Today, first a comment about the travails of the Hon. Stewart Chen, D.C. Then on to a few words of praise for two other City officials, Councilman Tony Daysog and Planning Board member John Knox White.
We won’t rehash the entire story of l’affaire Chen (or, if you prefer, Stewart-gate). In a nutshell, Dr. Chen was indicted in 1993 on 16 felony insurance fraud-related counts and two grand theft charges for allegedly falsifying medical records. He cut a deal whereby he pled guilty to two misdemeanors, paid $50,000 in restitution (presumably the return of payments he had received from insurers), and was placed on probation for two years. Upon successful completion of the probation, the charges were dismissed.
When the story broke in The Alamedan and the East Bay Citizen, Dr. Chen initially took the Nixonian/Clintonian route (“I did not do anything wrong. They didn’t have anything on me.”) And he looked a little foolish by arguing that his own integrity didn’t matter since he could be outmaneuvered by staff or outvoted by his fellow Council members. (“For me to defraud the city – it’s a democracy. I’m only one out of five on the council. Everything is based on the decisions of the council, as a whole, and our city staff. I can’t twist their arms.”)
But then Dr. Chen apparently sought – or was offered – a consultation with the spin doctors. The result was a masterful op-ed in The Alamedan that touched all of the bases: Youth and inexperience? Check. Unwitting pawn in a scheme perpetrated by others? Check. Incompetent legal advice? Check. Ending with an apology, not for any wrongdoing, but for keeping the tawdry tale hidden to protect his family’s privacy.
It was all there. Now, one could poke holes in the story if one were so inclined. (What was Dr. Chen doing submitting insurance claims either for treatments he didn’t give or to “patients” who didn’t need them?) But the tone was exactly right and the defense was impervious to impeachment. Don’t bet against Dr. Chen come November. He’ll move on – and now so will the Merry-Go-Round.
Our first word of praise goes to Dr. Chen’s Council colleague, Tony Daysog. The Councilman is an inveterate Twitterer, and we concede that sometimes we find his Tweets a little silly. (So, of course, are many others’). But before each of the last two Council meetings, Mr. Daysog has Tweeted a link to a blog post in which he discusses one or more of the items on the upcoming agenda. He identifies concerns, raises questions, and even takes positions. Agree with him or not, you know what he’s thinking before he takes his place on the dais.
As far as we know, Councilman Daysog is the first, and only, Alameda politician willing to reveal his thoughts about an issue publicly before it is discussed by the entire Council. The more common practice – of which former Councilman and current Assemblyman Rob Bonta was a master – is to maintain neutrality in public beforehand, and then to remain non-committal at the meeting itself until you’ve scoped out which way your colleagues are leaning. That way, you’re sure to be on the winning side.
A Council member who discloses his views before the formal session may lose room to maneuver, but he also creates opportunity for discourse. Following such a practice might turn the public comment portion of Council meetings into something useful. Sure, the same people might show up to make the same speeches (even those who admit, as one of the City Hall regulars frequently does, that he knows nothing about the topic). But, if a Council member publishes in advance what’s on his or her mind, staff and the public won’t be caught off-guard at the hearing, and ordinary citizens can be prepared to address the issues their elected officials consider important. Who knows? The public might even show up with information that wasn’t in the staff report.
Here’s an analogy: A few years ago, many judges started posting “tentative rulings” a day or so before the scheduled hearing on a motion. These rulings describe not only how the judge is inclined to rule but why. Armed with that information, the advocates can devote their allotted time at the hearing to the issues they know matter to the judge. The quality of the decision-making process has improved significantly.
We doubt that Councilman Daysog’s practice will become the norm. That wouldn’t mesh with the style of our long-term leaders. It’s not that they haven’t formed opinions before the meeting – or that they’re unwilling to share those opinions with the right people. (And, no, we’re not accusing anyone of violating the Brown Act). Indeed, League of Women Voters czarina Kate Quick has written that she knew weeks before the decisive Council meeting on the golf course swap exactly how each member of Council was going to vote – because they told her! Unfortunately, those of us not privileged to have been admitted to the Inner Ring remained in the dark. If every Council member became as forthcoming as Mr. Daysog, it surely wouldn’t hurt that someone other than Ms. Quick knows the score ahead of time.
Speaking of the Inner Ring, our second encomium today goes to Planning Board member John Knox White.
We are certain that Mr. Knox White reads every word — including the footnotes — in the documents submitted to the Planning Board. At Board meetings, he can come across as pedantic and even pompous, and occasionally his comments sound as if he were a teacher correcting a student’s book report. But there are times when he cuts right to the heart of the matter and challenges the key assumptions upon which a staff recommendation is based. If anyone can be counted upon to bring up the underlying policy issues, it is he.
The most recent example occurred a few weeks ago when the design for the new $2.5 million, 3,640-square foot “Emergency Operations Center” planned for the corner of Grand and Buena Vista was presented to the Planning Board. Staff may have expected this proposal – the darling of IAFF Local 689 and the Russo/Gilmore administration – to sail right through with only a few minor tweaks. And, indeed, Mr. Knox White was one of the chief tweakers. But he also saw fit to raise a few fundamental questions, such as:
- Why do we need to spend $2.5 million on a new EOC in the first place? Mr. Knox White noted that the City of Palo Alto recently had built its own new EOC at a cost of $100,000. Had anyone considered, he asked, putting up a smaller structure to house emergency operations next to police headquarters?
- Why is the new EOC being built out on Grand Street when “everyone who’s going to use the EOC except for the one person who actually has an office there is going to be a mile and a half away in downtown Alameda?” Had anyone considered, he asked, converting space in existing fire station no. 1 at Park and Encinal for use as an emergency operations center?
- Who’s going to use the new EOC during non-emergency periods (which, we all hope, will most of the time)? For what? How often?
“I guess there is a part of me that wonders whether this is the right building in the right place,” Mr. Knox White commented. “It’s not that that we don’t need it, but it seems like we’re building this really large thing that’s not gonna have that much use.”
All of Mr. Knox White’s questions were good ones. In fact, they are questions that should have been asked – and answered – before the City spent its first dime on planning for an EOC after the voters refused to raise their taxes to pay for it and a new fire station. But the Russo/Gilmore administration managed to avoid having to make its case publicly before taking the City on an inexorable march to what Mr. Knox White called “this giant monolith in a sea of asphalt.” Indeed, even with all his sources at City Hall, Mr. Knox White himself admitted, “I’m not sure who’s approved the project at this point in time or if anybody has said, This is the project, let’s go.”
We doubt that, if and when the new EOC gets in front of the current Council, anyone – except perhaps Mr. Daysog – will echo the common-sense concerns expressed by Mr. Knox White. After all, this is an election year. But that won’t stop us from commending Mr. Knox White for raising those concerns anyway. Maybe next time they’ll get an airing before it’s too late.