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Oakland’s own currency? Mayoral candidates aren’t buying it, yet

on August 12, 2010

The press release relied on some wishful thinking.

Oakland Community Action Network, a small community group headed by resident Wilson Riles, hoped to take advantage of Wednesday’s filing deadline to influence the conversation in the upcoming mayoral election. They invited candidates to talk about creating a local currency in Oakland.

“Each will speak briefly on their candidacies and their support for the Alternative Currency for Oakland Residents and Neighbors (ACORN),” wrote the group in its press release. But the candidates didn’t exactly stick to the plan.

Riles’s idea for “alternative currency” originates from the push for a city identification card that would benefit undocumented immigrants but would also have the side effect of singling them out. He thinks that the card would get a wider audience if it’s digitally linked to a local Oakland currency, the acorn, which would also encourage residents to keep their dollars circulating within the city. (Read more about acorns here.)

It’s an idea that has caught on in other cities and regions worldwide, but implementing the money – which the group wants to name after the fruit of the oak tree and not a political group popularly slammed by Fox News – wasn’t really in the forefront of the mayoral candidates’ minds.

As a man practiced Qigong exercises and a vagrant finished up a breakfast of crackers in front of City Hall, six candidates for Oakland mayor and their respective entourages arrived to participate in the Oakland Community Action Network event, basically just a podium and microphone facing the building. All told it was a group of about 80 people, including candidates, supporters, press, and children.

At least twenty of the attendees were too young to vote; candidate Terrence Candell brought several young supporters and candidate Larry Lionel Young, Jr., a teacher, brought his class, outfitted with signs supporting his candidacy.

Before the speeches began, Zachary Running Wolf, a 2008 Berkeley mayoral candidate, waved a bunch of burning sage to consecrate both the podium and Wilson Riles’s head. Riles didn’t speak about the currency.

The six candidates, most in suits, were ready to take advantage of their respective three minutes in front of a smattering of local TV cameras and reporters, but most were uninterested in focusing on currency or the Oakland Community Action Network. They talked in broad strokes and platitudes about Oakland and its problems, and they elaborated upon their own qualifications for the job.

Candidate Greg Harland, a local serial entrepreneur, went first. He was against the currency, explaining that the city should instead focus on resolving its “shopper-unfriendly environment,” “not having the right mix of stores,” and parking inferior to Emeryville’s.

Joseph Tuman at the podium.

Joseph Tuman, a professor at San Francisco State, was neither for nor against the currency, because he’d just learned about the idea. “Until I understand the details of that better, I can’t say I’d endorse that today,” he said.

Tuman then went on to rail against Oakland’s “unacceptable” problems, like bad schools and poverty, pausing when the wind caused too much noise in the microphone. “See, God’s agreeing with me,” he said after the sound stopped, looking up.

Donald L. Macleay, the official Green Party candidate, supported the proposal with the caveat that “there’s a lot of ifs, ands, and buts.”

Orlando Johnson, who works with the Oakland Community Action Network and was dressed in unusually-textured green pants, launched into a sweet and heartfelt speech about how he didn’t have a lot of formal education and that world experience should count, adding no one should be seen as fundamentally better than anyone else. He then announced that he was dropping out of the race.

Jean Quan, who probably had the most supporters present who were of voting age, used her time at the podium to insinuate something about the deep pockets of her rivals. “Is Oakland for sale?” she asked. “What kind of race is this going to be?”

At the end of her three minutes, after the moderator reminded her to comment on the idea of an alternative currency, Quan unceremoniously tacked on her support, saying she was “working on some ideas.”

Orlando Johnson bows out of the race.

“I have touched some 200,000 people,” Terrence Candell boomed after sidling up to the podium to a few scattered cheers, though it wasn’t clear if he meant Oakland residents or another group.

Candell was the biggest proponent of establishing Oakland’s own currency, and he said he wanted to do much more, like charging a one percent tax on commuters who work in Oakland but live elsewhere. He also said he wants to add a toll plaza on the East Bay side of the Bay Bridge “so people not only pay for San Francisco – so we can make money for our own city.” Candell was apparently unaware that bridge tolls are administered by the Bay Area Toll Authority and the state agency Caltrans, not by individual cities.

Larry Lionel Young, Jr. spoke last, and his supporters mostly appeared to be too young to vote. He supported Candell’s idea of a commuter tax but wasn’t willing to back the Oakland currency just yet. He spoke confidently of the need to help youth. “You can’t police your way out of crime,” he said. He also said he wanted people to really live and function within the city, though it was unclear if he was implying that some people reside in Oakland and do too much living in other cities, or if he was accusing residents  of keeping to themselves. “If Oakland is good enough to live in, then Oakland is good enough to live in,” Young said.

Both Don Perata and Rebecca Kaplan, considered among the frontrunners in the race, did not attend.

After the press conference, candidates and press networked briefly, trying to make sense of what had happened and which candidate was which. Some double-checked that Orlando Johnson had actually dropped out of the race. As the attendees slowly dispersed, a small group of activists handed out flyers reminding people not to forget Oscar Grant.

Lead image: Mayoral Candidates left to right. Greg Harland hugging Larry Lionel Young, Jr., Joseph Tuman (obscured), Terence Candell, Orlando Johnson, Jean Quan, and Donald Macleay. 

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  1. Cheryl on August 12, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Seriously? No wonder Perata and Kaplan didn’t show up. What a joke.

  2. George on August 12, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Why are you even wasting your time covering such an event?

  3. Anne on August 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    This story made me laugh. Hard. Thank you for covering the event and showing the absolute absurdity that all Oaklanders live with day in and day out.

  4. JoCo on August 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    George – I think that’s the very point the author is making. The event got hijacked by a travelling circus of pathetic opportunists. Talk about “Hi Mom, I’m on TV and I want to be a mayor!”.

    Credit to the two that didn’t sink to this level.

  5. KingofthePaupers on August 12, 2010 at 2:12 pm


    A mayor faced with rising costs and shrinking revenues,
    To study any proposition, he would not refuse.
    “So many think the job of being mayor is such a snap,
    But the decisions that I’m faced with are an ugly trap.
    With tools, materials and trades that cover total range,
    Yet one ingredient is lacking, money to exchange.

    If snowstorm hits the city and there are no funds to pay,
    What does my council have to do to clear the snow away?
    We pledge a million dollar bond to banks to get the cash,
    With which we pay the skillful men who clear snow in a flash.
    The merchants gladly take the funds for soon they have to pay,
    The taxes for the snow removal that was done that day.
    But though a million principle was spent, we must request,
    That citizens be taxed for principle and interest.

    To budget who gets scarce resources isn’t ever fun,
    But interest on city’s debt is always number one.
    Whatever rate the bankers set is due amount I pay,
    Unhappily, which projects live or die’s my only say.
    But if it’s true Greendollars serve as well as Locals tell:
    Why shouldn’t government be one to try it out as well?
    When another snowstorm hits without the funds to pay,
    We’ll test to see if LETS Greendollars are a better way.
    This time we pledge the million bond to Treasury instead,
    And see if use of Green will get us very much ahead.
    The merchant should accept Greendollars as another way,
    His taxes needed for the snow removal, he can pay.
    Again we’ll spend a million but the tax to be assessed,
    Including only principle without the interest.
    Before the budget allocations are completely spent,
    Could LETS Greendollars help reverse project abandonment?
    If council members for their tax took part of pay in Green,
    We’d have some cash left over which is something rarely seen.
    If civil service took some Green at least for taxes due,
    The extra cash would guarantee that extra jobs ensue.
    We’d offer Green to fix a pothole to a company,
    Wishing to pay their tax with unemployed capacity.
    With Green we’d pay for road repairs and all would gladly take,
    Greendollars from the working men so payment all could make;
    And we could build our hospitals and all would take as pay,
    Greendollars to buy medicine and service they purvey.
    Today, in our society, where money clearly lacks,
    Who could refuse some paper anyone may use for tax?
    Greendollar paychecks could be earned by all desiring work,
    The opportunity to pull their weight so few would shirk.

    The only question left is how the tax should be assessed,
    For goods and services? A simple formula to test.
    For services, we’d levy tax at end of every year.
    For assets, tax to pay depreciation. It’s so clear.
    The government that spent the most and had the highest tax,
    Would be the government providing citizens the max.

    Jct: So let’s see how many of these local politicans show any brains.

  6. Andy K on August 12, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Bad idea. What other cities are doing this? I’ve heard this repeated, w/o any specifics given.

    Worse event. None of these clowns will get my vote.

  7. Larry Lionel Young Jr. on August 12, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Do any of you Oakland residents (who have) commented have any good ideas for the city?

  8. Karen on August 12, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I don’t think the candidates sunk to any low level. They are trying to get in front of voters and talk about their ideas. I bet they had no idea they were going to be asked about an alternative currency. Too bad more people didn’t show up and support their candidate. There are many people who live in Oakland and work around the corner or across the street from this event. I’m wondering if the group hosting this event even did a decent job of announcing the event.

  9. […] Oakland's own currency? Mayoral candidates aren't buying it, yet … […]

  10. mct on August 14, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Yo Anrica this was incredible. Exactly the kind of local reporting I am interested in.

  11. […] Oakland's own currency? Mayoral candidates aren't buying it, yet … […]

  12. Blane Fultun on August 19, 2010 at 1:05 am

    Want to win as mayor? Tell this to the voters:

    * Crime is the #1 issue

    * Kill all city programs and hires made by the current city council; use the savings to buy back the cops and defeat the parcel tax scam

    * Flash a bat signal into the clouds at night to remind Oakland voters that you’re tough on crime

    * Diminish crime in downtown by relocating the jail and social services building to a freight ship in the harbor.

    * Tax the Port of Oakland for their use of city roads.

    * Restore the economic vitality of West Oakland by relocating the projects that surround the BART station to Marin (where the developers who created them live).

    * Ensure that no new housing project development happen, until neighboring cities carry an equal share of the house-project-burden

    * Give the police financial incentives to lower crime

    * Remove the current catch-and-release judges and DAs – restore moral in OPD.

    * Explain to OPD’s union that you are prepared to contract private security for the city at half the cost unless they agree to reasonable salaries and benefits, however if a cop choses to live in medium crime district in Oakland, he may keep his existing benefits while doing so.

    * Copy Emeryville’s city plan

  13. len raphael on August 22, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Asked a UCB economics doctoral student friend, his take on the ACORNS. Gave him the links for the organization and related theoretical support.

    “Regarding ACORNS. I am not exactly sure if voodoo economics is the right way to put it… but I am skeptical. First off, it is not clear exactly how people are substantiating their claims of monetary benefits to the city of oakland. Sure, having some dollars only spend-able in Oakland might force people to spend money locally – but there is no magic free money. It is not as if the city could just start issuing currency; especially since I don’t know who would believe they could back it up when it had to be redeemed.

    At best, I could see the city negotiating with local merchants to provide a discount for the potential volume of business drummed up.
    However, economic theory will tell you that any such discount would ultimately just result in raised prices if the businesses are functioning in a competitive environment. Otherwise, we are actually talking about independent currency – and that just seems like a disaster waiting to happen… could you imagine the city of Oakland facing exchange-rate risk or trade deficits with respect to any transactions in surrounding communities? Not good.

    Unfortunately, I am not sure of what other good alternatives are out there. Most other solutions consist of lending money, but ultimately Oakland has to show that it can balance a budget, at least in the long run if nothing else. So I don’t think that local currency is necessarily the solution – but I don’t know what else is either.”

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