August 23, 2014

Many years ago, when I was growing up in East Oakland, there was a house around the corner from where we lived that caught the attention of neighborhood children. Although the house was well-kept, the grass always mowed, the delivered newspaper regularly picked up from the porch, the mail never accumulating in the mailbox, we never, ever, ever saw a single individual on the premises. Not a soul, not even through the closed window blinds. Our community’s house of mystery sat deathly and eerily still all day and late into the evening until we had to end our various games and come off the block and go back to our own homes. If any lights came on at night, we were not around to see it.

And so, being children, we figured that somebody must live there—an empty but well-kept house was no fun for young imaginations, after all—and then fantasized about who those mysterious inhabitants might be. Devil worshippers. Zombies. A coven of witches. Child abductors. Serial killers. Space aliens preparing seed pods to substitute for our bodies while we slept. There was a wealth of scary movies and television shows and bloody fairy tales to draw from, and so many a long summer evening was passed spinning stories about the secrets going on inside that house.
Years later, when I thought about it, I figured that the people who lived at the house—whoever they were—probably worked nights, and slept during the day when we neighborhood kids were around. At the time, we never did bother—or dare—to investigate. Why should we have? The fantasies were far more fun than any possible reality would have been and, besides that, if anyone was dumb enough to believe our young, unsubstantiated musings, they only had themselves to blame.
Perhaps those are among the justifications our good friend, the San Francisco Chronicle’s East Bay columnist Chip Johnson, gives himself late in the evenings for some of the wonderful fantasies he spins in his column about Oakland. Perhaps not. In any event, no matter how many times he’s called on it, he keeps spinning them.

Mr. Johnson’s latest tale of the faerie, “Anger Clouds Oakland’s Judgment On Garbage Contract” August 18, 2014, is as good an example as any, in which the Chronicle columnist’s subject is the Oakland City Council’s recent decision to ignore city staff’s recommendation to award a contract renewal to longtime city garbage collectors Waste Management and, instead, reopen the bidding and eventually award the contract to Oakland firm California Waste Solutions.
One can come up with several reasons—both on the record and off—why the Council might have made this move. Mr. Johnson goes for the emotional.
“Unfortunately,” he begins his August 18 column, “there's ample reason to believe that anger played a role in the  Oakland City Council’s decision to award a $1 billion garbage franchise to a local recycling firm with no experience in the U.S. providing garbage service.”
Is there ample reason for such a belief? If there is, Mr. Johnson fails to provide one, other than a couple of anonymous quotes.
Like any good fantasy writer, Mr. Johnson appears to assume that it’s simply enough tells us that he’s describing a world where fairies actually exist as little flying points of light, or that wizards and witches can cast spells and have cloaks that make you disappear, or that that dragons live and magic rings can be used to conquer the word—as J.M. Barrie,  J.K. Rowling, or J.R.R. Tolkien once did—and goes on with his wonderful tale.
And so he continues that “City Council members may have had every right to be angry with the negotiating tactics of the waste-disposal behemoth [meaning Waste Management], but frustration cannot cloud their judgment or interfere with their key responsibilities as stewards of the public trust.”
Or that “Another decision made in haste, in anger, and under the strain of an election year, has put Oakland taxpayer resources at risk yet again.”

Or that Councilmembers “were clearly agitated by Waste Management. They felt Waste Management officials were arrogant in negotiations with the city—and there was a feeling that the company was trying to dictate the terms of the contract.”

Or concludes that “… when anger, retribution or the desire to take a big shot down a notch are part of the motivation, it's time to take a breath, calm down and think things through before you do something you may regret.”

Is there evidence that the City Council, as a whole, based their waste disposal contract decision on anger at Waste Management? I honestly don’t know. But at least one important portion of the public record speaks to the opposite conclusion.
When the original Waste Management contract renewal came before the City Council on May 29, the Councilmembers agreed by an 8-0 vote—that’s all of them, in case you were wondering—to reopen the bidding. Two months later, after California Waste Solutions submitted a proposal in the rebidding process, the first vote to award them the contract passed the Council unanimously. The follow-up confirmation vote two weeks later was 7-1 in favor of California Waste Solutions, with only Councilmember Noel Gallo reversing himself between the two votes.

It’s not at all unreasonable to believe that from time to time, an Oakland Councilmember or two bases a vote on emotion alone, without thought for the consequences to the city. But to believe Mr. Johnson’s theory about the awarding of the waste disposal contract to California Waste Solutions, you have to believe that all eight members of the City Council were so pissed off at Waste Management—for whatever reason—that they collectively lost their minds for a period of two-and-a-half months, with only one of them, Mr. Gallo, calming down enough to come to his senses at the last minute, at the last vote.

That’s a fantasy worthy of an Industrial Light & Magic treatment.

Interestingly, Mr. Johnson’s assertion that City Council’s waste disposal decision was entirely emotion-based would seem to contradict his own earlier reporting on the issue. In an August 5 San Francisco Chronicle column entitled “Oakland’s Plan To Hire Local Trash Hauler Could Get Messy”, Mr. Johnson wrote that “‘I like the fact that David beat Goliath, but in this case David did his homework," said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who was initially skeptical of the smaller firm's capabilities. ‘At the end of the day, I think it's good for Oakland, and the big guy can't bully us for any rate he wants to get from us. We're getting the best rate we could get this time around.’"

Does Mr. Johnson now believe Ms. Schaaf was either misinformed or not telling the truth when she said Oakland was “the best rate we could get this time around” from California Waste Solutions instead of Waste Management? If so, he should say so directly.

Personally, I have my own concerns about Oakland’s new waste disposal contract. These are general concerns, not specific to the details of this contract itself, of which I confess I know very little. My concerns are based upon the fact that too many times in the past, most notably in the Raiders deal or in the police pension change of a few years back or in the recent A’s lease extension, we learn of the fine print details of these contracts only after the adverse effects are felt, and it’s far too late to make any changes.

Myself, I worry that this could be the case with the new California Waste Solutions contract, since the devil is always in the details, always. Sometimes these details get hashed out in public, in advance, in the various Council committees. But with local mainstream media having all but abandoned comprehensive Oakland government coverage, and with the end of the era of unpaid blogger watchdogging that came and went oh so quickly, and with the death of Sanjiv Handa, who used to do his lonely and unappreciated trudge of the City Hall’s halls for us from room to room and meeting to meeting day after day after day until he simply wore himself out, far too much Oakland city business passes by without any real public monitoring or even awareness.

Oakland government needs good public oversight, desperately, and particularly from local media. Until we figure out away to get it, unfortunately, the fantasies of Chip Johnson will continue to serve as a sorry substitute.