OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks escaped censure Thursday night in a meeting filled with racial innuendo and a flood of support from members of her East Oakland district. However, the City Council voted to reprimand itself, excluding its three new members, for unspecified past conduct of interference laid out, in part, in an Alameda County civil grand jury report last month.
Council President Pat Kernighan’s decision to place the controversial motion for censure against Brooks may have backfired during a night some viewed as a setback for a council believed to be turning a corner recently from one of extreme infighting to thoughtful forward-thinking. Near the hearing’s conclusion, Kernighan admitted as much. “I think Ms. Brooks is maybe glad that I did this, after all,” said Kernighan. “It has been interesting and a lot of support for Ms. Brooks.”
The clear strategy to stoke the city’s historic racial and economic divide enflamed the audience Thursday night, made up primarily of black residents. Brooks and Councilmember Larry Reid, who was named in the city auditor’s report last March for violating the City Charter’s non-interference law, but not included in the censure discussion, have long argued both were singled out by the report for wrongdoing pervasive among their colleagues. They also asserted racial reasons
“I don’t like to use racism,” said Reid in an animated speech met often with thunderous roars from the gallery, “but in this institution that I’m a part of, on this council that I’m a part of, racism is alive and well.” He asserts City Auditor Courtney Ruby, who is Caucasian, did not allege non-interference rules were broken by others on the council because of personal friendships. “She can go have lunch with some of my colleagues who she’s afraid to mention in her audit reports and make it seem like the only two people violating the law around here are the two African American council members.”
In a twist, Reid motioned to censure the entire council and specifically accused Councilmembers Libby Schaaf and Rebecca Kaplan and Kernighan of interfering with city staff. However, such a move, without proper noticing, would violate the Brown Act, said an assistant city attorney. Reid then clarified his own allegation against him . “I’m not saying what the city auditor said about me is true. And I’d loved just to have her in front of me.” To which Kernighan responded, “I’m sure you would.”
The long, ugly night of political volleying started early. Within 30 minutes, a coordinated effort by Brooks and Reid to bully, obfuscate and lodge insults at Kernighan and Schaaf and others, became evident. As Brooks quibbled with Kernighan over the order of two censure agenda items, Brooks concluded her remarks and called on Reid to speak to past council’s procedures for responding to grand jury findings. Kernighan objected, but Reid proceeded. A subsequent motion supporting the new agenda order favored by Brooks would become a harbinger of the council’s mood later against censuring Brooks and her role in the building of the Rainbow Teen Center in her district.
A few minutes later, while Brooks was lashing out at Schaaf, Reid’s long-time chief of staff Ray Leon could be seen joyously gesticulating at a desk behind his boss as Brooks skewered Schaaf. At one point, Leon motioned for Brooks' attention from across the room and mouthed, “I love it.” Leon then raised his cell phone to his ear motioning for Brooks to look at her own phone. Brooks shifted in her seat and immediately walked away from the dais and followed Leon outside the chambers. Following the meeting Leon denied communicating with Brooks during the hearing. But, when asked what a public record request of his text messages might reveal, he grinned and said, “Nothing, because it’s my personal cell phone.”
The motion calling for the creation of an ad hoc committee to formulate procedures to censuring council members in the future was approved with six ayes. Kernighan and Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney abstained. “Hopefully this issue is done,” said Brooks. “With the motion tonight to vote down the censure, I hope that we can put this behind us and be about the business of the business of Oakland.”
The motion also contained an amendment offered by Brooks admonishing violations of city non-interference laws by council members in the past. However, when asked afterwards whether her motion included her own alleged violations in the city auditor’s and the grand jury reports, she stated it was a general admonishment. When pressed, she curiously referenced the same grand jury report that only specified a investigation into her alleged wrongdoings. She added, “You can go and check the grand jury and see what they thought the interference was.”