Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Just Say “No!” (or at the very least, “Not Yet!”) to Drones

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

When word came in October that the Alameda County Sheriff, Gregory Ahern, planned to purchase a surveillance drone—or, in the antiseptic language of bureaucratic juggernauts, an “Unmanned Aerial System”—with little public scrutiny or discussion, the negative reaction was swift from privacy watchdogs such as the ACLU of Northern California, the Electonic Frontier Foundation, and Alameda County Against Drones, an ad hoc group of local residents and activists.

Perhaps surprised by the wide attention his plan attracted, the Sheriff took pains to reassure people that the use of drones would be limited. “We would use it for specific events, not to patrol the unincorporated areas of the county looking for whatever,” said a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff acknowledged that inexpensive aerial surveillance capabilities raised concerns about how widely such capabilities would be used, and stated repeatedly that a clear policy would be crafted in order to prevent the abuse of the new technology, telling reporters that it would be for truly emergency situations only. “If we get one, obviously a policy has to be written up on when we’re going to use it and those types of things,” the spokesman told the Contra Costa Times.

Unfortunately, talk is cheap, and aside from reassuring words like the above, the Sheriff has shown no intention of including the public in any discussion about whether a drone should be purchased, or what policies will be put in place to ensure that privacy and civil liberties are respected (or even considered, for that matter). Privacy advocates were startled and angry late this morning to discover that deep in item 22 on the agenda for tomorrow’s Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting, the following two paragraphs are buried in a list of things to be funded by a large Homeland Security Grant (full pdf here):

7.  Funding in the amount of $31 ,646 will be allocated to the Alameda County Sheriffs Office to purchase an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), weighing less than 4lbs, equipped with live video downlink. The Unmanned Aerial System consists of an unmanned aircraft, the control system, a control link and other related support equipment. Unmanned Aerial Systems save money, enhance safety, save lives and can be utilized across a myriad of public safety disciplines to include the Homeland Security Arena. This system will provide real-time situational analysis for first responders to include search and rescue missions, tactical operations, disaster response, recovery and damage assessment, explosive ordnance response, wild land and structure fire response and response to Hazmat incidents. The UAS can enhance the safety of first responders and citizens alike and will enhance our ability to respond.

The Sheriff’s Office will operate the UAS in full compliance with the mandates of the US Constitution, federal, state, and local laws, and will seek a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.

That is the entirety of the discussion in the document. Aside from the pro forma sentence claiming that the drone’s operation will comply with all laws and FAA requirements (and even the US Constitution—fancy that!), there is hardly a nod toward concerns about privacy or civil liberties, or mention of any plan to enact a policy limiting the drone’s use. The long list of possible uses in the document (“search and rescue missions, tactical operations, disaster response, recovery and damage assessment, explosive ordnance response, wild land and structure fire response and response to Hazmat incidents”) suggest that the Sheriff foresees using the drone in a wide array of circumstances, which is already troubling enough without clear guidelines.

To make matters worse, however, other documents (pdf) obtained by the ACLU belie the department’s claims that the drone would only be used in limited “emergency” situations such as disaster response or Hazmat incidents. In a grant application for drone funding from the California Emergency Management Association, the Sheriff defined the drone’s purpose as “Intelligence and Information Sharing” and certified that it would be used for “Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention-oriented activities.” With everyone from Greenpeace to PETA to Quaker peace activists being ensnared in “terrorism” investigations in post-9/11 America, it’s not hard to imagine that a local sheriff might abuse the term to justify surveillance of any number of nonviolent dissidents, activist groups, or other innocent people deemed “suspicious” by the Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s public statements in the media suggest an awareness that citizens may be legitimately concerned about having near-invisible surveillance drones equipped with a “video downlink” flying overhead without our consent, but the effort to push through the purchase of a drone before a full discussion of the topic among civilian leaders and the public, and before establishing a clear set of policies guiding a drone’s use, should be a bright red flag even for citizens who believe that surveillance drones are an inevitability that we will eventually need to get used to.

One sometimes hears the argument that drones will just duplicate the capabilities of helicopters, at less cost and with less risk, so we should embrace them for budgetary and safety reasons. However, any law enforcement tool which makes surveillance dramatically cheaper and easier also dramatically increases the potential for abuse, because there is suddenly much less cost (in dollar, manpower, and officer safety) associated with excessive or improper use of the tool. Welcoming drones because they are “equivalent” to helicopter surveillance is like welcoming law enforcement use of secret GPS trackers on all of our private vehicles because they are “equivalent” to assigning officers in cars to follow us around all day acquiring the same information. Drones (like GPS trackers secretly placed on cars) are so inexpensive compared with the old-tech alternative that they deserve to be recognized as a qualitative shift in law enforcement surveillance capability, with a full public discussion and oversight, rather than merely as an incremental quantitative change in police power.

Since security contracting is big business, it probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that there is now a strong drone lobby, and indeed even a proudly bipartisan “Unmanned Systems Caucus” in the House of Representatives whose mission is to “educate “members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems” and “actively support further development and acquisition of more systems.” (Not to be outdone, several Senators recently started a separate drone caucus of their own.) Naturally, those elected officials have been hard at work sucking up millions of dollars in drone-related campaign contributions as they work to expand the use of drones by both law enforcement and private corporations.

The use of drones for domestic law enforcement and “homeland security” purposes is still in its early stages, but is ramping up rapidly, with unknowable ramifications for privacy and the fourth amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches. Drones are, quite literally, flying in uncharted legal and political airspace, and residents of Alameda County have an important opportunity to set a nationwide example by forcing political leaders to impose oversight by considering the full implications for the privacy and safety of Alameda County residents, and setting out clear policies and parameters, before allowing the Sheriff to acquire a drone. Alameda County Against Drones has come up with draft legislation for a moratorium on the purchase and use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Alameda County, and the legislation also includes a compelling list (footnoted, even!) of risks and known abuses associated with drones and other aerial surveillance.

Since I began writing this post, word has since been spread that the Sheriff will NOT seek to get approval for purchase of a drone at tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors meeting after all, quite possibly due to the quick and forceful outcry from activists. A press conference including the ACLU, the EFF, and ACAD will still take place before the meeting, and concerned citizens are encouraged to come and show County officials and the media that a full and comprehensive discussion is required before any further steps are taken toward acquisition and use of surveillance drones in Alameda County. “Just trust us” is not a stance that should satisfy the Board of Supervisors, and it should not satisfy the residents of Alameda County either. Here are the where and when of tomorrow’s press conference, which is across the street from the big courthouse by Lake Merritt:

Tuesday, December 4
10am (Precedes Board of Supervisors meeting at 10:45am)
1221 Oak Street, Oakland



Oakland May Revisit Contract with Wells Fargo

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Many Oakland residents watched with envy in the past few months as Berkeley’s city council began to explore divesting from Wells Fargo and moving the city’s money and banking services to a smaller, more community-oriented bank. Peralta Community College District has also begun making moves to divest from large banks. San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have also taken steps in recent years to encourage responsible banking practices by banks which do business with those cities.

Divestiture has been a longterm goal of some Oakland residents too—in past years, the city council has pursued the possibility of moving the city’s money out of ginormous global financial institutions and into a local bank or credit union, but little has ever come of it. The city has always concluded, as I understand it, that given the volume and variety of banking services that a city of Oakland’s size requires, only a few large banks are capable of handling those needs at a feasible cost. (See, for example, this staff report from 2009 recommending that Wells Fargo be given their current contract.)

The widespread disapproval of how megabanks behaved before and during the current housing and financial crises, along with the Occupy Wall Street movement, have rekindled interest in moving Oakland’s money out of Wells Fargo, which currently holds the contract for both the city’s depository and custodial banking services (at some times in the past, separate banks have handled the two types of banking services, but since 2009, Wells Fargo has handled both). I don’t know what the current prospects are for divesting from Wells Fargo (probably not good!), but it appears that some Oakland councilmembers are at least hoping to wrangle some concessions from Wells Fargo before granting any extension of their contract. A proposed resolution is on the agenda of the City Council’s Finance and Management Committee on Tuesday requiring that any renewal of the city’s contract with Wells Fargo be brought to the council, instead of being potentially extended on the authority of the City Administrator. Here is a memo from Councilmembers Brunner and Kaplan summarizing the rationale for the resolution:

To: Chair De La Fuente and Members of the Finance Committee
From: Councilmembers Brunner and Kaplan
Date:  March 13, 2012
Re:  Resolution To Require That Any Action To Extend the City’s Primary Depository and Custodial Banking Services Contracts Shall Be Authorized By The City Council

The City’s existing banking services contract with Wells Fargo expires on December 31, 2012. However, Resolution 82060 authorized the City Administrator to enter into two one-year extensions. This resolution rescinds that authority, and requires that any action to extend must be authorized by the City Council.

The role of financial institutions in the foreclosure crisis and recession has created renewed interest in and support for policies to hold banks responsible to the communities they serve. Many jurisdictions in California are now reviewing their banking contracts and considering responsible banking policies.

This resolution is to ensure that the City Council has the opportunity to hold its current contractor to responsible banking policies, and that their contract is not automatically extended without Council review and input.

The councilmembers, in a separate memo, express concern about the difficulty the city has had in getting information from Wells Fargo and other banks about foreclosures and loan modifications, and frustration that the banks have not done more to prevent foreclosures. Occupy Oakland has fruitfully joined forces with organizations like Causa Justa : Just Cause to use direct action to shut down foreclosure auctions and bring attention to the fraud and illegality behind many—if not most—foreclosures. Pressure from a broad coalition of activist groups, unions and churches has also reignited the city’s effort to renegotiate or end its interest rate swap deal with Goldman Sachs. It seems to me that the city’s negotiations with Wells Fargo—or other banks vying for the contract—may well be another place where strategically-applied pressure from Occupy Oakland and other groups might yield tangible results.

The proposed resolution (admittedly limited in scope) from Councilmembers Brunner and Kaplan will be discussed Finance and Management Committee meeting at noon today in the Sgt. Mark Dunakin Room on the 1st floor of City Hall. (And no, I won’t be there; I’ll be sitting on a barstool somewhere watching a soccer game on TV—priorities, people!)

Open Letter to Oakland elected officials

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Dear Mayor Quan, Councilmember Kernighan and Councilmember Kaplan

I am a 9-year resident of City Council District 2. I am writing to express my deep concern over the actions of the Oakland Police Department toward Occupy Oakland protesters, and my disappointment at your apparent inability—or unwillingness—to demand any accountability from a police force which systematically fails to comply with its own policies.

I do not currently consider myself a member of Occupy Oakland. I participated in many of Occupy’s assemblies and protests in the first few months, but in recent weeks I have come to believe that Occupy Oakland may be setting back progress toward the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement by alienating large swaths of the “99 percent.” Frankly, I can understand why many city officials and Oakland residents disapprove of Occupy Oakland‘s disruptions, even if I don’t always share that disapproval, and I have often expressed my criticisms to occupiers both online or in person

This letter, however, is about something which you actually have authority over: the Oakland Police Department. Some instances of police excess have been so widely publicized that I hardly feel the need to mention them here, but in case you need two examples, please review the footage of an OPD officer breaking from his skirmish line in order to beat Kayvan Sabehgi with his baton in early November, while other officers forcefully block a videographer from capturing the assault on film. Or review the footage Scott Campbell took of his own shooting by an OPD officer the same night. I have seen video of you, Mayor Quan, and you, Councilmember Kaplan, being far more aggressive toward a police skirmish line during the Oscar Grant protests than either of those two men were, and indeed more aggressive toward the skirmish line than 99% of Occupy protesters have ever been. Should OPD have teargassed, beaten, or shot you with rubber bullets on that occasion?

I’ll dwell at more length on some recent examples, which have not been as widely publicized. First is the arrest of Adam Katz, an Oakland resident, Occupy Oakland activist, and photographer. Katz was known to police at the plaza because he frequently took photographs or video of officers, and would ask them questions. When Katz heard that police had entered the plaza to clear the vigil and teepee on January 4th, he rushed to the scene with cameras. After getting too close to officers for their taste and taking one photograph, he was ordered to back up. Videos recorded by a TV crew and Katz himself show the rest: Katz backs up and repeatedly asks police where they want him to stand, and the police march toward him giving him unhelpful answers. Finally he is told he has to go across the street, but when he tries to obey that order, he is rushed by two officers and arrested. He was held overnight at Santa Rita jail until being released on $5000 bail (!), and still cannot see a copy of his arrest report because it is part of an “ongoing investigation.“ You can watch his arrest here:

Or consider last Saturday‘s events. YouTube is awash with video of OPD beating nonviolent protesters indiscriminately (clear violations of OPD policy), but I‘ll focus on two incidents which suggest that violations are not isolated cases occurring in the heat of tense moments, but systematic failures of command and flagrant disrespect for departmental policies. Police trapped a large group of marchers in the park at 19th and William Streets (right where the statues of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and others were erected last year). OPD gave orders to disperse, but blocked every possible path out of the area, leaving protesters to frantically move from police line to police line with no way to leave. Then police teargassed the understandably agitated crowd. A remarkable 8-minute video from a neighboring apartment captured the entire scene, and many protesters have compelling video footage of their own. There appears to have been, at the very least, a breakdown of communication and organization on the part of OPD, resulting in hundreds of innocent people being teargassed because they were unable to disperse while being ordered to do so.

After protesters finally did disperse by flattening a fence and crossing the vacant lot at 19th and Telegraph, some of them went home, others kept marching, and some new people joined the protest. After a looping path up Telegraph and down Broadway, protesters were again trapped by police on Broadway in front of the YMCA. This time, OPD did not even bother giving a dispersal order (or if they did give one, NO protesters or journalists on the scene seem to have heard it). Instead, they placed the entire crowd of more than 300 under arrest, in violation of OPD policy which requires an unlawful assembly to be declared at each new location, with peaceful protesters being given an opportunity to leave before being placed under arrest. Also in clear violation of department policy and showing frightening disdain for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, six professional journalists (including Susie Cagle, who had been wrongly arrested and jailed by OPD in early November) were arrested and held for varying periods of time in plastic handcuffs even though they clearly identified themselves as journalists. Two of the journalists were transported to Santa Rita jail along with protesters, where one was held for several hours and another was held overnight.

These are just two incidents in a long day of protest and confrontation. I encourage you to spend an hour or two perusing videos of protesters being beaten, shot with non-lethal “beanbags“ (how quaint that sounds!), or teargassed, and consider whether that level of sustained violence was needed to prevent an overwhelmingly peaceful crowd from gaining entry to a well-defended building, and to deal with a small number of agitators throwing objects at the helmeted police. I am not surprised that the Alameda County DA is currently only charging a dozen of the 400 or so people arrested on Saturday. Nor will I be surprised if the city ends up paying many millions of dollars to settle a class action suit brought by people swept up in the mass arrests at the YMCA.

It did not escape my notice that Howard Jordan’s position as police chief was made permanent today, four days after the department he commands showed itself to be unable, or unwilling, to follow its own crowd control and use-of-force policies. Almost four months after Chief Jordan was made interim chief, OPD is closer than ever to being ordered into Federal receivership because of failure to meet the basic professional and procedural standards required by the Negotiated Settlement Agreement it signed 9 years ago. We are frequently told that incidents are “under investigation” by the department itself or by an independent commission, but removing “interim” from the Police Chief’s title four days after Saturday’s events tells me everything I need to know about how seriously Oakland officials take accountability for the police department. I am astounded that more than three months after Scott Olsen suffered a traumatic brain injury as citizens of Oakland were indiscriminately assaulted by police, no police brass or top city officials have been held accountable by getting fired or being asked to resign.

When pressed, many elected officials concede that mistakes have been made, but the conversation is quickly redirected toward disrespectful, disruptive, or destructive protesters who broke a window or threw a bottle or burned an American flag. One has to wonder: do you hold the city’s professionally trained police officers, who are sworn to uphold the laws and constitution, to a lower standard of behavior than you demand from a disorganized bunch of protesters? It certainly seems that way.

As I said above, I am not writing in order to defend the behavior of Occupy Oakland, some of which I strongly disapprove of. And my personal interactions with individual OPD officers have always been professional; I have little reason to doubt that most are decent men and women just trying to do their jobs. It distresses me that so many Oakland residents see the police as their enemy, and I appreciate the steps OPD has taken in recent years to be more open and accountable to residents. That said, the brazen disrespect for policies, laws, and the constitution shown by some officers sworn to uphold them is disturbing evidence that deep systemic problems remain, and the absence of leadership on this issue from top OPD and city officials is truly dismaying.

I appreciate your time and attention. I will also be posting this letter online as an open letter. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of this further.


Barney Frank on Occupy Wall Street

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Barney Frank, who recently announced that he won’t run for re-election, is widely viewed by Occupy Wall Street folks and others as a tool of Wall Street, but his critique of Occupy Wall Street to George Packer and Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker’s Political Scene podcast is very close to what I hear from a lot of people who were once supporters of Occupy Oakland but have since become disillusioned with its tactics and uncompromising stance against the existing political system:

Packer: What affect is Occupy Wall Street having in Washington, if any?

Frank: Unfortunately, not nearly as much as I wish it would have, and it’s becoming somewhat negative. I don’t understand why people think that simply being in a physical place does much. I have a rule that I have tried to propogate among my friends on the left: If you care deeply about a cause, and you are then engaged on behalf of that cause in an activity that makes you feel very good, and very brave, and you’re really in solidarity with all your friends and you’re enjoying it, you’re probably not advancing the cause very much because you’re spending all your time with the people you agree with, cheering each other on, and not engaging. I’ve seen a lot of things about Occupy Wall Street. I haven’t noticed any voter registration tables. I haven’t seen people saying, look, send your representative and your senators an email saying confirm a Director, or don’t deregulate, or pass the millionaire’s tax, so—

Packer: But that’s because a lot of them, I’ve been down there quite a bit and have asked that very question and a lot of them say, “That doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked for 30 years, we’ve seen these trends for 30 years, and that hasn’t worked.”

Frank: Well that’s just, I’m sorry, I know I get accused of being rude, but that’s just stupid. What do you mean, it either worked or didn’t work? Have we had no gains? No elections have ever been won? Nothing good has ever happened? That’s simply not true, it’s more or less that it didn’t work. And by the way, what works better, standing in a park? How does that help? So what you’re telling me, their answer is, “Well, we’re not going to try to influence the political process. We’re not going to try to elect people who agree with us. We’re not going to try to get the people who are in office to adopt good public policies.” Well, that’s a confection of defeat. If you announce that you are not going to participate in the political process, then when you ask what impact it’s having on the Congress, I guess the answer is obvious. You know, in general I would think that if you are a vegetarian and you write an essay about what you like to eat, very few butchers are going to read it.

I don’t entirely agree with him—I think “standing in a park” has actually been a fairly fruitful tactic in these early weeks and months of the movement—but I think he’s right that if OWS determinedly remains outside the conventional political process, it will not end up amounting to anything more than a marginalized, interesting historical curiosity.

(Most of the podcast except the passage I transcribed above is about partisanship and politics in Washington and the presidential race, but for those curious, you can download or listen to it here.)

What a Difference a Day Makes

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

The “Oakland Commune” banner flies above Occupy Oakland again.

Politics: A Not So Beautiful Game

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare posessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”
—Keats, in a letter to his brothers

I noted on the eve of the World Cup that soccer appeals to romantics worldwide. The Cup’s many egregious refereeing blunders offered an interesting example of this sensibility. Many viewers were baffled by FIFA’s resistance to the use of video replays or other innovations which would determine with more certainty whether, say, the ball crossed the line into the goal. Hockey uses technology to determine whether the puck goes into the net, tennis uses technology to settle disputed line calls, but soccer continues to rely almost entirely on the eyesight of one referee and his (or her!) two sideline assistants. Calls for change are fiercely resisted, however, by purists who argue that “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” are an essential part of the game. As at least one wag pointed out after Frank Lampard’s clear goal for England against Germany was not counted, if you reduced the imperfections and uncertainties in the officiating, then it would ruin the game, because people wouldn’t have anything to argue about at the pub after a match. (As Joni Mitchell sings, “All romantics meet the same fate someday/Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.”)

Whatever one thinks of the FIFA authorities, no one can accuse them of any “irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Inexpensive innovations such as an additional official behind each goal to see whether a ball has crossed the line, or to look out for fouls in the crowded penalty area, have not been widely adopted. Video replays of any sort are resisted because they would interrupt “the flow of the game.” Timekeeping is also fuzzy, with the head referee given wide discretion to add on extra time as he sees fit (or, as happened in Almeria’s 8-0 loss to Barcelona on Saturday, a referee might blow the final whistle a few seconds before full time has elapsed in order to put a badly losing side out of its misery). It’s no wonder that the romantic Brazilians love the sport which is known as the beautiful game. There are stories, which are too good to double-check, about the Brazilian national team returning victorious from international tournaments, but being greeted coldly by fans because they hadn’t won with sufficient style—playing beautiful soccer was apparently more important than winning. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” indeed. (In that letter to his brothers, Keats goes on to say that “with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” Substitute “great footballer” for “great poet,” and many Brazilian futebol fans might agree.)

Contrast this with American football, where irritable reaching after fact & reason is taken to extremes. Video replays, official challenges, resetting the clock by one or two seconds after a play so as to create an illusion of timekeeping exactitude—these are all efforts to pretend that uncertainty can be overcome. Even the officials, who swarm the field in large numbers, wear black and white uniforms, sending a sartorial message that there are no gray areas when it comes to their rulings—rulings which are announced via wireless microphone through the stadium’s PA system, as if from the voice of God Himself. This pretense of precision and infallibility may reach its apotheosis in the 10-yard chain, which is hauled out onto the field in order to adjudicate first downs. While everyone waits with bated breath to find out whether the football’s nose is sniffing a blade of grass half an inch beyond the chain’s end, it is rarely pointed out that the ball was placed in that spot by a human official, who was more often than not just eyeballing where the ball was located when the forward momentum of a runner was stopped, or when a receiver’s knee hit the ground. And an equally subjective judgment was probably used to determine where the other end of the 10-yard chain was placed on the previous first down. But no matter—the chain is carried onto the field with great ceremony and gravitas, and players from both teams huddle around with quiet deference to await their fate.

What does any of this have to do with politics? Good question! Some of the close results in this year’s elections made me reminisce about the disputed 2000 election, and whenever there’s a close election, I’m reminded of how contingent and haphazard our electoral process can seem. Running elections the way soccer referees run matches is not really an option—even the most romantic spectator of the political game would probably not want an electoral system that stubbornly resisted all efforts toward greater accuracy and precision. So we have no choice but to run our elections more like American football games, with all sorts of detailed rules and processes for ensuring—or at least giving the impression of—a fair and accurate result.

Most political races aren’t especially close, so we can pretend that a platonic assessment of the will of the people has been achieved. (56.32 percent! It’s that most elusive prey on the political savanna—a mandate!)  In truth, however, the best we can probably hope for is to avoid gross electoral fraud, and when a race comes down to a matter of a few tenths of a percentage point, then we might as well flip a coin. Of course we need some non-random process for determining a winner, so we have procedures in place, and legal observers from the campaigns, and court battles about whether misspelled write-in votes or hanging chads should be counted as valid votes. These procedures are all necessary, to be sure, but they’re a bit like the 10-yard chain in football—they introduce the appearance of precision into a process which is full of potential for human error and contigent on everything from what the weather is on election day to whether or not voters understood how their ballots would be counted, or a plethora of other factors.

I’m not arguing, obviously, that elections should be governed more like soccer than football. Muttering curses about the “blind” referee into one’s pint of ale might be a valuable part of soccer fandom, but it just won’t suffice in politics, where more is at stake than mere money and pride. The 10-yard-chain may seem slightly preposterous to me—an irritable reaching after fact and reason—but at least it provides a means for coming to a decision and getting on with the game, and until someone comes up with a better system using micro-chipped footballs and lasers (or whatever), the 10-yard-chain does the trick. Similarly, the rickety legal and technological apparatus used to conduct elections may be vulnerable to uncertainty and error, but we need a way of picking winners and getting them into office, so we do what we can with the tools we have and hope that the race is not too close.

What’s my point, you might justifiably wonder? I’ll ally myself with Keats, so you’ll find no irritable reaching after any grand point here; I’m just musing on the vagaries of the sport of politics. Perhaps my view of the electoral process as inevitably messy and flawed explains why I am so sanguine about candidates exploiting loopholes in campaign finance laws and similar sins. Complaints about how a certain candidate is not “playing fair” or following the “spirit” of a law just don’t seem to move me unless there’s some really major skulduggery going on. Like American football, politics can be exciting to watch, with moments of inspired beauty, but it’s still fundamentally an ugly game.

Do We Have a Mayor Yet?

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Ten years and one day ago was the 2000 presidential election, which, as everyone presumably remembers, took about a month to resolve. Since I was working on the national desk of a newspaper at the time, it meant that I hardly got to take a day off. I did have one weekend free, however, and I drove overnight from New York to Ohio with my father and brother and six-month-old nephew, so that my ailing grandmother could meet her new great-grandson. Whenever someone turned on the TV to hear the latest updates in the Florida recount battle, she would call out impatiently from her wheelchair, through the oxygen tubes running over her upper lip to her nose, “Do we have a President yet?”

With the news that the Alameda County Registrar won’t have the final count of the Mayor’s race done today as expected, I feel a bit like my grandmother did. Do we have a Mayor yet? No, Grandma, not yet—ask me again tomorrow.

I’ve been saying publicly since the preliminary ranked-choice results were released on Friday that I think Perata is almost certainly toast, because I just can’t imagine a realistic scenario in which he wins enough of the remaining 10,000 or so votes in order to beat Quan. I’m not much of a statistician, though, and while I don’t see how the ranked-choice counting system fundamentally changes Perata’s long odds, it does make back-of-the-envelope calculations (which are the only kind I have the patience for) a bit more convoluted. So I’m eager to get final results not only because I care about who the next Mayor will be, but also because I’m eager to find out whether I’ll end up with egg all over my face for dismissing the possibility of a Perata victory.

Time for a Change at BART

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Those who have seen my bike know that I prefer it unadorned and minimalist—no brand name, no logos, no stickers, no extraneous parts, and no colors except black and white. So it was not without hesitation that I temporarily scraperized it and turned it into a rolling billboard for Robert Raburn’s campaign for the BART Board of Directors:

Raburn for BART Board

I don’t have the craftsmanship of the scraper bike artists, but since I lack a yard or street-facing windows, I had to do what I could. In a mostly depressing election season, Raburn’s run for the BART Board in District 4 (encompassing Alameda and about half of Oakland) is one of the few bright spots. He is well-qualified for the position, with an academic background in transportation and urban planning, and a long history of public action on urban transportation issues. He also offers a stark choice between competing visions for what BART should be. Carole Ward Allen (the incumbent) and most of her fellow directors prioritize grandiose but imprudent projects like the Oakland Airport Connector and expensive expansions to far-flung suburbs, where ridership consistently fails to meet BART’s projections. Raburn, in contrast, wants to refocus BART’s priorities on core services, putting more resources into increasing reliability, decreasing headways, decreasing blight in and around stations, and improving passenger connections between BART and other modes of transportation, whether they be bus or bike or pedestrian.

Raburn has his work cut out for him. Not only is Carole Ward Allen a 12-year incumbent who is deeply embedded in the East Bay political machine, but Raburn is pushing back against 40 years of BART history. The sad fact is that BART has always acted more like a commuter rail system than an urban subway system, so Raburn’s focus on strengthening core services in the bay area’s most densely populated areas is surprisingly revolutionary.

It may be an uphill climb, but Raburn does have some things going for him. As the longtime director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, Raburn has very active support from the cycling community (see the photo above for an example—and I picked up that yard sign at a supportive bike shop in Alameda). He will also benefit from the highly motivated, highly organized opposition to the misguided Oakland Airport Connector—there are a lot of people like me who never paid any attention to the BART board before, but who are now more eager to vote for a BART director than anyone else on the ballot.

The airport connector, which will likely provide worse service than the current AirBART bus, but at twice the cost to passengers (and a cost of almost $500 million to BART) is not only a strong argument against Carole Ward Allen, who championed the project, but it also offers a more general lesson on why these down-ballot elections are important. Advocacy groups such as TransForm (not to mention a veritable army of local bloggers) fought heroically to get BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to reconsider their plan to endanger BART’s financial future by taking out loans to fund a wasteful and unnecessary tram, but ultimately the MTC deferred to the BART board and approved the project. The airport connector is a prime example of why it’s more efficient—and effective—to elect the right people to these positions in the first place, instead of having to fight long, difficult battles over every lousy project.

The airport connector appears to be a fait accompli (although BART’s “groundbreaking ceremony” last week before the contracts have been finalized was a premature piece of campaign season theater), but there will be plenty of other decisions for the BART board to make down the tracks. If you live in BART District 4 and care more about increased and improved service than another expensive extension to some doomed outpost of the cheap-oil empire, then I urge you to vote for Raburn. (And if you live in BART District 8, then I urge a vote for Bert Hill for similar reasons—with the added bonus that you would be helping to defeat the unctuous James Fang, an especially unappealing character and San Francisco’s only elected Republican.)

Truthiness in Advertising

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Looking at this glossy 8.5 X 11 inch mailer sent to residents by the Jean Quan campaign, you would probably never guess that headline of the Tribune’s Mayoral endorsement was “We recommend Rebecca Kaplan for Oakland mayor.”

Half-Truth in Advertising

This is just one more unexpected complication of our new Instant Runoff Voting system, where we forgo primaries and instead rank our top three choices on the ballot, with 2nd- or 3rd-choice votes only coming into play if one’s 1st-choice candidate is eliminated during the vote-counting process. (There still seems to be much confusion out there about Ranked Choice Voting; helpful primers can be found at the Alameda County Registrar’s website or at A Better Oakland.) Even though the Tribune recommended putting Quan as third choice (behind Kaplan and Tuman) and the Guardian recommended putting Quan as second choice (behind Kaplan), Quan has been boasting on Facebook and Twitter, and now in these mailers, that she was “endorsed” by the Trib and the Guardian. This mailer takes that misleading claim beyond those niche markets and into the mailboxes of thousands of potentially low-information voters who won’t bother to look up the actual editorials to see what they say. (The East Bay Express endorsed Kaplan, Quan and Tuman without recommending what order they should be put in.)

Personally, I think Quan should be pretty embarrassed that the Tribune put a City Council neophyte and a college professor with no political experience above her on their list of recommendations, but I suppose that the two most common ways of dealing with embarrassing facts are to ignore them, or to deny them. As political half-truths go, I don’t know where on the scale this falls—it depends on what the meaning of “endorse” is, as Bill Clinton might say. (The Guardian’s endorsement does explicitly say that they are “endorsing” both Kaplan and Quan, even though they recommend making Kaplan the first choice vote and Quan the second.)  The inside of Quan’s mailer is less misleading, saying that “The Oakland Tribune, Bay Guardian and East Bay Express all say that JEAN QUAN should get one of your votes for Mayor,” and pointing out that all three papers specifically criticized Don Perata.

Politics as usual, or over the line? That probably depends on how one feels about Quan in the first place. I’ve made it pretty clear on several occasions in the past that I am not impressed at all by Quan, so unsurprisingly, I’m not impressed by this mailer either, but I suppose that if one sees this race (and she hopes that we will) as a two-candidate horserace between her and Don Perata, then it’s perhaps less misleading to claim that she has been “endorsed” by the Trib and the Guardian.

Dirty Pool

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Who is subverting the democratic process more?

a) Candidate A, who uses his political allies to exploit a loophole in Oakland’s campaign finance law in order to exceed spending caps


b) Candidates B and C, who use their positions as city council legislators to attempt to modify clarify* Oakland’s campaign finance law 5 weeks before an election in order to prevent Candidate A from exploiting the longstanding loophole

Background (complete with tendentious headline) here. This is not an entirely rhetorical question, by the way.

*I changed “modify” to “clarify” above for accuracy’s sake. Candidates B and C may not precisely be trying to change the law itself, but rather mandating a particular procedure or set of “guidelines” for how the law should be interpreted and implemented. If any lawyers out there care to elaborate on the possible distinction between changing the actual statute and changing the “guidelines” used to implement the statute, then please feel free to clue me in below. For instance, would such “guidelines” be a legally binding part of the municipal code, or something less than that?

This Year’s Soccer Mom?

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

I just got back from vacation today, and I see a lot more yard signs and window signs for the mayoral and city council races than I did when I left town ten days ago. Looks as if Don Perata is hoping to win the “creepy, shadowy figure lurking on a porch” demographic:

A Representative Sample of One

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

With people dropping their landlines and screening all their calls with caller ID these days, it’s hard for lonely pollsters to find people to talk to, and harder still to make sure the people they talk to are a representative sample of the electorate.

Since I still have a landline (and for some reason still answer it even though most of my friends and family don’t even know the number), and I don’t have caller ID, and I apparently don’t have anything better to do than talk to pollsters, I end up answering telephone surveys from time to time. I’m generally happy to do it—since I voraciously consume poll results during contentious elections, I figure that it would be hypocritical for me not to answer questions when pollsters call. So on Friday, 20 minutes after I happened to have posted comments on some of the Oakland mayoral candidates, I found myself answering questions about the upcoming local elections. And less than 48 hours later, I found myself answering another set of questions from a different polling outfit.

If I try to remember all the questions verbatim, then I will inevitably get things wrong, but since I had an inquiry about who had taken the polls and whether they asked about all 10 candidates for mayor, I’ll try to summarize the surveys as best I can from memory. The first survey was about 5-10 minutes long (it felt like 15, but I wasn’t looking at the clock, and it probably wasn’t quite that long), and was conducted by a woman identifying herself as being with Mountain West Research (I thought she said Madden West, but when I googled for information about the firm, I discovered that Mountain West is a big telephone survey operation, so I assume that I misheard her.)

The poll seemed pretty standard: In a neutral tone of voice, the woman would read something (a candidate’s name, or a summary of a ballot initiative, or a general statement about fiscal policy) and then ask me to say whether I strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree. The questions addressed everything from my ideological self-identification (I chose “very liberal”) to my assessment of the tax referendums (despite my self-identification as “very liberal,” I said I “somewhat opposed” most of the tax proposals on this fall’s ballot), to my opinions about some of the Mayoral candidates. (Quan: “somewhat unfavorable;” Perata: “somewhat unfavorable;” Kaplan: “somewhat favorable.”) I believe Joe Tuman might have been included also (if so, “somewhat favorable”), but frankly, I can’t remember for sure. I’m fairly sure that I was not asked to evaluate any of the other 6 candidates. I was also asked the approve/disapprove question about the Mayor and some of the city council members who are not running for mayor (I believe I was asked about Kernighan, who represents my district, and De la Fuente, Brooks and Reid, but not about Nadel or Brunner).

Other questions were more general, getting at the same issues addressed by the ballot measures, but slightly more abstractly. I can’t remember the exact wording, but there were questions along the lines of “The city of Oakland is expected to face a large budget deficit for the next fiscal year. Which of the following statements best describes your position: ‘I support balancing the budget by increasing revenue through additional taxation,’ or ‘I support balancing the budget by cutting spending’?” Another question was something like, “The city of Oakland has laid off about 80 police officers, and city officials say that they may have to lay off 150 more if they do not raise additional revenue. Would you support additional property taxes in order to prevent further layoffs?”

I was a bit surprised that the Mountain West survey also asked about my district’s city council race, just because I never expect much polling to be done in city council races. In addition to the question about whether I approve or disapprove of Councilmember Kernighan (“somewhat favorable”), I was asked about whether I approve or disapprove of her opponent, Jennifer Pae (“somewhat favorable,” although if “no opinion” had been a stated option I probably would have gone with that one, since I know almost nothing about her except that she’s a young mover and shaker, and comes across as very cheerful and enthusiastic on Twitter). I was asked which of the two I would vote for if the election were held today, and that was one of the few questions that I wouldn’t answer at all, because I really don’t know—I am not unhappy with Kernighan, but if I learn anything that makes me think Pae would be better, then I am open to persuasion. (If any readers care to weigh in below, then I’m all ears, since I assume that a lot of people are more familiar Pae than I am.)

That was about it for the Mountain West survey. After it was finally over, I asked the interviewer who had commissioned the poll, and she said (as they always do) that she didn’t know. All in all, it seemed like a typical, professionally done survey, and I couldn’t tell from the questions whether it was being done for a candidate, or a media organization of some kind (Can local media even afford to do expensive polling on local elections? Beats me), or a union, or…who knows.

The second survey, done by McGuire Research, was quite a different thing. It was much shorter, and let’s just say that the interviewer had a much less formal mien. That’s not to say that it was a push poll (that is to say, a poll which is designed more to influence the opinion of the electorate than to measure it), but the interviewer had a much more relaxed style, and oddly seemed to veer almost into small talk at times. As for whether this was done intentionally in order to subtly guide my opinions in a certain direction, or whether it was done intentionally in order to elicit more honest responses from the interviewees, or whether it was done unintentionally due to poor training, I won’t speculate, but it was unusual.

The questions were much more limited than the first survey’s, and as far as I remember, they all related to the mayoral race. I was asked whether I was familiar with Don Perata, Jean Quan, Rebecca Kaplan, Joe Tuman, and I believe Terence Candell and Marcie Hodge. It’s possible that he also asked about Don MacLeay or Greg Harland too (my memory is a sieve, and I didn’t take any notes), but I am pretty sure that Fields and Young weren’t mentioned at all. I was then asked whether I had favorable or unfavorable opinions of some of the candidates (again, I can’t remember exactly which ones—certainly the first four listed above, and maybe one or two others). I was also asked whether I knew that Ranked Choice Voting was going to be used in the November election (“Yes”) and which candidates I would put as my first, second and third choices if the election were held today.

The interviewer had used a pretty casual conversational tone throughout the interview, but I had chalked that up to his being a native English speaker, whereas the woman doing the first interview sounded like she was probably not a native English speaker. But at a few points during the survey, the interviewer from McGuire seemed to go a bit overboard in his informality. For instance, when I said (as I did in my post on Friday) that I would probably put Rebecca Kaplan as my first choice if the election were held today, he said offhandedly as he was noting it down, “Okay, Kaplan…lots of people seem to be saying Kaplan,” or something along those lines. Excuse me? Since when do people doing surveys for political polls tell the interviewees how other people have been answering the questions? My gut feeling is that he was not trying to influence me in any way, but it seemed like such an unprofessional thing for a surveyer to say in the middle of taking a poll that it did make me wonder.

That was the most striking example, but there were other moments where his chatty style seemed to border on the unprofessional. For instance, when I told him that I might just leave the third choice blank if the election were held today, he said something like, “okay, so you wouldn’t put any of the other candidates there, Candell or Marcie Hodge or Quan or anyone else…?” Again, I really didn’t get the feeling that he was pushing me to give particular answers, but it seemed a bit odd for him to start throwing out names like that.

I’m generally a skeptic, but not a conspiracy theorist, and my guess is that his informality was just a personality or training issue, and not anything more sinister. It seemed as if he had a list of candidates in front of him on a piece of paper or a computer screen so that he could mark down my choices, and he was just sort of thinking out loud as he glanced through the list. It was a bit strange, however, and people can draw their own conclusions. (The main reason it struck me is because these interviewers are always so determinedly lacking in personality, as if they are doing their best to imitate a robot when they read through their scripts. Being surveyed by a guy who sounded like a normal human being having a normal phone conversation was disarming!)

As I do whenever I am interviewed, I asked him at the end who had commissioned the poll, and he replied, as expected, that they are never told who has commissioned the poll so that they won’t bias the results. So there you have it. I did a half-assed Google search in case I could determine who was doing the polling, but as far as I know such information isn’t always easy to find, at least not until quarterly campaign spending disclosures are filed, which might show what campaigns have hired what polling firms (and even that might not shed a lot of light on things, however, because often a pollster will contract out the grunt work to a surveying firm such as Mountain West, so Mountain West or McGuire might not have been directly hired by the organization who had commissioned the poll.) If anyone happens to know who paid for the polls, I’d love to know, just to satisfy my own curiosity. Better yet would be to hear some actual polling data. There seems to be a widespread assumption that Perata, Quan and Kaplan are the only candidates with a serious chance, and I have no particular reason to doubt that, but like most assumptions, it would be nice to have more data to back it up