BERKELEY — In its effort to build more student housing over the next 15 years, UC Berkeley agreed to cut a secret deal to pay the city more for police, fire and other services in exchange for its blessing to proceed with development plans, according to an amended lawsuit.
Neither the university nor the city of Berkeley properly disclosed the deal after hashing it out behind closed doors, according to a coalition of neighborhood groups — Make UC a Good Neighbor, People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and People’s Park Council
The suit was filed July 2021 in Alameda County Superior Court against Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the Berkeley City Council, and on Jan. 20 it was amended to also accuse the university of approving the “secret” settlement in private sessions.
Celebrated as a “historic” win-win by school and city leaders, the settlement more than doubled what the university otherwise would have owed for the city services, to $4.1 million. In all, the city expects to receive up to $82.6 million over the next 16 years from UC Berkeley, accounting for an annual 3% increase.
For its part, the city promised to drop lawsuits alleging the university’s proposed 2021 Long Range Development Plan could cause environmental harm.
Part of the university’s plan includes a contentious proposal to spend $312 million to build a 12-story and a six-story building on a portion of historic People’s Park, located just east of Telegraph Avenue a few blocks from campus. The university wants to house 1,100 students there as well as 125 unhoused people. Its previous plans for student housing there have been rebuffed since the late 1960s by students and activists who contend the 2-8-acre site should remain a park for the people.
The amended suit alleges that both city and university officials violated at least three state and local laws in approving the settlement.
For one, according to the suit, the Berkeley City Council breached the state’s open meetings law known as the Brown Act by approving the settlement July 13 in closed session without later disclosing the action to the public.
The larger Berkeley community first learned about the settlement through a joint statement from Arreguín and UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, accompanied by a video of the pair shaking hands.
City Attorney Farimah Brown previously told reporters that public disclosure wasn’t necessary because the UC Board of Regents still needed to ratify the settlement before anything was finalized.
But without a meaningful opportunity for the public to understand and address issues raised by the proposed agreement, the deal should be null and void, according to the suit.
Harvey Smith, a member of People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said the city made a crucial mistake in not allowing the community to weigh in on the settlement.
He said the city initially estimated that providing fire, police and other services to the university would cost about $21 million a year, or more than $250 million over 16 years. So even if the university agreed to pay twice as much as it originally would have been charged, that still leaves city taxpayers footing the bulk of the bill, he noted.
“If there had been an open discussion and they had taken testimony, maybe there would have been some semblance of a democratic process,” Smith said, adding that public dialogue has allowed other cities like Santa Barbara, San Diego and Davis to arrange better agreements with their respective UC campuses. “We probably would have not been happy with the outcome and would be grumbling about it, but at least we wouldn’t say ‘this is an illegal secret agreement.’ It was a backroom deal.”
Smith, a longtime Berkeley resident and two-time UC Berkeley graduate, also laments that a decision affecting the city’s 120,000 residents was made solely by elected officials, many of whom will be out of office by the time the next development plan comes to the table.
“The mayor will be gone, the chancellor of the university will be gone, and probably most of the UC regents,” Smith said. “We the residents of Berkeley are going to still be paying off that deficit. Just on financial terms, it doesn’t make sense.”
David Axelrod, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the amended suit also clarifies that the agreement violated two voter-approved ordinances.
Measure L, which passed in 1986, mandated “that wherever public parks and open space currently exist in Berkeley, such use shall continue and be funded at least to allow the maintenance of the present condition and services.” And Measure N, which voters approved in 1988, required the city to “use all available lawful means to ensure that public agencies abide by the rules and laws of the city and that these agencies pay taxes and fees, comparable to those paid by private citizens and business to support their fair share of city services.”
“The voters of the City of Berkeley who had their Measure L thrown out the window were not even invited to attend the meeting to discuss it,” Axelrod said. “(The city) turned the Brown Act inside out, which was convenient for those who were trying to make this regrettable agreement happen.”
Requests for comment from UC Berkeley have not been returned, and Mayor Arreguín’s office would not comment on any ongoing litigation.