Port Appointment Process Shakes up West Oakland

The Port of Oakland is ranked as the 5th largest containerized port in the country. Back in the 1990’s it was considered the 3rd busiest port since Oakland had entered into the container business early on, but other ports stepped up their activity while Oakland was working on dredging out its inner harbor.

Now with the addition of the Oakland Army Base at the foot of the Bay Bridge, our port is in a position to maintain and possibly expand its role as the economic engine for the entire East Bay.

Whether it really works for Oakland, given all our town’s needs, has always been a hotly debated question. The conversation has usually centered around whether the local business elite should have the power to chart the port’s course or if the wisdom of local residents should be considered, especially those residents and small businesses which are most impacted by the Port.

Even in these days of reining in government, Oakland seems to have redefined the conversation. Starting with former Mayor Lionel Wilson, the governing board began to be diversified in terms of ethnicity, profession, and gender-no longer appointing the usual cast of White men with corporate or legal credentials representing big business.

Under Mayor Jerry Brown that trend reversed itself a bit; but even the business and development folks he appointed came from diverse and entrepreneurial backgrounds.

As it stands now Oakland has one of the larger commissions at seven members and almost all of them come from the non-profit world. Recent Quan appointee, Alan Yee, is somewhat of an exception as he is an attorney who has represented businesses trading with Asian countries; but this is not your usual line-up of PG&E reps, financiers, developers, and their real estate lawyers (see commissioners, portofoakland.com).

Throughout the country there are many models for port governance. For instance, the huge New York-New Jersey Port Authority’s members are appointed by the governors of those states. Most ports have a commission picked by mayoral appointment with the exception being the Port of Seattle where the voters of King County directly elect their commissioners.

In Oakland the mayor nominates the commissioners and the city council approves the appointments. Our new Mayor Jean Quan has made one appointment so far, the aforementioned, Alan Yee. The overall response to that choice has been positive. Now comes the hard part.

When Jean Quan ran for mayor, she sought Margaret Gordon’s support as someone with deep roots in Oakland and a history of standing up for West Oakland, in particular. But as a mayor who seeks a fresh start, it’s not surprising that Ms. Quan might want to handpick her port representatives as mayors have traditionally done.

At a meeting last summer of the Block by Block Organizing Network, the grassroots organization that helped elect Jean Quan, and the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, the Mayor arrived and took questions.

One of the Coalition members, long-time West Oakland resident and activist, Ray Kidd, asked Ms. Quan point blank if she was going to reappoint Margaret Gordon to the Port Commission when her four year term was up in the fall. The Mayor stated that she hadn’t yet made a decision on her appointments.

Shortly after that Mr. Kidd, Steve Lowe, and other local activists met with Margaret at the West Oakland offices of the Environmental Indicators Project, a group she was one of the founding members of, to discuss their concerns about the port appointment process. Some members of the group decided to develop and promote a petition demanding that Margaret be reappointed to carry on the work she started.

The petition is now on Ms. Gordon’s Facebook page and scribd.com (http://www.scribd.com/doc/63389449/-Reappointment-Petition-With-Address-2-1), a diverse mix of community members have been seen collecting signatures around town, most notably at the recent Art & Soul Festival in downtown Oakland.

Margaret Gordon made history as the first resident of West Oakland and the first environmental health advocate to ever be appointed to the Port board, another first for Oakland. Margaret has long waged war against air pollution in West Oakland where, according to the West Oakland Environmental Indicators’ Project and the Pacific Institute’s study, “In 1998, West Oakland children were seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average child in the state of California”, (http://www.pacinst.org/reports/environmental_indicators/indicators_in_brief.pdf).

When environmental racism was a new term which was understood by few and heeded by almost no one, much less government agencies, Margaret had become a nationally recognized figure who brought attention along with realistic solutions to the problems of air pollution and overall environmental racism.

Her neighborhood still suffers from industrial pollution but the culprits today are more likely to be the diesel trucks which rumble through neighborhood streets on their way to deliver or receive goods from the port.

That may be why, District 3 Council Member Nancy Nadel, encompassing downtown and West Oakland, told me that she supported Margaret and that a lot of the energy against her reappointment is coming from the Teamsters Union which believes that the drivers must be employed by the big trucking companies in order to be able to afford the costly mitigations that will make their trucks less polluting.

Ms. Gordon and Council Member Nadel believe there is a place for small independent truckers to operate and are working to design a compromise which will include these entrepreneurs.

Retired postal worker and co-chair of the West Oakland Neighbors, Ray Kidd, remarked that there are still funds-over $2 million-remaining in the settlement won over the Port’s Vision 2000 expansion plan. The money was required to be paid into a mitigation fund.

Mr. Kidd believes the two sides of the trucking debate have become needlessly polarized and that Margaret has the ability to bring them together.

He contends contends that some of the remaining funds could be used to help the small truckers. Asked why he was circulating the petition, he said that Margaret, “represents the community that sits right next to the Port ….several elements that port staff needs to hear from… on air quality issues, health effects, jobs.”

The East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, EBASE, a well respected community organization, has developed a coalition called “Revive Oakland” (http://workingeastbay.org/) and is working with job and labor groups that see the expansion of the Port into the former Oakland Army Base as “a once in a lifetime opportunity to put up to 8,000 Oaklanders to work over the next two decades; provide business with a local skilled workforce; and transform our city into an economic engine for the region.”

EBASE goes onto declare that jobs developed by the Port should “ensure family-supporting jobs, affordable health insurance and respect on the job, not just dead-end minimum-wage jobs.”

To that end labor leaders and local non-profits have joined with EBASE to promote a strong relationship between the Port and the City. One of them is the Ella Baker Center, founded by Van Jones, now run by Jakada Imani, it has encompassed a wide range of projects such as “Books not Bars, “Silence the Violence”, and the “Green Collar Jobs” campaigns.

Mr. Imani grew up in West Oakland near the Emeryville border and raised the consciousness of educational institutions with the “Books not Bars” campaign he led. When Mayor Jean Quan approached him about the Port Commission, he said that he had been hearing about port issues from colleagues and considering what role he could play to create a “hub for innovation, technology, and job creation” at the Port.

According to Mr. Imani, the controversy on the small truckers versus the trucking companies who hire union labor is really about “workers being exploited. I know truck drivers sleeping in their trucks. This is not the American dream.”

But Imani says that it’s “up to the Mayor to make that decision”. He believes he could “hold down” the place that Margaret has made for environmental justice and that she would be able to “look back on his tenure” as carrying on her work.

Imani has also heard other names being discussed for the Port positions, among them, Joe Brooks of Policy Link who has a long history of economic justice work. Asked how we would feel about displacing Ms. Gordon, he said, “I would support Margaret on the board…. no criticisms.”

Mayor Quan’s Communications Manager, Sue Piper was out of the country so I was unable to get a comment re Gordon’s reappointment, but I was told that “all of the appointments are being looked at”.

I also talked to two other local activists who are circulating petitions in favor of Ms. Gordon’s reappointment. Saleem Shakir, who is a youth advocate and heads up the new chapter of “Concerned Black Men of Oakland”, a national organization, stated, “Margaret’s doing the work, leading the way. You couldn’t find a stronger advocate for West Oakland.”

Steve Lowe who is a long time advocate for the West Oakland Commerce Organization, WOCA, and a resident of the Jack London area, says that he is “in complete accord with her reappointment…and (her concern with) small business.” He wanted it noted that the Port has maintained its detachment from the public so that “Margaret’s accessibility is a boon for the community.” He gives her a good deal of the credit for preventing the rebuilding of the Cypress Freeway that had cut across and divided West Oakland before its collapse in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Mr. Lowe would like to see the ideas of the Port/City Task Force commissioned under Mayor Dellums implemented-one of which posits the formation of a community advisory group with the Port and City in order to offer Oaklanders some way to connect with it. He claims that the City-Port Liaison Committee meets sporadically and even then only allows the public a minute to address officials.

Many local activists expressed dismay off the record over what seems to be a struggle between trail blazer, Margaret Gordon, and up-and-coming local activists to carry the torch for community benefits and neighborhood health concerns.

The crux may be in the different approaches to finding ways to both retrofit the diesel engines while increasing the truckers’ abilities to make a living whether in independent companies or union jobs; and, most importantly, who is able to bring the stakeholders together to adopt those solutions.

The Mayor has to make that call and it’s a newspaper cliché that one issue or another might be the turning point for a politician’s popularity in any given community. But for West Oakland, how this appointment is handled by the Mayor will mark a moment that is not likely to be forgotten there.

Postscript:Having reached the Mayor shortly after posting this piece, I learned that her office had asked for applications for the Port Commission posts as early as February through her newsletter and received numerous responses (among them was Jakada Imani’s) but none from Ms. Gordon until recently.