A woman wearing a red blazer, black shirt, and glasses stands in front of a mural depicting several youth and a tree.
District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas in front of a mural on E 12th Street and 21st Avenue in Oakland, Calif., on July 11, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Before she joined Oakland City Council, Nikki Fortunato Bas was a community organizer who, among other things, helped garment workers recover stolen wages and worked to raise Oakland’s minimum wage. She was elected in 2019 as the representative for District 2, which includes Eastlake, Grand Lake, San Antonio, Chinatown, and Jack London. She’s been Council President since 2021. 

Bas sat down recently with The Oaklandside to talk about the $4.2 billion biennial city budget she and her colleagues approved last month. She also outlined the city’s long-term strategy to protect Oakland from another fiscal shortfall, why merging departments will be good for Oakland, and how to keep the Department of Violence Prevention healthy. 

This is part of our series of Q&As with councilmembers. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What are you proudest of in Oakland’s 2023-2025 budget

I am proudest of the fact that we have over $200 million invested in affordable housing. We’ve never invested that much before in the two-year budget cycle. And it’s primarily due to the fact that I co-authored and placed Measure U on the ballot. That’s what’s going to help us get out of the housing affordability crisis and homelessness crisis. 

We’re also working on our regional housing bond measure in 2024. There’s a lot more that we need to do. But I feel like we can make some headway after the past years of seeing housing affordability continue to be worse and more folks on the streets.

Several councilmembers expressed concerns about Mayor Sheng Thao’s plan to merge several departments. Can you explain why these mergers are a good idea and how they will help Oakland in the long run?

Are we delivering the services that Oaklanders need? Just look at housing and homelessness—have we been building affordable housing to meet the need? Have we been getting people off the streets and into dignified shelter and permanent housing? The answer is clearly no.  

It has not been serving us to have those two departments siloed. I know this from my work trying to house folks at the E. 12th Street parcel, the LakePoint tiny homes community. I had to convene departments that have not been talking to each other to get people from the streets into housing. Without that connection, we’re not going to succeed. 

I believe merging housing and homelessness will allow us to have a comprehensive approach, and look systemically at how people are housed or not housed.

With Planning and Building and Economic Workforce Development, most of what I’ve heard is excitement about the opportunity for the merger. EWD works to recruit businesses and support businesses, and then permitting is done over at planning. People aren’t connecting and it’s frustrating. To get out of the structural deficit, we have to look at economic development. As we develop an economic development strategy, that has to be paired with the permitting processes. 

For Human Services and parks and rec, we have to address the needs of all Oaklanders no matter their age or background. And while I fully support the parks department having strong leadership and a prominent role in our government, let’s look at how we are serving families, whether they’re participating in our rec centers, parks, after-school programs, or food programs. 

When you’re in a crisis you need to look at what’s not working so you can do something different. And we’re taking a year to explore this. 

Bradley Johnson, a city staffer who knows more about the budget than pretty much anyone, has warned that Oakland’s structural fiscal problems weren’t solved by the changes you all made in the current budget. What are the long-term strategies you’ll pursue in advance of the next biennial budget so we don’t end up with another shortfall? 

It’s something this administration inherited, and it’s not going to change over the course of two years. 

It’s going to have to be a multi-pronged strategy. We started to shift course in our 2021 budget when we directed the administration to work on Measure U and Measure T, our progressive business tax. A new measure to replace Measure Z, our violence prevention measure, is also really important. 

We are in the midst of conducting an economic development assessment and strategy that will be completed by the middle of next year. 

We can continue to grow the downtown area and Jack London District. Part of the revitalization is about activating our public spaces and working with the business community to welcome people back to Oakland. If you keep telling the message that Oakland is unsafe, even though the crime stats are going down, people think it’s true. 

In several meetings I’ve had with businesses, we’ve talked about how yes, there is crime, we’re fed up with it, and we are making steps to make it safer. Let’s make sure the public knows we’ve got community ambassadors, we have better lighting. We have these different things creating a safer environment. 

I’m really interested in looking at the possibilities for leveraging our industrial lands for economic development. And I’m not talking about the A’s proposal at Howard Terminal. We have to look at ways we can bring in development that is equitable, accountable, and will serve Oakland. Part of that is looking at the industrial land strategy that the city and port have developed. There’s the possibility for light manufacturing, for example. Obviously, the port has a logistics sector and a transportation and warehousing sector. 

There is also an audit finding we need to follow through on around our long-term liabilities. We put together a policy for setting aside funds to pay down our long-term liabilities. We’ve suspended that a couple of times while I’ve been here. 

At your budget town hall in May, constituents shared dozens of different funding requests. Do you feel like they got everything they asked for? Is there anything you regret not being able to include in the budget? 

As hard as this budget was, I do think everybody got something. In the last budget cycle, there was an investment in Lincoln Square Park and Recreation Center. In this cycle, there was another investment that will allow us to start renovating the center and create a resilience hub. Lincoln is incredibly important: It’s the most visited rec center in all of Oakland. And central Oakland is the one area of our city we have invested in renovating our rec centers for two decades. 

The other area in central Oakland that has not had enough investment is San Antonio Park. Oakland’s library master plan identified San Antonio as the last place where the city needs a library to have equitable library services. The city began a master planning process and community engagement when COVID-19 started, but everything was by Zoom and the community wanted more public participation. I encouraged the community to create a coalition, Friends of San Antonio Park, which now exists and is amazing. They conducted three sessions of community engagement. Out of that process, they came up with a vision for a community center with a library and a resilience hub.

The last capital improvement project I’ll mention is Fire Station Number Four. It is the oldest fire station in Oakland. It’s out of date and dilapidated, and we’re all concerned about health and safety issues for our firefighters who live there. We have been able to set aside a little bit of money through our budget for a feasibility study for a new fire station. With the support of Assemblymember Mia Bonta, there’s a $5 million allocation pending in the state budget that would allow us to purchase the land, and then Oakland would be able to cover the construction costs. The other reason this is important is because the MACRO program’s staff is housed in temporary facilities at OFD’s training center. The vision is that we would have fire station four co-located with MACRO in central Oakland. 

The Lake Merritt pilot parking meter program is generating about $1 million per year. I believe the community is very supportive of that program. So there’s money set aside for the lake vendors market, activating programming at the lake, expanding our park stewards, and funding traffic safety improvements around the lake. 

The question of funding for the Department of Violence Prevention dominated discussions during council’s budget meetings. A lot of community-based organizations that work for DVP are upset about cuts they’ll face in the new budget. What’s the plan to ensure DVP is funded for the long run? 

The revenue generation strategies are really important so we have more dedicated funding or general purpose funding. 

We’re also looking at private funding. We have a collaboration with the Oakland Fund For Public Innovation. They were very successful at fundraising for Town Nights. We will be meeting with them to put together a fundraising plan. 

It’s also really important to talk about accountability and efficiency. We need a good return on our tax dollars. It’s why I called for the audit of homelessness services back in 2019, and we’re still trying to implement those recommendations. In regards to violence prevention, there’s going to be much more rigor in the grant objectives, deliverables, and evaluation. The council made hard choices about what we decided to fund or not fund, and we have to do the same thing with our contracts. Whether it’s the Oakland Fund For Children and Families or the DVP, there has to be accountability. We can’t keep giving to the same organizations if they’re not delivering. 

So it’s raising the money but also making sure it’s well-invested and delivering results. It’s really important to make sure groups are financially sustainable, across the board. They all need a sustainable fundraising plan. And we also need to be clear about whether a group or program needs to rely on city funding. You need to have a sustainable fundraising plan in place and other prospects because the city is dependent on the broader economy. 

A lot of the frontline workers contracted with DVP wanted to know why some of the money going to Oakland Police Department couldn’t have been diverted to DVP. What would you tell them? 

Our community safety system has to be holistic. We have to make the existing traditional system of policing more accountable and transparent, and better serve the community. And we have to continue to work on the root causes of the violence. 

The mayor made some hard decisions with the OPD budget by freezing vacant positions. The approved budget has 712 sworn authorized positions. That is less than the current year. We also have an average of 50 officers who are on long-term leave. There is a level of traditional police staffing that we need. And I think the mayor felt that that was about as far as we could take it.

At the same time, we are still civilianizing a bunch of positions, still pushing for accountability. That includes an inspector general study that we’ll be doing around staffing and resources. We’ve needed that study for years to figure out what is the appropriate number of officers and where to deploy them. 

At the end of the day, most of the increase to OPD’s budget was driven by agreements the city has with the police officers union and other city employee unions. And a lot of our increases overall are driven by the mandated costs to our staff.

I know the Department of Workplace and Employment Standards is very important to you. They’re supposed to look out for workers in Oakland and make sure employers are following the law. Do you feel like the department is equipped to address wage theft and other violations? 

I do have a lot of high hopes for that department. I was one of the three signatories to put Measure FF on the ballot, which raised the minimum wage and added paid sick days. And on council, I passed the ordinance to create the department itself. 

I can’t remember off the top of my head how many positions we or the mayor froze in that department. There are more positions that are open that can be filled. So hopefully we’ll be able to recruit good staff and move forward with the mission. 

When we met with the director, she said the city gets a lot of bang for our buck with its contract with the Fair Labor Oakland Coalition. I believe that contract costs the city only $240,000. They’re able to do worker outreach and education that will help enforce violations of our local labor laws. We asked her, if you could add something to this budget, what would be your priority? She said we get so much from that individual contract. It’s been the same amount for six years. 

Right now they’re only contracted to work on Measure FF, and not Measure Z, the hotel living wage laws. If we can at least do a cost of living adjustment—that little bit of money, it’s only $42,000, it goes a long way in terms of community outreach and education to low-wage workers. So that we can see whether there is wage theft or other violations happening and have the city enforce that.

What is the single most important thing you and other officials will do this year to make Oakland a more affordable place to live?

It’s getting the money out there. Our Measure U spending plan will be brought forward in the fall. Housing and Community Development did a really good job of community engagement. 

We’re going to be putting forward the funding around new construction, acquisition, as well as preservation. Housing-insecure tenants can work with land trusts or co-ops to purchase their property. It’s super important to us because about 80% of our rental housing stock consists of these smaller buildings of 25 units or less. If we are able to convert them to permanently affordable housing we can make a dent in long-term housing affordability and stability. 

Getting the money out the door to affordable housing developers, who will construct new housing and preserve it for tenants and co-ops, and acquiring buildings that can help house unsheltered residents, is also a priority. 

We also have to do more about homelessness. The council has been interested in modular buildings and more safe parking sites. It’s important to get that money out the door to create affordable housing, and also use that $8.8 million to rapidly deploy other types of homeless interventions that improve people’s living conditions.

We talked previously about the harmonious, cooperative spirit permeating this council. But the last budget meeting was extremely divisive. As council president, what are you going to do to reestablish that harmony, or get buy-in from councilmembers who didn’t vote for the budget?

Hindsight is 2020–maybe we could have done a study session just on the reorganization. Looking at the issues that require deeper dives might be one thing we can do in the future. With our general plan for example, we’ve had study sessions on Howard Terminal. We had a study session for the budget, but it was very fast-paced and department by department. 

Time is precious. But you have to put in the time to get the desired result. And it may be we need to put in more time with these larger decisions to make sure we’re getting the info we need and the public is too. 

At the end of the day, it’s completely appropriate to ask questions, to debate things, and to not agree. I think it’s totally fine. Looking back, did we have enough time to surface as much information as possible? Yes, I think we did.

Traffic safety has been a major priority for you and the rest of the council. Is there anything that Oakland can do this year to expedite road safety improvements? 

The mayor proposed traffic safety items in her budget, and with our budget team’s amendments, we were able to augment that. So it’s important to have a little discretion to be able to work with constituents to support traffic safety needs that may not be in our ongoing process. And having funds to address sideshows and other things that are a problem in our community is also important.

I would say it is not always about the money. Because the money is there. The positions are there. But the positions are not filled. When you look at trash collection and illegal dumping or implementing traffic calming measures, the issue is not about needing more money. We need more staff to do this work. We need the engineers to design the measures and the other staff to install them. 

When the Traffic Violence Rapid Response coalition came to deliver their petition, I said please help us recruit people to come work in the city of Oakland. There’s so much we can do together but we need more people to take the design part of this to the installation and make it happen.  

You’ve been in a leadership role on the council for a while. Is there anyone who serves as a role model for you as a leader? 

When I was in my early 20s, I took a job with the fledgling organization called Sweatshop Watch. One of my mentors, and one of the founders of the organization, was Julie Su. She was one of these people who is just incredibly committed and talented. 

The first policy I ever worked on was a sweatshop accountability bill, I think in 1998. I remember being in these negotiating sessions as a young, green activist, seeing Julie and these other AAPI women negotiating toe-to-toe with the retail federation, which is very powerful and led by a white man. Labor was in the room: the state, fed, and garment workers union, also led by white men. Julie was an incredible, hard-ass negotiator. But she also said the most direct things with a smile on her face. And that really left an impression on me. 

It showed me what’s possible as a woman of color, an AAPI woman. It helped me do what I do, and have faith that I can do what I do. And be grounded in the community that I represent. 

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.