At a candidate’s forum held Monday night at the College Avenue Presbyterian Church, six candidates for the City Council District 1 seat debated how to rebuild a shrinking police force, explored finding a middle ground on the controversial issue of gang injunctions and talked about how the city of Oakland could stimulate sluggish economic growth.
The event was sponsored by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, a group that aims to advance economic growth in Oakland, and featured a panel that proposed questions to the candidates. The forum also allowed members of the audience, mostly Oakland residents, to ask their questions through a moderator who took handwritten queries from the approximately 80 people in attendance.
District 1, which represents North Oakland, has been under the leadership of Jane Brunner for the past 20 years, but this year she has decided to give up her seat to run for City Attorney, facing current City Attorney Barbara Parker in the November election.
The seven candidates running to replace her include some names that may ring a bell to Oakland voters, such as Green Party activist Donald Macleay, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland back in 2010 and also owns a small computer business.
Other candidates are running for the first time, including Amy Lemley, founder of the First Place Fund for Youth, an organization that provides affordable housing to young adults who have recently “aged out” of foster care; Dan Kalb, an environmental activist and policy analyst; Richard Raya, policy director for California Forward, a nonprofit organization that works to reform California’s government; electrical contractor Don Link who also serves on the Shattuck Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC); trial lawyer Craig Brandt; and Len Raphael, a self-employed CPA.
Some of the panelists asked questions about how the candidates would raise the current number of 604 sworn Oakland Police Department officers to 800 officers. Due to layoffs, cutbacks and retirements, the department has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of officers since November, 2008, when the department boasted its highest employment level at 837 officers.
Former Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts was a strong proponent of increasing staffing levels, and some residents believe that the current ratio of police to residents leaves the community unsafe.
“We know that we need money to increase staffing. We tried to pass a parcel tax not very long ago, and it failed,” said Raya, referring to a proposed 2011 tax that would have taxed Oakland homeowners an additional $80 to fund more OPD officers. The move was supported by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, but voted down by residents.
Brandt said he would support a similar $80 parcel tax, even during what some may consider hard economic times. “It is an emergency situation, and I think we all are taxed up to our eyeballs, we all are having a hard time,” said Brandt. But, he continued, “You are going to spend some money if you are going to want some more police officers.”
Macleay suggested that the OPD could hire civilians to work inside the department in some roles, such as working as investigators. “Not all police do the same things, they don’t have the same roles, and not all the roles need to be filled by badge-carrying officers, gun-carrying officers,” said Macleay.
Candidates also addressed concerns about how Oakland could bring more businesses into the community. “Oakland should get out of the economic development business—it doesn’t understand how private enterprise people decide to make decisions and it usually does it wrong,” Raphael said. “Trying to encourage non-profits and government to come here, that’s dumb. They don’t pay taxes, but they consume services. I would say get out the economic development business—just provide high quality basic services and business will come.”
But Link disagreed. “I support Oakland being active in economic development. If we do it smart, I think we can do it well,” said Link. “We got an an exciting city that’s actually getting a buzz from the New York Times and all over the country.”
The candidates also debated Oakland’s gang injunctions, which restrict the movements of alleged gang members by enforcing curfews and banning identified gang members from interacting with one another. Oakland has two injunctions in place, one against members of the North Side Oakland gang in North Oakland and another against members of the Nortenos gang in the Fruitvale area. Gang injunctions have been controversial among residents because some feel the injunctions target a certain racial group.
“The gang injunction, the curfew, it happens inside the environment where people of color feel very differently about it then somebody who looks like me,” said Macleay. “I am a white middle-class guy, college-educated and have a business. I could be all for a gang injunction, but in the communities this is effecting, we are not promoting trust, we are not prompting dialogue, we are not prompting cooperation.”
Some candidates said that enforcing a gang injunction may not be very effective. “We have one [gang injunction] here in North Oakland, and we’ve had a few people who were arrested…that were members. Two of them were arrested outside of the gang injunction zone and one was arrested within it. None of them were arrested because of the gang injunction. Their arrest was probation or parole violations,” said Brandt. “So the injunction itself is still a question mark with me. I support it, but I don’t think it has produce the results that we were expecting.”
“I am also very skeptical about the value of the so-called gang injunctions,” said Kalb, who added that instead of a gang injunction he would favor increasing funding to conflict resolutions programs in schools. “The data shows that it has very questionable value.”
According to Paul Junge, vice president and public policy director of the Chamber of Commerce, the chamber held this forum, and is planning other community events, to help the citizens get a sense of the candidates running for office. “We try to ask the candidates questions about government budgeting and the priorities they would establish and by holding forums in the communities that they will represent,” said Junge. “We hope the people in those areas can come and hear from the candidates and vote more intelligently.”
Reactions to the panel from audience members were mixed. “It was wonderful, I really appreciate everybody showing up, we need to hear what these people are offering,” said Samsarah Morgan, 52, resident of district 1, who works as a midwife counselor in Oakland. “I was favorably impressed with a couple of people. I think we need to have more forums like this.”
But Oakland resident Randy Menjivar, 24, was disappointed that the panel did not answer his question. “They [the panel] selected what questions they wanted to raise to the candidates to answer. I asked them how were they going to help empower working class people that are affected every day by unemployment,” he said. “They didn’t answer my questions, and of course that is a bias.”
The Chamber of Commerce is expected to hold its next forum on August 28 for Oakland’s District 5 candidates at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center. For more information visit: http://business.oaklandchamber.com/events/