A Very Libby Schaaf Evening at City Council: Schaaf Started the Meeting by Violating the Charter but Before it Was Over Broke Two Tied Votes on the 12th St Remainder Appeal and The Options Clinic Appeal

Like a Dickensian spirit summoned thrice in the night, Mayor Libby Schaaf made three rare appearances at the official City Council dais at the 11/5/2019 meeting, none of her own design. 

The meeting began early to accommodate Schaaf’s charter-mandated state of the city address. Schaaf had already missed the legally-mandated address, which must occur yearly on the first Council meeting in October. Members of the public Gene Hazard and Asata Odlibala caught the missing address during public comments in late October, and Schaaf at some point later scheduled the address through Rules. But Schaaf refused to give her address at the podium last night. 

Instead, Schaaf used the time to invite the Council members to a private state of the City address at the Oakland Museum, scheduled to coincide with a First Friday event and a night-time Museum opening on February 7th, 2020. Schaaf also noted that the event would be reservation-only with limited space. As if to answer any question about whether she was intentionally contravening the Charter, Schaaf made it clear that her comments should not be construed as the state of the city address nor even a “digest” state of the city address as she had called it in earlier years. Schaaf stated the “actual” address would occur at the February event and labeled it “a celebration...in a venue that feels more positive than this chamber often does”. 

Schaaf defended the absence of the address by saying she has always appeared at the designated October meeting only to announce the future private state of the City address on her own terms. It’s true that in 2017, she used the time to advertise her subsequent private address. But in 2018, an election year, she gave the address at Council during the first October meeting, including a spoken word video produced by a local artist. Schaaf had apparently failed to ask permission to use the video and the artist later disavowed its usage on social media. In other years, Schaaf called the mandated address a “digest” but she nevertheless gave a state of the city address. But in every case but this one, she appeared on the date required by the Charter. 

The 12th St Remainder Parcel Appeal

Schaaf left. But twice more she would be summoned to the chambers in what ended up being an unusually dramatic set of hearings and votes, both on separate appeals of Planning Commission approvals. 

The first was a final volley in the battle against development on the E. 12th remainder parcel—so known because it was leftover as an discontinuous parcel after improvements at Lake Merritt. A previous iteration of the Council apparently violated the law when it chose developer Urbancore to build a luxury tower at the site--at least that’s what the City Attorney surmised in a leaked memo that the City Council had sought to keep secret. The E. 12th Coalition--activists and neighbors in the area who had organized to stop the sale of the remainder to Urbancore--had been arguing that direct sale to Urbancore violated the Surplus Lands Act to no avail for months in 2015 as they struggled to stop an almost-certain upvote of the sale.

The ongoing actions--combined with the publicly leaked letter showing the Council intended to knowingly risk violating the law on the sale--took its toll and the Council was forced to pull the sale. The city then quietly issued the request for proposals on the land according to the law. Both the Coalition [teamed up with Satellite Housing] and Urbancore [teamed up with EBALDC] put in bids. But the city once again chose Urbancore with its new proposal for 270 market rate units in a smaller tower, and an adjacent mid-rise building developed by EBALDC with 90 deeply affordable units. 

Along the way, Urbancore allowed its Planning permit to lapse and that meant that the previously approved project had to go before the Planning Commission again. This gave the Coalition a window to launch one last attempt to stop the proposed market rate units with a Planning Commission appeal. The appeal was centered around the last minute elimination of a proposed “cultural center” in the affordable housing site. The appellants also argued that Urbancore’s solvency was questionable, as was their ability to meet deadlines. And, in fact, Urbancore’s DDA would have to be amended later that night to accommodate the developer's imminent missed deadline.

Planning Commission appeals must be adjudicated by the Council, and the Coalition gambled rightly that the Council’s new composition gave them a better than fighting chance to revisit the sale through the appeal. Specifically, District 2 Council incumbent Abel Guillen lost his run against current Council Member Bas in 2018 through no small part because of organizing designed to exact a toll for his votes on, and stewardship of, the luxury tower deal. Following dozens of Coalition members public comments in favor of the appeal, Bas led the charge, issuing a powerful defense of her motion to uphold the appeal. But Larry Reid provided a substitute motion, which received a second from Loren Taylor to deny the appeal. After increasingly personal scuffles between Bas, McElhaney and Reid, the vote tied—with Bas, Thao, Kaplan and Gallo voting to uphold the appeal. Tie-votes in Council can be, and usually are, broken by the Mayor. 

The Options Recovery Center Appeal

No sooner had the call gone out to Schaaf about the 12th street vote, than her tie-breaking services were needed once more in the next item--again on a Planning appeal. Those who thought the NIMBY-ish appeal by neighbors against the placement of a substance abuse recovery  center in West Oakland was doomed to lose badly could have been forgiven. The neighbors brought very few facts outside of emotional appeals. Most arguments for the appeal were revealed to be inaccurate in the presentation by the Options Recovery Center director Susan Champion. Options, which has to leave its current Oakland site due to rising costs, seeks to open a new center in an unused building that happens to be across the street from a local grammar school. But Options currently shares its building with Oakland Kid’s First, which  commended the program. Not surprisingly, Lynnette Gibson-Mcelhaney, the District’s council representative, voted to uphold the appeal denying the recovery center. But in an odd twist, Nikki Bas seconded her motion and voted for it as well. Though several CM’s abstained, the vote was again tied. By the time Schaaf arrived to break the 12th street tie, she was also needed to break the Options tie. 

Not surprisingly, Schaaf broke the 12th Street tie in favor of the developer, denying the appeal. Ironically, the DDA also had to be voted on once again later that night because the developer would have missed a deadline and fallen out of agreement if not [and in the process, the developer agreed to forego city-financing and pay the full amount on closing of escrow for the property]. Thao and Bas again voted no on the DDA, and Kaplan abstained.

But perhaps less predictably--and in a marked contrast with seemingly more socially progressive CM’s, Schaaf sided with the recovery center. The tied votes may have been coincidence, but they are nevertheless rare. At least in the case of the 12th street remainder, the ties may show a much more ideologically progressive council. While the Options vote may also show the corresponding limits of that ideology. 

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