Berkeley City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, photographed on June 13, 2017. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Scroll to foot of story for statement issued by Cheryl Davila after publication.

A former city transportation commissioner believes Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila booted him off the panel in part because he declined to state his opinion about of one of her favorite causes — divestment from Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.

Ben Gerhardstein, whom former West Berkeley Councilman Darryl Moore appointed in 2014, was dismissed in late November by Davila, who defeated Moore in the November 2016 election.

It is common for new council members to replace sitting commissioners, appointed by their predecessors, with their own selections. However, Gerhardstein felt Davila had a political litmus test of sorts, which he didn’t pass. Davila wanted to make sure Gerhardstein agreed with her attitude about Israel and, if he didn’t, she suggested she would replace him, he said.

“You indicated that a non-transportation issue was important to you in selecting a Transportation Commissioner,” Gerhardstein wrote to Davila on Nov. 27 after she informed him by email that he had been removed from the commission. “During our first meeting, you noted that as a Human Welfare and Community Action Commissioner you authored a recommendation to Council to divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which raised your profile. You said that the issue was important to you and you asked whether I was pro-Palestinian (and supported divestment) or a Zionist. You noted that you were asking all potential District 2 commissioners this question and suggested that you were only interested in appointing divestment supporters to commissions.”

Davila did not respond to Berkeleyside’s many requests to comment. But Davila told Gerhardstein, according to an email he shared with Berkeleyside, that he was mistaken that she had removed him because he declined to state his view on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“Below is not entirely accurate, nor the truth,” Davila wrote, according to the Dec. 6 email. “Your replacement should have not been a surprise since we discussed this at our last meeting. Please know you were replaced since you were appointed by the previous Councilmember, who is no longer in office. All Councilmembers have the option to replace their predecessor’s appointees, period. We all choose that option.”

At least two other commissioners serving at the behest of Davila told Berkeleyside the question of Israel and divestment came up during their interviews with Davila. Matthew Freiberg, who was appointed by Moore to the city’s Public Works Commission but whom Davila kept on, said they talked about the matter.

“There was mention of the work she has done on that issue,” said Freiberg. “She asked me if I took issue with her stance on that, if I thought that would be problematic. I didn’t see that being pertinent to the work I did on the Public Works Commission and the way I represented the community,” so it was not a concern.

Austin Cable, whom Davila appointed to the city’s Cannabis Commission, said he and Davila discussed Israel, but he is not sure whether he offered an opinion on the matter.

“The fact that I wasn’t immediately opposed to anything she said probably told her that I was good enough in her book,” said Cable.

Davila has been active in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for a number of years and is aligned with people and groups who have been working to punish Israel economically for what they consider to be the mistreatment of Palestinians. Davila has said she started to support a boycott and other actions after Israel shelled the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, killing thousands of civilians, as well as Hamas militants and other fighters. Hamas and other groups launched more than 4,500 rockets and mortars at Israel, although many were intercepted and shot down. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Davila’s support for BDS garnered notice in 2015 when Davila was a member of Berkeley’s Human Welfare & Community Action Commission. (Moore had appointed her in 2009.) In September 2015, the commission was set to consider a resolution Davila had introduced the previous year calling for Berkeley to divest any holdings it held in companies that were “complicit in ongoing violations of human rights and International Law under Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories.”

The day the vote was scheduled, Moore removed Davila from the commission in a phone call that Davila characterized as “threatening.” Moore told the Mercury News he removed Davila because of her “lack of transparency,” since she did not alert him the resolution was coming up, and the fact that the commission was supposed to focus on issues like local poverty rather than international concerns. Around 300 people attended the October meeting in which the resolution was considered. It failed on a 5-2 vote.

Davila expressed her dismay at being yanked from the commission and even consulted with an attorney to see if her rights had been violated, according to the Mercury News. The removal was also a factor in her decision to run against Moore. During her campaign for council, many members of Students for Justice in Palestine, a UC Berkeley group that supports BDS, canvassed for her. Davila mentioned BDS during her campaign but said issues like affordable housing and police militarization were her top priorities.

Some observers have said it is ironic that Davila would dismiss a commissioner for his views on the BDS movement when she herself was dismissed for that reason.

Others are just perplexed by why international politics should play a role in the appointment of any commissioner.

“I don’t think the voters of Berkeley really are that interested in foreign policy,” said City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. “We have a lot of serious issues in Berkeley. The commissioners work very hard as volunteers to try to advise the council on issues that are relevant to Berkeley. I am very confused about why someone’s stance on foreign policy is relevant to the work of a local commission.”

Berkeley has nearly 40 volunteer citizen commissions. Council members select appointees to serve on each of them. According to the city website, “With few exceptions, commissioners must reside in Berkeley. Certain commissions may require specific experience in a technical field or have other criteria.” There are no other stated requirements for the position.

The City Council frequently casts votes on issues that go beyond the boundaries of the city when council members put those items on the agenda. For example, officials recently voted not to do business with companies that are building the wall President Trump wants to erect at the U.S.-Mexico border. Officials also supported the boycott of South Africa when that nation was still an apartheid state.

About 10 years ago, the City Council considered whether to divest from companies doing business in Israel, said Wengraf. The issue was very controversial and divisive, she said, and, in her opinion, not relevant to Berkeley.

Gerhardstein and some of his supporters also agree that views on international issues have nothing to do with the performance of a resident on a local commission, and should not be a factor in an appointment. Gerhardstein has extensive experience in the field of transportation and has worked personally and professionally on transportation issues for more than a decade, he told Berkeleyside.

Mark Humbert, who was appointed to the Transportation Commission by then City Councilman Gordon Wozniak in 2014, said he found Davila’s actions “really problematic.”

Gerhardstein “declined to state a position on BDS,” Humbert said in an email. “Of course, BDS has nothing to do with the responsibilities of the Transportation Commission! … Ben was a really great commissioner, and was instrumental, inter alia, in getting the Bike Plan accomplished… This seems to me to be an issue of good governance, and bad decision-making by Ms. Davila.”

Gerhardstein said he had multiple meetings with Davila in which Israel came up. He reached out to her in January, a month after she took office, to talk about transportation issues. At that time he had hoped to continue on as a commissioner. In that first meeting, it was clear to him that Davila did not know a lot about transportation, he said, nor did she have a list of priorities she wanted him to pursue. But she did ask him if he knew about the controversy over the BDS resolution and then asked him what he thought about the issue, he told Berkeleyside. Davila also told him in that meeting that she planned to talk to all of her commissioners about Israel and Palestine and the sanctions movement.

Gerhardstein told Davila he would have to think about his response.

“I didn’t feel it was an appropriate question to ask in the context of continuing as a transportation commissioner,” said Gerhardstein.

The issue came up again in a phone call in February or March when Gerhardstein told Davila he would not tell her his position on the matter. She responded with something vague, he said, like “We’ll see what happens.”

They met in person a few months later and Davila, according to Gerhardstein, said she had decided to replace all of Moore’s appointees. Davila did remove other commissioners but kept on at least one, Freiberg, on the Public Works Commission.

Correction: This article was revised after publication to clarify that Ben Gerhardstein would not state his opinion on BDS to Councilwoman Davila.Update, 3:40 p.m.: After this story was published, Councilwoman Cheryl Davila sent the following statement by email to Berkeleyside:

“Every council member replaces the appointees of their predecessor. That’s standard practice in Berkeley politics, and this is no different. This is one disgruntled guy, who disagrees with my position on Palestine. For this to be considered news worthy is another reflection of the ongoing suppression campaigns to smear anyone who supports Palestine. The campaign to silence support for Palestinian rights is how I came to be a councilmember in the first place.”

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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...