Oakland’s new city council members, who were inaugurated at a ceremony at City Hall Monday, set the stage for the elected body’s biggest policy focus of the next four years—public safety. While it’s no secret that crime is Oakland’s number one problem, with the city’s homicide rate reaching 131 on the last day of 2012, councilmembers old and new declared Monday that the council should formally proclaim that combating crime the city’s first priority.
That means more than just acknowledging crime as a problem that must be solved, they said. In the 2013-2015 two-year budget cycle, that could mean shifting resources away from other city programs and departments, such as road repair or funding local nonprofits, councilmembers said.
“My district was once known as ‘the killing fields’ in the city, and yes, we are still suffering loss of life, so we as a council have to make public safety a number one priority,” said District 7 representative Larry Reid, whose district includes East Oakland, speaking to the three incoming councilmembers—longtime school board member Noel Gallo who now represents District 5, and newcomers Dan Kalb in District 1 and Lynette Gibson McElhaney in District 3.
“To my new colleagues on the council—you will be faced with a challenge, to step forward and make some tough decisions,” Reid added. “Some of those decisions may require other programs in the city be sacrificed if public safety is our number one priority.”
In January the council will start work on the city’s operating budget for the next two years, which sets spending priorities and funds everything from local police academies to infrastructure upkeep to public employee healthcare and pension benefits. Mayor Jean Quan and the rest of the City Council have launched initiatives to combat violence in Oakland, including a vow not to lay off any police officers this year and to fund two police training academies a year for the next five years. But the city owes more than $1.5 billion in unfunded liabilities—money the city has promised to public employees for healthcare benefits and pension, as well as city infrastructure upkeep, according to a November 2012 budget forecast report prepared in anticipation of the next two years.
Other councilmembers on Monday acknowledged the rising violence in Oakland, which hit a five-year high in 2012, but had different ideas on how to fight it. “If we can’t get serious crime under control, then we are failing our constituents,” said Kalb, an environmental activist who won District 1 in November, beating six other candidates. “It doesn’t always mean more cops on the streets. We have to take a comprehensive approach.”
Kalb said that police staffing is important, but said there should also be a focus on devoting more resources to crime investigations and ridding the streets of illegal weapons, as well as implementing programs that reduce recidivism, or when offenders keep breaking the law.
“We know who commits crimes, and that’s people who have committed serious crimes before,” Kalb said. “We need to put more pressure on the county, and we need to direct more of our funds—Measure Y or otherwise—into programs that can be shown to be effective in reducing recidivism.”
McElhaney, who prior to being elected worked in affordable housing, and who represents West Oakland, said more resources should be directed to school and after-school programs for both children and adults who need help. Another approach is to reduce crime by investing in businesses and building the local economy, she said.
“I started this journey more than a year ago with the notion that if we work together, we can strengthen our economy and create jobs and opportunity for everyone here, and that if we did that, we could drive crime down and make our city safer,” McElhaney said. “If this term is about anything, it’s about disrupting the status quo—we should no longer think that it’s OK to talk about a hundred murders.”
Gallo, a former Oakland Unified School District board member who also worked for a private firm that scouts school superintendents, advocated for implementing on a citywide scale programs already in place in the Fruitvale, such as gang injunctions, as ways to reduce crime. He is also a supporter of youth curfews.
He said those “tools,” a term used regularly by his predecessor, Ignacio De La Fuente, are important. “I support curfews; I support stop and frisk,” Gallo said. “We need to provide the [police] chief with the tools to be successful.”
At Monday’s inauguration ceremony, the council also unanimously voted to name District 2 Councilmember Patricia Kernighan as City Council president, name Reid vice mayor, and make at-large representative Rebecca Kaplan president pro tempore. City Attorney Barbara Parker, who was appointed by former City Attorney John Russo when he took a job as Alameda city manager in July 2011, also thanked Oakland voters for her successful November campaign to be re-elected to the seat. She defeated former District 1 councilmember Jane Brunner.
Also taking the oath Monday were the winners of the board race for the Oakland Unified School District: Jody London in District 1, Jumoke Hinton Hodge in District 3, Rosie Torres in District 5 and James Harris in District 7.
At the mid-morning ceremony, friends and family members of the City Council packed council chambers, as the newly-elected raised their right hands and took the oath, which begins with the familiar: “I solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States, the constitution of the state of California and the charter of the city of Oakland.” The ceremony concluded with cake and refreshments outside council chambers, where other city leaders congratulated the elected body, including Quan and former state assemblymember Sandre Swanson, who was recently appointed deputy mayor by Quan.
A small group of Oakland residents spoke to the new council and school board, calling for more cooperation amongst elected officials, and asking for elected officials to build trust with the community.
“Take this opportunity to uphold what you say you’re going to do, because the morale of the people is at an all-time low,” said Oscar Wright, 89, an Oakland resident. “You have taken this oath to make a difference.”
Kenny Houston, a friend of former council president Reid, said the city’s healing process begins with new leadership on the council. “This city council has been divided for years,” Houston said. “Who has suffered? Oakland residents. The city needs healing.”