By Jan Behrsin
On October 4th I read in the Daily Cal that my old neighbor and friend Henry May had passed away. I recall that when I moved into my home in 1974, and then later married in 1978, Henry and his wife Jean invited me and then later my wife and me, to have dinner with them. Jean took my wife around the Berkeley/Kensington neighborhood to show her where things were. We shared neighborly chats across the fence as well as dinners together. We seemed to spend the 4th of July together, with Henry’s colleagues from the Cal history department, discussing “what does democracy mean?” They shared their grace and wisdom with us, and we learned from them and shared what we had to offer. Jean and Henry May were people who knew what it meant to be a "neighbor."
As I read articles in the Outlook about the acrimony and lack of transparency and accountability of our village agency and administration, I began to ask myself how we had come to this.
In early October, I hand distributed a “neighborhood letter” to 800 of Kensington’s 2200 households. I had not previously expressed my voice in Kensington political matters. It was a letter to my neighbors asking them for their thoughts and asking them to think about collectively and individually asking our elected local government for explanations to which I thought we were all entitled. I wanted to know what had changed and why all the acrimony and why such incidents as the police chief using a government credit card to buy airline tickets for his wife occurred, and wasn’t that wrong and why was nothing being done if it was wrong.
The feedback from my neighborhood letter was positive, but what surprised me was those Kensington neighbors was their added comments: Wasn’t I afraid to ask questions? That it was smart of me to express my questions publicly because then I would have an “insurance policy” if something happened to me or my family. Don’t you realize that we now live in a police state?
I thought they were joking.
As I wrote in my , my requests of our agency Board for information and for responses to Public Records Act requests were – and continue to be – generally met with silence. Other than a partial document having to do with creation of the community services district – certainly not a controversial matter – I have received nothing, other than an e-mail from Mr. Toombs, when I asked the source of his authority, saying, “That’s the way it has always been done,” and an e-mail from his colleague on the majority bloc, Mr. Lloyd, saying that if I did not stop asking questions, he would set his computer to block my inquiries.
Then, after the November 1 Patch posting, more neighbors came to me to ask if I were not afraid for the consequences to me or my family that might come of asking questions of our local agency Board. Although I kept saying that I had never considered that a possibility, I did begin to wonder at this climate of “fear” that the current Kensington administration seemed to have engendered in our little village. I began to reflect on how this climate compared with the atmosphere in our community in my early years in Kensington.
I recalled that when one of my daughters was young, she said to me: "Dad, nothing ever happens in Kensington." I answered that this is what we liked about living here. It was peaceful and neighbors helped one another in quiet unceremonial non-attention attracting ways, and we had our own community police, accountable to us, the citizens, to help us feel safe.
I recalled also that some years ago I was stopped at the stop sign at Colusa Circle and was bumped by another car from behind. I looked in the rearview mirror, and it was the car of a Kensington police officer. I got out of my car and went back to the car of the officer, and jokingly said: “Ok. Let me see your license and evidence of insurance.” The police officer was embarrassed and realized I was joking and we both laughed. That was then. Now, my neighbors live in fear of the police and the consequences to them should they ask questions.
What has happened? Is this change acceptable to the community? Kensington may be just a little place not even on the radar screens of Berkeley, but it is a little place where we live and it is “our” little place where have chosen to raise our families. Had we found then the current fear our community now has of our own administration, a fear that challenges us to speak our collective voice, I do not think we would have chosen to put our roots here.
- Mr. Toombs as the leader of the current majority on our community services district Board, refuses to respond to citizen inquiries and Public Records Act requests.
- Mr. Toombs has shut down the opportunity for other Board members to obtain legal advice from our Board’s own legal counsel.
- Our Board members have to make Public Records Act requests of the police chief to get access to the Board’s own financial records.
- A member of Mr. Toombs’ majority threatens to bloc e-mails from constituents asking questions of the Board.
- The Kensington website has an “Open City Hall” where our community services district professes to encourage citizen participation in local government matters and writes:
Subscribe to Open City Hall
Open City Hall is an on-line forum for civic engagement. Read what others are saying about important Kensington topics, then post your own statement. City officials will read the statements and incorporate them into their decision process.
As with any public comment process, participation in Open City Hall is voluntary; city officials will consider input from this forum along with all other channels for participation. However you choose to participate, thanks for helping us build a better Kensington.
The Kensington Community Services District
The problem here is that under Mr. Toombs’ leadership, this portal has been shut down since February 2009
When my neighbors openly express to me their reluctance to speak up in fear of suffering retaliation by their own police chief, hired by their own local government, something is wrong.
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung Sang Suu Kyi said:
It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it…. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.
In speaking of those who supported the old regime, she continued:
Some of its keenest supporters were businessmen who had developed the skills and the contacts necessary not only to survive but to prosper within the system. But their affluence offered them no genuine sense of security … and they could not but see that if they and their fellow citizens…were to achieve a worthwhile existence, an accountable administration was at least a necessary if not a sufficient condition. The people…. had wearied of a precarious state of passive apprehension… “
She concluded that “where reason and conscience are warped by fear” it will take sustained effort to change an existing government “into one where legal rules exist to promote justice.”
We must all work to eliminate the climate of fear in our community that cowers even one of us from speaking up for openness and accountability and the democratic values in which we profess to believe. I too have a fear. My fear is that if we permit Mr. Toombs to silence the entire Board electing Ms. Gillette and re-electing him, there may be no one left on our local board to speak up for transparency and accountability. Under such circumstances we can expect only more autocracy, secrecy and lack of accountability in our local government and an increasing sense of intimidation, fear, and alienation in our community. If we want an open and accountable local government, it is up to us to remove Toombs and establish a majority which represents transparency and accountability.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, we will get accountability from our officials only if we demand it. The responsibility that rests with us is to be more active and vigilant, and that responsibility includes demanding greater transparency and accountability of those we have entrusted with governance.
While this is only an election in our little village of Kensington, what we do with this opportunity as citizen participants will say much – not merely about Kensington, but who we are. It does matter.
A. Jan Behrsin is an attorney and Kensington resident.
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