Though Oakland Is Up in Arms About It, Crime Is Actually Down 

Major crimes decline in Oakland: Homicides, rapes, robberies, burglaries, and vehicle thefts all drop in 2007. Plus, sparks already flying in Fruitvale council election.

Perception often trumps reality, and that appears to be true when it comes to crime in Oakland. For the past year, Mayor Ron Dellums has endured withering attacks for not doing enough to slow the worsening crime problem. But the assumption underlying this criticism may have been unwarranted, because crime in Oakland didn't rise during his first year in office.

In fact, a new report reveals that the number of reported major felonies declined almost across the board in 2007 — in comparison to Jerry Brown's last year in the mayor's office. The report, which was compiled by the Oakland Police Department and submitted to a city council subcommittee last week, showed that homicides, rapes, robberies, burglaries, and vehicle thefts all dropped last year. Among major felonies, only aggravated assaults and thefts — also known as larcenies — showed increases from 2006.

Despite the positive news, Oakland obviously is still plagued by a serious crime problem. But Dellums and Police Chief Wayne Tucker have made several steps in recent months to lower crime further. The most significant among them was the redeployment of the Oakland Police Department to geographic policing, a plan recommended by experts hired by Brown before he left office and then embraced by Tucker and Dellums. The police department had used a geographic policing model during the mid- and late-1990s, and it coincided with a huge drop in crime. But then, under Brown, the department jettisoned the model, which, in turn, was followed by a significant crime spike (see "Reinventing the Wheel," 3/7/07).

So why was there a perception of rising crime in Oakland last year? When asked that question, Dellums' spokesman Paul Rose sidestepped it, and chose instead to praise the cops on the street. "The police department deserves a lot of credit for bringing these numbers down," he said. "But the fact of the matter is we still have far too many murders in the city and far too many crimes."

That's undeniable. But what's also true is that Brown's experts, led by Patrick Harnett, a former high-ranking member of the New York City Police Department, said area command was not enough to significantly lower crime. The department, Harnett said, needed more officers investigating crimes, because the city's record for catching and prosecuting criminals has been abysmal during the past several years. "Investigative work, the search for and arrest of perpetrators of past crimes, is also one of the most effective ways to prevent future crimes," Harnett wrote in his report.

Is the Unity Council illegally subsidizing De La Fuente's rent?

The 2008 East Bay election season is barely underway, and explosive allegations are already swirling around one Oakland City Council race. Political newcomer Mario Juarez, a successful real estate agent in the Fruitvale District, is alleging that he was kicked off the board of the Unity Council, a politically connected nonprofit, because he's taking on Council President Ignacio De La Fuente in the June election.

Juarez also alleges that the Unity Council is renting space to De La Fuente's campaign headquarters for less than market value, and he told Full Disclosure that top officials at the nonprofit "encourage employees to advocate on behalf of Ignacio and work for his campaign." "For them to engage in this conduct is outrageous," Juarez said.

If Juarez' charges are true, then the nonprofit is violating its 501(c)(3) legal status. "If you're renting space for below fair market value, then that's a campaign contribution," explained Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and former general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission. "A 501(c)(3) may not make a campaign contribution, period."

The Unity Council, which owns and operates the Fruitvale Transit Village and had $12 million in revenues last year, has maintained close ties to De La Fuente for years. The council president helped the nonprofit group secure public funds to finance the transit village, and the nonprofit's employees have supported his political campaigns in the past. Unity's executive director, Gilda Gonzales, is his longtime friend and former chief of staff to ex-Mayor Jerry Brown.

Juarez, who began serving on the Unity Council's board in 2006, said last week that he was asked by board president Rosario Davalos to resign on February 1 — just three days after he said he gave Gonzales a heads-up that he was running against De La Fuente. Juarez, who said he was the only Fruitvale district resident and businessperson among the board's thirteen members, refused to resign and was removed from his post in early March by a board vote.

Gonzales refused to comment on Juarez' allegation of why he was voted off the board, but a prepared statement she sent implied that there was more to it than his council run. "This decision was not rendered lightly and was a result of numerous incidences inconsistent with the high standard of performance that this body cherishes," the statement read. "It is extremely unfortunate if Mr. Juarez chooses to now publicly disparage the Unity Council, a neighborhood institution and a highly respected community based organization, for his own personal gain."

For his part, De La Fuente denied doing anything wrong and said Juarez was simply throwing mud because he has no political accomplishments. "That's the type of campaign they're going to run because they don't have a damn thing to say," he said.

In a February 15 letter sent to the nonprofit's president, Juarez' attorney, Rafael Icaza, said Juarez was told he was fired from the board because he spoke about his campaign to agency employee Maria Sanchez and because he serves on the Oakland Workforce Investment Board, which sets policy on how the city spends some federal funds. Icaza argued in the letter that neither of these represented valid reasons to kick Juarez off the Unity board, because Sanchez and Juarez have known each other for fifteen years and it is not a conflict of interest for the real estate agent to serve on both boards at the same time. Gonzales would not comment on the letter.

She did, however, respond personally to Juarez' charge that top Unity Council officials encouraged employees to campaign for De La Fuente. "We have never, and will never, compromise our status as a nonprofit and engage in political discussions during business hours with our employees," she said. When asked about non-business hours, she said the organization could not control what people do on their own time.

In an e-mail, Gonzales also denied that the council president was getting a discount on his rent at his East 12th Street campaign headquarters. She said that her organization had been having difficulty finding an occupant for that site — a problem that has plagued Fruitvale Village for years. However, she said the Unity Council recently found a new tenant, but it would not be able to move in until mid-summer. "The 2008 De La Fuente Campaign space is not being offered for free, or below market, but has been priced consistently with the pricing practices for all short-term tenants since Fruitvale Village opened in 2004," she said in the e-mail. She also noted that the Unity Council rented space to De La Fuente on a short-term basis during his unsuccessful 2006 mayoral campaign. However, she declined to reveal how much De La Fuente was paying now in rent or to disclose what price other short-term and long-term tenants pay.

A representative of Metrovation, which rents property on behalf of the Unity Council, said it charges $2.45 a square foot for retail space along East 12th Street in Fruitvale Village. De La Fuente said he didn't know the size of his space, but he said the nonprofit was charging him $1,100 a month. That price appears to be below market value. In a rough estimate by this reporter, the council president's campaign headquarters appear to be at least 600 square feet, which means that he should be paying $1,470 a month at minimum. Assuming De La Fuente rents the space until July 1, then that may amount to a $1,850 campaign contribution, which also would violate Oakland's $600 campaign contribution limit.

However, Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies said it's not clear that the nonprofit is breaking the law. The answer to that would depend, he said, on the prices it charges for other short-term rentals and whether it routinely gives discounts to other nonprofits — under the law, a political campaign committee is a nonprofit. He also noted that even though short-term rentals are usually priced higher than long-term ones, Unity's contention that it had trouble renting the space, especially until its long-term tenant takes over in summer, might be persuasive. "It certainly raises questions," he said of the lease deal between Unity and De La Fuente. "But it's not necessarily a clear-cut violation."

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