They never managed to schedule the special election — Oakland Mayor Jean Quan had failed to adequately notice the item in compliance with Oakland’s Sunshine Laws, and then she tried to schedule another meeting about the special election, but botched the noticing of that meeting as well. Oops!
But the Mayor did not give up on the idea of the parcel tax, and when time to release her proposed budget rolled around, she choose, instead of releasing a real budget for the city, to use the opportunity to continue to press for a new tax.
District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan and District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel seemed to like that approach, and have been responding to constituent pleas to not shutter the library system by saying that if people want the libraries to stay open, they need to support the new parcel tax. I found that curious, since the Mayor’s Scenario B manages to keep the libraries open without new taxes, but of course, pointing that out probably wouldn’t do much to generate support for the tax.
Anyway, the issue of a special election came up again at Tuesday’s Council meeting. District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan, a strong proponent of the parcel tax, proposed scheduling a vote to schedule the special election on June 21st, with a second reading on July 5th, and the Council agreed to do so.
Why wait that long? Explaining her reasoning, Kernighan offered “by June 21st we should have some idea of what the unions have done in their collective bargaining with us” and “by having the second reading on July 5th, it gives us a couple of weeks to do something different if we need to,” although how that impacts whether or not we’re going to have a special election for a parcel tax that she’s already insisted we need under any circumstances in unclear to me.
When the election would actually happen is yet to be determined, although Kernighan noted that she had been thinking of the first week in November.
What else will be on the ballot?
At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan pointed out that a secondary benefit of scheduling the vote a month in the future is that it gives other Councilmembers a couple of weeks to put forward their own proposals of things they’d like to see on the ballot.
District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks, who has opposed the parcel tax, explained that she would be open to a special election if it included options on the ballot besides the tax, such as a vote on the new City Attorney and charter clean-up measures.
The reason that I have not supported putting a parcel tax only on the ballot is because that is not the only solution. I personally don’t support a parcel tax, but I think that we should not just put on those things that we agree with to the exclusion of those things that we don’t.
And the Mayor has consistently touted the parcel tax as if that’s the only thing we can do. There are charter clean-ups that could be put in that will save us money that have not been considered and not been brought forth for the public to even hear.
And so, we need to have a full conversation, and it needs to be more than just those things we agree with. I support the public’s right to make a decision on items, and have always supported that. But I don’t support us picking and choosing what things we’re going to allow to get on the ballot.
I think that if the City Attorney’s position – I am supporting that rather than appoint somebody for the City Attorney’s position that we do an election for that. And so I don’t want to piecemeal anything.
And I’ve said to the Mayor, I’ve said to her staff, I’ve said to the City Administrator that you bring me a comprehensive package, I will support all of those things — whether or not I support them personally — to go on the ballot. That’s what we should do.
And so for us to pretend like the only thing we can do is a parcel tax, and to tell constituents to write in and say shame on you for not supporting a parcel tax so you can keep my library open is disingenuous. And so, let’s provide the community with all the facts to make an informed decision about how we can move forward.
Mayor Jean Quan responded that she has no problem with people putting their own additional measures on the ballot, but that “I don’t have time to work on charter changes at this point,” and is planning “to appoint a group of people to look at the entire charter” after the budget process is finished.
Now, while the Mayor herself may be busy with the budget, presumably her charter review committee would include persons other than budget staff, so I don’t see any logical reason, if that’s what she wants to do, to not have appointed them to start reviewing things already. Furthermore, the whole notion just seems so labored and unnecessary. Is this charter review group going to come up with anything better than the last charter review committee? After eight years on the City Council, you would think Quan would have a firm grasp of where the charter creates problems for the city’s ability to operate.
What else should go on the ballot?
So while Councilmembers are welcome to, and probably will, submit additional measures to be considered for the special election ballot, the timeline is not long enough to allow for any kind of meaningful public input process about what those measures might be. I find this sad, but not surprising. Brooks is right that we should offer the voters real choices, but a city committed to participatory government would draw on the wealth of knowledge and ideas from its people to help determine what those choices should be.
Here are a few ideas I’ve heard tossed around related to potential charter amendments:
Outsourcing clause: The City Charter currently prohibits the City from contracting out services currently performed by City employees (Section 902e). Complaints about this provision are nothing new, although the idea of changing it seems to have gained some popularity in recent years.
Oakland City Attorney John Russo, back in Feburary at the Overhauling Oakland’s Budget event sponsored by Make Oakland Better Now! and the East Bay Young Democrats suggested that the problem could be addressed by adding a line to the Charter that says “notwithstanding any other language in this document, the City of Oakland shall not be prevented from coordinating with or contracting with volunteers, non-profit agencies, and business improvement districts for the provision of municipal services” (skip to 4:45 for the part specifically about contracting out). That seems like a good solution to me, although I would add to his list “other public agencies”, which would give the City the option of contracting certain services to the County.
Pension reform: Another idea for a Charter amendment that people talk about a lot would create some sort of restrictions on employee pensions, likely in the form of prohibiting the City from signing a contract with employee unions that contains a pension plan in excess of some specific formula or amount.
One variation of this, suggested again by City Attorney John Russo at the Overhauling Oakland’s Budget event would be something commonly referred to as 50/50 pension contributions. Russo suggested the phrasing “The City of Oakland shall enter into no new contract whereby the City of Oakland is responsible for a pension premium cost that exceeds that paid by the employee.”
PFRS: Make Oakland Better Now! has offered some ideas about how the City Charter could be amended to lessen the burden the obligations of the old Police and Fire Retirement System places on the budget. This post at their blog, Oaktalk explains the specifics.
Rainy Day Fund: Make Oakland Better Now has also proposed a Charter amendment mandating the establishment of rainy day fund to help the City through hard times. Read more about that on this post on Oaktalk or watch this video presentation.
I would add for consideration:
Repeal of Kids First: I don’t see how we can have a serious conversation about all possible ways to address the City’s budget without at least considering the elimination of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth.
This section of the charter, added by voters in 1996, then amended in 2008 and 2009, requires the City to set aside 3% of unrestricted General Fund money to go to youth programs (PDF). That’s roughly the same amount of the General Fund that goes to Parks and Recreation, and more than goes to fund the Oakland Public Library. While I don’t dispute that the special programs funded by Kids First provide a valuable service, it’s a legitimate question whether those services, which are available only to a relatively small number of children, are more important that citywide education and recreation services that are available to everyone.
Since the repeal of Kids First is a charter amendment, it takes only a 50% vote to pass, a significantly lower threshold than the 2/3rds vote needed to pass a new parcel tax.
Would the Council be willing to place any of these options on a ballot? I don’t know. Probably not. But if we’re going to have an election anyway and since we’re talking about other things besides the tax that might get placed on the ballot, I don’t see any harm in suggesting that these options be placed before the voters. The worst thing that could happen is the Council won’t place them on the ballot, which is the same result as we’d get if nobody brought them up.
So if there’s something you’d like to see put before the voters, e-mail your Councilmember and ask them to consider it. And if you have other ideas for Charter amendments or other ballot measures you think could help the City, please share them in the comments.
Video of the whole special election discussion from Tuesday’s Council meeting is available below: