What’s wrong with Oakland’s government?

So there’s this great, great book that I’ve talked about many times before on this blog, Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland. Everyone should read it, but since I know that few people ever will, I’d like to share an excerpt from it, one I find myself thinking about whenever I get particularly frustrated with the City, and that seems particularly relevant in light of recent news.

This was published in 1973. Obviously, some of the details have changed in the meantime, but overall, the passage remains a strikingly honest assessment of the serious structural problem in Oakland’s government today. When I’m in my more pessimistic moods, I sometimes find myself thinking that the only thing that will ever get Oakland back on the right track is a completely new charter. Anyway, enjoy:

In dealing with the problems posed by poverty, unemployment, and racial tension, Oakland’s elected officials have faced a number of obstacles. One is the fragmentation of governmental authority: the Redevelopment Agency, Housing Authority, School Board, and Port Commission are all outside the control of City Hall. (In 1967 the poverty program’s community action agency, the Oakland Economic Development Council, declared its independence from local government, though the city took over again in 1971.)

City government itself is based on the council-manager form, under which the City Council is supposed to formulate policy and the city manager is supposed to administer that policy. The mayor, who is elected separately, is one of nine councilmen. Although the council-manger model assumes that “policy” will direct “administration,” the relationship between policy and administration in Oakland has been strongly affected by the resources available to the politicians on one hand and the administrators on the other. The advantages of the administrators are considerable.

First of all, the mayor and councilmen are not intended to serve full time at their jobs; the city manager, in contrast, is enjoined by the charter “to devote his entire time to the duties and interests of the City.” Salary levels underscore this difference: the mayor earns only $7,500 and each councilman earns $3,600 per year, but the city manager’s annual salary is $38,940. It would be a rare councilman or mayor who could afford to spend full time on his job.

This imbalance between the political and administrative sides of Oakland city government is further increased by a disparity in the staff and informational resources available to the council and manager. For the entire city council is served by just one secretary, who answers the phone, arranges appointments, types letters, and administers the Christmas program of the Municipal Employees’ Choir. The mayor is not much better off, with one administrative assistant and three secretaries.

The city manager, in sharp contrast, may utilize the manpower and information resources of all city departments under his control – police, fire, public works, and so forth. Furthermore, the manager has three full-time staff assistants in his own office who help him keep abreast of departmental communications. The finance and budget directors, who serve under the city manager, provide him with information regarding department allocations and utilization of city funds. As a result, the city manager tends to know more than anyone else about city government structure, processes, and substantive policy. For an elected public official in Oakland who wishes to exercise leadership, the built-in obstacles are enormous.

And with that, I’m off to Big Sky country. Have a good weekend, folks!

10 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Oakland’s government?

  1. oakie

    We no longer have a council-manager form of government. We now have a “Strong Mayor” in the person of Mayor Sleepy, and a City Administrator instead-and she is now on the grill for attempting to interfere with the arrest of a person charged with multiple felony counts, just read the papers today. The city administrator makes more than $250k, compared to $38k in the 70′s. City counsel members no longer share a single secretary, each has a staff of 4-5. The mayor, instead of a staff of 4 now has a staff of 25, which is a doubling of what it was just 3 years ago.

    And in that time, how has the population changed? Not much, and between 2000-2006, it has gone down about 5%.

    And what was the city’s budget in the 70′s? I’d like to know that.

  2. Max Allstadt

    I think the most significant part of what V just posted is about the fragmentation of powers. The School Board, the Housing Authority, the Port…

    In NYC, when Bloomberg took office, the schools were a mess. Instead of the state taking over, Bloomberg did. There was a lot of protest at first, but you can’t really argue with results.

    Anyway, a ballot measure that would consolidate power would be something I could get behind, if it was written right. The problem is that the dynamics of management, governance, and authority structures – not exactly the kind of thing that drums up popular interest. How do we implement structural reform when the very topic of discussion is too wonky to captivate the typical voter?

  3. Chris Kidd

    The last power-consolidating legislation we had was the strong mayor inititative, and we’ve all seen how well that’s turned out. Consolidation *could* work, but man would that be a tricky thing to write. In addition to the problems of drumming up voter interest in such a thing, you’d also essentially be going up against all the entrenched interests in city government who’ve made a nest for themselves and don’t want it upset by a restructuring of the city charter. But I agree that, if done properly, it could really turn things around.

    Your post confuses me. =( The city could do a better job with …. less staff? Staff should be proportional to population? We should go back to 1976 payscale? I”m failing to connect the dots.
    You seem to be suggesting that nothing has changed in Oakland since then except that the city government has more staff and is paid more money. But the excerpt was all about how the staff the city had at that point was completely insufficient and that councilmembers weren’t paid enough. And comparing budgets then and now wouldn’t shed much light, as tax codes, tax rates, allocation and distribution of funds are now totally different from 1976. I don’t think they create room in the budget anymore for carbon copies or Wang computers or pet rocks.
    We’ve also gone over in previous threads about how the city population did not decrease from 00-06. Using two different reports to compare population is like apples and oranges.

  4. Robert

    My take on this is that while city government may have been ineffective in the 70s, do we really think it is any better now with the huge increase in the staffs for the city council? (At least the mayor is supposed to have more to do after the strong mayor change.) Might we be a lot better off if we went back to a part time council that dealt only with policy issues. An enormous amount of council effort seems to be dealing with implementation issues, and that is what the beuocracy is for. For this to work, council and the mayor need the actual ability to fire the senior staff for not implementing the policies that council has approved, and use that power. To get rid of senior administation officials now it appears that they need to be caught in criminal activity.

    Chris Kidd – why on earth would we need more city staff now than we did in the 70s? From what I can see city governement is getting less done for Oakland citizens now, but the administration is bigger. Why?

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    Robert –

    What “huge increase”? The point of this post was that the extreme disproportionate allocation of both power and resources that these authors identified as a primary barrier to progress in Oakland before I was born remains one of our biggest problems today. Frankly, I just cannot understand the number of complaints I hear about political staff in this City. The FY 07-09 budget authorizes 4,418.18 full time equivalent (FTE) positions. The Mayor has an authorized support staff of 18 FTEs (including himself) and the entire City Council has 35.50 FTEs, including the 8 Councilmembers. People seriously think that’s excessive? I just don’t get it at all.

  6. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    I think that Council Members have the right number of staff. I would like to see better staff in some cases, but I think it’s good that they have several people helping them out.

    That probably is key for me. Not that we have too many staff, but the wrong staff. If the right people were in certain jobs, where it is simply my personal perception that the wrong people hold positions they are not worthy of, that detracts from the City and you start to feel that you are overpaying for something you don’t feel you’re getting.

    Consider this. If we had a Mayor that was a full-time cheerleader on the ground here in Oakland working every day towards raising morale, attending ALL city council meetings, and marketing this City by being so visable – wouldn’t you be happy to pay that person more than the City Administrator? I know I would. I think the City Administrator should be the equivalent to the CFO in a corporation. I think it might be worth spending money on a lobbyist as a separate position, but making sure there were results. (in other words, Ron has the wrong job, imho)

    Too many chiefs, not enough Indians. And/or the wrong chiefs leading. We’re not under one leadership (Mayor); but rather there are many fiefdoms within City Hall.

  7. Robert

    I think that a 2650% in council staff from the 70s to now represents a huge increase (One staff then to 27.5 staff now.) And while you can argue that the absolute numbers are small compared to the overall budget, it is not clear that the staff is being used effectively. When the two most talked about accomplishments of the council are the smoking ban and the ban on plastic baps – neither of which are well supported by science – they really do not seem to be very effective. I wouldn’t really have any reason to complain about the council staff if there was any reason to believe that they were provided more effective political management that council in the 70s.

    The unfortunate truth is that until Dellums has the ability and the will to fire staff that does not follow through on his and the councils directives, Oakalnd is in serious trouble. You other post on the history and current enforcement of the smoking ban shows that the city council has no control over the actions of city staff. Council requests a different proposal for the ban and then staff comes back with the original proposal? The mayor should have stepped in and directed Edgerly and the appropriate city department to come back with something that reflected the rquest. And the mayor should have taken action to terminate any city employee who refused to follow that directive. The city council was told that there would be no dedicated enforcemnt officers and now there are?! Who is city staff authorized that and why are they still working?

    Sorry, that got a little bit ranty. I’m afraid I might be becoming a Republican.

  8. Robert

    While my original comment dealt solely with the increase in city council staff since 1970, the current city budget shows an overall increase in total city employees of about 10% just between the 97-98 and the 08-09 budgets. (About 4000 up to about 4400.) Is this justified by the poplution increase? Or is it just ongoing bloat of government? I will see if I can find the number going back to the 70s.