So last night was one of those refreshing Council meetings where everyone brought their A game. They delayed the discussion on the Piedmont Pines utility undergrounding (I missed the explanation for that one, so I’m not sure what the deal is there), but they got a few things done. They preserved work/live in industrial areas for existing artists, although no new conversions will be allowed. Jane Brunner hammered the police department and other city staff (politely) about providing more thorough information in their reports. Desley Brooks pulled the slapdash consent to search proposal, and it will come back to the Public Safety Committee a month after their next meeting. They finished at a reasonable hour. It was all really nice.
But one item depressed the hell out of me, and I’d like to relay the entire discussion to my readers as an illustration of just how difficult it is to get anything done in this town.
So last week for Novometro, I wrote about a proposal that would allow low-income Oakland residents to work off their parking tickets with community service. You can do this in Berkeley and San Francisco, and I think you can do it in San Leandro as well, although I can’t seem to locate the article I recall reading about that a few months ago.
So this seems like a good thing, right? We get some people to pick up litter, they get out of fines they can’t pay, we’re helping people out a little bit, everybody wins. If only it were so simple.
So the program staff came up with would involve hiring a non-profit organization, probably Project 22, to deal with all the people who want to work off their parking tickets. Project 22 would find a local non-profit, or maybe a city agency, where you could perform your volunteer work. Everyone who wanted to use the program would be charged $20 to $80, depending on the amount they owed, which would cover Project 22′s administration costs. On top of that, the City would create a new half time position, at the cost of $52,000/yr, to handle the program, and expects to lose $50,000 in revenue from the parking tickets.
All of a sudden, the program looks like kind of a pain. It would require more city staff, cost $100,000/yr, and not really save people all that much money (a $65 ticket would cost $20 and 8 hours of service to work off).
So Ignacio De La Fuente began the discussion, saying that it sounded like a good program in theory, but at the cost of $100,000, maybe it would be cheaper and easier to just write off people’s tickets. He wondered why we would have to hire more city staff, since the entire point of using Project 22 was that someone else would be dealing with the adminstration issues. He then said that if people are going to be working off their tickets, he wants them to be doing something for the City, like cleaning streets and parks, rather than just volunteering for some random non-profit.
Jane Brunner spoke next, and echoed most of De La Fuente’s concerns. She said that she worried about the cost, given the upcoming budget deficit, and that she agreed that people working off tickets should be performing work for Oakland, like weeding medians or picking up litter. She didn’t like the idea of having the City sacrifice revenue to have someone filing papers in an office somewhere.
Next, Jean Quan said that she thought $100,000 was pretty cheap, and that the program would allow a wide variety of volunteer work that could accommodate many different abilities. She said that the program kept administrative costs to a minimum, and that adding half a person to city staff to handle the paperwork wasn’t all the much. She also said that there’s a good chance we wouldn’t even have the money to do the program once they deal with the budget deficit, so we shouldn’t worry about the cost too much.
Staff got up to respond to some of the questions that had been raised. She explained that they would need to add the extra staff member to determine whether or not people are eligible, monitor the hours they work, and collect information about their tickets. She objected to a suggestion of having people work for the City instead of non-profits, saying that it would cost more because you’d need even more staff to administer the program.
Nancy Nadel then said that she was fine with restricting the program to City work only, and suggested that we solve the problem of adding more staff by letting the volunteers work through the City’s beautification volunteer coordinator.
Deborah Edgerly said that it wasn’t so simple, and that the beautification volunteer coordinator organizes programs that happen at regular times throughout the year. In contrast, this plan would mean that every day, the City has to worry about having a group of people show up, and that someone will have to find a place to put them, then someone will have to supervise them while they work. She said there was a liability issue as well, if someone were to be injured while cleaning up litter.
Nancy Nadel asked if we could just have them sign a waiver removing the liability, and Ignacio De La Fuente, summing up the frustration that it seemed everyone in the room was feeling at how impossible it is to get anything done, joked that getting an opinion on that from the City Attorney would probably cost another $100,000, which caused everyone present to start laughing uncontrollably for a full twelve seconds.
Desley Brooks suggested that the volunteers wok through the Volunteers of America program which is coordinated through the public works agency, and Deborah Edgerly asked if Volunteers of America worked every day. Desley Brooks said she thought they did, and Edgerly said she would find out, but that she didn’t think so. She then said that not everyone who gets a ticket will be able to pick up trash, and that they would still be left with the problem of what to do with seniors who wanted to work off their tickets.
Desley Brooks shrugged and said that the plan clearly needed more refinement before we could adopt it.
Henry Chang said that the program sounded too complicated, and that he had envisioned a program that would just help out fixed income seniors who can’t afford their tickets, but that this seemed more like punishing people than helping them. He complained about the amount of work hours required, saying that 40 hours of volunteering to cover a $250 ticket is shocking, and that many people make more than that in a single hour of work. He also said that if we’re having people help out the City, we should let them do it in a way that makes them feel good, not force them to pick up garbage.
Ignacio De La Fuente said that it was sounding more and more like the program would just create an incredible problem, and that it would probably, like most things, end up costing double or triple the estimate anyway. He said that it seemed clear we aren’t equipped to handle the program, and suggested, since there was no motion on the floor, that we just move on to the next item.
Jean Quan didn’t like that, and said that we will get $50,000 worth of social value out of having people do volunteer work, and that she didn’t think liability was an issue. She moved the item, and Nancy Nadel seconded it.
Pat Kernighan wasn’t there, Reid, Chang, and Brooks abstained, Nadel and Quan voted yes, and Brunner and De La Fuente said no. There was some confusion over whether the motion failed or not, but the parlimentarian (who I adore, BTW), reminded them that since it wasn’t a resolution, the vote only required a majority of those participating to pass. With the vote tied, De La Fuente drew another hearty laugh from the room by saying that the Mayor would break the tie at the next meeting.
So…it was pretty clear, by the end of the discussion, that this proposal was just not ready and not right for Oakland. The two Councilmembers who are consistently the least concerned with implementation voted for it, which was wrong, but even so, it’s hard not to sympathize. Nancy Nadel tried to suggest ways to make it work, as did Desley Brooks, and both got shot down by staff. I think that this issue and this discussion really highlights the serious administrative barriers to progress in Oakland. I’m excited at the prospect of having new faces on the Council next year, and I hope that they’ll put some energy into removing some of these roadblocks. Surely, there is some way for this City to run more efficiently!