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Is Mayor Quan’s visibility also productivity?

After the four-year snoozefest of Ron Dellums’ administration, Mayor Jean Quan is enjoying a honeymoon with voters who approve of her high visibility. To solve Oakland’s enormous budget deficit and make a dent in unemployment, she will need to produce significant gains in jobs and business taxes. Given her anti-business stances on the City Council, it’s fair to question whether she is up to the task. For all the flattering headlines, a close examination of the Mayor’s efforts at business attraction yields disappointing results.

Take, for example, Mayor Quan’s meeting in San Francisco with tech executives. While I applaud the spirit of the meeting, it was executed poorly. First, the businesses who attended seem to be chosen for their visibility, not for their suitability to relocate to Oakland (for example, Twitter’s business model / lack thereof means their taxes would be lower in Oakland than SF, but Zynga is probably better off paying a payroll tax than a revenue tax). Second, doing recruitment inside San Francisco, with a large group of high-profile CEOs, guarantees that the meeting will be leaked to the press and also encourages San Francisco leaders to respond by trying to keep the firms. In addition to being rude, recruiting businesses on SF’s turf is counter-productive – if a CEO won’t go to the DTO for a meeting, how is he going to move his entire business there? Besides, SF isn’t our most direct competitor.

Instead, it is Pleasanton that is taking jobs and taxes away from Oakland. Kaiser Permanente, the largest private-sector employer and office tenant in Oakland, has been substantially expanding business operations in Pleasanton while its presence in Oakland’s high-rises stagnates. Clorox is moving hundreds of jobs to Pleasanton. I hear that, when in town for County Transportation Commission meetings, Pleasanton Mayor Jennifer Hosterman looks for companies to poach, and Mayor Quan does not seem to respond.

In a city of 200,000 jobs, landing one 65-employee bank doesn’t make a difference. A large, sector-leading employer like the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, however, would be a substantial coup. Unfortunately, the City of Oakland’s characteristic indecision and lame work ethic have resulted in an extremely poor bid to take advantage of this unique opportunity: the City submitted four sites instead of the best one (including two that in do not meet the LBNL’s criteria), and their mysterious “packet” about Oakland’s wonderfulness is surely more like MeetDowntownOak.com than Alameda’s polished presentation. With high-stakes competition for jobs and revenues, it is vital that the Mayor is prioritizing her targets and using her time effectively. Yet all indications point to the contrary.

According to her official schedule, Mayor Quan spoke on Thursday April 7 from 7-8pm at the “South Asian Middle Eastern Asian Pacific Islander Awareness Now Event” at Mills College. That night, she flew all the way to New York for an honorary feast (and undisclosed fundraiser) on Friday, and claimed to “talk with philanthropic organizations about funding programs here in Oakland.” She couldn’t have had much time to do that, though, since she was back in town for the Fruitvale Town Hall Meeting Saturday morning. Considering that Mayor Quan can’t even schedule a City Council item on time, one has to ask whether a one-day trip to New York to pick up an award is a good use of taxpayer funds or the Mayor’s valuable time.

While Jean Quan is certainly getting around, there are some glaring omissions from her schedule. Is Mayor Quan talking to merchants’ associations, business improvement districts, or real estate investors? Let alone Kaiser and the other large employers whose slow migration to Pleasanton is what’s really holding back business tax revenues. She was part of the Council majority who put some waterfront land off-limits to residential development over the last few years, but where is the effort to attract industrial businesses? The Mayor is going to have to turn her photo ops into results if she wants the City to continue to provide the services residents expect and deserve.

Posted in alameda, citycouncil, downtown, jeanquan, oakland, taxes.


Mayor Quan as secretive as Mayor Dellums?

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.

Posted in california, citycouncil, dellums, janebrunner, jeanquan, libbyschaaf, oakland.


Blog on hiatus

Dear friends and readers,

This blog will be on hiatus until the election on November 2, 2010. I have accepted a position with Rebecca Kaplan’s campaign for Mayor of Oakland, and I cannot fully aid her exciting campaign if I continue to post my thoughts about public policy. I will spend the next four months helping spread her message of change at City Hall, and in order to help her get Oakland back on track, I have to work for her message and not my own (though of course they align quite a bit).

It has been incredibly rewarding to join civic life these last four years. Working for Rebecca Kaplan is a chance to see Oakland embrace its future as a transit-oriented, prosperous, and healthy community.

Posted in elections, kaplan, oakland.