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Oakland Off the Hook In Measure Y Suit

Councilmember Jean Quan outside council chambers at Oakland's City Hall
Councilmember Jean Quan outside council chambers at Oakland's City Hall
Judge says city could spend funds on hiring and training new police recruits, not just community police

A long battle between the city and an Oakland attorney over Measure Y funds has ended – for now.

An appeals court overturned Friday a trial court judge’s ruling and order that the city refund taxpayers millions of dollars in allegedly misused Measure Y funds.

"This is a huge decision for a city in Oakland’s financial condition," said City Attorney John Russo in a written statement.

The appellate panel determined the city had been slow in filling the required problem-solving officer positions, but had been within their rights to use the funds to train and hire new recruits, reversing a Superior Court judge’s order in 2009 that the city return the money to the Measure Y fund.

“I’m relieved,” said mayor-elect Jean Quan, who co-wrote Measure Y.  “I never expected the court in the past to say we couldn’t use Measure Y money to recruit and train cops…Had I known, I would have written it [differently].”

Voters passed Measure Y, also known as the Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act, six years ago. It established an $88 per year parcel tax totaling about $19 million in funds for violence prevention programs and community-oriented policing, or “problem-solving officers.” Those 63 officers are a requirement of Measure Y. 

But Measure Y does not specify how the money for the officers should be used. After Measure Y’s passage, the department began staffing the PSO positions with veteran officers, and began using the funds to recruit and hire new officers who were used to backfill the empty patrol positions. The department cited a preexisting policy that stated officers must work three years of patrol before moving into neighborhood beat positions. 

"To build the effective program directed by voters, it makes sense to fill those positions with senior officers who have the experience to do the job," Russo said.

But as the department struggled with limited funds and a shrinking force, most of the PSO slots remained vacant, and attorney Marleen Sacks filed suit. She alleged that any new officers hired with Measure Y money should be placed directly into the PSO positions.

In June 2009, a Superior Court judge ruled in Sacks’ favor, and said the department’s recruitment of new officers "...to free up veterans for Measure Y positions,” was an “impermissible use of Measure Y funds.” The judge ordered the city to pay back the millions in Measure Y funds used to recruit and hire the new officers.

But the appeal has overturned that ruling. The city does not have to pay back Measure Y funds, and furthermore, according to the appellate panel, “is further obligated by the language of the ordinance to appropriately sustain the force to promote the underlying public safety objective.” 

While the department is still required to staff the problem-solving officer positions (which, as The Bay Citizen reported, has created other challenges), the panel said the city should be allowed discretion and flexibility over the use of Measure Y funds to staff the force. In other words? They and others should vouch to keep their hands off.

“…it is reasonable under this ordinance to expect the voters had no interest in micro managing the Oakland Police Department,” the ruling read. “Courts should exercise a similar reluctance.”

Sacks, who has another suit against the city pending, vouched no such thing in a thorough response to the ruling on her blog.

She said the city has failed voters by failing to properly staff the police department with the 803 officers originally promised by Measure Y, and she criticized the court's decision, offering a different take on the city's "spin":

"In essence, what the court has held in this case is that taxpayer money does not need to be used on the subjects specified in the language of the parcel tax itself," she wrote. "Rather, it can be used on whatever the government wants to spend it on, just so long as doing so somehow indirectly contributes to the cause specified in the tax, even if the benefit is not worth nearly the amount of money the government actually took."

Come January, between layoffs, attrition, and injuries, the police department expects to employ about 640 officers, the lowest number in 23 years.

Quan has not outlined steps for hiring more officers, but she told The Bay Citizen Tuesday that she has other cost-saving plans in the works. She said she wants to merge some clerical positions and centralize payroll for city departments, which would likely result in layoffs. Most departments currently have their own payroll staff.

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