Tuesday, July 25, 2017

String of Homeless Encampment Fires Highlight Dangers to Residents: Firefighters Called to Sites Every Two Days Earlier This Year

by Brian Krans
Tue, Jul 25, 2017 at 1:49 PM

City of Oakland workers replace a stop light this past Monday, which was damaged during a fire at a homeless encampment at Fifth and Market streets. - BRIAN KRANS
  • Brian Krans
  • City of Oakland workers replace a stop light this past Monday, which was damaged during a fire at a homeless encampment at Fifth and Market streets.

A rash of fires at Oakland homeless encampments this week highlights the dangers to people living at these spaces.

In fact, these blazes have became so common that the Oakland Fire Department recently began keeping track of them with their own code.

According to department call data, the new designation was first used on May 23. Firefighters logged nearly a dozen encampment-fire calls during the subsequent month, most of them at large sites underneath freeways.

Data from May and June indicates that there is a fire-department call to a homeless encampment every two days.

Recently, fires have been occurring more regularly at two longstanding homeless encampments, both located under major freeways or elevated BART tracks.

The first occurred along a stretch of Fifth Street near Interstate 880, which also saw two significant fires in late May. Luckily, no one has been hurt in these fires.

The most recent fire there occurred at a lone homeless encampment on the corner Fifth and Market streets early Sunday morning. Oakland police arrested a 33-year-old man from Oakland, who was initially believed to be responsible for the fire. The man’s name had not been released as of Tuesday.

Nearby residents say they knew the man as “Rip,” and told the Express they didn’t believe the fire’s cause was arson, rather negligence.

One woman — who said she wasn’t a fan of the man and didn’t want to give her name — said the fire in question was an accident. She claimed that the man sometimes behaved erratically and set his own property on fire.

After an investigation, the fire department determined that the man taken into custody did not cause the fire, but remained in police custody for unrelated offenses, police spokeswoman Johnna Watson told the Express.

While no one was injured in the blaze, it did take out a stop light and disabled other traffic lights at the intersection. City crews were there on Monday to replace the damaged light.

A second string of fires occurred before 10 a.m. on Monday. They included several small ones at West Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, under Interstate 980, another longstanding homeless encampment. No one was reported injured, and fire officials stated that cooking devices were believed to be the source of those blazes.

While there have been instances of fires being deliberately set — including video of a person intentionally torching a tent in West Oakland in late May — data from fire officials suggests the vast majority of the camp blazes are accidental.

Residents say fires often start because people will get too high and leave a flame going, or that someone will throw a cigarette into a pile of highly flammable rubble. Other fires start becomes a person is simply trying to cook food with a camping stove, but inside their makeshift homes, which are often made of wood, blankets, and other flammable materials.

According to encampment residents who spoke to the Express, police, fire, and city workers visiting sites recently have told those living there not to use heating devices, such as barbecue grills and camping stoves, directly in their tents or in densely populated areas.

Large piles of uncollected garbage also compound the fire risk at these locations. Of all the other resources the homeless say they need, fire extinguishers could help prevent smaller fires from turning into larger, potentially fatal blazes.

“Once one of these things catches on fire, it goes up in seconds,” one resident told the Express.

Oakland is home to more than half of the estimated 3,863 unsheltered homeless individuals in Alameda County. More than 80 percent of those were living in Alameda County before becoming homeless, according to the latest homeless survey.

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Ethics Commission: Oakland Councilmember McElhaney Violated Conflict-of-Interest Rules, Accepted Illegal Gifts

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Jul 25, 2017 at 10:12 AM


The Oakland Public Ethics Commission's investigators have found that Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney violated city ethics rules when she interfered to stop construction a housing development proposed next to her home.

According to the commission's staff, McElhaney enlisted the help of an architectural firm two years ago to propose modifications to the project. The firm helped McElhaney for free, but, at the same time, JRDV Urban International was also doing business with the city.

McElhaney voted to extend several lucrative city contracts with JRDV while its president, Morten Jensen, helped her stall the housing project near her residence.

McElhaney also failed to disclose the gift of services from Jensen and JRDV, which was worth about $800, on her mandatory statement of economic interest. City officials must disclose any gift with a value above $50 and are prohibited from receiving anything valued above $250. McElhaney was prohibited from accepting any gift valued at more than $50, because the firm was a "restricted source," due to the fact that it was seeking business with the city.

The project that McElhaney interfered with was a five-unit residential building proposed for a vacant lot adjacent to the councilmember's home on 32nd Street.

In January 2014, developer Robert Brecht submitted a zoning application for the project, and the planning department gave approved in April. That same month, McElhaney's husband, Clarence McElhaney, appealed the project.

But as the Express reported in February 2015, the appeal was prepared by the councilmember's staff using city resources.

According to the ethics commission's investigation, the Express' reporting, and two subsequent complaints, is what initiated their examination of the case.

Ethics commission investigators found that McElhaney called Art Clark, an employee of JRDV, in December 2014 and asked that he and Jensen appear at a planning-commission meeting to help her appeal against the project.

Lynette Gibson McElhaney's home and the empty lot where a five-unit housing project was planned. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Lynette Gibson McElhaney's home and the empty lot where a five-unit housing project was planned.
Jensen showed up and spoke in McElhaney's favor. Even so, the planning commission denied McElhaney's appeal and approved Brecht's application with some required modifications.

But afterward, Jensen approached Brecht's architect and asked to review the developer's design and offered revisions.

Clark and Jensen also continued to research possible ways to object to Brecht's project. At one point, according to the ethics commission investigation, McElhaney asked Clark to draft a letter with various objections to the project and deliver it to the planning department director, Rachel Flynn. Clark agreed.

Flynn later sent several emails to Brecht encouraging him to consider alternative designs that were drafted by Jensen and Clark on McElhaney's behalf.

The planning commission's design-review subcommittee finalized Brecht's application in February 2015, but the developer never built the project. He told the Express that the councilmember's interference resulted in a downscaled project that had become infeasible to build.

JRDV's free assistance to the councilmember by providing their services for free, according to the ethics commission's investigation.

Commission investigators also found in its investigation that JRDV had several large contracts with Oakland for architectural services and that McElhaney voted to extend these agreements, resulting in higher payments to JRDV.

In March 2012, JRDV was awarded a $1.6 million deal to evaluate plans for the development of the Oakland Coliseum and surrounding environs. McElhaney wasn't yet a councilmember, however.

But then, in 2013 and 2014, city council voted several times to extend the contract with JRDV. McElhaney, who was on the council at this point, voted for the extension each time.

JRDV also worked on the West Oakland Specific Plan for the city. The firm was originally awarded the contract in 2011, but in 2013 and 2014 the council extended the contract several times and upped the amount of money awarded to JRDV. McElhaney voted affirmatively each time.

In addition, JRDV had another agreement with the city to provide architectural services for Oakland's facade and tenant-improvement program. Like the other contracts, this one was approved prior to McElhaney's election to the council, but McElhaney later voted to extend the contract for upwards of a year. The city ended up paying JRDV $125,000.

In the course of investigating these ethics violations, McElhaney failed to comply with a subpoena issued by the ethics commission for records. The ethics commission sued McElhaney to compel production of the emails and documents.

According to the ethics commission, its staff and the councilmember have been negotiating a possible settlement agreement for four months, but they have so far failed to find common ground. As a result, the ethics commission's chief of enforcement is recommending that an administrative hearing be convened to determine a penalty.

The full ethics commission has yet to issue any final ruling in the case. They will consider the findings of their staff's investigation at a July 31 meeting.

McElhaney said in an emailed statement that she looks forward to the matter being resolved on July 31. She also stated:

"If I had thought asking the architect for help could implicate the ethics laws, I of course would not have done so."

Correction: the original version of this article stated that the Public Ethics Commission "ruled" that McElhaney violated Oakland's ethics laws. That was incorrect. The commission has yet to issue any ruling on the matter. The commission's investigators, however, determined in their report that McElhaney violated the city's rules and the city's chief enforcement officer is recommending an administrative hearing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Federal Judge Orders City of Oakland to Fix Internal Affairs and Criminal Investigations of Police Misconduct

by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston
Wed, Jul 12, 2017 at 6:08 PM

Thelton Henderson
  • Thelton Henderson
In an order issued this afternoon, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson required the City of Oakland to implement a list of reforms designed to ensure that future police misconduct and criminal cases aren't mishandled and kept secret from other city officials and outside authorities.

The reforms were recommended in a special investigation published earlier this month that revealed how key Oakland police commanders and officers mishandled the Celeste Guap sex exploitation case.

Henderson is requiring the city to file a report on the status of these reforms on September 15.

For any of the changes that aren’t implemented by that date, the city must name the police officials responsible, and they could face contempt proceedings or other sanctions if they miss deadlines.

The required changes include:

Having OPD criminal investigators inform the District Attorney whenever there is reasonable suspicion an officer committed a crime, and training officers in this mandatory practice.

Having the department's special victims unit lead investigations into alleged police sex crimes, rather than allowing homicide investigators to lead these cases.

Requiring internal affairs investigators to involved the Oakland City Attorney's Office much earlier in police misconduct cases.

Requiring internal affairs to brief the mayor and city administrator on all major police misconduct cases on a monthly basis.

Jim Chanin, one of the civil rights attorneys who is party to the reform program, said the judge’s order doesn’t go as far as he and his partner John Burris would like. Chanin and Burris want all of the police officials responsible for mishandling the internal sex exploitation investigations in late 2015 to be identified, and for those responsible to be disciplined, if possible.

“I’m expecting that the city’s report will include information such as who is responsible for any deadlines where people should have been investigated and disciplined if appropriate. That should be in the city’s report for the judge to see.”

But Henderson’s order doesn’t appear to require this, and the city didn’t offer to identify all of the officers who were referenced in the Swanson-Barron report and impose discipline, if possible. Many of those officers have been identified by the Express over the past few weeks. At least two of them have been promoted to high-ranking posts in the department.

This is Judge Henderson's last involvement with OPD's 14-year-old consent decree. Following his retirement on August 11, the case will pass on to Judge William H. Orrick III.

“The Court would ordinarily reiterate that it remains fully prepared to use its powers to the extent necessary to ensure that Defendants finally achieve sustainable compliance,” explained Henderson, “but the Court must instead leave this case to another judge."

The next court hearing will be held on October 2.

In parting words, Henderson wrote that the city must take action to bring about change. “Now, more than ever, is the time for action and not just words.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Oakland Takes First Step Toward Cutting Ties with Federal Immigration Agency

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Jul 11, 2017 at 9:41 PM

  • ICE.gov

The Oakland City Council's Public Safety Committee voted unanimously today to revoke authorization for the city's police department to participate in task forces led by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The committee also voted to impose greater oversight of similar task force agreements the OPD has with the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and other federal law enforcement agencies.

"This law is critically needed," said Christina Sinha, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Christina Sinha of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said local cops might violate city policies when working alongside federal agents.
  • Christina Sinha of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said local cops might violate city policies when working alongside federal agents.
"Given the public statements of the president and ICE officials, it's their intention to continue targeting non-criminals," Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan told the committee members about the motion to cut ties with ICE. She said enforcement of civil immigration law by ICE, and OPD's cooperation with ICE on other investigations, undermines public trust in the local police and does more harm than good.

Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland's privacy advisory commission, told the committee that he asked for evidence from OPD demonstrating that task force participation with ICE has improved public safety, but the department didn't provide any specific cases.

No one from the public commented in support of continuing to allow OPD to work with ICE.

"Tangling local law enforcement with ICE is a threat to civil rights and safety of all people," said Tessa D'Arcangelew, a representative of the ACLU of Northern California, which supported the legislation.

Deputy Chief Daniel Outlaw said the task forces with federal agencies are crucial to solving major crimes in Oakland.
  • Deputy Chief Daniel Outlaw said the task forces with federal agencies are crucial to solving major crimes in Oakland.
Even so, in a last ditch appeal to prevent the severing of ties with ICE, Oakland Deputy Chief Daniel Outlaw told the committee members and the public that federal agencies are an important "force multiplier" that helps investigate human trafficking, firearms trafficking, and drug smuggling cases with international scope.

She said that there are in fact specific cases that ICE investigators have helped OPD solve.

"In 2015 an Oakland gang member was arrested after search warrants were served and this resulted in the seizure of an AK-47 assault rifle, four semi-automatic pistols with high-capacity magazines, and a very, very large quantity of controlled substances and over $29,000 in cash," she said.

But the committee members were unswayed. Desley Brooks and Abel Guillen both voted in favor of revoking authorization for OPD to work with ICE.

Only Councilmember Noel Gallo expressed some reservations that it could impair OPD's ability to investigate felonies. But Gallo still voted in favor of revoking the cooperation agreement with ICE.

The committee chose to take a softer route with respect to similar task force agreements between OPD and the FBI and other non-immigration law enforcement agencies. They voted to require that all agreements between OPD and federal agencies be reviewed by the privacy commission before they are signed. Final approval would still rest with the full city council.

Of particular concern for many is an agreement between the OPD, FBI, and other local and federal agencies to form the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

"The JTTF has invasive policies," said Sameena Usman, the government relations coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations Bay Area chapter. Usman said that under OPD's current agreement with the FBI, Oakland cops could be violating the city's policies with respect to immigration, racial profiling, and other matters, because federal rules are looser. She claimed that Oakland police commanders may be unaware of the activities some cops are involved in through the task forces.

Outlaw said, however, that Oakland cops follow OPD policies, not federal guidelines.

Both measures now must be approved by the full city council to take effect.

Oakland Looks to Close Owner Move-In and Occupancy Loopholes, Reduce Evictions and Harmful Rent Increases

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Jul 11, 2017 at 8:50 PM

Councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Larry Reid at today's hearing.
  • Councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Larry Reid at today's hearing.

A key committee of the Oakland City Council approved the first step in drafting stronger protections against bogus owner move-in evictions today.

The Community and Economic Development Committee voted unanimously in favor of Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan's request to have the city's rent board study the problem and come up with solutions that will better protect renters.

According to tenants and tenant attorneys, there has been an uptick in the number of fraudulent owner move-in evictions in Oakland in the past half year, and some landlords have also pretended to live in small apartment buildings (under three units) to gain exemption from rent control and just cause eviction protections. This allows them to get rid of tenants they don't like and increase rents by any amount.

Councilmember Kaplan said at today's hearing that her office has received numerous complaints of fraudulent owner move-in evictions in recent months.

"I'm thrilled we are able to move forward on this important and growing problem of potentially false over occupancy evictions," said Kaplan after the hearing.

Karna Leggett said she suspects her landlord doesn't really intend to move into her unit.
  • Karna Leggett said she suspects her landlord doesn't really intend to move into her unit.
Karna Leggett, a lifelong Oakland resident, told the councilmembers that her landlord told her and her elderly father, who has dementia, to move out last year so they could renovate the duplex the share. After she refused, the landlord claimed she and her father needed to move out because one of the owner's children planned to move into a unit. Leggett lives upstairs and her father, who has lived in the building since 1977, occupies the downstairs unit.

She fears that if she moves out, her father's rent will be increased to an amount they can't pay. If he's displaced, she thinks his health will worsen.

Jonah Strauss of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition said that the referral of the owner move-in exemption to the rent board is a good move. He said Oakland should adopt strong rules like those in Berkeley, and that if a landlord does carry out an owner move-in eviction they should be required to pay a "substantial" amount to help their tenants relocate.

Strauss also said that the owner occupancy exemption to Oakland's just cause eviction rules should be repealed by ballot measure.

James Vann of the Oakland Tenants Union said the original language of Measure JJ, the ballot measure that strengthened rent control and just cause last year, included language to close the owner move-in and owner occupancy loopholes. But the renters rights organizations backing the measure removed this provision with the understanding that small Oakland landlords needed more control over their apartments.

"However, the abuses continue," said Vann, who advocated for strong oversight and penalties against bogus owner move-ins.

Greg McConnell said fixing the law isn't a simple matter.
  • Greg McConnell said fixing the law isn't a simple matter.
Representative from two of Oakland's landlord advocacy groups said they weren't opposed to having the rent board study the problem and propose solutions.

But Greg McConnell of the Jobs and Housing Coalition said that changing the law "is not the simple little fix some think this might be."

Nevertheless, he said that "if someone evicts and claims owner occupancy and they don't move in, that should unleash fins that make the tenant whole."

Jill Broadhurst of the East Bay Rental Housing Association also said she supports having the rent board consider revising the law. But she cautioned against drastic changes and challenged the council to actually come up with statistics showing that fake owner move-ins and owner occupancy abuses are actually occurring in large numbers.

"For every story you see," she said about several renters who testified to the council during the public hearing about their problems, "imagine an owner who is hurting." According to Broadhurst, many small landlords have difficulty staying afloat with too many regulations affecting how they can operate their properties.

Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney replied by noting, however, that many Oakland renters simply don't report abuses by their landlords, choosing instead to simply move out, and move on.

The recommendation to have the rent board now goes to the full council for final approval. Both landlord and tenant advocates are expected to heavily lobby the rent board when it eventually considers what changes should be made.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Town Business: Stopping Bogus Evictions, Police Misconduct App, and Peter Van Kleef Way

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 7:51 AM

Cafe Van Kleef.
  • Cafe Van Kleef.
Leading up to their August recess, the Oakland City Council has a raft of legislation to deal with at its committees this Tuesday. Some highlights:

Bogus Owner Move-Ins: Tenant attorneys claim that since the passage of Measure JJ last year, which strengthened rent control and just cause eviction protections, Oakland landlords have been increasingly using a loophole to wrongfully evict renters they don't like, or who can't pay higher rents.

Under the city's existing rent control and eviction protection laws, if a landlord lives in a building that has three or fewer units, they don't have to abide by the city's rent control or just cause eviction protections. Also, a tenant can be evicted if a landlord or a close family member intends to move into a unit.

These exemptions were meant to protect small “mom and pop” landlords by giving them more control over their property.

But as the Express has reported, some landlords appear to have evicted tenants through fake owner move-ins. Instead of actually moving into the apartment and living there, the landlords are simply subverting rent control by taking advantage of tenants who don't know the law, and a city that doesn't strictly enforce owner move-in requirements.

And in other cases, landlords have claimed that they already live in their small apartment buildings in order to raise rents and carry out evictions. But their tenants allege it's a charade – that the owners really live somewhere else.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan wants to amend the city's housing laws to prevent landlords from abusing these loopholes. She's asking the Rent Board to study the problem and propose stronger rules.

Van Kleef Way: Back in 2004, before Telegraph Avenue had much of a nightlife, Peter Van Kleef opened a bar on an otherwise quiet block and started serving greyhounds. Cafe Van Kleef quickly became the watering hold of choice for the cognoscenti of Uptown. A dimly-lit hall crowded with clashing objets d'art and random crap, the bar emits an always-has-been-here vibe, even though it's young in saloon years.

Van Kleef died at age 65 in 2015. To celebrate him, Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney is proposing to rename the block of Telegraph Ave. where the bar is located "Peter Van Kleef Way."

Police Misconduct App: For years, the Oakland Police Department has used a complex software system that draws on police personnel files and other data to figure out which cops are violating department policies and abusing the public.

Just some of the data the system draws from: use of force reports, canine deployment, tear gas canister use, pepper spray use, vehicle collisions and pursuits, prosecution clearance rates on cases individual cops send to the DA, etc.

The current iteration of this system is called PRIME, and it's being built by the city's IT department and Microsoft.

PRIME is one of the major reforms the police department adopted after the Riders scandal and the negotiated settlement agreement which put the police under federal court oversight. The court now wants OPD to expand PRIME, add more data, and figure out how to use it more effectively to train officers and prevent wrongdoing.

This week, the city council will consider whether to spend another $1.8 million developing PRIME so that it can incorporate more data. The department has already spent millions on this system.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Arson in Oakland: Is Someone Torching New Developments?

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 10:48 AM

A hose runs water to the site of today's fire in Oakland's Broadway-Valdez area. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • A hose runs water to the site of today's fire in Oakland's Broadway-Valdez area.

Another under-construction building went up in flames at approximately 4:50 a.m. in Oakland today.

The four-alarm fire was so hot, it lofted large cinders into the sky and scattered them blocks away.

A National Weather Service satellite spotted the blaze from space and estimated it reached a temperature of 900 kelvins, or 1,160 Fahrenheit.

The fire was large enough to see from the Oakland hills. - STAN KIANG
  • Stan Kiang
  • The fire was large enough to see from the Oakland hills.

Nearby residents were evacuated from apartments for fear the flames and heat would jump to occupied buildings.

Fire crews from Berkeley and Alameda County joined Oakland firefighters in extinguishing the inferno.

And although the cause isn't known, it's of course possible this was another arson: This is at least the fifth major construction site fire since 2012 that is being investigated by federal and local authorities.

The Oakland field office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives told the Express this morning that they couldn't comment immediately as to whether they're investigating today's fire, but agents were spotted at the scene alongside Oakland Fire Department investigators.

Oakland Councilmember Abel Guillen tweeted in frustration this morning about the recent fires at construction sites in Oakland and the possibility that arson is to blame.

There have been a string of fires since 2012 set purposefully to destroy new development in downtown and West Oakland.

In 2012, the multistory wooden framing of an under-construction senior center, near the West Oakland BART Station, was burned to its first-story concrete podium. Officials determined the fire was arson, but never made an arrest.

Last July, a large under-construction building near the Oakland-Emeryville border was torched when someone set a fire in a stairwell. Then in May of this year, a fire started in the same stairwell. ATF investigators say it was arson, again. But no arrest has been made.

Last October, a large new housing project going up near Lake Merritt on Lester Avenue was destroyed by a fire. ATF and Oakland fire officials investigated the suspicious fire, but no one has been arrested.

The fires all start in the early hours of the morning.

So far, no one has died as a result. But residents of adjacent buildings have been displaced.

The 196-unit building that was destroyed this morning was a project of Wood Partners, a national housing developer.

"We are grateful that no injuries were sustained and we are working closely with local fire officials and investigators to identify the cause of the fire," said Joe Keough, the CEO of Wood Partners in a statement released today.

Oakland currently has no permanent fire chief. The city's previous chief retired earlier this year following the Ghost Ship tragedy that killed 36 people.

The Oakland City Council also cut $1.5 million from the fire department's 2017-2019 budget. This means that one of two planned academies will be cancelled, preventing the hiring of more firefighters in 2019, unless the council finds more money to reinstate the planned second academy.

The entire multi-story frame collapsed and burned. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • The entire multi-story frame collapsed and burned.

Residents of an adjacent building were evacuated and the building is being inspected in fear the fire may have spread. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Residents of an adjacent building were evacuated and the building is being inspected in fear the fire may have spread.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office used its drone to locate hotspots in the fire. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • The Alameda County Sheriff's Office used its drone to locate hotspots in the fire.

Oakland firefighters doused the smoldering building with water. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Oakland firefighters doused the smoldering building with water.

The concrete backing of an adjacent parking garage appears to have been damaged by the heat of the fire. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • The concrete backing of an adjacent parking garage appears to have been damaged by the heat of the fire.

Crews from Alameda County and Berkeley assisted the Oakland Fire Department in battling the blaze. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Crews from Alameda County and Berkeley assisted the Oakland Fire Department in battling the blaze.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Oakland Has a New Two-Year Budget, but Only After a Night of Divisive Infighting

by Darwin BondGraham
Thu, Jun 29, 2017 at 11:42 PM

Councilmember Abel Guillen's procedural tactic allowed passage of the budget with five votes instead of six.
  • Councilmember Abel Guillen's procedural tactic allowed passage of the budget with five votes instead of six.
Late Thursday night, the Oakland City Council approved the city's new 2017-2019 budget, but only after a week of polarizing debate.

The council attempted to pass a budget earlier this week, but members of the public disrupted the Monday night special meeting, forcing the city to reschedule.

Throughout this year's budget negotiations, councilmembers Desley Brooks, Rebecca Kaplan, and Noel Gallo have formed one bloc of votes pushing for a budget that cut into spending priorities of Mayor Libby Schaaf. They also sought to cut a third police academy while providing more money for homeless services and housing programs. In addition, Gallo wanted to increase spending on illegal dumping cleanup crews.

On the other end, Council President Larry Reid's budget is closer to the mayor's priorities. It also includes funding for positions in a new department of violence prevention (although the council has yet to actually establish this department). Councilmembers Abel Guillen, Annie Campbell Washington, and Lynette Gibson McElhaney have supported Reid's version of the budget.

Councilmember Dan Kalb offered a third budget alternative with more money for renter anti-displacement measures and funds for the new police commission.

More information about their different budget proposals is available here.

All of the councilmembers' proposals were, in fact, very similar. But for hours, members of the public commented that there should be further cuts to the police department, and more money for housing and homeless services, and increased compensation for city employees. Other speakers implored the council to save specific programs from the chopping block.

The evening almost came to an end without passing the budget.

Normally, only five votes are needed to finalize the city's spending plan, but because every proposal relied on one-time expenditures, six votes were necessary.

Kalb sided with Reid and the rest of the council after his various amendments were incorporated into the majority's plan.

Gallo, Kaplan, and Brooks stated that although they were in the minority, they would vote against Reid's budget, leaving the council president's side with only five votes.

Facing a June 30 deadline to pass a balanced budget, it was unclear how the council would move forward.

But Councilmember Guillen used a surprise procedural tactic. He proposed cutting $1.5 million from a fire academy, $350,000 from a police academy, and $350,000 from illegal street dumping cleanup teams to trim one-time expenditures by $2.2 million.

"We are removing one time funds from the budget so as to not require six votes, we only require five votes," Guillen explained of his proposal.

Councilmember Brooks protested this tactic and claimed it was against the rules because Guillen's proposed modifications hadn't been costed in advance. She argued the council couldn't be sure what the fiscal impacts would be.

But City Attorney Barbara Parker stated that Guillen's proposal was allowable.

After disruptions from members of the public, and a short recess, followed by warnings from Reid that he would use the police to clear unruly people from the chambers, the council quickly voted to pass Reid's budget and then adjourned the meeting.

Brooks did not vote. Kaplan and Gallo voted no. The other councilmembers approved of Reid's budget modified by Guillen's amendments.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Guillen's amendments to the final budget required cutting a police and fire academy. This was incorrect. Guillen removed $350,000 from from funds for police academies, and cut $1.5 million from funding for fire academies from the Council President's budget.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Public Defender Says Arraignments at New Alameda County Courthouse in Dublin Denies Access to Courts for Low-Income People-of-Color

by Ashley Wong
Wed, Jun 28, 2017 at 6:38 PM

On Thursday, Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods will lead a coalition to voice opposition to a plan to hold all in-custody arraignments at a new courthouse in Dublin.

The East County Hall of Justice, which opened on Monday, will hear all arraignments for Alameda County. Arraignments are the first steps to all criminal proceedings where charges are named, bails are set, and, in some cases, defendants are released without bail under certain conditions.

According to a press release from the Superior Court of Alameda County, defendants in custody at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin currently are woken at 3 a.m. for a 90-minute bus ride to the Wiley Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland.

According to the press release, this ride happens during morning commute traffic and results in defendants spending hours waiting to go back and forth from the jail to the courthouse.

The new courthouse is across the street from the Santa Rita Jail, where all Alameda County defendants are held.

Woods said that forcing all the arraignments of defendants who are still in custody, especially those in Oakland, Berkeley, and Albany, to be heard in Dublin will ultimately prolong their time in custody and also hinder their families from attending.

“You’re taking that first court appearance and removing it from the community,” Woods said, adding that it will be mostly low-income people of color who are being removed.

“This is clearly denying access to justice and access to the courts.”

Woods added that family members can often provide information such as income stubs and employment verification, which can be crucial to getting a defendant out of custody early.

He gave an example from a case on Tuesday, where a defendant’s aunt was able to speak in court and provide information to the judge that was key to getting that defendant released on his own recognizance, which means that he was released under the condition to appear in court again in the future.

Without this information, Woods said, defendants end up spending more time in custody and fighting for their cases while in custody, and their bails are subsequently set higher.

Superior Court executive office Chad Finke, however, said that Woods’ example has holes.

According to Finke, Woods did not mention that, after the defendant was released, he had to return to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin before officially leaving. The defendant had to wait all afternoon at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse for the bus to take him back to the jail, Finke said, and was not released until 1 a.m. the following day.

Additionally, Finke said, the defendant’s aunt was from Discovery Bay, which is just over an hour from Oakland. Had the arraignment been in Dublin, he said, her travel time would have been much shorter.

“The irony is not lost on me that we’re talking about convenience of the families and using this example,” Finke said.

Finke also argued that few arraignments are attended by family members, citing Woods’ case, where the defendant’s arraignment was the only one out of seventeen that day where family members were present.

Although the number of arraignments with family members in attendance is “not a majority”, Woods said, it is still a “significant amount” and the court should recognize their importance.

“Why make it harder for them?” Woods said. “What’s critical is that their presence often results in people getting out of custody.”

However, Finke said the court is limited by its budget. The 90-minute bus ride from the jail to the courthouse creates delays and overtime costs, and the efficiency of using the courthouse across the street from the jail saves them from paying those costs.

The overtime costs for 2015 to 2016 racked up to around $122,000, according to Finke. A “significant percentage” of that, he said, is due to bus delays.

“We are one of the very tiny number of courts in the state that has had our budget cut for eight years in a row,” Finke said. “Our budget is razor thin…Our specific budget makes so that we cannot leave any efficiency unturned.”

Woods, however, argued that the real delays come from pre trials and preliminary hearings, which happen after arraignments, and will happen regardless.

“I think most clients would say they prefer to be on a bus for 90 minutes and get out earlier than wait in custody,” Woods said.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Troubled by Police Mishandling of Sex Crime Investigation, Federal Judge Orders City of Oakland Back to Court

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 9:45 PM

Thelton Henderson
  • Thelton Henderson
Late Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson issued a rare order requiring the City of Oakland to appear in court to address the "troubling conclusions" of a recent report on the department's mishandling of a sexual misconduct investigation. The city is required to appear before the court because it's bound by a settlement agreement from a previous police misconduct scandal.

As the Express has reported over the past year, multiple Oakland cops sexually exploited a teenager known as Celeste Guap. Later, other officers and commanders prematurely closed both a criminal and internal affairs investigation into the matter. And the case was hidden from everyone outside the department.

Earlier this year, Judge Henderson appointed two attorneys, Edward Swanson and Audrey Barron, to figure out exactly what went on inside OPD, and who was responsible for stopping the cases from going forward. Their final report, published last week, revealed the department's many failures.

Henderson is requiring Oakland's attorneys to appear in court on July 10 to discuss the report's findings. He wrote in his order that the status conference will also address the sustainability of a now 14 year-old reform effort which OPD has yet to fulfill.

Furthermore, the judge is concerned about potential problems with OPD's new police misconduct tracking system known as PRIME, which is supposed to flag problem behaviors and help the department intervene early on.

Henderson added that Judge William Orrick will join in the status conference. Henderson is retiring this year and Orrick is expected to take over the 17 year-old case of Delphine Allen vs. City of Oakland, which exposed the Riders police misconduct scandal of the early 2000s and led to OPD's court-mandated reform program.

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