OAKLAND -- City council members spared an East Oakland teen center Tuesday, approving funds for the city to take control of operations from Councilmember Desley Brooks.
The council also voted to have City Administrator Deanna Santana continue reviewing irregularities surrounding the teen center's construction and operation and recommend reforms for how city employees handle council member requests. But the council signaled little interest in commissioning an outside investigation into the project.
Brooks has come under intense scrutiny for her work in shepherding the city-owned Digital Arts and Culinary Academy into existence last year.
She often had the support of city staffers in working to renovate the center and open it. But a recent city review of the project found that the construction work was done without city approval, and Brooks should not have been allowed to staff the center or approve funds to outfit it.
With many supporters on hand, Brooks defended her actions, telling council members that she seized the opportunity to renovate the building at a discount and open it when no city funds were available.
"In the absence of leadership I stepped in," she said. "And so I did what was necessary for the kids in my district."
Origin of problem
Brooks had championed the teen center project since 2007 when the city's redevelopment agency purchased the building at 5818 International Blvd. adjacent to the city-run Rainbow Recreation center.
The city provided additional funds to renovate the building, and Brooks in 2010 teamed up with Pulte Homes and the nonprofit Rebuilding Together, which donated much of the work done to transform the building into a center with a kitchen, recording and video studio and a garden.
Initially, Brooks planned to bring in a nonprofit to run the building. But after two groups backed out, and the city short on funds, Brooks decided to open it herself using her office account to hire seven part-time workers to staff the facility.
In many instances, city staffers helped Brooks with the project, but in doing so, the city violated several civil service and labor laws. On Tuesday the council also approved allocating more than $30,000 to construction workers on the project who were not paid prevailing union wages.
Santana, who came to Oakland after the center had opened, said that city staffers should have raised more red flags about the project.
"It's unfortunate that this happened," she said. "Many people should have known and done better."
The council approved $67,000 to staff the center through June, likely with many of the staff members originally hired by Brooks. Additional funds would have to be approved later this year to keep the center open.
Support for center
About two dozen residents, including several political allies, defended Brooks for opening the center, and several teens said that the center had become an important part of their lives.
"Some of these kids who talked, they're my family now," said Larrolyn Ford, a senior at Oakland School for the Arts. "They help me make songs. They've helped me make videos."
Ken Houston, who Brooks has appointed to city boards, said the project clearly benefited the city. "Whoever moves this forward in a negative way ... should totally be disappointed in themselves," he said.
Staff and council
Council members praised Santana for looking into the improprieties surrounding the teen center's development and operation, and asked her to return with reform proposals.
But a majority of council members didn't think the city had much to gain by paying for an outside investigation or that Brooks' queries to city staffers were out of bounds.
"All council members at one time or another try to tell staff what to do and try to get things done," Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said. "Sometimes we want to follow the rules but sometimes we bend them because we want to get things done."