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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Editor: I think this article is very unfair to Ms. Levin. I am neither a friend of nor an employee of Ms. Levin. I do, however, know of her work ethic, her dedication and the high standards to which she holds herself and her staff.
Your reader speaks of Ms. Levin's incompetence with the Tree Services Division. However, your reader was remiss in not noting that Ms. Levin assumed responsibility for the Tree Division just 2 months ago. I don't know about you, but it seems a little unreasonable to expect an executive level manager to know the in's and out's of a new division in that short period of time. Furthermore, a reasonable individual would not expect a senior manager like Ms. Levin to be personally apprised of the status of every tree in Oakland. That's what databases and first line staff should know. To direct such micro-level questions to an assistant director is synonymous with asking the CFO of a mid-sized company whether he knew what the Company paid on their last phone bill!
As I said before, I am neither a friend nor a foe of Ms. Levin. All I know from regular observation is: MS. BROOKE LEVIN IS ONE OF THE MOST DEDICATED, TALENTED, HARD WORKING, CITY EMPLOYEE WE'VE GOT and the City is lucky to have her. As for her pay, how would you compensate an employee who runs a 300-person organization (approx.) but still responds to emails and phone calls at 2 or 3am in the morning? Does your reader work that tirelessly at his job?
Look, the bottom line is this: as public servants, we are tasked to assist a constituent courteously regardless of his/her attitude, viewpoints, or agenda. Most people recognize we are people too and therefore, are by no means perfect. They appreciate us when we do the best we can. A very small minority (perhaps your reader?) will choose to attack with criticism and insults and will not be appeased no matter what we do. By writing this, I hope those who read this article will see that this most public attack on Ms. Levin is misguided. ~ Anonymous City Employee

Anonymous said...

I happen to know that the CA Department of Fish & Game considers Oakland one of the worst (if not THE worst) cities to work with in terms of following CEQA, CESA and MBTA requirements. So seeing this doesn't surprise me at all. Oakland's left hand never knows what the right hand is doing, doesn't care what it's doing and doesn't want to find out.

We could pay for three cops with the money they are paying this twit to trip over her own shoelaces. Oakland's priorities are hopelessly screwed up.

Ken O said...

The wordplay leaves this open... is the commentor perhaps one of her family? :p

(though, aren't kids friends of their parents upon legal age?)

anyway, the tree could belong to anyone...

"the city"
the property owner
the state

where are the trees in question? i will find out.

Anonymous said...

hay i am a city worker i been here for 25 years you are right but you need to split between worker and Manegment we as city worker have taking a big cut manager pay have been going up Levin is not the only manager like that these deptartment
head do not know how to run these dept. talk to city worker ? a lot is going on with this city

Russell said...

City rules Do NOT allow smoking IN City vehicles. Smoking while performing other duties is a up to the employee. This is still America Mr. Talibanie. Before you comment THINK.

Anonymous said...

Smoking in NOT ALLOWED in City vehicles. Smoking ,as the employee is shown, IS ALLOWED. This is still Ammerica Mr Taliban.

Fight Blight said...

We Fight Blight believes smoking is an individual choice, notwithstanding the existing laws that protect others from second hand smoke, and do not object to an indivudual's right to smoke. The photo in question shows a Public Works employee under the leadership of Ms. Levin smoking, while operating a chain saw within a bucket (often called a cherry picker) that is part of a City vehicle. This is in direct violation of City policy and poses a danger to the public and the employees involved in the operation including the employee smoking. The operation of the chain saw is directly above public sidewalks and streets in a residential neighborhood. While it is impossible to know whether the employee was individually counseled to rectify his behavior, since it would be considered a personnel matter which is not disclosable under the Public Records Act, it is possible to find out if Ms. Levin provided guidance and policy direction to all staff to reaffirmt the City's smoking policy for employees. This gets to the question of whether Ms. Levin is responsive to public concerns and actually follows up with her staff.

ldmksldy said...

why was Gary's comment from a few days ago removed? Seems strange. How does this work exactly?

Fight Blight said...


We have not removed any posts relatd to the mismanagement of the City tree services program. See the article http://wefightblight.blogspot.com/2010/08/oakland-city-employee-defends-165500.html Gary's comment was published.

We Fight Blight has never removed a post for any reason. We have rarely moderated a post by not publishing it when it is blatantly racist, or is abusive in nature.

ldmksldy said...

thanks for the response, but I still don't see gary's comment anymore. what am I missing?
I felt he made some good points re: this topic.