Monthly Archives: June 2008

Where does all our money go?

PaulineZ brings up a good question in the comments:

Per the Chronicle 6/28, Edgerly will collect a pension of more than $150,000 a year. How can that be in a city as “poor” as Oakland

Okay, sometimes I wonder if people really don’t get why Oakland doesn’t have any money. I’m not saying that to be snotty or judgmental, it’s just that the problem is so self-evident to me. But I shouldn’t assume that it is for everyone, since it isn’t like this gets spelled out clear as day in the newspaper. Anyway, for those who don’t know, I’m going to tell you.

The reason that service in this city gets cut even as revenues rise is because of the costs of city employees. That includes general compensation, benefits, and pensions. City employees get annual cost of living increases, negotiated into our agreements with the union. The cost of providing medical coverage has risen astronomically over recent years. The private sector, in many cases, has dealt with this by significantly increasing employee contributions and cutting coverage. We have not. Our existing pensions obligations are staggering.

Roughly 75% of the General Purpose Fund costs go to personnel. We’re talking about pre-negotiated salary increases of as much as 4-5% annually, increased retirement plan premiums due to increased pension benefits, and medical costs rising 16-18% annually.

And that’s why we have no money. Some people would say that such a situation is unfair to the taxpayers – City employees, in most positions anyway, are generally paid better than they would be for the equivalent job or for their skill set in the private sector. (The reverse is true for many of the highest paid positions.) Their compensation in terms of benefits and retirement is certainly significantly higher than could be expected in the private sector, and the costs of providing it rises far faster than inflation or revenue even in boom times. And the people of Oakland suffer for this in the form of reduced service delivery for their money. Others would argue that the City should lead by example, and that poor compensation in the private sector does not make it okay to compensate civil servants equally poorly, and that we have a moral obligation to provide our workforce with nothing less than what is required to live and raise a family here, whether that’s a market wage or not. Both arguments have merit. I’m not taking a position on either side here, just pointing out that people want to know where the money goes, and that’s where it goes.

Deep. Structural. Problems.

So everyone is still all caught up in the Edgerly scandal and nobody seems to want to talk about anything else. Meanwhile, I’m still sitting by myself in the corner all upset about structural flaws in Oakland’s government that make it difficult for elected officials to accomplish anything. And a perfect example of the sort of disfunction I’m complaining about just happened to fall into my lap at Tuesday’s CED committee meeting.

Okay, a little background. Oakland has this thing called the Workforce Investment Board (WIB). The WIB gets to allocate the millions and millions of dollars worth of federal job training money that flow into this city. The bulk of this money currently goes to the Oakland Private Industry Council (PIC), run by Gay Plair Cobb. PIC has previously come under fire for their high cost per trainee ($11,000/person, compared to say, $1,880/per person at the Unity Council).

So the WIB contracts are awarded in July, with some organizations getting two year or three year contracts and other getting only one. The WIB is currently working on next year’s budgets and will make decisions about what programs they fund next month. At the Community and Economic Development Committee (CED) on Tuesday, the Committee was supposed to hear and discuss an evaluation of the programs that are currently receiving said funding. But when they got to the item, there was, to the extreme consternation of the Committee members, no report.

This prompted an argument with the City Attorney’s representative about whether or not they could discuss the item without the report. The Attorney’s office said no, that without a report, the item had not been properly noticed to the public, and therefore the Councilmembers were not allowed to discuss it. Jane Brunner and Ignacio De La Fuente were insistent that they should at the very least be allowed to ask questions about why they didn’t get a report. Jane Brunner was on fire, righteously pissed about the whole situation:

I don’t care! I don’t care! You can take me to court! We are discussing this item, I don’t care! Staff had a conversation with me, they told me they weren’t ready, I said “Put something in so we know what your procedure is and what you’re gonna do”, and it’s blank!

After the discussion, the City Attorney’s office clarified their position, that the Council was indeed allowed to ask why there was no report, but that they couldn’t talk about anything beyond that.

Ignacio De La Fuente was right there with her:

That’s a discussion we should have. The reality is that seven million dollars a year comes into this program. And the reality that there’s no report, there has been no updated reports and no information provided to the public, that’s the point of discussion. Ms. Brunner’s correct, I’m sorry, Ms. Brunner’s correct. If all we’re going to do is that staff don’t write reports, and that way items don’t be discussed, I think that we have to absolutely, the system is not working. Obviously, there’s a reason that nobody wants to submit a report. Mr. Lindheim, I know that you are new to the CEDA agency, but the reality is that it is a problem where the WIB and the job training programs are not providing reports, and there’s a reason why they’re not providing reports. Because every report that was provided two years ago and three years ago showed that they had spent ten times more than any other organization provided per individual. So it is a discussion that we should have, and I think there’s a reason why Ms. Brunner is upset, and I think that I absolutely disagree with the ruling that if an item is on an agenda, and all you have to do is not submit a report and we’re not going to discuss it, excuse me, but that’s not acceptable.

When Brunner asked Community and Economic Development Agency director Dan Lindheim why there was no report, the response she got was smug, rude, and curt:

There’s no report because there’s no report written.

Then he told her he could probably get a report written for her by October. I really can’t imagine what Lindheim could have possibly done or said to make his contempt for the City Council more clear. It was just shocking. Brunner kept pressing him, saying that it was completely innappropriate that the WIB would be making decisions about funding in the next month with no evaluations of the programs they’re looking at, and Lindheim just sitting there, just totally uninterested in acknowledging there was any sort of problem, or doing a damn thing about it:

I can answer that in about three different ways, none of which are going to be satisfactory to you.

After it became clear that there wasn’t anything they could do to get some information for the board to make their decisions by July, Brunner suggested they just allocate funding month by month until they got an evaluation report, which she wanted to see at the first committee meeting after recess, in September. Dan Lindheim basically told her that she could schedule the report whenever she wanted, but that he wasn’t going to write it for then.

This is exactly what I’m talking about. This isn’t a new problem. I have complained before about the total lawlessness of the bureaucracy in City Hall. And it isn’t like that culture of disrespect for elected officials and their requests didn’t exist at the top levels of government before. But Lindheim has taken it to an entirely new level. It’s just jaw-dropping. The man just sits there in public meetings telling the Council and everyone else that he’s just not going to do what they direct him to. And there isn’t a damn thing anyone on the Council can do about it! Deep. Structural. Problems.

Oakland on Forum with Michael Krasny

If you didn’t feel completely depressed about Oakland’s government already, you certainly will after listening to yesterday’s show. Of particular note is around the 34 minute mark, Chip Johnson asks David Chai when the search for Edgerly’s replacement began, and even with some forceful pressing, of course gets absolutely no answer. Although he got a big laugh from me when, in response to Chai robotically repeating over and over again “We will have a seamless transition,” he interjects “Not if I can help it!”

Also, if you listen to the whole thing, you’ll get an opportunity to hear yours truly. Other highlights include a call from Patrick McCullough. And you’ll get to hear, unbelievably, David Chai trying to claim that Ron Dellums is responsible for Oakland’s downtown revitalization. (Chip Johnson also calls bullshit on this one. Johnson, BTW, was just totally awesome during the entire show.) Chai also says repeatedly on the program that homicides are down! We are currently at 65 homicides this year, compared to 50 last year. That is a 30% increase!

Today in Montclair has more.

UPDATE: Oakland Focus is now reporting there’s a rumor going around that Edgerly has been placed on paid administrative leave.

UPDATE #2: Now confirmed that Edgerly is on administrative leave until July 31st. Acting City Administrator is, who else, Dan Lindheim. Does this mean I don’t get to write my planned post on him, “Worst CEDA Director ever” for Monday? Eh, I think I’ll do it anyway.

Thank you, Ignacio! Thank you, Jane Brunner!

So Dellums’s new parcel tax for police on the November ballot will be discussed at Rules Committee on July 10th, then at the City Council meeting on July 15th. I look forward to hearing the details. I’m highly skeptical at this point of the City asking Oakland residents for any more money at all, given the way they spend what we’re already paying, but I was much heartened by comments on the issue from City Council President Igancio De La Fuente and from District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner at Rules Committee this morning. Continue reading

Chris Kidd: Finding “Flex Space”

Chris Kidd here, letting our beloved Vsmoothe take the day off from ABO. You should recognize me as the pragmatic, socialist-leaning planning enthusiast and Eucalyptus hater from comments. I’m going to take my first stab at writing for ABO, so take it easy on me, huh? I know the swan song of Deborah Edgerley is the topic du jour, but let’s take a break from all the doom ‘n’ gloom surrounding our fair city and throw on our thinking caps. Continue reading

Thank you, readers! Also, Deborah Edgerly.

First, I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me in the East Bay Express poll! I’m thrilled to be named Readers’ Choice for best local topic blogger. In your face, Mayor of Claycord! Take that, Lauren Do! Anyway, I just wanted to say how happy and flattered I was for the recognition. (And a special thanks to Becks for pimping ABO!) You guys rock. As a thank you, I’m going to write about something that I wasn’t planning on writing about, but based on the e-mails and comments I’m getting, you guys clearly want me to.

I haven’t said anything about this Deborah Edgerly mess partly because I’ve been out of town, but also because I don’t care. Okay, that’s not true. I care deeply in the sense that I think the whole thing is just horrible. The situation makes Oakland look totally bush league, and it makes me want to cry. But I don’t really care to write about it because, well, this just isn’t my thing. Obviously corruption in City Hall is terrible, and should be investigated and uprooted. The nepotism that goes on in City hiring is a damn travesty. And if the allegations the Edgerly tipped off her nephew about the upcoming bust are true, she should go to prison. But I have no way of knowing if that’s what happened or not (that’s for the FBI, not me, to figure out), so I don’t really feel like I’m in any position to comment on it. In any case, policy is my thing. Land use, transit, boring city reports – I know what I’m talking about and have lots of opinions developed over long periods of time and significant study. Scandal? Not so much. So I feel like I’m in kind of unfamiliar territory posting about this. But you guys asked, so here you go.

I think that Dellums made a huge, huge mistake in letting her stay on until the end of July. Again, I’m certainly not in a position to know enough about the situation to say whether or not she should be fired, but regardless of whether the allegations are true, they have crippled the public’s already shaky faith in our City government, and that is reason enough for her to be removed from her post. If Dellums doesn’t want to fire her, he should at the very least put her on paid administrative leave until her retirement date and appoint an interim replacement to run things in the meantime. I know people are worked up about her still getting paid and still getting her pension and all that, and I’m not going to say that those concerns are unreasonable (although I’ll again point out that we really aren’t in any position to know whether that’s justified), but I’m willing to take what I can get, and personally, all I want right now is her out of City Hall. I don’t understand how anyone is supposed to work with her at this point. The reasoning behind Dellums’s decision to let her stay active through July completely eludes me – seriously, I spent the better part of my flight last night from Salt Lake City puzzling over it, and I just cannot see any rhyme or reason there. Willingly forfeiting the public trust is never okay.

And I have never felt so bad for the City Council as I do right now. Their constituents are completely up in arms about this situation, and with good reason. Yet they are not empowered to do a damn thing about it! The City Charter gives them no authority whatsoever here, and even worse, they’re totally beholden to her if they want to accomplish anything. Some commenters have suggested that they should be all over the media about this, but I just don’t see how that would be productive. The Mayor is apparently not interested in responding to citizen or media pressure, and the City Administrator has all the power, and things have to get done before recess, so I can’t see how anything would be accomplished by making what is likely an already strained working relationship even worse.

The other thing that bothers me about all the uproar is that I think too much focus is being placed on Edgerly as an individual. People are crying for her dismissal and screaming about her corruption, and I think that in doing so, they may be losing sight of the larger problem. Singling Edgerly out as the source of all that is wrong with Oakland makes it easy to forget about the serious structural problems with our government. Intense focus on a lone individual can lead to a situation where people start internalizing the idea that if we just got rid of this one person, things would all of a sudden be just fine. And that isn’t true. First, there’s the issue of who will replace her. We deserve a superstar from some far away place who knows nothing about Oakland, but knows all about a well-run city. Who knows what we’ll get, but something tells me it won’t be that. Second, the City Administrator just has too much power. The way resources are allocated in Oakland doesn’t give Councilmembers sufficient opportunity to make real progress. We need charter reform, and the one good thing that may come out of this whole disaster is that it will hopefully be the push the Council to start thinking seriously about that. I can’t say right now exactly what all the reforms should be – there are some things I’ve wanted to see for a long time, but talking in detail about all the changes I think we need, well, that’s going to me some time and quite a bit of research, so I’m just not ready to put anything out there quite yet.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that.

UPDATE: Okay, so based on feedback on this post, both in comments and in person, I think I failed to communicate that I do think this situation with Edgerly is a serious problem. Rest assured, it upsets me, it frustrates me, at times, it has made me want to throw my hands in the air and give up on the City and just return to putting all the energy I spend on this blog into non-political community improvement efforts. I hate everything about it. All I was trying to say, and I guess I didn’t make it very clear in the original post, is that I love, and want to write about, policy, and I hate politics, and I don’t know if that’s a distinction that makes sense to anyone besides me, but that’s what I want this blog to be about, and that’s why I haven’t been writing about the Edgerly debacle. It just isn’t what I do. And I really am worried about people ignoring larger structural problems that this issue should highlight in favor of focusing all their ire on one person.

The importance of getting things right

So in last week’s East Bay Express, Robert Gammon had a story about the redevelopment agency buying some property out in East Oakland for more than they should have (I mentioned the sale last Monday). What could have been an opportunity to highlight some of the ineptness of Oakland’s bureaucracy instead devolves into a bizarre (and unclear) conspiracy theory involving Ignacio De La Fuente. I haven’t looked into the details of the ownership changes on this piece of property or the history of the City’s acquisition plans, nor do I plan to. But when I read the story, one line in particular made my eyebrows jump: Continue reading

Talking seriously about election reform

I particularly enjoyed the comment Len Raphael a while back on my post about term limits, so much so, that with his permission, I’m republishing it here as a post of its own.

I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every single thing he suggests, but overall, he successfully pinpoints what the most serious barriers for challengers in our municipal elections are and proposes measures that would ameliorate some of the problems. If people are serious about local electoral reform, these are the sort of things you need to be talking about. Such reforms would do a hell of a lot more to help people outside of the local political establishment than term limits. Enjoy: Continue reading

OPD issuing tickets for violating non-existent outdoor smoking ban

So here I was, all excited to go on vacation and ready and eager to spend a few days without giving a thought it the world to Oakland, or the City Council, or the budget, or insane civil service rules, or Deborah Edgerly, or any of it.

So last night, I step off the plane in the Electric City, and check my voicemail, since my flight came in early and my hostess isn’t there yet to pick me up. I have one message, from a friend all frantic and irritated about the fact that he had just been ticketed for smoking outside a bar. Continue reading