Photo by Yung Grasshopper
When Make Oakland Better Now launched in late June 2009, they sounded like any other brand-new local do-gooder organization. They called meetings to discuss their issues. They sought to gain a constituency. They launched a web site and put out a call for a community meeting a few months hence. All good stuff, but nothing extraordinary.
But then, all of a sudden, the activity level of the group’s leaders ramped up.
So who are these folks, what are they about, and what do they want to accomplish?
Watch our video interview with the group's founders, where they discuss their concerns about public safety and other key challenges Oakland faces...
On Dec 28, 2009, Oakland Local met with three of the leaders (Bruce Nye, Jim Blachman and Mike Ferro) in a borrowed conference room downtown to learn more about the group, its goals, agenda and membership.
Right before the holidays, MOBN called for a January 11 combined general assembly and special meeting at City Hall to address the budget crisis. On December 15th, four of the leaders met with Police Chief Anthony Batts to discuss violent crime community policing, the chief’s views on staffing needs and what MOBN can do to help to improve Oakland’s public safety, and on Monday, January 4th, they’re heading to city government to meet with the City Auditor on hiring practices and city management.
The group has also reached beyond its web site to get its message out, establishing a presence on both Facebook and Twitter, and reached into the blogsphere, posting both on Oakland Local and on A Better Oakland, where a post titled “This place is a mess, what do we do about it?” generated a lively discussion among almost 20 active posters.
According to Bruce Nye, the informal leader, and one of the co-founders, the genesis for MOBN was back in 2008 when Bruce was active in the Obama campaign. As a poll watcher in Nevada, he was struck by Newark Mayor Corey Booker’s statement that politics was no longer a spectator sport. “I started to talk to my friend Jim Blachman about Oakland and how close it was to being perfect, except for the public safety issues" says Nye.
The two men were also frustrated with the prospect of a Mayor’s race that would settle on one candidate before there was as substantive discussion of the issues.
Nye and Blachman broadened their discussions in Spring ’09 to include other friends who lived in Oakland, many in Rockridge and Montclair. Everyone agreed there wasn’t a civic-minded organization in Oakland that would support the level of discussion of issues leading into the 2010 elections they wanted to have happen.
The concept became a reality with an initial meeting on August 27th that over 100 people attended. Mike Ferro, a MOBN officer who became active soon after they launched, says he was drawn to MOBN because of their focus on Oakland issues, like the budget, and their focus on taking action, as opposed to just discussing.
Soon Nye, Ferro, and the other leaders were forming three committees to look at what they identified as the core city issues:
With an overall mailing list of 500 people, groups began working on their topics and issues reports and recommendations. Then, in early December, leaders decided they had to step the pace up and shift focus to zoom in on the budget and on public safety.
“It was a big wake up call when the city started facing the latest version of the budget crisis,” says Nye. “It became clear there was a $19MM hole this year and $25MM the following and no one had a realistic idea of what to do about it.” Adds Blachman: “And that got a lot of the group thinking—wait a minute—if we don’t find a voice on that subject who knows what is going to happen, ‘cept we’re not going to like it?”
Determined to make their voices heard, Nye began blogging and, with other MOBN board members, reaching out to community leaders, city officials and city council members. With CC Rebecca Kaplan’s help, they reserved a space at City Hall for the 1/11 meeting.
“The next 30-60 days is all about the budget,” says Nye, who is outraged that the city's final budget -- adopted in June of last year -- has still not been made available to the public.
His hope for the January meeting is that it not only spark a sustained discussion of the budget and tough choices that have to be made, but it set the stage for reform in how Oakland is managed.
“The city government isn’t really outcomes based,” explains Jim Blachman, a money manager who is part of the core team, and who has lived in Oakland for 12 years.
Adds Ferro “Everything comes back to the city setting priorities—if one of the goals of the city is tied to public safety, then the budget needs to have support for public safety spending. If community development is a priority, the budget needs to support it.”
Blachman, Ferro, and Nye are all uniform in their praise of Police Chief Anthony Batts, and their concern that the OPD needs a complete renovation.
Mike Ferro, who has a particular interest in criminal justice, wants to see Oakland move into more evidence-based policing. “Do we have enough resources in the police dept or not? Are sworn officers the problem, or is it the way the resources are being used?” he asks.
Blachman, the money manager, wonders if the issue is increasing the number of police officers—or just deploying them differently. “Did you know 25% of all OPD investigators are in internal affairs?” he asks. “How can we change the culture of the police department so more of those resources can be deployed in the communities?
Asked about the ethnic and economic diversity of their new group, which is heavily white, heavily home-owners, and heavily over-40s, Nye looks earnest.
“We need to build doorways, and bridges,” he says. “We want to make the city better for everyone, especially people in East and West Oakland. We are reaching out to form alliances. We know it’s essential, and we want it to happen.”
MOBN Website http://makeoaklandbetternow.org
Meeting: January 11, 6:30 PM, City Hall, hearing room 4