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
August 21, 2002

It always seems strange…don’t it?…when a politician gets up at a public meeting and explains why "the public" did one thing or another. "The public" they’re talking about never seems to be among "the people" attending these meetings.

That was the case a couple of weeks ago, when Council President De La Fuente was at City Council meeting, telling us why "the public" voted for Measure X, the strong-mayor measure, back in 1998. Mr. De La Fuente was saying that after rejecting strong-mayor initiatives a couple of times before, Oakland voters passed Measure X four years ago because of the popularity of Jerry Brown. Mr. De La Fuente seems to remember that as being the only reason. Your memory of that vote might be a little different. I was here in 1998, and mine is.

It seems to me that there were two major reasons why Oakland voters passed Brown’s strong-mayor measure. One reason, certainly, was that Jerry Brown asked us to. A majority of voters believed that Brown was going to turn Oakland around, and agreed to give him the tools he said he needed to do so.

But a second reason was that unlike the previous strong-mayor initiatives, which would have been permanent changes in how Oakland is governed, Measure X was supposed to only be a six-year experiment, in which we could study it, evaluate it, talk about it, and then decide if we wanted to keep it for good. That’s the deal Jerry Brown made with us in 1998. And that’s one of the reasons we voted for Measure X, that it was only a six-year experiment. How much of a reason, who knows? But a deal’s a deal.

Now, the Mayor has decided…and the City Council has agreed…that a four-year experiment is time enough, and so they have put a measure on the November ballot to make the strong-mayor thing permanent. If this were Bartertown, they’d have to face the wheel.

So why do you think they are in such a hurry to get on with a vote?

There’s been a lot of speculation that this is a backroom deal between Brown and State Senator Don Perata. By term-limit law, Perata must leave the California State Senate at the end of 2004, and the popular wisdom is that he’s been setting himself up to run for Mayor of Oakland in 2006. If that’s true, he’d obviously want the Mayor’s position to remain strong and powerful, as it’s been under Jerry Brown. So under the Brown-Perata Private Deal Theory going around, Brown uses his popularity in 2002 to keep the strong Mayor thing for Perata in 2007 and beyond, and Perata gives Brown some political favor in return.

It’s an intriguing theory, and could be true. But I’ve got another theory. Jerry Brown really, really, really doesn’t like the old Council-Manager form of government that we had in the past, under Elihu Harris and Lionel Wilson and before. Under that form, the Mayor served as the chairperson of the City Council, which meant that he had to show up at meetings, and study the issues, and speak and vote on the record every week, with the public watching and evaluating and taking notes.

If Mayor Jerry Brown had to preside over City Council and participate in votes, we’d know if he was really doing his job. He’d have to appear before the public every week, and we’d be able to judge his stands on most of the issues facing Council and facing Oaklanders. That’s where he’s at his weakest, where he’d run the risk of being publicly embarrassed. We’d know if he was being consistent, or if he was taking different positions in different parts of Oakland, as he’s often been accused of doing. And it would all be televised, with VCR’s running.

So my guess is, pushing the strong-mayor vote up from 2004 to 2002 is all about Jerry Brown. He wants to know the deal far enough in advance, so he can plot his future. If the strong-mayor extension loses this November, he’ll have another chance to renew it in 2004. And were strong-mayor to lose again in 2004, my guess is that Jerry Brown would quickly lose interest in his last two years as Mayor of Oakland.