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.The Law of Unintended Consequences

Two years after the arrival of "Hurricane Jerry," Oakland's City Council still is dealing with the Measure X Factor

Oakland’s Measure X, the brainchild of Mayor Jerry Brown, was very clear about one thing: Oakland should have a “strong mayor” form of government, making Brown the city’s chief executive.

It was remarkably less clear about other issues. Measure X, which was drafted primarily by Brown and made significant changes to the city’s charter, sailed through the signature-gathering process and won its 1998 election by a whopping three-to-one ratio, largely propelled by the success of Brown’s mayoral campaign. But the initiative contained loopholes and gray areas, some of which have not been resolved in the two years since it took effect. Now the council is finally dealing with two of the biggest unknowns — whether city attorney candidates have to run for an office that might vanish nine months later, and whether or not it was willing to go directly to the voters to ask for its own pay raise, as Measure X commands.

The enthusiasm that drove Measure X’s passage signaled a dramatic shift for Oakland voters, who only four years earlier rejected a strong mayor initiative put forward by then-mayor Elihu Harris. But not long after Measure X went into effect, its glitches became apparent, and the city began an intermittent fix-it effort that City Attorney John Russo refers to as “cleaning up the debris of Hurricane Jerry.” Amid that debris, there was a mandate that City Council pay raises — formerly authorized by the city’s Public Ethics Commission — now had to be ratified by popular vote, without specifying exactly who would put such a measure on the ballot. The measure also changed the city attorney’s office from appointed to elected without explaining what would happen to the position if Measure X is not reapproved by voters in November 2004.

In the spring of 2000, the city convened a task force to tackle the biggest issues. Last July, the task force recommended several items for the November 2000 ballot. One would have gotten rid of the public vote by automatically raising councilmembers’ salaries using a formula based on increases to the Consumer Price Index. The other would have let the city attorney elected in 2004 serve out a full term regardless of whether or not Measure X was allowed to sunset. The city attorney’s office passed these recommendations on to the council, but the council punted on the bigger issues, leaving most of the cleanup for another day.

Council pay raises had long been contentious. In 1996, Oakland established the ethics commission to recommend, every odd-numbered year, whether or not the council should get a pay increase. In 1997, the commission approved a 62 percent salary increase, which boosted council salaries from $37,000 to $60,000. The council duly voted for it, which provoked a thunderclap of opposition from council critics, the press, and Brown. “A lot of people were really angry about the City Council pay raise,” says Lisa Seitz, who campaigned for Brown and Measure X and now sits on the Ethics Commission. “This guaranteed that any future pay raises had to be approved by the voters.”

This fall, the commission voted to increase council salaries by ten percent, to $66,000 a year. Questions started to fly. Who would put the measure on the ballot, the commission or the council? Would the council dare ask the public for a salary hike in troubled economic times? A legal opinion from the City Attorney’s office resolved the first issue — if the council wanted a raise, it would have to ask for one itself. And last Tuesday’s City Council resolved the second. Although council president Ignacio De La Fuente and District 6 rep Moses Mayne made a point of stating that they, personally, didn’t even want a raise, the council unanimously voted the issue onto the March ballot. There wasn’t even any opposition from the gallery, except from ever-present council gadfly Hugh Bassette. However, once March gets closer it’s safe to assume that other government watchdogs will trot out the usual list of Oakland civic failures — the Raiders deal, the ice rink, the stagnation of downtown retail development — as proof the council doesn’t deserve a bigger paycheck.

Dan Purnell, executive director of the Ethics Commission, believes a raise is in order. He notes that since the council’s last raise in 1997, other city employees have received raises that increased their salaries by thirteen percent. Meanwhile, inflation in the Bay Area is up fifteen percent. The commission’s decision to recommend a ten percent raise, the maximum they’re allowed to grant, was informed by comparing councilmembers’ wages with those of fourteen comparable cities nationwide (Oakland’s council earned 79 percent of the average) and with the eight largest cities in California (Oakland’s council earned about $9,500 more than the average, but that number was skewed by Long Beach, which only pays $11,000 a year). When you put all the pieces together, Purnell says, a raise is overdue.

This issue of council salaries relates to a complex ongoing question — whether being an Oakland councilmember should be a full-time job. Currently, only three members are technically full-time — Dick Spees, Nancy Nadel, and Larry Reid. The others have outside practices either in law or labor. Ethics Commission chairman Patrick O’Hern argues that by paying a higher salary, you attract more professional candidates and allow councilmembers to devote more time to the office. “Basically, you get what you pay for,” he says. Purnell maintains that even councilmembers who are technically “part-time” spend full-time hours doing city work. “You can’t begin to calculate the amount of time that goes into holding elected office,” he says. “You’re on the phone in your car, going to community meetings, your Sunday afternoons are spent at neighborhood meetings.” Spees says councilmembers attend five or six events and respond to about one hundred contacts each day, and consider 250 agenda items every week.

But there’s a further twist in the pay-raise game: If the voters approve the council’s pay raises, why not have them vote on Brown’s, as well? The mayor himself got a raise in 1999 — although he too claimed he didn’t want one — and now he makes $104,553 a year. At Tuesday’s meeting, District 3 councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who has a long history of butting heads with Brown and like-minded councilmembers, proposed a March ballot measure that would have let the public approve mayoral pay hikes. “If one has to go to the public, then both should have to go to the public to be equitable,” she says, adding that she thinks letting the council control the mayor’s salary invites political horse-trading. “Then the salary gets into a negotiating position, like ‘You do this and we’ll increase your salary.’ That’s not the way I think a salary ought to be increased. It should be based on effectiveness, not dealing.” But Nadel’s proposal went nowhere. Frequent Brown ally De La Fuente put it bluntly: “At this point, I and the council have the power to give or not give the mayor a raise. So if you ask me, I want to keep that.” Nadel’s motion couldn’t even secure a second; District 7 councilmember Larry Reid, who only a week earlier had told the Oakland Tribune that he wanted a public vote on the mayor’s salary increase “because I think I work at least as hard as the mayor, if not harder,” mysteriously kept mum.

At least the councilmembers know they’ll get to keep their jobs for their full term in office. John Russo, the first person to win an election as city attorney under Measure X, has no such assurances. If voters nix a Measure X extension, his office could revert to being appointed. All of this puts Russo in a bind; he’s seeking reelection in March 2004 for a job that might be gone in nine months. “It’s absurd to have an office go up for reelection when the office may disappear like Pac-Man,” he says. Russo believes having a strong mayor compels Oakland to have a publicly elected city attorney, but he questions the wisdom of having bound the two together in Measure X. Councilmember Danny Wan’s proposal to fix the loophole, which the council is expected to consider before December 4, essentially would sever the city attorney’s job from the rest of Measure X. It would keep the position publicly elected while exempting the city attorney from Measure X’s sunset clause.

Confusion of this type can result when initiatives make the ballot with the help of a charismatic leader and a massive signature-gathering drive; they miss out on the extensive vetting process the City Attorney must perform when the council introduces a ballot measure. “If the council had put it on the ballot, a lot of these anomalies would have been caught and rectified before it was put before the people,” Russo says. Supporters of Measure X note that thousands of people voted for a strong mayor, not only Jerry Brown. “People try to blame the mayor, but all of us could have said something about those discrepancies,” says De La Fuente. “But nobody did, so now we have to deal with them.”


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