Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Regulatory capture" in Berkeley

Proposed project: 2211 Harold Way, Berkeley

Becky O'Malley has a message in her editorial on regulatory capture in the Berkeley Daily Planet from U.C. physicist James McFadden, an opponent of the Harold Way project. Sounds like the way meetings are conducted here in San Francisco:

Having spent many an evening over the last 9 months at City Council, ZAB, LPC, and School Board meetings, I'm finally starting to recognize ‘industry capture’ of both staff and the council/board/committee members. Although many people are quick to assume that capture means corruption, they really are different things. 

Capture is more of an aligning of economic world views, not necessarily to any monetary advantage, often just to make one's job easier or more pleasant in dealing with people on a day to day basis (perhaps like the Stockholm syndrome). It entails adapting views that parallel industry's views which are clearly shaped by profit motive. 

Captured individuals don't necessarily have an economic conflict of interest. They don't see their behavior as incorrect. They have forgotten that their role is to provide oversight and protection to the public on these public-private deals, and instead see their role as making sure the deal gets done. Their public meetings evolve into patronizing facades of democracy. 

Captured staff and government officials suffer from wishful blindness rather than corruption per se. For the most part, capture is about creating a pleasant working environment with those in industry who they deal with on a daily basis. It is a slow and insidious process that strikes at the heart of human psychology that allows us to work in groups. The more time you spend with someone, the more likely you are to mirror their behavior—especially when the industry hires shills who continually flatter staff and boards/committees. When we-the-public show up and complain, we become the opponent to be ignored. 

A telling sign of capture is an inability of staff to answer direct questions in a public forum, questions they should have answers for. This happened several times during the ZAB [Thursday] night. Staff instead must go outside and get the answers from industry—or just stonewall—or just present the industry talking points outside of public view. 

Capture also manifests in the actions of the members of boards/councils/committees who are supposed to provide oversight, but instead seem more concerned with time and process. They often spend their time praising staff or justifying their poor performance, or worse yet praising the industry over which they are supposed to provide oversight. I was particularly struck by [ZAB Chair Prakash] Pinto's behavior at [Thursday] night’s ZAB. 

The meeting becomes a dance of false empowerment where getting through the meeting on time is more important than focusing on important issues or input from the public.

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