Column: Undercurrents: Public Comment Lies at the Heart of Democracy

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 28, 2006

Mr. Ignacio De La Fuente, we learn in last week’s Oakland Tribune, is “frustrated” with the present debate format in the Oakland mayoral race which “rarely, if ever,” the Tribune explains, “allows candidates time to rebut their opponents’ remarks.” 

Under the general debate rules that have been taking place across Oakland this mayoral election season, the candidates are asked a series of questions to which each of them must give an answer within a one- or two-minute time period. Even if follow-ups were allowed, which they often aren’t, there would be no time for them. 

Under this debate format “there’s no way to challenge [my opponents] and ask them how they are going to pay for their proposals, like health care, and whether they plan on raising taxes,” the Tribune quotes Mr. De La Fuente as saying, a little plaintively. 

I feel his pain. In one or two minutes, it’s hard to get out much more than “I will” or “I won’t” or “I’ll think about it,” much less state a complicated policy position on a difficult and controversial subject. But as my old Senegullah friends back in the Carolina Lowcountry would probably tell him, “same thing make you laugh, make you cry.” 

As president of the Oakland City Council in the era of Mayor Jerry Brown, after all, it has been Mr. De La Fuente’s job to decide how much time citizens are allowed to state their positions to councilmembers during City Council meetings. On slow nights, with a light agenda, and few people in the council chambers, you can get as much as three minutes to speak your mind. But on days when there is an issue of intense public interest—watch what happens when the Oak To Ninth development comes up, for example—Mr. De La Fuente reduces citizen participation to a minute apiece. The result is that the more important or controversial a topic is, the less an individual citizen is allowed to speak to the council about it at council meetings. Further, under the present Oakland City Council format, while councilmembers are free to comment on things said at the podium by the citizens, the citizens ourselves have no ability to question the councilmembers in return. You might stand at the podium and ask a city councilmember, for example, “how they are going to pay for their proposals, like health care, and whether they plan on raising taxes.” Good luck on getting an answer. 

In fairness, some Oakland city councilmembers do hold regular neighborhood meetings at convenient hours to speak with constituents, hear their concerns, and answer questions. I’ve been to such meetings held by councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Jane Brunner, myself. But others don’t or, if they do, they aren’t well publicized. If At-Large Councilmember Henry Chang or District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid hold regular constituent meetings, for example, I’ve yet to hear of them, and I’m eligible to vote for both of these positions. And so that often leaves the council meetings themselves as the only time for citizens to be able to get up in public and influence our elected officials on matters of city law and public policy. 

If allowing the public to weigh in on issues is the heart of democracy, then the old Board of Trustees of the Oakland Unified School District—during the time when that was an Oakland institution and not a ward of the state—was the most democratic institution in the area. I cannot remember if trustees imposed a time limit on speakers but if they did, it was not rigidly enforced, and on any given OUSD meeting night, a steady stream of parents, teachers, and students used to troop to the podium to voice their opinion on agenda items. On busy agenda nights, this often pushed important decisions late into the night, sometimes after midnight. 

That was not a perfect solution, but democracy is not perfect, and the closer you get to actually involving the people in the decision-making process, the more ragged and messy it gets around the edges. That’s one of the prices you pay. 

One of the best indications Oaklanders should have had that we were moving away from democracy and towards tyranny following the takeover of the Oakland schools by the state was State Administrator Randolph Ward’s actions limiting public input. At one point, during the early debates over school closures, Mr. Ward limited access to the council hearing room chambers to parents and teachers of the affected schools, leaving the rest of the public out and without a voice on the subject, enforcing the rule with a hallway full of Oakland police.  

The really chilling part is that even under the despotism of Randolph Ward, the Oakland public has a larger voice than we do the higher we get up the legislative chain. If you watch congressional or state legislative hearings on the evening news, you get the impression that generally the interested parties are given an extensive period to testify, with a follow-up of questioning by senators, congressmembers, state legislators, and their staff. But that’s not how it generally operates. 

When the Senate Education Committee held a “hearing” in Sacramento in 2003 on state Sen. Don Perata’s $100 million OUSD line-of-credit bill—the legislation that led directly to the state takeover—the Oakland school superintendent, the president of the school board, and one or two other representatives were given a brief period to speak and answer questions, and that was it. When the senators actually began asking questions of the Oakland representatives, the senators were pointedly cut off by the committee chairperson because there “wasn’t enough time for that.” The crowd of Oakland citizens who made the trek to the state capitol were not able to testify before the committee at all, but were only allowed to parade past the microphone in rapid fashion, robot-like, giving their name and a simple “for” or “against” the state bailout, without time to give a reason why. 

Sadly—frighteningly—Oakland was not singled out for special punishment in this process. That’s the way it usually works in Sacramento, with little or no pretense that the public’s voice is being listened to. 

Local experience shows us that when legislative bodies get on top of a difficult problem early, allow the public the chance to weigh in, and actually listen, the results are almost always better. Last year, the Alameda City Council held at least one marathon session on the controversial downtown Alameda Theater and parking lot complex. Critics of the complex—some of whom were architects and businesspersons who had managed movie theaters themselves—presented detailed alternative plans that they said would better fit in with downtown Alameda’s ambiance and architecture. In the end, while the council narrowly voted to move forward with the original complex plan, they made modifications that even many of the critics praised. “I still don’t like the plans and I’m still opposed to the project,” several of the critics said, “but it’s definitely an improvement over what they started with.”  

That seems to be the case with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors over the current issue of use of the Diebold electronic voting machines for county elections. Earlier this year, faced with opposition to the touchscreen voting machines by knowledgeable local voting activists, the supervisors held a special, evening hearing devoted to that issue, then met in regular session the next day to hear further testimony, and make a decision. While the supervisors voted narrowly to move forward with the possible use of electronic voting machines in the November election, they indicated that they had been swayed by many of the voting activists’ arguments in opposition, asked for and welcomed their participation in the process, and promised to work closely with them to work out a solution. We will wait, patiently, to see if that is actually what happens. 

Perhaps there are similar examples from the Oakland City Council. If so, I’m sure someone will let me know. 

Meanwhile, back to Mr. De La Fuente’s original complaint. No, you cannot properly run a democracy in severely-limited time segments, whether it’s in choosing a mayor or deciding on local legislation. While we are in the midst of deciding whether or not to give Mr. De La Fuente or any of his opponents larger powers, we would welcome the council president’s suggestions about how that problem can be solved within the organization he already presides over.