New and returning members of the City Council being sworn in virtually on Jan. 4, 2021. Clockwise from left top: City Clerk Asha Reed, at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, D1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, D3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, D7 Councilmember Treva Reid, D5 Councilmember Noel Gallo. Credit: Screenshot of Zoom meeting

New and returning members of the Oakland City Council were sworn into office yesterday, and during their first Zoom meeting of 2021, which followed the virtual inauguration, the council’s eight members elected District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas as their president.

The council’s two new members are Carroll Fife, who represents West Oakland and downtown, and Treva Reid, who represents deep East Oakland. Reelected were North Oakland’s Dan Kalb, Noel Gallo, who represents Fruitvale, and at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

Bas, who joined the Council in 2018, struck a radical chord after being voted council president, saying Oakland voters gave the City Council a “clear mandate” to enact “progressive priorities” around housing, homelessness, public safety, and taxes. “We live in one of the wealthiest regions in the richest country in the world, and it’s long past time for the billionaires and billionaire corporations in our backyard to pay their fair share and invest in our city.”

The Council president is a powerful position: they pick the chairs of the City Council’s eight subject-matter committees that shape legislation, and they run meetings of the full council.

Bas and Kaplan said in a joint interview after yesterday’s meeting that they believe a majority of the new council will support revenue-raising measures that were delayed or voted down by the previous council. One is a plan to revise Oakland’s gross receipts business tax.

Last year, Bas proposed making large corporations like PG&E and Safeway pay higher gross receipts tax rates than smaller businesses, a change she estimated would have raised tens of millions more each year. Currently, small and large businesses pay the same rates. After hearing from skeptical business representatives, the previous council voted not to put the tax measure on the November 2020 ballot for voters to decide. Instead, the council moved forward with a plan to create a commission of volunteers to study potential tax changes, and the option of placing a tax-reform measure on the 2022 ballot.

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she will focus on “housing as a human right, safety focused on prevention and healing, and a progressive corporate tax,” among other initiatives. Credit: Zoom meeting screenshot

In the meantime, the pandemic-induced recession has cut into Oakland’s sales tax, hotel tax, and other revenues. Combined with overspending by the police department, the city faces a $62 million budget gap. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and City Administrator Ed Reiskin sent a letter to city employees on December 17 warning that without major cuts, Oakland faces “fiscal insolvency.”

The Oakland Chamber of Commerce was opposed to putting the business tax reform measure on the 2020 ballot. Chamber CEO Barbara Leslie called into yesterday’s council meeting today to say her group looks forward to working with Bas, Kaplan, and the rest of the council.

Leslie told The Oaklandside that the chamber will participate in the commission’s discussions regarding Oakland’s existing business tax, “particularly in light of how changes to Oakland’s tax policy would impact job-producing businesses that are suffering due to the impacts of COVID.”

Whatever happens to the business tax reforms, they’re unlikely to play into the coming budget discussions later this year; Oakland will have to pass its next budget before June 30. City employee unions including IFPTE Local 21 and SEIU Local 1021 say Mayor Schaaf and the administration have exaggerated the city’s fiscal problems and the degree to which declines in revenue are to blame.

Bas and Kaplan said that the city can soften the impact of the budget crisis by exploring other ways to raise revenue before the 2022 election.

“A special tax doesn’t have to wait until November 2022,” said Kaplan. “I’m looking at what can be done as a special tax. This could possibly involve reauthorizing Measure Z.”

Passed by voters in 2014, Measure Z is a parcel tax that raises about $25 million a year for public safety services, including police, violence prevention programs, and a small part of the fire department’s budget. Kaplan said reauthorization of Measure Z during a special election later this year could increase revenue, and the council could change how the money is allocated between different departments, if the city chooses to give less to the police.

On Monday, Bas appointed Kaplan chair of the council’s Finance and Management Committee, a position that gives Kaplan greater influence over Oakland’s budget and finances. 

Kaplan said another revenue-raising measure she’ll be looking to bring back is a tax on Uber and Lyft rides.

In the November election, Lyft spent approximately $275,000 on campaign ads opposing Kaplan, and supporting her challenger, after she tried to put a ride-hailing app tax on the November ballot. Kaplan estimates that an Uber-Lyft tax could raise millions yearly.

District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb said in an interview that finding additional revenue has to be “on the table” for Oakland to get through its current budget crisis. He was a co-sponsor of the progressive business tax reform and authored 2018’s Measure X, which changed Oakland’s real estate transfer tax to impose a higher rate on properties that sell for over $2 million.

While Kalb said he believes the new council is one of the most progressive the city has had in many years, he cautioned it will face financial challenges with this year’s budget.

“If you don’t have money, you’re limited in what you can do. You might want to advance more progressive policies, but in terms of putting forward things that cost more money, it’s just not there,” said Kalb. “That’ll hamstring some of the ideals and desires some of us have.”

Bas appointed Kalb to lead the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee, which oversees legislation for housing, rental housing laws, development, and economic programs.

“I’m very happy to be chair of the CED committee. I want to make sure we focus a lot on affordable housing,” he said. “I’ve worked a lot on housing and renter issues for several years now, and this will keep me in that discussion.”

Much attention was paid to November’s election of Carroll Fife, a longtime housing rights organizer. “I’m excited Carroll Fife is joining this council,” said Bas. “It’s exciting to have an international housing advocate on our council.”

Fife gained recognition last year for leading the Moms 4 Housing movement, which occupied a vacant West Oakland home owned by a southern California investment company. In an interview Monday, Fife said she supports plans to overhaul the city’s business tax and raise other revenues, as well as focusing more city resources on housing and homelessness.

District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife said after being sworn in she will work to “undo generations, if not centuries of injustice.” Credit: Zoom meeting screenshot

“I’m in conversation with city administration right now about how to create new revenue sources,” said Fife. “I’ll be having conversations with the business community as well. The previous elected official in my position was encouraging the business [community] to not support it,” referring to former District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s skepticism of the business tax reform measure.

As chair of the Public Safety Committee, Fife said she will focus on violence reduction efforts. She acknowledged that some might view her as an unlikely choice for the job. Fife has helped organize numerous demonstrations against police brutality; as public safety chair, she’ll oversee the police department’s spending of grant money, major contracts, adoption of new policies and procedures, and OPD’s compliance with court-ordered reforms.

“I do believe policing in the U.S. is steeped in racism and attacks on the poor,” she said. But Fife added that she plans on drilling down into the Oakland Police Department’s ongoing court-ordered reforms to figure out how the city can fulfill the promise made in 2003 to ensure lawful policing.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.