1 Frank Ogawa Plaza: Oakland’s most expensive child-care center

Alerting all municipal melodrama addicts. Make sure to tune into to KTOP tonight for yet another episode in the increasingly tiresome soap opera I like to call Brooks and De La Fuente hate each other.

The pathetic pettiness of the 2008 season of this show peaked at the Council’s July 1st meeting, when De La Fuente asked to revisit a vote from the previous meeting where the Council had approved a redevelopment agency purchase of some property in District 6. This happened is response to a error-ridden and nonsensical item in the East Bay Express asserting (without any evidence) that Ignacio was somehow responsible for the City overpaying for the land. Ignacio, who one would assume is accustomed enough to paranoid accusations of corruption from Robert Gammon to ignore them most of the time, was apparently so incensed by the mere suggestion that he’d ever do anything to benefit Brooks’s district that he had to make a huge scene about it.

The discussion on this item at the meeting was beyond embarrassing. Brooks and De La Fuente looked like children squabbling on a playground, fighting over nothing at all. The rest of the Council was almost as bad – frankly, the only person in the entire room who looked like an adult was District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who basically sat there telling them to shut up and work out their problems after class. If you missed it, don’t worry. You can catch the encore tonight.

First, some background. The Mayor and every Councilmember get around $300,000 every year to spend on, well, basically on whatever they want. Not exactly anything they want, but basically, it goes for small projects that the City probably wouldn’t do otherwise. They’ll get less this year – pay-go funds were cut in half in the budget revisions earlier this month.

A lot of people hate pay-go. They call it wasteful or a “slush fund,” or act as though the very existence of discretionary funds is evidence of corruption. I disagree. I think it was only fair to cut the pay-go budget in half this year – in a time of such great budget difficulty, the pain needs to be shared broadly, but I think that if and when revenue starts returning to the City and we have a little more leeway, the full pay-go sum should be restored. Frankly, I don’t really understand why people are so opposed to the idea of their representatives having access to a small amount of discretionary funds they can use to buy license plate readers for the police department or put bike racks in their district or make minor improvements to a park or school playground. Click here (PDF) for a list of all the FY07-08 pay-go expenditures.

Some people say they oppose pay-go because it makes it too difficult to unseat incumbents. They say that when Councilmembers use it to do nice things for their districts, people who benefit from the projects vote for them because of it. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Councilmembers making neighborhood improvements that make people happy and enhance the quality of life in areas they represent – that’s kind of their job. Besides, I think this election bribery through pay-go stuff is kind of overblown. I mean, my Councilmember basically threw all her pay-go money in the trash, and she still got re-elected.

Anyway. Last year, the Council passed a resolution defining legitimate uses (PDF) of pay-go funds, and during tonight’s meeting (PDF), at the request of City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, they will consider making those restrictions (with some additions from De La Fuente) actual law (PDF). This would basically limit use of pay-go funds to capital improvement projects. For most Councilmembers, this won’t be a problem. For one, it will. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks uses some of her pay-go money to fund the series of concerts she puts on every summer at Arroyo Viejo Park.

So, I’m obviously not against clarifying guidelines for allowable uses of City funds, and I don’t, in theory, have any problems with De La Fuente’s proposal. I wasn’t really planning on commenting on it one way or another until I got this mass e-mail from Ignacio yesterday afternoon, asking people to support his proposal. The first part was good:

“Pay-go” was created for permanent, visible improvements to our City.

Pay-go is a program which started in 1999 for City Council members and the Mayor to fund Capital Improvements on City property, and it was later expanded to include public schools. The discretionary money, approximately $250,000 per year, was funded by the City’s Municipal Capital Improvement Fund. Since its inception, the program has allowed Council members to address urgent community capital needs and to support capital improvements such as playground equipment, recreation center and park improvements, pedestrian safety, street lighting, and sidewalk repair. The funding has also allowed for the timely purchasing of security cameras and vital police equipment.

In 2006, these funds ran out. At that time, it was decided that the Pay-go program would be funded with General Fund money.

Fine. But then, it goes waayy downhill:

Some council members chose to use this General Fund Pay-go money to pay for entertainment, food, tent rentals, special events, DJs, to “create a festive atmosphere”, and even hotel rooms. I think this practice is completely unacceptable.

For example, in fiscal year 06-07, Councilmember Brooks spent $40,000 of Pay-go funds on payments for food, equipment rentals, booth rentals, and stage rentals, including $2740.00 on “Room Rental fees for a Kwanzaa and Christmas Expo at the Marriott Hotel.” In 07-08, Councilmember Brooks spent $70,000 on similar expenses. Both the public and most council members have believed in and adhered to the original intent of the Pay-go program. Not only do Councilmember Brooks’ expenses not adhere to the original intent of the Pay-go program, they are also extremely expensive.

First, let me say that I do not think Brooks’s concerts are a waste of money. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of nice, family-friendly things to do going on in Eastmont. She’s doing a great service for her District. Now, having said that, I’ll also say that it’s possible that Ignacio is correct, and there are more appropriate funding sources than pay-go for these events. I don’t know. I’m inclined to think the concerts are okay, but I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.

But by framing his bland, good-government, fiscal accountability proposal as an attack on Councilmember Brooks, De La Fuente has definitely made me disinclined to support it. All of a sudden, it’s really difficult for me to see the guidelines as anything but politically motivated, just one more way for Ignacio to screw over his arch-nemesis.

He should know better. I don’t care what legitimate issues De La Fuente has with Brooks (or vice versa). They both need to learn to keep the finger pointing and petty political bickering out of City meetings, because God knows we have plenty of serious issues that should be taking up our time instead. Their ridiculous arguments remind me of the inane fights I inevitably get into with my little sister every single time I go home to Texas, where we both end up crying and screaming at each other at the top of our lungs over the dinner table about whether or not Verizon is a bad cell phone provider or something equally inconsequential. These incidents always end the exact same way – my father jumps in and sternly demands that I stop and I, in turn, point out that she started it and I’m in the right (naturally). No matter how many times this happens, his response is always the same. “V, I don’t care. You’re older, you need to act like it.”

Ignacio would be well-advised to heed his advice.

9 thoughts on “1 Frank Ogawa Plaza: Oakland’s most expensive child-care center

  1. Patrick

    Nice. I really like the “sweeper witch” that runs between the two of them. Or is that Kernighan trying to keep them apart?

  2. Tab

    This is exactly why Pay-Go is a horrible way to govern in the first place. If you can’t get five votes on the Council for a program, then it shouldn’t happen…period. That’s the way representative government works.

    To allow each CM a pot of money to spread around their district as they wish–regardless of the restrictions–is to give them a tremendous re-election advantage, which is the last thing we need. Oakland already has a congenital re-election pathology.

  3. Max Allstadt

    I’m not against giving logistical support to a group of volunteer performers and cooks that want to have a festival in a park. If a councilmember can offer to pay for insurance and equipment rental after citizens get their act together, that seems like a fitting role to me.

    I also don’t mind councilmembers having the resources to pay for things like street trees and trash cans. However, when the tree has a sign on it that says it was payed for by a particular councilmember, that sign constitutes campaigning as far as I’m concerned.

  4. len raphael

    maybe nadel’s constituents were so taken (in) by her that she didn’t have to use her pay-go to get re-elected, but in district 1 election campaign I came across a wide swath of young parents who warbled the praises of the incumbent telling me how wonderful the incumbent was to pay for some for some very basic improvements at two or three of the local elementary schools (that should have come out ousd budget.) the parents’ expectations of ousd were so pathetically low that the modest pay-go money had a disproportionate effect.

    in the current and foreseeable next several years of an incredibly shrinking city budget, cap the pay-go at 75K/year without any carryovers of unused amounts. remove the “capital expenditure” requirement because residents can get a whole bunch more bang for the buck out of a bunch of block parties than 4 blocks of new sidewalk.

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    Okay, after I posted this yesterday, I had like a dozen people forward me this e-mail the Desley Brooks sent out last Friday urging people to support her at the Council. This is what she sent (PDF). I think some of these people assumed I had not seen the e-mail before writing this post (I had). I also got the impression that many of these people appear to think that this justifies Ignacio’s behavior and the e-mail he sent out attacking her for no reason. Um, it doesn’t. Both of them are behaving like children.

  6. ConcernedOakFF

    I honestly believe that Ms. Brooks is certifiable, but that’s another topic….

    However, this entire exchange between the two of them is like a sandbox fight.

    Why are we letting ANYONE spend ANYTHING without full council approval in the current financial situation?

    This is exactly the type of discretionary funding that needs to be cut, as ripe as it is for corruption (which I believe is the type of behavior Ms. Brooks has displayed in the past)

  7. Patrick

    I see both sides of the issue. I do understand the desire to have something physically left behind as a result of spending Pay-Go funds. But, if something can be built with the assistance of labor that can be had for the cost of a DJ and some cole slaw, it seems that is an intelligent leveraging of the funds. However, I would disagree with using Pay-Go for a party in and of itself. That is a “feel good” measure that may win votes, but doesn’t have any lasting impact on the neighborhood.