The Oakland City Council voted Tuesday night to keep a teen center open, while agreeing to let the city take control of the center from Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6), who helped to establish and run it using funds from her own office.
Brooks has recently faced intense criticism from the City Administrator’s Office and the media for violation of the city charter during the establishment and maintenance of the center. Brooks had teamed up with Pulte Homes, the contractor, and Rebuilding Together Oakland (an organization that rebuilds the homes of senior citizens, disabled people, and veterans at no cost to the owners) in 2010 to renovate the building to house the Digital Arts and Culinary Academy. The renovated center includes a recording studio, kitchen, and gardens. But according to City Administrator Deanna Santana, the contract with Pulte Homes had not been signed after a competitive bidding process as required by city contracting laws, and workers had not received union level wages.
While Brooks planned for a non-profit to run the center, she decided to use funds from her own office to staff seven employees after two groups backed out and the facility remained vacant for seven months.
At Tuesday night’s meeting members of the public who spoke expressed their support for Brooks’ decision and the work done by Pulte Homes. Among the speakers were children who attended the programs offered by the youth center. “Everyone here’s very nice and they teach me a lot,” said thirteen year old, Saul Perez. “They make me feel like I am in my home, and they treat me like family.”
According to Brooks and members of the community, Pulte Homes completed the renovations at a very low cost, but Santana said the decision to go with Pulte should still have come after a competitive bidding process. “As a contractor, I could not do it for my mother for $150,000 dollars,” said Ken Houston, with Turner Group Construction. He estimated the job would have cost him at least $400,000, which was a figure other contractors in attendance agreed with when they spoke.
City Administrator Deanna Santana also said at the meeting that the center’s employees had not gone through sufficient background checks before being allowed to work with children.
“Every staff person had fingerprints done, background checks done, TB tests done,” Brooks replied. She also said she talked to city staff during every step of the process, and was given no indication that she was doing anything against the law. She said that because it was a public building, and the project was in the interest of the city, she did not think the competitive bidding process was required. The team had completed the renovation in 45 days thinking the funding came from a grant, and that the contracting rules did not apply, Brooks said. “I never heard anything from the city administrator, but I heard from a reporter that there was a problem with funding,” she said.
On Tuesday night the council agreed to pay $152,000 to Pulte Homes, raising the amount from the initial $121,000 that the Oakland Redevelopment Agency had agreed to pay, to provide union-level wages to the workers who worked on the project. The council also approved $67,000 to fund the center through June 2012, while it operates under the governance of the city’s department of Parks and Recreation. Additional funding for the next year was to be decided during the budget process.
Most city councilmembers agreed that management errors were made, and encouraged Santana to hold a management review to assess what had gone wrong. “I certainly understand the temptation for expediency, but there are good reasons to follow policy,” said Councilmember Nancy Nadel (District 3). “Councilmembers must stay within their budget, otherwise something else is being shorted outside the project,” she said. Brooks replied that she had never exceeded her budget before this and had actually returned money to the general fund in the past.
“The issue is not that this facility isn’t a great facility,” said Councilmember Pat Kernighan (District 4). “The issue is that rules were not followed, not just by councilmember Brooks but by the city.”
Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) agreed that mistakes were made, but indicated the city should move on now that the center was up and running. The councilmembers encouraged Santana to return with reform proposals for the center by the end of the legislative year, although Santana indicated that she would likely ask for an extension in that deadline.
In another vote, the council unanimously approved a $3.5 million package to develop hotels, a conference center, a new stadium, and a shopping center in a 750-acre area around the Coliseum in an effort to entice the Raiders, Warriors and A’s to stay in Oakland. The A’s have been courted by the city of San Jose, which is in Giants territory, and are waiting for Major League Baseball’s ruling about the move. The development may not have the desired effect, since the A’s and Raiders Coliseum leases expire this year, and the development is scheduled to take over 16 to 18 months.
More than twenty fans dressed in team colors came to urge the council to approve the spending plan, indignant that cities like San Francisco and San Jose might take over the Oakland teams. “This is probably the most important thing you guys will ever decide upon,” said Oakland resident Rob Rivera. “Imagine twenty years from now, you have no teams. Businesses don’t want to be a part of that.”
Fans and councilmembers both congratulated Council President Larry Reid for his involvement in the project since the beginning, and his persistence in seeing it through. However, De La Fuente said that fans of the sports teams could not forget that the city was already subsidizing them to the tune of $10 million a year. “We want them to stay, but it takes two to tango,” he said. “We have the best site, we are prepared to work hard, but I’m not prepared to subsidize more.”
The money comes from some of the last redevelopment agency funds the city has access to, and is tied to the development of the area around the Coliseum. Mayor Jean Quan, who was not officially in attendance, sat in the back at the council chambers to hear the decision about the funds, and congratulated the fans in attendance after the meeting concluded.
The council also voted to extend an existing county sales tax measure, with a raise of 50 cents, to partially fund the Alameda County Transportation Commission’s plan to increase funding for public transit, including AC Transit, and BART, and making improvements for existing roads and freeways. The plan would give Alameda County an additional $7.7 billion for improvements related to transportation although at this stage it is unclear how much of that money will go directly to Oakland. Reid said he hoped it would be approved smoothly in other cities in the county as well.