A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Oakland Unwrapped Column
UrbanView Newspaper
January 2, 2002

My fifth-and-sixth grade teacher at Highland Elementary, Mrs. Moore, used to call it "diarrhea of the mouth; constipation of the brain." It was a disease wherein students would answer a question without thinking…and continue to talk…in the hope that somewhere down the line, if they talked long enough, they would either wear the teacher down by attrition or happen up, by sheer accident, on the actual correct answer.

We’ve all known for some time that the Mayor suffers from this particular malady. He gets by with it, primarily because:

1) A lot of people believe that the Mayor is smart, therefore;

2) If the Mayor says something that doesn’t make sense, it must be because he is saying something that is far over our heads; therefore;

3) In order not to appear too dumb, we go along with what the Mayor says, even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This is bad enough. But now we learn that this disease is infectious. Councilmember Danny Wan caught it at Council meeting the other night, trying to explain his support of AB436. Wan is generally one of the brightest of Oakland’s City Council, usually very good at breaking down complex legislation into understandable explanations, so his succumbing to the Mayor’s malady is particularly troubling.

AB436, in case it went by you too fast, was the state law passed this year that exempted certain housing-and-retail construction in downtown Oakland from some environmental protections under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act). Nowhere else in the state would these environmental protections be eased. Just downtown Oakland. It was carried through the state legislature by Assemblymember Wilma Chan at the request of Mayor Brown after an earlier bill—AB1086—was unsuccessful.

AB1086 would have taken away some of the CEQA protections all the way to the shores of Lake Merritt and the estuary. When that was discussed by the City Council last summer, Wan said he couldn’t support that bill because it put the boundaries too close to the water, and he believes that Oakland’s water needs all the environmental protection it can get. Since the boundaries in the new bill—AB436—were a few blocks away from Lake Merritt and the estuary, it got Wan’s approval.

That in itself is interesting. In the 20th century, we came to understand the interconnectedness of the world’s environment. You can’t do something bad to the environment in one part of the world without affecting the environment in other parts of the world. Cut down too many rainforests in Brazil, and people have trouble breathing in Berkeley. Wastes from a nuclear accident in Chernobyl can fall on rooftops in Concord. But Mr. Wan seemed to be arguing that potential environmental problems created by new building projects on Alice Street (the eastern boundary of AB436) can’t drift four or five blocks over to affect the water off of Lakeside Drive. Odd reasoning.

Not as odd, however, as Councilmember Wan’s argument that CEQA was passed in 1970 more as protection for rural and suburban development, not urban development. Therefore, easing certain CEQA protections in downtown Oakland wasn’t really a weakening of CEQA’s environmental protections, since those protections weren’t aimed at us anyway.

Wan said he learned this by reading the text of CEQA, but he must have found some pages that were missing from the one I read. Me, I couldn’t find anyplace in CEQA that said it was only…or even primarily…aimed at rural and suburban development. In fact, Title 14, Chapter 3 of the California Code of Regulations, which gives guidelines for implementation of CEQA, begins by stating that "[t]hese Guidelines are binding on all public agencies in California."

Wan argued that AB436 was only easing a few environmental protections in downtown Oakland, so we shouldn’t worry. That’s like arguing that finding a single termite gnawing at a foundation post in your house is no big thing. True. Not by itself. But that’s never the end of it.

Danny Wan’s a bright guy, so he should have known that. But at least temporarily, he got struck by the Mayor’s disease. Mrs. Moore would have been aghast.