In what was one of the more eventful (and well attended) city council meetings in recent memory, Councilmember Jac Asher was sworn in as Emeryville’s Mayor, filling in for Kurt Brinkman who fulfilled his one-year term. The city does not have a directly “citizen” elected Mayor but chooses a Mayor and Vice-Mayor from amongst the five elected Councilmembers. Councilmember West stunned those in attendance by announcing that she would not seek re-election when her 5-year term expires next year citing professional and family commitments that compromised her ability to give the city her best effort. West encouraged the city to explore measures to better attract qualified council candidates through better compensation. Currently, a council seat pays in the neighborhood of $13,000 annually (roughly that of a minimum-wage worker) with benefits thus making it more of a part-time job than a full-time position. The seat requires a heavy time-commitment of about 20 hours per week that include staff briefings, Council meetings and committee chairing. West also hinted at what may be considered an endorsement of longtime Emeryville resident, noted artist & bicycle advocacy committee member Scott Donahue who is rumored to be exploring a run for council.
The evening began with a special Study Session featuring the Sherwin Williams “Urban Village” development. It’s hard to say the current Sherwin plan was well-received by the council as the many issues including density, traffic impact, massings & fragmented open-space were expressed by Councilmembers. Planning Commissioner Steven Keller was especially harsh saying he was “Disappointed” and that he thought the revisions that were made after extensive community feedback were a “step-backward”. The project is under intense scrutiny as Park Avenue residents from 1500 Park and the adjacent Artist Co-op are well-organized and are commanding the ear of council on the neighborhood-altering project. Neighbors were disappointed to learn that the Planning Department opted for a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) instead of a more thorough Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the CEQA review that is required to move the project forward. This effectively means that Planning believes all traffic impacts can be mitigated despite it being straddled by railroad tracks and the protected Horton Bicycle Boulevard. One positive note, the project already has a prospective bike store tenant for its “Central Green” retail area that developers have verbally committed to seeking locally serving retail to fill.
Other agenda items included the Councils authorization to pledge a $10,000 contribution (about $1 per resident) to the Aya Nakano reward Fund bringing the total past $50,000 with hopes of eclipsing the $100,000 threshold which some consider the “tipping point” for encouraging information that could lead to a suspect and ultimately a conviction for the heinous crime.
The “Main Event” though was the Emery Go-Round agenda item that saw neighbors pack the chambers beyond capacity. A recent disruption in service to the area caused by a street renovation and subsequent news that the service was at risk led to the massive public turnout. Rising fuel costs, costs attributed to maintaining an older fleet of buses and a sudden spike in ridership has pushed the service past it’s operating budget. Geoff Sears, the EGR Board of directors chairman & Wareham Development partner led off the public comment period by defending his agencies actions of suspending service as not malicious and necessary. Watergate residents turned out in droves sporting “Bring Back the Bus” stickers and banners. The heavily Senior-oriented neighborhood seemed determined to remind the council that they still hold quite a bit of influence in the 10,000 resident city and the importance of this service to their livelihood. Public comment pushed the bi-weekly meeting past the four-hour threshold and well into the 11 o’clock hour.
Ruth Atkin personally scolded the Ken Bukowski-led EPOA lobbying group for spreading “misinformation” about the shuttle and unnecessarily jeopardizing the beloved service that was attributed with resurrecting the city on a recent NPR series spotlight. The EPOA would like to steer decision-making of the service away from the private-sector controlled TMA citing that they didn’t have the concern of riders as their primary focus. There was a lot of financial jargon being bounced around (PBID’s and resident assessments), accusations of mismanagement and inefficiencies by the management agency Gray-Bowen and passionate pleas from elderly & disabled residents that rely on the free service for getting around town and to BART. All Councilmembers were unified in opposing a sales tax hike that would supplement the agencies funding. The city in the end voted to create a task-force to explore all possibilities with staff recommendation expected to take 3-4 months. In addition, the service is exploring moving its bus yard from its current Berkeley location to the vacant (Current Homeless Camp) CalTrans owned area underneath 580. This would bode well for those of us that want to see the service expand to West Oakland BART saving the estimated 3/4 of riders that are using the service to get to San Francisco as much as 45 minutes in Round-Trip Commute time. It seems the battle for the Emery Go-Round has just begun.
The entire council meeting including this clip of the EGR portion can be watched on the EPOA YouTube Channel:
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