SAVVY GOVERNMENT officials know that when you're about to roll out an unpopular policy, it's best to put a little sugar on the pill to help it go down.

Public relations is key.

You've got to at least give people the impression — even if you couldn't give a rat's patootie — that you feel their pain.

It's hard to imagine how the Oakland City Council could have been more inept in its institution of a new, hyperaggressive parking policy that is meant to help make up $900,000 from an overall $83 million shortfall in the city's budget.

At the end of June, the City Council voted to increase hourly parking from $1.50 to $2, extend metered hours from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m., and jack up the fines for most parking violations.

There was no grace period. No posted warning of the change on many parking kiosks. Then to make matters worse, meter maids and men were suddenly out in force slapping green violations on vehicle windows for things that they never used to ticket for before.

The result has been one very hot summer.

Angry merchants who insist that the parking changes are killing their businesses flocked to the Grand Lake Theatre for a rally to try to force the City Council to roll back the parking hours.

Merchants and others angry with the new rules have turned out in full force at City Council meetings.

Last Tuesday's meeting stretched into the wee hours. It was so contentious one observer quipped that people were channeling their inner Joe Wilson — a reference to the South Carolina Congressman who shouted "you lie" at President Barack Obama during a congressional address earlier this month.

The council resisted pressure to change the policy, but some members said they would work with merchants to try to find other alternatives to save money. Good luck with that one.

The parking furor does remind me a lot of the taxpayer revolt tea parties and the heated town hall meetings about the president's health care proposals. Only thankfully, as far as we know, no one's packing outside City Council chambers.

Merchants claim that the new parking rules are hurting their business, and that people have stopped shopping and eating in Oakland because of it.

How do they know that?

I imagine that a lot of people aren't eating out as much or making nonessential purchases — myself included — because they have to watch their dollars. They've either lost a job, are on furlough, facing pay cuts, or some other unfortunate setback in their finances.

It's not the extra 50 cents at the meter so much that keeps many of us home more; it's the cost of the dinner or the movie that takes a bigger bite out of a decreasing paycheck.

I'm certainly not happy about the parking increases. I find it especially annoying to have to plop down $2 when I only want to run into a store for five minutes.

But there are so many other issues in this city that people ought to be worked up about. AC Transit is planning to make cuts to bus service. A lot of people who ride the bus don't have the luxury of whining about parking increases because they don't have cars.

They're just praying that their line stays in service so they can get to work.

Someone ought to mention that to folks in Montclair complaining about paying to park for an extra two hours.

City employees have had to take a 10 percent cut in pay and benefits. That not only has ramifications for them but for our local economy as a whole.

That means more people having less disposable income and consequently not patronizing city businesses as frequently.

I don't think the parking uproar is really based on anything rational.

People have seized upon it as a tangible way of venting the intangible — a more general anger with city governance in general and a frustrating sense of powerlessness.

"It's hard for me to believe that people's businesses will suddenly rebound if people don't have to pay $2 an hour to park until 7 p.m.," says Echa Schneider, who has been covering the parking debate on her blog www.abetteroakland.com. "But people are always looking for someone to blame their problems on."

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Reach her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or on Twitter @Tammerlin.