Public Comment

Commentary: Jane Brunner—The Teflon Incumbent

By Robert Brokl
Tuesday January 08, 2008

When Jane Brunner ran against then-Planning Commissioner Peter Smith in 1996 for the Dist. 1 (North Oakland) open seat vacated by Sheila Jordan, one of her most pointed criticisms of Smith was his “ambition.” She charged that Smith, whose father worked on disarmament issues in the Clinton administration, would use the council seat as a stepping stone to higher office, such as Congress. 

Now, Brunner is reconciled to stay put, after an unsuccessful stab at an Assembly seat and an unexpected roadblock to the job of City Attorney. Brunner was thwarted by rival machines—the Bates and even the Perata machine to which she belongs—when her Rockridge residence street was redistricted out of District 14. It’s no secret Brunner hoped to succeed John Russo for City Attorney—a job that pays more than the California Governor. Unfortunately for her, Sandre Swanson beat Russo for the Assembly job, and Russo is also stuck in place. 

So, unable to move up, Brunner is running for re-election, resuming her infrequent—formerly—monthly community advisory meetings and increasing her visibility. Brunner was unopposed 4 years ago and no opponents have come forward so far this time. But will she have so easy a time of it again? Her teflon quality has served her well to date. For example: 

Others get blamed 

Crime and public safety are hot button issues in Oakland right now, but much of the frustration seems directed at Mayor Dellums, in office one year, and not at long-time incumbents like Brunner, in office 11 years. And the most teflon-coated, wily politician of them all—Jerry Brown—seems headed back to the governorship by way of Attorney General, in part because of “fixing Oakland!” 

Griping about crime saturates the postings on the OPD yahoo group. One not atypical holiday posting from Ian Martin, the owner of the Nomad Cafe building at 6500 Shattuck: “HELP! SIX MUGGINGS! BROKEN WINDOWS!” Many feel unsafe even walking to Ashby BART in the middle of the day! But I don’t necessarily feel that secure myself—my immediate neighbor was hit on the head with a metal object and knocked from his bike while coming back from work right in front of his house. Recently, my partner and neighbor were verbally and physically assaulted by an irate hot goods peddler (calling himself “Mr. Murder”) in front of our house. 

So while citizens complain the large Measure Y bond measure we voted for hasn’t resulted in more officers on the beat, and Dellums is pummeled, Brunner and her fellow incumbents get a pass. 

She’s good at window-dressing 

As part of political consultant Larry Tromutola’s stable, she’s coached to trumpet mom and apple pie issues like litter, smoking, plastic bags (“no way!”) and street trees (“yup!”). She’s also good at playing Lady Bountiful. Like all the councilmembers, Brunner has a large pot of money to use at her own discretion. She’s spent it on capital improvements like roundabouts and—most recently—the gussying up of an edge of Bushrod Park on Shattuck. The resulting Steps to Nowhere are so far used only by skateboarders who have—literally—broken them in. The stairs, turf, and new trees cost over $370,000, with $353,000 coming from Brunner’s discretionary pot of money. 

Alarmingly, from a public safety standpoint, the alternative to the park “up-grade” was additional street lighting on Shattuck. 

In the quest for more money for police, no rock is being left unturned. Even local redevelopment boards are voting to “buy” officers. So, while it’s perhaps unrealistic to think Brunner or other Councilmembers are going to return their slush funds to the General Fund to hire more police, nevertheless, that IS one alternative. 

No scrutiny of the developers’ maven 

Brunner keeps a day job in the Siegel & Yee law firm. Her most publicized ethical dustup occurred in a flap with powerful developer Phil Tagami. Brunner was accused of helping to negotiate a good rent for her spouse, James Nixon, and his non-profit in the Rotunda Building. The City underwrote the renovation of the Rotunda to the tune of $12 million and Brunner was head of the City’s CEDA committee, which oversaw the complex leasing and funding. Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson complained about the apparent conflict-of-interest in an Aug. 4, 2000 piece headed “Shaky Ethics in Oakland Downtown Development Deal Bad Ethics in Brunner’s Aid to Spouse.” The Aug. 12, 2000 East Bay Business Journal also covered the story. 

The issue was referred to the Ethics Commission, where all such matters are sent to die. 

Her support for developers is normal for this City Council, and their contributions to her go unmentioned. The most controversial market rate condo developers in Dist. 1 are Roy Alper, Patrick Zimski, and Ron Kriss. Their projects generally involve demolition of historic buildings, with the loss of affordable residential and commercial space. The developers’ aggressive tactics have included deceptive mass mailings to residents. All but their first project have resulted in appeals to the City Council and, now, a lawsuit.  

Brunner has consistently voted to deny the appeals, while calling for miniscule changes. Her campaign contribution reports reveals $6000 in campaign contributions from these same developers and spouses in the period of 2003—2006. The developers gave the maximum $600/individual amounts, at the time when their projects and the Temescal rezoning they were attempting to influence toward increased heights and density were in the balance. I asked a “good government,” former member of the Oakland Ethics Commission whether the $6000 amount was a significant one. He said that the contributions would stand out in any of the council districts. 

In addition to supporting their projects, Brunner also indirectly pushed a taxpayer subsidy for these entrepreneurs. The recent effort to declare most of the rest of North Oakland “blighted”, in order to place the areas into a redevelopment zone, would have benefitted Alper & Co. The first project in the pipeline was street enhancements for upper Telegraph Ave. Many of these “improvements” totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars were for improvements of the sidewalks, streets, and other public infrastructure around their existing condos, and projects in the pipeline. 

Brunner also supports the Children’s Hospital Oakland expansion right out of the chute, even before the details of the expansion are explained. Their plans include a twelve story 180’ tower and the displacement of homeowners and tenants, including unwilling sellers if the project is approved as proposed. 

She successfully passes the buck 

After belatedly updating the General Plan, Oakland has now waited some 9 years to update the zoning, a step that was to follow soon thereafter. Brunner has taken to blaming the delay on Brown, who wouldn’t hire the staff to do the work. 

Despite the fact that Rockridge and Temescal had been most recently rezoned of any area in the city—1989 and 1991 receptively—Brunner undertook a series of meetings—some dozen in all—to rezone Temescal. The staff-heavy meetings were contentious and no consensus ever emerged over issues of building heights and preservation. In exasperation, Brunner who had been warning residents to compromise with developers before the council took up the matter, finally announced there would be no more community meetings and the proposed zoning would go to the Planning Commission. 

But as a result of a lawsuit over planning department practices, the City has abruptly decided to reverse course and conduct an EIR on Temescal rezoning. Perhaps the 12 meetings that ended in fizzle contributed to Planning Director’s Claudia Cappio’s abrupt resignation. She couldn’t have been happy about the hundreds of staff hours spent in only one area’s rezoning, only to have the whole process start over again. But who blames Brunner for the flawed, acrimonious, and wasteful process? 

Meanwhile, because the zoning hasn’t been updated, the city renewed their “best-fit” procedure for spot-zoning projects that violate existing zoning. No surprise STAND, the group most involved in the dustup over out-of-scale condo projects in Temescal, wasn’t noticed by Brunner’s office about the re-authorization. 

Ineffectual doesn’t matter 

Since City Council seems a job few want (while requiring considerable money to run for), seat-warming seems to be considered adequate. Even the issues Brunner says she cares about, like inclusionary zoning and housing affordability, haven’t been moved by her, despite her starring role in the Perata/De La Fuente/Brown block. 

She has a “progressive,” green veneer 

Brunner has made a name for herself pushing street trees and, indeed, saving the mature street trees on her block in Rockridge from the city’s cutters was her only community activity prior to running for Council. She held an Iraq War teach-in, and supported Howard Dean. 

She also, to self-generated fanfare, helped to launch the Sunday farmers’ market on the DMV parking lot on Claremont. But when some rare Brunner-bashing erupted on the Temescal Families website over a recent unannounced closure of the market for Colombo Club parking, she peremptorily responded that two Sundays a year were given over to Colombo parking. Complaints by still irate members on the site over whether the market proprietor was charged rent for those weekends or whether Colombo pays any at all were rebuffed with regal silence. 

Frank Rich has written that the country is suffering from clinical depression. He was referring to the effect of Bush, but the political process in Oakland is just as sad. The incumbents have been there a very long time, and haven’t done very much but fret about public smoking and let others take the heat about crime. Even Nancy Nadel—the “conscience of the council”— seems diminished. Hopefully, Brunner will attract a challenger this time round. Maybe even the desperate tactic of term limits for local officials, or elimination of the rancid fiefdoms district elections have created, is necessary to thaw the frozen political process in Oakland. 


Robert Brokl is an artist/activist living in North Oakland 36 years. This letter reflects his opinions, not necessarily those of any organization to which he belongs.