An illustration shows how the proposed A's stadium and housing and commercial development at Howard Terminal would look from the air. Credit: City of Oakland

Councilmember Noel Gallo’s proposal to give voters a say on the public financing of the Oakland A’s ballpark and mixed-use development at Howard Terminal was rejected by his council colleagues at this week’s council meeting.

“This item is from the public we represent, the public that elected us,” Gallo said before the vote. “I still don’t have a complete picture of what the A’s are asking for and what the A’s are willing to pay for.”

Gallo, an outspoken opponent of the A’s waterfront stadium plan who prefers the team rebuild at the Coliseum, requested the City Council place a measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot asking Oakland voters to decide whether public funds should be used to help build out the massive project. Currently, the city is considering using a special tax district to take new property tax revenue that would normally go to the general fund—where it could be spent on anything—and dedicate this revenue to infrastructure in and around Howard Terminal. Supporters of the ballpark plan say the new revenue would not exist if not for the project.

Gallo fell well short of convincing the council of the need for voters to weigh in. Only West Oakland Councilmember Carroll Fife, who has also called for a public vote on the project, joined Gallo in wanting to put the question before voters. Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan abstained.

The majority of the council characterized the ballot measure question as too vague, or premature because the details of the financial terms, including the infrastructure district, are still under negotiation. However, some councilmembers did not rule out bringing the issue to voters in a special election in early 2023 if the A’s fall short of expectations. 

Critics, including Mayor Libby Schaaf, called Gallo’s proposal a stall tactic that would needlessly delay negotiations and could get in the way of the Oakland A’s and MLB’s timeline to get a ballpark deal done in Oakland, while the team considers competing stadium options in Las Vegas. 

A’s billionaire owner John Fisher of San Francisco wants to build a 35,000-seat stadium, 3,000 housing units, hotels, office and retail space, parks, and an entertainment center at Howard Terminal, a 55-acre waterfront property west of Jack London Square. 

While the financial terms are still being negotiated as part of a development agreement, A’s president Dave Kaval has said the baseball club will privately finance the estimated $1 billion stadium. The A’s, however, would rely on public funds in the form of state and federal grants and a special tax district to pay for infrastructure. This could include new roads, sidewalks, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and utility lines. Oakland officials have said they need Alameda County to join the special infrastructure finance district.

The project recently has surpassed milestones, with more on the horizon. Last week, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission voted 23-2 to reclassify Howard Terminal for uses other than maritime trade, paving the way for the site to be repurposed for housing, a ballpark, and other uses. 

The City Council last year approved a non-binding term sheet and in February greenlit the project’s environmental impact report, while also giving city staff negotiating the terms of the development agreement and community benefits package a clear understanding of the council’s priorities. The list included onsite affordable housing commitments from the A’s, traffic and parking impact studies in Chinatown and West Oakland, transparency around any toxic cleanup, and assurances that the city’s general fund won’t be left on the hook to pay for maintaining the property, if built. 

Assistant City Administrator Betsy Lake cautioned against approving a Howard Terminal-related ballot measure and said her team of negotiators has been working within the framework council provided. Because Gallo’s proposed measure was an “advisory vote,” any election result would not have been binding, Lake told the council. She likened it to “a fairly expensive survey.” 

“In a nutshell, staff is concerned it will undermine what this council has voted on and directed us to do,” Lake said. 

Schaaf took to Twitter after the council decision to thank councilmembers who voted the proposal down. 

“A non-binding advisory measure would have jeopardized keeping the A’s in Oakland, cost taxpayers as much as a million dollars, and done nothing but provide special interests with opportunities to spread misinformation,” Schaaf’s mayoral account tweeted. Schaaf has claimed the ballot measure would have cost the city $1 million. “The Oakland City Council has provided clear direction in our negotiations with the A’s: Oakland taxpayers will be protected from the costs of the ballpark and associated development. We have learned the mistakes of the past and we won’t repeat them.”

When asked by the council, Lake wouldn’t give a definitive date of when the development agreement would be made public but said it would happen this year and would be subject to multiple public hearings before the Planning Commission and the City Council. Gallo has requested the city present a financial analysis of the deal by September. 

Other agencies such as the Port of Oakland, state Department of Toxic Substances, and state Lands Commission also must sign off on aspects of the project. 

Councilmembers Dan Kalb, Sheng Thao, and Treva Reid didn’t back Gallo’s proposal but were open to the idea of asking voters at a later date. Kalb said he would be prepared to do so if the financial terms do not include “legally binding ironclad backstops” to protect the city’s general fund. 

“The A’s are the financial backstop. That’s what I need to see,” Kalb said. “I hope the A’s are listening to this.” 

At a rally last week, Gallo’s supporters said they had gathered 5,000 signatures in an effort to place a voter initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot. Fife warned that the council’s decision Tuesday might follow them anyway in November during re-election campaigns. 

“People in the streets are telling me the same thing—let me have a say. What’s the fear in letting people voice their decision in an advisory vote? Even if this doesn’t move forward today, it will be in front of voters in November. It will just be in the form of who they vote for.” 

Of multiple ballot measures proposals before council during the nearly 13-hour-long meeting that began at noon, Gallo’s was the only one that came to a vote. The City Council decided to push the other decisions to July 11, wanting more time for deliberation and public comment. 

Clearly frustrated, Gallo excused himself early before three other ballot proposals were discussed and postponed to next week’s meeting. 

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.