A woman in a blue suit and tan blouse stands with her arms folded, smiling. She is in the middle of a concrete footpath that curves to the left out of view behind her. On her left are pale green shrubs, and to the right are darker green plants sporting long stems with magenta flowers. Grass and trees sprawl across a hill in the background.
District 4 Councilmember Janani Ramachandran in Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland, on June 1, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Janani Ramachandran is the youngest Oakland councilmember, and the first South Asian and queer woman of color to serve on the council. Ramachandran, who was sworn into office in January, represents District 4, which includes Dimond, Oakmore, Glenview, Laurel, Redwood Heights, Montclair, Allendale, and other neighborhoods. 

Ramachandran ran a competitive campaign against Mia Bonta for the state Assembly’s 18th District Seat in 2021. She currently serves on the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs and previously sat on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission. Ramachandran has also worked as a public interest attorney and served on the boards of violence prevention nonprofits. 

Ramachandran recently sat down with The Oaklandside to discuss her priorities for the city’s next two-year budget. She also said she wants to depart from the status quo way of doing things in City Hall, invest in a multi-pronged public safety strategy to protect small business corridors, and develop thrifty and effective road safety improvements. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You are the youngest councilmember ever elected to represent Oakland. You are also the first South Asian and the first queer woman of color. How have those aspects of your identity shaped your actions and views as a policymaker?

District 6 Councilmember Kevin Jenkins and I are the two younger folks on the council, and as millennials, we bring our understanding of everything from technology and social media to community engagement and other experiences. 

In District 4, the Indian American community is one of the fastest-growing populations. There are other South Asian communities that are smaller but have been in Oakland for generations, including the Sri Lankan and Nepali communities. While that’s not my specific identity, I come from that region, and I’m able to identify and connect with them. 

When it comes to the LGBTQ side of my identity, I’m grateful to Rebecca Kaplan for holding down the fort as that representative for the last several years. Everyone on the council believes in LGBTQ rights; in theory, no one’s going to be against a resolution that supports an LGBTQ group. But it does make a difference if you identify as LGBTQ–you’re more proactive. I have some exciting legislative ideas coming up that pertain to the intersectional needs of LBGTQ folks. 

Recently, I sang classical South Indian music in the council chambers as a way to start the celebration of AAPI history month and invoke my culture, but also as a way to bring more of me as a person into this role. I believe strongly in the power of art and activism. Being a performing artist is part of my identity that I’d like to see more of when it comes to bringing my whole self to the job.

How has having that shared identity helped your work with Sri Lankan, Nepali, and other Asian communities in Oakland? 

It’s only very recently that many of these South Asian communities are becoming connected to the wider AAPI community. One thing I’m trying to do is help connect them with resources. For example, the Nepali community has a substantial population and a number of businesses in Oakland. They have wanted a community center for decades. We’re working with them to see how they can apply for some AAPI organizational grants and get help with technical assistance. There are a lot of community members who are not as fluent in English and are often unaware they might be able to apply for resources at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center or other places. It’s about building those bridges and making some of those connections.

Mayor Sheng Thao recently released her proposed budget for 2023-2025. To deal with the record shortfall in the general fund, she’s proposed cuts across many departments. I know you’re probably still digesting the budget, but do you object to any of the cuts she’s proposed? If so, which ones?

This is my first budget season and I am not part of the council president’s budget committee. I am coming into this with a sense of openness, as well as pragmatism. There are plenty of investments I’d love to make and plenty of campaign promises that I would have loved to have followed up on if we had more money. But right now, unfortunately, we have to figure out what to cut, not what we want to spend our budget on. 

I want to approach the budget by looking at how we spend the dollars we do have, more efficiently. In each of the committees I’ve sat on, my colleagues and I have questioned, perhaps more than ever, the status quo way of doing things. It sometimes feels like we’re expected to rubber stamp recommendations from city staff, whether it’s for grants or contracts, rather than see if these organizations or corporations are best-suited to the job.

When you talk about contracts being rubber-stamped by the city, are there particular organizations—nonprofits or corporations—that you’re referencing? 

No particular organizations. Some are very adaptive, and learning that they can’t keep doing the same thing. They need to look at new ways to adapt to community needs and ask for funding using evidence-based approaches. 

Other organizations are less nimble—perhaps because the council hasn’t always questioned them, and they haven’t been asked for the data and evaluations that we are now asking for, given our limited funds. For example, there was a well-publicized city auditor report last year about homelessness services funding. Many of those services are not going to impact-driven programs, and that leads to many program participants going back to being unhoused. 

It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. You can’t just say this organization’s doing it right, this one is doing it wrong. You have to ask: How have organizations been adaptive during the pandemic? And coming out of the pandemic, given their different needs?

The Laurel district arch on MacArthur. October 14, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Is there any area or program in the city budget that you’d just like to see more investment in?

The Cultural Affairs Division. Some of the grants authorized through that department are relatively small amounts of money–$10,000 to $30,000. But for an individual artist trying to do neighborhood work, it can be life-changing, not just for that artist, but for the individuals their work is impacting. If they’re working with children, that could be a great violence prevention strategy. What might seem like a small investment in performing arts can stretch a long way, even if you don’t see that impact. 

A difficult conversation I’m still processing is policing and public safety. Two things I listed in my budget priorities memo are community policing and grant writers for OPD. Police and fire take up such a substantial part of our general fund, as they do for most cities. They have so many other responsibilities tacked onto them, from homelessness services to mental health. Oakland has gotten relatively little county, state, and federal money over the course of its history, and not its fair slice of money, either. We need to be much more aggressive in applying for—and having OPD apply for—federal and state grants. Whether it’s to help pay for our crime lab or Ceasefire-related approaches, or many of the non-personnel costs. 

On the subject of outside funds—are there any programs or grants that you think would be obvious, low-hanging fruit the city could apply for?

I do think there are missed opportunities involving the intersection of domestic violence, homicides, and gun violence. A sizable number of our homicides are connected to domestic violence incidents. We have very little funding to address those issues or amplify the work of grassroots organizations trying to change their own community dynamics.

Often in the political world, there’s chatter about how we can’t do anything about domestic violence, that’s an internal issue, that’s just society and culture and we can’t touch that. That’s so far from the truth. I’ve served on the board of an organization, Men Creating Peace, that addressed the other side of this issue. It was a batterer intervention program, and it worked with men who had perpetrated harm. Some were volunteers, but a lot were required by a court to go to these 52-week programs. That’s what’s changing lives. And those are exactly the kinds of organizations that are going under right now. They are not able to survive because they don’t get grants for the most part, or they get very little. They rely on participant fees. Who has money right now to pay $40 a class to go improve your life, and your family, and your community? Those are the kind of organizations that really need the help and are doing life-changing community-driven work.

Your budget priorities reflect a need to rebuild public trust in City Hall. Can you describe what steps you’ve taken to achieve that goal?

Since I took office five months ago, I’ve been focused on constituent services. We may not have the answers or the ability to address every constituent’s concern, whether that’s filling the pothole on their block or addressing the fact that their car has been broken into five times this month. But we are showing up and listening. When businesses are broken into, either I or my team are there. We’re there to learn what happened and share information with OPD, the city administrator, violence prevention, and other departments. 

I feel we have been doing a good job connecting the different agencies with the community. Because we are very present in our district–including with every neighborhood council, park association, and other groups–we’re able to liaise between them and city departments that are more suited to do what they’re asking for.

As one example, we had a community conversation with the Police Commission’s inspector general, which let folks directly engage with a city leader who’s outside of council. I want to keep doing that. 

You always have folks that are understandably frustrated and want to complain. But what I’m seeing is that we have more constituents who want to know what they can do to be a part of the solution. And that’s what I want to continue to focus on, as we empower residents to be part of the solution and uplift their concerns in a constructive way.

When our newsroom interviewed you last year, you said your background as a former member of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission makes you well-qualified to address the lack of accountability and corruption in city government. Can you describe specific steps you’ve taken to increase accountability in City Hall?

On two committees I sit on—life enrichment and public safety—I have been able to question organizations getting funding when we’re not sure if they’re making the most impactful use of our dollars. 

I’m not calling out any specific organizations because I know there has been a lot of positive change since those difficult conversations. I’m happy that many of the organizations I questioned are responding positively about where the money is going and what we’re doing with it. These are the kinds of things we have to do as guardians of our very limited budget: questioning, sometimes aggressively, so we get constructive change.

That’s one form of public accountability. Another is the approachability of our office. I’m doing office hours every other weekend. We invite residents to come to City Hall. We are very transparent in what we do. 

One of the casualties in Mayor Thao’s budget is the Public Ethics Commission, specifically its Democracy Dollars program, a campaign finance reform giving low-income residents and other voters vouchers to support local candidates. The mayor’s proposal calls for the program to be postponed until 2026, although the commission hopes to get enough funding for a partial rollout in 2024. Do you think the mayor should have removed that funding? 

This is one of the big issues I’m trying to engage the community on to get a sense of how they feel about it. 

Measure W, the Democracy Dollars initiative, did pass in D4 pretty substantially. I was on the ethics commission when its report, “Race to Power,” was authored. It was very clear that funding for Oakland elections comes from a limited number of individuals. I’ve also studied Seattle’s Democracy Dollars model. 

But if the goal is to get to more community participation, breaking down who funds campaigns, we need federal-level change. We need to get rid of independent expenditures. That’s going to be much more powerful than a few individuals donating the new maximum, which is $600. 

[Editor’s note: The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision reversed the longstanding precedent that gave government the ability to limit the amount of money spent on political campaigns. Now, corporations, labor unions and other organizations, and wealthy individuals, can spend unlimited sums of money to influence voters, including in local elections like Oakland’s, so long as they do it through an independent expenditure committee, which isn’t supposed to coordinate with any candidate’s campaign.]

That said, the bigger benefit of Democracy Dollars is voter participation. If you look at voter turnout for D4, versus D2 and D6, the voting age population is roughly the same. But D4 had almost double the voter turnout for the council races last year. And D4 certainly doesn’t have double the voting age population. If Democracy Dollars can get more individuals to turn out to vote, that will have a huge impact. It’s not just where these candidates get their money from, but who turns out to vote.

The ethics commission currently has only one investigator to handle 70 pending cases. The enforcement chief recently announced he’s putting half of the commission’s cases on hold, and potentially future ones, too, because they don’t have the personnel or money to do an adequate job on all of them. Should the ethics commission have more funding in this budget? 

I can’t say that for this year, given our budget crisis. In the future, absolutely. 

There are many roles that the ethics commission plays when it comes to campaign finance and the conduct of campaigns and elections that often get hyper-politicized. The ethics commission can end up being a tool of political and campaigning warfare. 

I’d prefer to see the commission focus on enforcement issues. I was on the ethics commission when we levied the then-highest fine against Thomas Espinoza, who was behind an egregious scheme of trading false pass inspections for bribes. That’s the kind of thing we need to focus on—abject corruption. There are other bodies in city government that should be doing that kind of work, which are currently underfunded and understaffed. 

Before coming to council, I worked at Centro Legal de la Raza on their workers’ rights team. A huge issue we dealt with was wage theft. I would go to various day-labor stops across Fruitvale and give “know your rights” trainings and hear stories of egregious wage theft. With the state, you might wait three or four years for a hearing in a wage-theft case. By then, your employer might have gone out of business or left town, and you owe rent, and you could be in a really bad situation. 

I ran my first campaign on wanting to increase the minimum wage. We can have theoretical conversations about what the right minimum wage should be—$20, $25, $30. But in Oakland, today, you have people making $6 and $7 an hour who will never get up to the minimum wage that exists right now, $15.97, without enforcement. These are individuals who need a local enforcement mechanism to support them. They’re the most vulnerable workers. And that is an investment I’d like to see. 

Montclair Village store fronts. Credit: Pete Rosos

Daniel Swafford, who leads the Laurel and Montclair business improvement districts in D4, said many shop owners feel like public safety is deteriorating, making it harder to do business in Oakland. What programs, initiatives, or departments do you believe could have the greatest impact on reducing crime in your district?

Outside of downtown, these are some of the most vibrant—and potentially vibrant—economic engines in Oakland. The majority of the small businesses, especially in Dimond and Laurel, and even Glenview, are minority-owned and local-owned. 

Shop owners feel frustrated by break-in after break-in, crime after crime, and they are leaving. Jose Ortiz, the owner of La Perla, has experienced three armed robberies just in the past year, and he’s ready to leave and set up shop in Martinez. When someone like Jose, who knows the available resources and who’s worked with OPD, feels that level of fear and exhaustion—that is really terrifying. 

In March, we launched an initiative called #LiftUpD4, a public safety campaign focused on small business corridors in District 4. LiftUpD4 is a four-pronged approach: The first involves traditional public safety measures. Business owners want to see police officers, whether they’re on foot or in their patrol cars. In the eyes of many residents and business owners, having police present to deter crime is more useful than having them respond to crime after it happens. Interestingly, this is also true for a lot of progressive community members. They don’t necessarily want to see a militarized police presence or even a permanent police presence, but more of an immediate approach to stop this uptick in crime. 

Community ambassadors are the second part. We’ve seen a lot of success with this in Chinatown. Yes, there’s the visible presence to deter crime, but they also connect residents and business owners with resources. Last year, we had some holiday funds to support temporary community ambassadors, and I think that’s a good start. But I want to advocate for permanent civilian ambassadors in the Dimond, Laurel, Glenview, and Montclair business corridors.

The third part of the campaign is traffic safety. The more foot traffic we have in our D4 corridors, the safer the neighborhood is going to be. But to incentivize people to actually walk about in their neighborhoods, we need to make sure they don’t feel like they’re about to be hit by a car. A lot of people who are not necessarily pedestrians by choice are our elders, and they are among the most vulnerable when it comes to traffic dangers. A major part of our approach to increase foot traffic for local businesses includes traffic calming designs, road diets, protected intersections, and roundabouts in these commercial corridors and near schools. 

The fourth part of the campaign involves public art and events. On June 11, we’re going to have our D4 summer music festival: an afternoon-long celebration at a local park, as part of an effort to reclaim our public spaces. We have some great, really well-organized big events like Oktoberfest, the Laurel Street Fair, and the Montclair Beer, Wine, and Music Festival. But I would like to see more. 

In my ideal world, every Friday evening you’d have a local band setting up at the MacArthur-Fruitvale intersection, people would be out there, and businesses wouldn’t be closing their doors at 6 p.m. because they’re afraid. Instead, they would be open until 9 or 10 p.m. 

We’re fast approaching summer and the risk of fires is growing. I spoke with Carolyn Burgess of the North Hills Community Association, and she wants to know your plan to protect residents from fires. 

In any year, let alone a difficult budget year, there’s not enough money to cover the vegetation management work that we need to do. So a huge part of this is figuring out how we get other revenue through CalFire grants and other creative ways to address the dead and dying trees. My office has been supportive of local organizations applying for CalFire grants. We also support efforts to get the city’s Wildfire Prevention Assessment District back into place. 

While there are wildfire prevention advocates in the hills, there are also residents frustrated with annual vegetation and fire inspections. But those are essential to make sure we have defendable space in the event of a fire. 

I want to see the city step up and do its fair share of work on city-owned property. We have a very limited tree services division, and it’s been impacted since 2008. They’re an excellent small team, and we’ve met with them, and they did a ton of work after the recent winter storms took down over 400 trees. But their work is very much reactive, rather than preventive. They are very aware of how much tree pruning needs to be done on city-owned property, but they do not have the funds or resources needed. 

The demographics of the hills are changing. You have people with vivid memories of the 1991 fires. And then you have folks that just got here who think there are bigger issues to worry about; fires are not on their radar because they didn’t live through it. Emergency preparedness, increasing awareness of where the evacuation routes are, signing people up for alerts—that’s work I want to help amplify. The Oakland Firesafe Council is great at giving these kinds of presentations, and there are a lot of similar programs out there. It’s just about spreading awareness to the average person who may be less civically engaged, so they know what to do in the event of a wildfire.

During last year’s election, you floated a few ideas to increase affordable housing in the city and your district. One of these included building homes on empty lots near public transit, like on the corner of High Street and MacArthur Boulevard. Have you pursued this plan? What are you doing to increase affordable housing in your district?

I’ve been in conversation with some of the neighborhood advocacy groups that want to see our big lots get utilized. That conversation starts with zoning amendments. I was happy to see in our general plan many areas in District 4 be slated as part of the affordable housing overlay. 

As we see certain businesses leaving, such as Loard’s Ice Cream, Bank of America, and several others in this Dimond corridor, there’s a lot of public interest in wanting to convert the lots into either affordable housing or mixed-use commercial-residential properties. 

That is why I am supportive of the formation of the Dimond Business Improvement District. A BID isn’t just about protecting the businesses. It’s also about being creative with how we’re using our limited spaces. That could pave the way for affordable housing to be built. 

The Housing and Community Development Department held a public meeting recently about Measure U funds for housing. They were very clear about how expensive it is to construct a single unit of affordable housing. While there are matching funds available from the state for new housing, a better bang for your buck is to rehabilitate existing housing that’s not quite up to code. But there are fewer state resources and matching funds for that. I’m trying to identify a balance between how we use our limited housing funds to construct new housing on these empty lots as well as rehabilitating hundreds, or realistically, thousands of units that exist but need substantial repairs.

Your budget priorities memo explored some options for helping the unhoused, including partnering with private storage facilities to store people’s personal items. Do you have any outside-the-box strategies to reduce homelessness that you believe the city should explore or pursue right now? What haven’t we tried yet?

Pets and storage are two major barriers that prevent some people from accepting traditional housing. St. Vincent de Paul’s is an example of a place that has many vacancies. They’re an emergency shelter but they can’t take in many items, pets, or children. I understand their constraints; they’re just a different model. They serve a different need. But for someone who has a pet, that’s their entire emotional support. Giving up their pet is going to be a huge barrier to them accepting emergency shelter and other services. 

Oakland Animal Services has done a great job trying to take on more responsibility that once fell under OPD. There’s been a lot of positive progress, but there’s so much more that has to be done. During the storms, they were able to accept pets for those who were unhoused. But they don’t have the capacity to do that year-round. 

If you look at evidence-based models of what is going to put someone on a pathway from the street to permanent housing, we see that hotel and motel vouchers work. It’s also very expensive. But I think we need to learn lessons from the pandemic, see what has worked, see what other cities are doing, and start to implement that. 

And of course, homelessness prevention. With this year’s budget, we don’t have the funds to be as creative or flexible. I want to call on Alameda County to assist us. They did fund another round of Alameda County Housing Secure, which provides legal aid to tenants’ legal defense organizations. I’d like to see direct cash support, too. There’s always resistance to giving funds directly to those who need emergency assistance. But one or two months of rent is a whole lot less money than constructing an affordable housing unit. That’s why I hope we can continue to explore voucher models—both from the federal government, and maybe getting creative with our own system one day.

Nenna Joiner, who ran against you last year, said traffic violence is a major concern for her and other residents in D4, especially for folks who want to bike. Are there any specific actions you’ve taken or plan to pursue this year to improve bike and pedestrian safety in the district?

I have regular meetings with OakDot every month, where we talk about our four priority corridors. 

One is where we are right now, Thornhill Drive, next to Thornhill Elementary. Children get hit here. The second corridor is Park Boulevard, near Edna Brewer Middle School. The third is around Bret Harte Middle School on McArthur Boulevard and Coolidge Avenue. The fourth is High Street and MacArthur Boulevard, and that on-ramp, where we, unfortunately, saw the first traffic safety fatality of 2023. 

Each of these four corridors have community advocates who are pushing for changes. We can’t direct OakDOT to put up a roundabout that residents are asking for or to set up a flashing light. But we can uplift that these are community concerns. We’re trying to connect these departments with the community. 

[Editor’s note: When Ramachandran says councilmembers “can’t direct OakDOT to” add traffic safety improvements to a street she’s pointing to an important but little-understood law in Oakland: under the City Charter, councilmembers can’t boss around departments and tell them what to do. Long ago, voters and city leaders learned that giving councilmembers this kind of power could lead to corruption and inequitable services. What councilmembers can do is set policies for departments and oversee them to ensure they’re carrying out these broad programs.]

What is your favorite hike or walk in D4?

I’m going to name two: Dimond Canyon is a beautiful lesser-known trail. And of course, the crown jewel, Joaquin Miller. The Woodminster Summer Musicals event is coming up over there, at the Joaquin Miller Cascades. The trails are just stunning. 

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.