Oakland officials react to voters’ rejection of ballot measures
on November 17, 2011
Oaklanders voted Tuesday to reject three ballot measures, which would have imposed an $80 parcel tax on homeowners to hire more police officers, extended the deadline for police and firefighter pension payments to stabilize the city budget, and changed the city attorney from an elected to an appointed position.
After 24 percent of Oakland’s registered voters mailed in ballots for the special election, all three measures—H (city attorney), I (parcel tax) and J (pension fund reform)—were defeated.
“We we’re not surprised by the turnout,” said Frank Castro, a Rockridge resident and spokesman for Make Oakland Better Now, a citizen organization that drafts and recommends proposals to the Oakland government on public safety, public works and budget issues. “This is an off-year and it came one week after a statewide election. I think the council decided to run the elections during this time because they wanted a low participation. They wanted to increase their chances of the measures passing, but it didn’t work.”
The results of the election have prompted different reactions from city officials. Mayor Jean Quan, who proposed the Measure I parcel tax to the City Council last summer, released a statement on November 15 which said that, because the measure did not pass, city officials will not be able to restore senior centers to full day services, add tree and road crews, upgrade internet access at libraries, or upgrade what she called “critical” police technology—improvements she had proposed to make with revenue generated from the parcel tax.
But the most “critical impact,” she said, is that “without the funding for additional police academies we will have a hard time maintaining police staffing levels.”
Measure I was set to raise $55 million in five years to combat a projected $74 million budget deficit for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. During a city council meeting last July, Quan proposed the special elections and put Measure I on the ballot, noting that although the city would have to spend $700,000 to run the elections, passing the parcel tax measure would have brought in an extra $55 million to the city.
That day the council voted 7-1 to approve the special elections. Councilmember Libby Schaaf (District 4) opposed the proposal. “I was the only councilmember that constantly spoke against calling the elections,” Schaaf said. “I’m disappointed on the financial loss caused by the elections. It was a waste of city resources.”
Schaaf said she wasn’t surprised about the failure of the three measures, even though she wrote Measure J, a pension fund reform proposal that received approval from 46.77 percent of voters and was rejected by 53.23 percent of voters.
“I think it’s confusing, that’s why it failed,” she said. “It’s a complicated issue, but it was the measure that proposed the most modest adjustments to the city budget. I think that is why it was the closest to passing.” She said she will modify the measure, to make it more explicit, and propose it again to the city council.
Schaaf declined to say whether she felt disappointed with the failure of Measure I, but added that the measure “was not sufficient to guarantee the hiring of new police officers.”
The measure’s failure won’t have critical effects on the city council’s budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, Schaaf said. “The budget did not assume the passage of these measures,” she said. “But we still need to explore policies to restore the budget and put it back on acceptable levels.”
Castro agrees that Measure I’s failure will not have a critical effect on next year’s budget, as the budget was passed in June. “I think it was just a scare tactic,” he said.
Oakland voters also rejected Measure H, a ballot measure that would have changed the City Attorney from an elected position to one appointed by the City Council. Oakland residents will continue to elect the City Attorney directly.
City Attorney Barbara Parker, who was appointed by Mayor Quan in July after John Russo resigned to accept the job of city manager in Alameda, said in a press release about the election results that the role of the city attorney is “to provide an independent voice to play the important role of a watchdog for transparency, accountability and sound leadership at City Hall.”
Many opponents to measure H argued that if the city attorney became an appointed position, he or she would be subject to the whims of the city council. But those in favor of Measure H used much the same logic, arguing that an elected city attorney is constantly worried about re-election.
Parker, whose current term ends in January 2013, said, “I respect and honor the voters’ decision” to keep the city attorney “accountable to the people.”
Schaaf said she had repeatedly stated her opposition to Measure H. “I’m pleased to see that Oakland voters defended their right to vote for their city attorney,” she said. “I believe the city attorney should be an elected official.”
Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) said he had opposed all the ballot measures. People have a right to vote for the city attorney, he said of Measure H. De La Fuente said he also opposed Measure J, which would have put off “the fact that we really are getting deeper and deeper into debt,” he said. “At some point we have to recognize that, and we have to start changing.”
The biggest problem with pensions is how much they cost, De La Fuente said. The city is paying $3.2 million a month to pensions, he said, and delaying those payments is simply “pushing off the inevitable.”
With regard to Measure I, the parcel tax, De La Fuente said he would have supported it as part of a comprehensive set of structural changes. But as it was proposed, he did not support raising taxes for homeowners and businesses without doing anything else, he said.
“It is unsustainable. We have to reduce expenses,” De La Fuente said. “Unfortunately one of the only ways to do this is to reduce the number of people that work for the city. Obviously nobody wants to do that — nobody wants to lay people off. But probably 90 percent of the budget is salaries and benefits.”
Jason Overman, director of communications for Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, said it is unknown whether the city council will make changes to the budget now or in the future. Councilmembers keep a close eye on how revenue and expenditures compare to projections, he said, and will decide “if and when” changes need to be made.
“It’s certainly worth noting, though, that the city did make sure there is a healthy reserve to ensure that we remain fiscally solvent even with some unforeseen expenses or revenue shortfalls,” Overman said.
“The City finances remain very fragile,” said Quan’s statement. “I will continue to work with the community to find new ways to generate revenue, including economic development projects and attracting new businesses to Oakland.”
Make Oakland Better Now board member Frank Castro said the mayor and the city council have to take more responsibility for the fiscal situation.
“They have to realize that they cannot go to the electorate every year and ask for a parcel tax,” he said. “They need to make long term plans in which they establish where the revenue is coming from.”
Castro said that when proposing a measure or a program, the mayor and the city council also must first evaluate its effectiveness. “When the gang injunctions were proposed in a council meeting, some of the councilmembers presented studies that showed that gang injunctions didn’t work in other cities,” he said. “I think they should do the same with other measures. If you’re going to put a lot of money into them, make sure they actually work.”
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