City council approves funding for asylum seekers, blocks Hampton Inn protesters

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At Tuesday’s Oakland City Council meeting, the council approved a funding increase for legal support for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States, authorized the creation of a “Director of Race and Equity” staffing position within the city government and received a report from the Oakland Police Department (OPD) about how the department intends to allocate $1 million in funding for a gun tracing program.

Dozens of protesters holding signs that said “No Poverty Hotel” crowded the council chambers at the start of the meeting intending to oppose the potential opening of a Hampton Inn in downtown Oakland. But the protesters did not arrive early enough to sign up to speak during the 15-minute public comment period, and Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney did not extend the period to allow the more than 40 commenters to speak, directing them to wait until end of the meeting. Refusing to wait, the protesters chanted “Downtown Oakland! Not for Sale!” as they exited the chambers.

The 15 public commenters who were allowed to speak included several current students and alumni of East Oakland’s Digital Arts and Culinary Academy (DACA), who spoke in opposition to the transfer of Andrea President, a manager at the academy. President said she was given a notice from the director of Oakland Parks and Recreation department (OPR) stating that she would be transferred on November 26 to the Studio One Arts Center in North Oakland.

President manages numerous programs for East Oakland youth, including “Guitars Not Guns,” a program that provides free guitar lessons in an effort to prevent violence. At Studio One, guitar lessons cost $50—a price one mother said she could not afford, even if she found a way to transport her children to the North Oakland facility.

“We need her at DACA,” student Zuni Mosely-Moon, 13, told the council, echoing a series of comments from other speakers about how President has created a safe and family-like community there. “We need her in a place [with people] of color.”

“DACA keeps us kids in East Oakland out of trouble,” said Keisha, an 8th grader who attends DACA and gave only her first name.

“DACA is a family,” said Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6). “There was no thought given to the impact on that family if you take away a vital member.” Brooks, who represents the neighborhood where DACA is located, said officials at the city administrator’s office made a mistake in their decision to transfer President.

Speaking directly to the council, President said she could not endure the financial hardship a commute to Studio One would cause for her, and would resign from her position if the transfer is confirmed. She said she would continue to work at DACA as a volunteer.

President’s transfer was not included in the council’s agenda items and was not discussed by councilmembers outside of the public comment period.

The council unanimously supported an increase of $300,000 to a grant awarded to Centro Legal de la Raza to help fund legal support for Central American children fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States. The children, largely from Guatemala and Honduras, travel to the United States without parents or guardians. Centro Legal de la Raza, along with organizations like Catholic Charities of the East Bay and the East Bay Community Law Center, uses the grant money to pay for legal representation for the children as they navigate the process of applying for asylum. Because the children are not U.S. citizens, they are not entitled by the Sixth Amendment to legal representation provided by the state.

Anita Mukherji, an attorney at Catholic Charities, told the council about a young woman who escaped from Guatemala after being sold into slavery and suffering ongoing abuse. The woman traveled to the United States and Mukherji was able to help her win her asylum case—a specific example of the grant money being put to good use, she said.

One member of the public spoke in opposition to the grant funding, telling the council that Oakland’s existing population should be the priority for city funding, emphasizing her desire to see more programs for the city’s young African American people.

Kip Walsh, the recruitment manager for the city’s Department of Human Resources, appeared before the council to answer questions about a measure to fund and hire a director of race and equity. In February, Brooks proposed the creation of the Department of Race and Equity, and the council voted to establish the department in June.

The director will oversee administrative efforts to promote “fair and equitable opportunities for all people and communities,” according to the job description prepared by the city administrator. Additional details about the position were not provided in the measure’s report. In June, the San Francisco Chronicle reported tension between city officials regarding the lack of clarity about what the department and director will specifically do to increase equity within city government.

The council also authorized the city administrator to negotiate an agreement with the city of Portland to loan the director of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights to the city of Oakland for three months to help implement the director’s position.

Brooks, who represented Oakland with Councilmember Abel Guillen (District 2) this month at the National League of Cities conference in Nashville, told the other council members that Oakland is seen as a leader on issues of race and equity across the nation. “People are looking to see what the city of Oakland is doing and how we set up this department,” she said.

Due to a procedural error, the council was unable to vote to approve OPD’s plan for using $1 million in city funding for a gun tracing program, which will focus on stopping illegal gun sales in Oakland. OPD’s report on the gun tracing program funding will come back to the council for approval on December 8.

If approved, the funding will allow OPD to hire a police records specialist and two crime analysts to work on gun tracing initiatives. Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan reiterated that the program is only a pilot, and that funding for the three positions will expire in two years unless the council moves to continue the funding. Oakland North reported on the gun tracing program following the public safety committee meeting last week.

At the end of the meeting, several participants in the evening’s earlier protest returned to deliver public comments. Irma Perez, a worker at the Courtyard Marriot in downtown Oakland, spoke to the council in Spanish via an English translator, telling the council that her hotel’s union will be at risk if Hampton Inn, which does not allow its workers to unionize, opens a new hotel on the same street. “We shouldn’t approve to build a hotel that will have bad wage standards,” Perez said, saying that her union has negotiated for Courtyard Marriot to pay for employee medical benefits. She said if Hampton Inn enters the market, Courtyard Marriot might try to stop the existing union in an effort to stay competitive.

Perez said she was speaking as a representative of the 150 people who had hoped to speak earlier in the meeting, but had to leave because they had to work early Wednesday morning.

In other business, the council passed an ordinance to include the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation on a lease for a mixed-income housing development project near Fruitvale BART station and approved a city administrator’s request to re-schedule a hearing on the possible transport of coal through a new terminal at the port of Oakland from December 8 to February 16. The administrator said the department needed more time to review the reports on the issue.

The next council meeting will take place on Tuesday, December 8.

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