Mike Webb (nightvzn) wrote,
Mike Webb

Municipal Shame

Municipal Shame

Got a minute? Come on in and have a seat. I'll tell you a little story. It's a story of a municipal government systematically subverting the very processes intended to ensure accountability to its citizens.

It was "way back" in late 2009 -- Halloween, in fact -- and I'll never forget the sweep-it-under-the-carpet treatment I got from the City of Oakland, California, after a drainage structure of profoundly ill-conceived design caused damage to my car. The damage was of a purely cosmetic nature and not even particularly conspicuous from most angles, but that hardly makes it any less infuriating.

Consider the following:

What you're seeing is a drainage structure, as it was designed and built, at the corner of two streets in one of Oakland's, shall we say, less gentrified neighborhoods. There are other structures of the same design nearby. Consider that it's at the front edge of a parking lane near the intersection. If you were to roll your right front tire over that ledge while maneuvering to park in anything short of a tall truck or SUV, your front bumper would ram or come crashing down onto it. And you wouldn't know of the hazard until it was too late. It's hard to appreciate fully from behind the wheel just how much of a sheer drop there is, and honestly, should one even reasonably expect to encounter such things on well designed and maintained city streets? Of course, "well designed and maintained" is the key phrase here.

Now consider the results:

And no, there is no sign posted to warn motorists of the hazard.

I've never seen such drainage structures anywhere else, including (interestingly enough) the nicer parts of Oakland; but in the poorer, more crime-ridden neighborhoods like this one, they exist in abundance. It's yet another reminder of the seeming ambivalence with which Oakland regards its rather systemic problems, or more specifically, the people living in areas most affected by them. A good friend of mine lives at this intersection; we were meeting up that day to go climb Mission Peak in Fremont. He tried to warn me while I was parking, but I didn't see him motioning and it was too late. I'm far from being the only person he knows to have had a run-in with that drainage structure, and his subsequent comment about the City of Oakland's attitude on the matter says it all: "They just don't care."

Not about to go down without a fight, I collected repair estimates and filed a claim against the City of Oakland. Whether or not I had any realistic expectation of being reimbursed, I considered it my duty to be the squeaky wheel and, if nothing else, a little thorn in the City's side. They owe it to both residents and visitors to do something about this heinous state of affairs, and the only way that's going to happen is if enough people speak up. It also wouldn't hurt for people to start kicking the city in the purse, and I felt that if my claim were handled objectively, I had a decent chance of collecting.

And at first, I had reason to think objectivity would carry the day. After I filed my claim -- a 26-page document including the required forms, a detailed incident map and write-up, photos of both the structure and the resulting damage to my car, and several repair estimates -- the City of Oakland informed me in writing that my claim had been farmed out to a named third-party adjusting firm for investigation. As said firm had no vested interest in the matter, I was reasonably confident they would do the right thing and decide in my favor.

But the firm needed expert testimony on the condition of the drainage structure, so they consulted -- are you ready for this? -- the City of Oakland's own roads department. Which, not surprisingly, assured the firm that the structure was functioning as designed, and therefore that the city was not liable. The firm then based their decision entirely upon this input without any further consideration, and thus recommended my claim be denied.

I cannot help but wonder how well society's interests would be served by the criminal justice system if defendants' assessments of their own guilt formed the basis for juries' verdicts. Perhaps this adjusting firm would also argue that henhouses would be best guarded by foxes.

I spoke to the firm's claims representative and clearly articulated the reasons for my outrage, but they fell on deaf ears. She had no interest in pursuing the matter beyond essentially asking the City if the City felt they should reimburse me, and then ruling accordingly (and predictably). Also questionable is that in the City's letter acknowledging my claim, I was told the firm had 45 days to conduct their investigation. But after 45 days, I had heard nothing. In fact, a full 90 days later, I followed up with the firm myself, and only then did I learn of their decision. I asked how the decision could stand when they'd exceeded their allotted timeframe by a factor of two, but I was told the "45 days" thing was ... essentially some kind of non-binding formality? The letter from Oakland had mentioned no caveat to that effect, however, and I wonder how that detail would have held up in court.

Speaking of which, while I supposedly could have escalated the matter to Small Claims Court (to what effect we'll never know), by the time the firm's decision was handed down, I was feverishly preparing for my move back to New York and simply ran out of time. I would have been on the east coast by the time an appearance could be scheduled. I even called the court to confirm I had to be physically present in order to pursue a claim, but of course the answer was yes. I had no choice but to drop the matter. The City of Oakland got away with gross negligence, no thanks to a supposedly neutral party entrusted with rendering a just, unbiased decision. It remains open to debate whether they or the City more grievously failed to uphold their responsibilities.

I'm well aware that reimbursing me would have been only a "spot fix," and that if the City wished to avoid similar liabilities in the future, they would have been compelled to effect some solution at the site in question and others like it. In fact, that was part of my reason for going to all the trouble of assembling and filing my claim: to do my part to encourage corrective measures. Whether such measures would entail a complete repave, or simply the fitting of some sort of grate (or at least a warning sign!), I can offer no sympathy for whatever amount of money it would cost the City. Implementing a poor design is no excuse for shirking the expense of fixing it later when problems become clear.

The only agency seemingly on my side through the whole experience was my insurance company, Esurance, even though they stood to gain nothing. They took the damage photos after I initially filed a claim through them, only to find that the damage was slightly less than my deductible, so the claim was abandoned. Even then, they stood by me in my claim against Oakland, their adjuster referring me to an expert in their Subrogation unit. Subrogation would normally have worked to recover money from the responsible party (in this case, the City of Oakland) after paying out my claim, but since I pursued no claim through insurance, they owed me no assistance. Still, the agent kindly and empathetically heard out my questions and updates for the better part of a year as the case unfolded, and lent valuable input and advice.

Aside from that pleasant surprise, the entire experience constituted quite the parting middle finger from Oakland as I prepared to leave. Or, as I related in my final update to the Subrogation agent:

"... the City apparently has mechanisms in place which make it impossible for them to lose a claim. The entire process is a mere formality, a sham and a scam through-and-through. You can file that one away under the 'WTF' and 'you've got to be kidding me' categories. My attitude about Oakland at this point is 'goodbye and good riddance.'"

And that's sad, because I do have many fond memories of my time there. But there's something very unsettling about being so profoundly failed by the very agencies, organizations, and entities entrusted to look after your interests as a citizen. They can and must do better.
Tags: bay area, california, driving

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