A better future for Oakland: an interview with Rebecca Kaplan
on May 18, 2010
In April, Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland City Councilmember-at-large, announced that she was considering running for mayor this fall. Kaplan has not formally entered the race yet, but formed an exploratory committee last month. She has until August to decide on her candidacy for mayor.
Other contenders for the mayor’s race this fall include District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan and former State Senate President Don Perata. Current mayor Ron Dellums has not yet announced whether he will stand for re-election.
Some people have criticized Kaplan, saying she is not experienced enough to lead the city — the former civil rights lawyer and AC Transit Director was elected to the City Council in November, 2008. But the Toronto native and MIT graduate says she has ideas that will create a better future for Oakland by modernizing the way the city does business and taking a more data-oriented approach to solving problems.
Oakland North reporter Ayako Mie sat down for an exclusive interview with Kaplan to talk about how she hopes to change the city.
Q: You have lived in Oakland for 14 years, since you were a law student at Stanford University. How do you view Oakland?
Oakland has the best weather of anyplace on Earth, and we have a population of people who really want to be living in a kind of thriving urban environment where you can walk and bike, where there is nightlife, and where there are jobs locally. People do go out for entertainment and eat in the city, and there are good things going on that bring economic development and jobs. The city has better potential for doing these things than any other city in the U.S.
Q: You talk about making changes at City Hall. What is working and what is not working to attract businesses to Oakland?
In Oakland right now, you cannot apply for a business permit online. So the businesspeople come down to downtown and stand in the lines and lose time. We are wasting money, and we are paying people to sit entering the data, when instead, the businessperson could go onto the Internet and put in information to pay their fees and do their business licenses. Meanwhile, we get complaints all the time when people try to call — they have questions about parking tickets and business licenses, and they say nobody is answering phones. We are wasting all these staff [hours] typing data from a piece of paper that a businessperson can put in themselves online.
So when we look at how we are structuring the jobs inside City Hall, there are a lot of things where we are still not fully entered into the modern era in terms of technology and our systems. And if we change some of those, we could free up some staff time to do the things that people do need.
Q: Speaking of a modern system, Oakland’s public records system is very outdated.
Public records are a huge problem in two ways. One is an attitude issue and the other is a technology issue. For the attitude issue, we have to make it clear that the public has the right to the records as long as they are not requesting confidential documents.
Besides the attitude problem, there is a systemic problem. We do not have a good systematic way where records are kept online. … One way to solve this is to have a consistent systematic way where records are put online in a full searchable format.
Q: You have mentioned that modernizing systems will help solve Oakland’s blight problem.
Oakland has been hit in a very major way by predatory lending and foreclosures. We have banks foreclosing on properties and then letting them sit empty. They do not take care of them, and they do not clean them, and they become blight in the neighborhood. They attract crime, so you have got these abandoned properties that are dragging down the whole neighborhood.
But we have not yet set up strong enough data tracking for blight complaints to be able to have a good, identified list of where all the blight issues are. How do we send out the enforcement staff in an effective way? Now if we were doing that better, we would be forcing the banks to pay their fines to the city and they would have to clean up blight — which then creates jobs in the city and stabilizes the neighborhood. So we would both get the revenues from the fines and we will get the blight cleaned up.
Q: The crime rate in Oakland had gone down significantly compared to previous years. Also, “safety ambassadors” have been hired by local business owners in downtown and uptown Oakland to oversee the area and coordinate with the police. But much more should be done. Public safety is one of your priorities. How would you handle this?
Safety ambassadors were started by the business district little over a year ago. They were able to provide safety and directions and information. They are able to prevent crime because they are visible walking around. People get a sense that someone is watching. I do think we need them for longer hours, for later at night. That can be very helpful for the commercial districts, and as a strategy, that’ll also prevent crime. But that does not mean that this is all that we need to do.
We also need the police force to be effective. Part of that is having assigned officers for the each beat. They are out in the community. That really helps prevent and solve crimes. They will know hot spots and what is going on. Having police on the beat, it really helps both with the direct knowledge of the communities but also with the relationship-building, so people will be more able to come forward.
Q: Beat officers or Problem Solving Officers (PSOs) are assigned to each police beat as part of Measure Y that voters passed in 2004 to provide $20 million a year for crime prevention and public safety. But some council members are calling for reducing the number of police officers to close the city’s budget deficit.
[Note: A local attorney filed a lawsuit against the city of Oakland in April 2008 alleging numerous violation of Measure Y. Oakland lawyer Marleen Sacks claimed that the city had violated Measure Y by using its money for police recruitment and training, rather than for crime prevention and for providing the 63 Problem Solving Officers promised by the measure. ]
That is one of the options that some of my colleagues are pushing. I don’t think we should be reducing the number of police officers. What we need to do is to work to solve the Measure Y lawsuit and to understand that public voted to have these beat officers, or the PSOs. That is what the public was voting [for] in measure Y, and it’s working. Public implementation really did lag for a few years, but last year we finally got to the level of deployment where it is helping.
Q: But Oakland is so broke that it does not have the money to maintain the staff level mandated by Measure Y.
We also have to research ways to make policing cheaper other than reducing the number of officers. One is, how do we reduce overtime? We send a large number of police [to provide security] every time there is a large rally. [During the April teachers’ strike] we had teachers rallying and there were tons of police officers. What exactly are the teachers going to do? We are taking all the police officers out of the beats throughout the city to send them to watch the teachers rally. That is just silly.
Another thing we can do — but it is going to take time — is that we can finish completing the court oversight from the Rider’s case settlement.
[Note: The Rider’s case was a lawsuit filed in federal court in December, 2000, by 119 plaintiffs. It claimed that four Oakland police officers known as the “Riders” violated the plaintiffs’ civil rights. Allegations against the four officers included false arrest, planting evidence, excessive use of force, falsification of police reports, and assault and battery. In most instances the plaintiffs’ criminal charges were reviewed by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, which determined that the charges against the plaintiffs should be dropped and they should be released from custody.]
As a result of that, Oakland is now in an agreement overseen by the federal district court in which we have a list of the things we have to complete. And that isn’t going to be done in a month, but if we are going to have a really focused effort, we could get it pretty much resolved. And if we could get it pretty much resolved, that then will allow moving of bunch of investigators from internal affairs to crime investigation and other police duties. That is a solution.
It is interesting because usually when we have budget discussions, if anybody brings up an idea that cannot be done in this month, people say ‘Let’s not talk about that, because we have to solve this year’s budget.’ The problem is the things that take years to do. Are we never going to do them? What happens when we come back next year?
We do need to solve this year’s budget, but we also need to see that we need to have a future. I worry about how Oakland going to be in two years — and in twenty years.
The things that take years are still worth doing, because the following year’s budget is going to come and it is not going to be that long before we are going to be here again saying, ‘How we are going to have enough police?’ We need to do some of these things even if it won’t be fixed this month. Reducing overtime, we can start right now.
Q: Do you plan to take these actions if you are elected mayor?
I haven’t made an official announcement [of candidacy for mayor] yet, but I have an exploratory committee. We are having conversations with committee members and supportive community members. To me, none of this has to do with whether I am mayor or not. Now obviously as a mayor, I would have stronger authority to implement these things and require them to happen. As a city councilmember, I can pass resolutions, I can pass ordinances, we can make some proposals around the budget. But when they become an issue of who has the authority to give directives, who can say staff must do something, it’s the mayor who has the authority. While it is certainly true that one has stronger authority to make sure these things happen as a mayor, these are things that need to be happen no matter who is mayor.
Q: Some people say you should have more experience on the City Council before you run for mayor.
My history of experience representing Oakland is more than the couple of years that I have been on the council. I look at the magnitude of what needs to be done in the city in terms of economic development, in terms of land use, zoning, business attraction, and actual functions to make the city work better, and I have many years of experience doing these sorts of things. I think most voters actually won’t vote for somebody because they are younger, or they won’t vote against somebody because they are younger. What most voters will do is to say ‘Do you have a strategy for economic development? Do you have a strategy for public safety? Or, ‘Do you have an ability to fix the function of the Oakland government?’ And I think voters will judge the candidate on that basis more than on her age.
Q: Oakland has a huge deficit and as a mayor, this is a priority that you would have to deal with. The councilmembers are considering introducing a parcel tax that will cost a single household $15 a month. But you did not vote for that. Why?
First of all, I don’t think voters are in the mood … to vote for the parcel tax [by the 2/3 majority needed to pass the tax]. I’m not saying that we cannot go to the voters with anything, but we need to have really good solid proposal. And the voters are going to ask, ‘What are you doing to contain the cost? What are you doing to have effective public safety? How can we know that it is going to be used right?’ There needs to be more complete plan … so that voters will understand that all we are doing is not asking for their money. We have to make an effort for effective uses of resources and what we are doing around the cost, and what we are doing with the overtime.
I also think that we should be polling. We should be polling different options and make a decision with some more data. If we have something we know is not going to be pass, then why put it to the voters and come back in November and make more cuts? There needs to be more work.
Q: Mayor Dellums has yet to take a pay cut and some councilmembers have not taken pay cuts either. Voters may not be very happy if you are going to introduce a new tax when the elected officials have not taken any cuts.
Let me say, I took the pay cut. I supported it. And if I decide to run for mayor, I would take a twenty percent pay cut. Nobody should think that it is going to solve the budget crisis by itself, but I think it is important in an environment where everybody is really struggling to take that kind of leadership. I did take the pay cut, and if I would become the mayor, I would take a twenty percent pay cut as a mayor — not ten percent, but twenty. I think that helps convey to people the seriousness that we are taking this with, as well as that we are dealing with the reality of the fiscal crisis.
Q: Can you talk about economic revitalization? We currently have an almost 18 percent unemployment rate in Oakland. How will you take on this issue?
We have a significant what experts call “retail leakage problem.” That means people who live in Oakland go outside to spend their money. Now this is really important for people to understand because there is a stereotype out there — people think that Oakland does not have good shopping areas because the people in Oakland don’t have enough spending money. It is not true. There is an actual study that has been done — that is another thing I believe in, using actual data to make decisions. For years, people thought, ‘Oh we don’t have good shopping because people do not have money.’ People who live in Oakland are spending hundreds of millions of dollars outside of Oakland because we don’t do a good enough job of providing those opportunities here.
If people are shopping for clothing or furniture or appliances, they often go out of Oakland and make those purchases. Then we lose the jobs, we lose the sales tax revenue. Then we come back and we are having a budget crisis again. Well, if we had more people shopping in Oakland, the sales revenue would not keep going down. And there would be jobs, and there would be a better quality of life — it is nice to not to go so far to do your shopping. So that is one piece we absolutely can take more seriously. We do have the spending power in our city. The first thing that has to be done is to recognize what the problem is and what the problem is not. We have to do better job promoting local businesses and to attract more of them to Oakland.
Q: You are also proposing a new stadium for the Oakland Raiders and the 49ers in the Coliseum area.
This project will play a really big part for economic revitalization. If we had shops, bars, restaurants and hotels around the Coliseum, then people who come in for the game will have places to go out. It will be better for the community, create jobs immediately during construction as well as after the construction, working for the hotels and other amenities. And it will provide sales tax revenue to Oakland forever.
It will also change people’s experience when they come for a game. Now if you come, you take BART, you walk to the Coliseum, and there is nothing really there. We could make it a really wonderful destination. They could have all kinds of different entertainment and dining so people would hang out, both when there is a game and when there is not.
Q: In order to bring money to Oakland, we’d need more businesses in Oakland. What kind of businesses are you looking at?
The food sector is a huge growing sector for Oakland. Food production has the potential to help bring back manufacturing types of jobs and the higher wage jobs that we really need. Eighty years ago, food production was in Oakland. And now that is starting to come back — Blue Bottle Coffee is here. We have these local success stories beginning to happen again in food production.
I believe that we are going to shift to more and more locally produced food, because long distance shipping is going to be more expensive, and more food companies will want food to be produced locally in the region. Also because there is growing public interest in eating locally, and locally produced food, and also because Oakland is so much a transportation hub. You could have production here and connect to the whole region. It works as economic development efforts both for the Oakland and food companies. We have trains here and we are the hub of BART and the freeways.
Q: How about other sectors?
Another sector where there is going to be a job growth is health care. There is a growing demand for nursing and assisted health care. Part of how we are going to create it is to make sure that our job training programs and recruitment and job matching programs align to jobs that there are, and jobs that are growing. You have to make sure that job training programs are training people for jobs that there are. So health care is an area where growing demand. We have to make sure when somebody finishes the job training program, they have a job.
It is also part of why we need to be working on these transit villages, because we are going to have a lot of people trained in construction, and there are going to be needs for jobs in construction. Transit villages are good for the planet, because instead of people living in a suburb where they might be driving to jobs that might be in San Francisco, if you could have a nice place to live, like right by the Lake Merritt Station, and you had a grocery store and could walk to the lake, tons of people would choose that. So it is better for the planet, better for the community in Oakland, and creates construction jobs … which is a sector where there is a high level of unemployment. So we need to look at the connection between the jobs and people for the jobs. We need to attract construction projects — you know, the good ones. And we need to help make sure that people are trained for the future for the jobs that will be there.
In the question regarding the proposed parcel tax, the figure been changed to $15 a month.
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