Cleaning Up For An Oakland Councilmember

October 7, 2016

If you hang around politics long enough, you’ll find that it’s pretty common for politicians and political officeholders to try to cover up things that they’ve done—or things they were supposed to do but haven’t done—in order to keep their images up and to keep the public in the dark about what’s really being done. It’s also not unusual for one politician to cover up for another, for various reasons.

That’s why I wasn’t especially surprised a few weeks ago when Oakland business operator and self-described “community advocate” Ken Houston—the once and future candidate for mayor of the city of Oakland—got upset with me when I questioned him about what longtime Oakland District Seven City Councilmember Larry Reid has been doing to stop illegal dumping in the city.

If you don’t live or regularly travel in the flatlands neighborhoods in the eastern edge of Oakland, it’s difficult to convey how massive the problem of illegal dumping is in this area.

It’s more than a little condescending when people not familiar with the flats of East Oakland suggest that residents pick up the discarded trash ourselves, or organize with our neighbors to keep the streets and sidewalks cleaned on our block. This is not merely discarded candy wrappers or fast food leftovers tossed out of passing cars or the occasional dumped garbage bag of clothes and stuff, although there’s plenty of that. But a good deal of the garbage dumped on the East Oakland streets are too massive or too hazardous to be disposed by anyone but the city itself or a professional trash collection company: mattresses and other household furniture, stoves and refrigerators, hazardous materials such as discarded heroin needles or cans half-full of paint or oil or industrial waste, large piles that clearly have come from the discards of someone moved out of their house, even more massive piles that began as a truckload heading for the county dump but ended up on an isolated sidewalk or gutter somewhere.

City workers such as police or parking enforcement officers pass these garbage piles every day apparently without reporting them back to the city, and citizen reports to city departments online or by telephone often take weeks to be responded to. Meanwhile, others see the dump piles and, thinking these are okay spots for disposal, dump more trash and garbage on the old piles or in the spots where those piles have only recently been cleaned up.

East Oakland’s illegal street dumps are both a major health hazard and a direct attack on the quality of life of the residents who live here.

Garbage dump at the back of the parking lot of the Ace Check Cashing Company at 90th and International in East Oakland. The illegal dump was reported to Oakland city officials on September 20th of this year. More than two weeks later, it remains. The lot is a regular illegal dumping ground.

Over the past year or so, no individual has done more to highlight Oakland’s illegal street dumping epidemic than Ken Houston. Through a group he founded called the East Oakland Beautification Council, Mr. Houston has been organizing privately-financed cleanups of selected dump sites, while at the same time using social and mainstream media to pound city officials about their failure to solve or even address the dumping problem.

Pounding city officials except longtime Oakland City Councilmember Larry Reid, that is, whose seventh council district at the far eastern end of the city sits directly in the center of the illegal dumping epidemic. There, a curious relationship has developed between Mr. Houston and Mr. Reid, who has occupied the District 7 Council seat for two decades and is up for re-election in November. Mr. Houston has both enthusiastically praised Mr. Reid’s efforts surrounding the illegal street dumping problem and defended Mr. Reid from people who don’t think Mr. Reid has been doing such a bang-up job on the issue.

Two months ago, for example, Mr. Houston posted a photo on Facebook of himself and Mr. Reid under the heading “Councilmember Larry Reid still on the mission for the People! And will Accomplish our Goal!” and labeled “Ken Houston and Larry Reid at Mega Dump site in East Oakland.” (No dump was in sight in the photo, so you had to take Mr. Houston’s word for it. Further, a close inspection of the picture shows that it was actually originally posted by Mr. Houston in 2014.)

A month after originally posting the photo, Mr. Houston again reposted it, adding the heading “Councilmember Larry Reid and Community Advocate Ken Houston, this dynamic duo of public and private partnership has made leaps and bounds with huge accomplishments addressing Oakland’s Plaguing issues on illegal dumping and illegal Graffiti...”

That made me curious. I’ve followed Mr. Reid’s City Council career for a while, and I know he’s not a shy type of person about letting his feelings be known when he’s concerned about something. However, in all the time the trash has been piling up in East Oakland’s streets and sidewalks, I haven’t heard the Councilmember say a mumbling word about the problem.

So I posted a reply to Mr. Houston on Facebook, saying, “I’d be interested in knowing what Mr. Reid’s office has been doing...or plans to do...about the illegal dumping in District 7.”

I thought it was a valid query of a public official’s official activities, but apparently Mr. Houston didn’t. At first he blew me off, saying if I wanted an answer to the question, I should do a “public records request ... on everything [Mr. Reid] has pushed and moved on abatement and deterrence on the legal Graffiti and dumping.” After an exchange in which he told me “if you’ve been truly following this movement instead of just jumping in and out of it you would not be asking!,” Mr. Houston ended the discussion by saying “I don’t like your smug way of ask me questions so if you can’t ask them without that demeanor don’t ask me at all!!! I said before I’m not a politician so watch how you talk to me!!!”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Houston has gotten a little testy when I asked him for details about his cleanup program (seeMr. Houston’s Secret Cleanup Plan” CounterPoints May 11, 2016), so I thought maybe he just has some personal thing against me.

But after I read some more of his praise-house adoration of Mr. Reid, I noticed that Mr. Houston was similarly evasive when other folks asked him about exactly what the Councilmember was doing to help stop the illegal dumping.

When someone named Dennis Wanken told Mr. Houston on Facebook to “[t]ell Larry [Reid] to grab a shovel or broom and show by example” how the illegal dumping should be cleaned up, Mr. Houston replied, “he has! And he has supported my efforts that’s how I’ve been able to move this Far!”

And I found I wasn’t the only one Mr. Houston was getting a little upset with when they questioned Mr. Reid’s efforts. When a man named Bennett Hall suggested that Mr. Reid wasn’t being “effective” Mr. Houston shot back “What are you talking about? Larry is supporting this to the Max he’s one of the main reasons why this is moving forward to stop these problems.” Mr. Hall then responded, “I cannot always tell from your tone who you think is working and who is not working to help this problem. ... [S]uggest being less aggressive - hard to have a conversation when you are accusatory...”

While steering Facebook followers away from criticizing Mr. Reid’s actions or inactions, Mr. Houston put all of the blame on city staff and Libby Schaaf, who defeated Mr. Houston and several other candidates two years ago for the office of Oakland mayor.

A woman named Jeanine Nicholas asked, for example, “Isn’t this Council Member Larry Reid’s area? Make him get his ass involved. These elected officials want to sit back and collect a nice salary, but don’t want to do any good work for the people.” To which Mr. Houston replied, “yes it is Larry's District and if you support what I'm doing the truth is I could not do it without his support he's the wind under my wings! He is there trust me, so support Larry as you support me please, FYI Council Member Larry Reid is not the reason why it is as bad as it is right now, it's the management team of the city which is the city administrator, public works and ultimately the mayor.”

Please understand that the ‘City Charter’ does not allow Oakland city Councilmembers to direct staff,” Mr. Houston went on, “so saying that Council Member's can only do so much when it comes to illegal dumping and illegal Graffiti, this is a management problem which are the jobs of the Oakland city administrators office "Joe DeVries", public works office "Brooke Levin" and ultimately their boss which is the mayor ‘libby’ these are the individuals that are allowing this to happen to our communities, not the city Councilmembers!”

While Mr. Houston is correct that Mayor Sheaf and city staff should take the bulk of the blame for not attacking East Oakland’s illegal dumping as a major community problem, he is wrong to contend that Oakland City Council in general—and Councilmember Reid in particular—should not also be held to account.

Like most elected legislative bodies, while Oakland City Council has no role in actually carrying out the city’s government services, the Council does have an enormous role in publicly monitoring city staff to make sure those services are being carried out.

A good example of how effective that oversight authority can be used occurred in 2013, when Mr. Reid used his position as chair of City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee to keep the fire under city staff to make sure several Oakland businesses were not evicted from the old Oakland Army Base property during the early stages of the Army Base development (seeOakland Army Base Tenants Face EvictionEast Bay Express January 31, 2013; “Tagami Conflict of Interest Charged in Army Base EvictionsOakland Post February 22, 2013; “Last Minute Scramble To Save Army Base Jobs and BusinessesKen Epstein Blog May 31, 2013). Partly because of the pressure applied by Mr. Reid, many of those businesses were able to stay on the Army Base.

If the massive illegal dumping going on in Mr. Reid’s East Oakland council district was indeed a priority for the Councilmember, Mr. Reid could use those considerable Council powers to get the Sheaf administration and city staff to make cleaning up and stopping the dumping a priority themselves.

If Mr. Houston’s criticism of Ms. Sheaf and his high praise of Mr. Reid are looked upon in purely political terms, those actions make sense. Despite the fact that Mr. Houston ran a distant 10th in a 16-person field in the mayoral race two years ago—getting 581 votes (0.51%) in the first round to Ms. Schaaf’s 30,041—he gives all the signs that he is setting himself up for another run at the mayor’s seat in 2018. To that end Mr. Houston has endorsed and is enthusiastically supporting Mr. Reid’s bid for re-election in this November’s election, almost certainly with the hope that Mr. Reid will return the favor in two years. Or, worse, this is all part of a scheme to privatize the cleanup of Oakland’s illegal dumps and give the cleanup contract to someone like, say, Ken Houston, who is no stranger to getting city contracts. We’ve seen these types of things in Oakland before, too many times.

But if Mr. Houston is actually serious and sincere about solving East Oakland’s illegal dumping epidemic—and I hope he is, despite my differences with him—then providing continuing cover for Mr. Reid is the wrong way for Mr. Houston to go. If Mr. Reid is indeed using his public office to attack the dumping problem, his constituents should be informed exactly what he’s doing, and why the garbage and trash and hazardous waste continues to pile up on East Oakland’s sidewalks and streets. And be informed before next month’s City Council elections. After that, it will be a bit too late to hold Mr. Reid to account.


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