OAKLAND -- The Oakland City Council handed privacy advocates a major victory by sharply curtailing an intelligence center that opponents feared would be used to spy on residents.
With Mayor Jean Quan casting the tiebreaking vote at 1 a.m. Wednesday, the council opted to limit the center's activities solely to Port of Oakland property, which includes Oakland International Airport. City street cameras that already had been integrated into the system called the Domain Awareness Center will be disconnected. Gunshot detector microphones stationed throughout the city also will be disconnected.
The center just last year had been hailed as a state-of-the art public safety and emergency response system with cameras and other surveillance tools stationed at points throughout the city feeding a bank of constantly-monitored television cameras.
Similar systems exist in several major cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Council members backed the project twice last year, but several of them turned against it recently amid further revelations of federal surveillance activities and fervent opposition from privacy advocates.
"This is a very significant win for privacy and civil liberties and for participatory democracy," Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said after the vote. "It shows a City Council being responsive to the concerns of the public and not being bribed by federal grant money."
The city and port are slated to receive $10.9 million in federal homeland security grants to get the center up and running. The port had originally pushed for the project because it is a potential target for terrorists.
The council action, offered by Councilwoman Desley Brooks, prohibits data collected by the center from being shared with any local, state or federal agency without council permission. It also requires council permission before new cameras are added or technological features are improved. And it authorizes the council to appoint an advisory board to develop policies to safeguard privacy.
With those restrictions in place, the council approved moving ahead with a contract to complete the center as long as the contractor, Schneider Electric, can meet deadlines to preserve federal grant funds and safeguard the city against lawsuits if the firm is found to violate Oakland's ban against contracting with firms that do nuclear weapons work.
The council vote defied partisan splits on the issue. Several council members who had supported a more robust intelligence center ultimately voted to limit it only to the port. Councilwomen Libby Schaaf and Rebecca Kaplan, who two weeks ago had advocated focusing solely on the port, ended up opposing the final plan.
Kaplan said she was concerned that the project would still require city technology workers to service the center rather than dealing with more pressing matters such as fixing police radios. Joining Kaplan and Schaaf in opposition were Councilman Noel Gallo, who favored a more potent intelligence center, and Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who wasn't prepared to approve any type of intelligence center.
On the other side of the aisle, Councilwoman Pat Kernighan withdrew a competing proposal that would have left the street cameras and gunshot sensors as part of the project in return for Brooks agreeing not to oppose the integration of public safety dispatch systems into the center.
Police and fire leaders told council members that integrating the dispatch systems would help them more quickly and safely respond to emergencies. Councilmen Larry Reid and Dan Kalb voted with Kernighan and Brooks.
Quan had favored Kernighan's original proposal, but after the councilwoman withdrew it, the mayor had little choice but to use her tiebreaking vote to back Brooks' plan. After the meeting, Quan acknowledged that she was caught off-guard by the fierce opposition to the center over the past several months and regretted not having taken a stronger role in defending it.
"I really thought it was a no-brainer," she said.
As for the street cameras that will be disconnected, Quan said she expected the council to reconsider that decision after it approves privacy guidelines.
"The most important thing is that at least the port security system will be there ... and it will give us time to talk about privacy," she said.
While the ACLU and several other privacy advocates cheered the council vote, dozens more jeered the council's decision because they oppose any use of the center.
"You could say that we won on some level," said Dustin Craun, one of many Muslims who spoke out against the center during more than four hours of public testimony. "But I think they put their foot in the door for expanding it later."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435