened and closed, but that’s remained flat while other cities have been going down.

Then there’s the real-estate transfer tax. We didn’t depend on that the way other cities did. The city of Oakland I believe used the real-estate transfer tax for their ongoing budget items, which really whacked them when all of a sudden it wasn’t available. What we did is we kept the money and used it for one-time expenditures rather than for ongoing commitments. So you look at all those things and we’re in reasonably good shape. We don’t have a Wal-Mart or a Costco that suddently tanks and all of a sudden you’re saying, “Oh my God.”

But what has really hurt us has been the state. The state has hurt us in a number of ways, but the most important is the health department and the mental health department. Those two departments have really been whacked. The state has really gone after us in those areas and we’ve really seen a drop in services. And those are the ones I was talking about with the 2020 plan.

Our expenses have been ratcheting up but our fire department just agreed in the last budget not to take any raises over the next two years. Our employees stepped up and agreed to take a certain percentage to volunteer, to work less time and take more time off so we didn’t have any major need to cut people. But we’re really paranoid about the state. We believe that education is going to be held pretty much harmless. So where are the going to get the money? If they don’t raise taxes they are going to have to go to health and welfare.

Our plan is to come back after the state budget and look at where we are and recalculate where we are. If the state would leave us alone, we’d be fine. We’d be much better off than any other place around. An example of that is that Berkeley has the highest bond rating of any city in the nation. I don’t take credit for this myself, I just listen to Phil Kamlarz, the long-time city manager, who’s in his 34th year with the city. He’s been fantastic. To have this city that tries all these screwy ideas and these different things and is out on the edge and still it’s fiscally sound. It’s remarkable.

What about the pension hit coming in 2013?

That’s the state investment policy. We’re trying to prepare for it. One of the things I did as mayor was to make sure we did a two-year budget but also project out for five. We’re looking at longer-term situations. It’s on the horizon. It will probably mean we’re going to be negotiating with our employees coming up. More than likely we’re going to try to do something where we have something like a two-tiered system, which we had in Berkeley in the past. We’ll have a longer time to retire, a shorter period for accumulation, but that won’t help us in the short term. That won’t help us for 10 years. But it’s a necessary reform to get in place for future councils.

But there’s no doubt that we’re facing a big problem with state pensions that we’re trying to anticipate how we can deal with that.

You talk about the advantage of having a diverse tax base. Berkeley has a reputation as being hostile to business. Is that perception or reality?

It’s a case by case basis. If you come into Berkeley and you fit what the zoning requires and you fit the use, you have no problem at all. You can get what you need over the counter. The people who came in and remodeled and spent nearly $25 million on the Shattuck Hotel, completely redid it, they say we’re the easiest city to deal with that they’ve encountered.

But if you come in and want to do something that is not currently allowed, that’s where the problem lies. We’ve had these quota systems in various places, if you don’t fit in the niche, then you’ve got a problem. We’ve tried to open that up more, tried to make it more rapid to get in, but we absolutely have a long way to go in terms of being flexible. The whole notion of quotas which was established in the 1970s, has had problems. People come in and say I want to open a restaurant and we say we have too many already, you can’t get in. Is that the best answer, so a place stays vacant because we can’t meet the use? I think we can make it easier and should make it easier, but at the same time we need to make sure they follow our rules.

The revised downtown plan will be on the November ballot. Do you think it will pass?

I think the downtown plan will pass overwhelmingly. People said we were going to Manhattanize downtown [in the dispute about the previously proposed plan], which was absolutely false, but it was almost impossible to overcome that notion because they had pictures of these things that weren’t allowed.

But I think stepping back was a good idea and then we really got lucky because along the way the Palmer decision was handed down [which may invalidate inclusionary housing ordinances]. I came up with the idea of the green pathway [which can expedite the planning process]. The main thing is that it provides the greenest possible buildings. It also provides employment, with a 30% requirement for local hires, and on larger buildings it requires them to set up apprenticeship programs. It also gets around the Palmer decision because they have to either provide units or pay into our housing trust fund, which will allow us to develop low-income housing.

I think our idea of the green pathway is going to have legs. It’s going to travel. They’re watching us this November. Loni is thinking of ways to make it available on a state-wide basis. It’s sort of like our solar financing system.

You mention the Berkeley FIRST solar financing initiative. It has been influential, but it actually had very little take-up in Berkeley, as well as falling foul of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac financing.

We made some mistakes. Any time you’re the first to do something you’re going to find you make errors. We made some fundamental mistakes. First one was we sold out immediately. It turns out it was a very low barrier. A lot of people shouldn’t have been in there. You need a higher barrier to get the serious people involved. The second thing is we didn’t have the scale for the financing. The third thing was we didn’t figure out the whole issue of energy efficiency. You don’t want to put solar on your building unless you’ve done energy efficiency, so that’s now built in.

We’re sorry that it’s now running into all these snags with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but we’re hoping that will be solved by legislation. Vice President Biden and [Energy] Secretary Chu are in favor of it so I hope it will be solved. It could be our number one contributor to mitigating greenhouse gases and global warming is this idea, which is kind of amazing that we cooked it up.

You gave up your car last year. What have you discovered when you walk around?

What a gorgeous, beautiful city it is. But also seeing all the people, how they maintain their houses and their property values. I’m shocked at these small, beautiful houses, they’re getting $600,000 and attracting overbids, even in this market.

But there’s also the trash and the potholes. I worry that we don’t have the money to fix our streets. You know Wavy Gravy’s idea: that we should view potholes as natural speed bumps. I also see a lot of the kids hanging around who don’t have jobs and don’t have opportunities. I also see the stores, who’s busy and who’s not busy.

I walk in parts that I wouldn’t necessarily have been in. I walk down Parker all the way to the Bay. Or I walk down to Vik’s. I have to get in 10,000 steps every day. I get off North Berkeley BART and walk from there to the office, to get in the steps. Walking is also a good time to think about things, get your head together.

You’ve made a number of references to your wife, State Senator Loni Hancock. You obviously value the relationship in terms of your political career.

We’re fortunate to have each other and to play off each other, to discuss issues and to talk about problems. I was married for 20 years and divorced. Loni and I have been married for 24 years now. It’s very difficult to be married to an elected official as a non-elected person because people want to talk to the elected official. You become segregated to second class citizenship. There are all these demands. People want you to go to places, to do things. It’s harder if your partner is not interested in participating.

I probably would never have run for mayor of Berkeley. I was retired. I was working on food policy. Loni and I were in Europe and we were going to be gone for five months. We got an email saying, “Loni. You should think about running for Tom’s seat.” We aborted our plans. She won in March the Democratic nomination and there was no opponent. The only way she could have lost is to die. I decided I didn’t want to go back to Sacramento. What was I going to do? Be her driver? So I decided to run for mayor, it was total happenstance.

First time I ran it was happenstance. Second time it was supposed to be two years. Loni was supposed to retire after six years in the assembly. Then she decided she wanted to run for senate. So it’s all her fault. She has one more term and we don’t know what will happen after that. We haven’t made the decision. It’s conceivable that she would retire and I would continue or that I would retire and she would continue. But we’re not so young anymore.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...