LAST WEEK Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch, issued a tentative ruling denying all causes of action in a lawsuit contesting the city of Oakland's use of money raised by the Measure Y public safety parcel tax.
The lawsuit was the second filed by attorney and Oakland resident Marleen Sacks, who challenged the use of Measure Y funds. The first lawsuit was ultimately decided in December 2010, when a state appeals court panel in San Francisco ruled that Oakland did not misspend millions of dollars generated by the tax.
Voters approved the Measure Y Violence Prevention and Public Safety Action in 2004. It provides about $20 million annually for police, violence prevention/social service programs and for the fire department. The measure authorized the city of Oakland to "hire and maintain" 63 community policing officers, with most assigned to neighborhood beats across Oakland.
From Oakland's perspective, the legal ruling could have potentially cost the city millions, unfathomable is such difficult economic times. While the narrow legal perspective grants the city a victory, the political and moral ramifications that gave rise to the lawsuit continue to exist.
It has been previously reported that the city of Oakland is considering another parcel tax for voter consideration. If so, proponents of the parcel tax would undoubtedly tout Roesch's ruling as proof Oakland has been good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
But a legal ruling in one's favor does not necessarily diminish culpability. Oakland's legal defense was based on how one understands the phrase "hire and maintain."
Measure Y was based on Oakland keeping the baseline number of police officers at 739 officers as a precondition of collecting the tax. Once Measure Y passed, it soon became apparent the city couldn't meet its campaign projections.
In the first lawsuit, the court held that the word "maintain" required recruitment and academy training. But the city failed to "appropriate" sufficient funding to "maintain" the staff at 739 officers.
To maintain the required number of officers, it would have cost Oakland about $9 million to $10 million annually. Oakland appropriated roughly $1.5 million.
Oakland made the interesting legal argument that an "appropriation" was all that was required to maintain 739 officers, alleviating them from meeting any staffing obligations.
Oakland's legal argument is to suggest voters made a political decision to approve a parcel tax based on the city maintaining a baseline of 739 officers in theory only. Huh?
The stench of political arrogance allows the city to forget that Measure Y passed with 70 percent approval.
In our current anti-tax political climate, voters of Oakland agreed to a parcel tax, based on the notion of public safety, only to have the city hide behind a legal argument that would sound utterly preposterous if explained at a town hall meeting. How does this pass the smell test?
Measure Y is not the only example of fiscal malfeasance. Can anyone with a modicum of institutional memory of Oakland say "landscape and lighting?"
Instead of taking responsibility for its campaign failures, city leadership has opted instead for the safe refuge of silence, bolstered by having Roesch side with their legal rationalization.
Politically, the city cannot explain, without accepting fault, how it failed to keep the promises made when voters passed Measure Y. Rather than an honest mea culpa, should another parcel tax come before the voters it will most likely come in the form of fear.
Fear is the preferred method of persuasion when a city does not have the moral high ground on its side. We will be told horror stories of what will happen if there are not enough police officers.
But we already know what will happen because Oakland has only maintained the requisite number of officers for roughly six months since it began collecting the Measure Y parcel tax.
I applaud the news of 10 additional officers having been rehired, but the attrition rate will soon, if it hasn't already, cancel out those new hires.
I can't see how another parcel tax can be taken seriously as long as the city wishes to cling to the erroneous alibi that it has done nothing wrong.
The legal arguments that worked successfully in the courtroom allow the city to forget the political promises it made to the voters of Oakland, leaving the immoral rationalization of fear as its best and only option should it go back to the voters for a Measure Y redux.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.