Oakland needs term limits to break impasse

The results of last week's Oakland primary election - in which four incumbents on the Oakland City Council won re-election - has convinced me that city needs to adopt term limits to break up the political logjam.

Oakland Councilors Nancy Nadel, Larry Reid and Jane Brunner were all re-elected, defeating first-time candidates Sean Sullivan, nonprofit director Clifford Gilmore and Patrick McCullough respectively.

Council President Ignacio De La Fuente won re-election while visiting a sick, elderly relative in Mexico. He defeated newcomer Mario Juarez, who was backed by the same people who launched Mayor Ron Dellums' mayoral campaign - and Juarez even offered voters chauffeur-driven rides to the polls.

The incumbent councilors will all be sworn in to their fourth consecutive terms next year. The mayor's office has a two-term limit, but no other Oakland officeholders face such restrictions.

The virtual lock on local politics created by the city's long-standing district election process has created a self-serving system heavily weighted with resources to help the incumbents hold the council seats until they're ready to leave.

Never mind that Oakland's charter calls for a citizen council, Oakland government is made up of professional politicians whose full-time job is serving in office. They are given staffs and discretionary budgets of $250,000 that they regularly use to fund pet projects and consolidate their relationship with neighborhood leaders.

And with the advent of instant runoffs, incumbents are virtually assured of surviving the primary and taking a shot at another term in the general election.

'Incumbent protection'

Larry Tramutola, a political consultant who has run countless political campaigns in the East Bay, called the system an "incumbent-protection plan."

"If I were doing a package of reforms in Oakland, I think some sort of term limits would make sense," Tramutola said.

"Over the years, district terms have become less useful because no one on the council, even the at-large position, are looking at citywide issues. There is a more parochial feeling that if everyone does a good job in their own district, they'll be re-elected."

And that's the ultimate goal of a professional politician, isn't it?

But it also means that no one on the council becomes expertly familiar with redevelopment, economic growth or crime issues.

Dodging tough decisions

The lack of policy development from the council has dwindled to nothing under the Dellums administration. At least some council members engaged former Mayor Jerry Brown on his redevelopment goals. The council has made few significant policy changes since Brown left office in 2006. It's almost as if the panel is frozen in place on the most important issues and sidesteps hard decisions while other cities face the music.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom has proposed drastic cutbacks, including job layoffs, to balance the city's budget in austere economic times. In Oakland, Dellums proposed work furloughs to make up the city's $15 million budget shortfall.

I'm not saying that furloughs aren't a reasonable solution. I am saying that Oakland city officials prefer such stopgap measures to doing the real work of reviewing the budget and eliminating obvious inefficiencies, redundancies and unnecessary government spending. It might require them to consider actually laying off a city worker if warranted by the financial situation.

But Oakland officials know they are not required to make those kinds of hard choices because as long as they can keep a few district busybodies happy - along with the labor unions - they are automatically the front-runner to keep their seat.

It's a system that must change in order for Oakland government to change with the times, bring a fresh perspective to issues and give other citizens a chance to participate in the process.

It's not as if some of the candidates in this election won't be back. First-timers like Sean Sullivan may have a future in this game - and who knows, maybe he'll win on a campaign pledge to set term limits on council offices.

Shakeup in mix needed

Whatever happens to Sullivan's political aspirations or at-large front-runner Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland desperately needs to shake up its political mix, because the current system has shown no ability to reach any policy goal other than get council members re-elected.

Oakland has not moved forward on many fronts during Dellums' first 18 months in office and the council deferred to his office for more than a year. It wasn't until election season began in January that Brunner became the first councilor to push Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker to come up with a long-term plan for police recruitment beyond the 803 officers mandated by a 2004 voter-approved tax measure.

There is very little any of the incumbents could point to in the way of accomplishments over the last year - last year's policy high points included a ban on plastic bottles and a smoking ban at bus stops.

Within that context, the combined wisdom of 48 years in public office among the four incumbents didn't amount to much on the legislative front.

All in all, it was an abysmal year, and with four returning incumbents creating virtually the same makeup of the council as before, I won't be holding out for any miracles.

If Oakland residents want to initiate real change, a good start would be placing a limit on the terms of city councilors and allowing some fresh air into council chambers.

"It seems like three terms (12 years) is plenty of time to accomplish some significant things," Tramutola said.