Election Day: A look at what the 3 ballot measures could mean for Oakland

Graphic by Brittany Schell.

Graphic by Brittany Schell.

There still is time to vote in the City of Oakland’s special mail ballot election. Voting ends tonight for three ballot measures – two of which are intended to help the city balance its budget, and the other to change the city attorney position from one that is elected by the voters, to one that is named by the city council.

Ballots to all registered voters were mailed out October 6. Voters can either mail their ballots to the registrar’s office, or walk them in before 8 pm tonight.

Here’s a closer look at the three measures:

MEASURE H:

The Oakland City Attorney has been an elected position since 1998, when Measure X passed. That measure also set salary guidelines for the city attorney, and changed the nature of the mayor’s job and duties, changing to a “strong mayor” model, where the mayor can make executive decisions without the council’s approval.

If it passes, Measure H would change the city attorney’s position to one appointed by city council members, who would also decide the attorney’s salary without restrictions.

The city’s only elected attorney was John Russo, who was elected in March 2000, and served three terms before resigning in June 2011. The position has since been filled by acting city attorney Barbara Parker, whose term expires next year. Russo clashed with the council and the mayor on many policy issues, including the use of gang injunctions, and also refused to provide legal advice to the city on its proposal for large-scale marijuana farms.

Opponents of Measure H claim it’s a direct attempt to undermine the city attorney’s independence by making the job beholden to the council, since it would give the council the power to hire and fire attorneys at will. In a recent editorial, The Oakland Tribune called the measure the “John Russo Ordinance” and a “naked power grab” by city council members. “It is an obvious attempt by the council to prevent another individual from getting into the office whom council members cannot control,” the editorial said.

Opponents of the measure also say it takes away the citizen’s right to choose a city attorney, and more than 80 percent of cities as big as Oakland, such as Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, have elected city attorneys.

Supporters of the measure claim it would allow the best attorney to be chosen for the job, instead of the best politician. The measure would also remove any political pressures on the city attorney, because they would not be accountable to campaign contributions.

Measure H needs a simple majority to pass.

MEASURE I

Measure I would introduce a new $80 parcel tax for single family homes in Oakland, with apartment owners paying $54.66 per unit (half of the cost is transferable to tenants). Tenants living in non-profit affordable housing would pay half the tax, while low income families are exempt from paying. Tax on commercial properties will be calculated based on size.

The measure has a “sunset” clause, which states that the tax would be for five years, ending in the fiscal year 2015-16.  Most of the money raised from the tax would be spent on “public safety items” such as police and fire services and technology, youth violence prevention programs, as well as parks, library services, and city infrastructure.

However, the measure does not contain details on how the $11 million collected would be spent. Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (At-large), introduced a proposal specifying how the funds would be spent at a city council meeting on October 20, which was passed by the council. The resolution allocates $6.2 million to the police department, $1.5 million to roads, and $1.2 million to city gardeners. There are also provisions for street lighting as a crime-reducing technique.

This legislation has also been the subject of much controversy, because it was seen by some as an attempt by Kaplan and Councilmember Pat Kernighan (District 2) to induce voters to approve Measure I. The resolution itself is non-binding, and the way funds are allocated can be changed by a council vote at a later date.

Opponents of the tax also claim that Oakland is paying the highest amount of taxes in the Alameda County, and that $80 is a considerable sum of money for people who are unemployed or facing foreclosures.

Supporters, like Kaplan, say that the money raised from the tax would allow the city to restore many public services that were cut during the last few years because of the financial crisis. In a council meeting in October, Mayor Jean Quan said that the average household would pay less than 25 cents a day, and that she had previously already tightened the budget as much as possible by renegotiating salaries and pensions with public employees.

Measure I needs a 2/3 majority to pass.

MEASURE J:

Before 1976, police and hired personnel became members of the Police and Fire Retirement System, which allows retirees to receive benefits for life. Because only 1 of the 1,153 employees in the system, total, is not retired, contributions to the fund for PFRS mostly come from investments and the city.

The city, which contributes a different amount to the fund annually, has previously tried to raise additional funds through bonds, and a property tax that was approved by voters in 2001. For the fiscal year 2011-12, the city owes $45.6 million to the fund. The City Charter currently states the city must fully fund the PFRS fund by July 2026, and the city will also stop charging the tax in 2026.

Measure J would allow the city to extend that deadline by a number of years, and reduce the city’s annual payments by at least $3 million, depending on the number of years that deadline is extended. (The city would still owe the same amount of money: $494 million). Supporters say the measure would bring added financial stability to the city, and since the city will have to get changes to the deadline approved by external financial experts, they will be based on financial analysis, not political motivations.

Opponents, claim the measure may be a hidden attempt by the city to sell more pension bonds, or keep charging citizens taxes for an extended period of time in order to fund the PFRS after the 2026 deadline.

Measure J needs a simple majority to pass.

Update: Ballot measure results here.

2 Comments

  1. MC

    More details about the ballot measures are available from the League of Women Voters of Oakland at http://smartvoter.org/2011/11/15/ca/alm/ballot.html.

  2. david williams

    how ironic that on the same day we waste 1 million on a special election, it comes out that oakland paid out 57 million in police abuse settlements in the last decade. what next?

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