Grid of Berkeley city council members during virtual meeting
Berkeley City Council members at their meeting, held via Zoom, on July 28, 2020. Image: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update: Golden Duplex changes won’t be on the November ballot, but other rent board measures still might be. See details at the end of the story.

Original story: The Berkeley City Council couldn’t take action Tuesday night on whether to put rent control items on the November ballot because so many council members had recused themselves from the discussion that when the clock hit 11 p.m., there weren’t enough members left to extend the meeting.

To continue past 11 p.m., six council votes were needed — but there were only five council members participating at that time. Three council members and Mayor Jesse Arreguín had recused themselves because they said they had conflicts of interest. That left five council members to discuss the matter: Sophie Hahn, who as vice-mayor led the discussion, Kate Harrison, Cheryl Davila, Rigel Robinson and Rashi Kesarwani.

The council was in the middle of public comment when the meeting timed out. City Attorney Farimah Brown had told council members that they couldn’t interrupt the comment period to ask that the matter be continued to another meeting. The City Council only has until Aug. 7 to place items on the November ballot. However, the council only has one more meeting scheduled, for Thursday, before it breaks for summer recess, and the agenda has already been posted. So the council would probably have to call a special meeting in order to consider the ballot measure.

Hahn said that she will immediately refer the item to the Agenda and Rules Committee so it can be brought back to the council. However, it is unclear if that will work as two of the three members of the agenda committee cannot vote on the matter since they recused themselves. They include Arreguín and City Council member Susan Wengraf. The alternate is Council member Ben Bartlett, who also recused himself.

The five remaining council members tossed around some ideas about how to continue the meeting past 11 a.m. One suggestion was to bring back some of the council members who had recused themselves and ask them to vote for a time extension. Brown said that was not allowed.

The council started talking about the proposed ballot amendment to the Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance around 9:40 p.m. But it took the body about an hour to sort out who was recusing themselves and in which order the four proposed components of the ballot measure should be discussed.

While city council members have known for more than two months that they would be talking about eliminating the current rent control exemption for what are known as “golden duplexes” — as well as bringing certain ADUs under rent control — three of the four members who recused themselves only did so hours or minutes before the council took up the item. Bartlett said he had conferred with the city attorney a few weeks ago and had told his constituents that he could not vote because he lives in a golden duplex and is negotiating to build an ADU there.

Arreguín, in contrast, only realized he might have a conflict after the Berkeley Property Owners’ Association, a group of landlords, sent a letter Monday night to the city attorney alerting her that the mayor lives in a potential golden duplex and thus had a conflict of interest in the vote, he said.

Council member Lori Droste said she only realized yesterday that she may have a conflict because she lives in a “golden duplex-eligible” unit. Wengraf recused herself because she rents out a single-family home, which is not currently covered by rent control but would be if one of the proposed ballot items is adopted. That item calls for all rental property, not just those currently covered by the city’s rent control ordinance, to register their units with the Rent Stabilization Board.

When Matt Brown, the acting executive director of the Rent Board, came into the meeting to present to the City Council, he looked at the sharply reduced body and said: “The board is a little like ‘Council Survivor,’ here.” He was referring to the popular reality TV show that votes people off the island until only one “survives.”

Harrison had another analogy: “At this point we’re Agatha Christie and there was none.” She was referring to the famous mystery novelist who often set stories in a closed environment and then kills off characters one by one.

Proposed amendments to Berkeley’s rent control law

The Rent Board wants the City Council to put a measure on the ballot with four parts:

  • The first part would eliminate the 40-year-old rent and vacancy control exemption for golden duplexes. Those are defined as duplexes that were owner-occupied as of Dec. 31, 1979, and continue to have an owner living on site.
  • The second part would bring newly constructed ADUs under the city’s rent control laws.
  • The third part would require single-family homes, condominiums, and newly constructed units to register with the rent board. Registration includes a fee.
  • The fourth part would prohibit evictions for non-payment of rent during the coronavirus emergency.

In order to have voters consider these items in November, all five members of the City Council must approve them.

Update: 1:10 p.m. Arreguín has called for a special meeting of the City Council for 4 p.m. on Thursday to consider amendments to Berkeley’s rent control law as suggested by the rent board. He did not include the provision on golden duplexes on the agenda, which means it will not appear on the November ballot.

The City Council will consider putting the other three items (see bullets above) on the ballot.

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...