Oakland City Council Stumbles Again

Council committee members voted last week to award a developer a waiver to Oakland's living wage law — apparently for no good reason.

The Oakland City Council is off to a very rocky start in 2015. Not only did the council appoint as its president last month a person who has serious ethical issues that seem to get worse every week, but the panel stumbled again last week when one of its committees voted unanimously to ignore a key city law when it didn’t need to do so. It was another troubling display of poor governance and decision-making.

The council’s latest misstep involved a strip mall planned for an East Oakland neighborhood. Last week, the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee voted to award the project’s developer a waiver to Oakland’s living wage law. City staffers and the developer, Sunfield Development LLC, had requested the waiver, claiming that the anchor tenant of the strip mall, Walgreens, would not sign a lease without it.

But it turned out that Walgreens apparently was never serious about wanting the waiver. In fact, on the morning after the council committee’s vote, Walgreens sent an email to the Express, stating that it did not want the waiver, and strongly indicated that it never had. “To clarify recent comments by others,” wrote Walgreens rep Phil Caruso, “it is not our company’s policy to seek such exemptions from living wage ordinances.”

The Oakland City Council originally approved the city’s living wage ordinance in 1998 — unanimously. City voters then extended the law to the Port of Oakland four years later. Under the law, government contractors and developers who receive public subsidies must pay their workers a living wage. Oakland’s current living wage is $14.10 an hour, or $12.27 if an employer provides health benefits.

The living wage law applied to Sunfield because the city had lined up $6 million in federal tax credits for the planned retail development at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Seminary Avenue, as we first reported on our website last week. In addition, the city had paid millions of dollars for that piece of property and then had agreed to sell it to Sunfield for just $6,000.

You read that right. It was a remarkable gift of taxpayer funds: The council not only had essentially given away valuable public property but was prepared to deny a living wage to the workers of the new development.

Now, there’s no denying that this section of East Oakland desperately needs retail stores and has struggled for years to attract them. In fact, new Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington told me she voted to waive the living wage ordinance because she was afraid that if Walgreens walked away, Sunfield would not be able to find a replacement. “I thought it was important to not lose the anchor tenant,” she said.

Her sentiment was understandable. But the city and council’s process was deeply flawed. The living wage ordinance is one of the most important laws on the city’s books. It speaks to the progressive values of Oaklanders — that if a company gets a taxpayer subsidy then it ought to pay its workers a decent wage.

Yet councilmembers last week abandoned those values without doing their due diligence. They voted to award the waiver even though no representatives from Walgreens had showed up to the committee meeting to explain why a large, national — and highly profitable — chain needed it. In fact, Walgreens never even made a formal written request to the city for the waiver. Councilmember Dan Kalb, who is not on the committee that voted for the waiver, told me that he would not cast a ballot for it — especially given the fact that there was no formal request from Walgreens.

However, it appears that there were enough votes — even without Kalb — to have awarded the waiver at the next full council meeting (if Walgreens had not made it clear after the vote that it didn’t actually want it). And that’s disturbing.

But for this council, it appears as if it’s par for the course. Oakland councilmembers, for example, are still largely silent about President Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s numerous legal and ethical issues. And that’s despite the fact that last week the Express reported that emails from Gibson McElhaney’s office showed that at least one of her staffers had helped her file an appeal in opposition to a housing project to be built next to her home in apparent violation of at least two city law. And that revelation was preceded by ones that showed that Gibson McElhaney had failed to file campaign finance statements in a timely manner and still had more than $150,000 in federal tax liens lodged against her.

In an interview earlier this week, Kalb, who ran on a good government platform, said he was still not prepared to comment about Gibson McElhaney’s myriad issues, because he said he needed to investigate them more. For her part, Campbell Washington, who also campaigned on restoring trust in government, said she expects that the city’s Public Ethics Commission will launch an investigation into the council president’s activities.

Let’s hope the commission does so. And let’s hope that councilmembers display the same type of prudence and caution when considering whether to ignore laws that protect low-income workers as they do when questioned about their president’s ethical shortcomings.

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