Tuesday, July 20, 2010

City of Oakland: Mismanaged, Incompetent and Unfit to Serve Residents?

As most of you are aware, the City of Oakland is in a major budget crisis. The City Council has made a number of cuts and recently voted to eliminate 80 police positions. Council members refused to make additional cuts to libraries, parks, senior centers, and children's programs asserting these were core local government services. Council members also refused to impose additional salary reductions through furloughs on non-emergency personnel even though city employees are among the highest paid in the nation. The City Council made these decisions despite the fact that Oakland is one of the most dangerous cities in the entire country in terms of violent crimes and the Oakland Police have a response time that is on average three times that of other large California cities--15 minutes for major crimes as opposed to just under 5 minutes for other cities.

The budget crisis will only get bigger in the coming years. Pension obligations and bloated staff salaries will continue to swamp the city coffers. City Council members and the Dellums' Administration have been weaving and spinning this financial crisis as a problem created strictly by the national economic meltdown. Yet, every city in the entire nation is facing the same drop in revenues, but only a handful are facing the serious financial problems of Oakland. Oakland's budget problems, however, are not solely the result of the economic meltdown, but have been amplified many times over by mismanagement and incompetence at all levels including Mayor Dellums, City Council, the City Administrator's Office which oversees the day to day management of city employees, and city department heads.

Unable to properly manage existing revenues to provide core city services such as public safety and ensure the city is run efficiently and compententy, the City Council will now be asking voters to approve 8 new revenue generating measures or taxes to restore police services and maintain salary levels of  other city employees. SEIU, the union that covers many city employees, is advocating for revenue measures to protect their high paying jobs and prevent City Council requests for any additional employee givebacks such as wage concessions or additional furloughs.

But one has to wonder what taxpayers really get for our money and whether the existing management of our local government really demands additional revenues. Is the city really a responsible steward of the taxpayers dollars? A reader of We Fight Blight had a recent experience with the Oakland Public Works Department that reinforces his perception that city employees are vastly overpaid for the level of services they provide.  We think his experience reinforces why Oakland residents should demand serious improvement in the services provided by our local government, major house cleaning of mismanaged departments, and wage reductions of non-emergency personnel before we ever consider approving any additional taxes. Especially since the retention of non-emergency personnel at bloated salaries is coming at the expense of police officers.

The Tree Services Program, which is under the Department of Public Works and headed by Brooke Levin, is terribly mismanaged. After having the unfortunate experience of dealing with Ms. Levin and any number of her staff, it became abundantly clear to our frustrated reader that the Tree Services Program is in need of some serious house cleaning and some hands on management by competent supervisors. The number of breakdowns in addressing the removal of several trees in North Oakland was frightening.

Worse yet, when confronted with the long list of break downs, Ms. Levin got annoyed and defensive with our reader and could not answer some basic questions related to the city's tree ordinances or the slated removal of several trees. This occurred even though she is acting Public Works Director. For example, Ms. Levine was asked to identify the ownership of the trees in question that the city was preparing to remove and which the city had started to remove despite the protests of our reader. Neighbors actually called the Oakland Police who stopped the Public Works staff from continuing to cut the trees. The City Administrator's Office is not without blame. The matter was referred to Margarito Lin, Deputy City Administrator, who failed to address the significant break downs in the Public Works Department.

To this day, neither Ms. Levin, her staff, or the City Administrator's Office have been able or williing to answer the basic question of who owns the trees. It is perhaps the most fundamental question to be addressed when removing trees because certain procedural and substantive requirements under the city's own tree ordinances are triggered depending on whether the tree is owned by the city or owned by a private party. Without establishing ownership of the trees the city cannot effectively comply with its ordinances. In this case, the Tree Services Program seems to be making up the rules as they go along because they don't know what else to do and justifying their abject failure to follow their own tree ordinances because of lack of staff. Lack of staff is never a legitimate rationale to ignore the law.

According to public records obtained by our reader, the Assistant Director of Public Works Ms. Levin is paid $165,757 per year or $13,813 per month not including health benefits or pension contributions made by the City. Yet, Ms. Levin could not even tell our reader whether trees within the public right of way, within the sidewalk wells, were owned by the city or by a private party. Ms. Levin did not understand the nuances of the tree ordinance which she oversees and implements, and she apparently did not understand the requirements for disclosure under the Public Records Act. According to our reader, Ms. Levin insisted the city's smoking policy was not disclosable under the Public Records Act because it involved personnel issues. Clearly she failed to understand the difference between requesting documents relating to overall policy and procedures and requesting specific personnel records. This is totally unacceptable for an executive level manager with her level of experience within local government and especially someone who is getting paid as much as she does.

The Deputy City Administrator, Margarito Lin, was equally ineffective. Despite being pulled into this issue our reader noted she has simply dropped off the radar screen and has been unwilling and unable to resolve the fundamental mismanagement of the Tree Program. Ms. Lin, who is an attorney, is a recruit of Mayor Dellums and works for the City Adminstrator, Dan Lindheim. Unfortunately, her inability to right the mismanaged ship of the Tree Services Program is a distinct indication that the City Adminstrator's Office is too overwhelmed to address basic concerns from the public about mismanaged departments, let alone manage the financial requirements of a a mid-sized corporation called the City of Oakland.
The reason our reader was interested in the smoking policy is captured in the third photo from the top. If you look closely there is one of Ms. Levin's employees smoking while working in a city vehicle, using a chainsaw, elevated adjacent to power lines. Obviously this is a violation of city policy and safety requirements for operating near power lines and places both the public and other city employees at serious risk of injury, the cost of which would be footed by taxpayers due to the city's negligence in managing its employees.

In the next several blogs we will be highlighting the breakdowns experienced by our reader including:
  • The city's failure to meet the substantive and procedural requirements of its own tree ordinance,
  • The city's failure to adequately train its staff on using basic safety measures when removing trees,
  • The city's failure to adequately provide environmental clearance under CEQA for removing 1,000 plus trees each year (a number provided by Ms. Levin),
  • The city's failure to meet the requirements of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and to provide trained biologists to ensure compliance with the Act,
  • The city's failure to maintain adequate records,
  • The city's failure to properly train and supervise its staff, and
  • The city's failure to be responsive to legitimate concerns of the public.
And the city staff wonder why the public has lost faith in city government?

We Fight Blight is interested in this issue because street trees are so vital to improving the quality of life in our hardened, blighted urban environment. Mismanagement of city resources does not serve the interests of the city particularly when it comes at the expense of police officers or the uneccessary removal of city trees.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Urban Releaf Providing Free Street Trees in Oakland

Urban Releaf is working to plant 1,200 trees in Oakland. You can contact them at 510-601-9062 or at http://www.urbanreleaf.org/  They have a list of approved street trees for Oakland and FAQs. Street trees are a great way to green up your neighborhood, lower your energy costs by providing shade and fight global warming. Also, they help to improve the quality of life for residents by fighting blight and they increase property values. Get your free tree now.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sidewalk Repairs in North Oakland

As many of you have experienced, the City of Oakland's infrastructure is failing. There is little money to invest in basic core infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks, let alone create streetscapes that are inviting and pleasant. The City is faced with such a massive budget deficit that it will be eliminating 80 police even though Oakland has some of the most dangerous streets in the country. It comes as no surprise that replacement of failing infrastructure isn't much of a priority with the Ctiy nor is barely supported through the general fund.

So it was with great surprise and pleasure to recently see some badly deteriorated sidewalks in North Oakland finally being replaced. Residents on Tremont Street have been asking for years to have buckled sidewalks removed and replaced. The City attempted several stop gap measures by using asphalt to remedy trip hazards. However, that approach did not work as one resident recently tripped and was badly hurt. Now the homeowner, who had petitioned the City for years to replace the failing sidewalk in front of their house, and the City are subject to claims and possibly a lawsuit from the injured resident. The City has allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of trip hazards and dangerous

conditions caused by failing street pavement and buckling sidewalks. The City has been subject to many claims and has paid out millions of dollars for injuries caused by the city's negligence in maintaining its streets and sidewalks. Moreover, the failure to maintain their streets and sidewalks is a direct contribution to blight in Oakland, is a violation of their own blight ordinance and contributes to stagnating property values. If we are to have a walkable City and a bicycle friendly City then replacing failing infrastructure is critical.

We have to give a shout out to the Rosas Brothers Construction Company. Their crew were efficient, clean, and professional. The final work product was nothing less than excellent, marred only by a few neighborhood kids who couldn't resist writing their initials in the newly poured concrete. Their effort is exactly what one expects from a reputable business. It's too bad the City of Oakland employees don't share the same work ethic. Perhaps the vastly overpaid Oakland Public Works Department can take a few pointers from the Rosas Brothers.

Thank you Rosas Brothers!