Berkeley City Council member Chris Worthington, Keene's most outspoken critic, points to several recent cases where he says people were intentionally kept in the dark about what was going on.
The first involves an ugly 170-foot communication tower constructed recently atop Berkeley's Public Safety building. "Everybody on the council agrees the project was a blunder," Worthington says, "but we didn't know about it."
Judith Scheer, editor of Berkeley's Daily Planet newspaper, adds that neighbors of the project weren't told about it, either. She challenges the city government's claim that information about the tower was contained in an environmental impact report.
Keene replies that he was as surprised as anyone at the visual impact of the tower when it was constructed, but says that charges that he withheld information about it aren't justified. "I want to inform the public and open up City Hall," he insists. Keene adds that the computer-generated images of the tower didn't do justice to its size, and that steps have been taken to correct the situation.
According to Worthington, those steps include hiring a consultant for $50,000 to look at alternatives to the tower, alternatives that are expected to cost between $200,000 and $1 million. As for the city manager's role, Worthington says, "Keene didn't take the opposition to the tower seriously until the swing vote on our council spoke out against it. Then he became apologetic, but he didn't do much."
Chris Thompson, a reporter for the East Bay Express, disagrees with Worthington. In his view, the city government gave the neighbors adequate notice of the project. Besides, he says, "It's really a minor issue."
Critics of Keene also point to recent proposals in Berkeley that would have diminished the powers of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Scheer of the Daily Planet says the idea upset a lot of people, and that members of the commission weren't even aware of the proposals until after they were released by the city staff.
With a nervous laugh, Keene responds that the changes were the responsibility of the City Attorney's office and the Planning Department. Then he adds that this whole issue is a new complaint to him.
But council member Worthington is blunt about what he sees as Keene's role. "He tried to ram the changes to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance down our throats, but he lost. We fought back, and after a bitter battle, on July 25 the proposals were rejected by an 8-0 vote of the council."
A third recent issue for which Keene draws criticism in Berkeley is a proposal to raise the zoning height limitation in some commercial areas of the community. Chris Thompson of the East Bay Express says that Keene pissed a lot of people off when it became known that, in the fine print of a draft revision to the city's general plan, downtown buildings would be allowed to rise to 12 stories instead of the currently-sanctioned five to seven. Thompson points out, however, that the idea was just a proposal, and that it was made in response to Berkeley's housing crisis and other pressing growth issues.
Keene defends himself against the charge of fine-print sneakiness by claiming that it is totally untrue. Berkeley, he says, has to look at how to achieve mixed-use development, protect the environment and encourage pedestrian activity. City staff, Keene says, proposed a density bonus for the downtown area that some people clearly opposed. But he says he supported his staff because it was their job to offer options, however unpopular, in the general plan revision process.
Council member Worthington, who reporter Thompson characterizes as seeing politics as combat, lists several other charges against Keene. For example, he says the city manager tried to switch $6 million in voter-approved bond projects without telling the public about what he and the majority of the council were doing.
Worthington also charges that Keene withheld information from him personally about a controversial project in his district: "I'd ask weekly if there was anything new on it and Keene always responded, 'Not that I know of.' Then the item suddenly appeared on the council agenda. I found out that there was a 9-inch paper trail on the project, but Keene keeps information from people if he doesn't like their politics. In my opinion, that climate of secrecy is undemocratic."
Worthington also alleges that Keene uses pay raises for his department heads to encourage them to withhold information from elected officials. "People who really suck up to him get rewarded, and they keep information from the council," Worthington says.
Thompson of the East Bay Express agrees that Keene does withhold information from his political opponents, like Worthington. Thompson, however, believes that Keene's management style didn't reward sycophants so much as raise city staff morale while permitting autonomy among his department heads. "He broke the bureaucratic mold and allows creativity," Thompson says.
Keene's bitter battles with Worthington and others on the Berkeley City Council almost cost him his job last year, but he narrowly survived. Now he's coming to Tucson. "Serving Berkeley is tough, and he was given hell," Thompson says. "In Tucson, he may be able to put his Rolaids away."
James Keene, however, is more philosophical about his new position, saying he doesn't know Tucson well enough to know if he will confront the same type of politically-charged environment. "Fractional politics in Berkeley gets pretty intense," Keene says, "but the tension between neighborhood groups, growth and change is part of the dynamic which makes a city manager's job so exciting."