Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has had a tumultuous first year in office. Since her first day one year ago, the mayor has been faced with overseeing severe budget cuts and scores of layoffs of city workers, as well as the resignation of the city attorney and the chief of police, battles with Occupy Oakland, an undermanned police force that is close to federal receivership and is battling a debilitating crime problem, and not one, but two efforts to recall her from her job.
But through it all, Quan said she’s “optimistic” about what’s in store for the city during her State of the City address at City Hall on Wednesday night.
“This has been an amazing year, with lots of turns and more than our share of bumps,” Quan said. “But Oakland is a city that faces adversity and crises and comes back stronger.”
Quan’s speech was titled “Oakland on the Rise,” and the mayor focused on progress that has been made in the city, especially concerning development and job creation, as well as on the city’s historical pioneers. She also called out for more volunteers to help mentor youth in the city’s highest-crime areas. Quan gave the speech to a packed audience in the City Hall council chambers which included city councilmembers, police Chief Howard Jordan, and other city leaders and citizens serving with community organizations.
Quan broke up her speech numerous times to acknowledge famous Oaklanders present in the audience, like boxing champ Andre Ward and members of the pop group PopLyfe. She also mentioned great Oaklanders from history like shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and baseball player Curt Flood. “We have some amazing people in this city,” Quan said.
In her speech, Quan noted that 5,000 new jobs in high tech, restaurant and retail industries were created within the last year, and unemployment in the city dropped 2 percent. She acknowledged leaders of city businesses like Oaklandish, solar power company Sungevity and Internet radio provider Pandora for helping create local jobs and create economic growth. “These are the cutting edge companies that will make Oakland famous in the future,” Quan said.
Quan also said the city and Port of Oakland are “unified like never before” and that she and the city council are committed to job growth at the port. “If we double exports, we’ll create 5,000 new jobs in the region,” Quan said.
She also talked about what she believes is the city’s improving national reputation, mentioning that the The New York Times ranked the city in its list of the top 5 of places to visit in the world in 2012, while Newsweek ranked Oakland as the “second most can-do city.” She said she hopes the recognition will help change public perception of the city.
“We have one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, but that’s not our image,” Quan said. “We have one of the most tolerant and diverse cities in the world, but that’s not our reputation.”
The city has had to face harsh budget concerns this year, Quan noted. The city had a $58 million budget deficit in 2011 that was reduced mostly through union concessions. That year the council managed to avoid making cuts to libraries and senior centers that otherwise were on the chopping block.
Quan and the city then had to balance the budget again in January, this time facing a $28 million deficit after the state of California eliminated redevelopment agencies. The budget was balanced through more layoffs—80 this time—as well as eliminating city administrative positions and reorganizing departments.
Quan thanked city workers, and acknowledged their representatives, who received a long standing ovation from most of the audience members in the chambers. “It was very hard negotiations, but to save services and save their fellow employees, these unions did that and also gave major reforms and concessions,” Quan said. “In this city we are committed to working together as partners in this very tough time, and we need to respect and honor the commitment you’ve made.”
The city still faces a terrible crime problem, and the final portion of Quan’s speech focused on public safety issues. Notably, the city’s homicide rate rose over the past year, from 95 homicides in 2010 to 110 last year, and the city’s police force remains stretched thin after having its number of officers reduced by more than 200 over the past two years. But Quan said the city will be making strides to combat the problem through her 100-block initiative, which focuses on the 100 blocks of the city where 92 percent of the violent crime occurs.
Other priorities, Quan said, include getting the police force into compliance with the Negotiated Settlement Agreement from the Riders lawsuit. Quan also noted other public safety achievements during her year in office, including the re-hiring of 44 officers who were laid off the previous year, 34 of whom now work in the 100-block area.
Quan did not speak directly about her handling of the Occupy Oakland protests, which drew heated criticism and is a key reason underlying the two efforts to recall her but did hint at the city’s response to protests. “I believe we have nothing to fear from changing our practices and learning from our mistakes,” Quan said. “I don’t care whether you’re standing at the corner of 98th and Avenue C, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. We can protect and yet respect the rights of our citizens.”
In the coming year, Quan said she wants Oakland’s citizens help her reduce the crime problem by mentoring at-risk youth, especially those who live in the 100-block area. She encouraged more people to volunteer at recreation centers in tough neighborhoods, and said she will focus on reducing truancy rates for middle schoolers as a way to cut off potential crime before it can begin. She said doing so will “help change the cycle of violence in this city forever.”
“If we give young people hope in these neighborhoods crime will go down in the city,” she said.
Quan closed the speech by saying that she believes Oakland is “two cities”—mentioning the city has been recognized for all its citizens with post-graduate degrees, but at the same time, only 20 to 30 percent of the young men living in the 100-block area are graduating from high school.
“It is clear if you look at the indicators, Oakland is on the rise, economically,” Quan said. “The question is, will everyone rise together?”