.Flag Waving in Berkeley; Lawsuit on Public School Conditions in Oakland Goes Forward

"Hey, what about me?" Richmond's vice mayor is squelched by fast-talking colleague.

Students from a local American Government class, assigned to report on city government, were treated to a glimpse of the way government really works at last week’s Richmond City Council meeting. Everything went more or less smoothly until the time came for individual councilmembers to give their reports. Vice Mayor Nathaniel Bates took the opportunity to raise a beef he had with Councilmember John Marquez about the city-sponsored festivities of Cinco de Mayo. “They should have named it Marquez de Mayo,” Bates scoffed. Apparently Bates felt that he didn’t get any time to address the crowd, while Marquez practically co-emceed the entire thing. “I just wanted to give my greeting as well,” he complained, as Mayor Rosemary Corbin sat with an expression of definite pain on her face. Bates is now asking for a report on the matter from the Parks and Recreation Department, which was responsible for the event. City Manager Isiah Turner ‘s comment? “I’m not going to step in this mess.”· · ·

Everyone’s been talking about Berkeley City Councilmember Polly Armstrong ‘s plan to install pastel flags for pedestrians to wave while walking through the city’s busiest crosswalks. Even the San Francisco Chronicle applauded the plan while taking the opportunity to make some more “only in Berkeley” cracks. Although Armstrong has a history of suggesting such plans–she was the sponsor of the policy that allows motorists to run up and feed the meter while parking officials are writing up tickets–we have to complain that in this case, she’s not giving us our due credit. That’s right, it was this very paper that came up with the idea of waving flags to solve Berkeley’s many social problems. Who can forget our suggestion that the homeless wave semaphore banners to tip off pedestrians that they won’t use their spare change for forties and hubba?

In fact, we have a whole bevy of ideas for the uses flags can be put to around town. For example, emergency patients who find themselves stuck in overcrowded waiting rooms could wave a little flag with a caduceus to signify that yes, they have health insurance! NIMBYs could wave little flags imprinted with the date they moved into the neighborhood; no one would dare build low-income housing on your block when a hundred banners are flapping in the wind and proclaiming: “Keeping everyone else out since 1979.” The environmentally sensitive could wave oversized Kleenexes and warn the artificially scented of the world to clear a path. Finally, we say bring back the slogan, “Lose weight now–ask me how!”· · ·

If you scroll through the card catalog at the Berkeley Public Library, you will run across a number of items that say they’re in storage until 2000, when the library was supposed to move back into its new, improved building on Kittridge Street. Well, that year has obviously passed us by, but don’t fear–according to the library’s building project manager Elena Engel , the library is expecting to move into its new space this fall. The available space is going to be twice as large as the old space, plus there will be so many chairs you won’t have to get on a waiting list just to sit down, as was the case in the old main building. The renovated library building will include space for more books, a conference room, a Berkeley history room, and an electronic classroom where nonprofits can hold meetings.· · ·

The Bay Area is moving up in the world–albeit slowly. It’s now second only to Los Angeles for worst traffic congestion nationwide, up from third place in 1999. Rush-hour travel now takes an average of 45 minutes longer than travel when roads are not congested, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2001 Mobility Study. That comes out to $3 billion annually in wasted fuel and lost time. Statewide, while in the last ten years or so California’s population grew by 11 percent, its economy grew by 23 percent, and vehicle travel increased by 16 percent, there’s been only 1.5 percent growth in new lane mileage. This may spell trouble for a struggling California economy that depends on the timely and reliable transportation of goods on its highways. But then, gas is getting too expensive anyway. Might as well walk.· · ·

For the last four months, the management of the Alameda County Medical Center (which includes Highland Hospital) has been fighting with Highland’s doctors over the terms of their new contract. It’s not the money–the Committee of Interns and Residents, which represents Highland’s 150 physicians, long ago agreed to a seven-percent raise. No, the sticking points have been over a variety of issues related to patient care. The union demanded a seat on the hospital’s Safe Staffing Committee (which is composed of nurses and hospital managers and determines how many patients should be assigned each nurse), but management wanted to keep doctors off the committee and keep staffing questions between themselves and the nurses. In addition, Highland historically sets aside $5,000 to recruit black and Latino doctors who may be discouraged by the cost of living in the East Bay or who may have a hostile impression of California in the wake of Props 187 and 209. This year, the union wanted to triple the recruitment budget, while management wanted to cap it.

But the most bizarre fight had to do with the hospital’s Patient Care Fund. For years, Highland physicians have agreed to siphon $75,000–money that would have gone into their salaries–to create a bank account to procure medical equipment for the hospital. Because Highland doctors work on the front lines, they often know better than the hospital’s procurement bureaucrats what equipment they need to improve care, and the Patient Care Fund gives them the flexibility to buy a diagnostic tool without having to clear it with the administration, which could take months. This year, the Alameda County Medical Center tried to abolish the fund, and although the center’s bargaining reps refused to comment, union officials claim that Highland administrators thought the fund was an implicit repudiation of their ability to run their own hospital, and wanted to get rid of an embarrassment. “When you have doctors deciding what is appropriate patient care and then being able to immediately effect that change, what’s the justification for all those bean counters?” says union spokesperson Ellen Starbird .

Last week, the union and the hospital finally reached a tentative contract by tabling most of these issues. The union got a one-year commitment of $15,000 for recruitment and $100,000 for the Patient Care Fund, but that just means they’ll have to take up the issue again in 2002, two years before the contract runs out. In addition, doctors will be able to speak–but not vote–at the Safe Staffing Committee. For now, they get to keep the right to buy an autoclave without having to clear it with an accountant, so they’re not exactly complaining.· · ·

Happy 47th anniversary Brown v. Board of Education! (The ruling on the landmark case, which abolished school segregation by putting an end to “separate but equal” educational standards, was handed down May 17, 1954.) In honor of the date, we thought we’d check in with another ongoing civil rights/education lawsuit. As you may remember, last year the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit against the state of California on behalf of the schoolchildren who attend classes in the state’s notoriously substandard facilities–you know, schools with locked or nonfunctional bathrooms, schools without desks or textbooks, schools where rats, mice, and roaches scurry about freely. (Specifically, the plaintiffs include 97 schoolchildren representing eighteen different districts statewide including the Oakland Unified School District, where students named in the suit come from schools including Fremont High, Stonehurst Elementary, Webster Academy, and Garfield Elementary.) The suit claimed that the state has a constitutional responsibility to maintain acceptable learning conditions at its public schools.

The state, shockingly, sued back. Or rather, they sued the eighteen school districts, saying that the districts, not the state, are ultimately responsible for the quality of California’s school facilities. The fact that Governor Gray Davis ‘ name appears on the suit did not go over well with civil rights advocates. “There is an inherent contradiction in the governor’s claim to be the ‘education governor’ while he turns his back on the children who go to the schools that my clients attend … and tries to foist [the state’s] responsibility onto the districts,” says ACLU staff attorney Catherine Lhamon . “At the end of the day, our constitution says the state has to deliver public education.” As it turns out, a San Francisco Superior Court judge agrees with her, at least partially–Judge Peter Busch ruled last month that the state’s countersuit would be severed from the ACLU’s original suit, and that it would not be heard until the first one is decided. Score one, sort of, for the spirit of Brown v. Board.


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