Bernt Wahl is using the Berkeley mayor race to talk about improving Berkeley’s business climate

By Judith Scherr

Bernt Wahl is running for mayor.

He’s been all but invisible on the campaign trail, having just returned from a trip abroad, and doesn’t plan to spend time raising campaign funds or opening a campaign office.

But then the adjunct UC Berkeley professor’s primary goal isn’t to snag the mayor’s seat. Rather, Wahl, 52, hopes to use the race to talk about improving Berkeley’s business climate.

“I have a lot of ideas of how to make Berkeley a better city, mostly dealing with technology or efficiencies,” he said, arguing that city bureaucracy gets in the way of entrepreneurs trying to start new businesses.

Wahl knows the challenges first hand. He works with faculty, researchers and students at UC Berkeley, mostly in the engineering department, helping to start new businesses.

Wahl believes the permit process for new businesses needs streamlining. “I’ve had to register [a new business] a couple of times,” he said. “For these start-ups, there’s always something that gets in the way. If we had a center, small businesses could come and say, you know, ‘I’d like to do this,’ or just come for advice.”

A better process would “change our reputation from being an unfriendly place to do business, to a place where we’re going to help you try to achieve,” he said.

Asked about his campaign, Wahl said he’s not running to defeat the other candidates. “These are my friends – Tom Bates and Laurie Capitelli [sic – Capitelli’s running for the District 5 seat, not mayor],” he said. “I’m running for Berkeley.”

He said he isn’t recommending supporters vote for a particular person in the No. 2 or No. 3 slots, which some candidates are doing under Berkeley’s system of Ranked Choice Voting.

Wahl has both positive and negative things to say about the current mayor. “I like Tom Bates,” he said. “I think he’s changed a lot to be more pro-active, more entrepreneurial.”

On the other hand, he said, “Tom Bates, I don’t think, ever had a business. A lot of these people running never had a business and don’t know what some of the issues are.”

Asked where he stands on measures T and S, Wahl asked Berkeleyside to explain the measures before responding.

Measure T would permit construction in West Berkeley of structures of up to 75 feet, with an average of 50 feet, in six parcels of four acres or more – or a city block – during the first decade the measure is in force; that cap would be removed after 10 years, opening up other similar-size parcels for development.

Wahl said Measure T could make West Berkeley more like Emeryville, which is a good thing. “Emeryville’s prospering because they’ve really created a structure where people want to go and build and live,” he said, cautioning, however, that it is important to preserve neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and craftsman houses.

“But if it’s places with old industry and things like that,” he said, “where we can bring more vitality and a better use of land, instead of it being a wasteland or an inefficient place, I think it’s conceivable to increase the density or [build higher] to make it economically feasible to build in our cities.”

On Measure S, which would outlaw sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts, Wahl said he is torn. He wants to create a positive business environment and said “we really should discourage the things that make Berkeley a negative place for people to go.”

However, he said, “I would probably try to do it some other way,” and suggested city officials “talk to the people [on the street] and see what the problem is. Right now we kind of ignore them.” He said he thinks persuasion might work better than regulation to get people off the streets.

This isn’t Wahl’s first campaign for office. In 2010 he ran for the District 4 council seat, losing to Jesse Arreguín, but attracting more than 10% of the votes.

Wahl said he probably won’t fundraise, but, if people offer, he’ll likely accept funds. His website is He didn’t list supporters in his initial filing with the city clerk, but said he’d attract them when he debates other candidates.

“I’ll challenge some of the prevailing ideas,” he said. “That’s what I want to accomplish, getting people to think about solutions, doing things more efficiently.”

Visit Berkeleyside’s Voter’s Edge Berkeley for complete coverage and tracking of Berkeley’s 10 ballot measures. You will also find the Voters’ Edge Berkeley button in the central column of our homepage.

Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to November 6.

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