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Transportation is Oakland’s key environmental opportunity

This afternoon the Climate Action Coalition, made up of social-justice and transit advocacy organizations, will rally before a City Council meeting on the Energy and Climate Action Plan (ECAP). Their demand? Improve Oakland’s environment while creating opportunities for job growth and public health. Transportation is the source of two-thirds of Oakland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and transportation and land-use changes can allow the city’s economy to grow while decreasing Oakland’s global warming contributions. This requires not just a better land-use and transportation policy, but the institutional structures needed to implement forward-thinking transportation improvements.

As V Smoothe pointed out earlier today, there’s no shortage of policies about improved transportation and land use, from the General Plan to various downtown and transit-first plans. However, the Council does not stand up for those plans when confronted with a dozen upset NIMBYs or business owners – from downtown zoning to development in Temescal to parking issues, the Council almost always backs off of its stated commitments to the environment in deference to Oakland’s ingrained car-first suburban mentality. This attitude extends to City Planning and Redevelopment staff, who are obsessed with building parking while limiting high-rise development. While City planners trudge out proposal after proposal designed to set land-use backwards, City transportation planners are divided among different departments and shockingly understaffed, City needs come last regionally, and important transportation decisions are made without any public review. But the ECAP offers the opportunity to institutionalize better transportation and more progressive land-use planning.

Radical change is necessary. Oakland simply cannot continue down the current path of transportation planning. From city planners using community gardens as a flimsy cover for a pro-parking lot agenda to Building Services seizing Measure DD’s widened sidewalks to provide parking for the Lake Chalet, Oakland’s transportation decision-making is a disaster apparent to even the most unconcerned citizen. Everyone who goes out on the town in Uptown has to navigate past Pican’s rude fence (approved administratively by City Planning), deal with an utter lack of parking or transit signage (thanks to the Redevelopment Agency), and step gingerly over rotting sidewalks while crossing potholed streets devoid of bike lanes, during a traffic signal that appears to be timed to kill pedestrians. And this is our showcase downtown district?

A reading of data behind the Energy and Climate Action Plan puts the focus clearly on transportation. With few clear policy demands beyond setting aggressive goals, the Climate Action Coalition is calling for a Transportation Commission to ensure action on these important issues. With the overwhelming majority of our emissions coming from cars, even small changes to mode-share will make huge differences in emissions. This requires not just a commitment, but real follow-through, and institutional changes to allow public and consistent transportation decision-making. A Transportation Commission with real authority would go a long way, but leadership is necessary too. We need elected leadership on land-use so that developers aren’t forced out of our transit corridors by Oakland’s band of increasingly aggressive NIMBYs, we need a unified (and informed) voice on regional transportation funding boards, and we need articulate and risk-taking leaders who are willing to get yelled at in order to create a better future for Oakland. Can Oakland have the leadership we need in order to create a greener, healthier, and more prosperous city? Collectively, that’s our decision.

Posted in oakland, transportation, zoning.


The grassroots case for increased campaign finance limits

Tomorrow the Public Ethics Commission takes up campaign-finance rules (PDF). Campaign donation and spending limits are justified by a vague but widely-accepted notion that money is not great for politics, and limited money levels the playing field, encouraging grassroots candidates and competitive elections. As someone who served on the campaign committee of a grassroots challenger (Sean Sullivan in 2008) to an Oakland City Councilmember, I have seen how finance limits affect campaigns. Unfortunately, strict campaign-finance rules make it harder, not easier, for grassroots candidates to wage competitive elections. The evidence? Our remarkably entrenched City Council.

Oakland is one of the few California cities where Councilmembers can run for reelection indefinitely. Of the ten largest cities in California, only Oakland and Sacramento are without term limits for the City Council. In the other eight cities, incumbency is not an issue. But in Oakland, the advantages of incumbency are overwhelming: the last time a full-term Councilmember was defeated for reelection was in 1996, and half of our City Council has been elected to serve sixteen years or more. Oakland’s notable lack of term limits and the built-in advantages of incumbency aren’t the only factors producing stagnant leadership. Strict campaign-finance regulations also favor incumbents because incumbents have more access to loopholes than challengers, while challengers have passionate supporters who are more likely to give the maximum contribution.

The most significant loophole enjoyed by incumbents under Oakland’s campaign-finance rules is the ability to roll over debt from one campaign to the next without triggering self-financing penalties, which is very unfair. Incumbents also tend to do better securing matching funds than their challengers, and it is a rare day when a City Council challenger has access to ballot measure committees or other funds that are allowed to sidestep City regulation. But there is another key reason why incumbents benefit more from campaign donation limits than challengers: passion.

It takes a lot of passion to challenge a sitting City Councilmember. As much as people are dissatisfied with the City Council and City leadership in general, it is an uphill climb to unseat an incumbent. Councilmembers can punish their political enemies with unfavorable legislation, and though Councilmembers are not supposed to decide the character of individual development projects, the recipients of public contracts, where parking meters are located, or which parks get renovated, the fact is that they usually do decide these matters. Any community member with interests before the City is taking a huge risk when challenging an incumbent, and recent history bears this out. Nancy Nadel’s tight reelection campaign in 2008 featured a mailer attacking her opponents as real-estate speculators, yet property developers gave her more money than they gave her challengers, because most of them couldn’t risk her wrath. Those who are willing to jeopardize their interests to help Oakland achieve better leadership must be very passionate, and are therefore more likely to contribute the maximum amount of resources allowed.

The report prepared by Ethics Commission staff is flawed (PDF) but contains the information necessary to prove this point. Dan Purnell, Executive Director of the Ethics Commission, was quietly criticized on Monday for making errors of omission on an ethics matter that appear to favor Councilmember Jean Quan. For the Commission’s discussion of campaign-finance changes (which are opposed by Ms. Quan), Mr. Purnell, in his reports of past campaign donations and spending, wrongly includes City-provided matching funds in donation totals without noting so, making it appear that maximum-contribution donations are a much lower percentage of overall contributions than in reality. However, one can still see that Sean Sullivan received a higher percentage of his overall contributions in maximum increments than did Ms. Nadel. With incumbents enjoying a stranglehold over their seats, it makes sense to give challengers more of an opportunity to make their voices heard, and since raising donation limits benefits challengers more than incumbents, this aids the democratic process.

But that’s only one side of the equation. Low donation limits disproportionately benefit incumbents because their supporters tend to be less passionate, and because they have loopholes they can exploit that challengers cannot. But Oakland also has spending limits, and there are good reasons to think that IRV will increase campaign budgets. If those budgets are unduly constrained, rather than limiting the money in politics, money will just go around the candidates, weakening democracy and leaving candidates more beholden to special interests.

City Attorney John Russo makes a good case that Instant Runoff Voting should trigger an increase to campaign limits. Consolidating two elections into one necessarily lengthens the election season, increasing campaign expenses. More importantly, holding elections in November instead of June means that there are many more voters to capture (higher turnout is of course the main selling point of IRV). Ms. Quan said publicly that “you don’t need twice as many mailers” in a November election, but you have to send mailers to twice as many people. Failing to increase expenditure limits when campaign costs go up doesn’t take money out of politics, it takes control away from candidates.

Because, of course, money won’t leave politics. California cities are constrained in their ability to impose taxes, so there is less money in local campaigns because there is less at stake, compared to other states where many millions of dollars are spent on middling mayoral elections. But since there are still dollars at stake in election results, from businesses seeking permits to nonprofits seeking public funding, interests will spend money on campaigns regardless of what the Public Ethics Commission declares. If candidates cannot collect and spend these dollars, they will go to unregulated independent efforts. Thus spending limits don’t decrease money in politics, and can reduce candidates’ control over campaigns, encouraging negative campaigning.

Whatever high-minded goals avowed by campaign reform advocates are undermined by unseemly politicking over these decisions, with mayoral candidate Jean Quan exhorting her supporters to oppose raising campaign limits with the explicit goal of helping her campaign vis-a-vis Don Perata. But Mr. Perata controls an unregulated campaign account, and if there is money on his side, it will find a way into the election through independent expenditures. Mayoral campaign aside, Oakland desperately needs to level the playing field for challengers to our unusually entrenched City Council. Because of loopholes more available to incumbents, because of the real need for more spending due to higher turnout, and because of the passion of challengers’ supporters, loosening campaign-finance limits will aid grassroots democracy more than strict limits.

Posted in citycouncil, elections, jeanquan, johnrusso.


Election year begins, campaigns not yet

2010 is of course an election year, and it’s looking like an exciting one in Oakland, with a likely open mayoral seat, perhaps an open Council seat, and two open County Supervisor seats. Two x-factors complicate the elections: the adoption of Ranked Choice Voting and November City elections; and the effect of campaign finance rules on what could be very long and expensive campaigns. Even though the filing period for city elections isn’t until August, politically-active locals are already focusing on November’s elections. Campaign finance rules, the Council elections, and the mayor’s decisions are the subject of a lot of speculation.

The US Supreme Court ruling that corporate bodies are entitled to free speech rights jeopardizes state and local regulations since the First Amendment applies to states. In Oakland, a judge ruled in 2006 that Political Action Committees could directly advocate for and against candidates, a ruling that was exploited by supporters of both Aimee Allison and Pat Kernighan during that year’s Council runoff. Between the likelihood of high independent expenditures and the consolidated elections in November, the Council may consider lifting donation and expenditure limits for local elections. There’s also talk of eliminating matching funds, for several reasons including the expense, that they’re not available for at-large elections, and a feeling that these funds mostly help incumbents who are more adept at exploiting campaign rules they wrote themselves. Lifting donation and expenditure limits would certainly be a boon for challengers, who compared to incumbents tend to have fewer but more passionate supporters, and who need to spend more to overcome an incumbent’s name recognition. One City Council seat up for election this November will have no incumbent, and so may be a test of a new campaign atmosphere in Oakland.

Having established herself as a serious mayoral contender, Councilmember Jean Quan cannot run for reelection, creating this rare open seat. The Montclair-Laurel District 4 seat has the highest voter turnout in the city, making it likely the most expensive of the three Council elections this November. Now that candidates are beginning to talk to potential supporters, many wonder who Ms. Quan will choose as her successor. According to several sources, Ms. Quan has introduced her husband, Alameda County Medical Center Trustree Dr. Floyd Huen, to some influential players as a Council candidate for District 4. With her husband perhaps running, Ms. Quan has motive to make things difficult for those seeking her seat. Other possible candidates include: Jill Broadhurst, an active volunteer in Montclair; Melanie Shelby, a former at-large Council candidate who recently returned to Oakland from Washington DC; Libby Schaaf, a personal friend of mine who is a life-long civic leader native to D4; and Clinton Killian, the former at-large Council candidate and Paramount Boardmember. Though the filing period isn’t until August, Ms. Broadhurst has already announced she’s running and it’s likely others will announce by mid-Spring. Oakland may be in for a long, hot election.

Jean Quan is now Vice Mayor Quan, after the City Council voted Jane Brunner another one-year term as City Council President. Last year, when Ms. Brunner upset Ignacio de la Fuente’s plans to remain Council President, Mr. de la Fuente was given the Vice Mayor position as a consolation prize. This wasn’t merely a title, though – at the time there was much speculation that Dellums would resign as Mayor to take a position in DC or even as an ambassador, elevating Mr. de la Fuente to Mayor. Since Ms. Quan’s mayoral ambitions do not enjoy the support of Ms. Brunner or Mr. de la Fuente, her ascension to Vice Mayor is a clear signal that they do not expect Mayor Dellums to go anywhere. Recently joined by Green Party member and free-parking advocate Don Macleay, Vice Mayor Quan and former State Senator Don Perata are running active if low-key campaigns ten months in advance of election day. The campaign won’t get going in full force until Mayor Dellums formally announces he’s not running for reelection, freeing his loyalists and others who hold him in esteem to escape the sidelines. If the Mayor has any sympathy for overextended politicos, he will wait until the summer.

Posted in citycouncil, delafuente, dellums, elections, janebrunner, jeanquan, oakland.