May 9, 2006 > Gail Steele
by Steve Warga
Last week, we sat down with long time Alameda Supervisor Gail Steele and her daughter's affectionate Black Lab, Maya. Steele has been District 2 Supervisor since 1992.
TCV: You've been a County Supervisor since 1992, is it fair to say you're happy where you are now?
Steele: Well, yes, you have to love this job or you wouldn't do it. I put in a lot of hours and it's hard at times, but I feel good about some of the things I've accomplished. I still feel frustrated about things I haven't gotten done and I don't think many people, including my opponent, appreciate how hard this can be.
I wasn't well four years ago and I thought I might not run and that I might be burned out. Then I got better and felt I wasn't burned out so I decided to run again and see if I couldn't push through some things it had taken me years and years to get implemented. To change systems is very complex. It's a huge job and very demanding if you really care about it. But when you stick with it and deal with the details that arise, you can see something good come to pass and that's what keeps me going.
TCV: What strengths do you bring to this position?
Steele: With all the things I do, I think I play an important role in dealing with our large population of at-risk children. We're serving foster kids, and kids on probation and kids in Juvenile Hall. I've been instrumental in bringing 30 million dollars of intervention and treatment, mostly for the Oakland and Hayward schools to place counselors and therapists on site. That's a lot of money, yet it seems like a drop in a bucket when you realize that we've lost fifteen children to violence already this year and we have, perhaps, 5,000 more kids hanging on by their fingernails that we're not touching. These are kids whose lives are a mess. They're not getting services in schools; they have homes that are not homes; they're running in the streets; they're becoming kids having kids. The cycle just repeats.
I really know the issues surrounding at-risk kids. Maybe that's bragging, but it's been a real passion of mine all my life and it's taken me many years to reach this point of confidence in my grasp of these concerns. There's no replacement for experience when addressing some of these complex and critical challenges.
For example, my opponent says he would not have voted for a new Juvenile Hall. I don't think he knows what he's talking about. Our Hall was a fifty year old facility and it was absolutely disgusting. We spent nearly twenty years deciding to build a new Hall.
TCV: What next do you hope to accomplish for needy children in the county? Steele: Well, one major problem is the notion of accountability. My opponent talks about accountability, but confidentiality of cases gets in the way of all accountability. Confidentiality is a big game. In the last four years we have lost more children who were in our system than we lost in probably the last twenty years. Yet, when one of our kids dies in Juvenile Hall, or foster care, or anywhere in our system, we close the file and put it away, claiming we cannot violate the client's confidentiality. One of the legislative things I'd like to do is establish, statewide if possible, panels of informed professionals, five to a panel, who would be able to open the files of kids we lose and review the decisions made, or not made and try to identify what went wrong and how to implement changes that would prevent similar losses in the future.
TCV: How do you respond to complaints of unequal funding and services from - what's known as - "South County?"
Steele: There is some resentment and concern from South County and it is true that North County gets an awful lot of money ... because of the need. Huge amounts of money have gone into Oakland over the years and sometimes the results haven't been as good as projected. I feel we've improved in getting services and money to South County, but there's work yet to be done. The problem is that those needing services are spread all over; they're not clustered in neighborhoods.
We should do some analysis, looking at how much funding goes to various parts of the county. Lacking that in-depth analysis, we have instituted a process of identifying the destination of various monies, whether it be South, Central, East or North. Yet there are some things that people do not take advantage of. For instance, we have modest grants available for qualifying non-profit groups promoting the arts in Alameda County. "We don't get applications from South County!" (Information is available at: http://www.acgov.org/arts/artsfund.htm).
Nor do I get a lot of calls from South County constituents, but when they do call, I respond immediately to do whatever I can. Many of the issues arising at the local level should go first to the City Councils, and then bring the County Supervisor in if the problem can't be solved locally. My job is to pay attention to the social services, health care and public protection; and I sit on the various committees related to these areas.
TCV: What accomplishments stand out in your mind?
Steele: One of the things I'm most proud of is making peace with the Oakland Raiders, convincing them to abandon lawsuits they were planning against the county. This saved the citizens millions and millions of dollars in legal fees and potential judgments. Now I'm working with the A's to extend their lease while finding a new place for them to play.
My opponent doesn't seem to have much of a platform other than to obliquely criticize me by saying he won't make "irresponsible decisions." I assume he's referring to the original deal to bring the Raiders back to Oakland. Well, that deal was a terrible mistake, financially, I readily admit it. And I'll say that no one involved with that decision foresaw its faults. Still, once the deal was struck, what could we do but live with it? However, once the opportunity arose to broker peace with the Raiders, I worked tirelessly to this end.
TCV: What does being a Supervisor mean to you?
Steele: "You know what it is for me? It's my way of life ... it's a privilege." I'm so lucky to have found a niche for doing things I love to do. I like helping people, I like being creative, I like the dynamics of finding solutions that will improve the lives of those who make up our communities. All my life I've cared most for people who are hurting and who can't help themselves. That's why I've been involved with the delivery of mental health services and services for at-risk children since I got out of college. I started the Regional Children's Committee in 1971. In 1977 I founded the Eden Youth Center in Hayward, then served as Executive Director from 1979 to 1992. Thirty-five years later, it's still providing services for at-risk children and families.
This niche I've found affords me the opportunity to pursue what I love in ways that truly make a difference for the better. Oh, I can live without this job, I have my house and garden and my children and grandchildren. I was out of politics for ten years before running for Supervisor in '92. But I feel I've gained a little bit of expertise and I take pride in representing the voices of the community that may not be heard over the voices of wealthier constituents. My campaigns have always been low-budget operations run without expensive consultants. I like to walk the district neighborhoods, meeting the constituents where they live. "It's such a privilege to be able to do what you love. It isn't work then, it's a way of life.
TCV: Would you like to add anything to what we've covered today?
Steele: Just last Friday, April 28th, we held our annual memorial for kids we've lost to violence and preventable deaths in Alameda County. The Board established this memorial observance back in 1996 to occur the fourth Friday of April. We also designated a Children's Memorial Flag to be flown every time a child dies by violence or other preventable causes. This idea has spread across the country. In April, 2001, the United States Congress passed a Concurrent Resolution supporting a National Children's Memorial Flag Day. I feel this is so important to acknowledge these losses.
Additionally, we meet on the first Friday of October to plant trees for each of the children we've lost that year. This Children's Memorial Grove is located on Fairmont Ridge in the East Bay Regional Park District. Even if I lose this election in June, I do hope someone on the Board will continue my concerns in this area. We must not ignore or forget these tragedies which can be prevented.