V Smoothe, here. Your one and only source on the scandalous lives of the Oakland political elite.
Okay, it wasn’t quite so bad as the headline suggests. But OMFG, last night was like, the mother of all meetings. Well, at the very least, it was hands down the best one I’ve been to in the past year.
I need to preface this with an apology, or maybe, more appropriately, a disclaimer, for my regular readers. I know I’ve told you before that I love policy and hate politics, and I guess I realized tonight that that isn’t entirely true. Sure, I still despise the political rumor mill, and I can’t find any of the thrill others seem to get from depressing municipal scandals, but God knows I love watching some cray-zee shit go down at a public meeting.
Where do I even start? I guess at the beginning. Okay, so there’s this thing called the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. It’s funded by HUD. The idea is that basically a community knows better than the Federal Government what their neighborhood needs the most. Tons of different kinds (PDF) of activities are eligible for these big chunks of federal money that get sent to cities across the nation every year, and you’re supposed to divvy them up among all sorts (PDF) of local improvement projects. Each District in Oakland has a citizen advisory board that’s supposed to review grant applications and make recommendations for who gets funded. It’s a unique opportunity for people to make very real decisions about what programs will be the most beneficial to their community and give those programs some government cash.
So, after the June primary passed, I was left feeling kind of restless. I had abandoned my other volunteer commitments to devote all my free time to Sean Sullivan’s campaign, and over the period I was doing so, found myself feeling not nearly so negative about the city goverment as I usually do, but instead energized and hopeful about our future.
Then, the City Council elections didn’t go, um, quite the way I wanted. So that was a thing. And of course, I no longer had the campaign office to go to and spend all night on the phone with strangers, so after like two months of that taking over my life, it was a little weird to be without it. Sure, I could go back to the things I’d been doing before, but that wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to do more, to get involved in something to do with the City on top of the other stuff. And so I settled on deciding I would like to join the D3 CDBG Board.
You see, the District 3 CDBG Board is, usually, well, kind of sad. Not sad because of the people involved, but sad, well, because of the lack of people involved. Often, meetings will not even get a quorum.
So here I was, thinking I’d like to do this, but a little nervous (or actually, a lot nervous) about it, what would it be like to show up out of nowhere and would people laugh at me for wanting to be involved with it, because the one thing I think I learned more than anything else during the election is that nobody gives a damn about what you do for Oakland as far as volunteering goes if it doesn’t involve a title of some sort. So then I thought maybe I shouldn’t even bother trying.
So you can’t even imagine how pleased I was when Sean Sullivan told me he was also thinking about the good we could do by maximizing CDBG funds, and was going to put together a slate for the District 3 Board, and that he’d like me to be part of it.
So (and I do apologize for making the beginning of this all about me, because this post isn’t about me at all, but I felt like I should disclose that I had put my name in the running for the elections, and if you’re a regular reader you know I can’t explain anything in an even remotely pithy way) the board elections were last night. And I show up, along with the rest of the slate, and a number of supporters. My heart sank momentarily when I arrived, as it became immediately apparent that our little group were not the only ones who had thought they might take over the Board (Greg Hodge was standing outside the building when I showed up, passing out flyers for another slate). Then, after that 10 seconds of disappointment, I woke up and realized how incredibly freaking cool this was.
There I was, sitting in this fairly sizeable room, which, BTW, was totally standing room only and completely overflowing, for a group, that remember, had often not even had a quorum at previous meetings. It was a sight to see, folks. There was some murmuring around the room from a number of people about how most of the attendees had never been there before, and how people were just “playing politics,” and I felt very sad for those who choose to take it that way. Because, damn, I thought it was inspiring.
To watch all these people overfilling the room, people who just live here and want to make this city better and don’t know what the hell to do about it, so they latch onto this one thing and they all show up here for something that has just sat, neglected by most people forever, well, that’s just so incredibly cool to me.
Um…then it went…let’s say, downhill. Once the crowd quieted down, District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel stood up and spoke. I had been under the impression that the meeting would begin with us all getting an overview of the strategic plan developed by last year’s Board, in which they had identified four key areas they believed future funds should be spent. Instead, Nadel informed us (and I am not exaggerating here, she was quite explicit about this) that she had unilaterally decided that every last penny of D3 CDBG money would be going to her personal money pit, oh, I’m sorry, I mean “teen center,” and that, by the way, the CBDG Board, which used to meet monthly, would now meet only quarterly, and its only function would be to serve as the Advisory Board to her teen center.
If you’re thinking “WTF” right about now, well, you’re not the only one. The room went crazy! Hands shot up from every corner, and angry people were throwing out questions like salt on a tomato and cucumber salad. What do you mean the money is all going to the teen center? Since when? What do you mean you’ve already hired the coordinator for the teen center planning process? Why wasn’t the community invited to give input on the decision? Why has the coordinator not been introduced to the community? Why were all these people who showed up to the City Council to support the teen center mothballed building boondoggle not consulted about this coordinator? What is the point of even having a CDBG Board if the decisions about the funds have already been made?
All good questions. In response to which Nadel informed us that the Board will help implement the teen center program and make sure the project “stays on track.” They can help decide what kinds of programs the teen center will host, in addition to the ones the kids say they want. Oh, and she’d also expect them to raise money from other sources for her.
It took a little while for the room to grasp what exactly was going on (myself included! I was just watching, in this kind of stunned daze, and then all of a sudden it hit me – omg what she’s trying to do here is like off the charts insane and why the hell am I not writing every word of this down and get your damn notebook out now you moron!), but suddenly, it was like you could practically see all the light bulbs going off in peoples’ heads as everyone in the room simultaneously realized just how much they were getting screwed. The protests got louder and louder and Nadel fruitlessly tried to calm the crowd, saying:
I hear that people are unhappy with that. But the decision has been made.
The questions didn’t relent, but they started taking a very, very, very angry tone. So, if the teen center does get all the CDGB money for all of District 3, then with that money, it will be able to open? Well…no. Nadel informed the crowd “We have a little bit of money for construction, we have a little bit of money for planning, we have no money for programs.” Just the planning process would take between eight months and a year (remember folks, we bought this building for over eight hundred thousand dollars a year ago), and when once that finished, there was still no guarantee the center would open.
More angry roaring from the crowd. A member of last year’s Board stood up to say that they had not endorsed the spending the money that way, and explaining that they had put a lot of thought into identifying four priorities for the future funding allocations, but that they had never even talked about the money all going to the teen center.
Nadel’s protests became meeker:
I felt…we have such limited funds in our district…
And the responses became angrier:
What you have done is disenfranchised everyone in this community!
Nadel grew more and more defensive:
I am cobbling together whatever money I can…Everybody in a poor community has to cobble together what money they can…I have some money for construction, I have some money for planning. I don’t have program money.
Nadel kept getting more and more flustered, and I swear, I almost felt bad for her at this point, because I really thought she was about to start crying, and she started to complain about how hard the election had been for her, but her whining was drowned out by the dozens of angry voices in the room. Eventually, somehow, everyone settled down again enough for her to start speaking, and she said, and really, really folks, this was just so incredibly sad, she said:
I’ve been a Councilmember for 12 years, and I got accused of no leadership over and over in this election, and now, when I assert leadership, people criticize that too.
I wish there was a way for me to communicate the desperate tone of that statement, and maybe a better writer could, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin. It’s hard to know how to react when a Coucilmember says something like that. I mean I, definitely, was among those complaining about her lack of leadership during the election. And it kinda tugs your heartstrings to see that she’s trying, or thinks she’s trying, or wants to appear to be trying at least, to respond to those criticisms and do something different. And I don’t think I really understood until that moment that Nancy Nadel just doesn’t have the faintest idea what leadership actually is. It isn’t “leadership” to decide you want something and not have the capacity to fundraise for it independently. It isn’t “leadership” to strip power from your neighborhood. It isn’t “leadership” to tell dozens of people you represent, all of whom want to help that you know better than them what they need. She was just so completely lost.
More of the existing Board complained that they had never envisioned the funds all going to the teen center when they set their priorities. Somebody asked if there was even a place where they could get information about the teen center. (No!) This went on for over an hour.
People got angrier and angrier until finally, Nadel eventually cottoned to to the near mutinous sentiment in the room and consented to allow the board to allocate the funds as they wish (as if she had a freaking choice.).
But the drama wasn’t over. In the midst of all this controversy over the teen center, there was a frantic frenzy of cell phone calls and text messages, because everybody was floored by the turnout and worried they hadn’t brought enough supporters, so everyone was just contacting every damn person they could think of telling them to get down here right now. Of course, at some point, actually, at a very specific point, that point being one hour after the meeting begins, the rules says that registration to vote in the election closes. This caused quite the stir when Paul and Gay Plair Cobb waltzed in at 7:45 (the meeting had begun at 6:30) wanting ballots.
People protested that those rules hadn’t been explained in the meeting notice (true), while others yelled that the rules were common sense and it was unfair that they had arrived on time and waited out the spectacle if the ultra-latecomers were being allowed to vote and that really, the election should have already started (also true). The League of Women Voters (who were, by the way, obviously not anticipating anything even remotely close to what happened and looked completely terrified) ultimately settled on giving the people who came in late provisional ballots, which, as far as I was able to understand, would only get counted if their votes wouldn’t impact the outcome of the election, which, to me, kind of defeats the point of voting at all, but wev.
You’re probably thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything more, but it wouldn’t be Oakland if that were the case, and sure enough, another minor spectacle ensued when Jumoke Hinton Hodge, School Board member-elect, who had been there the whole time but had inexplicably not signed up to vote before the deadline, grabbed herself two ballots right in front of like a dozen people. Eventually, she consented to only voting once like the rest of us and gave one of them back.
Anyway, once that had been settled and the City’s CDBG coordinator got up to explain the voting process, Nadel booked it out of the room and all that was left was for the 36 people running for the Board to speak, which they did, and they were all really impressive and clearly really cared about the community.
The building had to close at 8:30, and the voting didn’t even start until 8:20, so they let people hang out for a little while extra, but eventually it became clear that the tallies weren’t going to be in tonight and they kicked everyone out and told them to call for results in the morning. Of course, if the rumors of a City employee sickout are true (I hear they don’t like the way their contract negotiations are going), there will be nobody to call, but I’ll check when I wake up and if I do find out and anybody cares, I’ll post the results in a comment.
What a meeting! Seriously kids, it was freaking awesome. Political circus at its best. The policy wonk in me really shouldn’t say this, but the classicist in me, who has spent way too many hours of her life fantasizing about witnessing a City Dionysia and loooves spectacle, is just praying for like dozens of fed up citizens to show up at Tuesday’s City Council meeting and show some totally righteous anger during public comment, just so I can relive a fraction of tonight’s excitement. You wish you had been there. But aren’t you glad I told you about it?
You know you love me. XOXO,