When the band of black activists unfurled their banner of protest at Tuesday night’s Oakland City Council meeting and forced it to early adjournment, it meant more than another high-profile and effective use of civil disobedience for the group that also shut down BART last Black Friday, it signaled the end of the illusion that this new group of City Council leaders is any different than its ineffectual, possibly corrupt predecessors.
Recall, the current makeup of Oakland council members is unprecedented in their relative legislative experience. Councilmember Larry Reid has more than 18 years under his belt and Councilmember Desley Brooks top a dozen. Further on, the cumulative years of council service for the other six members is around 16.
This massive changeover, which added two new members last November, was supposed to herald change in Oakland city government. No more shady backroom deals with developers and special interests. No more sweetheart deals for friends and associates. But, that seems to have all changed over the past few months with the controversial East 12th Street remainder parcel sale, However, there were already hints of a council reverting to its old ways beginning with a raft of alleged ethics violations uncovered before Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s election as council president.
Like in the past, nearly the entire council dusted off its institutional blinders and placed them squarely on their faces. Some said they needed more information on the McElhaney’s deals involving the use of city staff. Only Councilmember Noel Gallo took a stand and took early steps to censure McElhaney, which never took hold because of a lack of support from his colleagues.
Then came the April 14 Community and Economic Development meeting that revealed the potential for corruption involving the proposal $5.1 million sale of public land near Lake Merritt to UrbanCore, LLC, developers planning to build a luxury 24-story tower. Credit Councilmember Abel Guillen for being the impetus for the shocking reveal forced upon McElhaney and Reid that afternoon.
The scene may have also been an eye-opening moment for the council rookie Guillen, only a few months on the job, as he pushed for a reappraisal of the property located in his District 2. No sooner were the words out of Guillen’s mouth that Reid’s Chief of Staff Ray Leon, starting typing words of opposition toward the reappraisal to his boss’s smartphone. “A deal is a deal,” Leon repeated out loud. A text followed urging Reid to claim the $5.1 million asking price was a done deal. Seconds later, Reid got the text and questioned city staff whether the negotiated price was final. It was not, staff replied, until the Disposition and Development Agreement to be discussed Tuesday night by the full council was approved. Leon again frantically tapped at his phone while telling those seating behind him the staff’s opinion was incorrect.
A few minutes later, McElhaney joined the protest against Guillen’s proposal reappraisal which could have netted the city’s treasury another million dollars. Changing the parameters of the deal, suggested McElhaney, would be a general signal to other developers and businesses that Oakland could not be trusted.
This leads us back to the large cloth banner that dominated Tuesday night’s eventual shut down of the Oakland City Council just before the imminent approval of the East 12th Street parcel was near. The sign bluntly read: “The People’s City Council.” The sentiment is revolutionary in tone. What Oakland has is not government by the people, but by the highest bidder, it suggests. To some maybe it’s a slogan, but after the interaction between this council and the potential developer of the luxury tower, its sentiment is gaining traction.
So, what really happened during that meeting last month? Two Oakland officials elected by the voters fought vigorously to leave $1 million or more on the table for a private interest. That is simply unprecedented in its unsavory transparency. While others leaders routinely pat themselves on the back for saving taxpayer’s just a nickel, McElhaney and Reid were saving a developer a cool million.
This also comes during a time when the biggest worry among Oakland residents is the very real possibility that the city’s good economic fortune in coming years will push them out of their homes. The lauded character of Oakland is also under fire. But, yet again, Oakland City Hall has reverted to its old bad habits and the only thing that can save it is the people once again undermining their elected leaders with every means necessary. It’s not suppose to work this way and shows government at its worst, but in Oakland’s case, its brings out the best in its highly-engaged electorate.