Berkeley’s new interim city manager fielded questions from the North East Berkeley Association at a public meeting Oct. 22, 2015. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Berkeley’s new interim city manager fielded questions from the North East Berkeley Association at a public meeting Oct. 22, 2015. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

New to Berkeley and even newer to her role as interim city manager, Dee Williams-Ridley gave residents one of their first chances to get to know her last week at a public forum hosted by the North East Berkeley Association at the Northbrae Community Church.

Questions at the Oct. 22 event from moderators and the public covered a range of issues facing Berkeley, including the minimum wage, city employee salaries, and the NAACP’s recommendation for the creation of a city department that would handle race and equity issues. Throughout the evening, Williams-Ridley took a mostly friendly and humorous, but at times assertive, tone, telling the audience that she had been warned they would be “tough.” She declined to answer some questions, including about potential future ballot measures, saying several times that she is not responsible for policy decisions.

Williams-Ridley inherits the city from Christine Daniel, who abruptly left her post in July for a job with the city of Oakland. The city council appointed Williams-Ridley, who had been deputy city manager since January, to fill the position. An Alabama native and graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Williams-Ridley previously worked as deputy city manager of Modesto for four years. She commutes to her current job from Sacramento and said she spends the night in Berkeley once or twice a week. She receives a salary of $225,000.

The most contentious segment of the meeting was a tense back-and-forth between NEBA Vice President Barbara Gilbert and Williams-Ridley about the burden to the budget caused by new city employee contracts.

City employees’ salaries were increased by differing amounts beginning in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, with contracts requiring employees to begin, in the third year, contributing to the city’s recently increased CalPERS contribution rates.

Gilbert referred to a city report that projected future liabilities. Predating the new employee contracts, and not accounting for possible cost of living salary increases, the report projected a budget deficit in FY2018. There are projected surpluses during the following several years.

“With increased salaries, and increased PERS contributions, where does the new money come from?” asked Gilbert. “Are the [employee PERS] contributions enough?”

Members of the North East Berkeley Association and others gathered with Williams-Ridley at the Northbrae Community Church on Oct. 22, 2015. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“One of the greatest assets to you is city employees,” Williams-Ridley said. She said the salary increases are not as dramatic as they look because of PERS contributions and because employees were already receiving increases to their medical benefits in previous years.

“What you’re going to see is by fiscal year 2018, the benefit cost to the city is going to go down because employees are starting to pick up their portion,” she said. “It’s important for you to hear that because while there might be an increase to their salaries, the salaries are coming right back up into our geographic region in most cases.”

She said she could not give exact figures regarding the cost to the city of the new salaries.

The NEBA moderators said that while employee salaries are going up, money dedicated to infrastructure is “suspiciously” going down. Williams-Ridley countered that the city’s infrastructure is in such a state of disrepair that no amount taken from the salaries would be enough to make a dent.

NEBA President Isabelle Gaston also asked Williams-Ridley about the city’s plan to address what many residents perceive as a growth in Berkeley’s homeless population.

“Our budget contributes millions of dollars — $8-$12 million is a ballpark figure when you take into account police services and fire services,” the interim city manager said. “Just think of what we could do with that number if we were looking at housing.”

She said she was unable to comment on potential policy, but said near-term possibilities currently in discussion are storage facilities and more public bathrooms. “But that’s only displacing it, it’s not the solution,” she said.

For about an hour, Williams-Ridley fielded questions from the audience of about 50 people.

The president of LeConte Neighborhood Association said many merchants are ending their leases due to ongoing incremental minimum wage hikes that they cannot sustain. He asked for more time for input from merchants before the Nov. 10 vote on the proposed minimum wage hike to $19 an hour. Williams-Ridley again said she does not handle policy but has asked the city to conduct further analysis of the effects of the wage on local businesses.

In September the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce met with local merchants to discuss a proposed $19 minimum wage. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A UC Berkeley student asked about the NAACP’s demand, based on research that the group contends shows Berkeley police stop and search people of color more frequently, that the city establish a department focused on race and equity.

“From a leadership perspective, I don’t know that I need a whole department,” Williams-Ridley said. “But we need a citywide emphasis. Internally, we each have a lot of work to do.” She said people of color on city staff disproportionately occupy lower level positions, which demands a look at how well the city is preparing or recruiting employees.

Among Williams-Ridley’s first priorities is the creation of a “strategic plan” for council, which would identify the city’s “high level goals.” When she arrived in Berkeley, she was surprised by the sheer number of agenda items and city programs, and found the process to be “all over the place.” Her plan would help with efficiency and performance evaluations, she said.

There was also talk during the forum of a future citywide survey that would have residents identify their biggest issues.

After the meeting, several attendees said they were impressed with Williams-Ridley’s receptive style.

Reflecting on the evening, the interim city manager said she was surprised by the attendees’ deep level of engagement with the issues.

“They want to be in the trenches,” she said. “How we do that, I don’t know. Right now I’m trying to get them at a higher level, and let the experts that are working on these things work on them. But I think it’s good to get the input.”

Berkeley city council to consider $19 minimum wage (09.14.15)
Berkeley mayor nominates interim city manager (07.02.15)
Op-ed: City manager’s departure is big blow to Berkeley (06.29.15)
City Manager Christine Daniel to leave Berkeley for Oakland (06.02.15)
Dee Williams-Ridley named Berkeley’s deputy city manager (01.09.15)

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...