How to win at the City Council (and how not to): Reflections on the pro-parking campaign

6 Aug

Over the past couple of weeks, some excellent blog posts have been written about the raising of meter rates and extensions of metering time, and about the movement against these increases. I’m not going to rehash any of that, so to catch up, you’ll have to head to Fragmentary Evidence and A Better Oakland.

This fight though has presented the perfect opportunity for me to write a post that I’ve been meaning to write for many months about how to successfully pass or defeat an item through the city council. Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater, has led a very loud campaign, but he has conducted it in essentially the opposite way that I would have (besides the fact that I’m on the other side). So I thought I’d reflect on what he could have done better, in hopes that others will learn from his mistakes.

1. Make your voice heard early & often: Ideally, you should attend the first committee meeting when the item is proposed. Where the pro-parking people were a few months ago when this was initially proposed at Finance Committee, I have no idea. If you don’t get in at the committee level, it’s going to be much more difficult to convince the entire council since details are often hammered out at committee. If you can’t make it to the committee meeting, find an ally who can or at least email the committee members to voice your concerns. Even if you lose at the committee, come back to the full council. Once the council has approved something, like raising the meter rates, it’s so much more difficult to convince them to revisit the issue. Your best chance is to fight the issue from the beginning.

2. Escalate tactics: There are a myriad of tactics you can use to influence the council, and you’ll have to pick and choose based on the particular campaign and your resources. But the most important thing to remember when choosing tactics is to escalate over time. For example, threatening to recall the council and to shut down businesses for a day is a pretty advanced tactic – it makes no sense to start with these tactics. Start with the basics, like writing emails, making phone calls, and setting up meetings with council members. If that doesn’t work, move onto press conferences, sign on letters, and community meetings. Now if all of those don’t work, it might be time to move onto a more aggressive media campaign and possibly protest. But never, ever start a campaign with your most aggressive tactics – elected officials won’t look kindly on it, and if those tactics don’t work, where do you escalate from there?

3. Choose council targets strategically: Threatening to recall the entire council will probably almost never make sense in any situation. Why? Because you should target specific council members in different ways. Some councilmembers are never going to vote with you on an issue, others will likely vote with you, and still others may be on the fence. For those that will not vote with you, it doesn’t hurt to email and call, but don’t waste too much time with them. Spend a lot of time focusing on your allies, and ask them for advice on how to sway the fence sitters. Most of your campaign though should be focused on the fence sitters – in the end, you need five votes. So if you have three solid allies and three fence sitters, you need to convince two out of those three to vote with you. Figure out what issues are important to them in relation to your issue and speak to them about those issues.

4. Don’t exaggerate: It’s easy to get worked up about something you care about, and it’s perfectly fine to be emotional. But don’t get so caught up in your campaign that you lose sight of the facts. Be truthful in your statements and don’t fall into hyperbole. For example, calling the parking rate increases a “death sentence for Oakland businesses” is probably going too far. Instead, talk about the real impacts of the issue, like the fact that people might have to run to their meters in the middle of a movie. From my experience, our council is open to listening to concerns and constructive criticisms. You don’t need to shout or exaggerate to get their attention.

5. Roll out your campaign strategically: Sometimes this isn’t entirely within your control, but it’s important to think about timing when planning tactics. Some tactics are naturally tied to a date, like a committee meeting, but tactics like protests or community meetings need to be planned strategically. For example, planning the peak of your campaign during council recess is pretty much the worst thing you could do. That doesn’t mean you should sit and twiddle your thumbs during recess. Instead, spend some time researching council members, meeting with them and their staff, reaching out to community members, etc. Then, when the council returns from recess, you’ll be prepared to make a real splash.

6. When opposing, offer alternative solutions: If you’re opposing a council proposal, you’ll often fare better if you come up with an alternative solution. That is, an alternative solution that meets the council’s goal. So Michaan’s “solution” of charging even less for parking – $.50 per hour – is no solution at all, since the council’s goal was to close the budget gap. When we were fighting the surface parking lot in Uptown, we came up with the alternative solution of a large-scale sculpture garden, which met the council’s goals of not having that space remain an empty lot. In the end, I’m not sure we’re going to get the sculpture garden (another post coming on that soon) but we were able to stop the lot because we researched and presented a viable alternative solution.

I’m sure there are many other lessons that can be learned from Michaan’s campaign and others, so please feel free to share those as comments below.

Previous posts on parking rates:

14 Responses to “How to win at the City Council (and how not to): Reflections on the pro-parking campaign”

  1. V Smoothe August 6, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    This is a great post, Becks, and every would-be activist should bookmark it.

    Unfortunately, given Pat Kernighan’s announcement yesterday that she is going to introduce a rollback of the parking hours in September, it seems like maybe we should all just be shrill and crazy all the time, since that’s apparently the way to get what you want.

    Constrast the experience of Michaan and others outraged about parking with that of the Oakland Public Library’s supporters, who attend and spoke atevery single one of the budget meetings, gathered pages upon pages of petition signatures, and generated many e-mails to the Council. For their efforts, they got hours at library branches cut by 17% and a significant increase in fees and fines. (I don’t really understand why it’s considered too burdensome to charge someone who is driving to go out to eat an extra 50 cents an hour to occupy public space, but it’s fine to charge someone who doesn’t have any other computer access 15 cents to print out a single page.) Because the Library people understand the City’s difficult situation, they thanked the Council for restricting the cuts to only this. Even though the service reduction is significant, they understood that everyone has to share the pain.

    Maybe if they hadn’t done any of that and just screamed about recalling the Council instead, Oakland residents would still be able to visit their branch libraries on Monday.

    • Becks August 6, 2009 at 11:11 am #

      It’s true that Pat came out with that announcement, but there’s still more than a month until the council reconvenes and a lot can (and will) happen before them. I’m unconvinced that Michaan’s tactics have worked. Where is Pat going to find the funds to cover reverting back to 6pm? Until she tells us that, her suggestion is a non-starter.

      I think library supporters did an excellent job advocating. Though libraries faced significant cuts, at least some of the worst proposals were avoided (like the most recent proposal of cutting the main library to 5 days a week). And the council will remember how civil and grateful the library supporters were and will be more inclined to work with them in the future. As for Michaan, even if he somehow wins this fight, I don’t see why any councilmember would ever be inclined to listen to him or work with him in the future.

    • Dave C. August 6, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

      I had the same thought as V Smoothe. When I saw yesterday that Kernighan and de la Fuente were talking about the “mistake” they had made, my first reaction was that maybe my most recent post on the matter was all wrong, and maybe Michaan is doing exactly what he should be doing — after all, it seems to be working, and it has apparently worked for him in the past.

      As for whether councilmembers will listen to him in the future after this experience, why wouldn’t they? This might make them fear his wrath even more, so even if they come away from this thinking that he’s a jerk, they may go out of their way not to piss him off in the future.

  2. Robert August 6, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    I think whether Michaan made ‘mistakes’ or not is really going to come down to whether the rate hike and the late hours are rolled back.

  3. Dave C. August 6, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    I forgot to mention: It’s disappointing that the Trib’s replacement for Eric Nelson as their transportation blogger is someone who is literally a cheerleader for pro-car policies (“hooray” was her reaction to hearing that Kernighan and de la Fuente want to move the meter time back to 6 pm). It’s not like Nelson was so terrific, but at least he made an effort to cover non-car issues more often, and appreciated the virtues of encouraging people to use alternative means of transportation.

    • Becks August 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm #

      I was annoyed by Angela Woodall’s post as well, but she’s not a transportation writer – she’s the nightlife writer. The replacement for Eric Nelson (who I still miss) was Dennis Cuff, who is usually pretty good on transportation issues.

      • Dave C. August 6, 2009 at 7:16 pm #

        Thanks for the correction. I thought the post I linked to had appeared on the Capricious Commuter blog, but in fact it was a Cecily Burt post on Night Owl/Outtakes (you’re right that Angela Woodall has also been disappointing on the issue).

      • Angela Woodall June 29, 2010 at 11:28 am #

        I just noticed all these old comments.
        Hello! How can I possibly have been disappointing on the issue when I don’t cover it except the few stories they sent me to. You people trying playing catch-up in 10 minutes on an issue you know nothing about. Let’s sit down and give it a shot. You didn’t even notice the name on the blog post was not mine until you trashed my name here.

  4. Robert August 6, 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    Becks, you do realize that your success story in Uptown is still sitting as a vacant dirt lot surrounded by an ugly green fence? A rather Pyrrhic victory perhaps.

    • Becks August 6, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

      Yes, I mentioned that in the post above. I actually don’t think it was a Pyrrhic victory. My intention from the beginning was to stop the parking lot – most of us always argued that an empty lot was better than a parking lot. The sculpture garden was a bonus, which we didn’t end up receiving, but in the end, I still think our victory was well worth it since we met our primary goal.

      • Robert August 7, 2009 at 9:54 am #

        A Pyrrhic victory is not about what your true objective was, it is about whether obtaining that objective was worth the cost. And a failure to realize the promised sculpture garden will be a political cost to those who advocated to replace the parking lot with the sculpture garden. In any case, I look forward to your post on the status of the sculpture garden.

        • Becks August 7, 2009 at 10:03 am #

          I don’t understand what “cost” you’re referring to. If you’re referring to the amount of time and energy we put into it, then yes, it was entirely worth it, since we met our objective. I don’t see any political cost to the advocates – it’s the City’s fault that the sculpture garden was not realized, not our fault. And I don’t think any of the councilmembers see it as our fault.

  5. Ralph August 6, 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    Pyrrhic or not, as budding pedestrian, I am grateful for every effort that makes my walk safer. Now, if something could be done about the 580 off ramp on Broadway and right on red. But I digress.

    Great post. As I’ve started attending more council and committee meetings, I’ve noticed that council tends to listen to those offering solutions. Just like your boss would prefer that you offer solutions instead of pointing out the obvious problem in the workplace, so too would council prefer that you come to them with a solution.

    Some might say that they work for us, but they do have other responsibilities and while the problem may be the biggest thing to you, it may not be that big to them in the grand scheme. Help them to help you.

    As for Michaan, in addition to not offering a solution, he approached this like he will only negotiate with council once. As alluded to above, over a 4 year term, I suspect that one will have plenty of oppty to interact w/council on issues. Try not to annoy them out the gate.

  6. Jim T August 6, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    Hmm…A busy couple weeks, and I miss all this drama! (I am just getting caught up on the parking meter drama). My response, though, seems awfully counter to the “general consensus”. I think raising parking rates makes great sense, and that it is helpful to the city in more ways than extra budget money.
    All this space we set aside for cars is a huge cost to the city, and is a privilege to us citizens. It only makes sense to pay for it (I personally would advocate for higher rates). (To be clear, I do drive). Hopefully this is just a loud minority, and more folks around town recognize that our happy motoring culture is soon to be a thing of the past.

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