Friday, August 31, 2018

Judge Recommends $8,625 Penalty Against Oakland Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney for Ethics Violations

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 6:14 PM

Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
  • Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
An administrative law judge is recommending that Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney pay a $8,625 penalty for violating ethics laws. McElhaney received gifts from a restricted source in excess of legal limits, made government decisions in which she had a personal financial interest, and did not disclose valuable gifts on her annual financial disclosure form.

The violations and recommended penalty all stem from McElhaney's interference in a townhouse development. In 2014, developer Robert Brecht submitted plans to the city to build a five-unit townhouse project on 32nd Street. McElhaney and her husband objected to the project because it was next to their home and they felt it was poorly designed and would reduce their privacy.

To oppose the project at a planning commission hearing, McElhaney recruited Morten Jensen from the architectural firm JRDV. Jensen ended up providing McElhaney with expert assistance by offering up alternative designs to the planning commission and Brecht's architect.

According to Melissa Crowell, the judge who recently reviewed the matter and conducted a two-day hearing that included testimony from McElhaney, Jensen and others, the councilmember ended up accepting services worth about $800 from Jensen and JRDV.

But at the same time, McElhaney was voting to approve valuable city contracts with JRDV.

As the Express previously reported, and as Crowell stated in her report, which was made public earlier today, "approximately one month after receiving the services from JRDV, respondent voted in her capacity as a city councilmember to increase the city's contract with JRDV by approximately $10,000."

Because JRDV was doing business with the city, McElhaney was limited to accepting gifts worth no more than $50 from Jensen and the company. She also never reported any gifts from Jensen or JRDV on her annual statement of economic interest forms filed with the city clerk.

McElhaney has fought the case for several years now and insisted that she only opposed the housing project on behalf of her neighbors. But no neighbors have ever stepped forward and said they asked McElhaney to intervene for them.

In fact, McElhaney failed to comply with a valid subpoena issued by the Public Ethics Commission seeking records relevant to the complaint investigation. This forced the Public Ethics Commission to file a lawsuit against McElhaney in the superior court.

Crowell wrote in her report that this and other conduct by McElhaney amounted to "aggravating factors" and a refusal to cooperate.

"She was given numerous extensions of time and opportunities to comply; she told the PEC she would comply; and then repeatedly did not. There was nothing inadvertent or negligent about this conduct," wrote Crowell.

McElhaney hired the Sutton Law Firm to defend her in the case and oppose the Public Ethics Commission's first attempt to resolve the case. This caused the complaint to go before Crowell, who is an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

McElhaney has also created a legal defense fund to pay for her attorneys in the ethics case.

Crowell's findings are a recommendation. They will be considered by the Public Ethics Commission at its September 11 meeting.

Acquittal and Mistrial of Two Oakland Businessmen Accused of Rigging Federal Construction Contracts

Lance Turner was found not guilty, while the jury couldn't reach a unanimous verdict in Len Turner's case.

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 5:34 PM

Len Turner. - KEN EPSTEIN
  • Ken Epstein
  • Len Turner.

The trial of Len Turner and Lance Turner, two well-known Oakland businessmen who own the Turner Construction company, concluded this week in San Francisco.

A jury determined that Lance Turner was not guilty of conspiring to defraud the federal government by rigging the bidding process for a Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory construction contract in 2013. The same jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict in his brother’s case, which involved the same construction contract, therefore a mistrial was declared.

See also: Taj Reid Found Guilty of Rigging State Construction Contracts and Accepting Bribes

Len and Lance Turner were indicted in April 2017 along with six other men as part of a sprawling FBI public corruption investigation that began in 2012. Across the Bay, the probe ultimately led to the arrest and prosecution of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow and Leland Yee, along with the prosecution of several other public officials.

In the East Bay, the feds focused on allegations of corrupt government contracting deals.

The government accused the Turner brothers of helping to rig the bidding process on the LBL project in order to steer the contract to another man who called himself William Joseph.

William Joseph was actually an FBI informant whose real name is William Myles. The FBI paid him an undisclosed sum to work the Bay Area sting operation.

Myles was introduced to the Turners by Taj Reid, the son of Oakland City Council President Larry Reid.

According to court records, in September 2013 Myles laid out a plan to Taj Reid: He claimed to have the inside track on a multimillion-dollar construction project at the Berkeley lab. He told Reid that the man in charge of deciding the contract would award it to his company, but he needed someone else to submit a fake bid at a higher amount to provide cover.

Reid agreed to go along with the scheme. He allegedly acted as the go-between for Myles and the Turners. The government alleged that Reid and Myles eventually convinced the Turners to submit the false bid on the Berkeley lab project in exchange for promises from Myles that he would help the Turners obtain more business in the future.

Earlier this year, Reid was convicted of a similar, but unrelated fraud when a jury found that he took bribes from Myles to help the undercover FBI operative pursue veterans housing contracts in Southern California. After being convicted of this unrelated fraud, Reid then pleaded guilty to conspiring with the Turners to rig the Lawrence Berkeley Lab construction contract.

But despite Reid's apparent guilt and acquiescence to the charge that he conspired with the Turner brothers, the Turners maintained their innocence all along.

Len and Lance Turner contend that the bid they submitted on the Lawrence Berkeley Lab construction contract wasn't phony.

The jury sided with Lance and declined to return a unanimous verdict regarding Len. It's unclear if the government will attempt to retry Len Turner.

Attorneys for Len and Lance Turner didn’t immediately return phone calls today. The U.S. Attorneys Office’s spokesperson did not answer the phone and their voicemail box was full.

But in briefs to the court over the past year, attorneys for Len and Lance Turner wrote that their clients were wrongfully swept up in the corruption probe and entrapped by Myles.

They also claimed that Myles targeted the Turners because they are Black.

In fact, Myles, who is also Black, has a long history as a paid FBI operative of targeting Black politicians and business leaders. He most recently was employed by the FBI to pursue a corruption case against Maryland state Senator Nathaniel Oaks. He previously helped the FBI go after politicians and business people in Louisiana, Connecticut, and other states.

As the defense attorneys alleged in a motion submitted to the court last March:

"Mr. Joseph, under that alias and others, has spent the last decade as a well-paid operative of the FBI, earning over a million dollars endeavoring to persuade African Americans, most often public officials, to commit criminal offenses. The tool of his trade is lying, at which he is quite skilled. In addition to false claims of great financial resources and professional achievement, the CHS’s lies often involve heartfelt descriptions of his intention to serve the interests of the local African American community. Sometimes the subjects of the CHS’s inducements are those with a reputation for corruption. But the path to targeting the Turners, individuals with no prior record of dishonesty or misconduct, was random and fortuitous."

After-School Supper Is the Latest Casualty of Oakland Unified Budget Cuts

While slashing the nutritional program is as impactful as recently announced cuts to sports programs, it’s gotten much less attention, and no one is raising money to save it.

by Daniel Lempres
Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 1:06 PM

Without the after-school meals, students’ ability to learn may be harmed. - OUSD.ORG
  • Without the after-school meals, students’ ability to learn may be harmed.

Students who are used to eating a hot meal after school through the Oakland Unified School District’s supper program will have to go hungry this year due to budget cuts imposed by the school board. School staff say elimination of the program will negatively impact dozens of schools and thousands of students.

“Lots of families depend on the supper program,” said Angela Phung, the after-school coordinator for Manzanita Community School. “With budget cuts, students suffer first.”

At Manzanita Community School, about 70 students used to receive fresh fruit, milk, and a hot meal five evenings a week. Out of necessity, some families even brought younger siblings in to eat, Phung said.

After-school coordinators are now encouraging parents to send their children to school with snacks to replace the supper they used to receive. But this is not a sustainable solution, Phung said. In a school district where over 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and after-school programs run until 6 p.m., placing the onus of providing a more substantial meal on parents only hurts students. Nutritious meals, fresh fruit, and milk are replaced with chips and juice boxes, Phung said.

Many families simply can’t afford the extra food. And without the meals, students’ ability to learn is harmed.

“Nutrition and hunger directly impact brain development,” said Anna Johnson, a psychologist at Georgetown University, in an interview. “The availability of key nutrients affects social and intellectual growth.” Hunger also affects behavior, Johnson said. Hungry students end up distracted, frustrated, and unable to learn.

“Being hungry leads to shorter fuses and attention spans,” she added.

While the loss of sports programs due to OUSD budget cuts in June has attracted ample attention, the cuts to the supper program may be just as impactful — especially for the school district’s most vulnerable students.

The cuts to sports programs in Oakland received national press coverage and led to over $300,000 in donations in order to continue offering various athletics programs. The Raiders donated $250,000, and the A’s, Warriors, and 49ers plan to contribute as well.

The supper program’s benefits go beyond simply providing a hot meal, said Christina Gomez, mother of Oakland Technical High School students.

“When districts start to cut (things like free supper), we see more violence, we see a spike in our numbers of youth in detention, we have more unsupervised students between critical hours of the day 4-7p,” Gomez explained in an email. “We see more abuse as frustrated parents scramble to find ways to feed hungry children. Ability to focus and pay attention in class is connected to hunger. This is an issue of public health, an issue of public safety, an issue of equity.”

Gomez’s assertion is supported by a growing body of evidence linking food insecurity in low-income households to decreased test scores and increased likelihood of disciplinary infractions.

The shuttering of the supper program can also affect students indirectly, Johnson said. In situations of food insecurity, the stress of not knowing how food costs will be met can be as injurious as the hunger itself.

“Food insecurity can mean the parents are also hungry,” Johnson said. “This can lead parents to be distracted, irritable, and unresponsive.”

A slide from a June budget presentation indicated as much as $1.4 million could be cut from the district's supper program. - OUSD.ORG
  • A slide from a June budget presentation indicated as much as $1.4 million could be cut from the district's supper program.
OUSD’s $5.8 million budget cut passed in June comes on the heels of last year’s $9 million cut. According to a budget presentation from last year, approximately $1.4 million was eliminated from the district’s after-school dinner program.

Cassaundra Reed and Gwendolyn Taylor, supervisors of the supper program, say when food costs, salaries, and benefits are accounted for, the cuts may save the district just north of $1 million.

All of the 32 school sites where the program was offered were asked to reduce spending, Reed and Taylor said.

The district’s nutrition office hopes to find funding in the budget somehow in order to reconstitute the supper program. OUSD’s Chief Business Officer Marcus Battle is open to creative solutions that could save some if not all of the supper program’s sites, said Taylor and Reed.

Coordinators understand why the school board went after the supper program.

“The district has no money,” said Jimmy Lee, after-school coordinator at Edna Brewer Middle School. “Parents will have to make up for [the cuts] at home.”

Even though Edna Brewer’s supper program used to serve nearly 200 students each weekday, Lee says few families have asked about its absence. “We’re hearing more about the cuts to other programs,” Lee said.

Correction: The district reduced the supper program's budget in June of this year, not last year as this article originally stated. And the June 2018 budget cut across the entire district was $5.8 million, not $8 million.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Oakland Unified Spent $134,000 on No-Bid Bus Contracts for Its Budget-Strapped Sports Program

The bus provider, Bay Area Transport Services, is owned by a former County Board of Education trustee.

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Aug 28, 2018 at 6:22 PM

A photocopy image of the buses provided by Bay Area Transport Services to the Oakland Athletic League. - OUSD
  • OUSD
  • A photocopy image of the buses provided by Bay Area Transport Services to the Oakland Athletic League.

Recent news that the Oakland Unified School District planned to cut athletics programs by as much as $500,000 due to ongoing budget problems caused an uproar among parents and students. In response, private contributions have saved some sports offerings.

But the school district's athletics program itself illustrates how OUSD has failed to implement spending controls, causing deficits and forcing the school board to make numerous and often surprising cuts.

For example, since 2016 OUSD's athletics program, which has a $1.6 million annual budget, spent over $134,000 on bus transport services for students without ever putting the work up for competitive bidding.

District staff also never sought approval for the expensive bus services from the school district's board, as they're required to by law.

And the money wasn't accounted for in the budget, making the district's financial situation even worse.

The company that got the no-bid work was Bay Area Transport Services, or BATS. BATS is owned and operated by Marlon McWilson, a former trustee of the Alameda County Board of Education who was in office from 2009 to 2016.

The county board and superintendent have certain oversight powers over OUSD. The county superintendent is responsible for reviewing and approving OUSD's budget, while the full board of education can can approve or deny charter school applications.

According to OUSD records, McWilson's company began providing bus services to the district beginning in at least January 2016, while he was still a member of the county board of education. But this work didn't go through the proper contracting procedures. Instead, OUSD staff simply hired McWilson's company and began paying BATS to transport students to and from games and tournaments.

In May 2016, four months after BATS started working for OUSD, district staff brought a $45,000 contract to the school board for approval. The board unanimously passed the contract, but it was entirely retroactive because it covered work that had already been completed by BATS between January and April of 2016.

Bernard McCune, an OUSD official, wrote that the retroactive $45,000 contract was appropriate because BATS' prices "compared with other vendors." But OUSD never put the work out to bid, so it's unclear how exactly they compared prices in the market.

According to OUSD, McCune no longer works for the district and the Express was unable to locate him for comment.

Last September, BATS was again selected by OUSD and OAL staff without any competitive bidding to shuttle students to and from sporting events.

Eight months later, at a school board meeting in May of this year, OUSD staff admitted that they improperly recruited the contractor through a no-bid process, and that they had already paid BATS $82,000 without ever signing an agreement or having the school board take a vote.

Bay Area Transport Services also billed OUSD for another $76,000 in services on top of the $82,000 already paid out, according to district officials.

"It doesn’t meet legal requirements for competitive bidding," OUSD General Counsel Marion McWilliams told the board during the May meeting. "Fundamentally, we believe it is an unlawful contract."

As a result, OUSD's board pulled the proposed contract off its consent calendar to discuss it further.

Several school board members advocated for approving the contract, with a proposed total payment of as much as $215,000. Board member Roseann Torres said that McWilson's company had already completed the work and, regardless of whether OUSD complied with the law and its own policies, BATS should be reimbursed, she argued.

Other school board members agreed that BATS should be paid for the work already done, but countered that the contract, which included additional future work, shouldn't be approved.

"By approving this contract, we are reinforcing bad behavior on multiple levels," said OUSD board member Aimee Eng.

School board member Jumoke Hinton-Hodge called McWilson a valued local contractor and said it appeared that his company was being unfairly singled out from among the district's many vendors who have obtained work without going through the proper channels.

"This is definitely a process issue, a big one," said board member Nina Senn, who opposed the contract. "And we do have to hold the line. We do have to have discipline around our contracting."

Eng, Jody London, Shanthi Gonzales, and Senn voted against the contract, which failed to pass.

McWilson's personal contacts at OUSD (he formerly worked at OUSD as a teacher) appear to have given him a leg up in obtaining work from the school district without any formal bidding process.

To justify the first $45,000 retroactive bus contract with BATS in 2016, the OUSD staff member in charge of the procurement, McCune, wrote that he "worked with vendor previously at OUSD."

"I've been associated with the district for over 25 years, from mentoring to teaching," McWilson told the Express earlier this week.

McWilson served on the Alameda County Board of Education up until June 28, 2016. According to OUSD records, his bus company was working for OUSD starting in January of 2016, but McWilson did not disclose owning a bus company and contracting with OUSD on his statement of economic interest form filed in February of 2016, disclosing his sources of income in advance of that year's County Board of Education Election, for which he was a candidate. McWilson lost the election to Amber Childress and left the County Board of Education in June 2016.

As a trustee, McWilson routinely voted on matters affecting OUSD.

Acknowledging the previous methods were illegal, OUSD issued a public request for proposals on June 20 seeking a new bus services provider.

Several companies submitted bids, including McWilson's. In the end, OUSD staff ended up recommending that McWilson again be provided the contract, now valued at $300,000 and running through 2021.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the new proposed contract with BATS in September.

Clarification: the original version of this story stated that the county office of education has the power to review and approve OUSD's budget. In fact, the county superintendent has specific oversight authority over local school district budgets - not the county school board.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Hundreds Rally at San Quentin to Support National Prison Strikers

by Daniel Lempres
Mon, Aug 27, 2018 at 3:30 PM

Bay Area Prison Strike and former Black Panther Bilal Ali. - DANIEL LEMPRES
  • Daniel Lempres
  • Bay Area Prison Strike and former Black Panther Bilal Ali.

About 300 protesters gathered outside San Quentin State Prison’s west entrance on Saturday to show solidarity with striking inmates nationwide. The national prison strike, which may be the largest of its kind in U.S. history, is now entering its second week. The strikers seek reforms in sentencing and the treatment of inmates in state, federal, and immigration detention facilities.

Inmates in 17 states are involved in the strike, including in California’s Folsom State Prison, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the organizations leading the strike. Rallies supporting the strikers have occurred in 21 cities as far-flung as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Leipzig, Germany, the IWOC said in a statement.

Inside prisons and jails, strikers are boycotting commissaries, refusing to work, and, in some cases, refusing to eat until their demands are met.

At Saturday’s rally outside San Quentin, speakers described the inhumanity of the prison system and outlined the strikers’ 10-point platform.

Speakers at the San Quentin rally included Stephen Bingham, George Jackson’s lawyer, and Jose Villarreal, who organized three hunger strikes while incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison in opposition to the use of solitary confinement, which he describes as “torture.”

Strike strategies of the IWOC include “phone zaps,” whereby many supporters make simultaneous calls to the government officials who oversee California’s prisons and jails with the goal of overwhelming them with a single message. San Quentin State Prison shut down its phone lines on Saturday afternoon in response to one such phone zap, according to Bilal Ali, a former Black Panther who is supporting the strikers.

While the IWOC claims that California prisoners are participating in the national strike, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not acknowledged any organized political resistance inside its facilities.

“There have been no reported incidents or indications that any California state prison inmates have participated in the national prison strike,” Vicky Waters, a CDCR spokesperson, wrote in an email. “San Quentin State Prison ran normal operations this weekend, and I am not aware of any issues with the phone lines.”

Nube Brown of the Prisoners’ Human Rights Coalition said she is concerned that sensationalistic news coverage of the strike could cause its key messages to be lost. Brown said a lot of the news coverage has fixated on claims of prison “slavery” but that many of the strikers are motivated by other issues. Some are seeking the reinstatement of the Pell Grant program, a federal education grant that used to be offered to incarcerated people, but was cut. Many prisoners also want to overturn the system of disenfranchisement and win the right to vote in state and federal elections.

The strike, which began on Aug. 21, the anniversary of Black Panther George Jackson’s death in San Quentin in 1971, will run through Sept. 9, the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising.
Local chapters of the IWOC and the Prisoners’ Human Rights Coalition have planned further actions in the Bay Area, including rallies, workshops, and phone zaps.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Defends Record Against Five Challengers

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 24, 2018 at 9:43 AM

From left to right: Cat Brooks, Saeed Karamooz, Cedric Troupe, Pamela Price. (Not pictured: Libby Schaaf, Nancy Sidebotham).
  • From left to right: Cat Brooks, Saeed Karamooz, Cedric Troupe, Pamela Price. (Not pictured: Libby Schaaf, Nancy Sidebotham).

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is endorsed by many of the East Bay's prominent Democratic Party officials. In fact, in her closing statement at last night's Alameda County Democratic Party candidates forum, she rattled off the names of over a dozen well-known supporters.

But the mood yesterday appeared to reveal a split within the party's ranks. Many in the audience cheered challengers Cat Brooks and Pamela Price, and at one point, Schaaf was even booed by some who believe that her approach to Oakland's homelessness crisis is lacking. Other candidates won applause by attacking some of Schaaf's major initiatives or by generally criticizing the state of the city.

Even so, Schaaf held firm to her record and was cheered several times, especially when she reminded attendees about her stand against President Donald Trump's attacks against immigrants. Asked if she had any regrets about warning undocumented immigrants about an impending ICE raid earlier this year, Schaaf said "absolutely not."

Schaaf said that in the past four years her administration has managed to reduce gun violence, address displacement by building thousands of new housing units, and invest in crumbling roads. But the mayor said she is most proud of the Oakland Promise, her initiative to fund college for low-income students.

In her comments, Cat Brooks referred to the recently published Oakland Equity Indicators report, which revealed stark divides between the city's rich and poor, between white residents and communities of color. She described her campaign as a "people's" movement to correct the widening inequality in the city, and she said the current election will decide the fate of Oakland for years to come.

"We're failing across the board at providing quality of life opportunities for all Oaklanders," said Brooks.

Pamela Price.
  • Pamela Price.

That theme was also invoked by Pamela Price. Price spoke about Oakland being at a "crossroads," experiencing unprecedented economic growth, but that prosperity isn't benefitting everyone.

"We want to move forward, but we can't leave people behind," said Price. "We have to protect and preserve the Oakland that we love."

Price and Brooks both emphasized the need for greater police accountability. Price said that the 41 percent of general fund expenditures Oakland spends on its police is "unacceptable."

Brooks said the police department's "unauthorized" overtime spending, amounting to millions per year, needs to be cut back and redirected to other programs.

Schaaf countered that Berkeley actually proportionately spends more on its police than Oakland, and that Oakland has fewer officers per capita than many other places.

Price insisted that the results of the recent district attorney's election show that she can win the mayor's seat. She said she garnered 55 percent of the vote for DA in Oakland, with enormous support in the city's flatlands. But she then advised people to use ranked choice voting and also select Brooks on their ballot. Together, the two candidates appear to be mounting a major challenge to Schaaf.

Candidate Nancy Sidebotham expressed the most support for Oakland's police, saying that more needs to be done to reign in the "mayhem" in Oakland, including sideshows. Sidebotham also said she's frustrated by what she described as corruption in city hall and the neglect of many neighborhoods.

Candidates Saed Karamooz and Cedric Troupe both spoke in terms of being business owners and the need for Oakland to support its small and local entrepreneurs, including immigrants. But both were also clear about their support for labor unions.

Karamooz said the city's use of temporary and part-time workers is a "disgrace," and more should be done to ensure city jobs can sustain workers and their families.

Former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, who was moderating the panel, called them "one of the best groups of candidates" he's seen in Oakland's recent history.

Not all the candidates for mayor were invited to the forum. Only members of the Democratic Party were.

But Harris also tempered the promises made by the mayoral candidates. "No one person - mayor, city council, or school board - is going to solve these problems," Harris said about the economic and social forces that have radically transformed Oakland in recent years.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Study Finds Significant Reduction in Gun Homicides in Oakland Via Ceasefire Strategy

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Aug 22, 2018 at 10:29 AM

Fatal and non-fatal shootings have declined in Oakland since the implementation of Ceasefire. - ANTHONY BRAGA AND ROD K. BRUNSON.
  • Anthony Braga and Rod K. Brunson.
  • Fatal and non-fatal shootings have declined in Oakland since the implementation of Ceasefire.

Academic researchers say there's now statistical proof that Oakland's Ceasefire program is working. 

Yesterday, a research team led by Anthony Braga of Northeastern University released a new study that attributes a 31.5 percent drop in gun homicides in the city since 2013 to Ceasefire. Furthermore, the researchers measured a 20 percent reduction in shootings in Oakland neighborhoods where the police focused the Ceasefire strategy compared to other parts of the city that did not receive the same treatment.

The research team presented their findings to Oakland's community policing oversight board, which oversees Measure Z revenues, part of which pay for Ceasefire.

Braga said his team's study was designed to control for broader trends such as the overall drop in violent crime across California, population trends within Oakland, and other possible variables that affect crime rates.

"While there are noticeable decreases, there is still much work that can be done," said Rod Brunson of Rutgers University, another member of the evaluation team.

The study is yet another piece of evidence that OPD's violence reduction strategies are working.

Ceasefire is a strategy that targets a small number of individuals who are identified as being most likely to be perpetrators and victims of gun violence. According to OPD, these are mainly young Black and Latino men living in Oakland's poorest neighborhoods who make up less than 1 percent of the city's population.

This population group experiences a high rate of unemployment and housing and food insecurity, is provided with inadequate educational opportunities, and is harmed by other forms of institutional racism. They are also exposed to violence at an early age and carry a great deal of trauma.

Through Ceasefire, the police conduct "call ins" of these individuals by sitting them down, usually in a church or community center, and communicating the potential consequences — physical harm, death, incarceration — of engaging in street conflicts. In essence, the police offer them a choice: change your ways and survive, or continue on this path and end up in prison or dead.

Braga called it a "focused deterrence strategy."

"It's not about dropping enforcement bombs," he said, using a war metaphor. "It's only as harsh as it needs to be."

Ceasefire in Oakland grew out of community activism. Groups like Oakland Community Organizations advocated for a more focused method of addressing gun violence. Ceasefire was fully implemented in 2013 under Mayor Jean Quan. Measure Z, the city's parcel tax to fund violence reduction strategies both inside and outside the police department, is used to pay for Ceasefire.

The program has not been without criticism. Part of the research project to evaluate Ceasefire includes gathering feedback from the community and individuals who have been subjected to Ceasefire through its call ins.

Among other things, some question Ceasefire's sustainability and ability to reach deeper reductions in violence. The program is a deterrent, but it doesn't address the deeply ingrained social conditions that are highly correlated with violence: poverty, joblessness, environmental racism, lack of funding for education, and racial segregation.

In other words, it offers a choice to people who, in reality, have very little social and economic power with which to actually make meaningful choices.

Some also feel that Ceasefire's net is often spread too wide and that people on the periphery of networks engaged in group violence are "called in" or otherwise potentially criminalized.

Researchers were also told by participants that the call ins are "not always conducted in a respectful manner (e.g., they tend to feel coercive and exploitative), deepening clients' distrust of the police and the overall criminal justice system."

Reygan Cunningham, one of the architects of Oakland's Ceasefire program, said the police have made adjustments based on this feedback. For example, they have changed the locations of call ins and they allow participants to speak to the police about their needs and concerns rather just being lectured at.

Cunningham said the means of contacting participants have also changed. Some expressed concern that multiple police officers have shown up at their homes to ask them to attend a call in. In at least one case, a man's landlord tried to kick him out simply because the police knocked on his family's door. "As a result, we stopped doing that," said Cunningham.

Letitia Henderson Watts, a member of the community policing oversight board, mostly praised Ceasefire and the observed reductions in gun violence measured by the research team. But she asked the department and city officials, "Are we doing enough?"

Henderson Watts, a 1998 graduate of McClymonds High School, said that many of her classmates from 20 years ago were traumatized by the violence they lived through. Some of them didn't survive, including 16-year-old LoEshe Lacy who was shot and killed by a 16-year-old boy who police said fired on Lacy and two of her friends as part of a petty relationship feud.

Henderson Watts made several constructive recommendations to OPD and city staff, including the need for more diversion programs to keep youngsters out of the criminal justice system, if possible.

OPD Captain Ersie Joyner, who heads up Ceasefire for the department, replied that he was the homicide investigator on the LoEshe Lacy case.

"Things are different now," said Joyner at last night's meeting. "We have a strategy that doesn't just focus on taking people to jail."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Charges Dropped Against Richmond Bicycle Activist Najari "Naj" Smith

by John Geluardi
Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 10:43 AM

Najari "Naj" Smith
  • Najari "Naj" Smith

The Alameda County District Attorney announced on Monday that charges against popular Richmond bicycle activist Najari “Naj” Smith have been dropped after he spent a weekend in jail and was stuck with a $5,000 bond.

Smith’s attorney, Walter Riley, was glad to hear of the district attorney’s decision. “I was prepared to go to trial, but it’s much better to have the case thrown out.”

Smith’s Aug. 3 arrest by Oakland police for violating a noise ordinance stunned Richmond residents who know him to be a dedicated community activist who has made a positive impact on Richmond youth through bicycling.

Smith is the cofounder and director of Rich City Rides, a nonprofit that offers young people numerous opportunities for positive activities including regular group bicycle rides, internships, working to earn their own bicycles, learning bicycle repair, trail maintenance, and advocating local government on a variety of transportation issues. Smith, 39, is also a respected member of the Richmond Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Smith’s arrest caused alarm throughout Richmond. More than a thousand people signed a petition asking for the charges against Smith to be dropped, and hundreds of people signed up to support Smith at his Aug. 31 court date.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt immediately looked into the circumstances of Smith’s arrest and said it appeared to be a case of “bicycling while black.” On Thursday, Butt wrote a three-page letter to Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Oakland Mayor Libby Shaaf asking that the charges against Smith be dropped.

O’Malley’s office said on Monday that the case against Smith would not be pursued.

Smith was thrown in jail on Aug. 3 while he and approximately 30 young people were on a peaceful, group bicycle ride that ended at Oakland’s First Friday event. The group was in the middle of a traditional “circle ritual” near the intersection of Telegraph and Grand avenues when Oakland police officer Nigel Lawson stopped Smith by grabbing the handle bars of his bicycle.

Officer Lawson told Smith his sound system, which was on a cart attached to his bicycle, was too loud. Smith immediately turned the music off and cooperated with the officer while trying to keep his group calm. Despite Smith’s willingness to comply, Lawson cuffed him, confiscated his bicycle and sound system, and took him to Santa Rita Jail where he spent two nights before being released on $5,000 bail.

Friday, August 17, 2018

More Allegations of Embezzlement at Oakland's BayTech Charter School

The school district is investigating "questionable credit card charges" for expensive meals, cruises, and Disney tickets.

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 17, 2018 at 11:55 AM


OUSD officials are investigating numerous questionable purchases made using the Bay Area Technology School's credit card, according to a notice of concern sent by the district to the charter school.

The newly revealed allegations are part of a broader investigation by OUSD into financial mismanagement at the school and include accusations by BayTech's three current board members against the school's former principal that he fraudulently altered his employment contract. The former principal, Hayri Hatipoglu, has accused the school's board of defaming him.

The review of the school's credit card spending was revealed in a July 12 notice of concern sent by OUSD's charter schools oversight office to BayTech's leaders. The district also wrote that BayTech has a system of "inadequate financial checks and balances."

OUSD flagged purchases from Netflix, Amazon, and numerous expensive restaurant bills as cause for concern. It's unclear if the purchases had any legitimate educational purpose.

The district also found $6,800 in payments to Commodore Cruises and Events, an Alameda-based cruise ship operator. BayTech's credit card was also used to purchase $2,919 in Disneyland tickets. The school paid for hotels and plane tickets for staff to travel to Southern California, Arizona, Utah, and Texas.

Copies of BayTech's credit card statements from 2016 and 2017 obtained by the Express through a California Public Records Act request show that the school paid $2,655 to an upscale Oakland pizzeria over a two-year period. The school's Wells Fargo credit card was also used to pay for six separate meals at Scott's Seafood in Oakland costing a total of $4,453.

Last year, the school's credit card was used to buy $32,698 in Apple electronics. According to former school staff who spoke with the Express on the condition of anonymity, some Apple products were given to staff as thank-you gifts and not used for official school purposes.

The district is currently investigating the school for financial mismanagement, and BayTech's board has also hired an independent firm, Oracle Investigations, to review allegations of embezzlement and fraud.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Oakland Unified May Eliminate Nearly 340 Positions in One Year to Stay Fiscally Solvent

Layoff decisions must be made by Feb. 28. Possible cuts include classroom teachers.

by Theresa Harrington
Wed, Aug 15, 2018 at 3:57 PM

The Oakland school board deliberates during Aug. 8, 2018 meeting. - THERESA HARRINGTON FOR EDSOURCE
  • Theresa Harrington for EdSource
  • The Oakland school board deliberates during Aug. 8, 2018 meeting.

As it grapples with how to deal with its ongoing budget difficulties, one of the state’s more financially troubled districts Wednesday considered a plan that could result in hundreds of staff, including many teachers, being laid off.

Oakland Unified, which is still digging its way out of state receivership imposed on it 15 years ago, is facing continued financial challenges. This is despite getting a major infusion of state funds in recent years intended to help educate low income and other high needs children through the Local Control Funding Formula. The district has also lost a significant number of students to charter schools and has been criticized for budget mismanagement by independent and county officials.

As a result, the district anticipates deficits of $20.3 million in 2019-20 and $59 million in 2020-21 if it doesn’t make $30 million in ongoing cuts a year from now.

In the next few months, Oakland Unified officials will meet with employee unions to identify up to 340 positions that could be eliminated in 2019-20 to balance the district’s budget.

The Oakland school board on Wednesday unanimously agreed to revise the district’s three-year budget to reflect these possible upcoming cuts after the Alameda County Office of Education rejected the budget adopted by the board in June. That budget showed nearly $30 million in budget reductions in in books and supplies in 2019-20 and 2020-21, resulting in negative balances of $10 million in those categories for two years in a row.

The county nixed that plan, saying it was not acceptable because it did not comply with the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, which requires Oakland Unified to provide adequate books and materials to students and teachers. To remedy the problem, the district decided to spread the $30 million per year over two years across salaries, benefits, supplies and contracts, based on a separate “commitment to fiscal solvency” resolution the board unanimously approved Wednesday.

It says the district projects it will have negative fund balances of $20.3 million and $59 million respectively each of those two years, so it should consider eliminating at least 234 certificated positions which include teachers and principals and 104 classified, management and confidential positions beginning in 2019-20 to save about $26.4 million. The job cuts must be identified by Feb. 28, along with $400,000 in cuts to books and supplies and $3.5 million in cuts to services and operating expenses. The resolution also requires the board to increase the district’s reserve from the minimum 2 percent to 3 percent “given the district’s history of budget and fiscal miscalculations,” to address “unforeseen budgetary increases.”

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said during the meeting that the county required more detail from the district because of its past failure to implement needed cuts.

“This is truly the county and the state leaning in more, saying, ‘We expect you to make these reductions as a district that you haven’t in the past,’” she said. “In the past, just saying, ‘We’re going to make the reductions’ would have been good enough. Now, the county is saying, ‘You need to be more prescriptive over where you may make these reductions, so we as a county have more comfort that you are going to make these reductions.’”

The resolution is tentative because the board has not yet identified the specific cuts it will implement to eliminate its deficit, said Marcus Battle, the district’s recently-hired chief business official. It intends to work with unions to identify possible alternatives to layoffs by Jan. 31, according to the resolution. The cuts suggested in the resolution were an example of what the district needs to do if it doesn’t identify other expense reductions or new revenue sources, he said. Battle also noted that the county required the district to identify its cuts by February, in time for layoff notices to be mailed out in March.

Although no union representatives addressed the resolution or revised budget, one teacher noted later in the meeting that the union is at impasse and there is talk of a strike. Although school starts Monday, the district is still trying to fill 29 teacher vacancies, including 19 in special education, Johnson-Trammell said.

Oakland has a history of miscalculating its budget and spending money without proper internal controls, which has been documented in several independent reports by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance organization, or FCMAT, as well as the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury. It is currently paying back a $100 million state loan due to past fiscal distress and is working to address the issues raised by FCMAT and the grand jury.

Johnson-Trammel said this will include “learning from the past,” and changing district culture so that policy changes are implemented effectively.

“We’ve created new policies in the past,” she said. “But sometimes they aren’t always implemented. We need to focus on training.”

The Wednesday board action was required after the county rejected the district’s budget for the 2019-20 school year. “Previously, we did not have to state the details,” Battle said. “We just said the reductions could come from salary, benefits, books, supplies, other line items of expense. But the county requested more specificity.”

Board member Shanthi Gonzales expressed concerns that the resolution “does definitely signal that we expect to be reducing staffing next year.”

She also asked how the majority of reductions ended up in books and supplies, which she had not seen in the budget when the board adopted it in June. Battle struggled to explain this, saying the district’s computer system should have flagged large negative balances in that expense category as an “error.”

“This particular error should have been caught, to be honest with you,” he said, adding that the district’s finance department is being restructured, but currently lacks proper checks and balances to catch such problems.

Gonzalez asked that future budget presentations show three-year trends so board members can see the shifts they are approving.

“Yes,” Battle said. “We are going to get the type of information you want to see early so you can see the trends.”

Two district residents said the budget process lacks transparency.

Mohammed Mordecai, a citizen watchdog who routinely comments on agenda items, said the resolution passed by the board on Wednesday night gives the appearance of a commitment, but was “written in such a way that there is no commitment.”

Mike Hutchinson, who graduated from Oakland public schools and ran unsuccessfully for the school board two years ago, said it was premature for the district to focus on staff cuts.

“It seems all these cuts are going to fall right on the backs of our employees, when we don’t have the minimum staff to run the district,” he said, adding that he believed contracts with outside consultants should be cut. “The problem was, when you voted on the last budget, there were no budget breakdowns at all…We have to do business a different way, otherwise this is going to keep happening.”

Board President Aimee Eng said the board has created a special committee to identify budget reductions that will begin meeting later this month.

The board also learned that the governor’s final budget will force Oakland Unified to cut another $2.2 million from its 2018-19 budget, due to lower-than-anticipated one-time funds. Although the governor’s budget increased the cost of living adjustment for school districts from 3 percent to 3.71 percent, it reduced one-time funding from $344 per student to $184 per student, resulting in a net loss of $2.2 million for the district, said Ofelia Roxas, the district’s newly-hired chief financial officer. This change will be reflected in the board’s September budget presentation.

Several board members called the budget picture “sobering,” but a few pointed out that the district is also exploring options for selling or leasing surplus property, which could help ease its fiscal stress.

“We’re sitting on the most sought-after asset in Oakland, which is land,” said board member Roseann Torres.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series on how the West Contra Costa and Oakland Unified school districts are responding to California’s new accountability system.

This story was originally published by

Most Popular Stories

© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation