The Oakland City Council Embarrasses Itself.

Photo by Theresa Adams, Oakland North

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.

Occupy Oakland and Me, Breakin’ up is Hard to do.

Occupy Oakland took over the council meeting again last night and railed at our city government which  was in the middle of grappling with a huge state takeback that threatens many of our jobs and our future economic development. Funny, I can still remember when the Occupy movement gave us all hope and breathed fresh air into our stagnant political environment.

Not so anymore, at least here in Oakland. If you ask most city residents what OO is doing, they’ll say, don’t know, don’t care. If you ask Oakland’s progressive community with a long time history of struggling for civil rights, civil liberties, economic justice, and democracy with a small “d”, what do you say?

I say it’s time to stop besmirching our movement. It’s time to stop threatening our city. It’s time to stop having tantrums in or around our city hall. For me, it’s also time to stop ignoring my democratic choice to pick my city council and my mayor.

While we’re at it, can you really be encouraging and celebrating the-as another Oaklander put it- testosterone-fueled stalking of our first woman mayor? Can you really be wreaking havoc, or hoping to-if you had the damned numbers-in Chinatown every Saturday night-oh-especially during New Year’s celebrations?

Wait…I almost laughed when you valiantly challenged the city council to call off the cops to save money during the Fuck the Police marches. Really, isn’t that the point? You’re making the damn revolution playing tag with the OPD every Saturday night, vandalizing businesses, encouraging arson, and you want the city to call off the cops so you can do that unencumbered?! But I didn’t laugh cause I was just too pissed off.

Listening to our president the other night, I reminded myself that he probably wouldn’t have been able to issue a populist (to the extent he did) challenge to the Republicans without the burgeoning resistance that Occupy Wall Street represented. I will always be grateful to all the folks who took time out from their own private struggle, who unleashed their creativity to form flash mobs, paint signs, write skits, and ultimately, to risk arrest and injury to bring us to our senses and out onto the streets.

But like first love, we were all on our best behavior then as we moved as one down the overpass to the port one glorious summer (California summer, that is, November) evening. Even then, we were deluding ourselves as young lovers often do.

What was the reason for shutting down our port? Was it the workers in Longview, the truckers without contracts, or a reaction to the horrendous police repression? Reaction only works for so long as motivation. Trying to make us believe that every interaction with the city and even OPD was brutal is like trying to convince us that our only love can never be wrong.

One quote I remember well as I stood with a group of peacekeepers the morning of the second eviction was an astonished, “I’ve never had such a positive interaction with the police.” So the brutal second eviction, just another lie we tell each other to keep the love from dying.

Have the police harassed protestors and arrested them for trivialities? I believe they have. Sadly, we will all pay for that harassment, and we are sickened by our police force’s inability to see the need to change its relationship to our citizens (residents=citizens). Do we think these little hissy fits in our streets will fix that? Come’on.

Before I fall out of love altogether with a movement that was supposed to represent all of us, please stop issuing threats to close down our port or our city hall. Remember, threats can’t make me love you again. They can only make me flee your touch.

Chronicle Editors Outraged, Mayor Reads News Online!

Mayor Jean Quan with her husband, Dr. Floyd Huen

The San Francisco Chronicle is on a tear. They have spent years and presumably thousands of their hard-earned dollars paying columnists to trash Oakland. I think the only mayor we ever had that they didn’t attack with such ferocity was, yeah, you guessed it, Jerry Brown. But Jerry was clearly part of the political establishment.

I won’t try to psychologize why they never found anything that about Dellums to like. It might have started with Dellums’ own disparagement of the press and just gone downhill from there. But, it wasn’t just Dellums, whenever possible they castigated city council members except for maybe,  de la Fuente (a Perata ally).

But now their editorial team is reaching so far out to find fault, that it’s becoming laughable. First the Chron editorial team meets with our new mayor and nitpicks its way through a nasty depiction of her new administration.

Then they declare that “Quan should be outraged”. Maybe they missed all her press briefings, “Open letter to Occupy Oakland”, and her outraged defense of port workers and port business while they were sitting in a corner of their San Francisco ivory tower reading print editions of their paper.

Let’s see, no city has been able to control its “occupations” without overwhelming force and heavy expenditures, but Quan should have able to do better than all of them. The port, which sits in our city, represents commerce from around the entire Bay area; yet we are still expected to beg or pay for assistance from other police agencies-dealing with the aftermath alone when they don’t follow our “crowd control” rules, including the resulting lawsuits and negative publicity.

Okay, yeah, guess our new mayor isn’t superwoman although even the Chronicle could never fault her work ethic and dedication to our town. But the other issue they have with her is that she reads the newspaper online. Wow, since the majority of newspaper readers in this day and age, digest their news online, is this for real?

Why don’t these cranky folks come out and say what they have against our mayor and our city? I don’t know what their problem is; but since I do read their paper (in print form most days), I have noticed a pattern: delegitimizing our system of voting and disparaging our grassroots work.

The folks at the Chron endorsed the machine candidate for mayor and fully expected him to win. When he didn’t, numerous stories began to appear casting aspersions on RCV, ranked-choice-voting, which I admit, helped to elect the first grassroots mayor in our history.

In terms of that silly resolution demanding the city prevent any future port closures, well, that was just posturing and carried with it no guarantee of how that might be accomplished.

Occupy Oakland has said that it no longer sees that as a tactic, but now some of the more reactionary elements in the movement may want to take on the challenge issued by de la Fuente. I hope they won’t be goaded into such a wrongheaded move; but I think the attention the resolution brought to the difficulties all cities face in these days of turmoil, did more to promote uncertainty than to contain it.

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.