Mr. Houston's Secret Cleanup Plan

May 11, 2016

As a longtime political journalist, I'm used to getting odd answers now and then from questions posed to officeholders, politicians, or candidates for political office. But the one I got last week following a question about a proposed plan to clean up Oakland's tagged and trashed streets ranks as one of the stranger responses I've ever gotten. But I'll get to that in a second.

As many of you know, I've taken something of a break from journalism and political writing over the past several months. I haven't stopped paying attention to issues I'm interested in—I just haven't been writing about them. One of the issues I continue to follow most closely is the epidemic of graffiti and illegal trash dumping in Oakland. I'm interested in that issue especially because the community I live in is one of the hardest hit, and I've been dissatisfied with city government's response.

That's why I paid close attention when former 2014 mayoral candidate Ken Houston announced last year that he had a plan to put an end to Oakland's graffiti/illegal dumping problem.

A native of the eastside flatlands community of Sobrante Park, Mr. Houston has been one of the few Oakland politicians who has taken an active interest in attacking this problem over the past few years, so his announcement of a proposed plan sounded like something a little bit more than the usual lip service you get from people seeking your vote in an election year. Through an organization he started a few years ago called the East Oakland Beautification Council, Mr. Houston has kept himself busy with a series of self-publicized dump pile cleanups and graffiti paint-overs in various sections throughout the city.

He should be commended for those actions. But, of course, cleanups and paint-overs are actually the less difficult part of the job of solving Oakland's graffiti/illegal dumping epidemic. Keeping buildings and other property from being tagged again, and keeping more trash from being dumped in our streets and sidewalks and vacant lots, that's the hard part. So I was very interested in finding out what sort of plan Mr. Houston was proposing to stop the problems from reoccurring, since he seemed to be the only Oakland politican currently proposing anything in that direction.

So of course, when Mr. Houston put up a Facebook post about his proposal last April, I asked him for details.

In his original post, Mr. Houston wrote that "today marks the 2 year Anniversary when Councilmembers Desley Brooks and myself addressed illegal dumping problem. The East Oakland Beautification Council has a comprehensive plan and strategy that works! however it's still not being implemented by the city of Oakland? illegal dumping has gotten worse and the question is why if something works, why isn't our elected representatives implementing it?"

But when I posted a response asking for more information on the plan, Mr. Houston replied that actually, he couldn't provide any.

When I responded asking Mr. Houston for details of his plan, he wrote that "The process and strategy is in the best practices and in the illegal Graffiti Memorandum also supported by the United States Department of Justice case study, however many many things cannot be mentioned or said because it will jeopardize our strategic plan." Mr. Houston went on to say that he "would not reveal certain aspects of the comprehensive plan because it would compromise the strategy. As you know, whatever I submit to City Council is public record, but whatever I don't submit will not be. If the pilot is implemented before I leave to implement it in another city you will see the results. The proof is in the pudding like they say, nothing else is needed to say until the information is submitted approved and implement[ed]."

So what, exactly, had Mr. Houston submitted to the City Council as a proposal towards ending the graffiti and illegal dumping problem in Oakland? From his answer, I had no clue.

He offered to meet with me privately to talk about it, but the problem with meeting in private about "secret" things is that you bind yourself to keeping them secret, and this was something I wanted to talk about publicly, so I declined his offer to meet.

That's where the issue was left until last week, when Mr. Houston again posted on Facebook about his proposal, writing that "'The East Oakland Beautification Council' [h]as a Comprehensive Deterrence Plan coming down the pipeline this Year! We will change the Face and the Image of our City the easy way or the hard way!!! the vandals and illegal Dumper will have to choose!!" 

Hoping again that if I poked him about it enough he might provide some details, I posted in reply that "As someone concerned about the graffiti and trash dumping in my neighborhood and beyond, I'm still interested in seeing Mr. Houston's plan to determine if it might actually put a dent in this huge epidemic and blight on Oakland's landscape. But I suppose I'll have to continue to be patient and wait until it hits the end of the pipeline."

That's when the strange part came in.

"I'm A little taken back from every time you comment Jesse Douglas Allen Taylor?" he posted. "As a writer you know process and how to get information? Operation Clean Sweep 2013 the 2.5 mile pilot was done with public works and supported by all 8 council members and is public record?! The presentations we presented to Council in 2014 and 2015 is public record!? The presentation we were recently was asked to present 9 weeks ago to the Public Works Department is public record?"

Mr. Houston went on to write that "The East Oakland Beautification Councils strategy, best practices and deterrent plan is private we don't have to release it?! and we will not because it can jeopardize our strategic plan with the District Attorneys Office. And I continue to repeat I am not a role model and I am not an elected official and if you weren't Geoffrey Pete cousin I would've smashed you out along time ago!!!! So be very careful how you speak to me! because I'm not a role model, I'm not elected official I'm just a dude from the streets, that's it and that's all ! Plus the public is watching how you're treating and talking sarcastically to a person who's try to help the city on his own dime and time!!"

The strange part is that Mr. Houston and I have always had a cordial relationship in the past, what little relationship we've had. I wrote some criticisms of his strategies and actions in the 2014 mayoral election—though certainly not as harsh and critical as I've been to some folks—and he was always polite an genial in reply. That's why I was taken by surprise when he went from zero to 60—genial to openly antagonistic—in a matter of seconds over a basic question about a public policy issue.

And though I know my powers of observation and analysis have slowed down somewhat over the years, somewhere between the parts about "I would've smashed you out along time ago!!!!" and "be very careful how you speak to me! because ... I'm just a dude from the streets..." I seem to detect a threat—implied or direct—in Mr. Houston's posted Facebook response to me. I suppose I'll have to keep that in mind in asking Mr. Houston any questions or making any comments about his actions or proposals in the future.

A couple of things in conclusion. First, Mr. Houston has made it clear in many Facebook postings this year and last that he's actively interested in running for mayor of Oakland again. Meanwhile, as a longtime voter and journalist and political observer, I'm always a little bit suspicious when a politician or potential political candidate fails to answer what seems to be an easy question about a position they've taken or a policy they're proposing. But as I've said before, I suppose I'll have to wait to see the details of Mr. Houston's anti-graffit/illegal dumping plan before coming to a final decision on that.