The recent attack on the Marine Corps as “unwelcome intruders” is just the latest example of Berkeley politicians behaving badly. Showered with ridicule, confronted with the loss of federal and state money, the City Council was obliged to withdraw its misbegotten resolution, though it wasn't prepared to apologize for its blunder. “To err is human, but to really screw up it takes theBerkeley City Council,” one councilmember ruefully acknowledged.
But ask Standard & Poor's, the financial services company, what it thinks about Berkeley and you'll get a very different response. Last month, the firm upgraded the city's bonds to AA, which puts it among the top 5 percent of American municipalities. While cities across the country are watching their credit ratings plummet, Berkeley has convinced the green-eyeshade crowd that it can manage taxpayers' dollars.
Not only is Berkeley an unexpected model of fiscal prudence. Equally surprisingly, it's also a leader when it comes to smart government. Examples abound. In recent months, Berkeley launched a program that enables residents to convert their homes to solar energy without having to invest a fortune in the new system. The government foots the up-front costs of solar installation. It recoups the money over 20 years with an added property tax assessment, but those added taxes will be offset by savings on fuel costs.
To help the community prepare for an earthquake, city officials have been working with neighborhood groups, delivering caches of emergency supplies across the city. And Berkeley can be a good team player when it comes to economic development. A few months back, it joined forces with surrounding towns, as well as with UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, to establish what Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates hopes will be “the Silicon Valley of the green economy.” That's not just rhetoric -incentives such as job training programs and incubators for startup firms are in the works.
Good government is nothing new in Berkeley. For years, the city has pioneered ideas initially dismissed as oddball but now regarded as hallmarks of progressive policy -divestiture from apartheid-era South Africa and voluntary public school desegregation, bans on Styrofoam “to go” cups and smoking in public places, tool-lending libraries for do-it-yourselfers and curbside recycling. It has long been the epicenter of the disability-rights movement, and more than 30 years ago it installed curb cuts. Nearly one-fifth of the population takes public transportation to work - that's four times the national and California averages - which is one reason the American Federation for the Blind named Berkeley one of the best places to live.
A 1999 citywide health survey found alarmingly high rates of low-birth-weight babies, especially among African Americans, and other disturbing evidence about the health of the citizenry. Health officials did more than wring their hands. In the decade since, the average life expectancy for Berkeley residents has increased from 77 to 83 years. The percent of pregnant women who receive prenatal care has grown, and the gap between white and African American women who get prenatal care has vanished. Despite the city's “free love” reputation, the teen birth rate is one of the nation's lowest, as is tobacco use among youth, which keeps declining. Reports of domestic violence have dropped, as have new AIDS cases. None of this happened by accident - these improvements are the result of years of coordinated public health initiatives involving the city's public health department and UC Berkeley.
The level of civic engagement is remarkably high in Berkeley, and so is the decibel level. Hundreds of citizens regularly turn out to demand the installation of a stop sign. Anyone can lodge a complaint about the installation of a hot tub and take it all the way to the city council. The community is prone to self-parody - what other place would select April Fools' Day to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its founding?
All this gives the place a certain outre charm. But the reality that Berkeley is one of the best-run cities in California gets lost amid the PC posturing and political mischief-making. Semper fi, Berkeley - suck it up and get on with the public's business.
David L. Kirp, James D. Marver professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, is the author of the upcoming “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools.” This article was originally posted on SF Gate.