Some people might be intimidated by the arcane bureaucracy of Berkeley's city council, but L. A. Wood says he loves it. Ten years of watching from the sidelines, sitting in on city council meetings and serving on commissions, have given Wood, 52, what he says is an intimate knowledge of how the council works. Now he hopes to put that knowledge to work as he challenges incumbent Dona Spring for the District 4 council seat.
"I'm really curious about everything," said Wood, who lives on Bonita Street. "When some people run for council, they have to learn everything from scratch after they're elected. But I've already taken the time to educate myself about how the city works."
A tall, weathered man with a ponytail, Wood sat in the back row of the nearly empty council chambers at last week's city council meeting. These days he wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with a green slogan "4 L A Wood."
When the time came for public comment, he stood and approached the microphone.
"I'm running for council, as you can see from my shirt," he said, pointing to his chest. "And if there's anyone on council who would be caught wearing one, I think I have some extras."
But when he began to speak about filing a landmark application for the Public Works corporation yard on Allston Avenue, Mayor Shirley Dean quickly held up a hand for silence.
"One second," said Dean. "I can see the City Attorney shaking her head at me. I just want to know what the problem is."
"This item isn't up for discussion," said City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. She explained a distinction between different types of agenda items, referring to a rule of council procedure. "That's an information report. The council can't hear public comment on that tonight."
"This item isn't an information report," Wood replied immediately. "It's on the action calendar and you can hear comment on it."
Albuquerque asked Wood to wait while she reviewed her notes to verify the item's designation. Wood obliged, stepping aside to let the next speaker to address the council. He waited patiently as Albuquerque flipped through papers.
Wood later said most people, intimidated by the nuances of arcane government procedure, would never challenge an attorney's opinion.
"A normal person might cower down when the city attorney tells them they can't talk," Wood said. "I think I saw some people on the council smile a bit when I turned to her. She realized I was dead right but she didn't want to say it at first. I think it's very telling of how know the process. I don't accept "no" as an answer very often."
The challenge paid off. Albuquerue agreed the item was on the action calendar, and Wood had his time before the council.
Wood, who runs a video production business during his work hours, prides himself on his familiarity with city procedure. Over the past decade, he estimates he's only missed half a dozen council meetings.
Wood said he finally decided to run, challenging incumbent progressive Democrat Dona Spring because he believed he could accomplish more as a council member with easy access to the inner workings of the city than as a citizen working from the outside.
"When you're on the panel, it's easier to make people see stuff then when you're in the audience," said Wood.
This is the first time that Wood has ever run for an elected position.
A San Diego native, Wood originally came to Berkeley in the 1970s to attend college at UC Berkeley. He remembered Berkeley as a town with many jobs available for students. For Wood, who wanted to work his way through college without going into debt, this made the decision.
He worked swing shifts and weekends as a machinist at a paper factory and as a construction worker, to pay for books and tuition.
"I never went to a dance or a football game," said Wood. "I never lived in the dorms. I worked full time to pay the bills, so when I graduated I didn't have any debt. I don't have a silver spoon in my mouth and that's something I carry deep inside me."
He graduated with a BA in political science in 1978.
Wood said he decided to run for office this year because his son had left home to attend school at UC Santa Cruz this year. With both of his two kids away from home, Wood said he feels he can finally devote enough time to the council to consider running.
Wood is running as an independent candidate, on a platform of environmental responsibility and public works improvement. Although he has been associated with the Green party, he did not receive the party's nomination.
Berkeley needs to invest more in its infrastructure, he says in his campaign literature. "Neglect is seen everywhere, from our crumbling streets and numerous potholes, to the huge problem of collapsed lateral sewer lines," he writes. "Current spending can barely keep up with our day to day needs."
Wood said he hopes to get extra money to put into public works from taxes on Berkeley businesses and the land transfer tax.
His other plans include extending the Residential Permit Parking Program, a program that reduces parking congestion by requiring permits, into west and south Berkeley; as well as pushing for what he calls "Town and Gown" meetings with UC Berkeley, a series of open dialogues to improve relations with the university.
Running his campaign from his home, a townhouse in western Berkeley, with only 20 volunteers and the funds from his own pockets, Wood described his operation as "grass roots."
"I'm probably going to end up spending $10,000 to $12,000 on this campaign," he said. "There's no way to get around it. If this was a small community, I could just have a barbeque and everyone could come hear me speak, but that's not the way we are here."
The campaign money comes from Create Video Productions, the business he and his wife Carolyn Erbele run together. The couple pays bills by filming radio forums for KPFA and public concerts and festivals for the city, as well as private functions like weddings.
Most of the money goes to print pamphlets, T-shirts and signs.
Early in the campaign, Wood said he tried going door to door to drum up support, but found that people were not receptive to having strangers knock on their doors. He tried waiting by the Downtown Berkeley BART station early in the morning, as people were leaving to work, but found commuters had little time to discuss politics. Evenings were not much better, as people were in a hurry to return home.
Wood said he now does most of his campaigning over the phone. "The volunteers sometimes have trouble getting people to stay on the phone," said Wood. "People don't like being interrupted in the middle of dinner and I can understand that. But it's different if I call myself. They're intrigued when they actually get to talk directly to the candidate."
When he's away from the phone, Wood spends time designing campaign literature on his home computer and running to the printer to make additional leaflets.
As an independent, Wood said, he would bring new cooperation to a divided city council. He pointed to his ability to work with opposing factions, attributing his success to the fact that he appealed to individual council members for help rather than to political slates.
"It's human nature that they want to feel like they're involved," said Wood about working with individual council members. "I try to find what they're passionate about and get them engaged on that."
This year, Wood argued before the council for the necessity of a program to test Berkeley homes for lead paint. He worked with council member Betty Olds on formulating the plan, which would enlist the Housing Department to teach homeowners how to deal with lead paint.
"I know people at the county level, so I could have gone straight to them with this proposal," said Wood. "But I knew that Olds was very concerned about this issue. Instead of running past her, I tried to work with her. If you exclude people, they'll react against you in the future."
Wood said he hopes to get a grant from the county to implement the program.
"Wood is a very smart fellow," said Olds, the councilmember from District 6. "He has a good working knowledge of the city and he's been very critical. It may be different when the shoe's on the other foot, since it's easy to criticize and hard to actually fix things."
Another example of Wood's ability to unite the council came in 1996 when his video "On Berkeley Soil," about the danger posed to ground water stores by leaky underground gasoline tanks, helped convince the council to vote unanimously against amendments to the San Francisco Basin Plan.
The plan would have eliminated any requirement to clean up leaky underground fuel tanks. Instead, toxins would be allowed to biodegrade naturally, provided that the pollution could be contained to a small area. Wood argued that containment was unsafe because underground these tanks are often buried at the same level as Berkeley groundwater.
Filmed on a hand-held camera, the video begins with Wood pumping gas at a service station. Cars rush by and Wood has to speak loudly to be heard over the din of passing traffic.
"A gas station might seem like an illogical place to start an investigation into groundwater," narrated Wood. "But it's really quite logical."
With footage of ducks and egrets that depend on clean spring water and interviews with gas station neighbors who attribute sore throats to contaminating chemicals, Wood made a case against the proposed containment policy.
"The first time I picked up a video camera, I realized it was a powerful tool for communication," said Wood of the experience. "I've shown seven videos at city council meetings. I don't think they really wanted to see them because nobody wants to just sit and watch, but it really helped to raise awareness of problems."
Council member Dona Spring, who received the Green party endorsement, has characterized Wood as a "loner" with few endorsements. Wood said he purposely decided to forego endorsements because he believed the constant arguments between the dominant slates were responsible for deadlocking the council on many decisions.
"It's difficult for people to relate to Wood," said Spring. "He's criticized my environmental record, but the only thing he has is the Harrison Park incident." Wood has criticized Spring's environmental record, pointing to the fact that she voted to purchase Harrison field in West Berkeley to create a children's park in 1999. Wood said the field, a former industrial site, was too polluted to be safely converted into a park. "You can't find a better example of poor planning than Harrison Park," said Wood.
But Spring defended the decision to purchase the park site. "Harrison field was the only big plot of land that the university was willing to sell," she said. "We got into problems because we started excavating before the City Toxics department had fully communicated with the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department. It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, since Berkeley doesn't have much land that isn't already developed."
Spring also said she has worked to improve the park, lobbying to get additional greenery planted. She said signs had been posted to warn that the air quality around the park does not always reach state clean air requirements.
"Being an environmentalist isn't just about what you do," said Wood. "It's also about what you don't do. Spring doesn't do anything that would distinguish her as a Green rather than a member of any other party."
Wood pointed to his efforts to protect Berkeley groundwater and his involvement with lead paint inspection as some examples of his environmental activism.
Wood suggested the old corporation yard should be turned into a park and a historical landmark, while the Harrison park lot should become the new corporation yard.
It's an idea he's stuck with since Harrison Park was proposed in 1999.
"You can have brains and education and everything else in the world," said Wood. "But if you don't have the tenaciousness, it's no good. And that's what I bring to the table."