Trying, and failing, to do something good

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!

9 thoughts on “Trying, and failing, to do something good

  1. Max Allstadt

    To clarify, V…

    Eric Angstadt and the City Attorney explained to me that the no new conversions only applies while staff is conducting it’s study.

    In 6-8 months, staff will have recommendations that should create various types of work/live hybrid uses that are appropriate in industrial areas, are useful for artists, artisans and musicians, and which will be safeguarded against sneaky conversion to lifestyle condos. Depending on who’s on the council then, we will have more or less leeway to create useful hybrid space. 6-8 months could be actually a year, but with the market where it is right now, that’s kind of moot.

  2. V Smoothe

    Well, yeah, there will be no new conversions until they make a rule saying otherwise, which will theoretically be in 6-8 months. Looking at the city’s track record in terms of returning with things like this on time, I would say that it’s highly unlikely we will see this work/live recommendations within a year, and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they never appeared. There’s no political will to create them, and there is a significant number of influential people who do not want to see any hybrid uses – saying that recommendations will appear later, after study, is a convenient way of putting the issue of indefinitely.

  3. Max Allstadt

    Maybe so. The resolution specifies September, but no date. It explicitly directs staff to undertake the study. Perhaps when industry doesn’t flood into West Oakland as a result of the “certainty” that’s allegedly being created in the real estate market, we’ll see political will shift.

    It was depressing to see your idea mired in gobbledygook. A totally fair scheme lost to details.

    Got anything for us on the obnoxious shout-down of consent to search.

  4. Mike Hardy

    Just some fan mail since you work so hard and I just sit here and read it quietly. Keep it up! This is great reporting.

  5. Mercedes Corbell

    I agree completely with your portrayal of Nadel and Quan as two council people “who are consistently the least concerned with implementation”. And in my opinion it’s a huge understatement. It’s classic that Quansupports a proposal that will COST the city money and feels that we will get “$50,000 of SOCIAL VALUE” out of spending 100k. Truly amazing. How does she arrive at that accounting? And how does she do it in a deficit environment. Perhaps the same way that she is approaching the city’s mismanagement of its budget- by supporting another tax- the LADD. It’s time that the city of Oakland take a look at the waste being exposed by the city auditor and make a project out of solving some of those problems. And NO ON LADD, btw, as no audit has been done on what’s happening with the current budget for the items (lighting etc) in question.

  6. Joanna

    I can’t believe that the issue of community service for paying off your parking tickets is still being batted around. If so many other cities can do it, why not Oakland? And why hasn’t staff truly looked at how other cities handle it? This came up when I was on the Parking Task Force and it was a joke. It seems they left a lot out last night… as usual, unprepared.

    Like how many tickets are never collected? Like how they send unpaid tickets to a collection agency and only get half the money? Rather than never collect, wouldn’t it be better if someone could work off the tickets and not get buried further in a debt situation? For some, they don’t care if they keep getting tickets because it’s not likely that they’ll ever lose their car. Some people have tickets hoarded up worth more than the car anyway.

    There’s no shortage of trash on the streets no matter how many Earth Day clean-ups we do. Why not get people out on the streets every weekend cleaning.

    And if the seniors are well enough to drive and get a parking ticket, then let’s let them work at an after school program helping teachers, if not doing clean-up.

    What I was told is that the real issue is that our City Manager wants the cash for the general fund, but my point is that you can’t get blood out of a turnip. And how hard can it be to prove that someone is eligible to do a work program? The rich are either going to pay the ticket or do the clean-up. Would that be so horrible? And maybe if they made the amount of hours needed to work considerable, people would think twice before getting a ticket.

    Oh, but I’m also for reducing the parking meter costs. I wish our general fund weren’t so dependent on these funds, because I think it hurts in other ways like bringing business to Oakland.

  7. Max Allstadt

    Parking tickets are such a regressive tax. With the class schism in this town, there’s no reason not to let people work them off.

    Our meter costs aren’t that high, but these new machines are annoying in that you can’t add to your recently purchased receipt, only come back when it’s expired. You cant change your mind and decide you want two hours when you just bought 30 minutes.

    Also, I think to combat the regressive taxation effects of tickets, anybody with a car registered to an address in the city of Piedmont should pay triple for parking tickets. They make three times as much as oaklanders, their homes are worth three times as much, if not more. Seems like progressive taxation to me to make them pay triple fines on everything. Besides, what are they gonna do, not park on piedmont ave? Yeah right.

  8. Jessica

    Here’s a question: If you can do community service for traffic violations, how hard can it be to incorporate tickets? Is it just a city versus county thing?

  9. Max Allstadt

    FYI, planning called me. They intend to begin their work/live research NEXT WEEK. I’ve been told to expect calls. Whether the project will get shelved by political forces before it’s done is another question. I’m pretty convinced that staff will be motivated to do this, I see it as an interesting job for them, tricky and unboring. I’m hoping the fun of it will be an asset to moving it along.