Nikki Bas, Loren Taylor, and Sheng Thao are the new representatives of Oakland City Council Districts 2, 6, and 4, respectively. To all of them, I say congratulations and welcome to the Oakland City Council.
All of you have worked hard to get to your new public service responsibilities. But, of the three of you, two don’t have any experience at the level of councilperson. So, to Nikki and to Loren, I say this: buckle up!
You’re going to learn the hard way that the real power base isn’t really within your office, it’s with the Oakland City Staff. Protected by law, educated by college, and tempered by experience, that staff person, regardless of how nice they are to you, will always believe they’ve got the information, and you don’t.
I could name names and provide many examples, but I won’t do that. Instead, what I’ll advise you to do is the following:
1. Have in your office staff members who are experienced in working within the City of Oakland. As much as you want to fill your office with friends who helped you the most on the campaign trail, and that’s understandable, make sure you have at least one person who knows the ropes of the City of Oakland. Talk to Joseph Tanios, who has 18 years of experience with the City, and still an employee in the Oakland Public Works Department, about how Oakland works at the staff level. He’s a great person to have on your side. Get to know the City Administrator and the City Attorney. But, for God’s sake, get a staff member who understands the world of city staff and how to ask the right questions.
2. Be careful not to be seen as tampering with the work of city staff. In other words, don’t call them a ton or yell at them or make threats. That may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised what comes out of your mouth when you don’t get what you want. There’s another way to deal with them, and it’s called the bully pulpet: you have it. Use it.
3. Be sure to understand and respect Libby Schaaf, the Mayor of Oakland, and what she wants. But remember that you’re in your Oakland City Hall office not to serve her, but to work for the people of your district. Never forget that. And on the subject of Mayors of Oakland and Councilmembers of Oakland, talk to former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Elihu Harris, and seek out former Oakland City District Four Councilmember Dick Spees, and District Two’s Pat Kernighan and the man who’s leaving, Abel Guillen, for advice. Meet with all of your colleagues, but especially set a meeting with the Dean of Oakland City Councilmembers, District 7’s Larry Reid and Oakland At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (Sheng’s got a built in advantage, here).
4. When I worked as Economic Advisor to Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, he used to say to me “Zennie, there are a thousand games you can play in City Hall, every day. Chose one.” My advice is this: don’t play games, because they can backfire on you. Honesty is the best weapon you have at your disposal, yet it’s the one not used as much as it should be at the City of Oakland. There are far too many city staffers who fear some immagined bad thing would happen if they honestly said what they believed. There are Oakland electeds who smile in your face as much as they want to stab you in the back. Don’t be one of them.
5. Today, the media is you. Don’t be a fool and let the mainstream media (or what’s left of it) tell your story for you. Don’t think you can use just Facebook to get your word out. Make your own video messages and vlogs of what you do, often. Blog! Use Oakland News Now! Get on YouTube! Do a Reddit AMA! Use media tech. Be in the 21st Century of media, not the 20th Century that so many of your colleagues lean on.
6. On that note, know this: you’re now a public figure, full on. That means people can say all kinds of stuff about you, and there’s little you can do about it. So, have a thick skin. Relax. Pray to the Lord for strength. Former Oakland City Administrator Robert Bobb used to say “Don’t get caught in the sniper fire, Zennie.” That’s another way of saying that one should avoid petty arguments. Don’t get into them at City Council, or in public, or online. Just learn to be cool.
7. Don’t ever believe what someone in the City of Oakland says about someone you don’t know yourself. The reason is this: those folks will try and put their issues and insecurities about people on to you, and hope that you help them denounce someone you don’t know. Be an adult and get to know people before rendering judgments about them. You’ll be loved for it, and it will serve you well.
8. Don’t pick enemies. Don’t have something negative to say about someone the moment that person’s name is mentioned. That’s toxic, and it serves no one well, but there are people in the City of Oakland who do that on a daily basis. Avoid them, if you can; love them, if you can’t.
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