Spring storms over Berkeley. Photo: Joe Parks

Berkeley in 2012 was filled with drama — a contested election, a failed nomination for a new school superintendent, a few missteps by the Chief of Police, and major changes at the University of California, among other events. Here’s a recap of the issues that had the deepest impact on Berkeley, plus a few fun ones thrown in.

City Government

The year got off to a tragic start with the untimely death of 37-year-old City Clerk Deanna Despain. She fell down the stairs of her Oakland home on Jan. 8. Her husband discovered her body when he returned from a late-night meeting. Their daughter was soundly asleep upstairs. Since then, Mark Numainville has been filling in as acting city clerk. In May, after serving as interim city manager for six months, the City Council appointed Christine Daniel permanently to the job. She replaced Phil Kamlarz, who had held the city’s top job for eight years.

2012 may go down as the year civility left the premises. There was name calling among council members, obstruction of business, and even a game of musical chairs. If you aren’t familiar with those references, in June Max Anderson told Mayor Tom Bates not to treat him like one of his “little punks”; in July, in what appeared to be an attempt to stop a vote to place a sitting ban on the ballot, Anderson and his fellow councilmember, Kriss Worthington, sang, clapped, and danced their way through the a portion of a meeting, and were briefly joined during a council recess by a clapping (but not singing or dancing) Jesse Arreguin. Later Darryl Moore shouted “shut up” to get Worthington to stop belting out lyrics. After Bates defeated Worthington in the race for mayor, Bates decided he no longer wanted his long-time nemesis sitting next to him at meetings and got him moved.

The City Council did adopt some notable laws, including a Downtown Plan, more than seven years in the making.

The 2012 Election

The 2012 election was filled with passion, hyperbole, shenanigans and big money. The election was, in many ways, a reaffirmation of the status quo as all the council incumbents were re-elected: Mayor Bates, Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli, and Susan Wengraf. Efforts to impose a sitting ban and change the zoning in West Berkeley, however, were defeated even though they were supported by the majority of the members on the council. There were reports of campaign sign destruction, trespassing, lying about endorsements, and mischaracterization of opponents’ position. 2012 was also the year of the independent expenditure committee, one of which paid for the erection of a billboard on University Avenue supporting Worthington for mayor. A slate mailing group funded by real estate interests paid for mailers for the TUFF slate of candidates for rent board.

Civic Life

The highlight of civic life in 2012 may be the opening of two branches of the Berkeley Public Library, part of a $26 million effort to renovate or replace the four branches that serve the city’s neighborhoods. In April, local dignitaries and crowds gathered to celebrate the complete renovation of the North Branch Library. In May, it was the Claremont Branch Library’s turn.

In not so happy news, the U.S. Postal Service announced in June that it intended to sell Berkely’s Main Post Office on Allston Way. Both citizens and politicians reacted immediately to the news and set out to convince the postal service to change its mind. Despite all the rallies, protests, and meetings, the experiences of other cities show chances of saving the post office are slim. But the city’s official position – we don’t want to see it for sale – has also stymied any official work on trying to find a buyer who might convert it into a use that keeps the building accessible to the public. Still, at least one developer has expressed an interest in the historic building constructed in 1914.


Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan:
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan:

Two years after Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan was sworn into office, he faced his most challenging year ever. In March, after a community meeting held to air the events around the tragic murder of Peter Cukor in the Berkeley Hills, Meehan dispatched his public information officer to the home of an Oakland Tribune reporter at 12:45 a.m. Meehan did not think what Doug Oakley had written and posted online was accurate, and he sent Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to ask him to change it. The subsequent furor raised questions about Meehan’s judgment, police censorship and a free press. The city conducted an investigation into Meehan’s actions, but neither the city nor the police department has agreed to publicly release the findings of the $25,000 report. Then, a few months later, ten Berkeley police officers and detectives went to Oakland in search of an iPhone stolen from Meehan’s son. That news also became a media sensation. The chief defended his actions and insisted it was a response police would do for any citizen.

Berkeley Unified School District

Edmond Heatley, who briefly was a candidate for the superintendent's job at BUSD.
Edmond Heatley, who briefly was a candidate for the superintendent’s job at BUSD.

It was also a year of tumult for the Berkeley Unified School District. Bill Huyett, who had been superintendent for four years, announced in December 2011 he would retire in June 2012. When the school board had not identified a replacement by then, Huyett agreed to remain longer. On Aug. 31, around 2 p.m., just before the start of the Labor Day weekend holiday, the board announced they had settled on a final candidate: Edmond Heatley, the superintendent of Clayton County Public School District, near Atlanta, GA. Within days his nomination had unraveled after it was revealed that while he was superintendent in Chino in 2010, he authored a memo affirming his support of Proposition 8, the California initiative to ban same-sex marriage. Berkeley families were outraged by this disclosure because they thought that attitude would not be compatible with Berkeley values. Less than three weeks later, Heatley removed his name from consideration. The school board now plans to restart a search in the spring. There has not been long-term fallout from the board’s decision; incumbent Beatriz Levy-Cutler was reelected to a four-year term on the school board in November despite her past support for Heatley.

BUSD did see some results from the bond measures passed by Berkeley voters in recent years. It moved from the seismically unsafe Old City Hall into refurbished building on Bonar Street. The remodel cost $10.5 million. BUSD broke ground on new baseball fields on Derby, and a new athletic facility, bleachers, and gymnasium/classroom building at Berkeley High.

The University of California

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

There were a lot of changes at UC Berkeley in 2012 as well. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced in March that he would return to teaching at the end of the year. Birgeneau stood at the helm of the university for eight years. He saw the financial contribution of the state of California towards the university drop precipitously. He also raised record amounts of money. In November, the Board of Regents named Columbia University Dean Nicholas B. Dirks to replace Birgeneau. He will start in June 2013.

After a long search, in which numerous East Bay cities, including Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, and Albany competed, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced in January that it had selected Richmond as the site of its second campus. And in September, after being closed for 18 months, Cal unveiled the $321 million refurbishment of Memorial Stadium. The new digs did not help Coach Jeff Tedford, the highest paid state employee in California. In November, after one too many losing seasons, Tedford was fired. Sonny Dykes was named as his replacement.

Medical cannabis

It was also a tumultuous year for Berkeley’s cannabis industry. In February, Berkeley ordered two cannabis collectives operating illegally to shut down. The wheels of the law turn slowly, however. One of the collectives, Perfect Plants Patients Group, only shut its doors in November. Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers Collective is still in operation. The Zoning Adjustments Board voted last week that another collective, Greenleaf, was a public nuisance. The City Council will consider shutting down the Dwight Way business in 2013.

Berkeley Patients Group, the largest dispensary operation in Berkeley with as much as $15 million in annual profits, was forced to move in May after U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag threatened to seize the building on San Pablo Avenue from its landlord, David Mayeri. Haag said BPG was located within 1,000 feet of a school, which was a violation of the law. BPG resorted to delivery only for seven months. On Dec. 19 it reopened in a smaller space on San Pablo Avenue near Channing Way.

The bar at Comal
The bar at Comal


With its one restaurant for every 300 or so inhabitants, Berkeley is solidly a food town. 2012 saw the opening of some notable restaurants, including Comal and Belli Osteria, and the promise of even more on fast-changing Shattuck Avenue. This year also saw the death of the almost-iconic Cafe Fanny, co-founded by Alice Waters 28 years ago. In July, Off the Grid, the traveling caravan of food trucks, opened a second Berkeley outpost on Haste and Telegraph, much to the delight of university students living nearby. Then in late December came the unexpected news that the Gourmet Ghetto branch of Off the Grid was shutting down. Local restaurants had pushed to get rid of the popular Wednesday gathering because they were losing money. In a nod to all things food, Berkeleyside launched Nosh, a food site about the East Bay. In Nosh, readers can find out about under-appreciated spots like Norikonoko on Telegraph.


Owl 4.19.12-1

Berkeley may have a human population of 112,000, but it also has a sizable animal kingdom. It seems that readers never tire of reading about the creatures in our midst and 2012 provided numerous examples of their habits. There were river otters spotted in Jewel Lake, chinook salmon in Cordonices Creek,  (ducks, too) mountain lions throughout the hills, a fox on a deck, a pelican at UC Berkeley, rare western bluebirds in San Pablo Park, burrowing owls in Cesar Chavez Park, a deer pierced by an arrow, wild turkeys (almost everywhere), and a coyote in Tilden Park.

By far the most popular animal story concerned a family of great horned owls that took up residence in a tree in the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. Their nest was adjacent to a popular hiking trail, which turned into a highway of sorts and hundreds of people went out to watch the chicks hatch and grow.

Update 1/3/13: This article has been corrected to show that Jesse Arreguin did not sing, dance, or clap during any active portion of the meeting the City Council held to consider putting a sitting ordinance on the ballot. Arreguin remained quiet and at the dais while Anderson and Worthington got up in front of the council to sing. Arreguin only got out of his seat once the council was in recess and returned to his seat once it was once again in session. He only clapped. The article has been updated to show that Moore yelled “shut up,” at Worthington.


Most important Berkeley stories of 2011 [12.27.11]
Berkeley in 2010: A year of making news [12.23.10]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...