OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | DISTRICT 2 | The way the five current candidates for Oakland’s District 2 City Council seat were talking inside the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church you would think they were there for sanctuary from the violence outside on the streets. But, like every candidate’s forum for any race in Oakland this year and assuredly the rest of his year, public safety and quality of life issues highlighted the 90-minute forum last week. Residents of the district currently represented by Council President Pat Kernighan, who is retiring later this year, also worry about changes to their neighborhoods through gentrification and questions over the potential revamping of the public safety tax, Measure Y.
All of the candidates hoping to represent the district encompassing Chinatown, Grand Lake, Trestle Glen and San Antonio believe public safety is a prime concern for the city, but few proffered a distinct law and order flavor within their positions. Abel Guillen, the former 18th Assembly District runner up two years ago and current trustee for the Peralta Community College District touted a recent partnership with the Oakland Police Department and its colleges and called for a larger force that is “reflective of Oakland and its citizens.” Former KPIX-TV anchor Dana King said the city needs to improve its look and feel by cleaning up illegal dumping and graffiti. The current police force, she added, can only do enforcement at its current strength and few additional services for the community. She advocated for 900 officers, but admits doing so will take several years. Kevin Blackburn, a former small business owner who now works for the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, believes economic development will help curb violence in Oakland. More tax revenue will allow the city to hire more cops, he added. “Oakland is open to business and we’re closed to crime,” said Blackburn.
Sokham Mao, a member of the Oakland Police Review Board, urged for a focus on changing Oakland PD’s organizational structure. “It’s not about being tough on crime,” said Mao, “but being smart on crime.” Andrew Park, a department administrator at UC Berkeley and community activist, also advocates for more police, but added, civic involvement between residents and police is missing. “A connection is what is needed in Oakland and public safety is a symptom of our lack of connection,” said Park.
To various degrees all the candidates said they would support maintaining minimum police staffing numbers included in Measure Y, which was passed in 2004, although the city has struggled to come close to the prescribed 802 officers. There is some
disappointment around the accountability of Measure Y, but more cops are needed, said King. “Where we all live crime is not an abstract issue. We see it on our streets, we open our doors to it, we read about it in the paper, we see it on the news.” Like King, Park says voters might be hesitant to support a similar ballot measure in November, but the police department is too shorthanded and, at the very least, additional support will bring the “perception of safety” to Oakland. The best solution to crime prevention is jobs, added Blackburn, “People don’t want to be criminals. Criminal activity is a result of a loss of hope.” However, Blackburn also thinks the police force could function well with 700 cops. Mao, too, supports minimum staffing levels and said students graduating from high school in Oakland should be able to find gainful employment either on their own or through city, state and federal programs. Guillen also supports minimum staff, but the city and the police department are not using what they already have wisely. “Oakland has a bad habit of not following its laws,” said Guillen. There’s no reason for sworn officers to run Oakland Animal Services or hold a desk job a civilian could fill, he said.
With raising home prices and skyrocketing rents in San Francisco pushing more people across the bay, the fear of gentrification will be a major issue this fall. “Gentrification is a loaded words and it’s code. It makes us feel less than,” said King. We can have development without displacement, she said. “We have a city where people say, ‘I love Oakland for its diversity,’ and if we lose the people that make up the diversity of those neighborhoods in District 2, we’re going to lose the heart of Oakland.” Blackburn says the city’s housing stock is far too low and adding to the supply will also increase the tax base. He says he is somewhat supportive of exclusionary zoning policies, although he added it may not be the best solution right now for Oakland, but creating more housing should be the first steps toward funding affordable housing later. Park says he returned to Oakland seven years ago with his wife, both holding advanced degrees, “Are we gentrifiers? It’s really difficult to engage the topic,” he said, but the focus should be on struggling families and getting them help. Guillen wants more affordable housing particularly around transit-oriented developments. “Developers want to know whether they will have predictably regarding the zoning process,” said Guillen, while also alluding to the Lake Merritt BART station plan still awaiting approval by the Oakland City Council. “Look, everybody needs a place to live and we need to welcome newcomers wherever they come from. I think they add to the vibrancy of our community,” said Guillen. “At the same time, we need to make sure senior citizens and longtime residents do not get pushed out.”
On the city’s financial standing, Guillen said the budget situation is already improving. However, he advocated using some of the new resources to paying down the city’s debt and unfunded liabilities. That being said, city employees are not being “greedy” when it comes to their pensions, said Guillen, and high-level administrators are skewing the actual median pension earned by workers. “This isn’t something that is unique to Oakland,” he said. “This is an issue that is facing all of California.” King wants a strategy for paying down debt that residents can rally around. New streams of revenue are needed, too. One example, King offered, is the vacant Kaiser Convention Center, south of Lake Merritt. She said City Hall can no longer ask taxpayers for help. “Let’s do what Texas does. Let’s go out and get us some manufacturing,” said King. Park called for “shared sacrifice” to cure the debt and Mao urged for a strategic plan to tackle unfunded liabilities.
“We should have Nordstrom-type service at City Hall and what we have is Kmart service,” said Blackburn. He added the problem is not how many city employees, but what they are actually doing while on the clock. Said Blackburn: “I think what we need at City Hall is a cultural shift and a change in the attitude of how city workers do their job.”