On and off in my head, I've toyed with writing a blog post about the City of Alameda's multi-month debate about banning businesses that perform scientific testing on animals from city-owned properties:

  1. "IN THIS [CITY]/ WE BELIEVE THAT / SCIENCE IS REAL" is how I titled one imaginary draft of this blog post... That blog post would have also heavily quoted Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft's remarks from the October 17, 2023 City Council meeting.
  2. A different hypothetical version of this blog post would instead feature a yard sign reading "IN THIS HOUSE / WE DEBATE WHETHER / SCIENCE IS REAL?" The post would try to make a nerdy quip about the philosopher of science Hilary Putnam flip-flopping his position on scientific realism. The post would also reference the philosopher Peter Singer's books on animal ethics... but I haven't read any of Peter Singer's books on animal ethics... and I just skimmed the Wikipedia article about Putnam to refresh a few stray memories from an undergrad philosophy of science class I took. In any case, I'm not looking to start a philosophy blog and reading club for Alameda.
  3. Another imaginary draft of this blog began with a character sketch of Kevin, the squat white man from South Carolina who had previously been a professional weightlifter — and who I met in 2005 when we both started working toward Ph.D.s in experimental psychology. While I was studying how humans navigate cities, Kevin was in a windowless lab — to use his word — "decap"ing mice. He spoke with almost mechanical terminology about the logistics involved in performing controlled experiments on model organisms. Their lab was secure, in part, because animal testing facilities at universities have to be hidden and secured from potential protestors; it was also secure because of the highly illegal street drugs they used in their tests. While Kevin did speak in his Southern accent about the gore of killing mouse after mouse in order to shock me and others in our cohort who were there to study human beings (a.k.a 18 - 21 year old undergrads), he and his colleagues were also inspired and committed to investigating biological drivers of addiction in order to pursue the most human of goals: helping people.
  4. A different start to this blog post mentioned my "favorite" California proposition: the Prohibition on Killing Horses for Human Consumption Initiative, which a very wealthy individual paid to put on the state-wide ballot in 1998. It's not that I'm for eating horses; but writing this into the state constitution as a felony seemed a bit much. California voters in the '90s sure liked solving lots of problems —both real problems and imagined problems — with jail sentences.
  5. Yet another blog post began with the scene of the one and only city council meeting I attended as a teenager in my hometown: A group of well-dressed presenters gave a slide presentation during the initial public comment section open to the public. The topic of their presentation: THE DANGERS OF FLUORIDE IN THE WATER! After the city council eventually cut off their long presentation, the group packed up and left, probably to move on to the next neighboring city to give their stock presentation again. (Never mentioned was that the agency that actually operated the water supply system in my small suburb was not actually fluoridating the water at the time. My sister and I grew up taking chewable multivitamins with a fluoride supplement prescribed by our pediatrician.)
  6. A different blog post would make a comparison with City of Berkeley's 2015 law requiring warnings about the purported dangers of cellphone radiation. It was struck down in 2020. But maybe it's only Berkeley's timing that was off. If this was appealed up to today's Supreme Court, then there could very well be a majority of justices in favor of devolving the responsibilities of the FCC and regulation of the radio spectrum to every single random municipality across the country.
  7. One of these hypothetical blog posts would weave in a mention of how my spouse has been vegetarian for decades, my kids both say they are vegetarian (even if they aren't entirely), and that my younger kid currently likes to wear a white lab coat and a tie to preschool — he's a vegetarian and a scientist, he says.

All that said, I honestly don't care that much about the topic of animal testing in city-owned buildings in Alameda — and so I haven't written an actual blog post about the topic.

I don't relish the thought of hurting animals — but I also trust that regulating the use of animal testing for valid scientific research purposes is handled by federal and state agencies.

Yes, it's a topic with passionate advocates. I don't want to be snide in dismissing their concerns and their goals— they are entitled to pursue the banning of animal testing across the country. I'll also try to be modest in admitting that if this blog post exists in an archive in some decades, maybe I'll sound like a monster in the way I'm saying that I value scientific and medical advances more than the lives of animals in scientific test facilities.

But to be honest, I care more about other topics, like traffic safety for human beings and housing for human beings — topics that the City of Alameda has a direct responsibility for handling.

Driven by distraction

That's what this blog post is actually about: that the City of Alameda is letting itself get distracted from its responsibilities, its adopted priorities, and its adopted plans.

Animal testing isn't the only area in which this pattern is happening — however, it is one of the more glaring of distractions.

The Strategic Plan adopted by City Council in November 2023 does not mention anything about animal testing. A ban on animal-testing for scientific purposes doesn't, in my mind, seem to fit under any of the five strategic priorities:

p. 9 of the City of Alameda Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2023 - 2026
In their "referral" proposing the ban, Councilmembers Trish Herrera Spencer and Malia Vella (an uncommon pairing!) wrote that an animal-testing ban in city-owned buildings would, in fact, meet the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th of those priorities.

"Prohibiting animal testing and experimentation is the future, aligns with Alamedans' values and establishes Alameda as a conscientious and fiscally responsible economic leader."

Maybe? But I think it's a big stretch to claim this topic actually fits into even one of those — let alone four of those priority areas.

Despite not being a planned priority, the topic has received multiple months of attention from electeds, the City Manager's office, and staffers across multiple city departments.

Searching for Alameda city meeting agendas and minutes mentioning "animal testing" shows results in 2023 and 2024. The phrase "animal testing" apparently never came up in city records between 2012 and 2023. (2012 is when the City Clerk's office began using Legistar)

What has the city been de-prioritizing in the meantime? (I'll leave that as a rhetorical question.)

Just say "no"

While listening to Alameda public meetings and advocating on behalf of some topics myself, I've been gradually learning the many ways that "no" can be said:

  • Sometimes a "no" is uttered aloud — like an elected or appointed member of a local body voting against an item.
  • Sometimes a "no" is silently but actively indicated — like when decision-makers clearly listen, maybe say something polite or positive, but indicate through their immediate actions that they are actually disagreeing.
  • Sometimes a "no" is silent and subtle — like when staff go off to follow up on an item and never return with the item completed. Or when leaders responsible for an agenda never find time to schedule or hear an item.

This isn't all necessarily nefarious. A lot of this is just the nature of leaders and organizations getting some things done — other things need to fall by the wayside.

That's why having shared priorities is so important — so that the City of Alameda is putting its limited staff and their constrained hours toward topics that we have already agreed are worth placing at the top of the list. That the electeds and staff are moving forward the topics that have already been refined and cultivated through systematic rounds of public input, plan-drafting, and policy-making... rather than acting like a cat distracted by a new bauble.

When the topic of banning animal testing city-owned buildings came up in 2023, why couldn't enough members of City Council just have said something to the effect of: This is an interesting and complicated and potentially worthwhile topic. However, it is not one of the city's current priorities — and we must hold to our priorities in order to follow through on our commitments. We encourage local advocates interested in the topic of animal testing to provide input at the next annual City Council workshop regarding council priorities, to plan to attend the next Strategic Plan workshops, which are expected to be conducted every 3 years, and to express your goals through public forums in the meantime. Thank you.

Councilmembers Herrera Spencer and Vella, who submitted the referral to study a ban, voted for it.

The other vote to proceed was from Vice Mayor Daysog, who "stated that he generally supports Council Referrals out of courtesy" (per the minutes).

I've heard him say that line at other meetings as well. He likes voting "yes" on all referrals — even if they distract from the city's priorities (or because they distract from the city's priorities?) —and then he abstains from votes when many items are up for decision on the actual agenda.

Alameda Point — the only way out is through?

Why did the City Manager and staff follow through so swiftly with the referral? Why didn't they just slow-walk it, like other items left in limbo near the bottom of departmental to-do lists?

Perhaps the City Manager figures the best way out of the current mess at Alameda Point is through...

Through the potential animal-testing ban by conducting an entire public input process — rather than letting it linger as a future potential, casting doubt on the city and its contracted real-estate agents' ability to lease space.

Through the noise and safety concerns of sideshows by equipping Alameda's police with drones and hardening the streets of Alameda Point.

Through the nitpicking on those street designs by Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer by having department directors work point-by-point through her emails and take "field trips" with her around Alameda Point.

Through the way that Councilmembers Herrera Spencer and Vice Mayor Daysog use the 4/5 supermajority vote requirement to oppose leases around Alameda Point with a more recent "referral" introduced by Councilmember Tracy Jensen and approved by Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilmember Vella to bring this matter to the voters — with the goal of lowering the threshold to a normal 3/5 majority to approve leasing city-owned property.

City Manager Jennifer Ott likely knows the ins and outs of Alameda Point better than anyone, having previously managed it for the city for almost eight years. Ideally this strategy will produce results of an Alameda Point with buildings full of businesses, modern streets and sewers and electrical infrastructure, with more housing at all price points for a wide range of residents, and an eclectic mix of cultural and outdoor amenities.

Alameda Point and city-owned real estate aren't necessarily distractions — they are clearly part of the city's priorities in its Strategic Plan — but those do appear to be topics chosen in earnest by some and intentionally by others to expand to fill as much staff time and civic mental space as possible.

In the meantime, back here in other parts of Alameda, we do also have previously identified needs, previously adopted plans, and important work to continue that hopefully will not be forgotten amid all the distractions.

Distraction-driven governance