Last night, the Oakland City Council rejected Mayor Ron Dellums’s nomination of Ada Chan to fill the seat left vacant by Suzie Lee on the Oakland Planning Commission by a vote of 3-4-1 (Y: Quan, Brunner, Nadel; N: De La Fuente, Kernighan, Reid, Chang; A: Brooks). Lee’s term expired on May 5th. Dellums did not bring a nomination for a replacement Commissioner to the City Council until July 1st (PDF). When it became clear that the Council was unlikely to confirm Ms. Chan that night, the Mayor withdrew the item.
Chan was back on the agenda last night, at the first post-recess Council meeting. Despite having had two and a half months for the Mayor and Ms. Chan to persuade those concerned about her suitability for the position, both declined to make any effort to do so, instead using the time to marshall strident support from union and affordable housing advocacy organizations while shutting out the business community.
By the time the item was called, the room was still relatively full considering the late hour. A robust crowd of Ms. Chan’s supporters, identified by the stickers they were wearing, filled the left side of the room. Twenty-two people spoke on Ms. Chan’s appointment, seven pro, thirteen against, and two neutral.
Both groups stayed pretty well on message. Speakers asking the Commission to reject the appointment complained that they had been unable to meet with her and that she had done not outreach to the community, said they did not know where she stood, and emphasized the importance of selecting a consensus candidate who understands the realities of the marketplace and the need for private investment as well as the importance of community benefits, someone who would be able to help identify common ground between warring camps.
The message from the other side was equally unified, if somewhat more angry. Central Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Sharon Cornu insisted that the business community’s only concern in a Planning Commissioner is “whether they own her or not.” Jane Brunner echoed the sentiment in her own comments, in which she complained that the way most people get appointed to the Commission is by going drinking with the “right people.” (Considering who came to the Council to advocate for the two most recent additions to the Planning Commission, Sandra Galvez and C. Blake Huntsman, it sort of seems to me like the person you have to go drinking with to get that appointment is Sharon Cornu.) Speakers repeatedly referenced her lengthy resume, calling her “overqualified” for the position, and pointing over and over and over again to her possession of a Masters Degree in Urban Planning as evidence.
Okay. This really bothered me. The whole presentation of Chan, the entire charade from her supporters, the nasty accusations against the business community was just so incredibly dishonest.
People weren’t asking the Council to vote no to Ada Chan because they don’t “own her.” Sure, the repeated accusation that the development and business community will only tolerate one of their own makes it easy to write off their concerns. Problem is, history shows it isn’t true. Sandra Galvez comes from the County Health Department. C. Blake Huntsman is an organizer for the SEIU. They were both approved with unanimous votes of the Council.
Those in favor of Chan’s appointment kept pointing to her experience and record, suggesting that it would be “unfathomable” to reject someone with so many qualifications. What they all knew, but were clearly trying desperately to pretend wasn’t true, is that people objected to this nomination not in spite of Chan’s record, but because of it. This isn’t about being “owned” by anyone. It’s about not wanting really important decisions about business and zoning and uses to be made by someone who shows up to meetings in San Francisco objecting to restaurants in a commercial district, someone who advocates against turning an abandoned movie theater into a gym because it would be bad for the community!
Chan’s summary of qualifications and employment history, provided by the Mayor, is quite long, but mysteriously, it omits any mention of her work with the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, an organization that, as one speaker last night put it, “opposes not just specific developments, but all development.” This is not a moderate organization. This is a group that advocates for radical, radical anti-business policies. This is an organization that thinks (PDF) stores on major commercial streets should be limited to 2,000 square feet, that wants to impose wage requirements on “established” businesses, that wants to require that half of the ground-floor commercial space in new developments be sold at below market rates to a Land Trust, that expects the city to regulate the length and price of leases, that wants to zone significant portions of the neighborhood to allow only 100% affordable housing.
This is why people are afraid of her. Years of watching her advocate in San Francisco for an extreme anti-growth, anti-business agenda makes people who want to see businesses and growth come to Oakland nervous. If she wanted to make the case to them that she would not be so extreme in Oakland, it was her responsibility to take those two plus months and do it. Instead, she didn’t even try.
This same record is also precisely why a big contingent of advocacy groups turned out to lobby for her. Of course, none of them breathed a word about this work. Instead, they tried to convinced us they were there because she has a Masters in Urban Planning. How stupid do they think people are? In what way is this some kind of unique qualification to serve on the Planning Commission? The City pays plenty of people plenty well to be professional planners, now we need them on the Planning Commission, too? And even if that were going to be our new standard, are we seriously going to pretend that it’s difficult bar to meet? As if we have some kind of shortage of planners in this town? Give me a break!
But the most galling part for me was the repeated condemnations from the pro-Chan camp of the business community for “politicizing” the process. Sometimes you just have to wonder what universe these people live in. It was Chan who went out and got endorsements from all sorts of non-profit groups, but refused to talk to the other side. It was their side that held a freaking rally outside City Hall! It was their side who wore stickers and filled half the room with a crowd that loudly applauded comments they liked and literally hissed and booed ones they didn’t. How is that not “organizing”? How is that not “politicizing”? How in the world can you do that and then stand there at a public meeting with a straight face and condemn others for being “divisive”? It’s ridiculous! How stupid do they think people are?
I was really nervous about this vote, and even after Jean Quan and Jane Brunner announced that they didn’t have the votes to support the appointment, I still wasn’t convinced it would be okay. But Pat Kernighan came through, giving a pretty lengthy explanation for her choice, and I have to say, I felt bad for her up there because it was clearly a very difficult decision for her to make. But she had exactly the right rationale, saying “For me, the issue is about balance on the Commission. Clearly, we want people at neither extreme.” She pointed out that, particularly in light of the current economic climate, Chan’s very prominent history in the Mission of being extremely hostile to private investment could pose a serious barrier to Oakland’s ability to attract new business. And she was right. We need Commissioners who understand the balance between the needs of the community and the need to bring revenue and capital into the City, not who make developers all over the Bay Area run screaming at the sound of her name. I really hope that message will get through to the Mayor and that we’ll see Dellums submit a new nomination for a more moderate candidate, the consensus candidate that everyone wants, someone that will be able to find support from labor, non-profit, environmental, and business interests. Believe it or not, such people actually do exist in Oakland. Some of them even have planning degrees.
Oh, you can check out dto510′s take on the meeting here.