Interview: John Russo on Alameda Drowning; City Manager Cites Lawsuits, Bureaucracy as Problems
On Sunday KQED's Cy Musiker spoke with John Russo, the former Oakland City Attorney who resigned to become the city manager of Alameda. Yesterday we posted Russo's highly unflattering comments about Oakland city government.
Today, another segment from that interview about a different topic, and one much on the minds of Alamedans: The Memorial Day incident at Crown Beach that has become a huge embarrassment if not humiliation for the city's police and fire departments, members of which watched from shore as a 52-year-old man committed suicide by drowning.
Russo, who says the city will retain an outside public safety chief to conduct a review of what happened, contends the issues raised by the incident are broader than any mistakes Alameda employees may have made on the beach. Frequent lawsuits and bureaucratic straitjacketing have created a culture within local governments, Russo says, that have created heavy incentives for employees to never stray outside the bounds of official policy, even when circumstances may dictate otherwise.
Cy Musiker: In San Francisco, the city just honored two firefighters; in Alameda the city's embarrassed, ashamed of its fire department. What do you do to fix what’s wrong?
John Russo: How that situation developed took many years, and a lot of bad situations developed in terms of interpersonal relationship and policy decisions both administrative and governmental.
It's a real wake up call, because if you look at it, you needed someone on the scene to break out of policy. The problem is if you're the commander on the scene and you're following policy, you don't usually get in a lot of trouble. If you don't follow policy, that's usually when trouble starts.
There's a lot at stake in what happened in Alameda on Memorial Day, for the country. It shows what happens when we allow ourselves to be straitjacketed by rules rather than governed by principles. The changes that need to happen mostly have already happened – the commander on the scene now has discretion to send people into the water. I understand 30 firefighters have volunteered to be trained in water rescue; and they're not getting extra pay. So the policy administratively has been changed, water rescue training is happening, money has been released.
There are a lot of reasons why the City of Alameda got to where it did that day. I'm not saying that to excuse it at all. It's unacceptable what happened. It won't happen again.
We are going to retain an outside fire or police chief, somebody with some gray hair in the public safety area who is going to review all of the history of how we got to Crown Beach that day so we can learn how it doesn't happen again, because it is embarrassing, it was not Alameda's finest hour.
The issue is broader than what just happened here. Policies are supposed to be an organized way that you implement the principles of what you believe in as a people. What you believe your government is supposed to be working toward.
What has happened for many reasons -- I say this as an attorney -- but we're a highly litigious society both in terms of third parties suing cities and in terms of city employees suing cities. Everybody wants to stay within the four corners connecting the dots of policy, because as a public official or as a public employee, if you follow policy, it's almost impossible to lose your job or be demoted.
It's when you step out of that straitjacket and you take a chance, if things don't go perfectly well, that's when you're subject to the lawsuit, that's when you're subject to discipline. So if you're the commander on the scene, and you tell the guys, 'I don't care if you haven't had training, get in the water,' you don't know if you're going to have a grievance, you don't know what's going to happen. I'm not saying that's what would have happened here, but that's the bureaucratic culture, and that is not limited to Alameda. That is all over California local government. And it really needs to be examined and changed. We need to give our people a little more leeway to do what's right rather than what conforms to policy.
Part of why the public is so frustrated -- the public looks at it and says, we're paying for all these guys who are supposed to be saving lives, but all they want to do is go by the book. The problem is if you're a member of the public whose property is damaged or whose loved one is hurt when a public safety employee doesn't go by the book, you might be the person suing. So in a real way, all of us in America are partially accountable for the culture we live in and how we got to there.
Again, I don't say that to excuse or explain what happened that day. What happened that day was a failure, it was unacceptable, and it will not happen again.