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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Oakland’s District One candidates on cops, debt, and economic growth

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Courtesy of maps.google.com

Three incumbents are leaving their city council seats in Oakland this year, including District One’s councilmember, Jane Brunner. District One is basically North Oakland, separated by the 24 freeway, which divides the more upscale neighborhoods of Temescal and Rockridge from the historically lower-income neighborhoods to the west. Both Oaklands come together at the corner of Alcatraz and San Pablo Avenue, just shy of the Berkeley border.

On one side of the street, Actual Cafe thrums with customers stirring organic milk into their fair trade coffee. A hip new burger place is in the works next door. But you don’t need to look far to see the other North Oakland. Across the street, outside the St. Columba’s Catholic Church, white crosses stand among rose bushes, memorializing Oakland’s 102 homicide victims this year. Rising crime – its up 20 percent this year – is the big issue for District One city council candidates, who are vying for Jane Brunner’s seat. She served the district for 16 years, but is giving up the spot to run for city attorney.

She’s leaving behind the problem of Oakland’s understaffed police force. The consensus is that the city needs more police officers – right now it has about 640. But with Oakland’s officers among the best compensated in the nation, and all other city services slashed pretty much to the bone, it’s not clear how the city can afford the cops it needs. The candidates for District One have some ideas though.            

Amy Lemley is the founder of First Place For Youth, a nonprofit devoted to helping foster kids become independent.

“We are a city that needs much more revenue to do all the things we want to do including to provide our residents a baseline level of public safety, which we totally are not doing now,” Lemley says. “I think the challenge is people think about master developments like Coliseum City, but there are projects today that are dying on the vine. … I truly believe that this emphasis on economic development and beginning to see projects through is something that can begin to bear fruit shortly. “

The master developments Lemley mentioned mentions are huge projects that relied on millions of dollars of redevelopment money – which was a property tax the city siphoned away from the county. When Governor Brown ended redevelopment, Oakland had to reckon with a $26 million hole in its budget. The city ended up laying off dozens of workers, a situation District One Council Candidate Richard Raya says he has the experience to avoid.

“You probably know I was the budget director for Alameda County public health department,” says Raya. “We had revenues dropping, from the state, federal government – and I was in charge of a 120 million budget with 600 staff. We knew we were gonna be facing some major shortfalls in the upcoming years. So we started to set aside money wherever we could to basically freeze vacancies, not fill positions that were vacant, and we ended up setting aside $6 million three years in a row.”

Raya says his department used that savings to prevent layoffs and preserve services.

“We need to build on the fact that we've got $11 million this year,” says Raya. “We need to build on what's working and something is definitely working in Oakland, New York times said we're the 5th best place to visit right?”

Raya is right. The Times slotted Oakland right between London and Tokyo on the visitability scale. But when it comes to crime, those two cities have rates of gun violence that are fractions of Oakland’s. One of Oakland’s responses to its persistent crime has been the formation of Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils, which are kind of like sophisticated neighborhood watch groups. They’re an important component of community policing, and they started in North Oakland. District One candidate Don Link says he has the experience to make them work.

“I've been very active in District One, starting really in the neighborhood level, in the neighborhood we're sitting in now, neighborhood watch, and that led to working on community policing and creating Oakland's first neighborhood crime prevention council in 1994,” says Link.

Don Link has some of the most experience in local government. Craig Brandt has some of the least. The lawyer says he isn’t much of a politician, but he has a couple specific proposals for hiring more cops and bringing more business to Oakland.

I decided to run, basically I have two girls, that are 11 and 13, and I got worried about their future,” said Brandt. “And I thought Ok I can worry about it and do nothing or I can worry about it and get engaged. So I thought ok here I go. And in some respects I’m probably the worst politician of the bunch, but I will say what I believe. And I try to come up with very specific programs.”

Brandt says he has two priorities in his platform: “Crime is a big deal, so the thing I’m pushing is an $80 parcel tax for four years as an emergency situation we’re facing, to hire more police officers. That money would be dedicated just for that purpose.”

Brandt’s other objective is to “give a small tax cut to new businesses that come to Oakland – take the first $100,000 of gross receipts, for any new business and say ‘Okay, no tax on that for the first year. Just come to Oakland, try us for one year, and if it works great.’”

Many Oakland citizens agree with Brandt that more police officers are needed. But many also say the city should find other forms of crime prevention. Measure Y is a good example of this. When the city passed the property tax Measure in 2004, it devoted half the $20 million in annual revenue to hiring more police officers, and roughly a quarter to non-profit violent prevention programs. One method these groups employ is called restorative justice, which focuses on non-punitive solutions to crime. It’s gained a strong foothold in Oakland. But, District One Council Candidate Don Macleay says, not strong enough.

“My top priority is shared with every green candidate, and that’s facing crisis facing Oakland youth,” says Macleay. “We should stop putting people into the criminal justice system.”

Macleay also wants to hire civilians, meaning, people who haven’t had to go through the police academy system, to investigate crimes after they occur.

“We should civilians in there doing this triage, I'm talking about in terms of whether we prosecute somebody,” Macleay explains. “Right now, it's nobody’s job.”

Oakland’s crime problem is serious. But so is the city’s potential for economic growth. It’s becoming a hub for the clean-tech industry, hosting companies like Sungevity, a solar panel manufacturer. District One candidate Dan Kalb says that’s just the beginning.Kalb worked as the policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists for nine years and has a decade of experience working in clean-tech.

“I understand those policies, for example, electricity policy, it’s one of the most complicated, intricate areas of public policy in the entire state. Clean energy, electricity, I’ve worked on that issue for over a decade,” says Kalb. “I’ve worked with folks from PUC, legislators, experts, academics. I understand the issues and they know I understand these issues. So if I go out there and say I want to bring more solar companies, they’re gonna say ‘ok, Dan knows what he’s talking about, let’s listen to what he has to say.’”

Kalb says Oakland is a logical place for clean-tech businesses to start up.

“I want to do things that are good for the environment, and things that will stimulate economic activity, provide public health benefits and create jobs, and be a nationally recognized clean-tech hub,” says Kalb.

Even if Oakland becomes a clean-tech hub, like Dan Kalb wants, it will still have to deal with the problem of its massive debt. Mayor Quan touted the city’s balanced budget this year, but soon, balancing that budget will be much harder. The city owes almost $2 billion in pension and health care contributions alone. It has another $2.5 billion in deferred repair. Of all the candidates running for District One, Len Raphael is the most outspoken about this issue.

“Look, the only reason I got into this fiscal stuff with the city, is that every time I tried to figure out why we didn’t have enough money for police, and why we didn’t have effective anti violence programs, I was told we didn't have enough money for it,” says Raphael. “All new city employees have to be paid substantially less than what they’re getting now.”

Raphael continues, “We can't gut city services to the point where we cut into the marrow of the very serves that the city has to provide and we'll have to do that in order to pay these retirement benefits.Look, we owe Oakland city workers an apology. We don’t owe them the city.

Four city council seats are up for grabs this year. That means nearly half the city council is being replaced. All of those candidates are promising to help Oakland turn a corner. But the direction it turns will depend who is elected to represent District One.