A Time For Change In Oakland
Imagine a corporation where the chairman of the board canıt hire or fire anyone except her secretary. A firm where she has only one voice vote and must lobby for support from eight other vice presidents, who can be replaced only by a vote of the firmıs shareholders. A business where the controller makes not only personnel choices, but policy decisions too, and can be fired only after a majority vote of the chairman and the eight vice presidents. Impossible, you say? Well, friends, welcome to Oakland.

Last year I was a newspaper columnist with an economic development background that was fast gaining a reputation for beating up on the Oakland bureaucracy. This year, Iım working as an economic consultant to Elihu Harris, the Mayor of Oakland, and the view from inside is no better than the one I had looking in.

The simple fact is that Mayor Harris is in a systemic straight jacket. In this council-managerÖ form of government, he not only has but one voice vote, he canıt hire or fire any department head and if the city manager wants to block an program or policy,all Harris can do is cry fowl.

Every day our office is the target of letters asking the Mayor to ³do something² about one matter or another. The trouble is, he can only yell into a telephone.

Lets pick one example of what Iım talking about: the legislation I drafted to alter the Oakland redevelopment system by calling for, first, a study area as large as the flatlands of Oakland. This agenda item was pulled by a member of the city managerıs staff. Passage of this resolution would not have cost the city a single penny, yet ignited the fires of reform. Now, we sit with a downtown redevelopment operating deficit that will only get worse as time marches on. In a Mayor-Council system of government, this would not have happened.

The need for accountablity
In November, Oakland voters will have the opportunity to change this by voting for the Mayor-Council form of government. In this system, the Mayor is responsible for the selection of all department heads with council approval (something the council canıt do now), and is able to pick a chief executive to run the city. The Mayor can also direct the council to reconsider legislation and vote on it again. For the first time, Oaklanders will know who is running their city.

The new system offers other changes as well: the council, not the mayor will be able to select the audit firm and, (contrary to the assertions of opponents of this measure) the Mayor will not be able to pick anyone for contract work with the city. Contract oversight will rest with the city council.

The mayor-council system obviously establishes clear lines of authority, but in doing so, it takes power away from those who seem to have a vested interest in maintaining a lethargic government system. Thatıs why youıll hear them crying and whining during the next few months, saying stupid things like ³the new system will over-politicize economic development.² Look, itıs too late for that; itıs already over-politicized.

Between the city manager and the nine elected officials, there is no one person to turn to foZr direction, and no voting bloc. In the current system, getting Oakland councilmembers to vote as a bloc is like herding cats. It takes months and months of collaboration, and a truckload of catnip. Thatıs why even most of the councilmembers favor a change to the mayor-council system.

Zenophon Abraham is an economic consultant to The Mayor of Oakland, a former columnist with The Montclarion, and a contributor to KPFA Radio.

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