On Monday, members of the Oakland City Council will cast what may be one of their most important votes in the next two years — the selection of their council president. The vote will follow the swearing-in ceremony at City Hall of three new councilmembers: Dan Kalb, Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, and Noel Gallo. And the choice of who will be the council’s leader for the next two years likely will determine whether Oakland will continue to have a divided government that is fraught with petty bickering and infighting — as it has had for much of the past six years — or one that will work collaboratively to find viable solutions to the city’s many problems.
Since the council selected Larry Reid to be its president in January 2011, Oakland government has been plagued by dysfunction. Reid has often seemed more interested in picking public fights with Mayor Jean Quan than in working closely with her office and the city administration to get things done. In fact, feuding with Quan — and her family members — seemed to be his highest priority during much of the past two years. His unproductive behavior was similar to the one exhibited by Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente when De La Fuente was council president from January 2007 to January 2009 and Ron Dellums was mayor.
De La Fuente’s departure from the council should help it become less divisive. But the dysfunction between the council and the mayor’s office likely will continue if Reid is reelected council president. Likewise, the council's leadership will undoubtedly remain at odds with the mayor and the city administration if councilmembers decide to select the next senior councilmember — Desley Brooks — to be their leader. Brooks’ deep dislike for Quan is even more intense than Reid’s. In addition, it seems readily apparent that Brooks, who is known for harboring grudges, will have difficulty working with City Administrator Deanna Santana — after Santana uncovered Brooks’ questionable dealings involving an East Oakland teen center in late 2011.
Since taking over as councilwoman for District 2, Grand Lake-Chinatown, in 2005, Kernighan also has shown herself to be an independent voice at City Hall — an elected official who carefully analyzes complex issues before making tough decisions. She's smart and she also works extremely well with the two other returning councilmembers, Rebecca Kaplan and Libby Schaaf, who are emerging as Oakland’s future leaders as well.
"I think Pat will put a lot of effort into finding compromises and solutions — and making sure that everyone feels as if they've been heard," Schaaf told me. "She doesn't let herself get caught up in petty politics."
It should be noted that Schaaf and Kaplan also would be strong choices for council president, and will probably hold that position in years to come. But right now, it’s Kernighan’s time. She’s proven repeatedly that she’s far more interested in collaboration and problem-solving than exacting revenge. And that’s what Oakland needs right now.