After I got home from last Tuesday’s Oakland City Council meeting, I left a post on facebook that I was embarrassed by the council’s behavior that night, and many of my facebook friends responded by asking what was new with that.
So let me take a couple of steps back and explain myself. I rarely categorize our city leaders in wholesale negative terms, and I don’t believe in simplistic generalizations. I know lots of local columnists who do, especially the well-known naysayer at the Chron, who paints them all with the same ugly brush. This columnist actually told me that the Oakland City Council has done nothing good for the last 20 years.
But, I have been active in Oakland politics since roughly the mid 80’s. I remember when Mayor Lionel Wilson used to turn the mike off when speakers denounced him or went on too long. I remember Elihu Harris getting into arguments with speakers and a council who followed those mayors’ dictates without question. Of course, I also remember when Jerry Brown got the structure of city government changed just so he wouldn’t have to sit through too many tedious meetings.
In those days the council members were usually part-time and had one staff member if that. The committee meetings were added by Elihu Harris based on the state model as he had been an assemblyman first and subsequently the council gained staffers to deal with the added workload.
Those previous city councils were much more conservative in their politics and their approach to governing than this current council. Many of those still sitting came in on a wave of reform and tried to do things in new ways.
For instance, Ignacio de la Fuente attempted to lower the costs of the police department by civilianizing more positions and requiring local residency (declared unconstitutional by state law). Jane Brunner fought hard for affordable housing provisions and good jobs. Nancy Nadel has always been one of the most innovative members who got the whole city to think differently about criminal justice in pushing for restorative justice and conflict resolution throughout our local institutions.
Jean Quan was elected a little later and immediately brought the school district to the table with the city-organizing real cooperation. She maintains her vision to this day of bringing services to young people, especially those most at risk and organizing the local citizenry.
Larry Reid had been Elihu Harris’ chief of staff and was a natural to move into the city council office for his district. We have known each other since then. We rarely agree on policy but have always respected each other’s love for this city.
Ok, enough of the history lesson. The reason I engaged in it a bit too long is to point out that I am aware that these folks including Desley Brooks, Rebecca Kaplan, and Pat Kernighan, who came as a later wave of reform with broad histories of civic engagement in their communities as well as citywide, are dedicated to their work and to this city.
Yes, I said dedicated. They all work long hours for much less money than other city employees with comparable responsibilities. They experience criticism of the most personal and public kind, and they all came in full of fresh ideas and a commitment to their communities.
I don’t criticize government just for the sake of it. It represents us, which is to say- it is us-the old of, by, and for the people. When you complain about the “for the people” part, remember that “of the people” is on you.
The other night, the Mayor offered her choices for Oakland Port Commission. I can’t say that I favor all of them; but what I can say is that the Alameda County Labor Council as well as many in the local business community came together on them, and they organized a real outpouring of support at the meeting.
What followed was not a discussion of the merits of those appointments nor of the upcoming development at the port and what well-thought out commission appointments would mean to that.
No, instead we had a demonstration on a level of petty, mean-spirited politics the likes of which I have NEVER before seen in all my years of council watching. The president of the council, Larry Reid, set the mood of the debate by telling the council and the mayor, who was sitting with the council, that since he was the president, he should be allowed to decide when this issue would come to a vote.
Reid made it clear he didn’t want the vote to happen until after the summer session, and he expected the rest of the council to heed his desires. He made it an issue of respect to obey his wishes. When two of the women council members objected saying these appointments couldn’t wait, he verbally attacked them and threatened to show them “disrespect” in the future. He denounced the mayor to her face saying, “you no longer have a vote on this council,” and denounced the council members who were willing to make these appointments as pandering to the mayor.
The meeting went downhill from there. The vote finally did come [4 for and 3 against, with 5 needed] and Margaret Gordon held onto her seat on the commission, but few came to defend her in that position. At least 30 speakers lined up to affirm their belief in the mayor’s proffered appointments. Many of them came from opposite sides of the management/labor divide, all to no avail.
Did any of the opposing council members explain why they did not want to confirm the mayor’s appointments? Only Council Member Brooks made a point of principle. She asked the city council what happened to their earlier promises to uphold Margaret Gordon’s reappointment. It became even odder when Council Member de la Fuente declared his allegiance to Ms. Gordon who is known for her environmental leadership.
Mr. de la Fuente is equally known for his disdain of environmental causes as well as their leaders, and is better known for his longing to be mayor. His vote to prevent the appointments shows his ability to block Mayor Quan, but does blocking her demonstrate his ability to lead?
Ms. Kaplan, Council Member-at-Large, inexplicably disappeared right before or during the discussion (not sure which) and various reasons were given for her absence but neither her leadership nor anyone else’s was anywhere in sight that night.
When young people on the street respond to perceived slights with threats of violence-and actual violence-can they look to our city council for modeling? Well, if bullying, whining, over-talking, and outbreaks of bad temper, are what we want to model, this week’s council meeting was spot-on.