Oakland and Alameda County ballot measure recommendations, November 2020

Here I follow up my previous guide on the state measures this year, adding to them those being voted on by Oakland residents – meaning, Oakland city and school measures, and Alameda County measures. Thank you for reading.

Spoiler: I say yes on all. But they weren’t slam-dunks.

JurisdictionDesignation & descriptionRecommendation
Alameda CountyMeasure V: utility tax extension, unincorporated areasYes
Alameda CountyMeasure W: 10-year sales taxYes
Oakland Unified School DistrictMeasure Y: infrastructure bondYes
OaklandMeasure QQ: voting age 16 for School BoardYes
OaklandMeasure RR: remove $1,000 limit on city finesYes
OaklandMeasure S1: further empower and fund citizen police commissionYes

Measure V: Utility tax extension for unincorporated areas: Yes.

Sections of Alameda County where no city exists are called unincorporated areas; there, public services are provided by the county rather than a city, if not as much of them.

This measure extends to 2033 a tax on utilities that the county has used for decades to fund some of those services. The tax is only charged on residents of unincorporated areas and would otherwise expire in 2021.

It highlights the oddness of unincorporated areas that the entire county (population 1.7 million) has to vote on this when it only affects about 148,000 people, almost half of them in Castro Valley, most of the rest in Ashland, Cherryland, or San Lorenzo. It would be more functional for places that develop this much to routinely become cities and handle their own affairs — or, to be annexed to existing cities. But voting yes on this measure avoids needlessly disrupting the status quo, however silly.

Measure W: Ten-year, half-cent sales tax for general county services: Yes.

Alameda County also provides a lot of services to the whole population, mostly health care, social services, housing, courts, and jails. In the pandemic and ensuing recession, they are forecasting major and growing deficits over the next few years.

The county supervisors put this new 0.5% sales tax increment on the ballot, raising $150 million per year and expiring after ten years. It is not earmarked, so it will help close the gap and keep funding up, or increase it.

Yes, a sales tax is regressive, hitting lower-income people relatively more than upper-income. However, major county spending cuts would be even more regressive, hitting not just the working class broadly but the poorest, sickest, and most housing-insecure most of all among them. If the recession doesn’t hit as hard, they have a decent plan to use the money for new affordable and supportive housing, which is also progressive in impact.

Measure Y: Oakland school bond measure: Yes.

This measure lets the Oakland Unified School District borrow $735 million to spend on school infrastructure, backed by an additional property tax, $50-60 per $100,000 of assessed value for 30 years.

We have these bond measure votes periodically, and they always make sense in theory because the schools have a lot of buildings and other infrastructure needing regular maintenance and replacement. The only reasonable objection in this case was that OUSD probably ranks as one of the most poorly managed districts in the state. They spent funds from a similar bond package from last decade nontransparently and in a few cases inappropriately. However, there is a changing of the guard coming, with four of seven school board seats up for election this year, and zero incumbents re-running. There seems to be a consensus among most of the candidates, on both “sides” of the public/charter divide, that this measure will yield better accountability and management. I recommend erring on the side of “yes” when it comes to funding schools.

Measure QQ: Reduce voting age for School Board to 16: Yes.

I like the idea of school board directors having to listen to the concerns of their older students as constituents. Reducing the voting age for these elections could also better entice and engage younger people into the civic process. It’s far too small a portion of the electorate to give them any kind of dominance. And in a plus for the anticlutter cause, this measure just gives the Council the authority to lower the voting age in this way — meaning if it becomes a debacle in some unforeseen way, the Council can revoke it without going back to the voters.

Measure RR: Remove City Charter limit of $1,000 on fines: Yes.

I have somewhat mixed feelings. It makes sense that after decades of inflation, the $1,000 upper limit in the Charter is probably now too low for some offenses, like landlords creating unsafe or unhygienic conditions. At the same time, there is a long history of fines having a disparate impact on low-income people and people of color, and that history is far from over. There is some risk that the Council could craft higher fines for unpopular offenses like illegal dumping, thinking of property owners who can pay larger fines, but that then those fines fall more heavily on people experiencing homelessness or in transition between insecure homes.

However, in the end, the Charter is not the place to map out precisely what fines are appropriate for what kinds of offenses, or how they should scale with someone’s ability to pay. Those rules should be in city ordinance, subject to evaluation, activism, and amendment without going back to the ballot. And Measure RR does encode in the Charter an extra requirement of public hearing before implementing any higher fines. So it’s fine.

Measure S1: Further empower Community Police Review Agency: Yes.

In 2016, Oakland passed an aggressive-for-its-time ballot measure to create a new citizen review commission to govern the nigh-ungovernable Oakland Police Department.

The CPRA is in operation, but its effectiveness has been limited, partly due to lack of resources such as independent legal counsel. Measure S1 adds the authority and budget for it to have its own lawyers, and also gives it an auditing office, independent of OPD’s existing in-house inspector general.

The specifics of Measure S1 are the culmination of hard negotiation among councilmembers, activists, and the mayor. Everyone came away partially disappointed, but virtually everyone involved still endorses it and agrees it will empower the CPRA to do a better job, while also agreeing it will not be the end of the work.

I have become more aware this year of how deep police cultural and institutional resistance to any outside authority runs — resistance to mayors, councils, the public, commissions, and even the courts. The passivity of our last long-term police chief Kirkpatrick in investigations of a needless 2018 shooting was especially galling considering she had been marketed as a responsive reformer. As a result, I’m more skeptical of incremental reform entities like the CPRA, and believe we need to build new public safety organs that are discontinuous with police. The city is starting to fund such endeavors. However, we should keep on track with fixes like Measure S1 that can reduce the impunity of the police in the short to medium term.

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