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: