Q & A With Oakland Councilmember Wilson Riles

Tuesday December 11, 2007

Editors Note: In the months since the inauguration of Ron Dellums as mayor of Oakland, the Dellums administration has been the subject of criticism, most of it from the center and right. Dellums’ most notable criticism from the left—particularly on economic development issues—has come from former Oakland City Councilmember Wilson Riles, charging, for example, that Dellums has turned over his economic policy to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.  

Riles ran unsuccessfully for mayor against incumbent Jerry Brown in 2002. He and his wife, Patricia St. Onge, operate a personnel management consultant company, Seven Generations Consulting.  

We interviewed Riles at his East Oakland home last month concerning his criticisms of the Dellums administration. Below is an excerpt from that interview. 


What’s your overall assessment of the administration a year into its administration? 

Riles: I’m still convinced that Oakland is better off with Dellums as mayor than it would have been with Ignacio De La Fuente. And that Nancy [Nadel] would not have been able to successfully defeat Ignacio. So that way, I think we’re in a better place. I think, though, that there were a lot of high expectations that are not being met. I think there’s a lot of disappointment and I’m actually surprised about the time that it’s taken for the administration to get on its feet. 


What were the high expectations other than in economic development that you think haven’t been met? 

Riles: I think he started out trying to bring everybody to the table. I think that’s what the task forces were about. And I think that’s his motivation for what eventually happened in terms of coming together in the Economic Summit and now working under the aegis of the Chamber of Commerce with PG&E money to bring everybody to the table to decide where the money should go. But, unfortunately, I think because of the nature of what’s now come into place and the nature of the people that he has around him, the process is failing. 


What process do you mean? The inclusionary process? 

Riles: The inclusionary process where we’re bringing people together and people are actually working on making the kind of fundamental changes in this community that have to happen. 


But it went to the point where the Task Forces met over the summer, they voted and came up with the conclusions, and the conclusions are now published. What’s happened since then? Do you think it was successful up to that point and then something happened? 

Riles: There’s two things. There was a lot of weakness in how the whole Task Force process was organized and facilitated. Because I don’t think people had a clear concept of what it takes and how to bring people together and how to move people towards a consensus. So people came together, a lot of ideas were thrown out. Very few of those ideas, as far as I can see, were actually worked through and an actual plan of action to bring those ideas about wasn’t ever followed. It’s just basically a list, a wish list, of what people wanted.  


How did the Task Force process evolve into the Economic Summit? Was that part a culmination of the Task Force process? 

Riles: From what I understand, it was a sidestream. The Chamber had already started looking at their own planning on economic development for the city from what was happening within the Task Forces. In January, they essentially came together with the mayor— 


They, meaning the Chamber? 

Riles: Yeah. I don’t know who initiated it, but they came together with the mayor and basically there was an agreement that the mayor would host the summit which originally was supposed to be a presentation of the work of the Chamber. They had actually hired a consultant and done some kind of analysis towards the writing of a report. And they wanted to incorporate—either the mayor wanted them to or on their own—they wanted to incorporate the work of the Task Forces into their own report. But a lot of the Task Force’s recommendations were put in the back of the report and, in a sense, were given lower status. And if you look at how the whole event was arranged, the Chamber’s report and Chamber’s recommendations were highlighted and given a lot of time and the Task Force’s report was shoved together, was not given the time to make the best presentation. This was in the midst of the Task Force process. They had not finalized anything. So it was unfair in terms of how it was projected and what happened. And then out of that, a decision was made to, essentially, invite some of the members of the Task Force to join the Chamber process, which was funded by PG&E to start these economic development clusters. Folks were asked whether they wanted to move over or wanted to do both, and, of course, nobody wanted to do both, so all of that planning work ended up in the cluster process that the Chamber was developing. 


And is that what you mean when you say that the mayor’s economic development program has been turned over to the Chamber of Commerce? 

Riles: That’s exactly what I meant about it. To some extent, the Chamber’s original thought was to be exclusive as to who could participate in that process. There were only going to be business people to participate in that process. Essentially, their work in that process was going to be massaged through a hired, paid group to do the analysis and to write the reports. I know that there was some pushback from the mayor’s office to include other folks. But you had a very limited number who were willing to go in there, and then you’re looking at a situation with very uneven representation and so-called power within those discussions areas within the Chamber. You’ve got some folks essentially being paid to be there— 


By their companies? 

Riles: By their companies. Their public relations people, whatever, whatever, who have a particular agenda that they’re pushing to benefit their company and a lot less looking at what’s beneficial for the overall community but looking at what’s beneficial for their companies and the agenda that their company’s are pushing. And, then, other folks who are unpaid, retired, or whatever, may have just as much expertise or knowledge but, essentially, are not given the same weight. And the broader perspective is more difficult to create in that environment. And the mayor’s office—I appreciate that he wanted to bring all those people to the table and I think that they legitimately ought to be at the table. But you would expect that there would be some recognition of the fact that just sitting at the table was not enough for people of the community. You’ve got to balance the uneven power relationships to have that be a process that is fair and just and that’s going to work for the voices that are at the table. And that’s just not going to happen. PG&E had a particular agenda, and so there was already a decision made as to how PG&E money to support this process was going to be used.  

For example, the Green Environment Task Force was already slated to look at some issues on just the questions about ship pollution at the port and was looking at spending some of that money to see how that might address the wider questions of trucking and other pollution as a result of what was going on at the port. They were also looking at broader issues of pollution in West Oakland and other parts of Oakland. These issues were not slated to be part of this analysis that was being done. And it's still an ongoing struggle as to how widespread that analysis is going to be.