A proposal by Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks to create a new city department on race and equity will be part of the city’s likely contentious budget process set to begin in early May.
Brooks pulled the plan from a vote by the Oakland City Council Life Enrichment Committee last Tuesday and instead, successfully motioned the proposed Department of Race and Equity be discussed during the yet-unscheduled first budget hearing in May. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf plans to unveil her budget proposal on April 30.
The reason for the change in tactics? Brooks said she didn’t have the votes for passing the proposal to the full council on Mar. 31.
“I understand how to count votes. I understand how to move items forward. I’ve been here long enough that I’ve learned some things,” said Brooks. “I’ve used the process as far as I can take it right now.” Discussing the proposal within the context of budget negotiations, at this point, is a better strategy, she added.
A city staff report estimates the cost of running the new department, consisting of three employees and operating expenses, is around $520,000 annually. King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, and Portland have similar city departments entrusted with monitoring inequities surrounding race, age and the poor.
Even though every member of the Life Enrichment Committee voiced strong support for ridding Oakland of the racial and economic disparities that exist, a few were skeptical.
Councilmember Noel Gallo, the only committee member to vote against moving the item to the budget process, agreed with the underlining reasons for the new department, but opposed additional bureaucracy. Five governmental bodies already provide some of the services detailed in Brooks’ proposal, said Gallo.
“The question is I can give you a department. I can give you a department on top of another department,” he said. In addition, said Gallo, staff and city funding has already been allocated to fighting inequity and without much success. “Creating another department is not the answer.”
A brief give-and-take between Brooks and Gallo ensued with both poised to rebut each other’s statements. The tone was set by an earlier statement by Brooks asserting the council’s two Latinos—Gallo and Guillen—were not on board with her plan. “It amazing that I can sit on a panel with other people of color and they just don’t get it,” said Brooks.
Later, Gallo shot back, “There was nothing that was ever keeping us from working together. We do have a minority council. We’ve had it for years. You can’t blame the white man for that one.”
In the coming months, the Oakland City Council will likely juggle a large budget deficit while also negotiating with all nine of its public employees unions. Carving out more than $520,000 a year for a new city bureaucracy may be an uphill battle, despite the city administrator’s office showing support for the plan. There’s also question whether Brooks can cobble together enough votes for the proposal to pass.
In addition to disagreements with Gallo, and in a lesser sense, Guillen, during last Tuesday’s committee meeting, its chair, Councilmember Anne Campbell Washington believed Brooks was pushing back at her despite a relatively benign statement involving the need for all members of the community to feel connected to the proposal. “I don’t want our conversation here to be viewed as us disagreeing,” said Campbell Washington, “because I actually believe we’re on the same page.”