Oakland’s eternal indecision

Yesterday, I complained about the City’s complete inability to make a decision about anything and just stick with it. I’m not feeling any more positive about the City today. In fact, I spent the better part of the day yesterday thinking about how all we ever do is just go around in circles, talking about the future but never preparing for it. I swear, the City of Oakland is like the world’s worst commitment-phobic boyfriend.

Ever since he was campaigning for Mayor, Ron Dellums has been very upfront that the cornerstone of his approach to municipal governance is relying on large infusions of capital from the Federal government. Personally, I never found this particularly promising or inspiring. But it’s what the Mayor said he could bring to the table, and he has completely failed to deliver in this respect. Not only are the grants he announces to great fanfare smaller than what Oakland got before his tenure, but when actual opportunities arise for getting new money, he can’t even get it together to ask for it. While cities all over the country were frantically lobbying for their share of $4 billion in Federal Block Grants to combat the impacts of foreclosures on the community, the Mayor sat back and did nothing. And big surprise, we got screwed. Most of the nation’s Mayors have put together elaborate laundry lists (PDF) of billions of dollars worth of huge, job-creating infrastructure projects they’d like to do with any money coming from a promised economic stimulus package. But despite incessant whining about our own lack of funds for capital improvements, an 85 year street resurfacing cycle, and ancient sewer infrastructure, Dellums could only get it together to ask for less than $100 million. Yesterday, I was reading some random article about some SBA program aimed at supporting small business revitalization in inner cities, and see this totally random note saying that Oakland was one of 10 cities selected to participate, but withdrew. Why? I have no idea. It appears that the Mayor’s devotion to bringing increased Federal assistance to Oakland extends only as far as babbling about it at press conferences and Council meetings. When it comes to getting it, or, hell, even asking for it, well – that’s just too much pressure.

It doesn’t end there. Last March, in what Dellums supporters trumpeted as a great triumph, the Council approved an “Industrial Land Use Policy Statement.” The statement was sold as a commitment to preserve nearly all the City’s industrially zoned areas for industrial only use for all eternity. Of course, what it actually said was that when people want to change the zoning of these areas for a project, they’ll have to meet a certain set of criteria, which is basically code for “have to give us bags of money” for the privilege of putting something useful on underutilized and blighted property. The criteria were supposed to return to Council for adoption in May. It is now December, and of course, the extortion list still hasn’t materialized. Nevermind all that, though. Within weeks of the Council approving the Mayor’s request (PDF), he was making noise about sticking a hospital on one much debated West Oakland industrial site, a use that would have required one of those General Plan amendments he’s allegedly so worked up over.

One of the last things Jerry Brown did as Mayor was spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to have people from cities that have actually been successful at reducing crime come and tell us what we need to do with the police department, and give the consultant’s report (PDF) to Dellums as a welcoming gift. So what did we do? Ignore all the recommendations, of course, and instead revert to a deployment strategy that we had abandoned several years ago. Dellums spent the better part of a year fighting with the union so we could switch patrol officers to a 3 day a week, 12 hour a day schedule instead of the four day a week, ten hour a day schedule. The shift change was a great victory for Oakland, we were told, because it would enhance enforcement, improve morale, and reduce overtime costs. Then last week the Mayor announces that he’s going to switch a bunch of officers back to the four day, ten hour shift because it will…can you guess? That’s right. Enhance enforcement, improve morale, and reduce overtime costs.

It’s not just the Mayor. The Council has spent the last 12 years talking about what to do with the damn Army Base. After the Wayans Brothers abandoned their exclusive negotiating agreement last fall, the Council decided that the best next step would be to put off making a decision for a year and a half while they went through an elaborate bid solicitation process, and have the exact same discussion every couple of months in the meantime. It goes like this:

Larry Reid: I don’t like driving all the way to Gilroy to go shopping. We need retail at the Army Base. Like Costco.
Nancy Nadel: No. We need to move the industrial out of West Oakland and put it there.
Jane Brunner: When I say I want to go shopping, I’m not talking about buying 10,000 rolls of toilet paper. Remember, this is the very first thing anyone sees when they come to Oakland. It’s the gateway to our city and it should be something truly spectacular! Like an outlet mall.
Nancy Nadel: Who cares what you think? This is my district, I should get to say what goes there.
Larry Reid: Oak Knoll was in my district and you got input on that!
Nancy Nadel: My district! Mine! I’ve been working on this since 1993!
Larry Reid: You’re not the boss of me. Or your district. Oak Knoll! Outlet mall!
Nancy Nadel: Look, I know what my constituents want. Adams Point voters elected me to represent West Oakland, and West Oakland wants industrial on the Army Base. Except for all those West Oakland residents who spoke during public comment to ask for a bowling alley. Ignore them.
Jane Brunner: We desperately need more retail in Oakland. I hate having to drive to go shopping. I want to be able to buy a sweater somewhere convenient, like an inaccessible spit of land next to a sewage treatment center.
Nancy Nadel: But we need to put all the metal recycling and also all the trucks there so they can stop ruining the lives of my constituents in West Oakland. Also, customs inspections. And the produce market. And a film studio. It’s mine, remember? My district! Mine!
Larry Reid: Oak Knoll!
Henry Chang: I’m getting really bored of having this conversation. Let’s just sell all the land to the Port and they can figure it out. We can use the money for, um, I don’t know…affordable housing. Or whatever.
Ignacio De La Fuente: This is taking a really long time, and it’s like, 12:45. And we still have ninety-seven more items on the agenda. Let’s make no decision now and talk about this again in six months.
Nancy Nadel: But it’s MY DISTRICT. MINE!
Larry Reid: Oak Knoll!
Jane Brunner: Outlet mall! Spectacular!
Pat Kernighan: Sigh.

Now that two of the four finalists under consideration for Army Base Master Developer have dropped out, you’d think the Council would be left with a relatively easy decision. One remaining industrial proposal, one remaining retail proposal. Which do we want? Given their past pattern of behavior, I’d be shocked if the Council settled on anything beyond that we either need to start the decision process over or create some brand new set of hoops for the competitors to jump through so we can put off the decision for yet another year.

Everyone seems to agree that we can expect the suffering market to last another couple of years. Some people apparently think that this justifies endless dithering about our future priorities. It doesn’t. We need to make some decisions now and use this period of investment stagnation to put in place firm groundwork that will be able to support the eventual economic recovery. If we keep going the way we are now, we’ll still be sitting around in our working groups talking about how we need to develop strategies by the time the economy does come back. The money will all just go elsewhere, and Oakland, as usual, will get left behind to sit around and talk some more.

17 thoughts on “Oakland’s eternal indecision

  1. das88

    V. that dialogue is hilarious, but only because it is sadly true.

    You should write a whole play and then some of us can enact it on the steps of city hall. I get to play Nancy Nadel because district 3 is mine, mine, Mine!

  2. Max Allstadt

    I think we should do a flash cartoon version.

    While you’ve engaged in a minor bit of hyperbole here, and I laughed my ass off, the whole thing is based in enough depressing truth that I’m rethinking my involvement in local politics. Maybe I should stop trying to change things and start finding ways to profit from the mess.

  3. VivekB

    I think lego block puppets would be better. Kinda like the youtube video about Star Wars Death Canteen. Go search for it, you’ll laugh for a long time.

    Heh, that was a hilarious video. Took my mind off Oakland City Council for a little bit. Now back to reality, and the realization that the voters overwhelmingly re-elect this bunch of blowhards every chance they get. We have indecision in the council because that is the type of behavior and officials we reward.

  4. ItsABoat&Pandas

    One could argue that a more appropriate title for this post might be “Oakland’s Internal Indecision”

  5. 94610BizMan

    Folks who have not been parts of big corporate investment decisions don’t appreciate just how much political indecision or bureaucratic confusion spooks the corporate investment decision process.

    Any corporate relocation or investment will need years to pay off the investment. If the out-of-town executive responsible sees this kind of political bureaucratic dysfunction or a strong NIMBY push-back then the corporate reaction is to look elsewhere.

  6. Ken O

    what’s really sad, is that with Oakland so poor, we didn’t even submit a request for extra transit funding to the incoming federal administration — but San Francisco and other cities did.


    check it out!

    at least we’ve requested a piece of the pie for CDBGs…
    Some of these figures look pretty sketch though:

  7. 94610BizMan

    Ken O.
    That’s what I have been doing exclusively for the last three years with my own firm. I’m up to 20 people. I just have my staff moving their residence away from Oakland.

    In the last 25 years since I moved to the Bay Area I’ve also been a senior exec at firms that made the kind of location investments I’ve mentioned. I’ve also been involved with several successful startups. We probably created a few hundred new jobs over the last quarter century. After the corporate acquisition, the new corporate HQ, at some point moved the jobs out of the East Bay.

    As I mentioned in another post, my firm is likely to go from 100% Oakland residents at start up to just me, my wife and our VP of Admin in a few years. Ironically, corporate HQ won’t move it’s just the Oakland employees move and each time an employee moves I pay less business tax to Oakland.

    The next few years will be grim and the City Hall circus will make it grimmer.

    Ken would you want to personally make a six figure investment in Oakland right now to start a business?

  8. VivekB

    94610: My current job is to oversee large initiatives for a large company, and i’m in the midst of securing funding for my ’09 stuff. I’d agree with the dysfunction bit, but phrase it slightly differently.

    Execs like to put things in terms of risk. For each option, identify the risk, quantify it. See which path has the best risk/reward path, and never get involved in too many initiatives with the same risk profile.

    Governmental dysfunction is one of the worst types of risk, because there’s not much a business can do to hedge against it. Hence we have the situation you describe, which is to walk away, potentially towards a “more risky” but “more steps a business can do to manage the risk down”.

    Oakland would need to have some serious offsets to this risk, the money would have to be fabulous, or the cost would have to be immensely low. The first one isn’t present in today’s economy, and the latter is not a winning end-game strategy for a city.

  9. 94610BizMan

    Agreed. You described the internal corporate view better than I did as I just focused on the psychology with out the risk/return evaluation.

    The combination is the reason why many non-corporate folks don’t understand why corporations often walk away from investments in Oakland that look good superficially from the outside.

  10. charles hahn

    Actually Council President De La Fuente during his run for Mayor in 2006, had the best plan for the Army Base. The City of Oakland nor the Port of Oakland does not get any tax revenues from opening containers. In fact Central California does. We transport many of the containers to that area but they collect the taxes on the containers. The City/Port of Oakland does not. In all do respect we have a decent City Council, despite all this talk about indecision. Its just that the Council President , Vice Mayor Reid and others are portrayed in a negative fashion by radical groups because of their support for economic growth. Look how many city jobs and programs we could have saved if we just focused on pro growth measures. I think Costco would be a great idea for Oakland. It fits the parameters of all income brackets and Oakland small businesses would enjoy it as well, especially since Jetro Restaurant Depot is moving to a more high traffic area on High Street. If we got the space why not? If Costco is willing to come let’s roll out the welcome mat and not lose another job producing recession proof business to Gilroy or Emeryville. Let us not forget the Council President’s plan in regards in to leaving space on the Oakland Army Base for taxing containers. We have some damn good leadership but we as residents/businesses of Oakland just need to promote a “business friendly” city and not be afraid of those that want to keep the status quo.

  11. Andrew

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I moved to Oakland in 2004 from the East Coast. Ever since I got here I could never understand why Bay Street and all the shops in Emeryville are in Emeryville and not Downtown Oakland. I was then told by a native that has lived here since the ’60s that Emeryville’s mayor and leaders fought much harder for those businesses than Oakland did. Sad as even Ikea could have been somewhere within Oakland’s city limits. I also think all the shops in Emeryville (Apple Store, Coach, etc) could have been downtown near Sears. Access via BART… location location location.