I wrote about the proposed Oakland Ambassador’s Program in my weekly city business roundup on Novometro. On Tuesday, the Council voted to conditionally approve the program, subject to funding during their budget deliberations.
Let’s take a look at a few features of the program that illustrate just how mind-bogglingly stupid this proposal is. Here’s the gist: Jane Brunner wants to use money from the Redevelopment Agency’s budget to pay for Oakland residents between 18 and 24 to stand outside BART stations for a few hours every day walking people to their cars, giving directions, and cleaning up trash. They’ll carry lists of local dry cleaners and pharmacies in case you’re looking for one. According to her proposal, this will reduce perceptions of crime among her constituents, who have been complaining about increased robberies in her district, and will provide local at-risk youth with valuable work experience. This is her attempt to address rising concerns about public safety.
The teams would work between dusk and 8 PM. Today, dusk begins at 9:01 PM. Oops! The Ambassadors missed their chance to reduce perceptions of crime. Okay, if you read the report, the Ambassadors are supposed to be working 22 hours per week. Assuming that we’re talking about a five day work week, and they’ll be off duty at 8 (that part is made explicit), the teams would start patrolling around 3:30 in the afternoon. Ahh yes, dusk.
This is the type of statement that’s just so blindingly stupid that I can’t even process how it made it into a policy proposal. Why “dusk”? Why not say “from 3:30 to 8 pm”? Has Jane Brunner never looked outside after 5? Or is it because using the word “dusk” implies that the teams would be available after dark, when people actually want increased police presence?
Moving on. Why BART stations? Do most robberies in Oakland happen near BART stations? Are most of our commercial districts located around BART stations? (The answer to both questions is no). Do people who live near BART stations deserve safety any more than those who live near the lake? What about BART stations, like Rockridge (which Ms. Brunner represents), that are not in redevelopment areas? The use of redevelopment funds for this program is of dubious legality to begin with, but that falls completely outside of any conceivable scope of legitimate use of this money. Of course, redevelopment money will only cover half the cost of the program. Neighborhood groups and merchants are expected to foot the rest of the bill. And if they can’t? Well, they don’t get any Ambassadors. How will people find the dry cleaners?
Ambassadors would also receive academic support for the 15 hours per week of classes they’re required to take. I can see the logic (and by “logic,” I mean “abortive attempt at higher-level reasoning”) behind this. They’ll work 22 hours per week, spend 2 hours per week being trained…hmmm…that doesn’t sound like enough…what should they do with the rest of their time? Oh, I know! They should go to school. Everyone loves school! Adding 15 hours of classtime brings the total to almost 40 hours of work, therefore, this is just like having a full-time job. Perfect! I’m a genius! Of course, if anyone had taken maybe five seconds to sit and think about how college classes work (or browse through Laney’s schedule on the online), he would have realized that spending fifteen hours a week in an actual classroom is far from normal, even for a full-time student. A more reasonable requirement would be to say that Ambassadors must be enrolled in at least two classes, or something like that. But why bother with reasonable? It isn’t like anyone on the Council is going to approach any of this feel-good tripe with anything even resembling a critical eye. Might as well spend those five seconds twiddling your thumbs, which is probably more fun than thinking anyway.
Brunner claims that by providing the Ambassadors with customer service skills training, she’s providing “real alternatives to criminal activity”? Seriously? Customer service? That’s her idea of valuable job skills training? Jane Brunner and Nancy Nadel and the rest of the “industrial preservation” fetishists constantly decry the uselessness of service sector employment as “low wage” and bad for Oakland. Now all of a sudden the ability to say “Have a nice day” is all that’s standing between Oakland’s at-risk youth and a bright future of productive citizenship?
The report concludes by asking the Council to approve the program, in part because it will “give employment opportunities to Oakland youth.” Last time I checked, the City was not a job creation program. It’s the City’s job to use the tax revenues they collect to provide infrastructure, public safety, and services to residents. It is emphatically not to employ as many people as possible.
I could go on. The report is only three pages long, and it’s just filled with ill-thought out nonsense like all of the above. But picking apart minor details of the proposal isn’t even my real point, so I’ll leave just leave it at that. So what has the Council actually done? Essentially, Tuesday’s vote means that they support the program in principle, and that the staff will now have to create a more thorough report providing a complete cost analysis and more details. Then the Council will decide whether they want to fund it or not. Hopefully (though not necessarily) the full report will remedy some of the more mindless aspects of Brunner’s proposal. So nobody has actually committed to anything yet.
Just because we haven’t actually promised to spend any money does not make this vote okay. The cost of feel-good, yet vacuous programs like this is not simply the half a million dollars a year the City would spend on them. Staff time is wasted coordinating nothing. Public meeting time is wasted. Most disturbingly, vacant gestures such as this one provide a mask for Councilmembers to hide behind rather than addressing real issues of making the city safer. They pat themselves on the back for trying to make a difference while the day to day reality remains no better for the four hundred plus thousand people who live here.
Does anyone really think that paying young adults in uniforms picking up trash and holding maps with a list of nearby dry cleaners is going to do anything to reduce crime? If wayfinding around BART stations is such an issue, why not just, oh, I don’t know, maybe post maps of the local area near entries and exits. At least then, people could figure out how to get where they’re going at any hour of the day.
Let’s hope that the Council wakes up when they receive the complete report, refuses to fund this nonsensical program, and use the summer meeting recess to spend some time crafting actual policies that have even a slight chance of making Oakland a better place for real.