Letters for the Week of May 7 

ShotSpotter responds and readers sound off on dolphin abuse, public safety in Oakland, and gentrification.


"ShotSpotter Lobbied Oakland Officials in Apparent Violation of Law," News, 4/30

Setting the Record Straight

At SST, we usually choose not to respond to incomplete and factually incorrect reporting, but the sheer magnitude of the inaccuracies in your article are so off the mark and misleading, that as an Oakland resident, I felt compelled to respond personally and set the record straight for the other members of our community.

The first and most egregiously incorrect piece of misreporting that needs to be addressed is the misstatement that "Detroit decided to sever its contract with ShotSpotter in 2012." SST has never been deployed in Detroit, nor has there ever been a contract with the city of Detroit. There is simply no contract to sever. It was in this regard that your reporter first showed sloppiness and lack of credibility.

The more substantive and outrageous claim — namely, that we failed to register as a lobbyist — is equally misleading and even more insulting. Oakland law clearly states that individuals must register as lobbyists if they engage in lobbying activities, which consist of acting to influence any City of Oakland administrative or legislative action.

Here is the actual text that defines the term "lobbying":

"Lobbying means the act of influencing any 'governmental action' of the City of Oakland or its Redevelopment Agency. 'Governmental action' means any 'administrative or legislative action' the City of Agency may take that is not 'ministerial' in nature. Generally an action is considered 'administrative' if it relates to a local body's rule making authority, or the process of applying a rule or law to a specific set of facts. Examples of administrative action are the granting or denying of a permit, or the determination of claims. An action is considered 'legislative' if it involves the formulation of a rule or policy to be applied in future cases." [O.M.C. 3.20.030(E)].

The Oakland Lobbyist Act specifically excludes certain sales/procurement actions from registration requirements. Here is the actual text:

"Persons whose only activity is to submit a bid, respond to an RFP, or negotiate the terms of any awarded contract."

Moreover, SST has an existing contract with the City of Oakland, and any communications done relating to the performance of the contract is not considered lobbying. Such contact and communications include gunshot alerts, customer service requests, online chat sessions, training and consultation, review of service performance, etc.

Our recent contacts with city administration were made to review actual ShotSpotter performance to date (following a negative story in March that was based in part on incorrect and misleading data). In addition to the performance review, we also shared our National Gunfire Index and a video interview with Chief Flynn in Milwaukee, which outlined the best practices Milwaukee uses to drive positive outcomes.

The authors claim we "pressured" city officials about an expansion. This claim is also factually incorrect and misleading. While they correctly point out there were two interactions with a councilmember, they failed to correctly report that the reason for the second engagement was a follow up on a specific question that was initiated by the councilmember in our first meeting regarding the cost of expanding the coverage area. We were unprepared to answer that question in the first meeting because our agenda was based on performance of the current ShotSpotter deployment. (As an aside, the very reason the expansion question came up was there was a shooting that we all heard five minutes prior to our meeting that was only two blocks away from federal buildings.)

Lastly, I would like to speak to the issue to general comments made about potentially not renewing the ShotSpotter contract. The process of defining a set of priorities against a fixed amount of resources is exactly what we want our elected officials and appointed officials doing. We work with municipal entities (over eighty — not sixty — by the way) that have to go through the same process, and our responsibility is to present our capabilities and successes in a factual and objective manner so that individuals who have to make the prioritization calls of either eliminating certain projects, or expanding the resources available, can do so on a fully informed basis.

Ralph A. Clark, president and CEO, SST Inc., Oakland

Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston Respond

Mr. Clark, thank you for your letter, especially the correction to our report regarding ShotSpotter and Detroit. The online version of the story has been corrected and a correction announcement is running in this week's print edition.

However, your interpretation of Oakland's lobbying rules appears to be seriously flawed. We're also mystified as to why you and your company's representatives did not respond to our repeated requests to be interviewed for our report prior to its publication.

Regardless, your letter ignores the evidence we offered in our article that representatives of ShotSpotter engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to influence multiple members of the Oakland City Council. Public records show that your company's representatives met with councilmembers to discuss aspects of ShotSpotter's contract at a time when Oakland Interim Police Chief Sean Whent and other police officials were talking openly about not renewing that contract. That is lobbying under Oakland law, according to a plain reading of the city's ordinance and conversations we had with city staffers and outside experts who reviewed both the public records concerning ShotSpotter's contact with city councilmembers and Oakland's lobbying ordinance. Moreover, Oakland city councilmembers have no authority to manage city contracts under law. Instead, their role is to decide whether or not to approve them through official legislation. As such, your company's meetings with official decision-makers at a time when the police chief expressed a desire to end the contract do not fall under the city's exemptions for lobbying.

See section 3.20.060 G. of Oakland's Lobbyist Registration Act: Exceptions to the ordinance "shall not apply to persons who attempt to influence the award or terms of a contract with any elected official or member of any City board or commission."

We also find it strange that representatives of your company are so averse to acknowledging the lobbying of Oakland officials. ShotSpotter's business model, as you are well aware, is predicated on lobbying, from the federal government to the local level. To lobby Congress, ShotSpotter employs lobbying heavy-hitters including Patton Boggs, Dutko, and Becker & Poliakoff, according to public records. The lobbying firms help ShotSpotter convince the federal government to channel taxpayer dollars to local governments in the form of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants. In turn, ShotSpotter then lobbies local governments to obtain these grant dollars specifically to purchase its products.


"The Dolphin Dilemma," Feature, 4/23

Sick Institutions

Being a longtime animal rights advocate, I was thrilled that the concerns regarding dolphin captivity were so intricately and eloquently explored in your article. These beautiful, majestic creatures of the sea do not need to be sheltered and confined for the mere monetary gains of SeaWorld or any other sick institution that profits off of the exploitation of animals. Bravo for bringing awareness to this cause and educating the masses so that they think twice about supporting any venues that display animals for entertainment value.

Ara Adami, Walnut Creek


"Getting Smart About Public Safety," Opinion, 4/23

We Need a Comprehensive Plan

This piece of writing is a perfect example of why Oakland's electeds are completely in over their heads regarding how to manage Oakland's resources and meet our needs for better public safety.

[Councilmember Rebecca] Kaplan is right on one matter — Oakland cops haven't been used well to control crowds and the costs of this are unaffordable. Kaplan's approach is utterly misguided and is typical of our governmental dysfunction. It's misguided because it looks at only one aspect of a complex series of problems, thus any resulting policymaking is virtually guaranteed not to solve the problem at hand and to cause further problems.

Oakland's police, public safety, and finance problems all have to do with our lack of a comprehensive plan to deal with them and no specific official or agency with the responsibility to carry such a plan to fruition.

Rather than looking at one little aspect like crowd control failures and costs, we need to create a public safety plan that looks at what resources we have and what resources are needed to set specific priorities and goals for moving forward. We also need a competent agency to manage such a plan and all related resources comprehensively, day-to-day. Most cities that do this successfully have a police commission and/or commissioner — someone who knows how to run a cop shop efficiently and ethically.

Michele Ocla, Oakland


"Gentrification Is Not Inevitable," News, 4/16

Need Old and New

As a longtime resident of Lower Bottoms, a "gentrifying" neighborhood in West Oakland, I can say that I am happy to read a thoughtful article on the subject. To us here, the debate often seems to be a shouting match between outsiders of various stripes, some with money who want to raise rents, and some with megaphones who want to attack buses and deface people's property. Neither side cares much about the history and tradition of the neighborhood, and neither side represents very many in the complex mix of people here.

We are certainly worried about being priced out, about losing our homes, about being forced to move. But most of the newcomers are good folks, also looking for a place they can afford to live. It's refreshing to see people fixing up and taking pride in old homes. And this mix of old and new keeps our neighborhood alive. The subject not touched much in the article is that of crime, which affects all of us. We need more respectful, well-behaved, hard-working police officers on our beats. We shouldn't need more white faces, or more money, to ensure that our neighborhood is a safe place for everyone.

Link Boutte, Oakland

Corrections

Our April 30 feature "Back in the Closet"contained several errors. It misstated the year in which the so-called Ogden memo was released. It was 2009, not 2008. Also, it was the City of Colusa that banned all marijuana cultivation in April, not Colusa County. And Sacramento County banned outdoor medical pot growing, but not indoor.

Our April 30 news story "ShotSpotter Lobbied Oakland Officials in Apparent Violation of Law" erroneously stated that the City of Detroit decided to sever its contract with ShotSpotter in 2012. In fact, the city decided that year not to sign a contract with the company.

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