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

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