Good government requires transparency and open public debate of the issues. The Brown Act was passed in 1953 to address concerns that governing bodies were avoiding public scrutiny by holding secret meetings. In 1968 the California Public Records Act furthered open government by requiring that records be disclosed to the public upon request. When open government is sidestepped and discussions and decisions occur in secrecy, bad public policy decisions may result. The placement of Measure A1 on the November 6 Alameda County ballot reveals how backroom negotiations are employed by politically connected players to try to suppress dissent-- at the expense of good government.
Measure A1 is a 25-year, irrevocable parcel tax measure apparently first discussed by the Alameda County board of supervisors at a retreat meeting on May 8th. However, neither the Agenda nor the Minutes of this meeting, which Zoo executives apparently attended, mention anything about the Oakland Zoo or a parcel tax measure, so the public would have no way to know such a measure was contemplated or to attend the discussion, much less to organize opposition. However, an article in the San Jose Mercury News (an out-of-county newspaper) reported on the tax measure discussion. After reading this article, Friends of Knowland Park repeatedly attempted to obtain copies of the materials discussed by the supervisors. They were told that no one knew anything about a Zoo parcel tax measure.
No mention of the measure ever appeared on any agendas or minutes until the July 24th meeting when the measure was approved for the ballot at the last possible moment, right before the summer recess. Because Measure A1 was likely to elicit strong public opposition, given the fact that the measure allowed the funds to be used to pay for a highly controversial Zoo expansion into unspoiled Knowland Park, it appears that the measure’s proponents hoped to get it on the ballot without opponents’ knowledge, thus increasing the chance that there would be no ballot argument against it. The plan would have succeeded, were it not for that article. (Thank goodness for what remains of our free, independent press!)
Even before that, we have learned, this measure involved backroom deals. Emails received through a Public Records Act request show that in order to avoid opposition from commercial landlords of multi-unit apartment buildings, Zoo executives Joel Parrott and Nik Dehejia, along with Lew Edwards Group consultant Catherine Lew, coordinated a series of promises to the California Apartment Association PAC to secure their neutrality on Measure A1. The results are that their members—owners of very large apartment complexes-- get preferential treatment, to the detriment of homeowners and small business owners.
Measure A1 gives a huge amount of tax dollars to a nongovernmental entity that has no publicly elected representatives. It is written so broadly that all the funds can potentially be shifted to further expand the zoo rather than simply sustain it, despite Zoo executives’ claims that Measure A1 isn’t about expansion (for a summary of the relevant parts of the fine print, see www.saveknowland.org). And the public has no recourse if they object to how their tax dollars are spent, for if they do uncover improper spending and take legal action, the Zoo is allowed to use our public tax dollars to defend itself, meaning the public would pay for both sides of the case.
This isn’t good government—it’s the worst kind of backroom dealing. The public deserves to debate the issues fairly and openly in advance of ballot approvals. Both sides on ballot measures should have full access to the information representatives use in their decisionmaking about whether to put a measure on the ballot. And political cronyism should not be part of taxation at the ballot box.
Measure A1 isn’t A1, and the public should vote no—if only to send a message that we’re sick and tired of this kind of political shenanigans.
Ruth Malone is Co-Chair of Friends of Knowland Park, one of five environmental groups signing the ballot argument against Measure A1. She is a former member of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and a grassroots activist who has lived in Oakland for almost 30 years.