Even though Oakland City Council meetings are not currently held at City Hall, there are still plenty of ways to participate online and make your voice heard. Credit: Pete Rosos

Ever since our newsroom launched last year, we’ve received a steady drumbeat of questions from readers who want to be more civically engaged at the local level but don’t know where to start. For example, during the Oakland City Council’s first meeting of 2021 earlier this week, a Twitter user asked our news editor, “Where do you receive notifications on city council meetings which the public can attend?”

And today, as many Oaklanders watched the riots at the Capitol building in D.C. in anger, awe, and confusion, you may searching for ways to make your voice heard locally. 

In this guide, we aim to answer FAQs about participating in policymaking in Oakland. As LaTonda Simmons, Oakland’s assistant city administrator and former city clerk, said in a fantastic episode of KQED’s The Bay this week, “If you want to talk about effectuating change, it’s local.” And when residents raise their voices, she added, “we actually have the duty to listen.” 

Keep an eye out for similar how-to posts about tuning into and speaking at school board and other local government meetings.

How to watch City Council meetings and weigh in

The full City Council meets on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, but sometimes they schedule special meetings that can occur on another day. At these meetings, councilmembers hold public hearings on legislation and vote on new Oakland laws and resolutions. All meetings are open to the public, except when the council goes into “closed session.” (More on that later!)

Council meetings used to be held in the evening, but during the pandemic, they usually start at 1:30 p.m. It’s best to check the online calendar to make sure—sometimes they’re canceled. You can also sign up for email alerts that will tell you when an upcoming meeting has been scheduled, and the city clerk, who runs the council meetings, will also send a copy of the agenda. To sign up, check “free electronic agenda” on this form

The City Council also has eight committees focused on specific topics, including: finance and management, public works, community and economic development, life enrichment, education partnership, public safety, rules and legislation, and the port. These committees develop potential new laws before they go to the full council for a vote, and hear reports about topics like crime statistics, affordable housing production, and city contracts. The committees meet on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.

You can download meeting agendas from the calendar to look through the items coming up for a vote at council or committee meetings; there are links to the proposed legislation and reports written by city staff explaining what each piece of legislation will do.

If you want to watch or listen to a meeting live, you have lots of options.

  • Stream the video: Find your meeting on the calendar, and click the “in progress” link in the “video” column. 
  • Zoom: Download the meeting agenda from the calendar, and click the Zoom link on the second page under “public participation.” There are phone numbers provided for audio-only as well.
  • TV: Tune in to the KTOP public access station. It’s channel 10 on Xfinity or 99 on AT&T. 
  • Twitter is usually abuzz during council meetings. If you don’t want to watch the meeting, but would like to follow along with the votes and comments, check out the hashtag #oakmtg. City Council watchers (and detractors) have been tweeting meeting minutiae with this tag for years. That’s also where you’ll find live coverage from our reporters, and many other local journalists and residents.

You can voice your opinion by making a public comment.

Anyone can weigh in on an issue that matters to them during the meeting. Pre-COVID-19, there were comment periods before each item. Now, all public comment on agenda items is taken at the start of the meeting

If you want to bring up something that isn’t on the agenda, there’s another “open forum” period at the end of the meeting. Each speaker is given a set amount of time—usually one to three minutes. Be aware that on Zoom, you’re muted as soon as your time’s up. If you’re not sure where to start, check out these great tips from The Bay’s listeners on participating in your first council meeting

There are two ways to comment:

  • Written: Send a note to the council before the meeting. It won’t be read aloud. Find the meeting here and click “eComment.” 
  • During the Zoom meeting: When public comment starts, you’ll be instructed to click the “Raise Your Hand” button at the bottom of the Zoom window. The clerk calls names out, and unmutes you when you’re up. If you’re tuning in by phone, you can do the same by pressing *9. You’ll have to unmute yourself when you’re up by pressing *6.

While anyone can make a comment in any language, Oakland does not offer interpreter services during public meetings.

What happens during meetings

The first thing you should know is that council meetings can be long. Like, 10 hours long. (But not always!)

The sessions begin with announcements and acknowledgements, which can take some time, then switch to public comment (see above for instructions on speaking). 

Next, the council votes on the “consent calendar.” This is a set of less-controversial items passed all at once, with one vote and no discussion. You can comment about items on the consent calendar and even recommend that an item be removed from this bundled part of the agenda so that a more robust discussion about it can take place.

Next comes the meat of the meeting. The councilmembers discuss, and then vote on, each individual item on the agenda that day. These items can be proposed ordinances, which change city law, or resolutions stating a council position or plan. Often agendas include informational reports from staff that don’t require a vote. 

Even if an ordinance is passed at a meeting, it often must come back for a “second reading,” or final vote, the following meeting. 

Other things to know about Oakland’s government and meetings

Oakland has a “mayor-council” form of government. That means the mayor is elected but is not a member of the City Council. The council president (appointed each year by the council) chairs the meetings, with facilitation from the city clerk, which is not an elected position. When there’s a tie vote, the mayor has the option of showing up to the meeting to break the tie.

Oakland also has an elected city attorney, and members of that office are on hand at council meetings to answer legal questions and serve as the parliamentarian who explains to the council the rules of the meeting. You can read the City Council’s rules of procedure here

All public meetings in California must comply with the Brown Act, which aims to make government more transparent and accessible. Councilmembers can discuss certain matters, like lawsuits, in “closed sessions” that aren’t open to the public, however. Oakland also has its own Sunshine Ordinance which sets transparency requirements like how early the council must notify the public about an upcoming meeting.

Oakland’s executive branch is run by the mayor, who appoints a city administrator to oversee all of the city’s departments. Staffers often give presentations and recommendations to the council about how they should vote, but the council has the ultimate say on policy matters.

Who’s on the council

As of January 2021, the council president is Nikki Fortunato Bas (District 2). 

Other councilmembers are Dan Kalb (District 1), Carroll Fife (3), Sheng Thao (4), Noel Gallo (5), Loren Taylor (6), and Treva Reid (7), and Rebecca Kaplan (At-large). Libby Schaaf is mayor, and Barbara Parker is city attorney. 

Asha Reed is acting city clerk. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.