Scenes From a Do-Nothing City Council 

In failing to act on serious proposals from Ron Dellums on crime and housing, the Oakland council pretends it's in charge. It's not.

Since Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums took office more than a year ago, critics have hammered him for not dealing decisively with the city's problems. But when he finally presented comprehensive plans to address Oakland's police shortage and its lack of affordable housing, it was the City Council that sat on its hands. In fact, the council majority seemed more consumed with petty politics and power struggles than solving the city's most vexing issues.

Last week, Dellums' staff presented an ambitious strategy for bringing the city's police force up to its authorized strength of 803 by year's end. The mayor proposed operating four police academies in 2008 — the most in recent memory — and asked the council to allocate $7.7 million from Measure Y, the 2004 crime prevention ballot initiative. Oakland has been facing a crisis of violent crime for several years, and Dellums' plan was far more thorough than any police proposal generated by ex-Mayor Jerry Brown. Yet the council majority treated it as if it were a nuisance.

Several City Hall sources said councilmembers were angry and hurt that Dellums had not consulted with them enough and included their own pet proposals in his plan. So they sent the mayor's plan to two subcommittees before they would even consider it — despite the out-of-control crime plaguing much of the city. They also treated the mayor's staffers and city department heads as if they worked for them and not for Dellums and City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, even though the city's strong-mayor form of government dictates otherwise.

For example, Councilmember Nancy Nadel, whose crime-plagued West Oakland district desperately needs more officers, complained that the mayor's plan did not include her proposal to offer signing bonuses to police recruits. "It's disrespectful," she said to police Chief Wayne Tucker. He calmly responded that his department's expert recruiter believes bonuses are not an effective use of taxpayer funds, but Nadel remained angry, telling him that it was his job to present proposals that included the council's wishes — not to dismiss them.

Councilwomen Desley Brooks and Pat Kernighan then presented Tucker and his staff a set of six demands, most of which would force the understaffed department to produce more crime and police data for councilmembers. Each of the six demands either started with or included the phrase "staff is directed to," providing further evidence that councilmembers view the police department as their own personal fiefdom.

In the end, only three of the eight councilmembers expressed a willingness to vote for the mayor's plan — Jane Brunner, Jean Quan, and Henry Chang, and both Brunner and Chang are facing June reelection campaigns that are sure to focus on crime. When asked why she was prepared to vote last week for the mayor's proposal, Brunner said: "I'm not playing politics. We're in a crisis. The city is in a crisis."

Still, Brunner said the mayor and his staff need to do a better job of working collaboratively with the council to get things done. That may be true, but councilmembers also need to realize under city law that their job is to legislate and appropriate — not run city government.

Stalling for time?

So why did the council also put off making a decision on allowing apartments to be converted into condos and requiring developers to build affordable housing — also known as inclusionary zoning? The council has been divided over the two issues for more than eighteen months, and its inaction last week didn't appear to have anything to do with the mayor's detailed proposal on both topics. Indeed, none of the councilmembers even offered criticisms of his plan.

First a little bit of background. Affordable housing advocates tend to favor inclusionary zoning, because they believe it would result in more affordable homes being built. But they generally oppose condo conversions for fear that affordable rental units will be taken off the market. Most developers, on the other hand, oppose inclusionary zoning because they say affordable housing makes development unprofitable.

So what's really going on with the council? Some observers think some councilmembers, especially those who oppose inclusionary zoning and support condo conversions, may be stringing out the process to avoid an election battle. After all, affordable housing advocates have been talking for months about sponsoring a ballot initiative. And if two polls conducted in recent years are any indication, they may win.

The most recent survey, conducted in May 2006 by pollster David Binder, found that 66 percent of Oakland voters supported "requiring residential developments with five or more units to make at least 20 percent of units affordable for low-income families" — the very definition of inclusionary zoning. Those results mirrored a December 2005 poll by Gene Bregman & Associates, which showed that about 70 percent of Oakland residents said they would back an affordable-housing measure.

At last week's council meeting, President Ignacio De La Fuente, an opponent of inclusionary zoning and supporter of condo conversions, said the council was close to reaching a compromise on both issues. However, Brunner, who has been pushing for inclusionary zoning for years, told Full Disclosure that she does not believe the council is nearing a deal. "I think there are some significant differences of opinion," she said.

So if Brunner is right and no deal is imminent, then affordable housing advocates need to ramp up their ballot petition drive. Because if they wait for De La Fuente's supposed compromise, they may miss this summer's filing deadline to make it on the November ballot.

The "Silent 70"

One of the most vocal opponents of inclusionary zoning is Carlos Plazola, a lobbyist for Oakland developers and former chief of staff for De La Fuente. At last week's council meeting, Plazola handed out fliers that read: "The Silent 70" to everyone who would take one. Plazola explained to councilmembers that the slogan represented the 70 percent of Oakland residents who supported development, but were too busy to come to council meetings.

However, if the abovementioned polls are still valid, then Plazola's "Silent 70" is total B.S. Unless, of course, the "Silent 70" actually represents the 70 percent of Oaklanders who disagree with Plazola, support more affordable housing, and are too busy to come to council meetings.

Outgoing favors

Just because state Senate boss Don Perata is being termed out of office at the end of the year doesn't mean it's too late to hand out some favors. Last month, he appointed one of his friends and longtime campaign donors, Phil Tagami, to the California Transportation Commission. Tagami, an Oakland developer who refurbished the Rotunda Building in downtown and is now remaking the old Fox Theater, has been a transportation wonk for years and has long sought a slot on the commission.

Tagami also has been a member of the Perata faithful for years. Not only does he rank as one of the senator's top East Bay donors, he even created a shadowy political committee on the senator's behalf that caught the attention of federal prosecutors. As a member of the state commission, Tagami will have final say over how transportation funds are spent, including the multi-billion-dollar bond measures Perata co-sponsored in 2006. Tagami joins commission President Jim Ghielmetti, who also is one of the senator's top donors and is owner of Signature Properties, the lead developer of Oak to Ninth, a massive condo project planned for Oakland's waterfront.

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