FREE PETITION -- "Berkeley
may take great pride as a champion of free speech and civil rights," writes Matthai Kuruvila for the San Francisco Chronicle, "but
an unusual campaign has been under way—led by most of the city's top
elected officials—to stop residents from signing a citizen's petition."

Opposing
a petition, in this case asking for a public vote on a controversial
downtown development plan, might not be unusual in many cities. But in
Berkeley, which promotes extensive citizen involvement in city affairs,
the campaign has provoked some unusual arguments.

"Sometimes democracy can go too far," Councilwoman Susan Wengraf,
one of the six council members opposing the petition, said of the
proposed referendum.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and Mayor Tom
Bates have appeared in glossy flyers urging the public: "Please don't
sign the petition." There have been e-mails and, in some cases, people
shadowing signature gatherers to discourage potential signers.

Wengraf and Bates said they could not recall another time in
Berkeley history when so many elected officials campaigned against a
citizen's petition.

At issue is the city's downtown plan, which the council approved on
a 7-2 vote July 14. The plan raises height limits throughout downtown,
creates two towers of up to 225 feet - 45 feet higher than anything
else in the city - and aims to embody the city's green values.

The downtown plan was drawn up after a four-year process that
included more than 150 public meetings. But it nonetheless provoked a
petition drive seeking 5,558 valid signatures by today to force a vote
that could overturn the plan.

Critics' complaints seem to boil down to two issues: affordable housing and building heights.

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Bates said the petition is the product of the two council members
"who didn't get their way" while everyone else worked to get
compromises. The referendum threatens to hold up the critical
development of downtown for a year in the midst of a recession.

As for the unusual campaign, Bates said, "It's not stifling
democracy. It's providing free speech. We have a right to express our
position."