Our Backyard: The Oakland City Council Needs Reform

Key city council votes effectively take place in private because they occur late at night, after residents have gone home.


Oakland City Hall

A recent Oakland City Council vote to dramatically expand the city’s medical marijuana industry didn’t happen until nearly 1 a.m. And a controversial vote to impose impact fees on new market-rate housing to help finance more affordable units didn’t occur until 11 p.m. By the time the council made those key decisions—which will affect thousands of Oakland residents—the City Hall chambers were nearly empty, because most attendees had gone home. As such, the councilmembers effectively cast their votes in private.

That’s no way to conduct the public’s business.

It’s also nothing new for the council. But it seems to be getting worse. During the past 18 months or so, council meetings have repeatedly lasted late into the night, with pivotal decisions occurring after most folks have gone to bed.

So what’s going on? One problem is that it takes councilmembers much too long to start their Tuesday night meetings, because they typically spend the first one to two hours of each session making routine announcements and handing out awards to Oakland residents and organizations for their accomplishments. While these ceremonial affairs are often heart-warming, they can also feel unseemly when councilmembers appear to be honoring leaders in their districts so that those folks will back them at re-election time.

This practice should stop, or at least decrease, because it unnecessarily delays important votes and robs citizens of the right to watch their elected leaders make decisions that will affect them.

Until the early Aughts, the Oakland council rarely faced this issue because it held meetings every week. But then-Council President Ignacio De La Fuente switched to bi-weekly meetings, thereby jamming more city business into each session and resulting in more late nights.

The problem worsened after the 2014 retirement of council President Pat Kernighan, who ran tight meetings and reined in ceremony. The new council president, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, unfortunately, runs a looser ship.

The solution is simple: The council can limit the award-making, hold ceremonies on other days, or go back to meeting every week.

The public deserves better.

Our Backyard is an occasional opinion column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

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