Column: Undercurrents: Mayor’s Sideshow Proposal Takes an Unexpected Turn By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 10, 2005

If you were able to stay up well into the early morning hours during Tuesday night’s Oakland City Council meeting, you would have come across some interesting things. 

The first one was that for the first time—to my knowledge, anyway—in the five year con troversy over the sideshows, the Oakland City Council looks like it might begin a serious discussion about safe and legal sideshow alternatives. 

Councilmember Desley Brooks revealed that she’s been working on such a sideshow alternative proposal for some time now, holding meetings that have included police representatives, sideshow participants, and potential promoters. (In the interest of full disclosure, I attended two of those meetings some time ago as an observer.) 

Up until now, there has been stubb orn opposition from City Hall powers to even discuss such legal alternatives. At Tuesday’s council meeting, for example, Ms. Brooks said that she had twice called the mayor’s office to participate in her discussions, but the mayor, apparently, was not int erested. But during Tuesday’s meeting, some other councilmembers—Henry Chang and newcomer Pat Kernigham, for example—went on record saying that any discussion of stepping up penalties on sideshow participants should also include a discussion of legal alte rnatives. 

More on that at a later date. 

The second interesting thing that happened at Tuesday’s council meeting was that—in case you missed it—the council defeated Mayor Jerry Brown’s “arrest the spectators” sideshow ordinance on a dramatic 4-3-1 vote a fter the mayor showed up in council chambers, apparently expecting to cast a vote to break an expected tie. 

Under Mr. Brown’s proposed new law, spectators at the sideshows—for the first time—would be subject to misdemeanor arrests, with fines between $500 and $1,000 and jail time up to six months. Up until now, police enforcement of the sideshows have concentrated mainly on the drivers themselves. 

It takes five votes to pass an ordinance in Oakland City Council (not just a simple majority). Four of the councilmembers (President Ignacio DeLa Fuente, Larry Reid, Chang and Kernigham) were ready to pass the ordinance on Tuesday. But four others (Brooks, Jane Brunner, Jean Quan, and Nancy Nadel) said they were deeply troubled by parts of the ordinance, and w anted it to go to the Public Safety Committee (where it should have been sent in the first place) for fuller discussion. Brooks, Quan, and Nadel all expressed concern that the new law would bring new groups of young Oaklanders as offenders into the crimin al justice system, which tends to worsen criminal behavior rather than rehabilitate. And Ms. Brunner, especially, feared that police attempts to arrest spectators might create what she called “riot conditions,” making the whole situation worse rather than better. 

(It should be noted, by the way, that Councilmembers Brooks, Quan, Nadel, and Brunner are not in favor of the unsanctioned sideshows that are presently taking place on Oakland’s streets. They want those unsanctioned sideshows ended; they just do n’t think the mayor’s bill was the best way to do it.) 

Anyway, if the votes had gone as expected, the matter would have tied 4-4, the mayor would have broken the tie (his only City Council function under the City Charter), and the “arrest the sideshow” law would have passed with a minimum of public discussion. But when Ms. Quan abstained rather than voted no there was no tie, and with no tie Mr. Brown did not have the right to vote, and without Mr. Brown, the ordinance did not have the five votes needed to pass. 

That might have ended the issue right there, but actually, that was when the most interesting thing happened. The four councilmembers who opposed the mayor’s “arrest the sideshow spectators” law then decided that the proposed ordinance should st ill go to the Public Safety Committee for further discussion and possible revision. 

At least two of those councilmembers—Ms. Brunner and Ms. Quan—were clearly not trying to outright kill the mayor’s ordinance. Both Ms. Brunner and Ms. Quan said that they might support the mayor’s ordinance if the fines on the spectators were significantly lowered. 

And with Councilmember Larry Reid—a strong supporter of the “arrest the spectators” law—as chair of Public Safety, it would be expected to move through without undue delay. Not quite as fast as Mr. Brown might have wanted it, but probably in time for the hot days at the end of the summer. 

So one would expect that Mr. Brown—if the ordinance was really needed to prevent injury and death, as the mayor has said, and if the mayor was really interested in making Oakland’s streets safer—would have accepted his loss on the initial vote and moved forward to get the ordinance through committee as quickly as possible and back to the full council. 

Mr. Brown did not. 

In stead, as Ms. Quan and Ms. Brooks were discussing whether to support taking the ordinance to Public Safety, Mr. Brown stepped up to the microphone and said, “I think we should just withdraw this. When the council wants to reconsider it, then go ahead. I’m not going to push this anymore. You’ve just rejected it, I think you should just leave it at that. We’ll see what happens.” 

We’ll see what happens? 

Immediately after Mr. Brown made his statement, the four councilmembers who had opposed his “arrest the spectators” ordinance as it was originally written—Nadel, Brooks, Quan, and Brunner—voted to send the ordinance to the Public Safety Committee so the public could have the chance for more input, and the ordinance could be put in better shape. They were jo ined by Ms. Kernigham, who had voted for the ordinance only after other ordinance supporters agreed to eliminate jail time for spectators for the first two offenses. 

But while the five women on the council voted for more community input and discussion on a highly-controversial proposal, the council’s three men—Reid, President Ignacio DeLa Fuente, and Henry Chang, all of whom had originally voted to pass the ordinance—all now agreed with the mayor and voted to kill the ordinance entirely, now that it hadn’t gone through immediately. 

So the five women on the Oakland City Council decided that the sideshows are a serious problem, the mayor had presented a serious proposal to stop them, and that both the sideshows and the proposal needed a serious, public di scussion in the Public Safety Committee.  

Mr. Brown and two of the three men on the Oakland City Council decided that the sideshows are a serious problem, but if the mayor’s proposal could not be passed exactly as it was written, and exactly when the may or wanted it, then nothing more should be done about the mayor’s proposal. (Though Mr. Chang voted against sending the mayor’s ordinance to Public Safety, he had earlier said that a sideshow alternative discussion should go forward in that committee). Any way, I know it’s all pretty complicated, but is that a fair reading of what went on? 

You can draw your own conclusions, friends. As for me, like I said, I find all of this pretty interesting.›