Guest Blog-Oakland City Council Meetings Should Not Resemble the Autocratic Regimes of Old by Naomi Schiff

This is former Mother-of-the-Year, Naomi Schiff’s, response to the restrictions imposed by the City of Oakland on the many participants who are eager to be heard by their representatives. It’s time someone responded, someone who we elected to represent us, not just the appointed administrators.

Dear City Administrator, Mayor, City Attorney, and Council President,

Attending the city council meetings has become unpleasant and difficult, and as a longtime participant (since 1979) in city meetings, it has occurred to me that perhaps no one has actually written you to make a formal written objection to the current procedures, so I am hereby doing so.

I am not certain whence the new rules come, but people have mentioned the “city administrator.” I am not sure who that is at this exact moment, based on the city website. Has Ms. Landreth taken up her new duties? I have observed the following:

-checks of bags for people entering city hall on council meeting days.
-not allowing people up the main stairs without a speaker’s card receipt. (But you have to go up the stairs to obtain a speaker’s card if you didn’t sign up electronically, and the full agendas are up there too!)
-not allowing people to sit in the galleries of the council chambers
-not allowing people to sit in the main hall except by permission of security guard, even when seats are available
-inadequate overflow room services.
-inaudible closed circuit display out in the hall near council chambers.
-no provisions for people who cannot stand for hours waiting to speak, such as elders or those with disabilities.
-arbitrary and preferential treatment for admittance, based on whims of security people.
-exposure of city staff to consternation and unpleasantness in attempting to carry out unworkable instructions.

The worst problem for me, personally, is that to save councilmembers’ time I prefer to speak with some relevance, based on hearing staff presentations, council remarks, and preceding public speakers. It is now almost impossible to do this. If one is sitting downstairs in Hearing Room 2, one has to be ready to go upstairs. (And some people are much less mobile than I am.) The system is also plagued with occasional electronic glitches that interrupt transmission.

On Monday, I was particularly concerned to hear what Councilmember Brooks had to say when councilmembers were speaking before the public testimony at the budget hearing. But if I were to be ready to speak, the only way to hear her was to run upstairs and crouch among a sizable group of people straining to hear the low-volume television, made more difficult by loud conversation among grumpy would-be speakers and city employees trying to figure out how to proceed.

Two elderly ladies waiting to speak were clearly having trouble with the hours of standing. One finally climbed under the handrail and sat on the marble steps, but had to extricate herself awkwardly when they finally let her in. Give this woman a chair for goodness’ sake!

I was struck, when admitted into the council chamber at last, that there were many empty seats on the main floor. Why were so many made to stand outside?

This does not constitute an open public proceeding. But beyond that, it enrages people enough that it will become counterproductive as groups strategize ways to get the councilmembers’ attention.

I have attended City Council meetings during much more contentious times than we are experiencing now. Nonetheless, I can’t remember that members of the public have ever been subjected to this level of exclusion.

THOUGHTS AND PROPOSED NEXT STEPS:

Of the security measures listed above, the first one makes sense. I lived and worked here at the time of the Moscone/Milk murders, and certainly one could reasonably want checks for weapons and large heavy objects.

None of the other measures make any sense to me, and some of it seems to violate the spirit if not the letter of open meeting procedures.

Worst, what message does this send to our involved citizens? IT IS A WONDERFUL THING to see young people interested in city policies. Some years I have feared that the city’s decisions would be left to elderly geezers and businesspeople such as myself. We should be encouraging participation, not squelching it.

It seems to me that our competent police department can remove anyone from the chambers upon egregious misbehavior. It would perhaps be wise to put a safety officer up in each balcony, and enforce decorum. (Although I have not seen anything thrown from up there.)

In fact, I have really been struck at the decline in the number of demented and grandstanding participants over the years; it used to be that there were many more outrageous, nonsensical, and flamboyant speakers. In recent meetings I have attended, most speakers and participants have behaved, and said relevant things, though they might speak passionately. And, the audience will help you. When some ill-advised people came to shout during the WOSP hearings, other members of the audience were effective in ratcheting down the chaos.

There are ways to address meeting protocols and participatory democracy that do not smack of some weird autocracy in eastern Europe. Please convene a working group immediately, and please include some of your noisier public participants in planning a better approach. Do not propose and execute draconian procedures behind closed doors. It will backfire.

I have great respect for the difficult job you all have undertaken, but too I respect the citizens of Oakland. And they are your employers.

Thank you,

Naomi Schiff
Downtown Business Owner since 1981
Resident since 1974
Parent of two responsible adult daughters born in Oakland
Member of various organizations
Oakland Mother of the Year, 2005

Oakland City Hall, Let’s Have an Open Forum for Real

In Oakland, city council meetings and street protests are falling under new more repressive restrictions rather than the open transparent government we were promised. Are our leaders out of step with the times? This is the statement that I would have given to the Oakland City Council at Open Forum last night if I had been willing to stay til midnight.-

Council Members, since I know all of you, like many of you and respect most of you, I’m not here to denounce you-I respect your hard work. But I’m here to remind you what time it is. Some people say this period reminds them of the 60’s. But during the 60’s despite the Vietnam War, many Americans were just beginning to feel that the American Dream was almost available to them even as others rejected it. This time is different. The American Dream is a figment, a fading memory, and the planet is being devastated in a way no other generation could have imagined.

So people, especially young people, particularly young people of color, are angry but they’re also activated. Isn’t that what you as leaders of this great city, want? Haven’t I heard you complain that people don’t pay attention, don’t understand how things work. But as activists organize to protect what’s left of their city’s heritage, they often find themselves at city council meetings. As they wait, an hour or 3, they hear about the city’s business being done, but they don’t understand a lot of it– pass-throughs, grants, PLAs, CFDs, RFPs, oh, that one they have come to understand a bit.

Lots of folks, mostly young, came out and protested an RFP which was done in virtual secret, what about Housing Elements and area plans? The average resident of the, until recently ignored, Eastlake District, once called New Chinatown, woke up to a massive gentrification project and wanted in on the discussion before they found out they were probably a couple of years late.

So, they did what Oaklanders often do, especially since Occupy, they protested loudly but they took it a step further and closed down the meeting for that night. Interestingly, I thought they were more respectful than many of the Occupiers had been. They just wanted to get your attention.

Now, you’ve all decided that this kind of unruly behavior has to be clamped down on. Our bags are getting searched,which is not my no. 1 concern since it happens in so many public buildings. It irks me, makes me feel a bit like a suspect in my own city hall, but I believe my reps have the right to personal safety.

But, when I climbed those long steps to the city council chambers and attempted to enter the hall where the city does my business, I did not expect to be held back by rent-a-cops or city staff. I was questioned by a staffer last night as to whether I was really press. I don’t know am I or just a biased observer? Who decides who is press these days of blogs and tumblr?

In any case, there were seats in the main hall and the galleries were empty. This closure has never been explained. It’s true that that many times people who sat up there yelled and were rude and obnoxious. I didn’t like that either. But barring folks from coming in and filling the galleries will not stop protestors from protesting.

These are indeed tumultuous times and democracy is being put to the test. People are, you know, sick and tired of being sick and tired, but the worst thing that might happen when people come to protest is that they demagogue and speak in rumors rather than facts. This is a problem because it’s so hard to get the truth, too few reporters try to cover too much and sometimes get it wrong or don’t cover it at all.

Try this instead.Try thinking of these people as your constituents or even your students. They want to learn what the heck is going on-so the next time you pass a CFD or RFP or WTF, stop and take a few minutes to explain what you are talking about. Can’t you spare that? Isn’t that part of doing the city’s business?

As Robert Zimmerman once said, “and you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are achanging.” Don’t be “part of the problem,” the solution doesn’t lie in shutting down or attempting to control dissent, it lies in opening up what remains of our tattered democracy. There’s too much at stake to run our city as if it were “business as usual.” That’s what got us into this mess. You can’t harness the tremendous energy of the young and tap into the power of their passions by demanding that they ask just a little more quietly.

If these tactics continue many of us will stop coming altogether-and I’ll stop endorsing anyone who allows it to continue-if you care. You all say that Oakland is on the cutting edge of change so stop trying to polish our image for those who don’t love us. Be a little patient with some bad press but less patient with repression in its more insidious forms. “He that gets hurt will be he that did stall, for the battle outside is raging,” sang Dylan and it’s more true now than ever, because people have more reason to be angry now than ever. We know it’s not your fault-you didn’t create these problems, but if you you insist on contributing to a climate that is hostile to open government, you will also be rightly blamed. There will be no “shelter from the storm,” for you then.

We need leaders who are patient and caring, not prim and comdemnatory, who are bold and innovative, and we need leaders who know how to follow when necessary.

Please take a moment after you read this to contemplate the recent act of terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina and to affirm that all #BlackLivesMatter indeed.

Galleries Closed & Please Don’t Come Back-Dateline Oakland

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I’m editing this blog in order to add some information about the vote on the 12th Street project that took place on June, 2nd. If, as seems likely, the city’s approval of the project goes to court, the legality of the vote will probably become an issue of significance. Please see below in italics.

Last night was a frustrating, maddening, heartening, and entertaining evening/night/morning at the Oakland City Council, but then again, I only stayed until 1:15 am after arriving about 7pm. What was the big draw, you ask? Well, you might’ve come to #SavetheTrees, #Saveyourprivacy (my own little hashtag) or #Save12thStreet. On the other hand there was the deal with the FBI to partner with OPD and the need of the PIC, Private Industry Council, for some funds to tide them over, I’ve forgotten the others. My brain has turned to mush after so many hours of outraged people, me among them.

One issue that was not on the table but which became almost as important as any of the decisions the council discussed, was the issue of policing the meetings, including closing the galleries for “safety” reasons, which was not discussed. So here we were to dialogue, plead with, or rant at our city leaders, except the mayor, who doesn’t attend, and most of us couldn’t get in. This issue that reverberated throughout the meeting. And, yes, my dear council members, that was my voice you heard demanding, “open the galleries,” damn it!

No one, to my knowledge has ever done anything violent from the galleries. And if you’re concerned about the meeting being taken over, it won’t happen from the galleries. By this reasoning, close the floor and open only the galleries or just make everyone speak from closed circuit tv. As I tweeted last night, this was petty rule making of the most useless kind, designed to make the citizens feel disempowered and alienated from their representatives and no council member questioned it, shame.

So many moving statements were made about the proposed 12th Street luxury apartment project on public land, and I wish I had written some down but, doubtless, you can find them in your local papers. As you already know Council member Abel Guillen, who got into this late by virtue of being recently elected, wrested some community benefits from the project which included 30 affordable housing units.

Unfortunately for most of us, affordable and market rate are terms which skew reality away from the former middle class and completely remove them from the struggling poor. It turns out that affordable means $1100 for a studio, $1220 for a 1 bedroom and $1461 for a two bedroom. Those are the most affordable units for people at 80% of the median income from there they go up rapidly. He also got a commitment from the council that $1.1 mil of the sale money would go to an affordable housing fund. You can imagine how the folks in the East Lake area who came out to oppose any deal felt about that compromise. Some thanked Abel for trying, some criticized him for it. One other council member even castigated him for getting money for a skate park.

As I was furiously posting on twitter, one protestor I know who had been tweeting out the goings-on, noticed something ironic-many of the 12th Street, anti-gentrification protestors have only been here a few years. They’re not newbies from Silicon Valley but arrived on the wave of millennials who have been wandering the country in search of an affordable home where people can try new things in new ways-while paying off those onerous student loans. As I’ve noted before, these folks can and will become part of the fabric of an Oakland that continues to question the old ways. They may need to learn some things from us old folks about what we’ve been through and what we value.

So this is how it broke down, finally. Abel made his plea for his deal (reading a written statement which was not a very effective way to communicate it.) Then Desley said she would abstain after asking the developers, supporters of hers, some questions. Desley, you might know, never asks questions she doesn’t know the answer to. I, however, didn’t really understand their answer, but it seemed to make her point for her. Next she threw some shade on Abel’s negotiating before disappointing the audience by not giving a clear no but abstaining instead.

Lynette also read her statement which made it seem stilted and as if she hadn’t listened to the audience. She was voting yes. Now Dan Kalb enticed the crowd by apologizing for letting this deal go forward in the first place and then voted to abstain based on the concerns raised by Public Advocates on the sale of surplus land. Now we get to Noel Gallo who had been low key up to this. He asked the city attorney if she had gotten the letter from Public Advocates who have threatened to sue over the way the deal was done as he waved the letter around. She had no answer. He said he was never in favor of selling public land anyway just as he had opposed it while he was on the school board and referenced the proposed sale of the central administration building.

Then he talked from the heart about his daughters who can’t afford to live here. If you know Noel, you know what a family man he is and how that affects everything he does. He often trips over his own thoughts and leads his listeners on a merry goose chase trying to follow his logic, but he was clear and almost concise here-the younger generation can no longer count on the American Dream as he once experienced it himself.

The crowd roared and cheered, I believe, not just because of the possibility of winning but because of the simple truth of his statement. Then Abel left his carefully prepared statement behind to declare that since there were not 5 votes-Rebecca had recused herself and then left, nothing new for her, more on that another time-he would withdraw his motion to accept the deal.

He then tried to make another motion to issue a new RFP. The crowd went wild, me included. Yeay, Abel! But Lynette was having none of that and asked him to restate his motion, awkwardly trying to reframe it first, or discount it or something that seemed to obfuscate the motion-it all happened so fast and there was so much tumult. So Abel stumbled a bit but then made his motion again for a newly issued RFP, one that could possibly result in affordable housing developers responding or at least a higher price for the property. He had been trying to get a reappraisal all along but obviously, did not have the council’s backing on that before this night.

Then Desley after some kind of signal from Lynette (I was quite a way back but think I caught that) made a motion, substitute motion? Hers was just to bring the whole thing back to the next council meeting. She suggested, not even ironically, that Abel would be able to get community input and craft a better deal-presumably without a skate park-in the two weeks allotted. This motion did pass, shame again.

From observers who were watching on TV, there was a signal from Lynette to Desley who made her own motion. Since the council was in the middle of a vote and a member who abstains from that vote cannot bring a motion to reconsider, it is likely that that motion which brings the project back is illegal. There was no substitute motion. Abel’s motion which was made before Desley’s was passed over. I think the CC took a voice vote but didn’t catch who voted for that. But, if Desley switched sides, it would have passed. This is a bit troubling and may yet come under scrutiny.

As for Rebecca recusing herself due to a committee and donation, etc, as she said-I would hope that someone investigates that further. Was it due to the election committee that she set up to solicit funds for a measure that were then used to fund her mayoral campaign or something else? It wasn’t clear from her statement and no one has reported on it.

As I said before I respect these folks for their hard work, most of them, and good intentions, but their process needs to be transparent and fair to all, including rowdy demonstrators seeking to be heard.

It’s my guess that Desley only abstained because she was sure the project would pass and didn’t need her vote. She has known these developers for a long time. They are not bad guys, folks, but African-American men from Oakland who have built up their company and were asked to make a proposal which they did. They negotiated in good faith and then negotiated some more. The fact that they have out-of-town backers is not a conspiracy but it’s the way they were able to secure these kind of funds (did I hear around $120 mil to build it?) The fact that these real estate people want to invest in Oakland is a good thing not a bad thing. But it’s incumbent on us to play hard ball, too. It’s business and we need to play it the way it works.

It’s very clear that this project would not have been opened up and possibly renegotiated completely without the uprising of working folks, organizers, and community members who were startled out of their every day lives by the assault on their very survival in Oakland. Yeah, some were loud protestors and some didn’t really know the issues through and through.

Some even denounced the whole council but I wish they would look closer and understand why people make the decisions they do when in office if they want to make change. Ignore these details at the peril of your movement, ignore the humanity of those you voted for and who live beside you at the peril of your own. I rarely yell at the city council any more, I look for the triggers to their decision making and try to work on them.

I don’t happen to believe that any council member wants to see our city fail nor do they want to turn away investment in a capitalist system. Most of them care about issues like affordability and police accountability but may not have the background to fully grasp these issues. Look at their supporters, their life experiences and where they go for fund raising if you want to understand why they vote the way they vote, but castigating them for fundraising-going where the money is-is like criticizing them for winning.

Here’s some other stuff I think is important. Oakland is almost finished with its Nexus study which will determine what we can fairly ask of developers, money, that is, in impact fees-fees that can go for more housing, transportation, parks, and other things affected by development. Also the money the state took away for housing in redevelopment funding is due to return in smaller increments as “boomerang funding.” It’s possible that with those funds and tax credits which can match those funds, some affordable housing developers may be able to propose a project for that site in the near future.

If community activists can hold off the sale until these monies come through, this could be a whole different project. But it is probably unlikely that the council will be willing to wait that long, not out of greed or the desire to gentrify some folks out of our Town but out of fear of loss of investment and anxiety that the moment may pass us by. I think it won’t pass us by at all. We are the nest big thing, however, I get it. We still live with that old Oakland diffidence but it doesn’t do us proud.

Lots more happened-the #Savethetrees folks waited til 1am but they weren’t able to save them anyway. I don’t know what our hills will look like after this or whether hiking there will be much fun, but it looks like lots of trees will be removed soon.

The FBI issue got some obfuscation and elicited some understandable hysteria. The council was fairly clear on this vote in that they hoped that the FBI-who are here regardless of what building they’re in-can help clear some of our homicide cases. There are many still unsolved and even uninvestigated homicides that we do not have the personnel to work.

Lastly, the folks who have worked so hard to make the Domain Awareness Center less noxious, finally got to have their item heard at about 2:45 am. I had attended to speak in favor of the community crafted privacy policy but went home to my cat and my bed before it happened.

That’s my round-up, now it’s time for a little nap.