Remember Joseph Heller’s Catch 22? “All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their maps from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath, etc.…Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed…To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of loyalty oaths, [Captain Black] replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he said people who really owed allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as required.…The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was.”
Now consider the following e-mail sent by an El Cerrito staffer to 30 Contra Costa and Alameda city clerks at 8:15 a.m., Tuesday March 4:
“Good Morning: The Oath of Office has never been administered to commissioners in El Cerrito. At my previous job I must’ve sworn in 800 commissioners over the years without any issues. Would each of you kindly inform me as to whether the Oath of Office is administered to commissioners in your City?”
There were 20 responses: Walnut Creek “Absolutely—all are sworn in, in fact tonight I’m doing it to our newbie’s….” Livermore, “’…they bring their family along for photo-ops.” San Leandro, “…if they put up any kind of resistance or ask why bother, point out that State Law requires it.” Newark and Concord responded that only Planning Commissioners were sworn in. In Berkeley all 350 commissioners sign.
El Cerrito History: The Loyalty Oath first emerged as an issue at our May 2007 Parks and Recreation Commission meeting when (from the minutes) “Commissioner Rosemary Loubal questioned the need for an Oath and requested further discussion…Chair Greg Lyman reported not finding any documents in the Commissioner’s handbook…and will put the item on the next agenda for further discussion.” The minutes didn’t report that none of the commissioners signed. I was aghast at such a bald evasion of council responsibility, sending a staffer to enforce a very serious matter, without discussion, explanation or council mandate
There was no follow up until March 2008, when the oath, with no accompanying explanation, was scheduled as a “ceremonial item” for the next Parks and Rec meeting. By sugar coating the term as a “ceremonial item” council and staff probably thought they could slip the oath to commissioners without uncomfortable discussion or acknowledgment of endorsement.
At the next council meeting, I told the Ccouncil it was abdicating its responsibility to citizens by leaving such important matters to non-elected staff. I requested that the council agendize and discuss this issue first. I asked “why, if you favor oaths, you don’t simply vote for mandatory loyalty oaths?” Why hide behind a staffer? I also offered to tell the council what I found out about the issue from ACLU and a local Law School dean—if my three minutes were extended. Instead, the council only asked for the city attorney’s opinion. He read part of the state law, which seemed to require all commissioners to take the oath. “So it’s the state’s decision,” said the mayor.
Actually, the code shows that only decision making bodies must take the oath, but advisory ones do not. It is up to the council, not the attorney, to extend the oath to all commissions.
Since then, at its most recent meeting, while I was abroad, four of seven Parks and Rec commissioners signed the oath, and asked the council to set a policy on what would happen to those who decline to sign. In the meanwhile, El Cerrito started to routinely include the oath in forms that must be filled out by all new board, commission and committee applicants.
There were e-mails between city staffers on this issue: “I have not had to swear anyone in before. I don’t even know what to have them say.” Response: “You just ask them to raise their right hand and repeat after you. The oath has a natural rhythm for pauses. Practice on me if you’d like.”
I again, at the April 21 council meeting, requested that the oath issue be agendized, so it is council members rather than staff who will decide whether all, or just bodies with some judicial power (like Planning Commissioners) must sign.
I asked many people “Why do you think the El Cerrito City Council won’t agendize and vote for loyalty oaths for all volunteers?” Folks reply that El Cerrito is supposedly a liberal town, council members fear that voters wouldn’t like council members to vote for loyalty oaths. So they hide behind staff, as if it wasn’t up to them to determine policy.
An easy “way out” would have been for the council to claim that it doesn’t wish to set up a two-tier system of “advisory” vs. “decision-making” commissions. However, its earlier singling out of Parks and Rec for oath enforcement suggests that the whole issue may not be “just a formality.”
The Parks and Recreation Commission while supportive of El Cerrito recreational policies and expenditures, did occasionally follow my suggestions as Parks and Rec commissioner and criticized deficiencies in park plans and maintenance. The “paper trail” may show that rather than a routine bureaucratic catch-up, the loyalty oath could be a means to “bring to heel” vocal dissidents seen as lacking team spirit.
The City Council will have to decide whether it wants to open up the issue for serious discussion. This may bring out folks who see the loyalty oaths as an attempt at “coercive harmony”—in line with UCB Professor Laura Nader’s definition.
“What’s going on in El Cerrito? Is it under attack?” was a typical comment from a prominent California Judge. And the answer is, “Yes, it is certainly acts like it is, but not by Al Qaeda. The real enemy is citizen apathy!”
Rosemary Loubal signed the loyalty oath many years ago to become a naturalized citizen.