A fun opportunity to learn more about your government

A lot of people I know, myself included, have a tendency to complain about the sparse coverage of Oakland City government in the media. While it’s true that there isn’t as much reporting on Oakland issues as I’d like to see, our City Hall actually gets a huge amount of attention when compared with some of the other entities that make huge decisions impacting our lives like The MTC, the Port of Oakland, East Bay MUD, the Alameda County Transportation Commission, and last but not least, Alameda County.

I’m not holding out a ton of hope for a sudden flurry of media interest in any of these agencies, but I do want to share an opportunity for those of you who are curious to learn more about one of them.

Alameda County is currently taking applications for enrollment in its annual Leadership Academy. If you join the program, you will attend an evening meeting once a month from October to March. At each meeting, you will learn about a different part of the County government. Representatives from different agencies give a forty-five minute or so presentation, followed by a Q&A session with the class.

I went through the program last year, and I found it totally fascinating. The County has always kind of been like some kind of black hole for me — I would read the occassional story about budget cuts or something, but for the most part, as far as I knew, the County was basically a giant welfare agency. So of course when I saw a notice in the Trib last August about the Academy, I was ecstatic about the chance to learn more, and filled out the application immediately.

Over the six month course period, we got presentations from the County Fire Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Office of Emergency Services, the Sheriff’s Department, the Probation Department, the Adult and Aging Services Department, Economic Benefits Department, the Employment Services Department, Children and Family Services, Health Care Services, the Budget Office, and probably several more that I’m forgetting. We also got tours of County facilities like the Juvenile Justice Center and the Emergency Operations Center.

The only one of our six sessions that I did not enjoy was our final class, where we held a mock Board of Supervisors meeting about the budget. We broke up into groups. Some of us got to be Department Heads and make recommendations about how to cut our budgets by 15%. Others got to be concerned citizens advocating to the Board for their priorities. And five lucky students got to be Supes, grill the Departments about their recommendations, yawn during public comment, and decide what got the axe.

The mock Department Heads, who had been given a whopping thirty minutes to study their budgets and come up with recommendations for cuts, were unsurprisingly completely unequipped to answer any of the questions the mock Board asked them and mostly just stood there looking clueless. The mock concerned citizens made unrealistic demands, and wasted most of their speaking time complaining about how one minute wasn’t enough time to make their case. Then the mock Board of Supervisors abandoned the dais so they could make a decision together away from the angry ears of the mock public, and returned after a few minutes saying that it was all just too hard and they couldn’t bear to cut anything, so they would put off voting on the necessary cuts until a future meeting. All in all, it was just a little too familiar to be enjoyable.

Overall, I came away from the program with a significantly better understanding of how the County functions and all the services it is responsible for. I also came away with the impression that Alameda County is significantly better run than the City of Oakland. I mean, I know that obviously everyone is going to try to make themselves sound as good as possible in their presentation, but with the exception of the District Attorney’s Office (whose presentation was almost comically boring and uninformative), all the speakers explained what they do, how they do it, and how they have been dealing with funding shortfalls with a level of coherence that you rarely see come out of Oakland City Hall.

The one caveat I have is that I would not recommend the program for anyone who doesn’t have a car. The meetings are held all over the County, often in places with very little in the way of transit options. I usually had to leave work early to get to the meetings, and on several occassions, I had to leave class early in order to catch the last bus of the night. With the bus service cuts that have taken place since then, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of the locations are no longer served by transit at all.

If all this sounds interesting to you, I strongly recommend you go to the Leadership Academy Website and fill out the application quickly. I think they base their acceptance decisions based on who applies first, and I know a number of people who applied last year and didn’t get in.

I hope some of you will decide to do it. It’s fun, it’s educational, it’s not that big a time commitment (especially if you are able to drive), and I want Oakland to be better represented than it was last year. Like half of my class was from San Leandro!

4 thoughts on “A fun opportunity to learn more about your government

  1. Frank Castro

    V Smoothe – thanks for the heads up on this! I submitted my application this morning. It’s so nice to have you back so you can keep us better informed on things taking place in our community.