Public works, public art. Same difference.
Last week the "Bicycle Mural," a forty-by-eight-foot artwork painted for the city of Berkeley six years ago by artist Tricia Tripp, became a truly underground work of art. A street crew inadvertently used several panels of the mural, which was being stored at the city's corporation yard, to help shore up a trench dug on Wildcat Canyon Road.
You're probably wondering what the hell a piece of public art was doing at a city maintenance facility in the first place. Well, years earlier it had been vandalized during its showing at Berkeley High School. City arts officials were keeping it in storage until Tripp, who no longer lives around here, could come to town and restore it. After last week's little mishap, she'll have a lot more restoring to do, if it even can be restored now.
According to Public Works chief Rene Cardinaux, the mural panels used to brace the trench predictably got dirty. But that's not the worst if it. Big holes -- four by eight inches -- had to be punched in at least two of the panels to pull them out of the trench after it had already been partially backfilled.
Here's how the mix-up happened, according to Cardinaux: After the street crew dug the Wildcat trench, they realized they hadn't brought enough plywood to shore up the sides of the approximately eight-foot-deep hole. The two crewmembers who went to the corp yard in search of plywood couldn't find any in the usual place. They then remembered the wooden panels resting in the yard's carport and took them back to the work site, not realizing they were part of a $10,000 city-commissioned painting. As Cardinaux explains it, the guys just assumed the panels were "debris" collected and left behind by some crew. The mural, after all, had been sitting there for three years. "It was an innocent mistake, but it was an unfortunate one," he says.
No kidding. If this were Van Gogh, someone would be missing an ear right about now.
Dogging Mr. Ogg
Berkeley has a colorful history of landlords who've devised clever ways of getting around the city's rent-control laws. The most famous case involves the late Hans Hagen, who declared his apartment building a church -- one devoted to water- and phallus-worship -- and therefore not subject to rent control. Those paying to live there, he claimed, were church members, not tenants.
Since 1996, when the state legislature watered down Berkeley's rent-control system, few, if any, landlords have gone to such entertaining lengths to circumvent it. Except, perhaps, for Wilson Ogg, a landowner (don't say "landlord") with a law degree and a Libertarian philosophy, who strives to keep city government out of his business. "Berkeley," he muses, "is a totalitarian community."
Like Hagen, the 75-year-old Ogg is a character. He's a member of the genius club Mensa, and speaks with a distinguished British-sounding accent despite being a California native. Whereas Hagen said he rented to church members, Ogg says he "licenses" space to unrelated "family members." By signing a "family sharing agreement" when they move in, people join Ogg's Pinebrook Family Association, an unincorporated nonprofit, to create a single household. Oh, and yes, family members (not tenants) pay Ogg, their "curator" (not landlord) a monthly fee to live in "suites" (not rental units) at Pinebrook, which the city considers a triplex at the very least, but which Ogg insists is a single-family home not subject to rent control.
Until a little more than a year ago, Ogg had managed to avoid detection by the rent board. Then Naomi Brandes joined the "family." She clashed with Ogg over his care of her suite, accusing him, among other things, of failing to repair a gas leak. When Brandes scheduled a visit with a city housing inspector without Ogg's permission, the curator called the cops to report the "contemplated trespass."
Ogg wound up evicting her, and Brandes complained to the rent board about him. The board's hearing examiner concluded that the family association and its "sharing agreement" were shams designed to circumvent rent control. Brandes also sued her former unlandlord for a laundry list of damages, including retaliatory eviction.
"Lies, lies, lies," Ogg sniffs. For one thing, he counters, he devised the family association when he bought Pinebrook in 1964, sixteen years before Berkeley's current rent-control law took effect. Ogg says Brandes and her attorney Thomas Ostly made false accusations in order to squeeze money from him and his insurance carrier, State Farm.
Brandes and her lawyer do stand to earn a nice payoff. In November she emerged from mediation with an apparent $110,000 settlement -- pretty amazing, considering she lived at Pinebrook for only five months. But Ogg now says he won't sign off on a final deal as a matter of principle. "She won't get it -- over my dead body," the septuagenarian vows. However, tenant-attorney Ostly is now asking the court to force Ogg to comply with the settlement.
Whatever the outcome, Wilson Ogg's chapter in the history of Berkeley's rent-control wars may be drawing to a close. Ogg says he might be forced to sell his beloved Pinebrook. He says Brandes and her lawyer have effectively broken up his little family. With the Brandes case hanging over his head, he's been unable to replace the family members who've moved out in recent months. He'll miss all his nonrelatives, not to mention the thousands of dollars of nonrental income they provided him each month. But it was never about money, he insists. Sure. Just good old-fashioned family association values, right?
Dear Peemaster General
Another spirited Berkeley Hills dweller who, incidentally, doesn't live far from Mr. Ogg, is demanding police and her local postmaster find out which mailman peed in the front yard of her million-dollar home. On a recent Friday afternoon, the woman claims, she discovered a postal carrier relieving himself on her property. "At least I thought he was taking a pee," she wrote in her complaint to the B-Town postmaster, "but he could have been jerking off." Well, that seems unlikely since she also claims to have taken a sample of the pee, which she suggests authorities could use for a DNA test to match the chromosomes of the postal pisser -- which would make sense, perhaps, if urine actually contained DNA. And if they find the offender? The woman not only wants to press charges, she wants the guy to "come back and clean up the mess he made."