The City Hall chamber is mostly empty. As the Oakland City Council members work through agenda items, some sit attentively, others stare into space with glazed eyes. Are they dealing with the people’s business? Or should we just be grateful the committee didn’t cancel the meeting.

This year, the full Oakland City Council has only met 14 times from January through August. While the Rules and Regulation Committee is supposed to meet weekly, their sessions this year were often missing members or canceled. Other committees are supposed to meet twice a month, but often met less. By comparison, the city council in
Sacramento met 33 times in the same nine months, and Long Beach’s met 27 times. In San Francisco, the city Board of Supervisors met 29 times. Critics of the Oakland City Council wonder if the full-time legislative body is spending enough time on a tough city’s tough problems.

But as anyone who has endured a business meeting can testify, a bunch of people talking about a problem doesn’t always lead to a solution. The number of times a city council meets is not the only indicator one should use to measure a council’s effectiveness, says
Ethan Rarick, the director of the Center of Politics at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

“You can look at the number of ordinances or bills passed. Or you could look at the way in which the agency actually affects people. What is the crime rate? How is education? Cultural events?” Mr. Rarick asks. “Counting meetings does give you an idea of how much they are open to the public though.”

District four city council member Jean Quan argues that her most important work happens outside of meetings.

“I do far more work when I’m not in meetings,” Ms. Quan says. “What about the time in the community, on my blackberry? My typical work week averages 60 hours and can be as sad as 80 and I don’t even know how to count those hours.”

In the last 9 months, Ms. Quan attended 10 more city council and committee meetings than district six Council Member Desley Brooks, who has regularly had the lowest attendance rate. Between January and August last year, she only attended 30 meetings, and missed 13. Meeting attendance is not the only difference among councilors
though. Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, district five, and Jane
Brunner, district one, have other jobs on the side.

Voters take notice when councilors are not active, says Helen Hutchison, president of the Oakland League of Women Voters.

“What I see is that some of them clearly work full-time, and when I say full-time, I mean professional jobs at 60 hours a week, and some sure seem to work a lot less than that,” Ms. Hutchison says.

Some Oakland residents are already looking at running against city council members they see as not working hard enough, according to Ms. Hutchison.

“When I go to city council meetings I hear a lot of murmuring in the hallways about that, but I don’t know what will happen,” Ms. Hutchison says.

Many council members in Oakland typically run unopposed. Dick Spees, who was a member of the city council for more than 30 years, says he often faced little or no competition in his reelection campaigns.

“In Oakland, there’s a lot of citizen participation; it’s interesting that there are so many uncontested elections,” Mr. Spees says.

He recalls a time when the city council only had $100,000 to distribute, and only one secretary. Currently, city council members each make about $70,000, and each has at least two full-time employees.

“I think it’s up to the council members to be real servants of the people they represent, and if they are doing a good job, they will probably spend the equivalent of a full-time job,” Mr. Spees says.

View online at the Oakbook.