Michael Johnson

OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | DISTRICT 6 | Rarely do you see Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks shrink from a good fight. But, running against three challengers who are all vigorously ringing the bell of change for the downtrodden East Oakland district, Brooks was left scampering for suitable responses during a candidates forum last week.

Despite numerous assertions Brooks’ 12 years in office has done little to improve the district’s quality of life, she disagreed. “There were things that had gone neglected for an extremely long period of time,” said Brooks of her predecessor, and she has fixed them. For instance, city parks in the district have improved and provided an impetus for commercial development, she said. “If there is a need in the district then I figure out creative ways to make sure those needs are addressed.”

Brooks’ challengers, Shereda Nosakhare, James Moore and most notably, Michael Johnson, an associate pastor at Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland, consistently disagreed. “Why am I running?” said Johnson. “Because I am seeking, after 12 long years, to replace the chaos, the conflict and the confusion that has existed on the City Council and replace it with collaboration, coordination and communication.”

Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks

Johnson’s performance caught many by surprise last Thursday night for being measured, intelligent, but also forceful. No better example of Johnson’s rhetorical talents were on display last week than when he creatively pivoted on the word “change” in reference to a question on the city adapting to climate change. The response was akin to Johnson pinching Brooks under the table while smiling for the audience.

“For us to actually affect change we need to make a change in District 6,” said Johnson. He added the city doesn’t have a suitable policy for fighting climate change. “Since we don’t have one, we can’t expect to get one from where we’ve been and how to get to where we want to go. The first thing we need to do is recognize, if we don’t have something and it’s been there for a long time, then you can’t expect that to happen going forward.”

Next, Nosakhare, Johnson and Moore, pounded away at the district’s lack of fresh grocery options. “District 6 is the economic donut hole that exists in Oakland. Development is going on all over Oakland, but not District 6,” said Johnson. One grocery store serving a community of 55,000, said Johnson, “suggests that we have negligible quality of life.”

Johnson’s statement appeared to rattled Brooks, whose answers from thereon were delivered in a rambling fashion. The pace of her speech quickened only making her answers seem unsure and less effective. Brooks boasted of creating community gardens in the district and, in fact, has been working on bringing national chain grocery store to the area, she said, but the dissolution of redevelopment agencies by Gov. Jerry Brown two years ago scuttled one plan for three stores.

Budget cuts have also limited funding for tree-planting programs in the city. Just 12 percent of Oakland is covered with trees, falling short of a state goal of 40 percent. Brooks said creative partnerships with outside groups are needed now. But, Johnson saw it as a problem related to the lack of development in the district and new revenues in Oakland. “We need to a conversation of how do we work with people who can bring development that can support the funds to do things like plant trees.”

Johnson was not alone in leveling attacks on the incumbent. Nosakhare, who is a council aide to District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf, also called for change and said she sees the problems in the city from her East Oakland residence. “My front door is a window to the issues that plague our city,” she said.

Regarding Brooks’ infamous squabbles with fellow council members, Moore added, “At a minimum, two new council members will be elected this fall. We’ve got to be able to work with people in order to get things done. And if you have a contentious relationship with your colleagues, things are not going to get done.”

“What we allow is what will continue,” Johnson continued. He recalls having restaurants and places to play in East Oakland. “What in the world has happened to District 6?” said Johnson. “I have lived in this community for 50 years…no one needs to tell me how things use to be, I was there.”

In her closing statement, Brooks simply said, “District 6 is a district that deserves good representation and I have done more than that.”