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Earthquakes, Earth Day and potholes: Behind the scenes at City Council

on April 1, 2010

This week Oakland’s City Council is holding two critical public meetings: One will address the city’s long-term climate change plan, and another will reconcile the 2010 budget. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the city’s business can take a back seat.  

On a Monday afternoon in a cramped office on City Hall’s second floor, District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan and her four staff members are seated in a circle, running through their weekly agenda. Cell phones chirp with messages that go unanswered for now. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama peer down over the proceedings from posters on the wall. This is the first of a series of Monday meetings for Quan and her staff, as they pivot between their district’s needs and their work with the rest of the council to govern the city.

Lauren Hanzel, who is filling in for a Quan staff member on maternity leave, has put together a list of all the Earth Day activities in District 4. Earth Day is April 22, but the city’s Public Works Agency will host a celebration on April 17, and someone needs to make sure to distribute some of the city’s free reusable green shopping bags and handouts to residents before then. Chief of Staff Richard Cowan and Community Liaison Sue Piper swivel back to their computer screens, click keyboards and consult schedules. “I’ll put them in my station wagon and start delivering them,” Cowan assures his colleagues.

Quan’s Monday staff meeting is the half-hour lightening round of Oakland public policy to prepare for the week ahead. It’s full of fast-paced exchanges between people who often finish each other’s sentences. Quan wields an orange highlighter over her copy of the agenda amd coffee mugs and Diet Coke cans abound. The conversation turns to Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies (CORE), the city’s earthquake preparedness program.

“Oakland’s longest section of the Hayward Fault Line is in our district,” says Quan, who represents neighborhoods including Laurel, Montclair and Dimond on City Council. “We’d better be prepared!” Cowan notes that CORE has distributed more earthquake emergency kits to District 4 than any other part of the city.

The Hayward Fault Line isn’t the only potential problem for Quan’s constituents. Fire season is about to start, and the city’s emergency services need to be ready. No one wants a repeat of the 1991 firestorms in the Oakland Hills. Then there are the potholes on Telegraph Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard. And just the day before, someone painted swastikas on a Greek Orthodox Church on Lincoln Avenue in Quan’s district. Terrie Gellen, the staff member who handles public safety issues, says she has been on the phone to talk to Lieutenant James Meeks, the police officer handling the investigation. The police are considering it a hate crime, and it could be kids from the neighborhood who are responsible.

“If it is kids and they catch them, there’s a chance for restorative justice,” Quan says.  “They’ll be the ones to clean it up. And if the church has already been cleaned up, we’ll find something else for them to clean. I’m going to talk to John about it.”

John is John Russo, Oakland City Attorney. Most of the people who come up during the meeting are identified by their first names only. “We should talk to Ignacio about this,” Quan says. (That’s Ignacio de La Fuente, District 5 council representative for Fruitvale and East Oakland.) “And Larry will want to know about that.” (That’s Larry Reid, who represents District 7.)

Representatives from every district, of course, want to know about potholes. They’ve been the charge of municipal government since Antony and Cleopatra bickered about them from their chariot in Alexandria, and Oakland is no exception. The city’s Public Works Department will be passing through Quan’s district as part of the city’s “Pothole Blitz” in May, and residents need to know they can be added to the list for repairs—it’s mostly first-come, first-served. “I’ll make sure that gets in the newsletter,” Piper says. That’s the newsletter Piper sends out every week to the more than 6,000 people on Quan’s e-mail distribution list.

The four o’clock hour approaches, and with it a fresh batch of meetings. Gellen sneaks out quietly. As the district’s public safety liaison, she’s scheduled for a ride-along with the Oakland Police. Quan’s expected down the hall for an Oakland Army Base redevelopment meeting, so it’s time to wrap things up. “What’s left on the agenda?” Quan asks. The Oakland Historical Association wants to do more to promote the city’s historic homes. Cowan and Piper start listing them off: Peralta, Dunsmuir Pardee, Abbey and Camron-Stanford. “There may be money from hotel tax funds,” Quan says. “Let’s look into that. Anything else?”

“Yes, there’ve been a series of accidents at an intersection in Allendale,” Piper notes. “Time to make a call to the police about it.”

“It’s a problem with the speed bumps over there,” Quan says matter-of-factly. “You put one on one street, and the traffic speeds up on the two streets next to it.”

It’s four o’clock. Some items will have to wait until the next meeting. Quan runs down the hall to her meeting on redeveloping the old army base. Cowan starts checking his voice mail, and Piper sneaks in a Passover call to her family in New York before heading down the hallway to set up a meeting on the city’s seismic evaluation process. Despite staff cuts across City Council, Quan and other offices are doing what they can to move forward with city business.

Over on the other side of City Hall near the City Clerk’s Office, Quan and Piper are hosting a conference with Jeanne Perkins and Danielle Hutchins from the Association of Bay Area Governments. Quan won’t make the beginning of the meeting—she’ll be finishing up with the army base redevelopment force—so Piper and Xiaojing Wang from Councilmember Nancy Nadel’s office are setting things up. Perkins and Hutchins are here to brief the city’s contractors about soft-story buildings in Oakland, multi-floor structures with large open first-floor for parking garages or storefront windows. These are the buildings most likely to collapse during a major earthquake.

As contractors file in, Piper and Perkins fiddle with the computer projector. After a few adjustments, Perkins and Hutchins begin their Power Point presentation. It showcases a heap of broken buildings, apartments that swayed, buckled and collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes. These were all soft-story buildings with unreinforced first-floor parking garages or storefronts.

Here in Oakland, there may be as many as 1,500 of these soft-story buildings—they would be the most vulnerable structures in a major quake. Some of these buildings are apartments and condominiums, and as many as 21,000 dwelling units may be at elevated risk.  It’s up to these contractors to find out exactly how many, and the city is licensing them to help. Once these buildings are identified, they need to be fixed fast. Geologists say a major temblor rocks the Hayward Fault Line under Oakland every 150 years or so, and the clock has been ticking since the last big one in 1868. Under the worst-case scenario, more than 80,000 Oakland residents could be without a home for weeks after a quake.

“Every building with more than two stories and five units needs to fill out a form,” Hutchins tells the contactors. “These are the ones most at risk, and will need an evaluation.”

Quan’s meeting with the army base group has finished, and she has snuck quietly into the back row here at the earthquake meeting. She whispers some questions to Ray Derania, Oakland’s building services manager. Hutchins and Perkins occasionally call over to Derania to confirm some details they’re giving to the contractors. The rules are a little bit different in Oakland than they are in Berkeley or Alameda. There are 101 city governments in the Bay Area, each with its own rules and regulations. As the presentations come to a close, Quan talks about different financing strategies to help owners with renovations. But the main message is one of concern for the damage an earthquake could do to the city.

“This could be our Katrina,” she says. “If these buildings go down, a third to a half of our rental units could be wiped out. We’re doing everything we can to maintain these buildings before an earthquake happens.”

The meeting draws to a close, and contractors exchange nods and business cards. It’s approaching 7 o’clock, and the sun is beginning to set behind City Hall.Quan stands with Derania at the door, looking worn down from the day but still chatting with constituents about what’s next for Oakland. Today it was earthquakes, Earth Day and potholes. Tomorrow, it will be something else entirely.


  1. Al on April 1, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    nice summary. And wow, there’s a stat. 112 city governments. That’s a mouthful and then some. Does that include all the various boards and commissions as well?

    I’d love to see a breakdown for all the counties, especially by type and whether they are paid or not?

    Can this be found on one site?

  2. John Grennan on April 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Dear Al,

    Thanks for your comment. My original story overstated the number of city governments in the Bay Area by 11. According to the Association of Bay Area Government’s website, there are 101 city governments: My original figure of 112 also included county and other regional government bodies in the Bay Area. I’ve corrected it in this version of the story.

  3. Cell Phone User on April 1, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    I hope preparedness also means cell facility infrastructure. Coverage is terrible in many areas in the Hills where it is most needed and would aid public safety. I hope she is smart enough to d something about that.

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