Oakland is two months into the administration of Mayor Jean Quan. In one mayoral campaign mailer from 2010, Ms. Quan compared her approach to governance to an open door, in contrast with the closed, secretive decision-making of former Mayor Dellums or rival candidate Don Perata. Unfortunately, because of steps the Mayor and some Council Members are taking to limit public review of important decisions, the new Mayoral administration is falling short of being the model of transparency many Oaklanders thought they were promised.
Monday night, Mayor Quan urged the City Council to make a controversial public policy decision based on a secret document - a private poll purporting to show 66% support for an $80 parcel tax (she also claims it shows her with a 71% approval rating). Under pressure from public speakers to disclose its funders, the Mayor allowed that it came from different labor groups in addition to her own campaign funds, including the Police Officers’ Association, and added that taxes are needed to prevent layoffs. Oddly for a labor group funding polling on taxes, the Police Officers’ Association was not among the city workers’ representatives speaking in support of raising taxes, even though POA members were out in force for a later item.
This poll, which was not provided to the public, played a key role in the Mayor’s argument for conducting a special election for a tax, because it’s not worth the expense of an election if the taxes are doomed to fail. Councilmember Libby Schaaf pointed out that a special election could cost as much as a million dollars, and is essentially a gamble for $11m. Without seeing the wording of the question or the demographics of respondents, the secret document was not enough to persuade Ms. Shaaf to support an election. The City Council voted 5-2, a two-thirds majority, to place the taxes on the ballot, and at least one Council Member said the poll neither they nor the public had seen was a reason for their vote. Hiding important documents from the public, as Mayor Quan chose to do despite criticism from speakers during the meeting, is the exact opposite of conducting government transparently.
In April, the Council will grapple directly with the issue of providing public disclosure of information intended to inform Councilmembers’ decision-making. The Council will decide whether Oakland’s Lobbyist Registration Act will be updated to provide transparency to the public, or gutted to provide political cover for certain advocates. Due to problems with the act that made it overly broad, the Public Ethics Committee drafted a new act that more clearly defined a lobbyist. At Rules Committee last Thursday, Council Member Jane Brunner said she wants to change the Act because professional policy advocates from nonprofit organizations would have to register as lobbyists. (I once brought a complaint against a professional lobbyist for a national nonprofit and it was successful.) Ms. Brunner also said that the Rockridge Business Improvement District is in daily contact with her office, and said they shouldn’t register. But if a business association that is regularly asking for public assistance isn’t a lobbyist, then what is a lobbyist? If Ms. Brunner’s version passes, the Lobbyist Registration Act will be eliminated and there will be no way to know if, say, a former Councilmember urging the City to raise taxes on homeowners is being paid to lobby to reduce taxes on yacht owners.
Perhaps more important to people’s lives than small tax hikes or insider-y sunshine legislation is the search for a new City Administrator. Mayor Quan has conducted her quest for the most powerful City post in total secrecy. She said she hired a recruiter but only outlined the barest qualifications (including being “progressive”), has been purposefully vague about everything but the timing of her announcement, hasn’t allowed even senior City staff any input, and will present the nominee sometime this week as a fait accompli. This is very similar to Ron Dellums’ approach, where he claimed to have hired a national search firm (and, indeed, spent $500,000 on the search process), and then appointed his totally unqualified longtime aide, current City Administrator Dan Lindheim, to the position.
So perhaps that’s par for the course in Oakland, but it’s certainly not any more transparent or accountable to the public than Ron Dellums’ administration. Contrast Oakland’s search for a City Administrator to Alameda’s for their City Manager, where the public knows the names of all three final candidates, and the City Council has appointed committees of citizens to interview and provide recommendations on their picks. You’d think that this kind of citizen involvement would be a feature of a Mayor who was elected with a promise to be more accessible and transparent than her predecessor, but instead we get a City Administrator search as opaque and removed from public view as Ron Dellums’. We’ll find out within days if a similar process yields a similar result – cronyism.