November 2012 Election Comments

October 4, 2012

OK.  I got my sample ballot & voter information booklet in the mail, and I’m sure the absentee ballots are going out shortly, so it looks like it’s time to give my usual rundown of candidates and issues.  as usual, I give my standard disclosures and disclaimers.  [Hey, what do you expect, I’m a lawyer!]  These are obviously just my own personal opinions, and while I have read through candidate statements and ballot arguments (and in some cases, the text of the measure as well), and have talked to some of the candidates personally, I don’t claim to be an expert on evaluating candidates or ballot measures.  Well, I guess I can claim some expertise on the latter, having helped to write a few local measures.  That having been said, HERE WE GO!


Obviously, the two major choices are Romney and Obama.  Between those two, for me Obama is the obvious choice.  I’m not anywhere close to entirely happy with Obama and how he’s run the country the past four years.  Our foreign policy is still far too militaristic (although lightyears ahead of where it was under George W), Obamacare is a sorry substitute for the single-payer healthcare we ought to have, and, as Paul Krugman has said innumerable times, Obama’s economic policy is anemic compared to what’s needed to pull us out of our current doldrums.  [However, he does have the excuse that with the Republican majority in the house, nothing can be done in the legislative arena.]  BTW, see my separate post critiquing Obama’s performance in the first debate.

All that having been said,  I think that, DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU LIVE, you should take a serious look at some of the third party candidates.  With that, I will once again recite  Ivins’ Rule, named for Molly Ivins, the late Texas [don’t hold that against her] political commentator.  The basic rule is, regardless of what your state or locality allows, don’t vote early unless you absolutely have to.  Wait until, at the earliest, a week before election day, and then look at what the polling results are FOR YOUR STATE.  Because we have the electoral college system, each state is its own election [exception — in Maine, each congressional district is its own election].  Regardless of what’s happening in the national polls, what really matters is who wins a plurality of the vote in each individual state.  Except for Maine, that candidate get ALL that state’s electoral votes for president.

So, now let’s get back to Ivins’ Rule.  When you look at your state’s polling result, the crucial question is whether the difference between Romney’s and Obama’s polling results in greater than five percent.  If either of the two is ahead by more than five percent, then barring a nuclear war or something equally calamitous, the election in your state is essentially over.  That means you can vote for whomever you want, because it won’t make any difference.  If, however the difference is less than 5%, you better choose between Obama and Romney, or you may be kicking yourself for the next  for years.  Luckily, here in California Obama’s lead is unassailable.  (I think it’s  currently over 20% statewide.)

So, if you’re lucky enough to have the luxury of voting for a minor party candidate, my suggestion would be to look seriously at Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.  I say that not just because I’m registered as green.  From what I’ve seen of her, she’s just as smart as either of the major party candidates (she’s a Massachusetts physician), and her platform makes enormous sense — cut the defense budget, enact single-payer healthcare, promote a justice system that, as Jesse Jackson famously said, puts our money at the front end, rather than the back end – i.e., promotes restorative justice, puts the U.S. squarely at the forefront in trying to reverse climate change and promote sustainable care for our ailing planet, etc.  Of coure there’s no way she’ll get elected, but just think.  If she got 5% of the vote nationwide, even if she didn’t win a single electoral vote, wouldn’t that make a statement that there’s a significant number of people who think as she does?  Who knows, maybe a few Democrats might even start paying attention in a real way.

U.S. Senator

Again here, the choice is pretty simple, even simpler because there are no minor party candidates on the ballot.  😦  I don’t particularly like Feinstein.  She’s incredibly wishy-washy on lots of issues, and just plain bad on some, but as with Obama, she’s in a whole different league (or century) from her Republican opponent.  Unless you’re a “tea partier” [and if you are, why are you reading this blog??], you gotta vote for Feinstein.

Note – if you’re not in California, see my discussion of Ivins’ Rule above and act accordingly.

U.S. Representative

Again, given my location in the East Bay, the choice is pretty simple.  Barbara Lee has been on the right side (or perhaps I should say the left side) of just about every issue before Congress.  Her opponent waves her hands around to try to look more reasonable, but we all know that the last reasonable Republicans here in California have already left that disaster of a party.  Unless you want to go back to the gilded age where workers could, if they were lucky, get 10 cents a day for pay, vote for Lee.

If you’re in another district, re-read Ivins’ Rule again.

State Senate

Here’s another place I get to apply Ivins’ Rule.  Loni Hancock has been one of the better senators in the state senate, based on her voting record.  That’s as it should  be, she represents one of the most liberal districts in the state.  She’s going  to win this race overwhelmingly.  Since that’s the case, it’s a place you could show that you’d like some more space on the left of the ballot by voting for the Peace & Freedom Party candidate, Mary McIlroy.

State Assembly

I could just invoke Ivins’ Rule again in urging a vote for the Peace & Freedom Party candidate (Eugene Ruyle), but there’s something more at stake.  I have followed Nancy Skinner since she first ran for the assembly (when I supported her), and have been very disappointed in her performance.  Again, she represents one of the most liberal districts in the state, but she has followed in lockstep whatever the Democratic legislative leadership has told her.  Overall, she’s voted against the party leadership only 0.7% of the time.  By comparison, Hancock, while no eccentric, bucked the party leadership on 1.2% of votes, Leland Yee, from San Francisco (perhaps the only place more liberal than the East Bay), opposed Democratic leaders 2.6% of the time, and Jared Huffman, a liberal stalwart in Marin, voted differently 1.8% of the time.  Maybe Skinner just likes whatever the leadership says.  If so, that’s a disappointment in itself, because the leadership has been, in a number of cases, like its support for the high-speed rail project, just stupid.  Maybe she votes that way to “go along to get along.”  If so, that says nothing any better about her.  We deserve better.

State Ballot Measures

Let me start with a general statement.  California’s initiative and referendum processes are in serious need of reform.  I say that as an attorney who regularly advises local groups on their initiative and referendum battles, and knows the turf pretty well.  Between picayune requirements that make it harder and harder for grassroots campaigns to succeed, and the overwhelming force of a tidal wave of  special interest money that at this point almost totally dominates the statewide ballot measure scene, we’ve got a real mess in California.  Not only that, but because of the nature of California ballot measure law (in the state constitution, no less), if a mistake gets made with a ballot measure, it’s very likely to be permanent, or at least very long-lasting.  I’ve already made it clear in past postings that I think passing Prop. 13 was unwise.  Yes, it did some good and necessary things that the legislature was unwilling to tackle. but its left state and local government in a long-term fiscal disaster.  Likewise for the “Victims Bill of Rights”, “Three Strikes”, and term limits.  The state’s voters aren’t always smart enough to get it right on the first try, but it’s incredibly hard to revise anything the voters have done.  Maybe things enacted by the voters should automatically go back on the ballot in five years, so people get to think about it again, and competing or correcting measures can be put on at that time?

So. Rant finished.  Now on to the specifics:

30 – Jerry Brown’s tax measure – a reluctant yes.  I’m not 100% happy with it, but if it fails, the draconian school cuts are unacceptable.

31- NO!  This initiative, put on the ballot by California Forward, at first glance seems appealing, and it would indeed do some things that would improve how the legislature handles budget issues, like going to a two-year budget cycle.  HOWEVER, it makes radical changes in the relations between state and local government, including allowing local government to exempt itself from various “inconvenient” state laws and regulations, including CEQA, and potentially state labor laws.  This is a really bad idea!  Not only that, but it locks all of its changes into the state constitution, making them extremely hard to change in the future.  [See my rant above.]  A number of members of the initial taskforce pointed out the problems, but California Forward refused to budge.  They subsequently resigned.  (See ballot arguments against.)  Shame on California Forward!!

32 – NO!  A fraudulent attempt to disable labor union political activity while leaving corporate political power basically unchecked.

33- NO.  One insurance company (Mercury) makes a second attempt to tilt the playing field in its direction.

34- YES – the death penalty makes little sense as a deterrent, as public policy, or financially.

35 – No –  Human trafficking is without question a bad thing.  Whether we’re talking about actual enslavement or just the “normal” pimping and prostitution stuff.  There need to be serious consequences for those who screw over their fellow human beings.  However, this measure seems to play into the general punitive bent of three strikes and other efforts to just, “lock ’em all up and throw away the key.”  Our prison system is clear evidence that  this approach hasn’t worked and isn’t working.  Again, once something gets passed by the voters, it’s very hard to change.  This is an issue for the legislature to tackle, not the voters.

36 – YES – again, as with the death penalty, three strikes is a punitive, ineffective, and financially damaging measure.  This reform will help.

37 – YES – truth in labeling for genetically-engineered foods.  People should have a knowing choice about supporting Monsanto’s fiddling with the agricultural gene pool.  BTW, the no argument points to the measure’s enforcement against local retailers.  Unfortunately, California has no direct leverage against national food producers, only against businesses operating in California.  Enforcement against retailers is the only leverage we have against national big business.  It’s a big one, though.  If, for example, California retailers wouldn’t carry General Mills foods because they don’t own up to using genetically engineered ingredients, General Mills could lose A LOT of business.  We need to use our market share power to change the market.

38 – NO – The major alternative tax measure.  Too narrowly focused on education funding, and will impact the poor more than the rich.

39 – YES – levels the playing field for internet businesses who siphon off $$ from California without paying taxes.  Time to end the free ride.

40 – YES – For once, here was a ballot measure (redistricting reform) that was needed, and that worked. The redistricting effort was a resounding success.  Say no to Republican sour grapes!

A1 – NO – public funding for the Oakland Zoo – while zoos are a nice family amenity, I am bothered by the Oakland Zoo’s expansionistic policies, and I don’t think they should be feeding at the public trough [so to speak] when the zoo’s governing board has no public accountability for its actions.

B1 – NO!! – INDEFINITE  extension AND increase in county transportation sales tax.  Sales taxes are regressive.  This would give an unaccountable county agency permanent funding with no requirement to come back to the voters – EVER.  Their predecessor (ACTA) had to be sued to block it from spending money on a project the voters hadn’t authorized.  Would eliminate the ONLY real voter accountability this agency now has.

J – Yes – Another bond fund infusion for Oakland schools.  I’m somewhat bothered by adding more bond debt to a school district that just emerged from a major financial crisis.  On the other hand, many Oakland schools are seriously physically deficient.  We really need to change Prop 13 to allow adequate funding for local schools, cities, and counties.  Until then, band-aid measures like this are the best we can do.

Local Candidates

If you live outside of Oakland/Alameda County, you can stop here if you want.  The rest is just for “local yokels”

AC Transit — Chris Peeples is knowledgeable and listens to the community.  I don’t agree with him 100%, but he’s a good choice.

BART Board – Rebecca Saltzman would seem the obvious pro-environment choice, but I’ve been disturbed by some of her statements in support of high-speed rail and BART extensions, which seem to indicate a knee-jerk support for extending transit even where it may not make economic sense and actually be sprawl-inducing.  I like Anthony Pegram’s candidate statement and plan to vote for him.

Oakland District One Council member:

Top three [ranked choice]  — for more detailed information, look at the write-ups in the recently-initiated Rockridge Patch, or view some youtube clips from a candidate forum:

1) Dan Kalb (knowledgeable, intelligent, pro-environment & pro-neighborhood. Lives in Rockridge.)

2) Donald Macleay (local green party member, pro-environment & pro-neighborhood.  Lives in Temescal) – Update (11/3/12) –

3)  No choice.  See below for why I can’t endorse any of the others:

I DON’T like: Len Raphael – confrontational and pro-development (although he does oppose Safeway’s College Ave. project);

Amy Lemley – knee-jerk smart growth (married to smart-growth fanatic who works at NRDC & pushed for BRT on Telegraph).  Her background is not in the broad public policy areas North Oakland needs.  I fear she’s a stalking horse for her husband, and would be too obeisant to Kernighan and Schaaf, both of whom endorse her and both of whom are aggressively pro-development.  She’s refused to take a firm position on the College Ave. Safeway project, just saying that she’d encourage negotiations.

The other candidates:

Don Link’s a nice guy and supportive on Safeway, but I worry he’d be out of his depth.  Focus is mainly on public safety

Richard Reya – his candidate statement reads very well.  He seems to be saying a lot of the right things.  BUT, it turns out that he’s the policy director for California Forward.  If that doesn’t ring a bell, go back and re-read my discussion of Prop. 31.  Sorry, but as policy director, his allowing Prop. 31 to move forward and go on the ballot shows, in my estimation, very bad judgment.  He’s also non-commital on the College Ave. Safeway project.  Not who I want representing me on the City Council!

Craig Brandt is also pushing for more police, but where’s the money going to come from???  As of late, he seems to have dropped out of the race.

At Large Council Member – Sorry, I’m afraid you’re on your own here. I can’t honestly and wholeheartedly recommend any of the choices.  Neither Kaplan nor De la Fuente have been supportive on Safeway.  De la Fuente is a dealmaker in the Perata mold.  He hopes to use the at-large seat as a stepping stone to another mayoral run.  Kaplan is, in many ways, pretty good, but she’s so focused on smart growth that she loses sight of neighborhood values.  She was the only council member to enthusiastically push Bus Rapid Transit on Telegraph despite strong community opposition.  I fear she’d favor major densification around the Rockridge BART in spite of its damaging traffic impacts.  As for the other candidates, none of them is qualified by background or experience, and Carol Tolbert has a gruesome history on North Oakland redevelopment around the Old Merritt College site — can you say corruption??

City attorney – I’m not real keen on Jane Brunner, but I’m also not excited by Barbara Parker.  I worry that she’s got the typical black Oakland establishment (e.g., Geoffrey Pete, Mary King, Bill Patterson) supporting her.  Yet Jane Brunner’s often been too much of a dealmaker.  No recommendation.  (As with judges, I think this really shouldn’t be an elected position.)

School Board – Jody London has, in my opinion, been doing OK.  The schools are in a tough place, and her opponent fought to keep Santa Fe School (in the Golden Gate area of Northwest Oakland)  open when it was an absolute disaster – probably worse than no school at all. Yes, we need to do more to help children in the poorer parts of the city, but that requires money that the district doesn’t have.  (Can you say Prop. 13?)  It also bothers me that Ms. Pecot was endorsed by the teachers union.  One wonders about the quid pro quo that may have been involved.  Teachers need fair pay, but I’ve also seen the teachers union defend poorly performing teachers just because they were active in the union.  Not how I think a school district should be run.


Election Day!!!

November 2, 2010

If you’re looking at this on November 2nd, you’re probably looking for advice on how to deal with your ballot.  I’ve put up several posts with my recommendations and comments.  (However, they won’t help you very much unless you vote in California.)  Please go down through my posts until you find those of interest to you.  They start below continue from there.  Here are links (in chronological order) if you want to get there fast.  The titles are mostly self-explanatory: — statewide ballot measures — candidate recommendations

“Oakland Jobs PAC” — Who ARE those guys?

October 19, 2010

Yet another election flier came in today’s mail.  This one, yet another extolling the virtues of mayoral candidate Don Perata, came from a shadowy committee called, “Oakland Jobs PAC.”  It apparently cost $30,155.  Remembering deep throat’s advice of “follow the money,” I set out to try to figure out where that $30,155 came from.  It’s not easy.  The Secretary of State’s website lists it as a “Recipient Committee,” but shows no recent donation or expenditures.

Since it’s spending money on the Oakland mayoral race, Oakland Jobs PAC presumably has to file with the Oakland City Clerk’s office.  Unfortunately, none of those filings are available on-line.  [Note to city officials — if you’re going to go to the trouble of passing campaign finance legislation, it only makes sense to require that the filings be posted on-line.  There aren’t too many people with the time, energy and knowledge to go down to the city clerk’s office and sift through the hundreds of filings that have been made to find out, for example, who gave the $30 K that Oakland Jobs spent on Perata’s behalf.]

There is a little more information available about Oakland Jobs PAC.  They’re the same people who spent a wad of money supporting Kerry Hamill two years ago in her run for the at-large seat on the city council.   If you’ll remember, part of that was for posters that tried to tie Hammill to “safe neighborhoods”.  Both Hamill and Oakland Jobs PAC supported the Safe Streets Initiative, which would have required Oakland to beef up its police force to over a thousand officers.  (It didn’t however, provide any explanation about where the city was going to find the funds to pay for all those extra officers.)  Seems like there’s a theme here, with both Hamill’s  and Perata’s campaigns hitting heavily on public safety and the need to hire more police officers.  (It should also be noted that Hamill was Perata’s chief of staff in the legislature from 1996 to 2000.)

But, that still doesn’t say where the money’s coming from.  Another hint — a campaign filing listed their address as Nielsen Merksamer, a Marin County law firm that specializes in election law and was hired by Signature Properties to help keep a referendum on the Oak to Ninth Project off the ballot.  Also  perhaps significant is that the executive director of Oakland Jobs PAC, Greg McConnell, is a lobbyist who lists Signature Properties (along with another big Oakland developer, Forest Cities) as among his chief clients.  McConnell was also apparently instrumental in forming another group, the Better Housing Coalition, that organized Oakland’s large developers to oppose an inclusionary housing ordinance that was being considered by the city council.  Based on this, my guess is that a Perata administration would not be very interested in pursuing inclusionary housing.

Not having pored through the city clerk’s files, I can’t yet tell you where the “independent” money supporting Perata’s campaign is coming from, but if the past is any indication, there appears to be a strong likelihood that the dots will eventually connect to the major developers doing business in Oakland.  As for why they would do that, well, again, if the past is any indication, it’s because they expect there to be a large pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with Don Perata’s name on it.

I must say that all this is not very surprising to me.  It’s exactly how I’d expect Perata to run his campaign.  It certainly doesn’t give me any cause to revise my voting recommendations for Oakland mayor.

Thoughts on Local Ballot Measures

October 15, 2010

The last piece of the election puzzle (for me) is the local ballot measures.  Here in Oakland, there are six — one county, one school district, and four city measures.  I’ll go through them in alphabetical order.

Measure F — County transportation supplemental registration fee.  The legislature in its infinite wisdom has decided (and the governor approved) that while the state will continue to short-change counties on transportation funding, it will allow each county to enact, with voter approval, a supplemental vehicle registration fee to be used for local transportation projects.  The Alameda County Congestion Management Agency — the state-mandated local agency with responsibility for general transportation and its funding, has decided to propose a $10 per vehicle fee to fund local transportation improvements.  The funds would be allocated 60% for roadway improvement and repair, 25% for a congestion relief program, 10% for transportation technology (e.g., “smart roadways”, electric vehicle charging stations, improved traffic signal technology — e.g., signal timing, transit override, etc), and 5% for pedestrian and bicycle related improvements.  The County’s other transportation agency, formerly called ACTA and now ACTIA, had to be sued over its misuse of country transportation sales tax funds.  (BTW, ACTIA and the county CMA have now been merged into an Alameda County Transportation Commission with control of all the county transportation funding.)  The ACTC does have a number of advisory citizen committees, but I’m not sure if there’s explicitly a “watchdog” committee over how the ACTC uses its funds.  There was no ballot argument submitted against the measure.  With the decreased state transportation funding, local funding is getting to be the wave of the future.  I would recommend a YES vote, but I’d also recommend keeping your eye on how this money gets spent.

Measure L — This measure was put on by the Oakland school board to provide supplemental funding for salaries of teachers and other instructional (i.e., non-administrative) positions.  This would be an additional $195/year parcel tax on top of the already-approved school parcel tax for facilities.  Like transportation (and everything else), the state has been starving schools because we’ve run out of money.  Us local taxpayers end up having to make up the difference.  I don’t like parcel taxes as a way of doing that, because they’re regressive.  You pay the same $195 whether you’re in a two-room hovel or a $5 Million mansion.  (And most leases allow the landlord to pass along parcel taxes to the tenants, even though the tenant doesn’t get to deduct it off his/her taxes!)  I’m also somewhat concerned that the school board is doing this at the behest of the teachers’ union.  This is the same kind of shenanigans that led to Oakland’s budget problems when the city council gave the police and firefighters unions everything they wanted.  I will leave you to make up your own minds, but I’m giving strong consideration to voting no.

Measure V — The medical marijuana tax increase.  The city put this on the ballot to squeeze a little extra revenue out of the lucrative medical marijuana industry that has sprung up since the passage of Prop. 115.  I see little reason to oppose it.  While some of the tax may get passed on to the consumers of medical marijuana, the small additional fee isn’t going to make medical marijuana unaffordable to those who really need it.  YES

Measure W — telephone tax increase.  The city already has a utility tax on “land line” phones.  This would add a flat $1.99 per month charge on both land lines and mobile phones, as well as a somewhat higher tax on trunk lines that serve multiple subscribers.  This not going to make or break the city budget.  My suspicion is that it will probably fail, because many people are tired of getting nickeled and dimed with little taxes.  we really ought to be getting to the root of things and re-addressing the inequities of Prop. 13.  We also need to reassess our public employee pensions systems, and move to a single-payer health insurance system.  If all those things happened, we would not need all these extra little taxes.  In fact, I’d suggest a measure that revises Prop. 13 and simultaneously sunsets all of these small taxes.  YES.

Measure X — Police parcel tax.  This is undoubtedly the most controversial measure on the Oakland ballot.  It represents a deal between the City Council and the OPOA.  The OPOA agreed to accept an increase in police contributions to their pension funds in return for the city putting this on the ballot, restoring the laid-off police, and promising no lay-offs for the remainder of the current OPOA contract.  Since it was placed on the ballot, virtually all of the council members have had “buyers remorse”.  I’m not sure there’s a single city council member who’s still supporting and campaigning for this measure.  It seems destined to go down in flames.  That may be appropriate.  Unfortunately, Oakland citizens will pay, with reduced police coverage, for the OPOA’s pig-headedness during the budget crisis.  I’m torn.  I don’t like the reduced police, but I also don’t want to reward the OPOA’s obnoxious behavior.  On balance, I’m afraid I must recommend NO.

Measure BB — modify Measure Y — This measure is a stopgap to prevent further hemorrhaging of the Oakland police dept.  It would temporarily suspend the minimum staffing levels established by Measure Y for the police force.  If this doesn’t pass, Measure Y funding gets cut off and Oakland would be forced to lay off another 150 police.  This would serve the OPOA right, but it would be a situation of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  We really do need to go after the OPOA and let them know that they can no longer play the games they’ve played.  That’s one reason why I’m so strongly opposed to Perata, the OPOA’s darling.  However, we can’t afford to lose another 150 police.  YES.

On the Oakland Mayoral Race

October 15, 2010

Last night, I attended an Oakland mayoral candidate forum at the College Preparatory School, co-sponsored by the Rockridge Community Planning Council and the Oakland League of Women Voters.  Let me start by offering kudos to the board of RCPC (which I chair) and the Oakland League for making the event happen.  There were close to 200 people in attendance, and I think they came away with a far better understanding of the candidates and issues.  It’s too bad more of Oakland can’t see these events.  (BTW, the event was videoed, and excerpts will be posted on the RCPC website at .)

The candidates can, in my opinion, be clustered in three tiers.  The first and easiest to dispose of are the not-a-serious-candidate candidates.  I’m sure these folks have good intentions, but their idea and proposals simply don’t cut the mustard.  They are:  Larry (“L.L.”) Young, Jr., Marcie Hodge, Arnold Fields, and Terence Candell.  [Candell didn’t show up for the forum,  but that, in itself, says  a lot about how seriously he takes the race.]  The second tier are the “front-runners.  By all accounts, these are, in alphabetical order, Rebecca Kaplan, Don Perata, Jean Quan, and Joe Tuman.  With the exception of Tuman, these are all long-time players in local/regional politics and have the accompanying plus of experience and a track record, and the minus of the baggage that comes along with a record.  Tuman makes it into the group primarily because of his experience as a political media commentator, and perhaps secondarily as an academic in the area of government.  The third, and is some ways most interesting tier, are two candidates that are not well enough known to be front runners, but show enough thought to be taken seriously.  These are Greg Harland, a businessman who characterizes himself on the ballot as an “investor”, and Don Macleay, a Green Party activist who designates himself as “computer network technician”.

Looking first at the front-runners, as I’ve already revealed, I have little good to say about Perata.  He’s a consumate wheeler-dealer who’s all too willing to accomodate special interests if he thinks there’s an “angle” in it that works to his advantage.   He’s also not averse to drinking heartily from the public trough, and is well-known for his rather extravagant lifestyle.  He was the only candidate at the forum who wholeheartedly supported the OPOA’s stance during the budget crisis, a stance that I consider to represent the worst of narrow self-interest in the face of a fiscal crisis. (See my earlier post about the OPAO, the budget, and the campaign.)   To my mind, this is NOT what we need in Oakland’s mayor, especially now, with Oakland in a deep budget crisis. 

Jean Quan presents a more mixed picture.  She’s certainly experienced, having served two terms on the Oakland school board and two terms on the city council.  She also is willing to put in the time needed to study issues carefully, and has the advantage of having seen Oakland’s budget crisis develop from the inside.  On the other hand, as a council member for eight years, she bears some responsibility for that crisis.  While she has, at verious points, expressed trepidation about some of the city council’s labor agreements and some of the ways the city has acted, she certainly hasn’t been the kind of emphatic “Paul Revere” type figure that would have raised the alarm about some of the wrong turns the city was making, especially in negotiations with the OPOA.  She also made a surprising statement in the forum, as the only candidate to support high-density (4-5 story) development around the Rockridge BART station.  This position may have gained her some support with ardent “smart-growthers”, but I suspect it’s broadly unpopular among Rockridge residents, who are all too aware of the existing traffic congestion along College Avenue.  It also may more generally indicate a degree of disconnect for Oakland’s neighborhoods and their residents.  [NOTE — I have heard back from Quan’s campaign that she apparently misspoke, thinking it was the MacArthur BART station being referred to, and does NOT support higher development density at the Rockridge BART.  Take it for what you will.]  I came into the forum feeling she’d be my number one or two choice.  She’s now dropped a notch or two in my estimation.

Rebecca Kaplan presented herself quite articulately, but her answers to questions were often somewhat vague.  She and Perata were the two candidates who came across most clearly as “politicians” (and I mean that reference to be somewhat negative).  She also has not had a lot of experience, with only two years on the city council as the at-large member.  I also wonder about her ability to forge any sort of consensus with council members.  While she has sometimes sided with the council’s current “progressive” bloc [which also usually includes Nadel, Quan, Brunner, and Kernighan], she’s tended to go off on her own idiosyncratic tack.  One thing Oakland has sorely lacked, especially since adopting a strong-mayor charter, is a mayor who can reliably work with the city council to develop, if not full consensus, at least a reliable working majority.  For all her intelligence and energy, I don’t sense that Kaplan can provide that.

Joe Tuman presents an interesting picture.  As someone who’s never been an elected official, he brings to the race the aura of the knowledgeable outsider.  Also, as a local TV political commentator, he’s got a lot of credibility among those who’ve watched his show.  In addition, he’s got the credibility of an academic who can claim special expertise in local government issues.  On the other hand, as an academic and media person, he’s never had to actually handle the reins of government.  One wonders how tractible he’ll find the city and its administration.  He said at the forum that he’s already identified two people to whom he’d offer the job of city administrator.  This shows admirable foresight.  He also said that they were people with a background in administration and experience with city government; but he wouldn’t reveal their names.  Oakland’s administrative bureaucracy is big, cumbersome, and often inefficient.  [Arnold Fields specifically attacked what he felt was the arbitrary and overbearing attitude of CEDA, and specifically the city’s code enforcement officers.]  While several candidates talked about “eliminating waste” and reducing bureaucratic red-tape, nobody presented a clear program about how to do that.  From my experience with EBMUD, trying to overhaul a bureacracy is a task on the order of cleaning the Augean stables.  [Try looking that up on Google if you’re unfamiliar with the reference.]  I think it will take a, literally, Herculean effort to do it, and the pushback will undoubtedly be extreme.  I’m skeptical about Tuman’s ability to achieve his lofty promises.  For example, he promised to reduce police dept. spending by retiring older officers and starting a new tier of officers with a much lower salary and benefits package.  Maybe that’ll work in this economy, but in the past police salaries have been high because otherwise positions go unfilled.

Finally, we have Don Macleay and Greg Harland.  Both these candidates had some interesting, if unconventional, ideas about how to make the city work better.  Harland was the only candidate to propose moving the city off its defined-benefit pension plans; presumably into something more like private employers’ 401K plans.  This is likely to go across to the City’s unions like a lead balloon.  It might be a good opening position to push for some flex from the union side, but it would certainly start his relationship with the city’s unions on a very sour note.  In general, his ideas were what one would expect from a business-oriented candidate.  They’re not likely to gain much tractions among an electorate as Democratically-oriented as Oakland’s.  Don Macleay has the opposite problem.  As an emphatic Green Party candidate, he’s likely to be seen as too radical by many Oakland voters (although the proposals he presented at the forum weren’t significantly more radical than those of the “mainstream” candidates).  More importantly, he really didn’t have anything he could show that would demonstrate he was equipped to handle the enormous challenges that will face Oakland’s next mayor.

Perhaps that was the most depressing part of the forum.  As one candidate stated, this could be the most important Oakland mayoral election in many years.  The City is facing an extremely trying financial future, with even the potential for joining Vallejo in bankruptcy if things go badly enough.  (One of the candidates, I think it was Tuman, went so far as to say that the City was effectively bankrupt already, in terms of not being able to effectively perform necessary government services.)  I’m afraid I don’t have a strong sense that any of the candidates was convincing in showing his/her ability to effectively lead Oakland’s government out of its current financial morass.  Of course, much of Oakland’s future, like that of all California’s cities, depends on factors outside its control, especially the state and national economy and state and national policies.  Maybe nobody short of Superman can “turn Oakland around” the way it needs to; but none of these ten candidates appears to be anything close to Superman.

First comments on the November Election: Proposition 22

September 11, 2010

Prop. 22 is local government’s latest attempt to tell the state to keep its hands off the local treasury.  In many ways, the ballot measure makes sense, although we need to keep in mind that WE created this mess more than thirty years ago when the voters passed Proposition 13, tying the hands of state and local government to collect the revenue needed for government services.  If you don’t like police layoffs, fire station “brown-outs”, state park closures, furlough days, etc.,  ask yourself if you voted for Prop. 13.  If you did, you’ve got yourself to blame for our current fiscal mess.

Here’s the Sacramento Bee’s explanation of the measure with supporters and opponents, pros and cons:

There’s little question that having the state government digging into local government’s wallet makes it harder and harder for local government to make ends meet.  However, there’s big one piece of local government that would be  protected by Prop. 22 but which, in my opinion, doesn’t deserve protection:  that’s redevelopment agencies.

For one thing, redevelopment agencies, while they’re housed in local government, aren’t really local.  Legally, they’re part of the State of California, and, while they’re often officially run by the city council wearing another hat, they  are often REALLY run by an executive director who has close to total autonomy in how redevelopment funds get used, especially when (as is often the case) the city council doesn’t pay a lot of attention to how the agency gets run, as long as it brings in money.

Another issues with redevelopment agencies objecting to the state taking their money is that it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Under state law, redevelopment agencies are largely funded by what are called “tax increment funds”.  These are increases in property taxes due to increased property value in the redevelopment area.  In theory, the redevelopment agency “primes the pump” by using bond funds to invest in the redevelopment area.  The resulting increased property value, and increased property tax revenue, is then used to pay off the bond, leaving everybody happy.

Sounds good  in theory, but when the redevelopment agency siphons off the property tax increase over the thirty years term of a redevelopment project, the losers are often other local agencies, including cities, schools, and special districts, that would otherwise get that revenue.  Over time, the legislature has tried to ameliorate the situation by requiring redevelopment agencies to include a “pass-through” of funds to local agencies to replace the funds the redevelopment agency took away.  However, the passthroughs are complicated and one often gets the feeling that other local agencies are getting the short end of the stick.

Aside from that, redevelopment agencies have had a mixed record in California and elsewhere.  Their eminent domain powers have led to some shocking abuses, including taking people’s homes and handing them over to private developers who replace them with projects such as glitzy shopping malls that make lots of money for the developer (and the redevelopment agency) but can literally leave former residents (especially tenants) out in the cold.

While I acknowledge the problem created by the state stealing local revenue, I can’t support including redvelopment agencies in those being protected.  Besides, the real culprit here is Proposition 13, and passing Prop. 22 will just continue to “prop” up a failed tax system badly  in need of major overhaul. 

My recommendation?  Vote NO on Prop. 22, but also let your legislators know that you expect to see reform of Prop.13 if they want to remain in office.

Prison Guard Union Muscles into Oakland Mayoral Election

June 28, 2010

If you’re like me, you get bunches of political ads in the mail.  I just got two today: CSC mailer & filing, both from “Coalition for a Safer California,” which is identified as a political committee sponsored “by public safety organizations.  OK, so what kind of public safety organizations?  Well, it couldn’t be police or fire departments, or the CHP, because they’re all governmental organizations and can’t contribute to political campaigns.  Well, maybe it’s a bunch of police and fire chiefs?  Nope.  It’s a couple of police unions and the state prison guards’ union.  In fact, the group’s latest filing shows the biggest single source of their money is the state prison guards’ union ($100,000 in their most recent filing).  Huh??  I didn’t know there were any state prisons in Oakland, or even near Oakland.  There aren’t even any state prisons anywhere in Alameda County.  So what gives??

Well, although the fliers are nominally about proposed layoffs of Oakland police (and factually inaccurate at that), what they’re really about is the November mayoral election, and they target two mayoral candidates, Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan. 

So, why are the prison guards trying to put  the finger on these two Oakland politicians?  The answer isn’t hard to figure out.  The third major candidate in the mayoral election is none other than Don Perata, former President Pro Tem of the state senate, deal-maker extraordinaire, and close ally of the prison guards during past state budget processes.  (It’s one reason the prison guards have gotten such sweet deals on their contracts — to the detriment of the state’s huge deficit.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Oakland Police Officers Association has endorsed Perata’s candidacy (using a public appearance by Oakland’s new police chief [who hasn’t endorsed Perata] as the venue to announce the endorsement).  In the best political “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” tradition, Perata has returned the favor by coming out four-square against any police layoffs.

What Perata’s bold stance doesn’t answer is:  How is he going to balance the city’s budget and address its $30 million deficit, which is projected to balloon to $50 million next year?  Maybe he’ll finance it by selling bonds or push it over for the next mayor to deal with — what he did when he was leading the legislature.

As you may be able to tell, I have not endorsed Perata.

An Oakland Column You Probably won’t like

June 23, 2010

Oakland is a mess; not Oakland the city, although parts of it certainly are messed up, but Oakland’s city government.  Oakland is far from unique in this  respect.  In these days of economic crisis (no, the recession is NOT over yet), and with California’s state government in a self-induced state of paralysis, many California cities are messed up, and Oakland isn’t the worst.  That honor belongs to Vallejo, which is entering its second year of bankruptcy, payback for a spending binge in the ’90s fueled by real estate speculation.   Other Bay Area cities also share Oakland’s plight, notably Richmond and San Francisco.

All these cities are faced with enormous looming budget deficits, and not for the first time.  Unlike the federal government, however, Oakland and its fellow California cities can’t simply print more money to cover their debt.  Nor can they invoke Keynesian economics and say that  running a deficit is OK.  No, there only three ways for Oakland to get out of its predicament:  1)  raise taxes -and/or fees – not a popular option, 2) cut services — also not a popular option, or 3) join Vallejo in bankruptcy and then proceed to rewrite its contracts with city labor unions — again, not popular, especially with said employee unions.

How did Oakland get into this fix and who’s to blame for it?  OK, OK, I know pinning blame on someone won’t solve the problem, but in this case understanding the bad decisions involved is part of keeping them from happening again.  Of course, not all of this problem is  Oakland’s fault.  The state government’s deficit and paralysis have led to it cutting back state contributions to local governments and shifting state responsibilities onto cities and counties.  Even more importantly, cities are highly dependent on revenue from sales and property taxes.  The recession, and its underlying housing bubble collapse, have led to major drops in both these revenue sources.  Unfortunately, in the 1990s, when sales and property tax revenues were booming during the internet bubble, the Oakland city council made a series of (in retrospect) irresponsible contracts with city unions, including notably the police and fire department unions.  Not only did these contracts involve major pay raises and benefit improvements, they committed the city to providing retirement benefits long into the future.   Even more irresponsibly, the city renewed these contracts even after the market collapsed in 2000.

Was this dumb?  Absolutely!!  Then why did it happen?  The answer lies in Oakland politics.  Oakland’s police and fire dept. unions have traditionally been strong political forces.  They share this attribute with the police and fire unions in other cities, notably Richmond and Vallejo [notice a pattern here?].  The police and fire unions endorse candidates for mayor and city council.  They also make major  contributions (both in money and volunteers) to the election campaigns for those offices.  Not surprisingly, the candidates they support often get elected.  Also not surprisingly, once they’re elected, these unions expect, and usually receive “payback”.  We’re not talking  graft here [at least, not that I know of].  This is not about suitcases full of small bills left at dark corners in the dead of night.  The payback happens in the full light of city council meetings and the somewhat dimmer light of labor negotiations and council closed sessions.

If you, as a council candidate, received a major amount of campaign help from the police and fire unions, you’ll have your office door open to their representatives.  You’ll also be thinking (either consciously or unconsciously) “If I cross these guys, they’ll be campaigning for my opponent next election, and I’ll lose. …  I better not cross these guys.”  Even if you weren’t thinking that when their representatives walked in your office door, you’d undoubtedly be thinking it by the time they walked back out.   With the police and fire unions helping to elect many council members (a majority?  I don’t know), it’s no big surprise that the council would approve contracts favorable to these unions.  Were the unions irresponsible to propose contracts that weren’t sustainable in the long-term?  I think so.  Were the council members irresponsible for agreeing to those unsustainable terms?  Well, Duh.  But you know who was the most irresponsible   in this whole process?  Us, the voters of Oakland.  We weren’t paying attention to what the city council was doing, and we weren’t paying attention to how city council election campaigns were being funded.  Where were the crowds of citizens at city council meetings in the 1990s when the police and fire contracts were approved?  Where were the crowds when, even after the bubble collapsed in 2000, the city council renewed those contracts?  (Also, where were the newspapers and reporters who are now lambasting Mayor Dellums  and trying  to pin all the blame on him?  Does he deserve part of the  blame?  Sure; but when he took office, the seeds of the problem had already been sown and were already growing fast.)

Oakland’s voters also have to take ownership of approving two incredibly dumb city ballot measures — Kids First and Kids First II.  Now, of course nobody wants  to vote against helping kids, but these two measures, and especially the second one, committed portions of the city budget to funding children’s services by non-city groups.   These were not bad groups, and  I’m sure that  the money has done good  things, but so do libraries, parks, senior centers, and, yes, police and fire departments. 

The result of all this short-sightedness and, yes, stupidity, is that now the city is in a serious financial bind.  Revenue has dropped and expenses continue to grow.  Perhaps most importantly, under past city contracts, the city is still required to help fund retirement benefits for police and firemen that have already retired, and those benefits  can’t be modified in future contracts.  They’re locked in as “entitlements”.

So, what do  we do now?  Well, if the  voters are willing, the city will have to enact new taxes to cover some of the current deficit and avoid major layoffs of police.  On the union side, they, and  particularly the police, will have to be willing to agree to major give-backs, especially as regards to retirement benefits and how they’re paid for.  Somehow, it’s also going to be necessary to bring the already-retired union workers back to the table to discuss what the city is required to do for them. 

Ultimately, the one threat the city may have available as leverage, one that it would be understandably loath to even talk about (as it were, the “nuclear option”), is declaring bankruptcy, with the prospect that an appointed administrator might be empowered to abrogate contracts and even retirement benefit payments as part of an overall package.  Looking north at Vallejo, it’s pretty clear that its bankruptcy has tarnished that city’s image severely, and it’s still not clear if Vallejo city’s officials are willing to make the tough calls needed on reducing city union employees’ pay and benefits.

In the long run, what may really be needed is something  similar to, but more far-reaching than, the  federal Hatch Act, which limits federal employee’s participation in partisan election campaigns.  Oakland needs to have a measure that says that if you’re getting paid out of city coffers, you can’t be influencing the  electoral process that picks your bosses.  The potential for corruption, malfeasance, and, at the very least, conflict of interest, is far too great.  At the very least, Oakland voters need to be far more careful in thinking about and deciding which candidates for mayor and city council they vote for.  Maybe an endorsement from the city’s unions, and particularly the police union, shouldn’t be looked upon as a plus??

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