The Oakland Fair Elections Act would require the top three highest donors to be disclosed on all independent expenditures supporting or opposing Oakland candidates or measures. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Update, July 12: The City Council voted to place both the council term limits measure and the “democracy dollars” measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. If passed, the first measure would set councilmember terms at three four-year terms, but the ability for the council to terminate the city administrator in a super-majority vote was stripped. The individual donor limit in the measure to overhaul the city’s campaign finance rules was changed to $600.

Original story, July 8: A pair of City Council-backed ballot measures supported by good government groups will likely be before voters in the Nov. 8 general election. One measure would set term limits for councilmembers, increase transparency of council decisions, and possibly give the body more authority over the city administrator, while the other would rewrite the city’s campaign finance rules to encourage mass participation through increased public financing of elections. 

They are part of a growing list of approved measures and others under consideration in an important election season during which voters will also elect the city’s next mayor, three councilmembers, three school board directors, and the city auditor. 

When it comes to term limits, there are competing proposals. Councilmember Loren Taylor and Councilmember Dan Kalb each want to set the limit at three four-year. Taylor’s initiative would count councilmembers’ current term as one of the three. Kalb’s would not. Having a sunset on an elected leader’s time in office would make the council more focused on getting things done and usher in new energy to the dais, Taylor said. 

“We have seen what happens with the power of incumbency and how that keeps fresh ideas and fresh energy from coming into elected representation,” said Taylor, who defeated 16-year council veteran Desley Brooks in 2018. “Making sure that we level the playing field is critical to making sure we have the best possible representation.” 

The council discussed both proposals at a meeting this week and decided to postpone a vote until Monday, July 11, to allow more time for deliberation and public input. Besides setting term limits, the “Good Governance Charter Reform Ballot Measure” proposed by Kalb would amend the City Charter to do the following: 

  • Require at least two council hearings before a ballot measure could be placed on the ballot. This would apply to ballot measures that are general obligation bonds, new or increases in parcel taxes, and any Charter Amendment. [The irony that Kalb’s proposal could have been passed after just one hearing this week was not lost on members of the council so they decided to push it and several other ballot proposals to a second hearing on Monday.] 
  • Count councilmember abstentions and absences on a vote as a “no” vote. Kalb says this would close a loophole to avoid a mayoral tiebreaker vote by having someone abstain and make it a 4-3-1 vote of council. Kalb said this idea is popular among residents. 
  • Give council the ability to fire the city administrator in a super-majority vote. Currently, only the mayor can fire the administrator, the top official who runs all the city departments on a day-to-day basis. This wouldn’t take away the mayor’s power to hire the city administrator. 
  • Change the salary formula for the elected positions of city auditor and city attorney to raise the salary and bring it more in line with cities of Oakland’s size. The Public Ethics Commission would set the salaries beginning in 2025.

In addition, Kalb’s measure would set a minimum staffing level for the city auditor’s office at 14 employees, eliminate the position of vice mayor because it is “an antiquated holdover from the old council-managed days of Oakland government,” prohibit the city attorney and auditor from endorsing or contributing to any campaign or elective office other than their own, and provide clarity on the nominating process for city boards and commissions appointed by the mayor and council. 

Kalb said he looked at enhancing the City Charter to make necessary changes that he thought the council could agree upon or get near consensus. The item he’s “hearing indigestion” about is giving the council the ability to terminate the city administrator. 

“A lot of people don’t like this one,” Kalb said. That includes Taylor and Councilmember Treva Reid. “If the majority of people here at the council want me to take this out before next Monday, we’ll take it out.” 

Some councilmembers had concerns about eliminating the vice mayor position because the vice mayor steps up to serve as council president if the president must fill in as mayor, per the city’s current chain of command structure. 

To come up with his list of government reforms, Kalb said he consulted the League of Women Voters of Oakland, Make Oakland Better Now, SPUR, East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Economy, and representatives of Oakland labor groups. 

‘Democracy dollars initiative would provide residents money to donate to local campaigns 

The council is also considering putting a fair election measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would rewrite the city’s campaign finance rules and make it possible for every Oakland voter to give money to political candidates, regardless of their income. 

The Oakland Fair Elections Act would provide $100—four $25 vouchers known as “democracy dollars”—for every Oakland voter to donate to their favorite local candidates. The idea is to encourage mass participation in city elections and even the playing field when it comes to campaign donations. 

Currently, less than 1% of Oakland residents donate money to candidates for City Council, mayor, school board, and other local offices such as city attorney and city auditor. About half the money that flows into Oakland elections comes from sources outside of the city. And from the money that does come from within Oakland, more than half comes from four mostly white and affluent zip codes in Montclair, Rockridge, and North Oakland. 

The proposal will “help build a fully engaged, participatory, and community-driven and accountable democracy in our city,” said Liz Suk, executive director of Oakland Rising. It will allow all Oakland residents to “support candidates who will best represent them no matter what neighborhood they live in, the color of their skin, or how much money they make.”

Oakland Rising, ACLU of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, CA Common Cause, League of Women Voters-Oakland, and MapLight brought the plan to the City Council. Councilmembers Kalb, Nikki Fortunato Bas, and Carroll Fife have sponsored the proposed measure.  

If put on the ballot and passed, the new law would lower individual campaign contribution limits from $900 to $500, require the top three highest donors to be disclosed on all independent expenditures supporting or opposing Oakland candidates or measures, and extend the lobbying ban on former councilmembers and top city officials from one year to two after they leave office. 

The democracy dollars program is modeled after one passed in Seattle, which has seen a significant increase in small donors, diversity of donors, and first-time voters, Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, told the council this week. 

“This would turn every household into a potential donor household,” said Mehta Stein, a former Oakland ethics commission member. “It would give everyone a chance to support candidates of their choice and encourage candidates to engage a broader range of Oakland families and neighborhoods. Oakland fair elections will give all people a stronger voice in our government and limit the influence of wealthy donors and special interests.” 

The City Council will discuss and vote on the Oakland Fair Elections Act proposal, as well as the proposals put forth by Kalb and Taylor, at a meeting on Monday. The agenda should be posted sometime today. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the limit on the number of council terms in Councilmember Dan Kalb’s proposal.

David DeBolt reports 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.