Steven Falk Oakland - Photo By KQED

Choice Of Steven Falk As Oakland Mayor Schaaf’s Interim City Administrator, Says She Doesn’t Want Black Men For CAO

Steven Falk, the former Lafayette City Manager, was advanced as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s selection to replace outgoing City Manager Sabrina Landreith. Unfortunately, Mayor Schaaf continues a pattern of forming a “whites preferred, but black women are OK” Chief Administrative Office staff. (Note, the title is not intended to say that Mr. Falk said anything, only that the action by the Mayor says that she doesn’t want black men as Chief Administrative Officer or Assistant Chief Administrative Officer. In six years, only one black man has been hired, as will be discussed, below.)

UPDATE: Justin Berton from the Oakland Mayor’s Office sent this text:

“Saw your post on Steven Falk. If you’re going to count hires by race and/or ethnicity, your readers might want to be aware that when Mayor Schaaf was elected there were only two African American males who were department heads.Now there are six, including Director of Planning & Building and Public Works, which were previously held by white women.”

My response was that the hiring of Oakland department heads below the Chief Administrative Office itself was not directly attributable to Libby.

To add to this post, and to take up Mr. Berton’s text, let’s take a look at a 2017 photo and Zennie62Media video-blog of the Oakland Mayor’s Office Staff. Can anyone spot a single black man in the staff photo?

If one takes a look at the current Chief Administrative Office staff, it’s completely devoid of African American men. Moreover, her recent replacement as Director of the Economic And Workforce Development Department for a white guy Mark Salwicki, was a white woman Alexa Jeffress. (And while we’re at it, what happened to Mark Salwicki? There was no formal announcement about his future.)


And when you think about it, all of Mayor Schaaf’s CAO appointees have followed that pattern since she was elected, save for the brief involvement of the legendary Henry Gardner. In total history, Mayor Schaaf started with Gardner as her first interim CAO choice in 2014, then after a very short period, brought in John Flores from Emeryville, and then hired Sabrina Landreth, again from Emeryville, for the head job. But if one considers both head and Assistant CAO position hires, the picture for black men in the City of Oakland gets worse. In other words, Libby’s lens would not allow her to see and seek out a black man who would be new to Oakland for the CAO’s office. Only one with a solid history, like Gardner, would be allowed.

So, on this Black History Month 2020, when there’s a powerful, and yet informal campaign among African Americans nation wide that I call “When they see us” – and referring to the observation that some (but thankfully very far from all) white Americans don’t want to see someone black in charge of anything, or doing anything other than something that fits a negative stereotype – here’s Libby acting in a fashion that can only be called one thing: racially tone-deaf.

I’m writing this to my long time friend (since 1991) in the hope that it serves as the blog equivalent of that cold bucket of ice water she might dump on herself as part of the “Ice Bucket Challenge”. It’s a wake up call. It’s a challenge for her to reverse a long-standing habit she has been tagged with. It’s something she and I talked about a long time ago. And yet, it seems to come up, again and again.

Libby tends to express by action the view that African Americans are more folks who need help, rather than full, true economic and social partners. Want current proof: look at The Oakland Promise and its specific focus on poor black families in Oakland. The program is laudable, but Mayor Schaaf has had that in her mind going all the way back to the Oakland CARES program that I helped her with some decades ago. There’s nothing at all wrong with that focus if it has a healthy dose of wealthy black involvement, to start. Marshalling rich black folks was not part of Libby’s approach with The Oakland Promise. Moreover, addressing disinvestment in black businesses, which would help black adults, was not on her agenda.

This behavior is something I pointed out to her in 2013, and during the current City Auditor’s nasty and in my opinion quite racist attack on Oakland City Councilmembers Larry Reid and Desley Brooks, and for doing something that each and every Oakland City Council person has done for decades: call city staff regarding a project.

Libby (who was Oakland’s District Four Councilmember at the time) called me because a local activist had wrongly accused her of being racist. Her take was that because she helped black folks, she was not racist. I immediately asked her to not think of us that way. I said “Look, I’m your equal. Call on me for help. Don’t say stuff like that. It makes it sound like you’re above us.” We continued talking for a good while, and she abstained from voting for the censure of Councilmembers Larry Reid and Desley Brooks. Arguably, it helped her on the path I wanted her to be on: toward Mayor of Oakland.

The Author with Mayor Schaaf
The Author with Mayor Schaaf

So, since I take some measure of responsibility for promoting and helping Mayor Schaaf to become the 50th Mayor of Oakland, and the city’s first white female CEO, I am breaking the glass around that private episode of our relationship to get Libby to restore the race sensitive lens she once firmly had in place when she wasn’t in power. We’re in crisis, here, in this town we love. Time to sound the alarm, so I’m doing it.

Blacks have left Oakland at an alarmingly high rate, and a set of racist incidents starting with BBQ Becky and then most recently with two City of Oakland Planning and Zoning employees calling the police on black former Oakland City Councilmember Wilson Riles, have given Oakland the look of being anti-black in some quarters.

Here’s Why Jeremy Gong Really Isn’t Running For The Oakland City Council District 1 Seat In 2020
Here’s Why Jeremy Gong Really Isn’t Running For The Oakland City Council District 1 Seat In 2020

Even a would-be Oakland City Council District One candidate named Jeremy Gong had the nerve to write that the Democratic Socialists of America East Bay Chapter should essentially ignore black voices complaining about racism, in the consideration of endorsing Cat Brooks in her run for Mayor of Oakland!


Enough of this craziness.

Racism Masked By Pseudo-Intellectual Pro-Gentrification Housing Policy Is Alive In Oakland

The people and publications that want the Oakland City Council to rubber stamp Mayor Schaaf’s choice of Mr. Falk, form a non-diverse coalition of people who are focused on one thing: higher density building. And I should add, they expect higher density building but without subsidies to cause a truly giant addition of affordable housing units. You know? Like the one’s we had when California Redevelopment Law was active – but using trickle-down economics.

Their idea is another form of 1980 Reagan-Era Supply Side Economics. In other words, if you build a ton of housing, eventually the rents will come down because you’ll have an oversupply of units. The problem is that doesn’t happen fast enough to end the homeless emergency. The only reason for embarking on that policy path? It makes the real estate developers happy.

This current group of policy makers doesn’t understand the business of real estate investment: the way to get affordable housing to be built on a large scale is via gap financing: filling in the revenue loss faced by the developer due to lower rents with money to the same developer from tax increment financing.

That formula worked for years – until Jerry Brown got rid of it, and because he said it would save the state money. But comments Brown made recently and during his time as Mayor of Oakland point to the real issue: Jerry Brown didn’t like subsidies for affordable housing. In 1999, Brown said to Salon’s Joan Walsh that gentrification was neighborhood improvement.


So, now, nine years after Brown killed California Redevelopment Law in 2011, Oakland has a giant homeless population, and an exodus of many African Americans, save those who joined the giant ranks of the homeless. Elderly black women have been targets of illegal evictions in West Oakland and in East Oakland. And overall, this nutty anti-poor and anti-black Oakland economy has caused so much more in service costs that we need to pass Measure Q to pay for them.

Meanwhile, the non-diverse coalition of people who are focused on one thing: higher density building seem to think that zoning, alone, will somehow magically cause a ton of affordable housing to sprout up. Folks, anyone who expresses that idea should be laughed at as flunking basic economics. All that housing will cause is higher rents – only a recession-bound economy will cause a cooling of the housing market under those conditions.

The real estate developers who are part of this non-diverse coalition of people who are focused on one thing: higher density building, and want to continue the gravy train of profits due to higher rents; the homeless problem’s secondary to them.

They stand in the way of any change that will reduce their profit margins. So, the best way to feed their profits and expect to get more affordable housing is via subsidy. In other words, the simple math of real estate investment. The kind of math the City of Oakland was great at doing when it had a diverse team of people in the City Administrator’s Office that included, and at times were ran by, black men.

Libby Schaaf Must Bring Back Robert Bobb To Run Oakland

Libby should bite the bullet and bring back Oakland City Administrator Robert Bobb. It would signal a complete reversal of Brown’s action of firing Bobb for trying to build a downtown baseball stadium that would have transformed Uptown Oakland. Bobb would know how to tackle the problems we face and he knows Oakland, and is a legendary and nationally-respected civic manager who brought baseball to Washington D.C, which now has a world champion to brag about.

Libby knows that there’s no good reason to not have Bobb in Oakland. He would be world’s better than Steven Falk. Sorry, that’s just a fact. (Got that, Libby?)

Besides, Falk resigned from his job in Lafayette on his own. That was his choice. I don’t think the reason he left automatically qualifies him to be a great CAO in Oakland. The housing density issue is not Oakland’s problem: homelessness and high rents are.

My View Is Not Racist But It Is Race-Concious

Look, the problem here is that the City of Oakland’s recent CAO hiring process has been de facto racist. It’s not racist to point it out, and any claims to the contrary are nothing more than a feeble attempt at gaslighting me. Don’t even think about it. There’s nothing wrong with seeing race and ethnicity.

My old teacher Mr. Ritizo at Skyligh High School (Class of 1980) used to say “I’m Italian” and openly expressed pride in where he came from. He was my favorite teacher, and a true friend. I loved that he loved being Italian, and it made me more interested in Italy – even though I wound up with a greater interest in France and french women, but I digress. My point is, I’m proud to be African American, and we should all see and be interested in the racial and ethnic backgrounds of each other, love them, and take care to make sure they’re represented.

While not openly stating a preference, the City of Oakland’s desire to have white employees and the occasional black female is expressed by action – that doesn’t mean its not racist. It’s something that’s been the talk of Oakland since about one year after Libby got into office. I defended Mayor Schaaf for a long time, and a number of blacks in Oakland have teased me about it, even as recently as last week. But I just can’t do it anymore – the problem is too acute. Libby has to change and for the good of Oakland.

I don’t care that she’s mad at me because Oakland’s future is more important. Besides, if she does shift gears, history will smile on her. Right now, it’s frowning. The sad statistic is that Mayor Schaaf has hired one black male public administrative official for the City of Oakland’s Chief Administrative Office in since 2014 – that’s six years.

Given that it’s 2020, does Mayor Schaaf plan to finish out her two terms and eight years running Oakland with a record of hiring one black male public administrative official for the City of Oakland’s Chief Administrative Office over her near decade of service? For a city known for bringing in talented black male public administrators over its history, this pattern is nothing short of alarming.

Moreover, if you think this problem is confined to the Oakland Chief Administrative Office, click to read this March 15, 2019, Oakland Post article entitled “Oakland Black Officers challenge racist culture at OPD”, which starts out like this:

The Oakland Black Officers Association (OBOA) is very concerned that a culture remains in place at Oakland Police Department (OPD) and in senior leadership that could be perceived as unfair, racist, inequitable and not in line with the Oakland Police Department’s core values. We believe the citizens of Oakland deserve a police department with strong senior leadership that acts quickly and decisively when faced with tough decisions and challenges around race and equity. We are even more concerned that our current leadership does not effectively meet these challenges…Over the years, the OBOA has been made aware of instances of disparate treatment of our members, at all ranks, as well as from our professional/ civilian staff members. Some of the disparate treatment includes:

-Unfair/biased treatment in personnel decisions

-Unfair and/or biased Internal Affairs Investigations and discipline

-Overlooking qualified Black officers/members for assignments and positions

-Biased/Unfair treatment of Black applicants during, hiring, the Academy, and Field Training Program

And that was last year, and under the watch of the Oakland police chief Mayor Schaaf appointed.

Forget Mr. Falk for the CAO job, Libby. Bring in a black man. Bring back Robert Bobb. And for those who asked, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators provides a great place to locate great African American talent, both male and female.

Stay tuned.

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