Four hopefuls vying for Oakland’s City Council’s at-large seat this November agreed on one thing at a candidate’s forum Wednesday night—violence on the streets needs to stop.
Though the group clashed on how to achieve that—whether that means getting rid of illegal guns, or enforcing gang injunctions, or beefing up the city’s police force—all said that a safer city will draw much-needed jobs, a more stable business community and increased trust in City Hall and the police department.
Roughly 70 people showed up Wednesday night to hear what the candidates had to say. Questions, moderated by representatives of three Oakland-based companies, centered around crime, economic development and education.
According to Paul Junge, the public policy director for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which organized the event, questions were submitted by audience members and by the Chamber. Moderators included Dan Cohen, owner of local marketing firm Full Court Press, Barbara Leslie from AT&T and Jill Broadhurst of the East Bay Rental Housing Association.
Four candidates are running to represent Oakland’s seven districts as an at-large representative on the city council. Rebecca Kaplan, who is the first openly gay city councilwoman, has held the seat since November 2008, when she picked up 62 percent of the votes citywide.
Now, four years later, she’s up for re-election, and she’s running against longtime District 5 city councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, as well as Carol Lee Tolbert, a former Oakland Public Schools board member who served from 1992-1997, and Theresa Anderson-Downs, who identified herself as an Oakland native and mother.
Public safety was addressed in nearly every answer from the candidates Wednesday night, but candidates disagreed over whether Oakland needs more police officers on the streets or whether the department needs to do more effective policing. The Oakland Police Department currently has 638 sworn officers, compared to 832 three years ago.
Kaplan said the department needs more officers on the streets. She pointed to recent police layoffs, which she said had led to officers working longer hours. “When you’re working a double or triple shift, things are more likely to go wrong,” she said.
De La Fuente said that although the number of officers on the streets is not adequate, “sometimes more doesn’t mean better.”
“To me it’s how to deploy our resources,” he said. De La Fuente said he supports gang injunctions—a court order that restricts known gang members from associating with one another, prohibits gang members from carrying firearms, enforces curfews and prohibits gang recruitment. Oakland police currently enforce injunctions against members of the Norteños gang in Fruitvale and the North Side Oakland gang in North Oakland.
“The reality is the city is in chaos,” De La Fuente said. “People are suffering and people are dying and that’s the reality of this. I don’t think Oakland has the luxury not to try to do everything that is available to us.”
Tolbert, who lives in North Oakland, joined De La Fuente in support of injunctions.
“As a city councilmember, I would make sure a gang intervention plan was fully implemented,” she said, adding that it’s important to “provide additional recreation services so they’re not attracted to the gang life.”
But Anderson-Downs said she’s against the injunctions. She said Oakland needs more youth programs and jobs instead of criminalizing would-be gang activity. She said she’s known some of the people arrested under the injunctions but said they were unfairly targeted. “I know a lot of these guys, and they were not in gangs,” she said.
Kaplan said police should focus on other methods such as stopping the import of illegal guns. “I know that our city will succeed when we get the jobs in and the guns out,” she said.
The debate also hit on key issues such as the city’s financial turmoil and what candidates called a need to work together, referring to more colorful, and sometimes bitter debates amongst elected officials during council meetings.
“We are a dysfunctional family at this point,” De La Fuente said. “Hopefully we can do better.”
Kaplan called the discourse at city council meetings “hostile.”
“Oakland is in too much turmoil right now for the city council to be fighting,” Anderson-Downs said.
The panel didn’t shy away from the heated issue of public employee benefits, or how to implement good budgeting policies. The city, with an operating budget of about $500 million, faces millions of unfunded liabilities—or money that’s been promised to public employees or is needed for infrastructure upkeep. The Police and Fire Retirement System, for example, faces a shortfall that rivals the city’s budget. According to the 2011-2013 approved budget, $435 million is needed to pay for financial obligations to police and fire retirees and their beneficiaries. Benefits were promised to police officers and firefighters who were hired before 1976, when union contracts were re-negotiated. Just 37 percent of that is set aside.
Kaplan said working with unions to close budget shortfalls by making labor concessions would go far in solving Oakland’s financial mess. Tolbert agreed that the city needs to work more closely with unions to get Oakland back in the black. “We are a team and we need to work more closely together,” Tolbert said.
De La Fuente said the city needs to overhaul the pension system completely, and Anderson-Downs said the city should prioritize schools and after-school programs over police benefits. “It doesn’t make sense to keep putting money back in the OPD if we’re closing schools,” Anderson-Downs said. “It’s like we’re building a prison pipeline for our children.”
Tolbert said the council should negotiate new contracts with unions. “It is an obligation and it has to be funded,” she said, referring to pension and medical benefits for public employees.
The panel agreed that another key to increasing the city’s tax base is to bring more businesses, which would in turn, bring in jobs. In a city with 14.4 percent unemployment, as of August 2012, that’s urgent, the candidates agreed.
Kaplan said the answer is to build a more diverse ecosystem for business in Oakland—with small businesses such as Blue Bottle Coffee and Linden Street Brewing Company as the forest floor, and big lofty projects—including the Oakland Army Base project and the Coliseum City development—as the canopy.
Tolbert and Anderson-downs said bringing in big box retailers like Target would also help.
De La Fuente said he has a record of helping businesses in his district grow: He points to the development of Fruitvale Shopping Center and his role in strengthening schools in the neighborhood. “I have a proven record of getting things done,” he said. “Look at the Fruitvale District. The commercial corridor went from a 50 percent vacancy rate down to five percent.”
Tolbert emphasized the importance of reducing crime rates, which needs to happen to spur growth, she said. “We have to make sure we’re not considered the most dangerous city in California,” she said.
One question from the Chamber addressed the issue of sports teams leaving Oakland and the role of the A’s, the Oakland Raiders and the Golden State Warriors as drivers of economic activity. The city recently unveiled the Oakland Coliseum City proposal, a $40 million project that would construct new facilities for the city’s three sports teams, as well as retail space, offices for technology companies and hotels.
Kaplan said she includes retaining sports teams under economic development. “Advancing the Coliseum City project, with shops and bars and restaurants and hotels, all connected to a convention center and regional transit is an important way of expanding job opportunities,” she said.
But others said there are more important issues the city should focus on.
“Yes, the A’s and the Warriors and the Raiders provide jobs, but we have learned stadiums should not be for the public sector,” De La Fuente said.
“For me, it’s not really an issue,” Anderson-Downs said.
After the panel finished, Ann Killebrew, an Oakland voter, said she would have liked to hear more emphasis on education and environmental issues. “There seemed to be a reticence amongst candidates to talk about issues around education and children,” she said. “There was an incredible emphasis on police and budgeting—those are just solutions to some problems.
Martha Toscano-Perez, who lives in District 5, said she found the panel useful, but it didn’t sway her support. “It was really informative on public safety, but I didn’t change my mind on who I’m voting for,” Toscano-Perez said.
Junge, from the Chamber of Commerce, said questions were aimed at spurring discussion around issues that have a direct impact to the business community here. “The Chamber thinks of itself as an advocate for the business community in Oakland,” he said. “We support policies that we think are going to promote and enhance public safety and maintain a balanced budget.”
Junge said Wednesday night’s panel—part of a series of debates organized by the Chamber—was put on, in part, to help shape the organization’s decision on who they’d endorse in the November election. He said he expects to make that decision in the next two weeks.