Business as Usual in Oakland City Hall

A judge ruled that the city illegally barred citizens from attending council meetings. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Last fall, with the election of a new mayor and two new city councilmembers, there appeared to be reason for optimism in Oakland. But halfway into 2015 that optimism is rapidly dissipating. And for good reason. Oakland’s new leadership in the past several months has made a series of troubling missteps and illegal moves, the most recent of which was a decision to bar members of the public from sitting in the upstairs gallery of the city council chambers inside City Hall — an ill-advised move that a judge on Monday ruled was unlawful.

There’s some debate as to who ordered the shutdown of the upstairs gallery, which holds about one hundred people. Some have blamed the City Administrator’s Office, while others have pointed to council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney. Regardless, the decision was made two months ago after affordable housing activists shut down a council meeting in a protest over the planned sale of public land on Lake Merritt to a luxury housing developer (a sale that Gibson McElhaney strongly supported).

In the weeks following the decision, city officials barred hundreds of Oakland residents from attending council meetings because of the supposed lack of space. In an email to the Express, longtime Oakland activist Naomi Schiff (who has been attending council meetings for decades and is not exactly a firebrand), likened the situation to what one might expect to see in “some weird autocracy in Eastern Europe,” rather than a supposedly progressive city like Oakland.

Schiff noted that in one instance, she saw that two “elderly ladies” had been locked out of the council chambers when they came to speak on a matter of importance to them. They “were clearly having trouble with the hours of standing” outside the council chambers, waiting for their turn to be let in and address the council, Schiff wrote. “One finally climbed under the handrail and sat on the marble steps [inside City Hall], but had to extricate herself awkwardly when they finally let her [into the chambers].”

Barring citizens from addressing their government, or just watching their elected officials conduct the public’s business, isn’t just autocratic, it’s illegal. That’s why Local 21 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), a union that represents some city workers, decided to sue Oakland over the gallery shutdown. Attorneys for IFPTE argued that the move violated both the Oakland Sunshine Ordinance and the Brown Act — laws that mandate that public meetings must be open to the public. “We objected to the limiting of our members and the public’s ability to participate in council hearings,” said Mike Seville of IFPTE Local 21.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo agreed, and issued a temporary restraining order on Monday, ordering the city to reopen the gallery immediately. Grillo also dismissed arguments made by lawyers for the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, who contended that the shutdown was necessary for public safety reasons. According to Seville, Grillo asked the city’s lawyers if there was any proof that the gallery, which had been open for decades, suddenly was now a public safety hazard. The judge also asked if the city fire marshal or the building department had made such a determination about the gallery. The city’s attorneys could not produce any evidence that either one had.

But that’s not the only illegal or questionable move by the city’s new leadership. As we noted in early January, councilmembers voted to make Gibson McElhaney president of the council, even though she had a litany of ethical and legal problems. Then in May, not long after the gallery shutdown, Mayor Libby Schaaf instituted a new ban on nighttime street protests in Oakland — a move that appears to violate a federal court order concerning demonstrations in the city (Schaaf and the police department, however, appear to have softened their stance in recent weeks and have allowed some nighttime street marches after the original crackdown). And then earlier this month, the council voted to approve that sale of public property on East 12th Street to the luxury housing developer, despite the fact that the move clearly violates state and city laws that require Oakland to prioritize affordable housing on surplus public land.

In other words, it’s business as usual in Oakland City Hall.

Give Newsom Credit

The US Supreme Court’s historic decision last Friday to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide touched off a massive Gay Pride parade and celebration over the weekend in San Francisco. And rightly so. But overlooked in all the excitement was the fact that Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom deserves a lot of credit for launching the gay marriage movement when he was mayor of San Francisco in 2004. At the time, Newsom endured vicious criticism, including from fellow Democrats, for defying state and federal laws and issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. But Newsom was ahead of his time — it just took eleven-plus years for some Democrats and most of the country to finally catch up and realize he was right.

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