Interview: Emeryville Tattler Editor Brian Donahue
In the theater that is Emeryville politics, Brian Donahue might be considered the protagonist. He often represents the not always gentle, but needed dissenting voice of residents that have historically gotten the raw end of the developer-friendly deal. “Dissenters are welcome in my opinion” noted Council member Jennifer West over a cup of coffee recently “as that is part of the democratic process, messy as it is. Brian provides information to the community through his blog, along with his opinions. Although I can disagree with his methods, I value his contribution.”
Brian Donahue was a news blogger before the blogging platform existed. I remember receiving photo-copied letters of his opinions on neighborhood issues in our mailboxes at the Warehouse Lofts when I first moved to Emeryville nearly 10 years ago (He may in fact at least partially be the impetus for the news blog you are reading today).
Emeryville Tattler Editor Brian Donahue
1). So where are you from originally and what brought you to E’ville?
I’m from Boulder Colorado originally, then Bozeman Montana after college. I moved to the Bay Area because I wanted to live in a city after having lived my whole life in small towns (Boulder was small when I was a kid). Emeryville in the early ’80s was lots of abandoned warehouses with super cheap rent. That’s how I wound up here … cheap rent.
2). Take us back. What was your first memory of Emeryville? Did it deserve the shady reputation that it had during that era?
I got here just as the infamous John Lacoste era was ending. He was being hounded by the anti-racketeering feds for his corrupt go as Chief of Police. He was running a ‘machine’ ala Richard Daley out of Chicago. He ran his operation out the Town House bar on Doyle Street. I used to see him there, doling out favors from his favorite bar stool. When I moved here he was attempting to revive something of a public life in a losing City Council bid. He had the endorsement of those whom he had granted favors to as Police Chief but he lost miserably. I remember he put little potted plants on people’s doors steps to try to get their votes. It was pathetic. He finally fled to Oregon I heard where he was busted on a weapons charge. That’s what I’ve heard.
3). In what single way has E’ville changed over this period for the better … and for the worse?
The police department has certainly changed for the better. Police services here are good, professional even courteous. Being unaffected yet so close to Oakland and that train wreck of a police department they have there is pretty amazing. I’d say it’s probably the thing this town does best. Also Emeryville has changed for the better in that there are more restaurants around … shopping opportunities I suppose. Biking is easier. Doyle Hollis Park is nice … and needed. But it’s worse in that there’s no real sense of place here anymore … not to speak of. It’s a lot of fast food, nameless faceless shopping malls and hermetically sealed drive-in drive-out podium lofts. No soul. Traffic is so much worse. There used to be no traffic anytime of day. Politics at City Hall have been bad throughout … bad then, bad now. Other than occasional glimmers at the margins, residents get the short end.
4). Was there a seminal moment when you said, “ya know, I’ve had enough. I’m going to do something about it”?
The moment came in 1992. That’s when I realized how politics worked in Emeryville. The issue was the proposed East Bay Bridge Mall: should we allow it to be built the way the developer Catellus Corporation wanted it? It was a high impact suburban style mall, very contentious … part in Oakland and part in Emeryville. Council member Greg Harper, the sole progressive on the Council wanted to put the question of the mall to the voters; a city-wide vote. Pro-developer Council member Nora Davis, said that was “grandstanding” and she said our independent Planning Commission should decide. Well later, decide they did … they voted against it. Then Ms. Davis decided to put the vote before the people of Emeryville. It was Measure J (not to be confused with the Measure J of 2010, the Center of ‘Community’ Life vote). There were 2 sides: yes on J was called Emeryville Citizens for a Supermarket (Pak N Save). It was funded entirely by Catellus and they spent over $100,000 featuring banks of paid telephoning and fancy literature. The paid telephone callers said if you voted against it that was tantamount to racism since African-Americans would shop there by the way. The No on J were only actual Emeryville residents donating $20 here and $25 there. They were called Emeryville Citizens for an Independent Planning Commission (since Oakland’s planning commission would be involved in this primarily Emeryville project). The No side spent less that $10,000.
The final vote was 49% No vs 51% Yes…a bought election. After this I became politicized.
5). Talk to us about the importance of the blogging platform in light of the deterioration of journalism in America and in a small town that tends to get panned by the main-stream media.
Well, that’s interesting. Journalism, as everyone seems to know, is in free fall … bureaus going belly up everywhere. News on the Internet is mostly opinions or re-prints from what’s left of actual news bureau. The current model of journalism; the ‘business model’ actually was dying before the Internet as media conglomerates started seeing their news bureaus as profit centers … the rise of “infotainment” and the degradation of local coverage and foreign affairs reporting. But of course democracy needs an informed citizenry to function so we’re in a quandary. We must have real investigative reporting to support democratic institutions but the business model isn’t functioning any longer. The only solution I see is the government model; the BBC. This BTW is what was in effect for the first several decades in America … the government helped fund news gathering. That’s what we’re going to have to return to someday soon.
6). Can you spotlight an event or policy change that came about as a result of your work with the Emeryville Tattler or the Secret News?
Well, we took down a City Council member, Ken Bukowski. The Secret News started it and the Tattler finished him off. I did a lot of digging, public records requests … I found out Ken, who was mayor at the time, hadn’t paid his business taxes and his property was being cited for rodent harbourage and being a junkyard eyesore. He wasn’t cooperating with the City and I found many memos to that effect. After we did several stories on him, the Chronicle and the East Bay Express picked up the story. After seeing Ken splashed all over the mainstream media, Nora Davis dropped him. She had supported Ken for years but this was too much for Nora. She saw him as an embarrassment to the City. After Nora dropped him it was just a matter of time. Ironically, now I kind of like Ken … he’s actually much better for Emeryville off the Council than on it. He has authored a couple of needed initiatives since he’s become a regular citizen.
7). Does having a young daughter in the Emeryville school district change the approach or focus of your journalistic goals?
Yes, I’m much more interested in the doings of the School District now. It’s funny (sad is a better word) the School District has eclipsed the City as the Emeryville place of supreme governmental dysfunction since I’ve been spotlighting it. At the District and the City, I’m a public policy advocate more than a “journalist” … the whole phony objectivity thing … I don’t respect that. I see my goal as representing the resident’s interests … that’s advocacy. The commons are a place of battle. There are players that wish to mine the commons for private profit. We need to more than defend the commons, we need to roll that back … expand the commons.
8). Have you ever got something wrong that warranted a retraction, an apology or even a threat?
Yes I’ve gotten stuff wrong … I retract when I do. You can see some retractions in the blog. I’ve been threatened many times, mostly by gun kooks when I was reporting on the opening of a gun store on San Pablo Avenue. Two of them threatened to shoot me.
9). Do you ever question whether “going on the offensive” can be counterproductive to what you are trying to accomplish?
I don’t believe what many wise people have always cautioned me about … the notion that it’s better to use honey than a stick. I’ve tried both … your readers may be surprised to know that before the Measure J debacle in the 1990’s, I tried to advocate for resident’s interests at City Hall … bike racks, trees, that sort of thing. Back then I had a totally different tactic. I was nice and deferential to the Council members. After Measure J I turned into a meanie. I noticed my success rate dramatically improved when I turned into an asshole. I’ve noticed nothing gets a politician’s attention, gets her to do the right thing, like a load of maximum public embarrassment. So that’s what I started to do. My first major success after the change in tactics was the Tree Ordinance. Nobody at City Hall wanted a tree ordinance, in fact they actively fought it … after more than a thousand letters door to door wherein harshly I named names, well then their tune changed on trees. Now everybody loves trees.
10). Collectively, where do you think the city council members rank in the political spectrum and what kind of shift do you think would benefit the residents of Emeryville?
The traditional left/right paradigm doesn’t apply here. I see it more as pro-resident vs pro-developer/business. I suppose you can say that breaks left/right but ultimately it doesn’t have much meaning … I’ve found myself on the “right-wing” side in Emeryville on many occasions. I don’t say this fatuously … I’ve actually been on the right-wing side many times.
11). How do you perceive the balance of political power of our own Park Avenue District and the other neighborhoods of Emeryville (i.e, Marina, Christie Core, Triangle, etc.)?
Historically it’s been Watergate as the center of power … then it was the Artist’s Co-Op with their prodigious voting turn out back when Emeryville was smaller. Then the power shifted to the Triangle neighborhood for a while, now I’m not sure there’s a power center like in the old days. As east Emeryville gained population, it increased in power and upset the old Watergate lock.
12). What is your personal level of optimism and what do you expect from the new City Manager, Sabrina Landreth?
I’m optimistic about her. She got a vote of confidence from Jac Asher and Jennifer West…that’s impressive to me. We could be at a cusp here in Emeryville. I’m cautiously bullish on our town.
13). If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about how the city functions, what would it be?
My wand would remove the recalcitrant council members Davis and Brinkman (I’ve voted for them both over time some might be surprised to know).
14). Do you have any political ambitions and please elaborate why you would or wouldn’t run for city council.
I ran for the City Council in ’97 … I recall a ridiculous moment; incumbent Dick Kassis of Watergate was running for re-election again and a few of us ran against him. I recall 7 ran for 2 seats. The Council (that would include Kassis) had passed a new ordinance months before the election, forbidding campaign signs on public property (years later it was retracted). We all had to sign an agreement to obey the new ordinance. So no signs went up that year from anyone running except the Friday just before the Tuesday election. Late in the afternoon, Kassis hired a phalanx of people to put up signs for his campaign in violation of HIS law (he had championed it from his Council dais). The whole town was plastered. The Kassis signs stayed up all weekend and then when City Hall chastised him Monday morning, he had all the signs taken down. By then, the damage had been done. Kassis won re-election. The other candidates, hopping mad, asked him WTF? Me included. He told us he “forgot” about the new law. Then I reminded him he had signed the agreement to not put up signs like we all did. Kassis’ response? He didn’t read what he signed! Realize, Dick Kassis was a lawyer. That’s what it’s like in Emeryville … politics with an entrenched power elite. Kassis never experienced any negative repercussions from his sign fiasco.
Anyway, I ran because I saw the late 90’s as the last chance to make a difference vis-a-vis land use issues … something very compelling to me. But that’s history, now I just report … I report, you decide … should I use that? Might get sued …
15). Would you say you’re here for “the long haul” at this point? What could change your thoughts of living here?
I’ll leave feet first. I’ve got too much invested here.
16). Do you have any personal thoughts or advice for the residents of Emeryville that want to take action and make a bigger impact on the direction of their city?
The answer here is boring: Resident’s should pay attention … even if just a little. That’s how we make the kind of town we want to live in. I told you it would be boring.