A Symptom of the Problem 

Oakland city staffers create a double standard for parking violations in an effort to appease city councilmembers.

When news broke last week about Oakland's latest parking controversy, the question immediately turned to who was responsible for exempting two wealthy neighborhoods from the city's new parking ticket blitz. The San Francisco Chronicle had reported that city staffers ignored some parking violations in Montclair and on Broadway Terrace while strictly enforcing them elsewhere for several months last year. But then it became clear that the unequal treatment was the result of staffers trying to appease city councilmembers — some of whom wanted strict parking enforcement, and some who did not. And, in the end, the city's newest scandal became emblematic of a longstanding problem with Oakland government — district elections.

The story of the parking-ticket controversy began last June when the council was trying to bridge an $85 million budget deficit. In an effort to boost revenues, the council was deciding whether to begin enforcing two types of parking violations that the city had long ignored. Both concerned residents on narrow streets. One had to do with people parking their cars with two wheels on the sidewalk, and the other was with motorists who park in the wrong direction. The city never enforced the infractions because it can be difficult to turn around on narrow streets, and cars parked legally can block emergency vehicles.

At the June 30 meeting, councilmembers Larry Reid and Desley Brooks, who represent areas of East Oakland, argued for strict enforcement because unlawful parking had become a widespread problem in their districts. But councilmembers Pat Kernighan, Jane Brunner, and Jean Quan argued that the city should warn residents before issuing tickets.

Although the councilmembers say they never directed city staffers to treat people differently in different parts of the city, that's exactly what happened. From July 24 to November 12 of last year, residents in Montclair and on Broadway Terrace got warnings while the rest of the city got tickets. Eventually, the city stopped enforcing the two infractions on narrow streets, but for three and half months last year, Oakland had a de facto double standard.

So why were parking officials so eager to please the councilmembers? That's how Oakland government works, even though the city's charter forbids councilmembers from telling staffers what to do. Councilmembers are supposed to only deal with the city administrator, but in reality, they routinely inject themselves in city business in violation of Oakland law.

The reason is district elections. When residents from a section of the city, say Montclair, elect their councilmember, they expect that person to solve their problems. If the councilmember doesn't, he or she may not get elected next time. So councilmembers focus on their districts, even if it may not be in the best interest of the entire city. In effect, they become mini city administrators who manage city staffers as if they report to them — and not the city administrator.

If staffers resist, as they are allowed to do under the charter, the councilmembers make their lives miserable. In fact, Mayor Ron Dellums sent a strongly worded letter to councilmembers late last year to stop yelling and verbally abusing city staffers after one such employee had been forced to seek therapy.

And so Oakland is destined to have more problems like the parking-ticket controversy unless it reforms its election system. San Francisco is dealing with some of the same issues, and there's a movement to create a hybrid system of district and citywide elections there. Oakland would be smart to follow suit. Currently, it's only the job of the mayor and at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan to put the needs of the entire city before individual neighborhoods. And it's about time that changed.

Yelp Sued for Extortion

Yelp, the online site that has been accused of offering to remove or hide negative reviews of businesses in exchange for advertising, was targeted last week in a federal class-action lawsuit. The suit, filed by two law firms in Los Angeles, alleges unfair business practices against the San Francisco-based user-generated review site. In a press release announcing the suit, the firms alleged that Yelp "runs an extortion scheme in which the company's employees call businesses demanding monthly payments, in the guise of 'advertising contracts,' in exchange for removing or modifying negative reviews appearing on the website."

Last year, the Express published two articles detailing similar extortion claims by local business owners. In the class-action suit, the plaintiff — a veterinary hospital in Long Beach — had contacted Yelp and asked it to remove an allegedly false and defamatory review from its web site. After refusing, Yelp then had its sales representatives call the hospital and demand a roughly $300 per month payment in exchange for "hiding or removing the negative review," according to the release. Attorney Gregory S. Weston said the calls from Yelp reps were "very frequent and high pressure."

Yelp, however, continues to deny such allegations. The company told TechCrunch: "The allegations are demonstrably false, since many businesses that advertise on Yelp have both negative and positive reviews. ... While we haven't seen the suit in question, we will dispute it aggressively."

Three-Dot Roundup

Dianne Feinstein backed off her threat to take water away from the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and give it to agribusiness interests in the dry southern and western Central Valley. The US senator changed course after outcries from environmentalists and after federal and state regulators decided that plentiful rainfall would allow them to award more water to farmers this year than planned. ... But there's at least one downside to this year's El Niño weather pattern. The Chronicle reports that experts think it's responsible for a surprising die off of brown pelicans in the Bay Area.

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