Bureaucrats gone wild

Ignacio De La Fuente ran last year on a platform of restoring accountability to City Hall, putting bureaucracy in check, and making the city start working for the citizens. Obviously, there’s no way to know whether or not he would have been successful in his attempts to do so. Dellums has certainly has not made this a priority in his administration. But if he’s at all serious about his campaign pledges to bring transparency to city government, it is imperative that he begin.

As things stand now, staff is completely out of control, doing exactly what they please in flagrant disregard for the Council’s direction.

Take Assistant City Administrator Barbara Killey, for example. For nearly a year now, she has been zealously pushing radical and wide-ranging anti-smoking legislation, in spite of the Council’s explicit requests, and to the neglect of her other duties.

While it is not staff’s position to create policy on their own, it is their duty to accept public input. Yet over the past ten months, Ms. Killey has repeatedly refused to work with community stakeholders or listen to their concerns about the ordinance, preferring instead to cherry-pick those individuals she is willing to accept comment from.

When she first brought the ordinance to the Public Safety Committee in December, Ms. Killey came armed with a laundry list of places to ban smoking that would have included, well, pretty much everywhere. The Committee balked at her proposals, calling them too extreme, and instructed her very specifically to draft legislation that would limit smoking in only the following locations:

  • bus stops
  • outdoor dining areas
  • public trails (due to fire hazard)
  • play areas in parks
  • common areas in apartments
  • licensed child care centers

At the time, Ms. Killey made her displeasure over the Committee’s recommendations clear, pointedly noting the many aspects of her ordinance that the Committee did not request move forward and cheerfully offering to add those back in for them. The Committee held to their requests and after yet another protest from Ms. Killey, instructed her very firmly that she was to return with an ordinance including only the spaces they listed.

Of course, when Ms. Killey’s re-written ordinance came back to the Committee in June, it bore no resemblance to what the Committee had asked for. In fact, it was virtually identical to the legislation they had previously rejected. Smoking bans within 10 feet of bars and on golf courses were back, as was the provision to prohibit smoking as part of a play or performance. And all these other places. A multi-unit housing ban and the declaration of secondhand smoke as a public nuisance returned as well, although for these particular features Ms. Killey had the cover of Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who requested on her own that they be added back in.

Of course, when the time finally arrived for discussion at the Public Safety Committee, the only provisions that were struck from the new ordinance were the nuisance and multi-unit housing. Though the Committee had previously rejected most of the provisions contained in the proposal before them, staff was able to cloud the issue and, with the assistance of several out of town anti-tobacco lobbyists, bully the Committee into passing legislation on to the full Council that they had already explicitly said they didn’t want.

It didn’t end there. At the Council meeting on the ordinance, multiple members of the public spoke to ask, as they had repeatedly over the past several months, that the provision banning smoking within 10 feet of bars be removed, because several bar owners worried that the new distance limit would force patrons too far away from the protection of their security staff, and because it would wipe out significant private investment in secure smoking patios. When Council President Ignacio De La Fuente questioned Ms. Killey further about this provision, she lied that “Smokers want to be able to stand and smoke in the doorway.”

Under current Oakland law, bars are exempt from the ban on smoking within 25 feet of any door or window. Ms. Killey has consistently directed enforcement of secondhand smoke complaints according to this rule, and has upheld appeals according to this law. As recently as December, she asserted publicly that bars were currently exempt from the 25 foot rule, which was her justification for including the new 10 foot restriction. But when questioned by the Council about the law, she said that it was legally unclear whether bars were exempt, and allowing only that “they’ve (referring to the hospitality industry) interpreted it that way.”

At the last Council meeting, at what was supposed to be the second reading of the smoking ordinance, the Council directed Ms. Killey to return to them with three options: one that included both the golf course and bar bans, one that exempted both golf courses and bars, and a third that would exempt golf courses and included a ban within either 5 or 10 feet of bars. But the Council will not have a chance to consider all these options tonight.

Unbelievably, Ms. Killey refused to write an ordinance for the Council that would exempt bars. She just didn’t do it! She offers two weak justifications for her disobedience – that preserving the current law exempting bars from outdoor smoking restrictions would confuse the public into thinking that smoking is allowed indoors, and that if smokers are allowed to stand closer than five feet of any door or window, they will be blocking fire exits and prevent an evacuation in case of emergency. Even worse, she now autocratically declares that if the Council does not accept the 5 or 10 foot options, the 25 will automatically start applying to bars. Will she be able to get away with this? Well, the Council has not stood up to her so far, and it is unlikely they will begin tonight. After her year-long single minded crusade, Ms. Killey’s unchecked power will probably get her exactly what she wants.

Terrible, isn’t it? But this is far from the most egregious example of shocking insubordinance on the part of city staff. It gets so much worse. Take, for example, Jeff Baker. Mr. Baker, also part of the City Administrator’s office, is staffed to the Measure Y Oversight Committee. The Committee is charged with keeping tabs on how Measure Y money is being spent, obviously an important job and one that many citizens are particularly concerned about at the moment.

Last night was the Committee’s first meeting since August, and the first 30 minutes of the meeting were occupied with sparring between the Committee members and Mr. Baker. Mr. Baker refused to accept comment from the public and, when repeatedly instructed by Committee Chair Maya Dillard Smith that he needed to call roll and record votes on an item rather than assuming the vote was unanimous, he kept refusing to follow instructions, interrupting her repeatedly with a refrain of “You’ll have your turn later.” When the incident was finally over, City Hall gadfly Sanjiv Handa eagerly pointed out to Mr. Baker that he had committed three unique violations of the Brown Act and Sunshine Ordinance in the space of 6 minutes. The indictment was met with an eye roll.

While waging his war on the Oversight Committee, Mr. Baker has single-handedly decided that Committee seats are vacant, failed to submit paperwork for renewal of expiring seats, cancelled Committee meetings on his own, and even taken it upon himself to rewrite the Committee’s bylaws, something he is in no way empowered to do.

Summarizing the problems, Committee Chair Dillard Smith said “It seems that staff has done everything humanly possible to undermine the authority of this Committee.”

I’ve watched enough Council meetings to be pretty jaded about the inappropriate behavior and disrespect for reason and transparency that typically goes on in City Hall, but the exchanges with Mr. Baker left me jaw-on-the-floor flabbergasted.

These are two particularly shocking examples. But it is not a problem of two bad seeds. (They may not even be bad employees on the whole. I know nothing of Mr. Baker beyond his problems with the Measure Y Oversight Committee, and people tell me that Ms. Killey is quite responsible and competent when it comes to her duties that do not involve a single-minded crusade.) There is a citywide plague of disrespect for the Council and disregard for instruction. Staff is completely out of control. They operate with no regard for the elected officials and the public who they are supposed to be working for. They ignore Council direction, lie to legislative bodies about public input, and refuse to provide documentation requested both by Council and by citizens. Dellums, the Council, someone needs to put an end to this. As long as unelected and unaccountable city employees continue unchecked, there is no such thing as transparency in this government.

5 thoughts on “Bureaucrats gone wild

  1. Charles Pine

    I have no information to comment on the Oct. 15 meeting of the Measure Y oversight committee, but I’ve seen the committee treat residents with disdain and contempt. At the May 21 meeting, a resident cited problems about the implementation of Measure Y that the committee itself should raise with the council. Rather than exercising oversight, though, the committee members (with one partial exception), buying all City excuses about Measure Y, lectured that resident as though she were a slow child in civics class.

    That doesn’t excuse a staff member doing the things you say. But one does wish that more committee members would want to do the job of oversight so that one could support them in that endeavor.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Mr. Pine -

    My issue in this post is specifically with lawless staff, so I want to clarify that my problems with Mr. Baker’s actions do not necessarily constitute a blanket endorsement of the behavior of Committee members. Although I did not see disdain and contempt towards residents at Monday’s meeting, I can believe that it has happened in the past, and that sort of behavior is never excusable. I can imagine how you, particularly, would often feel at odds with the Committee, given your opposition to many of the violence prevention programs they fund.

    There was at least one instance at Monday’s meeting where I felt the Committee acted inappropriately. There was a discussion about the City Council’s decision to increase allocations to Youth Radio and the Restorative Justice Program beyond what the Committee had recommended in the spending package they had approved themselves. Committee members were quite angry at the Council for not following their recommendations 100%, and the discussion culminated in a rather harsh attack by Ron Owens on the Council and the one Councilmember present at the meeting, Pat Kernighan. Kernighan stood up and offered to explain the Council’s reasoning on the matter, and was told that her input was not welcome. I felt that was extremely out of line on their part.

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    Again, I don’t think the OversIght Committee is faultless, but having actually been present at the meeting, I will say that I don’t think Mr. Johnson’s assessment of what went on was fair. Take this line, for example: “When Baker handed her the speaker cards, she corrected him.” Dillard-Smith was given a pile of speaker cards mixed up and not sorted into the item number people wished to speak on. It is staff’s job to make things easier for the Committee to do their jobs, not harder. Of course speaker cards should be divided by item number!

    I also don’t know why he says “Another odd thing about the committee is that hardly any of its members except Dillard-Smith spoke, including Alameda County probation chief Donald Blevins.” There was extensive comment from Deirde Stickland-Meads, Amy Lemly, Ron Owens, and Eli Naor.

    The story to take away from the meeting, in my mind, was the lack of accountability in the programs being currently funded with Measure Y. As several members noted, the revenue and expenditure list the Committee receives is so vague as to be useless. How are they supposed to evaluate where money is going when they aren’t even provided that information? The Committee requested that staff return with a line item list so they can see where their money is actually being spent, and after a fair amount of discussion, staff finally agreed to do so, although warned the Committee several times before agreeing that “it will be a lot longer than this.”

  4. Heida Bruce

    I woul like to get involved. Am recently retired and have the time and energy and my husband as well. Please email me at the above address.
    Thanks.