"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done" - Protestant Episcopal Church 1928 U.S. Book of Common Prayer


Did Mayor Schaaf's Political Ambition Cost Oakland A Seat On The Bay Area Air Quality Board?

Posted by the OGS website October 5, 2018

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

One of the most serious criticisms of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is that she often puts her personal ambitions over the requirements of the job to which she’s been elected, and her responsibility to the people she was elected to serve.

The mayor’s ambition-over-duty may have been on display earlier this year when Ms. Schaaf was accused of playing a major role in the loss of Oakland representation on the governing board of the important Bay Area Air Quality Management District  (BAAQMD) in order to strike a blow at a chief political rival.

Both personally and through her staff, the mayor has denied the accusation.

There can be no more important an issue to the people who live, work, and spend time in Oakland than the quality of the air we all breathe. It is literally a life and death issue, in fact. And BAAQMD is the inter-governmental agency that monitors, manages, and enforces the quality of the air we breathe in the Bay Area.

Who are the people who steer BAAQMD’s direction and help make the decisions about where the air district’s valuable attention and resources should go?

That would be the district’s Board of Directors. The Board is made up of 24 representatives from nine Bay Area counties, four of them representing governments in Alameda County. Two of the Alameda County seats go to members of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, the two others from the various cities within the county. Members are elected to the board by sitting board members themselves, with the board selecting the two Alameda County city government representatives from nominees put up by the Alameda County Mayors’ Conference.

Even though Oakland is the city with the largest population in Alameda by far, with the most serious air pollution problems, the city has no guaranteed representation on the BAAQMD board. But for the past four years Oakland held one of those positions, the seat occupied by Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. Until Kaplan was elected to the board in 2014, Oakland had not had a representative on that board for 25 years.

By many accounts, Kaplan was an effective BAAQMD board member representing both Oakland’s and the entire Bay Area’s environmental and health interests. Her four-year term was scheduled to end in March of this year, and support for her reappointment began building months before among local environmental groups.

In a December, 2017 news release urging Kaplan’s appointment to the BAAQMD Board to a new four-year term the Sunflower Alliance, a Bay Area-based environmental justice organization, wrote that “Kaplan has been a great champion for measures that fight toxic pollution and greenhouse gases.  She has stood out on that board as someone who consistently does her homework on tricky technical issues.  She’s a nuanced thinker who does high-level problem solving and consistently works for consensus.  She’s a committed team player, even as she stands up to the oil industry and other polluters and pushes BAAQMD to do its job to protect communities and the climate.  But to the detriment of the environmental justice communities Kaplan so ably represents—and to the dismay of environmental justice activists closely involved with BAAQMD rulemaking—Kaplan’s term terminates at the end of March.  Will she be reappointed?” (“Keep Environmental Justice Fighter on the Air Board, March 14” Sunflower Alliance December 4, 2017)

But instead of joining the Sunflower Alliance, other environmental groups, and other Alameda County officeholders in supporting Kaplan for a second term on the BAAQMD board, last March, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf nominated Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin for the position. The BAAQMD board rejected Arreguin on an 8-5 vote, however, and with Kaplan’s name not on the ballot elected Emeryville Mayor John J. Bauters to replace her, costing Oakland a seat on BAAQMD’s governing body. (“Oakland Council Member Replaced By Emeryville Mayor On Air Quality BoardEast Bay Times March 14, 2018) How that happened, and what role Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf played in Kaplan’s removal, is a complicated story of inside politics that says a lot about how Schaaf views her responsibilities to the interests of Oakland residents. So let’s take a moment to explain.

At the time of the BAAMQD Board election, Schaaf said that her hands were tied because she could not nominate Kaplan if another Alameda County mayor was interested in the job.

That part is true. The longstanding rules of the Alameda County Mayors’ Conference, which sets the criteria for how cities in that county are represented on various regional governmental bodies, dictate that Alameda County mayors have first priority to such positions, with members of their respective City Councils coming second.

But that meant that Kaplan could not be re-elected to the BAAQMD board only if a mayor of an Alameda County city decided to run for the position. Under the original Alameda County Mayors’ Conference rules, Kaplan would have been able to stand for re-election to the BAAQMD board if she and her political supporters could convince other mayors in the county not to run.

But that little loophole got suddenly closed off only a few months before this spring’s BAAQMD board elections.

Last fall, the Alameda County Mayors’ Conference quietly passed an addition to its bylaws regarding nominations from the group to regional bodies. Reiterating that mayors still had the first shot at any such appointments, the bylaws added that “[t]he Nominating Committee [of the Mayors’ Conference] will consider a recommendation to appoint a councilmember only when the councilmember has been nominated by the current mayor of his/her city.”

In other words, if no mayor of a city in Alameda County was interested in applying for the BAAQMD seat then occupied by Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, Kaplan could only run for re-election to that seat with the approval of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Even though Schaaf was not present at the Mayors’ Conference meeting when the rule change was first introduced on July 12th of last year, or when it was passed on October 11th, Kaplan contends that the Oakland mayor was the one behind the rule change.

“When I heard about the proposed rule change, I approached Libby and told her about it,” Kaplan said in an email to me. “[I] explained to her ... why it would be devastating for Oakland, and I asked her to oppose it. She told me she supports it, and has already actively supported it, and would not oppose it. Later, I heard from other Mayors, that Libby had been pressuring them for over a year to remove me from the BAAQMD Board.”

Why would Mayor Schaaf sacrifice an Oakland seat on an important board overseeing Bay Area air quality? The obvious answer is that up until this summer, Kaplan appeared to pose the most significant threat to Schaaf’s re-election this coming November as mayor of Oakland.

Kaplan ran for Oakland mayor in 2010, coming in third in the race in which then-Councilmember Jean Quan beat out former State Senator Don Perata for the seat. She ran again in 2014, this time coming in second in the race in which Schaaf became mayor. That put Kaplan in a strong position to challenge Schaaf in 2018. And Kaplan was clearly gearing up for another run for the mayor’s seat this year, backing out only at the last minute in early June only after she had already printed up “Kaplan For Mayor” postcards and scheduled a public meeting to announce her candidacy.

In July of last year, when the Mayors’ Conference bylaws change was first introduced, and up until June when she decided not to run against Schaaf, Kaplan appeared to be Schaaf’s main opposition to re-election. And so knocking Kaplan off the the BAAQMD Board—if that’s what was Schaaf’s real intention—also knocked Kaplan off of a platform from which she could have attacked Schaaf if the two of them had actually run against each other for Oakland mayor this November.

In response to a request to answer Kaplan’s charges, Schaaf’s Director of Communications, Juston Berton, indicated that he was denying Kaplan’s charges. He forwarded to me an email the mayor sent to Councilmembers and city staff last February just before the vote to replace Kaplan on the BAAQMD board.

“Regarding your request that I ‘reappoint’ Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan to the Board, I’m afraid that the Mayor of Oakland does not control any appointments to that Board,” Schaaf wrote. “The [Alameda County Mayors’ Conference] bylaws have always required that the Conference elect a Mayor. It is only if none of the 14 Mayors wishes to serve that a non-Mayor elected official may be considered. This was the case in 2014 when I voted to support [Councilmember] Kaplan’s appointment. This rule has been in place during my entire tenure and has not changed. As it appears some Mayors are interested in serving on the Air District Board this year, it is unlikely that [Councilmember] Kaplan will be allowed to be considered. But please be clear that this is NOT due to recent rule changes.”

Mayor Schaaf’s February email did not directly address Kaplan’s charges that Schaaf had supported the October Mayors’ Conference bylaws change that blocked Kaplan from reappointment to the BAAQMD board without Schaaf’s permission, however.

And to the charge that Schaaf had spent a year lobbying to get Kaplan removed from the BAAQMD board, Berton sidestepped the question, instead directed me to ask someone else.

“As for Councilmember Kaplan’s claims that ‘other Mayors’ approached her to reveal a lobbying effort to unseat her,” Berton wrote, “I can only refer you back to [Councilmember] Kaplan to share with you the identity of the those mayors so you, as a journalist, can interview them to verify and corroborate her claims.”

For her part, Kaplan contends her position on the BAAQMD Board had paid big dividends for Oakland.

“Within two years on the Board,” she wrote in an email, “I ... landed tens of millions of dollars for Oakland, and changes to policies that had short-changed disproportionately impacted communities. Within my first term, I rose to a leadership post (Vice Chair of Public Engagement), and would have been in line to become Chair had Libby not removed Oakland from the Board. There are hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, and tens of thousands of lives of people subjected to asthma and cancer, which need help, and need Oakland to be at the table.”

And Kaplan appeared to have considerable environmental and public official support both leading up to that vote and after she lost a chance for re-election.

In a February article entitled“Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan Could Be Removed in March from Bay Area Air Quality Board,” articled entitled “the Oakland Post quoted a number of individuals who were opposing Kaplan’s removal from the BAAQMD Board at that time.

The Post quoted Esther Goolsby of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) as saying that “‘Rebecca is doing a very good job representing Oakland and Alameda County on the board. ... We’ve tried to get some answers [from the Mayors’ Conference]. ... We have to keep them accountable for our health. Losing our representation would be devastating to Oakland. ... We saw a map of air quality in the Bay Area. It has improved everywhere except in certain areas, such as Oakland.’”

The Post also wrote that “County Supervisor Nate Miley sent a letter to the Conference of Mayors expressing ‘strong support’ for Kaplan’s reappointment to the board. ‘Together, Rebecca and I serve as a voice for underserved communities such as Oakland, which suffer from extremely disproportionately high air pollution, and need strong representation in our region’s air quality decision-making,’ said Miley.” (“Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan Could Be Removed in March from Bay Area Air Quality BoardOakland Post February 2, 2018)

And from the East Bay Times’ “Oakland Council Member Replaced” article, “Nine public speakers urged mayors at [the board election] meeting to reinstate Kaplan, spotlighting her accomplishments while on the board, which include championing funding for the Broadway Shuttle program—free shuttles that run through downtown Oakland—and helping to launch a program to buy old pickups to remove them from roads. Kaplan also oversaw the replacement of an old diesel locomotive engine at the Port of Oakland that was polluting the air in West Oakland.”

According to a follow-up article in the Oakland Post, members of the BAAQMD Board made statements of sharp criticism of Mayor Schaaf’s actions in the board elections during a tribute to Kaplan last May during the Councilmember’s final board meeting.

“A few members criticized Mayor Libby Schaaf for indulging in ‘politics at its worst’ to remove the councilmember from the BAAQMD board and encouraged Oakland residents to work for Kaplan for mayor,” the Post article read.

“‘It’s ridiculous that you have to leave this board. I think it’s politics at its worst,’ said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a board member representing Sonoma County. ‘The fact that someone bright and capable and articulate as you is being replaced after two years, well shame on the mayor.’

“Added Boardmember Supervisor Scott Haggerty, representing Alameda County, ‘For those of you who think Rebecca should be here, maybe you should help her run for mayor.’” (“Mayor’s Role in Taking Kaplan Off Air Quality Board 'Is Politics at Its Worst,' Says BoardmemberOakland Post May 5, 2018)

There was, of course, one way Schaaf could have maintained Oakland’s seat on the BAAQMD board even while knocking out Kaplan. That would have been by nominating herself to the board.

Apparently Schaaf never considered that option. Not, that is, while actually intending to exercise her full responsibilities as a board member.

“I’ve also inquired whether if I sought the Conference’s nomination to the Board, whether I could delegate my participation to another elected such as [Councilmember] Kaplan,” Schaaf wrote to Oakland City Councilmembers and city staff last February. “I’ve been informed by the Air District Board I could not.”

You’ll have to judge for yourself if this was a serious inquiry on the mayor’s part, or merely a way of covering her political backside.

The truth is, Schaaf either fumbled away Oakland’s seat on the BAAQMD board by failing to notice—and intervene against—a key Alameda County Mayors’ Conference bylaws change last year, or else her actions were part of a deliberate campaign to get Kaplan off the board. Either way, a blow was dealt to one of the mayor’s chief political rivals, Oakland lost its seat on the air quality board, and the health of many people in Oakland continues to suffer because of the quality of our air.

How Bad Is Oakland's Air Pollution?

From all accounts, air quality in certain sections of Oakland is bad. Very bad. And it’s not only in the West Oakland neighborhoods where industrial and truck emission air pollution has long been identified as a hazard to people’s health.
Studies also show “elevated levels of air pollution in many parts of East Oakland,” according to a recent report in the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) (“Air Pollution And Health In East Oakland”.

The EDF report noted that the neighborhoods surrounding the “I-880 (Nimitz Freeway), a major transportation route serving the Port of Oakland and Oakland International Airport, features significantly higher levels of air pollution. ... Other areas of East Oakland with elevated levels of pollution include the busy road corridors shown below, where a number of commercial and industrial facilities are close to residential areas and public spaces. ... The study area is densely populated and includes many places where vulnerable populations gather, such as schools, senior centers and hospitals.”

The EDF report went on to say that “East Oakland's freight corridor, busy roadways and industrial sector have contributed to elevated levels of air pollution, and residents experience some of the highest asthma hospitalization rates compared to the rest of the region, according to a 2016 report by Alameda County Public Health Department. ... We found in a 2018 study that differences in air pollution within neighborhoods or even city blocks can increase risks of heart attack and deaths from heart disease in the elderly.”

“As in West Oakland,” the EDF report concluded, “a large percentage of the communities in East Oakland are both low-income and of color. These individuals and families bear a disproportionate burden of environmental impact, resulting in worse health outcomes. East Oakland has higher death rates due to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer than both Oakland and Alameda County. And life expectancy in East Oakland is seven years shorter than the more affluent residents in the Northern area of the city. While these health outcomes are related to multiple factors, studies have shown that exposure to high levels of air pollution—from motor vehicles, refineries and other sources—increases death rates associated with coronary and lung diseases. Our findings, coupled with existing research, highlight the need for stricter regulations to protect the health of communities most impacted by poor air quality.”

West Oakland air pollution, if anything, is worse than East Oakland’s. In 2017, for example, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland alleging that “air pollution from diesel emissions at the Port of Oakland disproportionately impacts communities of color,” according to KPX 5 news.

“The residents, the complaint alleges, experience more asthma attacks, higher rates of heart failure and strokes, and can expect to live nine years less than other Californians due to reduced air quality near the Port of Oakland.

“The complaint, filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleges that the City and Port of Oakland has caused ‘…West Oakland residents to suffer from diesel emissions that are up to 90 times higher than California’s average’ and has led to West Oakland having one of the lowest life expectancies of all Oakland communities.” (“West Oakland Air Pollution Concerns Prompt Civil Rights ComplaintKPX 5 News April 6, 2017) (Detailed release from Earthjustice organization on the lawsuit filing at http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/2017-04-04-TitleVI_Complaint.pdf)



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Why An "Oakland's Getting Schaafted" Website

In The News

Our Thoughts On The Libby Schaaf Administration

What Others Are Thinking And Saying—Opinion Pieces About The Schaaf Administration

The Trashing Of Oakland

Schaaf And Oakland's Homeless Crisis