Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




May 22, 2008

Is Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums working on a ballot initiative to increase city taxes to support a 50 officer increase in the Oakland Police Department over and above the currently authorized 803?

Damned if I know, and I’ve been trying to track it down for the last couple of days.

There was considerable confusion over the issue this week with both the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson reporting that Mr. Dellums was, the mayor himself pointedly insisting at a Tuesday afternoon press conference that he wasn’t, and the mayor’s press office saying that he was “considering” such a ballot initiative, including making plans to work with the City Council on “financing and timeline options.”

The issue comes during a period when Dellums Administration officials are becoming increasingly optimistic that the city will meet the mayor’s ambitious goal to meet Oakland’s authorized 803 police strength by the end of the year, and while a local citizens group is circulating a petition for an Oakland ballot measure calling for an increase in police staffing to 1075.

It is a test of whether Mr. Dellums can deliver on his assertion that fully staffing the Oakland Police at its authorized 803 would take the issue of police staffing “off the table” and allow him to concentrate in the direction of attacking the social causes of the city’s crime and violence problem, or if the “more police” demands will dominate the public discussion through the middle of the mayor’s term.

The roots of this are somewhat complicated.

While making his commitment to fully staff the 803 authorized police positions—something which has not happened since that number was set in the 2004 vote on Oakland’s violence prevention Measure Y—Mr. Dellums said that once the full-staffing goal was reached, the community should participate in a dialogue on how many police we actually need in Oakland, including how any possible increase over 803 would be financed. Mr. Dellums himself, in his earlier discussions, did not commit to supporting any increase in the authorized 803 police strength.

In a transcript of his speech given on Monday to 94 new recruits at the Oakland Police Academy and sent to Kelly Rayburn of the Oakland Tribune, Mr. Dellums did not appear to be changing that position. saying that “Now that we have enough recruits to get us to our goal (of 803 hired police), we have to look at whether or not the residents of Oakland want to go beyond 803. There is a proposal out there right now, that says that we should hire 300 police officers at once without raising taxes. A $75 million hit to our general fund (it costs about $250,000 per officer), during a time when we are facing a possible $20 million deficit is irresponsible. At the end of the day, what gets cut are the city services that many Oakland residents rely upon. We have to look at other alternatives that give our residents an opportunity that is obtainable and sustainable, such as putting forth a ballot measure that could hire 50 officers a year over the next few years by raising property taxes.” That sounded like the mayor was still suggesting a dialogue on police strength increase, including some ways such an increase might be financed, but not necessarily making his own commitment to such an increase.

And in an article posted to the Tribune website on Monday evening (“Dellums Talks Of Tax Increase For More Police”), that’s what Rayburn appeared to believe was happening, leading off the story by saying that “Mayor Ron Dellums on Monday floated the possibility of a new property-tax increase to pay for additional police officers, as police staffing remains a hot-button issue in Oakland.” Floated the possibility. Not committed.

But by the following morning, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson had moved Mr. Dellums position from “possibility” to “sponsorship.” In a column entitled “Dellums Wants Property Tax Hike For More Cops,” Mr. Johnson wrote that “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums dropped a bombshell on Monday, announcing a plan to sponsor a November ballot measure to boost the police force by an additional 150 officers over the next three years by raising property taxes.” The discrepancy between the 50 officers in the Dellums statement to Mr. Rayburn and the 150 officers in the Johnson column was not explained, but Mr. Johnson said that the announcement was made at the same venue mentioned in the Dellums statement and the Kelly Rayburn article, the Monday speech to recruits at the Oakland Police Academy.

It was perhaps to the Chip Johnson column that Mr. Dellums was referring in his remarks about “irresponsible journalism” when, at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, he answered a Channel 4 reporter’s question about the proposed tax increase ballot measure by saying “First of all, let’s all get beyond urban legend. I did not suggest a new property tax. That is fallacious. It is not factual. It is editorial comment that in my opinion is wrong-headed journalism. So, let be straight about that. What I did say, was that there is a proposal being floated that calls for approx. 300 police officers that will cost approx. $75 million. Their proposal says lets do it without raising taxes. My response was: if you understand how Oakland budget is organized that $75 million will have to be cut out of a very narrow range of general funds. That would decimate many services in Oakland. … But, if people in Oakland want to go beyond the authorized strength of 803, which I am confident that we will achieve by the end of the year, then in a democratic community, that is an honest conversation that needs to go forward. What I said was then let’s put a proposal out there that is a responsible proposal, so that if people want to increase the Police Department then people need to pay for it.” (Transcript provided by the Dellums press office; I was at another press conference at the same time, and was unable to attend and take notes myself.)

So did Chip Johnson get it wrong in his column when he wrote that Mr. Dellums was going to sponsor a police increase ballot measure rather than the mayor merely suggesting that if citizens wanted to increase police strength, this was the way to do it? If Mr. Johnson got his information from either the Kelly Rayburn Tribune article or the transcript of Mr. Dellums’ police academy speech, it would seem so.

However, Mr. Johnson cites another source: Dellums Chief of Staff David Chai. In the column, Mr. Johnson writes that “Dellums wanted a tax measure to fund additional police officers because it would be fiscally irresponsible—particularly in the aftermath of the nearby city of Vallejo's insolvency—to burden Oakland's general fund with the extra spending, said David Chai, the mayor's chief of staff.”

Dellums Director of Communications Paul Rose confirmed that Mr. Chai spoke with Mr. Johnson in connection with the Tuesday column, but could not confirm whether or not Mr. Chai gave the impression that Mr. Dellums “wanted a tax measure” rather than merely offering this as a fiscally responsible alternative if citizens decided they want an increase in police strength above 803. Mr. Chai was on an airplane at the time I spoke with Mr. Rose, and unavailable for comment.

Mr. Rose said that the Monday police recruit speech was “definitely not an official announcement” of a police increase ballot measure, adding that “the mayor wanted to get out that the city was considering such a measure.” Fine, but when I asked Mr. Rose if the consideration was for a measure on the November ballot, he said that the mayor was working with the City Council on financing and timeline options. That sounded a little more than “considering.” That’s getting into the area of “planning.”

It’s entirely possible that this is a pre-emptive strike to take the steam out of the citizens petition. Named the “Safe Streets And Neighborhoods Act of 2008,” the measure, if put on the ballot and passed by Oakland voters, would put Oakland’s police strength at 1075, an increase of 272 officers, which the measure’s language explains “more closely approximates the appropriate staffing level for a city with the population and serious crime problems of Oakland.”

The measure is silent on how this increase would be funded, saying only that “the City Council is empowered to adopt ordinances necessary to effectuate the purpose of this section.”

But a clue to what the measure’s sponsors are thinking in the area of funding—and why Mr. Dellums is calling the measure “irresponsible”—comes in a statement made by one of the measure’s backers, Prescott-Oakland Point neighborhood leader Marcus Johnson, in the Kelly Rayburn article.

“Johnson … was skeptical that voters would support a new tax increase,” Mr. Rayburn wrote. ‘I think unless people start feeling that what they voted for in Measure Y is delivered, no one's going to vote for another tax increase,’ he said. Asked if he'd support a measure like the one Dellums' described, he said, ‘I would have to see that initiative first.’”

Still, even if the Dellums tax initiative suggestion is merely a way to head off the Safe Streets petition, there are many reasons why it’s not a good idea at this time for the mayor himself to be floating such an idea. Oakland is in the midst of a major restructuring of our police resources, including the division of the city into three geographical patrol units, the move to the 12 hour day, the signing of a new police contract, and, of course, the projected increase to 803 full strength. Beyond that, Oakland has committed itself to a community policing model, the full details and implementation of which we have yet to see. We have no idea what effect—if any—these reforms will have on crime and violence and other law enforcement issues in the city. It may be, in six months or a year’s time, we find that the reforms have not been enough, and community sentiment swings towards taxing ourselves to increase the numbers of Oakland police. On the other hand, we may find in six months or a year that the crime and violence situation is getting better, and possible extra tax money can be put to better uses.

In addition, the episode reveals confusion within the Dellums Administration at a time when decisiveness is needed. The 803 full-strength project appears to be working because the mayor made a decisive commitment and the entire administration—from the City Administrator’s office to the mayor’s staff to the Chief of Police—came together to develop and pushed through the program to implement the promise. There were some hitches, but those were worked out. The proposed police increase tax initiative shows none of that level of certainty and organization. At this moment, the public is not sure exactly what’s going on, and that’s not good.

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