When things go wrong, it’s easy to blame politicians and public officials. And in Oakland, the city council, the mayor, and the city administration have endured some harsh criticism during the 2009 budget crisis. In fact, bashing them has become sort of a public blood sport. But much of it appears to be unwarranted, at least right now. The City of Oakland’s leadership has performed pretty well in comparison to previous years and considering the magnitude of this year’s $83 million financial problem.
Most of the city’s employee unions also deserve credit for agreeing to what amounts to a 10 percent cut in compensation. Earlier this year, it wasn’t clear whether union leaders would accept the cuts or opt for more layoffs, which would have decimated city services. But they stepped up and agreed to share the pain. In interviews last week, several council members noted that the city would have been in far worse shape had it not been for the tentative agreements it reached with three of the city’s largest unions, Service Employee International Union 1021, Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, and the firefighters’ union.
But the lone major union holdout, the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, is a different story. The police union has been obstinate and uncooperative. Last week, the council rejected the union’s latest offer, which would have done little to address the city’s budget woes, and fell far short of what the other unions had agreed to. Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente correctly referred to it as “bullshit.”
Part of the problem is that the police union has less incentive to agree to concessions. The cops already had a contract in place when the budget crisis hit, while the other unions were negotiating new ones. Plus, the police union doesn’t believe that Oakland leaders have the courage to lay off cops, and thus have no real leverage. But councilmembers said there is plenty they can do now and in the future to convince the police union to accept the same concessions as the other unions, from eliminating overtime during sporting events at the Coliseum to slashing pension fund payments when the police union’s contract expires next year.
The council was scheduled to take up a new offer from the police union this week in closed session. But it looked late last week that council members were still not satisfied, and were ready to reject it as well. “I don’t think we’re done yet,” Council President Jane Brunner said of negotiations. “We need to keep talking.”
Mayor Ron Dellums, meanwhile, deserves credit for hiring Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, as the city’s budget czar, and for promoting Dan Lindheim to city administrator. Marysheva-Martinez, who was recommended by former City Manager Robert Bobb, appears to be the most competent financial official that the city has had in years, while Lindheim has earned praise from some of the mayor’s toughest critics, including De La Fuente. Lindheim and staffers, including Marysheva-Martinez, “have been very responsive to the council” during the budget process, De La Fuente said. “They’ve answered all of our questions.”
Having said that, Dellums’ budget proposal was far from perfect. For example, part of the mayor’s plan would have lessened the immediate pain of budget cutbacks by putting off payment on about $22 million worth of city services. But the proposal wasn’t financially responsible, because it forced some city funds farther into debt. Still, the mayor’s overall budget plan provided a solid framework for the council. Lindheim and Marysheva-Martinez’s financial projections also appear to be much more reliable than those produced under former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly.
The council, itself, also appears to have functioned well under the leadership of Brunner, who took over for De La Fuente as council president in January. Although there have been some minor disagreements, the council appears poised to adopt a pretty good budget on June 30. In interviews, several council members credited Brunner, and praised her effusively. “I think she’s doing a truly remarkable job,” Councilman Larry Reid said. “She’s provided incredible leadership through this entire process.” Even De La Fuente spoke well of Brunner, although he believes she could be more decisive.
Council budget chairwoman Jean Quan also has been integral in solving many of the budget problems. A wonk’s wonk, Quan has held numerous community meetings, raising public awareness of the city’s problems. She also deserves credit for taking a hard line against the police union. In an impromptu meeting on the steps of City Hall last week, Quan said she told union president Sergeant Dom Arotzarena that she wouldn’t accept anything less than the same 10 percent cut that other unions agreed to.
But even if the police union ultimately does the right thing, the city will remain mired in financial issues for months to come. First, there are a series of ballot measures in the mail-in election that ends next month. Then the city will learn how much it will receive from a $67 million federal grant that Dellums requested for policing. Quan says she believes the longtime former Congressman will succeed in obtaining at least half of what Oakland asked for. Let’s hope she’s right, and let’s hope the city’s leadership continues to make good decisions in these tough economic times.
Brown’s Narrow Prop. 8 Appeal
State Attorney General Jerry Brown made headlines earlier this month when he declared in a federal lawsuit brought by a Berkeley couple that Proposition 8 violated the US Constitution. Brown’s argument won praise from liberals and appeared to bolster the cause of same-sex marriage. It also didn’t hurt his political chances in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, especially among gays and progressives. But a closer look at Brown’s legal argument reveals that if it’s ultimately adopted by the US Supreme Court, it will limit the impact of the Berkeley couple’s case.
In their lawsuit, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier contend that California’s anti-gay-marriage law violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The lawsuit, which is sweeping in scope, has gained national attention because Perry and Stier are represented by Ted Olson and David Boies, two prominent legal scholars who squared off against each other in Bush v. Gore, the infamous case that decided the 2000 presidential election. If successful, Perry and Stier’s lawsuit would not only restore same-sex marriage in California, but make it legal nationwide.
In his court filings, Brown takes a more narrow view. He contends that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional, not because anti-gay-marriage laws themselves are impermissible, but because Prop. 8 stripped the rights of gays and lesbians to marry in California. In other words, if the California Supreme Court had not legalized gay marriage last year, then Prop. 8 would have been just fine. To put it another way, Brown believes that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional because California is the only state in which a court has legalized gay marriage and then had that decision overturned by voters. As a result, if the federal courts agree with Brown, Perry and Stier’s lawsuit would only legalize gay marriage in California, but nowhere else. “This case arises under a factual and legal history that is unique to California,” Brown said in court papers.
By contrast, the city of San Francisco, led by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who has worked closely with Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial opponent, Mayor Gavin Newsom, agrees with Olson and Boies. In a brief filed late last week with the court, Herrera argued that Prop. 8 isn’t just unconstitutional because it stripped away the right to marry, but because it gave the government the power to deny rights to same-sex couples enjoyed by everyone else without a legitimate reason.
Yet despite the limiting scope of Brown’s argument, attorneys for Perry and Stier are not angry. Ted Boutros, who is one of Olson’s legal partners, told Full Disclosure that they view Brown’s argument as the baseline for what they want to accomplish. Boutros said they hope that the US Supreme Court ultimately agrees with their position and strikes down anti-gay-marriage laws nationwide, but said they would be happy if the high court just made same-sex nuptials legal in California. “It would still be a great outcome,” he said.
However, Olson and Boies disagree with Brown’s contention that gay-marriage should remain illegal in California while the case moves through the federal courts. Brown argues that it would create too much confusion if the court were to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction against Prop. 8 and allow gays to start marrying again. But Olson and Boies argued in court papers last week that Prop. 8 should be set aside immediately because they said it’s not likely to survive constitutional scrutiny. In his legal brief, Herrera agreed.