Politics as usual: Berkeley’s moderate City Council faction scored a lot of points a few months back when they accused progressives of gerrymandering Polly Armstrong’s district at the last minute. But there are enough smoke-filled room shenanigans in town to indict both sides. Take the case of the December 13 meeting of the Housing Advisory Commission, which for years had been the one commission free of the partisan under-handedness that usually plagues city government. First, a little background. In 1999, Affordable Housing Associates planned to buy the old Outback clothing store at the corner of Blake and Sacramento and declared its intention to build 33 units of mostly low-income housing. Up stepped Outback neighbor and Ÿber-NIMBY Marie Bowman, who led the opposition with a fairly routine array of arguments -- four stories is too high, the lot should be commercial and not residential, there are too many units, etc. Bowman’s campaign scuttled the project.
But one year later, Affordable Housing Associates executive director Ali Kashani returned with a new plan that incorporated many of the neighbors’ objections. Now the project was three stories; a piece of the ground floor was to be set aside for commercial; and although the number of units increased to 38, only seniors would live there, which would reduce the parking and traffic impact on the surrounding neighborhood. That still wasn’t good enough for Bowman, who mounted a new campaign to kill the project.
Fast forward to last month. Kashani asked the city’s Housing Advisory Commission to lend him $1.4 million for the project from the city’s Housing Trust Fund. Who sits on the commission but Bowman, who was appointed by moderate city councilmember Betty Olds. Since Bowman lives within three hundred feet of the project, she had a conflict of interest and would have to recuse herself from voting. Did she? Not exactly. According to Olds aide Susan Wengraf, Bowman declared that she was taking a temporary leave of absence and suggested that Olds replace her with one Ania Dilmaghani. "We tried to get a replacement who were were familiar with, but that person was busy that night," Wengraf says. "Marie suggested someone that she thought was qualified, and we went along with it."
It’s a good thing for Bowman that Olds and Wengraf weren’t paying attention. Otherwise, they might have noticed that Dilmaghani, who lives just up the block from the site, had spoken against the project at a commission meeting just a week earlier. What’s the point of having conflict-of-interest laws if city commissioners can handpick their own replacements, especially when they know in advance how they’ll vote?
In the end, the commission approved the loan by a vote of 6-2 (guess who voted against it?), but several commissioners said Bowman’s conduct was shameful. "I was disgusted with what happened and felt it was an unwarranted manipulation of the process," says commissioner Gene Turitz. "The commission has functioned for the last six years in a very open and straightforward way. I don’t like when commissioners decide that if they don’t like something, they’re gonna do whatever they can to mess it up."