Oakland City Hall's white stone spire rises into the blue sky, partially obscured by the wall of a modern glass and steel office building.
Oakland City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

There’s something unusual in the air at Oakland City Hall these days: a spirit of cooperation.

Committee meetings, arenas for thunderous arguments between council members in past years, now tend to feature civil—if not sedate—discussions between elected officials that often resolve quickly.

Most resolutions receive unanimous approval and an easy ticket onto the full council’s “consent calendar,” a laundry list of proclamations, resolutions, and ordinances that usually get approved without discussion. Attend a full City Council meeting, and you’re likely to see the bulk of the agenda get greenlit with a single vote.

Even in the face of a historical shortfall, the tone of council discussions about the city’s next budget has been positively placid compared to the fierce budget debates of 2020, when Mayor Libby Schaaf was forced to cast a tie-breaking vote.

City Hall watchers and past and present councilmembers who spoke with The Oaklandside agreed that this shift toward consensus is real. Some noted that the City Council typically has a “honeymoon” period under a new mayor when officials play nice as they get to know one another. But six months into Thao’s tenure, this dynamic appears to be more than skin deep.

Observers had different takes on why it’s happening and what it means for Oakland. Some are glad the Council has moved away from the rancorous debates that periodically erupted under Schaaf. Others are concerned that the lack of debate makes the chamber less transparent and responsive to the public’s input.

“When you don’t have debate, you don’t surface other perspectives,” said John Pelissero, senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “The Council can also easily move to a vote to approve things without having fleshed out in public the pros and cons” of potential policy decisions.

Pelissero added that he believes consent agendas, in general, should be reserved for routine items, such as the payment of bills. As a best practice, he said, councils should avoid placing weighty policy items on the consent agenda if they haven’t received significant prior discussion in committees and input from residents.

Eight people sit on the Oakland City Council: Rebecca Kaplan, Dan Kalb, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Carroll Fife, Janani Ramachandran, Noel Gallo, Kevin Jenkins, and Treva Reid. All are Democrats, which is typical for a Bay Area city, and the majority are self-described progressives. 

Mayor Sheng Thao, a former councilmember who became mayor in January, is also a self-described progressive. During last year’s election, Thao received public endorsements from three of her colleagues: Kalb, Kaplan, and Bas, who is also Council President. The newest councilmembers—Jenkins and Ramachandran—appear to lean progressive. Reid and Gallo are widely considered to be political moderates compared to their colleagues.

Zack Wasserman, a long-time Oakland resident, attorney, and lobbyist, said this council is the most cohesive he’s seen since the 1970s. Wasserman noted that most of the councilmembers appear to share a sense of mission, making it a more civil body than its predecessors. He said this council seems more committed to action than discussion, with the sense that once they’ve hashed out a new policy at the committee level, they should advance it to a full City Council meeting to vote it quickly into law, rather than further debatings its merits.

Wasserman said Thao’s strategy of working closely with the City Council has proven effective, especially compared with her two predecessors, Libby Schaaf and Jean Quan. “The mayor has reached out and worked very hard on the budget and other things to sort of maintain the alliance with the council,” he said. “I think it’s affected the budget discussion and process—I don’t think it’s a product of it.”

Bas, who was elected in 2019, agrees that the council is working together more cooperatively than in previous years. She noted that several members are thoughtful about crafting policy, and they aren’t shy about scrutinizing details. “I have yet to see any controversial issues go through our process without serious questions from most, if not all, of the councilmembers,” she said.

Bas also believes the council’s cooperative dynamic predates Thao’s administration. “I have been very intentional since the day I became Council President in 2021 to create a more collaborative environment among the councilmembers,” she said. For example, she incorporated input from all councilmembers in the mid-cycle budget in 2021. As a result, she said, the council approved the budget unanimously.

Bas credits Thao with ushering in some new precedents that help breed consensus. For example, Bas said Thao’s office proactively invited her and the council budget team to preview the proposed budget before it was published. By contrast, Bas had to request a briefing from Schaaf, and it was held one-on-one without the council team.

The biennial budget isn’t a done deal; it still needs to be approved by June 30. Council amendments introduced earlier this week revealed some conflicting priorities among individual members and the mayor. But Bas has underscored the council’s support for the mayor’s budget by repeatedly uplifting Thao’s title for the document—“One Oakland”—in public comments.

Councilmember Carroll Fife, who was elected in 2020, said councilmembers have also been forced to take a more collaborative approach because of the city’s fiscal crisis. Mayor Thao’s proposed budget addresses a historic $360 million shortfall in the general fund. Fife said discussions about the current budget are calm compared to the last one, which had some “issues” on the dais. 

Still, Fife said the council has disagreements about funding priorities, and she criticized members who talk about what they want to fund without proposing necessary cuts. She also pushed back against the idea that anyone on the council would cooperate for the sake of preserving a unified political bloc.

“I don’t believe we’re necessarily at risk of that,” Fife said. “Under the leadership of this administration, we’re trying to achieve some objectives to turn Oakland around.”  

Thao was unavailable for comment for this story but shared this through a spokesperson: “As a council member, Mayor Thao saw firsthand how critical it was to the success of the city that each branch work together. So she made it clear from Day One that she would seek every opportunity for collaboration with the City Council.”

A healthy consensus—or a disturbing lack of debate?

Oakland City Council 03072023
The entrance to the Oakland City Council Chamber in City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

Current and former officials agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly altered how City Councilmembers work together.

For nearly three years, Oakland shut down in-person meetings. The public could still attend via Zoom or by calling in, but they had less access to public officials than before, partly because public comments were restricted to the beginning and end of agendas, as opposed to now, where people have the opportunity to chime in after every item. The council didn’t start meeting in person again until this March. 

Ignacio De La Fuente, a former Oakland councilmember who ran for mayor last year, said the pandemic insulated councilmembers from public scrutiny.

“They got a taste of what they can do behind closed doors because of COVID,” he said. “They’re passing policies with very little debate, without any sense for the public of how good or bad they are.”

De La Fuente, who served on the council for 20 years, said it was unusual to see so many items approved unanimously and placed on the consent calendar. During his own tenure, he said, he had a reliable voting bloc of five councilmembers, but there was frequent dissent from the others.

“There’s less public deliberation and debate, especially around complex issues, than there has been before,” former District 6 Councilmember and mayoral candidate Loren Taylor said. “It seems we have these backroom deals happening because they’re not interrogating [policies] that come forward. That’s the concern and risk we have when a council is hyper-aligned.” He acknowledged that some recent issues at council have prompted spirited debate, such as the back and forth between legislators over the eviction moratorium.

Taylor said some of Oakland’s strongest policies have emerged through intense debate and disagreement. For example, he touted the city’s homelessness encampment management policy, which lays out rules for where homeless people can camp and guides the city’s response to problems at camps. Another example was the creation of Oakland’s cannabis tax policy.

“That deliberation required multiple committee meetings leading up to council meetings, and different proposals were brought forward, evaluated, and talked through,” he said.

Taylor said the process of approving the city’s biennial budget is normally when “the kid gloves come off.” But he noted that the City Council has been supportive of Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed budget since it was introduced last month. He observed that Thao and Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas are working closely together on the budget.  

“The mayor has done a great job lining up votes for the budget—there’s not much pushback for what she proposed,” Taylor said. “I don’t think we should anticipate much shift despite the significant public voice that’s out there.”  

Councilmember Noel Gallo, who has been in office since 2013, is perhaps the least politically aligned member of the council. Gallo has publicly criticized the usefulness of Thao’s proposal to merge several departments. He also expressed reservations about hiring the new city administrator, Jestin Johnson, who is from Atlanta, GA, because he wants Oakland to hire locals. And Gallo criticized Thao for firing Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, saying it did not help with “moving Oakland forward.”

Still, Gallo said he respects his colleagues and recognizes he needs to “play the political game” to get his own policies approved. Recently, the council passed an ordinance he introduced that imposes new penalties on promoters and organizers of sideshows. Gallo was forced to take out language from the draft legislation that would have allowed police to arrest sideshow spectators, which bothered some councilmembers.

“Sometimes I go along with things just so they can help me with the next issue,” Gallo said, adding that, as a politician, it’s helpful not to close your mind to people with different political perspectives. “The moment you do that, you’re going to be all alone, and you might as well not be there.”

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.