Nothing brings people out to a city council meeting quite like the prospect of losing business—or gaining property taxes. With Oakland city contracts, development deals, and the prospect of a new parcel tax up for vote, scores of people packed the chambers on Tuesday night to give the Oakland city council a piece of their mind.
In a five-hour meeting, the council slogged through four major issues that drew extensive public comment, starting with discussion over whether to approve a new draft of the MacArthur Transit Village plan. With the transit village plan, over a decade in the works, city officials and developers seek to add shopping, living, and parking space where a large parking lot currently sits next to the MacArthur BART station in Temescal.
The council heard commentary from members of Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area (ULTRA), who lauded the plan as a way to promote urban infill in Oakland.
“There is a lot of support in the community for this project,” said ULTRA member John Gatewood.
Then the council heard from William E. Jackson Sr., the 80-year-old owner of Lee’s Auto Laundry Detail, a business that would be relocated by the plan. He asked the council and city staff to take great care in not damaging his business in the process of developing the area. “We have detailed cars for over 50 years at this location.,” Jackson said, adding that his family spent 30 years buying the property at 3901 Telegraph Avenue. “We still have the same phone number, and we still have the same location.”
He said that Lee’s also runs an apprenticeship program that helps create more small businesses in Oakland. “We’re not training employees, we’re training entrepreneurs,” Jackson said.
Willie Scott, who said he has been working with Jackson and his family, said that even if the transit village plan leaves room for the business, “He’s going to have to give up a major operational viability with visibility.”
Council members did not address Jackson’s concerns while getting ready to vote. District 1 council member Jane Brunner said, “I’m moving [the action] because it’s a phenomenal project. It will really change the blighted parking lot.”
After moving the transit village plan forward in an unanimous vote, the council quickly shot down at-large councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s attempt to call a vote on putting a new parcel tax measure before Oakland residents in a July special election. The parcel tax, one of mayor Jean Quan’s strategies for filling a $46 million budget deficit, was approved in a March 7 special meeting of the council, but the decision was not finalized. If approved, the parcel tax would charge $80 to owners of single family homes and adjusted amounts to larger properties, and it would feed about $11 million to the city’s general fund.
Kaplan attempted to add the issue to Tuesday’s agenda after the deadline for notifying the public, an action that requires a two-thirds majority approval from the council. District 4 councilmember Libby Schaaf, District 5 councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, and District 6 councilmember Desley Brooks swiftly voted the move down.
A dismayed Kaplan asked whether there was any way to discuss the matter further, and Quan addressed the council to ask for a special meeting on Friday to vote again, saying this gives the public enough advance notice to avoid the requirement of a two-thirds council majority. The council did not decide on whether to revisit the matter, and Schaaf said that she was only voting on whether to address the issue without giving the usual notice before, rather than on the desirability of the tax itself.
“My vote on the issue has nothing to do with the parcel tax,” Schaaf said. Schaaf voted against the tax during the March 7 council meeting.
The fate of two local security businesses was affected by the council during the vote on the awarding of a $2 million city contract with a private security provider. ABC Security has had an exclusive contract with the city for over ten years providing security officers in City Hall, administration buildings, and other city government locations. ABC is owned by Latina businesswoman Ana Chretien, and has been based in Oakland for more than 40 years.
This year, city staff opened the contract to bidders and determined that the strongest bidder was Cypress Security, which started in San Francisco and has branches in Washington State and Nevada as well. Cypress opened an Oakland branch last year. The companies were rated on a number of factors including rate structure and officer training.
During an hour of public comment, a heated debate over local hiring and a fair bidding process unfolded.
“This is a hard decision because there are competing public policy interests that are both good,” said District 2 council member Pat Kernighan. While she stressed the importance of supporting local businesses, Kernighan said it was also important to stick to “competitive, objective processes for selecting our vendors.”
The council voted first on whether to put the matter off until the May 3 council meeting, with the last vote coming down to council president Larry Reid. Upon realizing the vote was split, Reid said he would put his foot down so that the matter could be decided that night. “Folks tell me that I don’t have a backbone and that I need to stand up and distinguish myself,” Reid said. After voting no, Reid added, “And now I’ve got a backbone.”
Before the second vote, which decided whether to award the contract to Cypress, supporters and detractors of ABC lined up to voice their opinions. Employees of ABC like Reginald Brown asked council members not to end their jobs. “I love ABC and I love what I do,” Brown said. “We need our jobs.”
Not all employees spoke in favor of the company. Mekahel Francois, an organizer with the Service Employees Internal Union said that ABC owes up to $40,000 in back wages to its employees because the company hasn’t paid contractually owed annual raises. “While we support and applaud the city’s values of patronizing locally- and minority-owned businesses,” Francois said, “the standard of meeting contractual obligations cannot be excused of any contractor.”
Oakland City Plaza guard and ABC employee Benjamin May spoke next, saying he earns $12.80 an hour, and that he didn’t receive his yearly raise in 2010 or 2011. “I count on that little extra pay to help with needs, to pay bills, a few dollars to set aside for emergency, and most importantly, for money I need to save for my daughter’s college education.”
The council finally voted 5-3 in favor of Cypress Security, with De La Fuente, Kaplan, and District 1 councilmember Jane Brunner voting in the minority.
The final item of the night addressed a plan for the city to share costs with the Oakland Port Authority for developing infrastructure at the Oakland Army Base. The agreement itself met little opposition from the council, but Tim Ranahan a member of the Oakland Film Center spoke to address concerns that the local film collective would be shut out of its current location on the army base once development is complete.
A public-private team of developers called AMB/CCG, led by high-profile local developer Phil Tagami, plans to create a mixed-use development with market rate rents on the Army base. Members of the film center spoke at last week’s Economic Development Committee meeting to say they would be forced out by higher rents. Citing “a positive forward movement,” Ranahan said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the issue had been resolved with AMB/CCG.
Ranahan said in addition to a signed resolution between the city, the developers, and the film center, he got verbal confirmation that everyone involved would help keep the film center on the army base. “The paper, the proposal, and the resolution I don’t put necessarily a lot of faith in,” Ranahan said, “but when I see the mouths tell me that they will, I will hold them to that.”