Equal Access at Finance and Management

The City Council’s Finance and Management Committee just finished discussing the annual report on the Equal Access Ordinance (PDF). Equal access discussions always depress me. I find it incredible that we now have half as much bilingual staff as we did when the damn thing was passed in 2001.

As usual, Jean Quan and Ignacio De La Fuente were all over it, very upset about the failure to implement it, to get bilingual staff, and so on. Ignacio seems particularly upset (and with good reason!) about the Fire Department not doing bilingual hires, while Jean Quan is mostly focused on Parks and Rec (also with good reason).

Nancy Nadel spoke once for a minute and thirty two seconds during the entire forty-five minute long item. This is what she had to say:

I still take issue with the data for my district saying that the concentration of Spanish speaking folks is as high as it is cause I don’t think it is.

I’m sorry, but the suggestion that Latinos in Oakland are being overcounted is simply preposterous and in complete contradiction to everything everyone everywhere has ever experienced in efforts to collect demographic data about ethnic minorities ever.

That’s all.

21 thoughts on “Equal Access at Finance and Management

  1. ConcernedOakFF

    The Fire Department has plenty of bi-lingual members that are not counted as such, since we haven’t given bi-lingual tests for a number of years, and there is not much incentive for the Firefighters to take the test.

    I think that more than 30-40% of the Fire Department is bi-lingual, with speakers of Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Russian working in the OFD. I even think there are some Italian and German speakers.

    Someones language ability should never be a reason to hire them. If they really cared, they would give us classes, or at least the ability to take online classes.

    However, as usual, they just want to talk about it and do nothing.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    I find the suggestion that language ability should not be a factor in hiring decisions so patently absurd that I don’t even know how to respond.

    The City does not use whether employees have been tested as a metric for measuring bilingual staff. EAO staff reports indicate that a majority of the employees listed as bilingual have not been tested.

    Today’s EAO report lists 523 public contact positions in the Fire Department, and notes that only 52, or roughly 10% are bilingual in languages covered by the ordinance. A list of all employees as of 7/27/07 noted a total of 15 employees bilingual in other languages. That is very, very far from 30-40%.

  3. Max Allstadt

    Are there concentrations of Latinos in district 3 or are they more scattered? V, do you have a figure on what the percentage is, officially?

  4. ConcernedOakFF

    V- You did not understand my point. Most of the employees that are bilingual are not listed as such because they have never been formally tested and designated as such. We have no other way for the city to know who is or who isn’t bilingual, since no survey have gone out etc…

    For example, I am working today, and just looking at today’s roster, there are 35 people working that are bilingual, and this is not at all unusual in the OFD. And of these the languages are Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, German, Italian, Arabic and Farsi.

    Those 52 that you speak abou were tested years and years ago, and since almost 50% of our employees have been hired in the last 5 years, you can see the discrepancy.

    The primary reason to hire people in a Public Safety agency is that they are the best at the job. If the “best” also happen to be bilingual, then even better. But if it was your family stuck in a fire or sick/injured, would you want a lesser overall qualified person that just happened to be bilingual, or would you want a better, more able employee that happens to only speak English? (not that a person cannot be the absolute highest qualified and bi-lingual).

    The philosophy of hiring people based on relatively peripheral items has not been good for public safety in general. If the desire is to have bilingual employees, then the city should make programs and incentives available for existing employees to expand their knowledge.

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    FF, it seems like you didn’t read my comment. As I said before, it is not testing that the City is using to measure bilingual staff, and the vast majority of staff listed as bilingual are not listed as having been tested. The Equal Access staff works with each department to identify bilingual employees, and none of your anecdotal reports about bilingual employees per shift, testing, speakers of Ukranian and so on contradict anything in any of the implementation evaluations. In fact, they’re entirely consistent with it.

    In a city where 37% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, bilingual ability is an imperative factor in determining who is “best” at a job. If my family is sick and/or injured, and I need help and don’t speak English, I absolutely want the person who comes to help me to speak my language. For the City as a whole, bilingual staff in public contact positions is a serious issue with respect to service delivery, but for emergency personnel, it’s an issue of public safety.

  6. Patrick

    Does the ordinance require that one bi-lingual employee for each of the listed languages in each of the public contact emergency positions be available 24 hours a day? In otherwords, if I call the police, will I always be able to reach someone who speaks Mandarin?

    I applaud our city’s attempt at implementing Equal Access; but unless there is ALWAYS someone of each language available it’s really Hit-or-Miss access.

    Perhaps it would be more prudent to have a 311 service, a la SF, with 24/7 multi-lingual personnel on hand. That way, a Mandarin speaker could call 311 and say: 有火在我的房子! and know that a fire truck would soon be dispatched.

  7. Max Allstadt

    That big dark patch at the bottom does make you pause for a second and wonder. Until you realize that everything beyond the highway is port, so only a little sliver even counts. There are a lot of Latinos in that little sliver, no doubt. But I could understand how at first glance, someone could look at that map and go “really?”.

  8. Robert

    But Max, NN is supposed to know her district, and with her scientific background I would expect her to figure out that the area is dark because the Latinos are a high percentage of a very small number and don’t have any real impact on the overall demographics in her district.

  9. Robert

    The law itself is very poorly written, and as written is nothing but a feel good ordinance. ‘…provide the same level of service’ is meaningless when there is no objective means established to determine level of service. Although some departments indicated that they need more bilingual employees, it is not possible to determine whether the city is substantially out of compliance with the law from the data, even if the data you provided on Oakbook that the number of bilingual employees has declined by 50% is correct.

    I do find it fascinating that putting a law in place seems to have discouraged the hiring of bilingual employees. It is as if when you hire from the general population you get fair representation of the languages spoken by the population, but when you establish goals of some sort, all of a sudden the hiring process targets the minimum goal established as the maximum needed.

  10. Max Allstadt

    I’m not making apologies for anybody.

    I’m just saying I live in District 3 and I have the same intuitive bias against these results. West Oakland, particularly outside of downtown, feels like it’s overwhelmingly black. It isn’t. Why the feel is different from the reality, I couldn’t say.

    The concentration of Latinos indicated south of 7th street makes some of this cognitive bias more understandable. It’s not the only spot indicated, but its the most concentrated, and it’s on the opposite side of some major pedestrian obstacles, as well devoid of consumer oriented uses. I only zip through there when I’m wandering around aimlessly on my bike. Pretty little neighborhood sandwiched between the 880 and BART, right? There’s a ‘hood that ought to have it’s own name. Walk through some time. I’d want to live there if the houses weren’t so close together… I tend to be loud.

  11. Patrick

    It is definitely a feel-good measure. If the ordinance does not provide actual “equal access” at all times, it is not “equal access”. And, I suggest, it is inconceivable to believe our city can provide “equal access”. If the city has to hire someone who speaks Ukrainian…isn’t it possible they might skimp on that employee’s English/Spanish/Mandarin language skills?

    It is impractical for a city with limited resources, like Oakland, to provide the same service to everyone. Impossible. Personally, I think it would be better to make our city “tri-lingual (English, Spanish and Mandarin) to capture maximum population. If someone who speaks Tagolog runs into the street screaming, it is entirely likely that there will be an English, Spanish or Mandarin speaker who will (hopefully) have the wherewithal to understand the problem and make the 911 call.

    In this economic era, we must realize that the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson was dependent upon ever increasing wealth. Well, those days are gone. We must differentiate between what is required, and what is feasible. Equal-Access, in a city that speaks over 110 different languages, isn’t going to happen. Look at Canada.

  12. V Smoothe Post author

    I disagree with characterizations of the law as poorly written or simply “feel good”. Quite the opposite. I sympathize with the concern about the lack of objective markers of whether the “same level of service” is being provided, but I think the way the ordinance was written, had it been complied with, ensured the goals much better than some arbitrary percentage marker would have. Nor do I believe that it is reasonable to assume that the law itself discouraged hiring of bilingual employees. Correlation does not prove causation, and there are obviously other factors in play when it comes to hiring decisions, and the way hiring practices at the City have changed since 2001.

    There seems to be some confusion about what the Equal Access Ordinance mandates. The intent of the ordinance is to ensure the City provides an equivalent level of service to residents with limited English proficiency as it does to English speaking residents. This is to be accomplished through a combination of providing sufficient bilingual staff in public contact positions and translations of certain written materials.

    The Ordinance includes a very clear, yet flexible, metric for what languages are covered – any language spoken by more than 10,000 Oakland residents with limited English proficiency, as determined by Census data. It also includes a very specific compliance plan delineating the City’s responsibilities with respect to assessment of whether the Ordinance’s goals are being met and measuring progress towards them, and the City is demonstrably not following the requirements of said compliance plan.

    Further reading:

    The Equal Access Ordinance (PDF)

    The status report received today (PDF), which clearly does not include all the information mandated by the Ordinance

    The petition filed by Public Advocates, Inc. in their suit against the City for failure to comply with the Ordinance (PDF)

  13. len raphael

    max, in the parts of west oakland you mention, does there seem to be any social mixing of young latino and black kids playing together? any info on racial composition of the gangs?

  14. Carlos Plazola

    The problem is not the ordinance. The problem is the desire to implement from the executive side. Their is an outright effort to push back against implementation. Some have not yet accepted that Oakland is a very linguistically diverse city and that downtown needs to serve EVERYONE. The best we were able to do was to set the 10,000 threshold as V points out. We needed to keep it simple to allow implementation.

    The director of Equal Access left in frustration two years ago because she couldn’t get people to comply. Most councilmembers have been very critical of the administration for refusing to implement it. And non-profit representatives of Limited English Speaking clients have had to file a lawsuit against the city. Very unfortunate.

    This could have been an example of our greatness as a city–that we embrace our own diversity and want to encourage participation in civic life. Instead, the lack of implementation is an example of our uglier, more petty side, that we’re still grappling with as a city.

  15. Patrick

    Very interesting observation, Max, regarding the the perception of demographics vs. reality. In my little slice of Oakland, whites and hispanic/latinos evenly split about 30% of the population, while blacks and asians evenly split the other 70%. With only 35%ish of the total population of my census area, I would also say that it feels overwhelmingly black. Why is that?

  16. Max Allstadt


    The event that KDub and Chinaka Hodge put on in DeFremery Park was certainly well mixed. But it might have drawn from outside the district to some degree. What I think is going on is a visibility issue or a lack of concentrated blocks of latinos only, leading to a misperception. Again these stats made me blink too, so I’ll have an eye out on the street and really put some thought into it.

    I highly doubt that gangs are integrated. Their entire MO is about being petty and small minded. That does, however, raise the one drop issue. You can have one spanish speaking parent, be bilingual yourself, and if the other parent’s black, America basically thinks you’re black.

    As far as the ordinance goes, I think a threshold makes sense. We also ought to spend some time training certain key city staffers and first responders in how to simply identify languages, whether or not they understand. I lived in Asia for 14 years, and I still might mix up Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer. I’ve seen an American mistake Hebrew for Russian! Just a thought.

    And a geek-out moment to close it out: I predict that children born in 2020 in developed countries will never have to learn more than one language, because automatic translation will take care of it for them. For now, bilingual staffing will have to do.

  17. Steve Smith

    Talk about hiring someone just because they are bilingual — even if the person is not qualified for the position: the current Equal Access Director has not prepared a single report since she started last year. The first reports were prepared and presented by Don Jeffreys (EEO Manager and Thompson’s best friend). This last report was prepared by Ann Campbell and presented to the Finance Committee by Bill Zanoni, and no Equal Access Staff was there to answer any questions….does anybody see anything wrong with this picture?????

    The director makes over 100k and the City Analyst make 70k (both appointed by Cheryl Thompson) and the Management Intern makes 55k…. and not one of them was at the meeting?????

    And now the CPRB Manager is going to be in charge of preparing the Equal Access reports. Why are we paying the Equal Access Staff all of that money if someone else from another office is doing their job for them??????

    Last year Edgerly and Thompson made it very clear that they did not want the Ordinance to be implemented and to perpetuate this non-compliance, Thompson appointed two of her cronies to the EA Office. The report was due in June but it was not presented until yesterday, and then only because of the lawsuit. Without the lawsuit there would be no report because apparently EA Staff had not been preparing one themselves.

  18. ConcernedOakFF

    V – I agree that it is nice to have bilingual employees, especially for public education events, but for the most part, if somebody is sick or injured, language is not the only avenue that we have to find out what is wrong with them.

    It is similar for children that are too young to talk. We have many pieces of equipment that allows us to diagnose and treat problems without any input from the people that we are treating,

    No one from the city has been around the fire houses to identify anything. I promise you. There are close to 50 NATIVE Spanish speakers alone in the Fire Department, any many others that speak it conversationally, so I still do not understand where they get these numbers.

    Having bilingual Police Officers is, in my opinion, much more important than having bilingual Firefighters.

    I stand by my opinion that hiring somebody BECAUSE they are bilingual is not a good enough reason. They need to be the best person for the position first, and anything else is icing on the cake.

    Again, if the city really cared about having bilingual employees, they would have programs to teach us the languages. Even a short class on medical Spanish and Cantonese would be helpful. But, like many things that they like to talk about, it remains just that, talk.