Thursday, July 12, 2012

(Alameda Co) Grand jury sharply critical of Berkeley rent board

by Carolyn Jones - Sand Francisco Chronicle

Berkeley's rent board overcharges landlords, overpays its director and lacks sufficient oversight and accountability, according to a report by the Alameda County civil grand jury.

The report, issued June 25, is particularly critical of the salary the board pays Executive Director Jay Kelekian. He earns $183,000 annually to oversee 21 employees and a budget of $4 million.

By comparison, Berkeley's public works director earns $2,000 less annually and has a staff of 296 and a $58 million budget.

"The staff runs the rent board, instead of the other way around. It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," said Albert Sukoff, who's on the board of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, a longtime critic of the rent board. "We weren't surprised by the report, but we think it didn't go far enough."

The grand jury spent nine months looking at Berkeley's nine-member rent board, which is charged with regulating residential rents in Berkeley, protecting tenants from evictions, resolving disputes between tenants and landlords and otherwise enforcing the city's rent control ordinance.

Berkeley is among 12 cities in the state with rent control, and for many years had among the strongest, most pro-tenant rent ordinances in the country. But the law lost its teeth when the state banned vacancy control in 1995, allowing landlords to raise rents to market levels when a tenant leaves.

Among other criticisms, the grand jury said Berkeley's rent board charges landlords far too much to register units. Last year, the fee was $194 per unit. San Francisco, for example, charges $25 and Los Angeles charges $19.

Berkeley's rent board - a publicly elected agency that's independent from the city - uses the money to pay its staff, creating a "self-sustaining bureaucracy that operates without effective oversight or accountability," according to the grand-jury report.

Lisa Stephens, rent board chair, said Berkeley might charge landlords more than other cities but it offers more services. The board handles 10,000 queries annually from tenants and landlords, has six subcommittees that meet regularly and has been especially busy during the foreclosure crisis, she said.

In addition, Kelekian's salary is comparable to those of rent-board directors in other cities, she said. Santa Monica, similar in size to Berkeley, pays its rent-board director $189,624, almost $7,000 more than Kelekian earns, for overseeing a similar staff and budget, according to the city of Santa Monica.

Kelekian could not be reached for comment.

"I was profoundly disappointed in this report," Stephens said. "The report has these vague innuendos of impropriety, but the fact is, we've done nothing wrong. I think we do a really good job."

The report suggests that the board reduce landlords' fees, work with the city's human resource department to control salaries and staffing, and conduct annual performance reviews of the director.

1 comment:

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