The Oakland City Council Tuesday night delayed final votes on two controversial issues, ultimately giving the city more time to work on alternative proposals—first, for a plan to build a city-run dog play area at Astro Park, and second, to cut in half the $1,019 taxi medallion fee that cab companies are required to pay annually.
At its December 18 meeting, the council was split 4-4 over whether or not to allow a new dog park at the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Lakeshore Avenue. Mayor Jean Quan was charged with casting the tie-breaking vote, which was slated for Tuesday.
But Quan, citing vehement opposition to the plan by a group of Oakland residents called “Save Astro Park,” asked the council to delay the vote until April 15, when the city is expected to bring forth a new design for Snow Park, which also borders Lake Merritt but is about a half mile away, and is being considered as an alternative dog park site.
“I’m not going to break the tie tonight because I want to go back to our original discussion,” Quan said about the dog park proposal, which was first made 10 years ago. “Pausing this until April will give us a chance to work out an alternative.”
Supporters said in December that Astro Park is a good location because of its proximity to the freeway, parking availability and because it’s not near sensitive Lake Merritt environmental habitat. However, opponents rallied against a dog park near a children’s playground, said that the woodchip groundcover would be an eyesore, and it would take away play space for kids in the neighborhood.
Quan said stalling her vote would give designers time to draft a plan for the new Snow Park location, an option that is supported by the city council as well as community groups. Quan said discussions with members from both Save Astro Park and a group in support of the dog park called the Oakland Dog Owners Group, or ODOG, indicate that both sides support the new Snow Park location. “We’re renovating [Snow] Park anyhow, so the dog park could be included with little or no additional funding,” Quan said. “We are in the process of drafting those designs now. Most people seem satisfied.”
Emily Rosenberg, co-founder of ODOG, said Tuesday night that she supports the idea of a Snow Park site. “We’re delighted. This is a beautiful site,” Rosenberg said. “ODOG never picked a location, we just want a park—a place that people can go with their dogs.”
Rosenberg was the sole member of ODOG at the council meeting, and no speakers representing Save Astro Park came to speak.
Quan said the city is currently drafting a design for Snow Park, which is expected to be complete by April 15. The current item before the City Council is an appeal of a Planning Commission decision to allow a dog park at the Astro Park site. The council must deny that appeal before separately voting whether to approve a dog park at Snow Park.
Another plan, which would reduce the current taxi medallion fee by half—from $1019 to about $500 per year—was tabled until late March. Cab company owners pay annual medallion fees to the city—one medallion per car—to cover staffing costs such as paying for cab inspectors and investigating illegal taxi drivers.
Taxi drivers and cab company owners came out to speak in December against the $1,019 medallion fee, which was raised in January, 2012, from just $25. Many said that business is slow, and the amount of money in fees and inspection costs they are required to pay is threatening the industry.
The council agreed that taxis are an important part of the city’s transportation system, both for tourism, business conventions, and for some who do not drive, which is part of the reason they agreed to put a fee reduction on the agenda.
“I have been a cab driver for 20 years,” said Basel Albanna, who drives for Friendly Cab, addressing the council Tuesday night, speaking in favor of a fee reduction. “This is the worst I’ve seen it in Oakland. I’m trying to survive, but with these new fees, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to.”
Albanna said competition from other cab companies is expected, but there’s been an influx of what are called “gypsy” cabs, or people who operate as cab drivers but are not registered with the city, and who don’t pay any of the associated fees. “No one is enforcing the rules against them,” Albanna said.
“Business is slow, and the gypsy cabs are getting out of control,” said TJ Kumar, the company operations manager for Veterans Cab, which holds 42 medallions in Oakand. “The city has done nothing to address this, and then we get this crazy increase in fees, from $25 to $1,000.”
Kumar said he and other cab company workers he’s spoken to are willing to pay more than $25, but the exponential increase is too much to handle. “It’s very hard on us. I used to pay about $1,000 a year, and now I’m paying between $44,000 and $45,000 just for the medallions,” he said. “We’re all struggling.”
Chimu Orji, who has been a Veterans Cab driver for the last six years, said with the $430 in fees he must pay to company owners, called a “gate fee,” he’s been coming home with about $40 after an eight or nine hour shift. “This is really hard on us,” Orji said to the council during public comments. “Every day, it’s getting worse. Business is going down, and the money we pay is going up.”
A city staff report prior to Tuesday’s meeting recommended keeping the $1,019 medallion rate in place. “Although an increase of over $1,000 may at first appear shocking, the real problem is that fees have not been increased for a very long time, and there is no evidence that those fees ever reflected the actual cost of administering Oakland’s taxi system—which resulted in a subsidy,” the report stated. According to the City Administrator’s office, in 2011, the city’s General Fund subsidized cab operations at the cost of $167,621, which is one reason the city hiked the fees.
At the meeting, city staff said they are currently evaluating the way the city runs cab servicing and fees. Deputy City Administrator Arturo Sanchez said he is working on a comprehensive plan that is expected to address the issue of drivers who are operating illegally, as well as other fees cab companies pay for operating expenses. Some of the criteria being evaluated include how to better investigate illegal cab drivers, removing the need for a dispatcher for cab companies with five or fewer taxis, and increasing the number of companies that accept credit cards.
The council Tuesday night also talked briefly about the shooting death of Kiante Campbell, who was gunned down at February’s First Friday event, otherwise knows as the Art Murmur.
But councilmembers halted discussion after Council President Patricia Kernighan (District 2) and representatives from the City Attorney’s Office noted that the issue wasn’t on the agenda. However, City Administrator Deanna Santana said the city is currently working on a new policy for the popular street festival. Santana declined to give more details, other than to say that the policies for police staffing levels and the private security guards currently patrolling the event are currently under evaluation.
Councilmembers Larry Reid (District 7) and Desley Brooks (District 6) voiced concern about redirecting police officers from their districts to the city’s Uptown neighborhood. “The residents in my district, they are freaking out,” Reid said, speaking about the police staffing that has been redirected to Art Murmur events. “They’re talking about buying guns, just because they don’t see police officers.”
Brooks agreed, saying that staffing the event with 30 police officers last Friday night was a “misallocation of resources.” She said the city needs to look at what the event originally started as—an art walk meant to draw business to local restaurants and other nightlife establishments.
“These are life and death issues,” Brooks said. “Does that mean we should throw away Art Murmur and First Fridays? No. But when the city became involved, it became a different kind of event.”
Santana said the event is currently under review by the City Administrator and the mayor’s office.
The meeting also included a small, peaceful protest, when about 20 people came out to speak against company practices at Alameda County Waste Management, which handles the bulk of Oakland’s recycling program. Protesters held signs that read “Oakland is not Arizona: We respect immigrant rights.”
The informal coalition of community groups, environmental activists and Waste Management employees said they are starting a new campaign geared toward improving worker rights within the company, improving sustainable business practices to help protect the environment, and improve the service the company provides to Oakland residents. Speakers said the company recently required employees to enroll in a program called E-Verify, an Internet-based system run by the Department of Homeland Security, which employers can use to check the immigration status of employees.
“We’re being threatened with these immigration background checks,” said Victoria Leon, who has worked for Waste Management for six years, and who said a co-worker recently left the company because of E-Verify. “We were trying to organize for better pay, fairer working conditions and better services.”
The next regular City Council meeting is scheduled for February 19 at 5:30 p.m.