The Most Popular Person at Oakland City Hall?
Oakland City Clerk LaTonda Simmons has made city government more accessible.
LaTonda Simmons brings humor and a commitment to transparency in government to her job as city clerk.
Photo by Chris Duffey
The chambers of the Oakland City Council can be a very rough place. Public bickering between council members and full-throated soliloquies by angry residents are commonplace. At times, the difference between debating an ordinance and lobbing ordnance is difficult to discern. But, amid the swirling hurricane, seating in a sea of tranquility is City Clerk LaTonda Simmons, perhaps the most popular person at City Hall.
There were no obvious indications of Simmons’ growing fan appreciation club, but Simmons said she began to notice hints that she had a small but loyal following in Oakland after a blog posting by Oakland resident Tonya Love. The posting aimed to detail what a city clerk actually does, but it also conveyed great appreciation.
Love, who often live-tweets Oakland City Council meetings using the popular #oakmtg hashtag, encouraged Simmons to start her own Twitter account. It was on the social media platform that Simmons saw for herself the effusive praise coming from the Twitterverse. “I appreciate it, but I really don’t get it, because it’s not like it’s The LaTonda Show; I’m just the city clerk at the city council meeting.”
“She got on Twitter, and she became really responsive,” said Love, who also credits Simmons with helping her organize last year’s successful #oakmtg mayoral candidate forum. “Her ability to communicate and willingness to respond are really why she’s admired. A lot of the time you don’t get that from people in government.”
It’s also Simmons’ passion for the job and sense of humor that caught Love’s attention. “I think I’m down-to-earth. I joke a lot. My family thinks it’s hilarious how serious I am at work. They’re like, ‘Do they know who they have up there?’ ”
There is appreciation for Simmons in city government, too. Jason Overman, who worked five years at City Hall, most recently for Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, acknowledges Simmons’ following and believes it’s a response to Simmons’ charm. “Between her raw skill and dry wit, Latonda keeps city council meetings moving, and she makes them fun. Maybe she’s why so many people come to city council meetings?”
Simmons, 45, was born and raised in Oakland. After working for a dot-com company, she left the workforce to raise her three children. She returned, starting in Oakland as a temporary employee working as an analyst on the city’s cable franchise deal. “I was just trying to find myself again and Oakland kind of held onto me,” Simmons said. She was initially reluctant to move over to the legislative side of government but became a legislative recorder. In 2005, Simmons was named city clerk. But, working at City Hall may have been pre-ordained.
Her late father owned a glass company in Oakland that was contracted to replace broken windows at City Hall following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. “I’m connected to it a little more personally than anyone could ever imagine,” Simmons said. “It’s endearing for me to sit in City Hall everyday and look up at the windows and know my dad restored them.”
The job of city clerk is not glamorous. Essentially, its role is made up of three duties: record-keeping, compiling and maintaining council agendas, and performing elections every two years. The city clerk must also stay neutral. “I’m the person who has the duty to tell it like it is,” Simmons said. “It gets interesting, because the clerk gets to tell everybody no.”
More than a decade ago, government transparency in Oakland was nowhere near where it is today. Agenda reports were not available online, for instance, and requesting and receiving public information was often an onerous task. A self-described techie, Simmons said she looked for ways to improve transparency online. “That’s sort of been my entire theme since I’ve been here,” she said.
Simmons pushed to wean the city’s large bureaucracy off an almost insatiable taste for paper by moving documents online. “In the past, it was only a meeting if you had a binder and a bunch of papers,” she joked. A 24/7 clerk’s office, as Simmons puts it, followed. In fact, public access to information in Oakland is unrivaled among Alameda County cities and more improvements are coming, she said.
A new feature unveiled by Simmons’ office in January lets residents weigh in on agenda items through the city’s website. The upgrade to the city’s online system, called eComment, aggregates public comments made online to corresponding agenda items. Residents can post their comments on the record even before the date of the meeting. Simmons hopes the ability to access public comments will optimize the pre-meeting 10-day period and help council members mold their decisions based on public sentiment. “I think it’s more substantive for the public and the council when you can see what’s going on,” Simmons said.
Despite the city clerk’s essential function in city government, lighthearted hijinks often occur, especially during the raucous but entertaining Oakland City Council meetings. During some lengthy discussions, it is quite common for Simmons to come across speaker cards listing humorous fictitious names. Once during a meeting last year, Simmons absent-mindedly read out the name “Seymour Butts” to rounds of laughter. “Well, there you are,” a smiling Simmons said to the man when he appeared at the podium.
Last year, when Einstein the Dog attempted to run for Oakland mayor, Simmons had to deny the canine’s application. “It was a tough one,” Simmons said, but the dog was not a registered voter. Jokes aside, she understood the statement Einstein’s owner was trying to make.
Some people may get annoyed by the frivolity or civil disobedience that often occurs during meetings, said Simmons, “But, I take it as an indicator of something else.” Even when angry speakers lash out at her when she notifies them their allotted time has elapsed, she added. “I think it’s a statement of how dissatisfied people are with their government—and one of the many expressions they have taken to that says the system isn’t working for us.”