OAKLAND -- If there is one thing Oakland City Council members have been transparent about it's that they can really get on each other's nerves.

Policy differences have escalated into personal affronts over the past year, and several major initiatives haven't passed without cringe-inducing sniping.

Council members have lamented the decline in civility, and nearly every council candidate this fall pledged to help overcome the entrenched animosities.

With three newly elected council members taking office in January -- the biggest turnover on the eight-person board in 16 years -- the recent election is being hailed as a victory for decorum.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan and City Attorney Barbara Parker both predicted their triumphs over Council members Jane Brunner and Ignacio De La Fuente would help end council dysfunction.

Council President Larry Reid said the election results "will make a lot of the divisions you've seen go away."

And Bruce Nye, of the good government group Make Oakland Better Now, said, "We're certainly expecting an increase in civility."

But other council watchers say too much hope is being placed on improved interpersonal relationships, especially in a city with soaring crime rates, suffocating pension burdens and an understaffed police department that, depending on a judge's ruling, could be taken over by the federal government next month.


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Given the depth of Oakland's fiscal problems, former Ethics Commissioner Ralph Kanz doesn't expect the city to benefit much from a more cordial council. "Does it create any political courage? I don't think so," he said. "And political courage is what this city needs."

Bad blood

It hasn't taken much this year for tensions on the council to boil over. Even seemingly mundane issues, such as establishing guidelines for Oakland's next garbage and recycling pacts have engendered bad blood.

When Councilwoman Libby Schaaf defended a procedural move to push through the stalled guidelines, noting that it still would be up to the next council to select the vendors, the departing Brunner responded: "I know you want us gone, but Libby I really take offense to that."

A few minutes later, Councilwoman Desley Brooks dismissed a remark in support of the proposal from Councilwoman Pat Kernighan. "For you to inject what you think based on nothing is unimpressive," Brooks said.

Political blogger and former council staffer Pamela Drake said the infighting has diminished the council's standing with residents and made Oakland appear less attractive to prospective businesses.

"If they want to fight over policies and principles, that's one thing," she said. "But they seem to be fighting over who said what and who took things the wrong way."

Dick Spees, who served on the council for 22 years, said his colleagues worked hard to get along and that it was essential that current council members put aside their differences.

"You can't solve problems if people aren't working together," he said.

The hope for a more civil future rests with newly elected council members Noel Gallo, Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Dan Kalb. The trio didn't run as a slate or campaign around a specific policy proposal. The closest thing they have to a mandate is getting the council to work better together.

A well-functioning council, Kalb said, can help restore faith in City Hall and make a more effective case for renewing Measure Y, a soon-to-expire parcel tax that pays for violence-prevention programs and 63 police officers.

"If we are unable to show voters a City Council that gets along, they're going to vote it down for sure," Kalb said.

Courage vs. conflict

Council members have been doing more than just fighting each other this year. They set the stage for three new police academies, approved a $1 billion deal to redevelop the Oakland Army Base and strengthened laws aimed at preventing foreclosed homes from becoming derelict.

The council hasn't approved youth curfews or other get-tough policing laws, but even critics acknowledge that is due to legitimate policy differences.

Former council candidate Len Raphael doesn't fault council members for bickering; he faults them for not demanding more from powerful unions given that the city is on the hook for more than $1 billion in unfunded pension and retiree medical benefits.

"I don't think the failure to work toward common goals had anything to do with lack of civility," he said. "It had more to do with lack of courage."

A cohesive council isn't necessarily a prudent council. Several of Oakland's costliest decisions have been made by councils that got along well.

The 1995 deal that brought back the Oakland Raiders still costs the city $10 million a year. A 1997 pension bond debacle cost $250 million, according to a city auditor's report.

And in 2001, the council voted to substantially increase employee salaries and pension benefits during the apex of the dot-com bust. The move helped drive up pension costs -- a major factor in subsequent cuts to police and city services.

"I don't think there was any fighting over that one," Raphael said. "I think they all smiled and passed it."

Game changers

Reid attributed infighting in part to the demise of clear-cut majorities that made debate seem almost unnecessary. Kernighan said tensions were exacerbated this year by council members politicking for the November election.

"Having these new people on, it just shakes up the dynamic," she said. "There's no particular alliances or animosities."

Brooks wrote that the new council members "may be the impetus to move the city forward."

New blood and more civility should help, Nye said, but the real "game changers" require council members to prioritize the police department and produce responsible budgets. "Whether that will happen?" he said. "It's too soon to tell."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.