Photo: Courtesy of Laurie Capitelli
Laurie Capitelli: “I am a big believer in having no regrets.” Photo: Courtesy Laurie Capitelli

City Councilman Laurie Capitelli was born in Berkeley but moved away at a young age, only to return to attend UC Berkeley. He never left, raising his children here. He worked as a real-estate agent for Red Oak Realty for decades and got involved in the public sphere in 1996.

After running for mayor and filling out dozens of questionnaires, Capitelli declined Berkeleyside’s request to answer some written questions because he said he had ‘questionnaire fatigue.’ So Berkeleyside sat down with Capitelli on Monday to ask him for his parting thoughts as he leaves the City Council after serving 12 years. His Council seat representing District 5 was won by Sophie Hahn.

Capitelli seemed relaxed and at ease over coffee at Philz Coffee on Shattuck Avenue. Even though he had lost the mayor’s race (City Councilman Jesse Arreguín defeated him by a 47.4% to 33.6% vote), Capitelli said he was proud of his campaign and thankful for the endorsements he had received. “I don’t dwell on things,” he said. “I am a big believer in having no regrets.”

Capitelli said his loss was the result of “a perfect storm.” U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Arreguín mattered more than Capitelli initially realized, he said, as it gave those disappointed at not being able to vote for Sanders for President a “proxy.” He also thought there was some fatigue among residents about the rate of development in Berkeley, but pointed out that Berkeley has not built much housing in the last 35 years and “we were just catching up.”

As for Arreguín’s win, “the general mood in the country was voting for change,” said Capitelli. “I think they are going to get it.” [Both in the U.S. and Berkeley.] He also said that Arreguín is a professional politician who has never held any other job and spent four years gearing up for the mayor’s race. “Jesse is a politician. I don’t mean that in a negative way. He worked the last four years on the coalition that elected him. That was not something I had a desire to do.”

Tonight will be Capitelli’s last City Council meeting and he doubts he will hold public office again. He started his political career as a member of the Planning Commission in 1996. He then went to the Zoning Adjustments Board in 2000 and was elected to City Council in 2004.

The following answers are curated from some notes Capitelli made and the Berkeleyside interview.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as a Berkeley City Council member?

Capitelli is proud of spearheading the passage of a tax on sugary beverages. Berkeley was the first U.S. city to adopt the one-cent-per-ounce tax and Capitelli is proud that other cities have followed Berkeley’s lead. In the most recent election, Capitelli conferred with Oakland, San Francisco, and Albany as those cities planned their recent successful ballot measures. “That’s using our bully pulpit in the best way,” he said. It’s an idea that will spread, said Capitelli, and he pointed to a recent New York Times story that talked about the popularity of the tax as an example of its increasing acceptance. Other issues Capitelli said he was proud of include getting trees planted on Solano Avenue, the passage of a wage-theft ordinance, helping to pass the library bond measure, pushing to allow parklets in Berkeley, expanding bulb-outs, creating road diets, pushing for a strong community benefits package for the 2211 Harold Way and hotel projects, and the passage of the Climate Action Plan and Downtown Area Plan.

Capitelli said he believes he has brought a sense of stability that fostered cooperation and dialogue to all the boards on which he has served, including the Planning Commission, ZAB, and the City Council.

What do you wish you had been able to do before stepping away from the City Council?

Capitelli said he wishes there was accountability from Berkeley’s ‘NGOs’ or private non-profits that assist with the poor, homeless, and other populations. Berkeley set up an evaluation process in 2015 but when one organization scored a zero and was told its funding would not be renewed it brought supporters to the City Council meeting to plead for money. The group and its vocal supporters got funded, meaning the City Council did not pay any attention to the staff evaluation of the organization’s effectiveness. As a consequence, Berkeley often does not know how well the money it hands out is used, he said. Capitelli would have liked to have seen the creation of universal preschool, a budget with an identified reserve, easier public access and participation in public decision-making, and the use of eminent domain to incentivize property owners to rent or fix up their blighted or unused properties, among other issues.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli and Mayor Tom Bates. March 5, 2013. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Councilman Laurie Capitelli making a point at a March 2013 City Council meeting as Mayor Tom Bates listens. Photo: Emilie Raguso

How has your district evolved since you first took office? Can you name some things that have improved and at least one issue that still needs to be addressed?

The demographics of District 5 have evolved. Capitelli has seen an influx of younger families who have kids. He said there are also many older homeowners with low tax bases because of Proposition 13 who feel stuck in their 2,500-square feet homes. They would like to move but to stay in Berkeley but there is no place for them to go. More needs to be done about bicycle and pedestrian safety and store vacancies on Solano Avenue, he said.

Do you think Berkeley is a better place than it was when you first took office? Why? What has improved? What remains to be done?

Capitelli said Berkeley has shown it is willing to tackle the housing crisis/shortage, although more remains to be done. He said residents overwhelmingly approved the Downtown Area Plan in 2012 and soundly rejected Measure R 2014 that was put forward by Arreguín and City Councilwoman-elect Sophie Hahn that would have made it more difficult to build in the downtown. “We see the value of transit-oriented development, density in the downtown and along transit. Our downtown is being reborn before our very eyes.”

Berkeley needs to improve its streets and storm water system and its bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. “We need to both collaborate with the resources of UC and insist they meet their responsibilities to their students and the community.”

Do you have any parting words for your constituents and the resident of Berkeley?

“Berkeley is a wonderful place to live. The climate, the built environment, the culture, UC… we are all blessed and privileged to be here but we (all of us) need to pay attention to our community. It doesn’t have to be every day but pay attention to our community leaders and what they are doing.”

“The current City Council has set the table for great things in the next few years.” (Capitelli meant the City Council will have funds at its disposal because of the passage of the Alameda County Housing Bond, Measure T1, the $100 million infrastructure bond, and Measure U1, the increased business license fee for rental properties which should bring in from $3 to $4 million annually). “I am sorry I won’t be there to prioritize that new funding to make sure it’s effectively used.”

What are your future plans?

“My future plans are to take the month of December and figure out what my future plans are,” said Capitelli.

However, although he doubts he will run for public office again, Capitelli said he will continue in public service in some capacity.

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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...