Monthly Archives: May 2011

Union perspectives on employee concessions

There was a lot of talk in the comments section of my post about Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s proposal to basically shut down the library system about employee compensation, and what kind of pay cut is reasonable to ask of City employees.

I don’t recall anyone coming out and saying what they think would make for reasonable concessions. There were, however, a couple of comments suggesting that concessions should be whatever it takes to close the budget deficit.

So I played around with the numbers a little bit yesterday. It’s difficult to get a firm number for total employee costs, since, as I’ve noted before, the Mayor’s budgets omit most of the information contained in normal budgets, such as the employees by position by department and fund, and personnel versus non-personnel costs by program. However, from what I was able to cobble together from various sources, it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of an 85% reduction in compensation (including benefits) to close the $58 million General Fund deficit only through concessions of non-sworn workers.

How much do City workers cost?

The chart below shows the average total personnel costs to the City for police, firefighters, and civilian employees, as explained in the budget facts (PDF).

Police, on average, cost $191,390 a year: $104,026 for salary, $43,164 for health benefits, and $44,200 for pensions. Firefighters, on average, cost a little bit less than that, $185,703 annually: $109,196 for salary, $48,150 for medical, and $28,367 for pensions. Non-sworn workers costs an average of $99,870 per year: $63,634 for salary, $22,040 for health, and $14,196 for pensions.

What do the unions say?

Anyway. It seemed fair, if we’re going to be discussing compensation, to include the union perspective in the conversation. The videos below show testimony from representatives of the City’s civilian unions at recent City Council budget meetings.

One thing that I think is important to note is that the testimony seems to suggest that negotiations are not going well at all. I have heard a lot of people, including Councilmembers, say that we basically don’t need to worry about Scenario A because it assumes no concessions from the unions and of course there will be plenty of concessions. I don’t feel nearly so comfortable making that assumption.

The position being expressed by the civilian unions at this point is basically that they are willing to give more in terms of concessions than they have over the last few years, but only if sworn employees take equivalent cuts. It’s a reasonable position, but one that makes me very nervous for the City, considering how things worked out last year.

Here’s one from last Thursday:

There’s a lot of budget facts floating around here right now. I’m here to connect the dots for you, the City Council, our City staff, and the residents of Oakland, and put a face on what your decisions mean for those of us who live in and work for the City of Oakland.

To repeat some facts: 54% of non-sworn staff live in the City of Oakland. 7% of Oakland Police Department officers live in the City of Oakland.

Non-sworn staff earn, on average, $75,000 in salary and benefits. OPD officers earn, on average, $150,000 in salary and benefits.

Approximately 66% of the City’s budget is paid to police and firefighters — where the budget deficit is.

City of Oakland residents have generously approved numerous property tax increases over the last few years, including myself. And you are currently considering asking residents to approve yet another $80 parcel tax to provide continued support to the City’s General Fund.

In 94605 area code, where I live, 40% of the homes in my district that are up for sale are either in foreclosure or short sale. That includes my home. 15% in salary cuts combined with 20% combined increases in mortgage, property tax, and insurance costs are forcing me out of my home.

We who both live and work in this City are paying at all ends. Cuts in income, higher housing costs, and continuous asks for more property taxes. And OPD is still not willing to pay a penny. Fair share!

Here’s one from the May 5th budget meeting:

Local 21 has a long history of making contributions to the City in times of budget crisis. In 2003, before we had even signed our recently negotiated contract, the City came to us seeking concessions and threatening layoffs because of projected budget shortfalls.

And although we had just agreed to increase employee retirement contributions by 3%, we then agreed to increase them by an addition 3% for another two years. That agreement included a pledge by the City to require all City employees to contribute the equivalent of either the 3% retirement contribution or 12 furlough days per year.

However, the City did not honor this agreement, and while civilian unions were required to make contributions or take cuts, sworn employees were not required to make any contribution at all.

Since the current economic crisis began, we have made substantial contributions to the City. In Fiscal Year 2008-09, the union agreed to the imposition of 12 shutdown days, of which all but one occurred after the last week of December, and, in effect, our members suffered a 10% loss of pay from January 09 through June 2009.

And then in our most recent contract, we agreed again to concessions of 10% by increasing our retirement contribution to the full employee rate of 8%, 12 mandatory business shutdown days per year, and one-third reduction in management leave. As a result, our cost of living increases for 2005 through 2007, when we last got one, were largely eliminated, and today we are making less than we made six years ago. In 2010, the City unilaterally and without meet and confer eliminated free parking for a number of members, effectively resulting in a further loss of pay.

All of these concessions came on top of substantial reductions in force without a corresponding elimination of programs or reduction in work. Today, our members are working harder for less pay.

Let me remind you that 56% of civilian workers live in Oakland, while only 22% of firefighters and only 7% of police. Put another way, when you look at those Oakland City employees who live in Oakland, 94% of them are civilians. We live here, we pay taxes, we vote. We are committed to this City. And we share the pain when vital community services are cut.

Time and time again, our experience has been this. Civilian employees are the first to make concessions to help the City’s budget. And we end up being the last to do so. This cannot continue.

We are all aware that nearly 75% of the City’s General Fund goes to police and fire, and much of what’s left goes to debt service and and mandated programs. There is no mathematical way to balance the City’s budget on the backs of civilian workers.

We understand that the City will be seeking further sacrifices from our members, and we understand that the wage concessions you will be seeking will be in addition to staff reductions and departmental reorganization and consolidation.

In other words, more layoffs, more cuts to essential quality of life services in Oakland, and a rollback of our compensation to an effective rate equal to where we were at in 2001, 10 years ago.

There is a limit to what our members can afford to give. Many are barely making ends meet as is. Many have partners or spouses who have lost work or income, compounding the pain. And some of our members, including some of the people who are currently at the bargaining table, are at risk of losing their homes. Basic fairness dictates that the cuts you make must be proportional to the cost of different bargaining units within the General Fund.

And given our past experience, we need to see contributions from other employee groups before we can agree to make our contribution because past promises to secure equivalent contributions have not been honored.

Let’s be clear. We are not saying that we can’t make a contribution. In fact, we could have been done with the bargaining process already, since you know we have offered for the last six months to roll over our existing contract and continue the concessions we have been giving for the past two years. That offer was not accepted.

What we are saying is that we are not willing to simply offer up concessions without seeing real contributions from those who constitute the bulk of the costs in the General Fund.

And another from last Thursday:

We have proven our willingness to sacrifice for this City, not just in the quality of our work life, but in our paychecks also. It hasn’t been easy. Many 1021 workers are the sole breadwinners in their family, some have lost their homes.

But now, during these difficult contract negotiations, our members are being asked to give too much. The proposals from the City equal over 25% of our incomes, and growing. Even so, our side is ready to roll up our sleeves, move forward, and negotiate, to mitigate our losses and to try to negotiate a contract that will save our services.

Unfortunately, as a member of the negotiations team, I have to report that your City negotiators seem intent on giving very little in terms of cooperating to improve our working conditions and to maintain the workforce in a humane way. It’s disgraceful in with as much humanity and compassion as Oakland that management has to treat its dedicated and most devoted workers with so little respect and care.

If the public saw what is going on in negotiations, they would understand. We’re being put in an impossible place. It’s like a mugging in slow motion. There is no give and take, the City is all take and take.

We aren’t asking for raises here. We’re seeking solutions to problems that negatively affect our work and services. The City workers are your partners and allies in a crisis that is not our fault. We’re not your scapegoats or your low-lying fruit. We are your workers and we work hard. Have some respect.

Oakland MTC seat moves forward

Back in January, Becks wrote on Living in the O about a proposal from Alameda County Supervisor and MTC Commissioner Scott Haggerty that would add two seats to the MTC, one appointed by the Mayor of San Jose and one appointed by the Mayor of Oakland.

Right now, the MTC is consists of 19 members. There are three seats are for non-local agencies: HUD, US DOT, and the California Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency. These three members do not vote. Then there are two Commissioners from San Mateo County, two from San Francisco, two from Contra Costa County, two from Alameda County, two from Santa Clara County, and one each from Napa, Sonoma, Marin, and Solano Counties. Finally, there is one seat representing ABAG and one representing BCDC.

Each of the counties that get 2 representatives have one member from the Board of Supervisors representing the county and one member from the county’s Conference of Mayors, who represents the cities in that county. So most cities in the Bay Area have no member of the MTC representing their specific, individual interests. This is generally fine, since the point of the MTC is to make decisions for the whole region, so parochialism is not supposed to enter into decisions.

The chart below shows the 2010 population of each of those Counties.

MTC County Populations

The proposal to introduce two additional seats representing the cities of Oakland and San Jose would make the composition of the Commission more equitable in terms of the population, which is good on its own.

Since San Francisco is both a city and a county, it gets two representatives just on its own, and is currently over represented on MTC relative to its population compared with Alameda and Santa Clara Counties and also compared to every other city in the Bay Area, none of which currently have a dedicated, permanent seat on the Commission.

Nevertheless, San Francisco has objected to the notion of adding the Oakland and San Jose seats. In February, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution (PDF) against the proposal on the grounds that it would dilute their representation, asserting that MTC representation should be based on a city’s “daytime population” which includes people who work and don’t live in the city, rather than “nighttime population,” or in the terms everyone else in the world uses, “population.”

I find this tremendously short-sighted on the part of San Francisco. The proposed change of the composition of the MTC isn’t about diluting the representation of San Francisco — it’s about ensuring the representation of urban areas where we need to plan for growth. In terms of regional planning and investment, San Francisco’s needs are clearly more closely aligned with those of the two other biggest Bay Area cities than they are with the suburban interests that dominate the Commission now. When this was discussed at MTC in January, Commissioner Scott Haggerty had pretty much the same response:

For me, this is a different issue, though. It’s not about population as it was reported I think in the Mercury either today or yesterday, a quote from me in which I’m referring with Commissioner Yeager, which I wonder if Commissioner Yeager actually said that quote because I didn’t even talk to the reporter. So I don’t know how I was quoted.

But it’s not really about population. For me, this is about what we’re embarking on with our sister agencies — the Air District, ABAG. And as we move forward with the implementation of SB 375 and AB 32, if we listen to what we’re voting on over these last six, seven months, eight months, this whole Sustainable Communities Strategy is really putting the population back into the urban cores. And really it’s discontinuing the notion of sprawl and growing outside of our urban limit lines.

So, to me, it seems like if we’re really going to embark on this discussion and we’re going to have a discussion that is meaningful, it’s really important that we have the three major urban cores — San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose sitting at this table as a voting member in a way in which they can help us not push the policy, but help us create the policy, and I think that’s really what’s important.

I think there’s this need to bring them together, to to get the knowledge and the wisdom that they have as big city Mayors as we start talking about infrastructure, land use, and how we’re going to really attack these Sustainable Community Strategies.

The proposal was approved by the MTC in January with a vote of 9 yes, 3 no, and 1 abstention.

So why am I writing about this now? Well, I just wanted to point out that the Oakland MTC seat is moving forward. As dto510 noted yesterday, the bill, AB 57, passed the Assembly last week and has now moved on to the Senate. So we’re one step closer to an Oakland MTC seat! Hooray!

Library supporters pack Council budget meeting

The two hours of public comment at last night’s budget meeting was dominated by library supporters, testifying about the importance of libraries in Oakland and protesting the possibility of cuts.

What would the Mayor’s budget mean for the library?

Most people I run into around town lately seem to be aware that the Mayor’s proposed budget closes libraries, but very few appear to be aware of the severity of the proposed cuts. Even those who have followed the budget in some detail are often fuzzy about just what these proposed cuts would mean.

This is probably because the Mayor’s budget summaries say simply that under Scenario A, four libraries would remain open (Main, Dimond, Rockridge, and 81st Avenue) while fourteen locations would be closed. That’s horrible on its own, of course. But a lot of people, after seeing the summary, seem to be left with the impression that at least those locations would continue to operate in the same way that they do now.

This is not the case.

Under this scenario, the Library’s allotted staff would decrease from the current 215.04 FTE to a mere 22.8 FTE (PDF). That is a nearly 90% staffing cut, which clearly does not leave enough staff to operate the Library’s four largest facilities at the same level of service currently being provided.

In the video below from last night’s budget meeting, Oakland Public Library Director Carmen Martinez outlines the severe impacts to services at the library under the Mayor’s proposed budget Scenario A:

To maintain minimum library services at the four remaining libraries, we would need to really work with the City Administrator to reduce the services that we currently offer or to just eliminate many of them. We’d have to eliminate days and hours open to the public. 22.8 FTEs don’t allow us to run four buildings in the manner we run them now.

We would lose public access to community meeting rooms, we would not be able to purchase books and materials. The City would not have access to the entire system’s collection, it would only have access to those four branch collections. There would be limited access to public computers and technology, and community programming, including everything we do now from Lawyers in the Libraries to all of our wonderful children’s and teen programs would be severely reduced.

We would close the Oakland History Room, the Teen Zone, and the Children’s Room at the Main Library, and public access at the Main Library would be limited to the first floor, requiring the move of the Magazine & Newspapers, Children’s and Teen’s collection all to the first floor so we could manage one floor at a time.

The last slide is just to remind Council that library services as we have provided and enjoyed them all these years would cease to exist under Option A, but be maintained under Options B and C.

A FAQ prepared by the library (PDF) notes additional service impacts, such as the discontinuation of electronic services like databases and downloadable e-books.

Scenario A and Measure Q

The reason our libraries are facing such drastic cuts under Scenario A is because that the majority of the Library’s funding is currently provided by a parcel tax, Measure Q. This tax, which passed with a 77.2% yes vote, goes only to fund the library, and requires the City to give the library a minimum contribution of $9,059,989 from the General Fund (the same amount it got from the General Fund in 2000) in order to collect the tax.

Mayor Jean Quan’s Budget Scenario A would reduce the library’s General Fund funding (PDF) to less than four million dollars, forcing the City to give up Measure Q. That means sacrificing nearly $14 million of dedicated funding to the library, and cutting the library’s budget by almost $20 million in order to get a savings to the City of roughly $6 million.

The Mayor’s proposed Budget Scenario B, which assumes employee concessions and no parcel tax, proposes to keep library funding at the Measure Q mandated minimum, allowing us to retain library services without new taxes.

However, some Councilmembers seem to have either failed to notice this or don’t believe it. Indeed, even the Mayor herself appears to have forgotten this detail. I have seen at least two Councilmembers respond to constituent messages protesting library cuts by saying that if they want to keep the libraries open, they need to support the parcel tax. At the Library’s author talk with Isabel Wilkerson the other night at AAMLO (made possible by the wonderful Friends of the Oakland Public Library), Oakland Mayor Jean Quan told the crowd that the “only way” to protect Measure Q was to pass her parcel tax.

Public testimony in support of the Oakland Public Library

Below, I’ve highlighted some of the public comment from last night’s meeting, most of it from library staff, about the importance of libraries to Oakland, and especially to Oakland’s youth.

Here’s one from an employee at the new 81st Avenue Community Library in East Oakland, talking about how library staff serve as mentors and positive role models to the next generation of Oakland youth:

Although it’s not part of our job description, as library staff, we are mentors, we are building relationships and modeling positive social skills with our community and most importantly, young people. As a man working in East Oakland, and as a man without a gun working in East Oakland, I’m overwhelmed by the impact that myself and my colleagues have on the lives of young men who use our libraries.

I know that I speak for all my colleagues when I say that we have a passion and a commitment to bettering the lives that we serve. The fifth grade boys I work with today, the two schools next door to the 81st Avenue Branch, are the next generation of 17 to 24 year old men of color in East Oakland. We have an opportunity to shift the need of policing this next generation and giving them skills to thrive and reflect and make good decisions that make our community healthier for all of us, including them.

In this one, a Children’s Librarian from the 81st Avenue Community Library talks about how children in the neighborhood seek out the library as a place of solace and escape from tragedies in their lives:

In this video, an Oakland Children’s Librarian presents the Council with 5,511 signatures from Oakland residents on a petition expressing outrage at the proposed closure of libraries, and speaks about the economic returns of money invested in library services:

But one thing that hasn’t been discussed so far is the fact that libraries bring economic value to communities, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about that. This is something else that I’d like to show Council, this is just one of a number of studies that have been conducted throughout the United States. This latest one is from Wisconsin, there’s the bibliography that lists about forty other locations that have done studies.

What these studies have found is that for every dollar that is spent on library services between four and five dollars of returns come into the city economically. How do these benefits come? They come through salaries that are paid, and there are over four hundred part time and full time staff that are at Oakland Public Library right now.

They come with taxes that are paid, and sixty five percent of Oakland Public Library employees are City of Oakland residents. They come from vendors and contractors, many of them local, that sell items to Oakland Public Library. They come from neighboring businesses who generate income from patrons who are using the library. This is particularly critical in Oakland where we need retail businesses. Library locations such as those at Cesar Chavez, Piedmont Avenue, Rockridge, Dimond are located on Main avenues and people who use the library bring in business.

They also bring in economic business for the cost of services if the public had to buy them. We’re talking about buying books, DVDs, computer time, and programs. This is the May calendar of events for the Oakland Public Library, and I counted the number of programs we’re offering this month — two hundred twenty five. Additionally, OPL offers computer skills and resources for people searching for jobs. We offer free legal help, we offer free tax help, and free financial help.

Cutting any sort of libraries, as my mother would have said, may be penny wise, but it is pound foolish.

In this video, an East Oakland librarian discusses the importance of public libraries for Oakland’s youth in light of the lack of school libraries at Oakland public schools.

Our school’s libraries are already decimated. There are currently 7,500 OUSD students without library services this year. That number will not be smaller next year. As of last week, when almost all OUSD funded librarians were laid off, there are only two professional librarians paid for currently by OUSD. Now we are threatening to take away these students’ public libraries too. What does our city’s future look like when our children lose access to books and research help, when our job seekers lose access to computers and resources, and the number of community funded safe spaces lessens to nearly none?

Here’s a teen library patron discussing the importance of libraries for Oakland youth who wish to attend college.

We all lose if libraries are cut, but the city’s teens and children will lose the most.

This one isn’t from last night, it’s actually from the May 12th meeting. An Oakland Children’s Librarian discusses the importance of libraries for children in Oakland.

The major social problems our city faces are all predicated on kids success in school. The National Center for Education statistics shows that reading success is positively by access to public libraries, not only through materials, but through programs. Recent research shows that literacy behaviors learned in the first three years of life are the crucial building blocks to later reading success.

All of these behaviors are modeled in our libraries storytimes, which we offer twenty-six times weekly throughout the city, in addition to any scheduled on request by teachers. My office also coordinates a corps of volunteers who provide weekly storytimes in dozens of Head Starts and CDCs. If we can get to them at age zero, we can keep them for life.

This doesn’t happen by magic. It happens because the city’s voters made overwhelmingly clear in passing Measure Q that they wanted a full-time children’s librarian at every library.

You can view more videos of speakers in support of the Oakland Public Library below. This album isn’t at all exhaustive — there were many speakers who came to talk in support of the Second Start Adult Literacy program, the African American Museum and Library, the Tool Lending Library, and the library system in general. I didn’t have time record them all. Even doing these ones took a couple hours.

How you can help

If you want to get involved with the campaign to protect Oakland’s libraries, visit the Save Oakland Library website to find a toolkit for action and a list of volunteer opportunities. You can also get updates from Save Oakland Library on Facebook and SaveOPL on Twitter.

And stay updated about all the cool events going on at OPL with the Oakland Public Library on Facebook and @oaklibrary on Twitter.

Isabel Wilkerson speaks at AAMLO

Have you guys read The Warmth of Other Suns?

If you have not read it, grab your library card and join the wait list (currently at 21 holds for 41 copies, also available through OPL as an e-book). It is a really, really good book. And it’s not just me that thinks that! I picked it up over the holidays last winter after seeing it listed on pretty much every best books of 2010 list I read. And it totally deserves to be. Did I mention that it’s a really, really good book?

It’s about the large scale migration of African Americans out of the South between 1915 and 1970, told through the stories of three individuals who were part of it. Here’s the description from the book website:

In a story of hope and longing, three young people set out from the American South during different decades of the 20th Century en route to the North and West in search of the Warmth of Other Suns. They were forced out by the limits of the caste into which they were born.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster are among the six million African-Americans who fled the South during what would become know as the Great Migration. This book interweaves their stories and those of others who made the journey with the larger forces and inner motivations that compelled them to flee, and with the challenges they confronted upon arrival in the New World.

Based on interviews with 1,200 people who participated in the Migration and on newly available census analyses and research into archival material, The Warmth of Other Suns tells one of the greatest underreported stories in American history. It is the story of how the northern cities came to be, of the music and culture that might not have existed had the people not left, the consequences North and South and, most importantly, of the courageous souls who dared to leave everything they knew for the hope of something better.

It’s engrossing and moving and just completely fascinating and you all really should read it.

Anyway. I’m sure you’re thinking that this sounds interesting and all that, but what does it have to do with Oakland? I’ll tell you. The author, Isabel Wilkerson, is going to be speaking right here in Oakland on Wednesday night, at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO) and you should totally go see her!

Isabel Wilkerson at AAMLO

Copies of The Warmth of Other Suns will be available for purchase at the event for those of who just can’t wait for a library copy, and Wilkerson will be signing copies after the talk.

So that’s tomorrow, Wednesday, May 25th at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, located at 659 14th Street in downtown Oakland (at MLK). The event goes from 7 to 9 pm, and doors open at 6:30. There is no reserved seating, and it’s going to be crowded, so I would recommend arriving early to get a good seat.

Special election parcel tax to be considered again

Do you guys remember back in April when the Council was voting on whether to schedule a special election to put a new parcel tax on the ballot?

They never managed to schedule the special election — Oakland Mayor Jean Quan had failed to adequately notice the item in compliance with Oakland’s Sunshine Laws, and then she tried to schedule another meeting about the special election, but botched the noticing of that meeting as well. Oops!

But the Mayor did not give up on the idea of the parcel tax, and when time to release her proposed budget rolled around, she choose, instead of releasing a real budget for the city, to use the opportunity to continue to press for a new tax.

District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan and District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel seemed to like that approach, and have been responding to constituent pleas to not shutter the library system by saying that if people want the libraries to stay open, they need to support the new parcel tax. I found that curious, since the Mayor’s Scenario B manages to keep the libraries open without new taxes, but of course, pointing that out probably wouldn’t do much to generate support for the tax.

Anyway, the issue of a special election came up again at Tuesday’s Council meeting. District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan, a strong proponent of the parcel tax, proposed scheduling a vote to schedule the special election on June 21st, with a second reading on July 5th, and the Council agreed to do so.

Why wait that long? Explaining her reasoning, Kernighan offered “by June 21st we should have some idea of what the unions have done in their collective bargaining with us” and “by having the second reading on July 5th, it gives us a couple of weeks to do something different if we need to,” although how that impacts whether or not we’re going to have a special election for a parcel tax that she’s already insisted we need under any circumstances in unclear to me.

When the election would actually happen is yet to be determined, although Kernighan noted that she had been thinking of the first week in November.

What else will be on the ballot?

At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan pointed out that a secondary benefit of scheduling the vote a month in the future is that it gives other Councilmembers a couple of weeks to put forward their own proposals of things they’d like to see on the ballot.

District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks, who has opposed the parcel tax, explained that she would be open to a special election if it included options on the ballot besides the tax, such as a vote on the new City Attorney and charter clean-up measures.

The reason that I have not supported putting a parcel tax only on the ballot is because that is not the only solution. I personally don’t support a parcel tax, but I think that we should not just put on those things that we agree with to the exclusion of those things that we don’t.

And the Mayor has consistently touted the parcel tax as if that’s the only thing we can do. There are charter clean-ups that could be put in that will save us money that have not been considered and not been brought forth for the public to even hear.

And so, we need to have a full conversation, and it needs to be more than just those things we agree with. I support the public’s right to make a decision on items, and have always supported that. But I don’t support us picking and choosing what things we’re going to allow to get on the ballot.

I think that if the City Attorney’s position – I am supporting that rather than appoint somebody for the City Attorney’s position that we do an election for that. And so I don’t want to piecemeal anything.

And I’ve said to the Mayor, I’ve said to her staff, I’ve said to the City Administrator that you bring me a comprehensive package, I will support all of those things — whether or not I support them personally — to go on the ballot. That’s what we should do.

And so for us to pretend like the only thing we can do is a parcel tax, and to tell constituents to write in and say shame on you for not supporting a parcel tax so you can keep my library open is disingenuous. And so, let’s provide the community with all the facts to make an informed decision about how we can move forward.

Mayor Jean Quan responded that she has no problem with people putting their own additional measures on the ballot, but that “I don’t have time to work on charter changes at this point,” and is planning “to appoint a group of people to look at the entire charter” after the budget process is finished.

Now, while the Mayor herself may be busy with the budget, presumably her charter review committee would include persons other than budget staff, so I don’t see any logical reason, if that’s what she wants to do, to not have appointed them to start reviewing things already. Furthermore, the whole notion just seems so labored and unnecessary. Is this charter review group going to come up with anything better than the last charter review committee? After eight years on the City Council, you would think Quan would have a firm grasp of where the charter creates problems for the city’s ability to operate.

What else should go on the ballot?

So while Councilmembers are welcome to, and probably will, submit additional measures to be considered for the special election ballot, the timeline is not long enough to allow for any kind of meaningful public input process about what those measures might be. I find this sad, but not surprising. Brooks is right that we should offer the voters real choices, but a city committed to participatory government would draw on the wealth of knowledge and ideas from its people to help determine what those choices should be.

Here are a few ideas I’ve heard tossed around related to potential charter amendments:

  • Outsourcing clause: The City Charter currently prohibits the City from contracting out services currently performed by City employees (Section 902e). Complaints about this provision are nothing new, although the idea of changing it seems to have gained some popularity in recent years.

    Oakland City Attorney John Russo, back in Feburary at the Overhauling Oakland’s Budget event sponsored by Make Oakland Better Now! and the East Bay Young Democrats suggested that the problem could be addressed by adding a line to the Charter that says “notwithstanding any other language in this document, the City of Oakland shall not be prevented from coordinating with or contracting with volunteers, non-profit agencies, and business improvement districts for the provision of municipal services” (skip to 4:45 for the part specifically about contracting out). That seems like a good solution to me, although I would add to his list “other public agencies”, which would give the City the option of contracting certain services to the County.

  • Pension reform: Another idea for a Charter amendment that people talk about a lot would create some sort of restrictions on employee pensions, likely in the form of prohibiting the City from signing a contract with employee unions that contains a pension plan in excess of some specific formula or amount.

    One variation of this, suggested again by City Attorney John Russo at the Overhauling Oakland’s Budget event would be something commonly referred to as 50/50 pension contributions. Russo suggested the phrasing “The City of Oakland shall enter into no new contract whereby the City of Oakland is responsible for a pension premium cost that exceeds that paid by the employee.”

  • PFRS: Make Oakland Better Now! has offered some ideas about how the City Charter could be amended to lessen the burden the obligations of the old Police and Fire Retirement System places on the budget. This post at their blog, Oaktalk explains the specifics.

  • Rainy Day Fund: Make Oakland Better Now has also proposed a Charter amendment mandating the establishment of rainy day fund to help the City through hard times. Read more about that on this post on Oaktalk or watch this video presentation.

I would add for consideration:

  • Repeal of Kids First: I don’t see how we can have a serious conversation about all possible ways to address the City’s budget without at least considering the elimination of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth.

    This section of the charter, added by voters in 1996, then amended in 2008 and 2009, requires the City to set aside 3% of unrestricted General Fund money to go to youth programs (PDF). That’s roughly the same amount of the General Fund that goes to Parks and Recreation, and more than goes to fund the Oakland Public Library. While I don’t dispute that the special programs funded by Kids First provide a valuable service, it’s a legitimate question whether those services, which are available only to a relatively small number of children, are more important that citywide education and recreation services that are available to everyone.

    Since the repeal of Kids First is a charter amendment, it takes only a 50% vote to pass, a significantly lower threshold than the 2/3rds vote needed to pass a new parcel tax.

Would the Council be willing to place any of these options on a ballot? I don’t know. Probably not. But if we’re going to have an election anyway and since we’re talking about other things besides the tax that might get placed on the ballot, I don’t see any harm in suggesting that these options be placed before the voters. The worst thing that could happen is the Council won’t place them on the ballot, which is the same result as we’d get if nobody brought them up.

So if there’s something you’d like to see put before the voters, e-mail your Councilmember and ask them to consider it. And if you have other ideas for Charter amendments or other ballot measures you think could help the City, please share them in the comments.

Video of the whole special election discussion from Tuesday’s Council meeting is available below:

Bruce Nye: Oakland’s City Budget: We have questions. Does Oakland have answers?

Tonight at 5:30 at City Hall, again on May 26, and at additional meetings in June, Oakland’s City Council will be considering one or more of the three budget proposals submitted on April 29 by Mayor Jean Quan. Mayor Quan has named the three budget proposals Scenario A (the “All Cuts Budget”) Scenario B (“Cuts & Employee Contributions”) and Scenario C (Cuts, Employee Contributions& New Revenue”).

Make Oakland Better Now! (MOBN!) has combed through these documents, and still has many unanswered questions. The answers may be available, but as far as we can tell, they don’t appear in the budget documents. In the coming days, MOBN! will raise some of these questions and try to explain why the answers matter. Future posts will appear at MOBN!’s blog, Oaktalk.

How Did The Mayor Set Priorities in the Three Scenarios?

Part One

Whether written in a strong economy or in hard economic times, all budgets show priorities. MOBN! strongly favors the Budgeting for Outcomes means of budgeting described in David Osborne’s The Price of Government. Under this model, a city determines the most cost-effective and efficient way to provide desired levels of each potential service, prioritizes those services and allocates sufficient funding to each of the services in order of priority until all resources are exhausted.

This is the complete opposite of how Oakland and most other cities budget. Instead, the usual process is to take last year’s numbers, determine how they should be adjusted for changed circumstances (e.g., contractually required cost of living adjustments, known price changes, losses of funding sources, etc.) and then make cuts until expenses match revenues. The result is often a budget that waters down all city services and trains citizens to continually lower their expectations about city government.

Unfortunately, the Budgeting for Outcomes approach takes approximately a year to execute and we are far too close to the start of the 2011-12 fiscal year to consider it. So, if we must have the Death by a Thousand Cuts method of budgeting, those cuts must be made in a way that consistently and coherently tracks city priorities.

The mayor’s budget documents and transmittal letters send decidedly mixed messages about the City’s priorities. The Mayor/Council Priorities at the beginning of each scenario (which is identical to the list submitted with the 2009-11 budget) tells us that everything is a priority: public safety, sustainable and healthy environment, economic development, community involvement and empowerment, public-private partnerships and government solvency and transparency.

Some of the detail shows us that this is more of a wish list than a realistic set of priorities. For example, the detail for public safety–in a city that has seen its sworn police staffing drop by about 150 officers in the past two years–urges “an adequate and uncompromised level of public safety services to Oakland residents and businesses. . . .” And one of the sustainable and healthy environment bullet points is “Infrastructure: Provide clean, well-maintained and accessible streets, sidewalks, facilities, amenities, parks, recreational facilities and trees.” This language precedes a budget that eliminates tree trimmers, and anticipates very little street repair. Acting City Administrator Lamont Ewell estimates a capital improvement need of $1.6 billion.

Mr. Ewell identifies seven Budget Balancing Principles, two of which reflect at least some prioritization:

  • Principle 2: Give highest priority to protecting the most essential City services. (Although he does not commit to what the most essential city services are); and
  • Principle 4: Minimize the negative impact on Oakland residents, businesses and employees.

Mayor Quan identifies her overall approach to budgeting as “an attempt to be fair to all groups while trying to reduce the impact on our most vulnerable citizens, especially low income seniors and youth”. This begs another question: Is being fair to all groups a budgeting priority for Oaklanders?

Perhaps a better way to identify the city’s priorities is to look at how it actually spends its money and where it makes its cuts. Interpreting the three scenarios for this purpose; however, presents several challenges. MOBN! will dig deeper, and look at those challenges, in our next post, at www.Oaktalk.com.

How should the Bay Area plan for growth?

So. How many of you have been following the MTC/ABAG/BAAQMD/BCDC SB 375 implementation strategy planning process?

Not many? That’s okay. Here’s a short summary:

Plan Bay Area is the next step in a natural progression of decades of regional planning. As our population is expected to grow from about 7 million in 2011 to approximately 9 million in 2040, we need to start making transportation, housing and land use decisions now to sustain the Bay Area’s high quality of life for current and future generations.

Plan Bay Area grew out of California’s 2008 Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg), which requires each of the state’s 18 metropolitan areas to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cars and light trucks. This is important because the transportation sector represents about 40 percent of the GHG pollution that scientists say is causing climate change.

Under SB 375 each region must develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) that promotes compact, mixed-use commercial and residential development that is walkable and bikable and close to mass transit, jobs, schools, shopping, parks, recreation and other amenities. If successful, Plan Bay Area will give people more transportation choices, create more livable communities and reduce the pollution that causes climate change.

And a short video:

As part of this planning effort, MTC is holding a series of public workshops, one in every County in the Bay Area. The Alameda County workshop that had been originally scheduled is already fully booked, so they have scheduled a second Alameda County workshop on Tuesday, May 24th from 5:30 to 8:30 PM:

Participants in these forums will work together with a fun, interactive web-based simulation, YouChoose Bay Area, to outline priorities, choose different growth options and see future consequences. See the links between growth and the things you care deeply about, such as open space conservation, clean air, water consumption, public health, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and access to mass transit.

I’ve been wanting to write in more detail about this process for a while, and just haven’t been able to find the time. At some point, I will get around to it, but I only learned yesterday about the first Alameda County workshop filling up so quickly so I wanted to make sure my readers were aware of the opportunity before the second workshop fills up too!

So if you want to learn more about regional planning (and really, who doesn’t?) and have a voice in how the Bay Area will grow over the next few decades, you should seriously consider registering for this.

According to MTC’s promotional video featuring cheerful testimonials from participants at the Santa Clara County workshop, they’re going to have interactive clickers you can use to say what you think. That’s even better than the dots on boards that I love so much!

Once again, that’s going to be on Tuesday, May 24th from 5:30 to 8:30 PM at the Metrocenter Auditorium (101 Eighth Street) in downtown Oakland.

Register here for the workshop, and get up to speed on the process by reading this little pamphlet (PDF) and exploring the One Bay Area website, and read this post on Transbay Blog about the Initial Vision Scenario and Sustainable Communities Strategy. For bonus points, take a look at the Initial Vision Scenario Overview (PDF). If you’re really hardcore, read the full Initial Vision Scenario report (PDF).

The One Bay Area website also has a bunch of interesting videos that are worth watching if you’re interested in the subject and have some extra time.

Can pedestrian friendly neighborhoods and fast food coexist?

At their meeting tonight, the Oakland City Council will be considering an appeal of a Planning Commission approval of a redesigned McDonalds at 45th and Telegraph.

McDonalds at the Planning Commission

I had not paid any attention to the proposed McDonalds expansion before it came to Planning Commission. I saw the item on the agenda, but didn’t even bother to read the staff report. After all, the big item at the meeting that night was the Victory Court stadium EIR, and I was mostly focused on that at the time.

But as I waiting for that item to come up, I watched the meeting and found myself completely fascinated by the conversation they were having about this McDonalds expansion, wishing I had read the report beforehand so I could have gone to speak.

Basically (and you can read more in the staff report (PDF) from that meeting), the owner of the McDonalds at 4514 Telegraph Avenue wants to rebuild the restaurant for a bigger store (currently, the building is just over 3,000 square feet, and the new building would be a little less than 4,000). They also want a permit to operate their drive-through 24 hours, which they have been doing anyway for years even though it they were not allowed to do so under the law.

At issue — well, let me step back a second. There are actually a lot of issues with McDonalds. A number of letters from nearby residents (PDF) submitted in advance of the Planning Commission hearing object to an expanded McDonalds (and seemingly the presence of McDonalds at all) due to concerns about litter, noise, blight, unhealthy food, the 24 hour drive-through and so on.

Those are not my issues. I don’t particularly care one way or another whether there is a McDonalds on Telegraph, or whether there is a bigger McDonalds on Telegraph than exists currently or whether they have a 24 hour drive-through. I am not really a fan of the “food” served at McDonalds, but I recognize that other people like to eat there and that’s fine if that’s what they want to do. I don’t live nearby, so I really don’t know enough about the situation to determine whether the litter concerns are real.

My concern, and the reason I donated to the appeal of the decision, is with the design of the expanded McDonalds, specifically the placement of the drive-through.

What they have proposed (and the Planning Commission approved) would situate the drive-through in front of the building, rather than behind or on the side like most fast-food restaurants. So when you’re walking down Telegraph and walking past McDonalds, you would be walking next to the drive-through, and the building would be on the other side of the cars. At the meeting, staff noted that this was chosen out of a number of different designs because it worked the best for moving cars through McDonalds.

McDonalds design

John Gatewood of ULTRA spoke at the December meeting, and his comments really do a good job of explaining the concerns I have as well.

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The biggest problem we have with this design is that the sidewalk is this isthmus, really, between Telegraph and the drive-through lane. So the building itself is completely cut off from Telegraph Avenue by the drive-through lane. And we know the owner has numerous different plans that actually bring the building to the sidewalk, and that does impact how the drive-through works. We understand that.

But we really, really think that the building needs to meet the sidewalk to make it more walkable, make it more pedestrian friendly. So our hope tonight is that you will ask staff and the applicant to meet and revisit this design and redo it so that the building does meet the sidewalk.

This isn’t some crazy, out-there idea. It is a well-established goal of the City to create vibrant, pedestrian-friendly commercial districts. Encouraging walking and creating walkable neighborhoods is part of Land Use and Transportation Element of the City’s General Plan, the Pedestrian Master Plan, the recently adopted new citywide zoning, and the recently adopted Energy and Climate Action Plan.

Going to McDonalds

So one big problem with the design is for anyone trying to walk into McDonalds (at the Planning Commission hearing, it was noted that local schoolchildren often eat lunch there). The design approved by the Planning Commission forces pedestrians trying to get to McDonalds to walk through the lane of traffic where cars are leaving the drive-through.

On her blog yesterday, Becks posted some really good illustrations of just what the pedestrian access to McDonalds looks like, both right now and under the redesign. She has kindly agreed to let me share them here.

Here’s how that flows now.

Old McDonalds traffic flow

And here’s what it looks like under the redesign.

New McDonalds traffic flow

Forcing people to walk through the drive-through lane to get to McDonalds, especially after people have completed their transaction, creates a serious safety problem.

I work very close to a McDonalds right now, and frequently walk past the drive-through exit on my way to work. This is where the cars are waiting to go back onto the street after they’ve paid and taken their food. Presumably, at this point, while they’re about to merge with traffic, they are paying more attention to the world outside their cars than when they’re just sitting in the drive-through lane. I can tell you, from watching those cars day in and day out for more than two years — those people are looking everywhere but in front of them. They are fiddling with their change, or pouring ketchup or their fries or checking their order or what have you. The street or people passing by is clearly the last thing on their minds.

I am always super careful when I walk past that drive-through exit, because like I said, the cars certainly are not. And that’s when they’re going onto the street! Think of how much less conscious of their surroundings they’ll be when they’re fiddling with their order and still in the drive-through lane! So from the perspective of pedestrian access to McDonalds, I see this design as unacceptably dangerous.

Going past McDonalds

Putting the drive-through lane at the front of the restaurant additionally creates a hostile pedestrian environment for people walking along Telegraph. Basically, when you walk past McDonalds, you would be on the sidewalk sandwiched between a line of cars on one side in front of the restaurant and the cars driving past on the street.

I don’t care if most people drive to McDonalds. They are welcome to do so and use the drive-through. What I care about is how the building design impacts everyone walking on Telegraph, whether they are going to McDonalds or not. If we are serious about encouraging pedestrian activity in Temescal, it is imperative that we consider the impacts to pedestrian activity in the neighborhood of newly design buildings.

Commissioner Madeliene Zayas-Mart’s comments at the meeting did a really good job of summing up my concerns:

Every project in Oakland, I see it as an opportunity to revitalize Oakland. There’s a lot of revitalization that Oakland needs, and every project — we are in such desperate need to make sure that we can claim our streets back for people and less for the automobile that some small details are really important at a policy level.

And that’s why I think that these small details — what may sound like a small detail is actually a big policy issue. It’s about the General Plan saying that we want to move towards — away from auto-oriented and to more transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

Telegraph actually has been identified in our General Plan as being one of our major transportation corridors in the city. And I think that for every project that we want to approve in here we want to say okay, this is a grow and change area, this is a place where we forsee a lot of activity, is this the kind of project that is going to support that vision?

I do agree with Mr. Gatewood saying that ideally what should go here in terms of what the vision of the city is, and the community as expressed in our General Plan is a mixed-use development, but in the economy that we are, we have to scale back those goals and say what can we actually reasonably expect from the developer. So that’s where I’m coming from. I want to work with the developer and try to find a place where we can actually meet and make you have a profitable business and also give the city and the community something that we need — desperately need, which is more pedestrian oriented — you know, trying to bring our streets and sidewalks back to the pedestrians.

City Council decides tonight

By a vote of 4 to 2, the Planning Commission approved the application, and the decision was subsequently appealed to the City Council. The Council will be hearing the appeal tonight. City staff, predictably, recommends denying the appeal and allowing McDonalds to proceed with their proposed design.

On Living in the O, Becks has provided some excellent talking points about why this design is not appropriate for Telegraph Avenue:

  • The approved design is the worst proposal McDonald’s initially proposed, for pedestrian experience, pedestrian safety, and the overall look and feel of this vibrant part of Temescal.
  • The approved design creates a moat of cars around the entire lot, placing the drive through directly next to the sidewalk on Telegraph, which has heavy pedestrian traffic at nearly all hours of every day.
  • Advocates do not oppose a redesign of the McDonald’s — we just want to find a design that works both for McDonald’s and the community.
  • Telegraph is designated as a “Growth and Change” corridor in the Land Use and Transportation Element (LUTE) of the General Plan. The approved design does not offer growth (Except more cars) and could disincentivize future growth by making the corner less pedestrian friendly and by increasing blight

If you can’t make it tonight, but would like to express your support for the appeal, you can find contact information for all the Councilmembers on last week’s post about McDonalds from Living in the O, as well as a couple of excellent sample letters in the comments on that post.

For my part, I’ll be at the Council meeting tonight to speak on the issue along. If you’d like to speak as well, come to City Hall tonight. You can fill out your speaker card either in person at the meeting or beforehand online. If you do the online speaker card, make sure to print out your confirmation and bring it with you to the meeting. The item number is 9.1.

The full video of the December Planning Commission meeting where this was discussed is available below.

Support Friends of Oakland Parks at Rec at “A Taste of Spring”

With city services at increasing risk of draconian cuts, the support provided by local organizations like the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation or Friends of the Oakland Public Library grows more important all the time.

A Taste of Spring

I wanted to call attention to one fun way to help out one of these great organizations — attend the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation’s annual fundraiser, A Taste of Spring, which will be held this Wednesday.

Here’s some more information about the event from their press release (PDF):

Proceeds from the benefit will be used to fund swimming, boating, and camp scholarships, and special projects designed to support and enhance the City’s parks and recreation centers.

The event will feature delicious hors d’oeuvres from some of the East Bay’s finest restaurants, delicious fine wines, special musical entertainment, and a silent and live auction. Auction items include: a power lunch with Mayor Jean Quan, U2 concert tickets (June 7, Oakland Alameda County Coliseum), Oakland A’s luxury box tickets for eighteen, a football autographed by Raisers tight end, Zach Miller, and more.

and

A new community award — named after Friends’ founder, Anne Woodell — will be given in honor of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the group. The two community honorees who will receive the first ever Anne Woodell Community aware are: Gordon Piper, Oakland lanscape Committee and Ellen Wyrick-Parkinson, the 2008 winner of the Oakland Mother of the Year Award.

“A Taste of Spring” will be held this Wednesday May 4th at the Rotunda Building (300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza) in downtown Oakland. Tickets are $75 in advance or $85 at the door. You can buy advance tickets online at http://oaklandparks.org or by phone at 510.465.1850.

Hope to see some of you guys there!

More Sunshine in Oakland

Ahh, open government. It’s a cause dear to my heart. And if you listen to speeches and answers at debates by politicians during campaign season, it is tremendously important to almost all of them as well.

But when it comes to putting sunshine into practice, most elected officials turn out to treat our many open government rules more of an annoyance than anything else.

Open government in Oakland

Oakland’s open government laws include things like the Campaign Reform Act and the Lobbyist Registration Act, which is currently in the process of being amended. (For background on the proposed amendments, see the recent action alerts from the League of Women Voters and Make Oakland Better Now. The Council was scheduled to consider changes to the ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting, but the item was pulled last week at Rules Committee.)

Another one of these laws is Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance, which is designed to ensure adequate public notice of Council meetings. In short, it mandates that 10 days before the City Council has a meeting, they have to publish an agenda of that meeting that lists everything they will be voting on, along with any reports providing background information about those items so that the public has time to review them and offer informed comment about issues that may affect them before the vote. Doesn’t sound too crazy, right?

Urgencys!

Of course, sometimes things happen that we can’t predict, and the Council needs to act more quickly than 10 days in the future. The law recognizes this, and makes a provision for when things need to be scheduled on short notice. When this happens, the Council has to vote to say that the item is urgent. Here’s how the Sunshine Ordinance (PDF) determines whether a matter is urgent:

Action On Items Not Appearing On The Agenda. Notwithstanding subsection (D) of this section, a local body may take action on items not appearing on a posted agenda only if:

  1. The Matter Is An Emergency. Upon a determination by a majority vote of the local body that a work stoppage, crippling disaster or other activity exists which severely impairs public health, safety or both; or

  2. The Matter Is Urgent. Upon a determination by a two-thirds vote by the members of the local body present at the meeting, or, if less than two-thirds of the members are present, a unanimous vote of those present, that there is a need to take immediate action which came to the attention of the local body after the agenda was posted, and that the need to take immediate action:

    • (a) is required to avoid a substantial adverse impact that would occur if the action were deferred to a subsequent special or regular meeting;

    • (b) relates to federal or state legislation; or

    • (c) relates to a purely ceremonial or commendatory action.

The emphasis there is mine. So there are two things that need to be true for a matter to be considered urgent under the Sunshine Ordinance. One, something needs to have happened after the agenda was posted that we couldn’t have known before the deadline. Two, it has to meet one of the qualifications listed in a, b, or c. Note the “and.”

So. That’s what the law says. You might imagine, after reading that, that urgency findings are super rare. How often is new information requiring immediate action by the Council coming up before meetings, right?

In practice, urgency findings are not rare at all. The Council does them all the time. Things come up and the urgency is usually something like the Council has to act immediately so we can meet some kind of deadline. Presumably, these deadlines are not being announced with less than 10 days notice, but of course nobody wants the City to miss out on a grant opportunity because they can’t schedule items on time, so these things always get approved. I haven’t done an actual count or anything to compare, but just from casual observation it seems like nobody even asks what the urgency is like a third of the time.

Libby Schaaf stands up for sunshine

So it’s been a delightful change of pace in the last couple months to see a Councilmember finally taking the Sunshine Ordinance’s noticing requirements seriously.

Most of you probably recall a rather high profile incidence of this from last month, when the Council was scheduled to vote on scheduling a special election to put the Mayor’s parcel tax on the ballot.

When the special election came up, At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan moved the urgency finding almost before the Clerk had finished reading the item title “on the grounds that we learned after the 10 day period that the statewide special that was planned for June was not and that therefore we must act with great haste in order to have a election in time for the County’s deadline for the property tax and that therefore we did not have additional time to schedule this item.”

Councilmembers Brooks, De la Fuente, and Schaaf voted no on the urgency, which meant that the Council was not able to vote on scheduling a special election that night. (The Mayor could have still scheduled a vote on the special election in time for the deadline, but bungled the noticing of the meeting again.)

Of course, everyone had known perfectly well that a State special election in June looked unlikely, and the Council had previously talked about the possibility of their own mail-in special election. After public comment and a bunch of bickering, District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf gave a great speech defending the noticing requirements of the Sunshine Ordinance.

The City has rules about open government and providing adequate notice to the public. And the vote that we took tonight was whether or not this item qualified for an exception for the 10 day noticing requirement. And the issue is whether or not it’s urgent and whether or not information came to the knowledge of the body after the deadline for the publication of the agenda.

And I just want to explain that my vote on the urgency has nothing to do with the parcel tax, because that is not how we’re supposed to do this. But we discussed the option of a mail-in ballot. We have always had the knowledge that there may not be a state election in June. And so it’s my contention that we had knowledge of the possibility of having a mail-in election more than 10 days ago. And so for that reason, I do not feel like hearing this item tonight complies with Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance.

So that is the vote that we just took. We did not take a vote on whether or not we support a parcel tax or not. So just to clarify, cause I’m sure it was very confusing.

So if you don’t want that many of these meetings, that little speech might not seem particularly remarkable to you. But really, it is. Aside from my obvious delight to see a Councilmember actually care what the Sunshine Ordinance says, I was also delighted because it is an unbelievably rare occurrence to see anyone on the Council act like they care in the least whether or not the public understands what they’re doing at meetings. So it was so refreshing, while other Councilmembers were sitting around ranting about the “tyranny of the minority” to see Schaaf take the time out to stop and make sure the public knew what was going on. (Video of the whole discussion is available here.)

Now, of course, not everyone was as thrilled with that stand for sunshine as I was, and a lot of people who want that tax dismissed Schaaf’s statement, saying that she was just using the Sunshine Ordinance as an excuse to block the election.

And if this were the only time Schaaf had defended transparency and open government laws, I might be able to see that argument. But that isn’t the case at all. In her brief four months on the Council, Schaaf has been consistently supportive of sunshine and transparency. District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner’s proposal to gut Oakland’s lobbying restrictions would have gone to the Council in early March without any question if Schaaf hadn’t stood up for transparency.

And it isn’t just high profile items like the special election where she takes urgency findings seriously. Just last week, at Rules Committee, Schaaf refused to support an urgency finding on appointments the Mayor wanted to make to a City board. (The urgency provided by the Mayor’s office was that the Mayor was too busy to interview the candidates before the deadline — clearly not one of the exceptions covered by the Sunshine Ordinance.)

I have to vote no on this. Because it just sounds like we didn’t have our act together.

To give you an idea of just how radical a change this is on the City Council, compare Schaaf’s attitude towards sunshine and proper noticing to that of the office’s previous occupant, who frequently dismisses sunshine laws as “technicalities.” In the clip below from a year ago, then-District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan argues for an entire minute and a half with the City Attorney about whether they’re going to discuss something in violation of the open meetings law (this was a totally unambiguous case).

I hope the rest of the Council will be inspired by Schaaf’s commitment to transparency and start treating sunshine laws as important, rather than an afterthought. Until then, one strong voice for open government is better than none.

Budgeting by magic? Or by luck?

While I was pouring through Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s three proposed budget scenarios this weekend, I kept thinking back to a discussion at last week’s Finance Committee meeting.

The Committee got an update from staff on the City’s budget situation for this year. In addition to next year’s $58 million or whatever the number is today for the expected deficit, it had been looking like we were also running short on money for this fiscal year which runs through June.

At the meeting, staff explained that they had identified a solution to the year-end deficit. It turns out that the City has spent less on medical costs than we had projected, and therefore had some extra money in the medical account lying around. It turns out that the extra money in that account ($9 million) is very close to the shortage the City was facing ($8 million). So instead of making more cuts to close out the year, the City is simply no longer having departments pay into that fund. And it all evens out and everything is dandy through the end of June.

After listening to the description of this solution, District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan observed that it was like “magic,” but then quickly corrected that term to the less desperate sounding “lucky.”

District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente was not amused by the characterization, and went on a little rant about how terrible it is that the Council is always doing tricks with the budget that we know won’t work out in order to put off the day of reckoning.

District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks was not about to let that go by without comment, and went on a rant of her own about the City’s budgeting process

It’s worth watching the whole thing, but here are some of the highlights:

I think our budget strategy is luck. You know, we pray for, we hope for that we’re going to find the money like we did this time, and purely by luck instead of a thoughtful process.

We find nine million dollars, but that’s like putting your finger in a gaping hole and trying to plug the leak.

We have serious structural deficits. We have a systemic problem with our budgeting process. And we will never get to where we need to be if we continue to manipulate the reports.

We know that this is a shell game. And we’ve got to stop.

Then, later:

Luck should not be a strategy for budgeting in a municipality, and that’s what we’re doing right now. The importance of understanding the information before us is that we can’t look for just cuts. We can’t look for just cuts. If we don’t change our budgeting process, we are going to bankrupt this city. Because we are at a point where we no longer have anything to sell, we have limited bonding capacity, as so there’s no place else to get it from. And so unless we change structurally how we do business, then we’re forever going to be looking for these one time cuts. We’ve done them all.

She’s right, of course. But I have been watching most of the Council say pretty much the same things over and over again for years. Yet somehow, the budgets always end up being balanced through trickery or one time solutions. Even the Mayor, who has talked about how she’s ending the reliance on one-time solutions every time I’ve heard her speak about the budget, “balanced” her proposed budgets on phantom property sales.

So when will it end? Who knows. Either when we go bankrupt or the Council finally acknowledges that we simply do not have enough money (and will not at any point in the forseeable future) to provide all the services and grants we want to provide and has the stomach to make the necessary long-term cuts.

You can watch video of the whole discussion below.