What you missed at Council last night

Last night’s City Council meeting was full of fireworks. It was not, however, full of progress. On the two most controversial items on the agenda, the Council decided to just not do anything, at least for now. But just in case you had something else so pressing to do with your Tuesday night that you couldn’t tune into KTOP, here’s what you missed.

Open Forum was dominated by representatives of LaRouche PAC, demanding that the Council support their proposal to freeze all mortgages and ban foreclosures. Apparently, not supporting their legislation is traitorous and those who decline to adopt it are guilty of treason. Sure.

You may recall the post I wrote in December about the proposed new performance standards for recycling facilities. This is part of the new industrial zoning code adopted last year – the recycling regulations will go in that code, but were not adopted along with the rest because the Council couldn’t reach agreement on them.

Anyway, the new rules (PDF) basically say that recyclers have to adequately maintain the appearance of their facilities, post signage about their hours of operation, and comply with certain noise standards. District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel, a neighbor of a recycling facility, had requested stricter standards, asking that representatives of the recycling facilities regularly attend NCPC meetings and clean up the carts and trash within five blocks of the facility.

Nadel wasn’t able to garner much support for her request, and last night the Council approved the new performance standards (PDF), which were pretty much the same as what staff had proposed in the first place. Recyclers will now have to submit a shopping cart management plan to the City, pick up carts within one block of their facility (the report I linked to says two blocks, but this was changed to one), and attend two NCPC meetings a year (Nadel wanted 6).

Before the public speakers started, Nadel admitted defeat and moved staff’s recommendation. Council President Jane Brunner pointed out to the 40 speakers who had signed up that the Council was going to do what they want, so they might want to do everyone a favor and not use all their time in what was a very busy meeting.

Then we got to watch what has to be the most disgusting and offensive spectacle I have ever seen at a Council meeting. Jay Anast of Alliance Metals got up and gave an unbelievably self-righteous speech about how the people he serves have no voice and how he’s going to hold off on ordering equipment and hiring people if the City continues to subject him to performance reviews. The whole time he was talking, he had a stream of homeless people walk up and display signs for the Council to see, and while I wasn’t able to read the signs, from what I gathered, they were about how recycling is their only source of income.

When he finished, an irate Desley Brooks interrupted the public comment to yell at him about how offensive and exploitative his little parade was, and I could not agree more.

The rest of the presentation was pretty much the same. Lots of talk about how the recycling center offers the only source of income for the neediest in society and if it gets shut down, they will all return to a life of crime (ex: “I don’t understand why you would take away shopping carts and put guns in people hands. Cause that’s what you’re gonna do.”). They even trotted out someone they had hired, not once, but twice, to conduct a study and prepare a report about desperate and poor all the people who rely on recycling cans for income are.

The whole show was just gross. Clearly, all these people Alliance bused in had been told that the Council was trying to shut down the facility, which was never the case. They were being asked to clean up the mess they create and be willing to talk regularly to the neighbors of the facility about the problems the facility creates, and the Council declined to require even that. The Alliance presentation basically tried to paint the recycling center as a social service, but responsible service providers do not lie to their clients in order to further their own ends and escape their responsibility of being a decent neighbor.

Moving on. The Council voted to place a measure on a future ballot that would raise the City’s hotel tax (PDF) from 11% to 14%. Half the money generated from the tax would go to the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the other half would be split evenly between the Oakland Museum, the Oakland Zoo, the Chabot Space and Science Center, and the City’s cultural arts programming, including festivals and parades.

A number of public speakers argued that Children’s Fairyland should also receive funds from the hotel tax, which the Council did not end up agreeing to. The discussion from the Council was bizarre. They kept talking about how tough the budget cuts are going to be, but how they would protect the funding for all these other cultural institutions anyway. Desley Brooks seemed to be the only one with any sense of reality, and pointed out that it was irresponsible for the Council to make promises about maintaining funding for anyone outside of the budget process.

So…I’m against increasing the hotel tax. I support all the cultural institutions that will be receiving the money, but at some point, the City of Oakland needs to figure out a way to live within their means. We cannot just keep raising taxes constantly! If it passes, the increase would give us the highest hotel tax in Alameda County, and tie us with San Francisco for the highest in the Bay Area. How is increasing the cost of visits going to encourage more tourism in Oakland? How is it going to encourage construction of more hotels? It isn’t.

I just don’t know how to reconcile our insane tax rates with the abysmal levels of service provided by the City. We have the highest fees, we have the highest taxes. We have the highest transfer tax in the area. Now the Council wants us the have the highest hotel tax. Stayed tuned in the next couple of weeks for them to pass an outdoor dining tax (that may sound like a joke, but it isn’t). At some point, enough is enough. The City has to stop looking for ways to bleed more money from its residents and business owners. And their moms who come to visit.

I’m especially disappointed in District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente for his support of the hotel tax increase. When your whole thing is that you want the City to be more efficient and accountable, where do you get off supporting tax increases? In the last two weeks, De La Fuente has sent out two messages to his mailing list about how he opposes new taxes on residents, and complaining that the City does not use its existing funds well. To insist that “the City hasn’t shown it knows how to use your existing tax dollars wisely” mere hours before voting for a tax increase is terribly hypocritical. Raising taxes is raising taxes, and to draw a distinction between taxes on homeowners and taxes on hotels makes no sense when the premise of your anti-tax argument is that the City isn’t managing its funds properly.

OO. We got a little under an hour of public speakers demanding that the Council not place a repeal of Measure OO on the ballot. After-school programs are important, we shouldn’t cut their funding, without them the kids will have nowhere to go and will be reduced to a life of crime. My favorite speaker was a woman who came up and told the Council that she had participated in an after school program when she was younger, and it was so good for her that now she’s the Executive Director of a non-profit that gets OO funding, so they should increase funding for these programs because it will create more people like her. I get that she was trying to point out that she’s successful, but telling the Council that they should spend money to create a new breed of people who are going to come demand non-existent funds from them isn’t exactly persuasive.

During the extensive testimony about how valuable all these programs are, all I could think about was that maybe in addition to helping kids with their homework, some of these service providers might want to offer some lessons in manners, because it is just unbelievable how rude, disrespectful, and disruptive these crowds of teenagers that keep showing up are.

Nancy Nadel patiently explained, again, that the Council was not trying to cut youth programs, they just can’t afford to double the amount of money that goes to them.

Rebecca Kaplan explained to the audience that Measure OO was not, as some of the speakers had claimed, in the spirit of Obama, and that setting aside money for certain functions without creating a source of revenue for those functions is irresponsible.

Desley Brooks gave the best speech, saying that she did not support a compromise, and that the Council should stop pandering to interest groups and promising them money at the expense of core City services. Word.

The Council split on what to do about the repeal. Ignacio De La Fuente, Desley Brooks, and Jane Brunner wanted to place a measure on the ballot that would repeal OO and return funding to the levels previously established under Measure K. Nancy Nadel, Jean Quan, and Pat Kernighan wanted a measure that would repeal OO but provide greater funding than Measure K would have. Neither proposal could get the five votes needed to pass and we get to do this all over again at the next meeting. Fun.

The final hot ticket item on the agenda was the creation of a vacant building registry (PDF), introduced by District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks. The idea is that owners of buildings (residential and commercial) that have been vacant for 45 days would have to register their building as vacant with the City. They get 30 days to register the building after it has been vacant for 45 days, and the registration costs $175. If the building remains vacant, the registration fee goes up every year. So if the property stays vacant for a year (and BTW, the definition of vacant includes a commercial building that has even one empty ground floor retail space), the registration cost for the next year is $1000. The next year, it would be $2000. And so on. If property owners failed to register their vacant properties, they would be fined $5000.

So, I’ve watched all the discussions on this proposal, listened carefully to Brooks’s arguments, and read and reread the reports, but despite all of that, I still totally fail to see what the point of creating this database is. I’m all for collecting information, but not if the information is never going to be put to use, and nobody has ever explained how the information from the registry would be used. Brooks keeps talking about how vacant, foreclosed, and abandoned properties are a terrible problem for Oakland’s neighborhoods, and I agree with her, but try as I might, I can’t see how this registry would do anything to reduce the number of vacant properties. In fact, I can’t see how it would do anything except create more bureaucracy and take more money from people, which I’m sick of the City trying to do at every turn. Yes, blighted properties are a problem. We have a blight ordinance that we don’t enforce. We should start enforcing that.

Nobody else on the Council seemed to be willing to pass it as written, so after lengthy discussion about whether we should send it back to Committee for further review, they decided to just do nothing, but several Councilmembers suggested they would work on their own new versions of a similar law, which they would introduce at a later date.

20 thoughts on “What you missed at Council last night

  1. dto510

    Discussing the vacant building registry, councilmembers said they’d like a database of vacant commercial properties. There are already several such databases in Oakland, maintained by a dozen full-time researchers (I know this because I used to be one of them). Oakland needs to stop reinventing the wheel and trying to have the city duplicate functions efficiently performed by the private sector. If CEDA or council staff want to know what’s vacant, I suggest they call a commercial real estate brokerage.

  2. nfalls75

    They should close down Alliance Metals. Let these bums go to another city to do their recycling. If we’re lucky, they’ll stay there!

  3. Ralph

    i like the hotel tax but I think the measure as written is poorly constructed. visitors tend not to look at the tax rate when booking a hotel for vacation. generally it is the per night rate. i don’t like they way they single out certain program and exclude others. in most normal cities, the hotel tax supports all the arts stuff not just selected projects

    the registry is a social program for some city employee relative. i left before this discussion but like v, i am perplexed about any substantive value of this registry.

  4. KenO

    Mortgages should not be frozen. Yes, there is vast fraud in the us housing market, from HUD, Fannie/Freddie and the banks on down.

    Best solution: individual homeowners should ask banks to see the original loan paperwork.

    This should not be a free-for-all for the few homebuyers who didn’t do their homework and overbought when they really couldn’t afford the houses. Neither should it be (though it is) a free-for-all for the big central banks to buy out all the responsible banks. There was plenty of collusion all around.

    The housing market needs to come down further to affordable levels. US wages have been stagnant or dropped for most of the population in the last few decades.

    And yes the city should call up real estate brokers…although… hm.

    Suppose the city could continue selling off more of its land? They have tons of land for sale:


  5. Max Allstadt

    I definitely understand the frustration with vacant properties. I’m glad Desley Brooks cares enough about the problem to be trying to do something about it. She, Reid and Nadel have the districts with the biggest vacancy problems, and I really wish they would work together to put something together that reflects their experience.

    Unfortunately, this particular idea just doesn’t seem to be nuanced enough.

    I had my speaker card eaten by the city hall computer, but Rebecca Kaplan was nice enough to send Ada Chan out to listen to me during the comment period. I also had a good long chat with Matt Novak, my fellow CDBG board member during the long discussion that followed. Here’s an combination of what I got out of all of that:

    I live on a block with multiple vacant properties. They’re all vacant for different reasons, and addressing these different reasons is where this proposal fell short.

    On one end of my block is a burnt out house where Ms. Amanda Pierre was murdered by beating and fire in 2007. It’s blighted. But the family keeps coming back and chipping away at repairs because the property represents a fair chunk of their ancestral wealth. The ugliest house on the block is the one I have the most sympathy for. These folks have had enough trouble. We shouldn’t be bothering them with more fines and fees.

    On the other end of my block, there was a foreclosure two weeks ago. The local junkies and hos watched it happen, and they moved in not soon after. In order to get them out, my neighbor and I went on the property, pounded on the back door, flushing them out the front. We also called the cops and had it boarded up. Later one of the hos came back with her pimp and asked a neighbor about us. Now I’m watching my back. This is the prettiest house on the block, and the one I’ve got the least sympathy for. The bank made no effort to secure it, monitor it, or to make the foreclosure subtle in a neighborhood rife with potential squatters.

    We also have a house that was built and abandoned by it’s owner, who’s a wealthy speculator. I’m sure it’s on the MLS for sale at a stupid price. Perhaps we should be able to compel rentals?

    There are also three houses owned by an old man who moved out here to work the port during the war, but just got sent to assisted living. He was renting them all up until then, but now they’re empty, beautiful victorians rapidly decaying. I gave his family my number saying I’d help rent them, or help fix them up for cheap, but no response.

    Out past the end of the block, on San Pablo, there are multiple vacant blighted apartment buildings that no one will touch except for occasional squatters. If a sale could be forced, or if they could be seized by the city and auctioned, lower San Pablo might actually be able to be revitalized. I could fill at least one of those buildings with artists easily, and all it would take was code repairs, minimal stuff, no great overhaul.

    So you see, many vacants, many different kinds of problems, many levels of negligence or culpability. I think the city needs to develop a broader strategy than what was proposed at council last night. We need a workflow.

    Create a single point of contact at city hall for vacancy and blight complaints. Catalog successful strategies from different situations. Create new ones where needed. Organize it. Enlist citizen assistance. It will be complicated, but I think this problem is itself too complicated to have a magic bullet solution.

    There are definitely opportunities for legislation here, such as accelerating seizures of orphaned or neglected properties, but for the most part I think the fix will come from management and coordination. I don’t know how much the council can do about that, but they oughta try.

  6. V Smoothe Post author

    Max, your story is very sad, but I’m still at a loss as to how making people pay the City to declare the fact that their property is unoccupied would do anything to ameliorate the situation.

  7. len raphael

    who came up w the idea for a hotel tax increase? sounds like they added up the number of vocal residents affected, the contributions to the council and mayoral campaigns and decided the struggling hotel industry was too weak to fight. what the heck, only fat cat business people who are too cheap to stay in sf would be affected.

  8. V Smoothe Post author

    Jean Quan proposed it. The hotels actually supported the tax (a revised version, not Quan’s original proposal), because they want the money to fund the convention and visitor’s bureau.

  9. Max Allstadt

    V, what I’m saying is that Brooks’ motives are totally understandable, but that her method won’t work because there are too many different kinds of vacancy for it to be possible to attack them all with one fee.

    The problem requires a multi-strategy approach, but the people of Oakland deserve the simplicity of a single office at city hall to contact about vacancy and blight problems. Right now, you have your Beat PSO, Code Enforcement, and John Russo’s Law Corps, perhaps even others, like business development?

    There ought to be a quarterback in city hall that can call the plays for different kinds of vacancies. Advertise this new role via NCPCs and by flyering vacant properties.

    I realize the best way to incentivize people to use their property is to make it overwhelmingly proffitable to do so, but in the Flatlands, we’re impossibly far from that. Even downtown, we’re a long way from winning this fight by putting dollars signs in landlords’ eyes. So it may well be that we need to disincentivize sitting on vacant storefronts and on rentable foreclosures. The real estate business won’t like it, but if the disincentives are not crazily punitive, I don’t care if a little fee is needed to make it all work.

    Still, the blighted properties that cause the most trouble in the flats are either orphaned and squatted, or occupied by thugs or drunks. I think if you create a “quarterback for blight”, that office will spend much more of it’s time dealing with this kind of mess than with vacant storefronts.

    I don’t know. It’s tricky. Anybody have other ideas?

  10. V Smoothe Post author

    Max, we already have that. It’s called the blight hotline, and the number is 510-238-3381. If a property is vacant, but not blighted, then I don’t see what business that is of the City’s.

    How do you propose disincentivizing sitting on vacant storefronts enough to make a difference in the problem without scaring away all potential investment in Oakland? If the fee is low, then it won’t create any incentive. If the fee is too high, then people just won’t buy property here.

  11. Jason

    “Council President Jane Brunner pointed out to the 40 speakers who had signed up that the Council was going to do what they want, so they might want to do everyone a favor and not use all their time in what was a very busy meeting.”

    Wow. That’s democracy!

  12. Max Allstadt


    Prop 13 and insufficient blight enforcement work together to make land banking easy in oakland. Up until the bottom fell out of the market, it was quite possible that the annual dollar value appreciation on a vacant property would be higher than the property tax. That incentivizes owners to do nothing with their property. It also incentivizes sitting on multiple properties, doing nothing with them, and borrowing against them to buy other property.

    I have no problem with creating disincentives for situations like that. The economy is already helping somewhat, and Ms. Brooks’ method might not be the best path, but I still think vacancy should be discriminated against. Especially in the case of multi-property owners, especially trusts and banks.

    So yeah, if it’s land banking, or if it’s real estate investment of another sort that helps a wealthy investor but inflicts blight or even just stagnation on our community, that’s an investment I want to scare away. It’s not easy to differentiate with legal sanctions in this situation, but that’s why I’m not a lawyer or a legislator.

    As far as the blight hotline goes, that’s not what I mean by single point of contact. I mean a single high level staffer tasked specifically and exclusively with orchestrating war on blight, particularly with coordinating multiple departments.

    With foreclosures, there are citizen remedies that are possible too. One thing that came up on tuesday night was the possibility of multiple small claims suits from everyone in the neighborhood against an irresponsible loan servicer. I’m sure there are others.

    I also thing that seizures need to be expedited for orphaned properties. If no-one can get an owner to respond to communication for multiple years, and if the property is empty, the city should be able to take it and auction it relatively easily.

  13. Patrick

    I dunno…asking our city “government” to distinguish between land banking, investments, etc., when we can’t even complain to the Mayor via phone, is kind of a tall order. I don’t think we’re necessarily at odds about what we’d like, but I think there is a huge disconnect re: what is possible in this city. Seriously, our city government is hella bootsy.

  14. Paulette Hogan

    Hey everybody: My heart goes out to the people USED by Alliance to hold up signs. After Alliance’s speech, one of the young men came up to me and stated that they had been paid to come and hold up the signs. He also shared that they are often mistreated by the Alliance employees. He said if he had another way to make money, he would have not come that night or even to recycle at Alliance.

    Many of the people who spoke to me admitted that they are in addiction and that this is how they support their addiction. One man said to me, it’s better than going to jail for stealing. We should hold Alliance accountable for his clients and those who helped him get his $30,000.00 new machine.

    What is injustice for one is injustice for all. I stand with Ms. Brooks on this one. She was right in what she said and how she said it. This man bought KFC and warm sodas and paid people to speak on his behalf. Who’s minding Alliance’s store on the Council?

  15. Max Allstadt

    Desley was absolutely right to deliver that smackdown. I have lived in West Oakland for 5 years, 2 of them near Alliance, 3 of them near the on and off shanty beneath 980. On two separate occasions, I recall seeing members of J’s paid crew of supporters injecting heroin in public.

    The guy was being patently opportunistic, exploitive, and out of line.

    A man pushes heavy laden carts up and down Adeline like a modern day junkie Sisyphus, day in and day out. Alliance uses these people like employees without rights. Alliance oughta be run out of town.

  16. Paulette Hogan

    Max, there is one thing I can’t stand is injustice. After talking with a few of “J’s” employees, as you call them, I know that we cannot continue to support businesses that do not care about the lives of the citizens of Oakland, California.

    What is injustice for one is injustice for all. He should care about them! They pay his mortgage, PG&E, EBMUD and anything else he needs. Justice for Recyclers just like we holler Justice for Everything that matters in the City of Oakland.

    Since our City Council reads these blogs, I am concerned about the next steps for Alliance. Shall we create policy that makes recycling business responsible for building at least ONE HOMELESS SHELTER and ONE RECOVERY CENTER?

    We tax the Citizens of Oakland, when we should lay the responsibility where it belongs on this one. On the head of Alliance!

  17. simon

    i think jay anast has an excellent point. sure the city is revamping itself, its status is improving as more and more people come here with money and business. these people want the homeless and the bums off their lawn, off their streets cause of the image it portrays. what isnt said is that jay has been in oakland for more than 20 years, heavily involved with the community, grants numerous scholarships to schools and colleges. the guy has an industry that he built from nothing and it employs citizens and provides a source of income for the less fortunate.

    think about where your from, what you have done fro the community. for most of you that will be no more than bring wads of cash and build monstrosities and pretend that you no what is best.

    fair go to jay. he is doing brilliantly and if any of you accomplish what he has in your life times.. count yourselves fortunate.

    to the person who wrote the article on this webpage. youre a disgrace.