A Guide to Oakland’s Ballot Measures M, N and O

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday October 06, 2006

The City of Oakland has three local measures on the November ballot, all them placed by a vote of the Oakland City Council. Two of them—Measures M and O—are amendments to Oakland’s city charter. One of them—Measure N—is a bond measure. 


MEASURE M—Police And Fire Retirement Board Investments Charter Amendment. 

(Shall section 2601(e) of the Charter of the City of Oakland be amended to provide that the Police and Fire Retirement Board shall make investment decisions regarding common stocks and mutual funds in accordance with the prudent person standard as established by court decisions and as required by the California Constitution?) 

This is one of those financial housekeeping measures that drive voters crazy because voters can’t quite comprehend what they are all about, and which city officials insist are absoutely necessary. In this case, the necessity being asserted is the ability for the city to have more flexibility in making investments through its Police and Fire Retirement System, thus—according to city officials—reducing the city’s overall liability and saving the taxpayers money. 

Oakland’s Police And Fire Retirement System (PFRS) was established in 1951, accepted new members for the next 25 years, and then was closed to new members in 1976. Oakland police and firefighters hired after that date now participate in California’s Public Employees Retirement (PERS) system. 

Oakland’s PFRS members were given the option of transferring to the state PERS system, but a number of them did not. All but three of the remaining PFRS members have retired and are receiving benefits from the program. PFRS retains the obligation to pay the retirement benefits for the police and firefighters who chose to remain with the local retirement system. The system is managed by a seven-member board which includes City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, and is chaired by a member of the Oakland Police Department. 

The retirement payments to PFRS members come primarily from two sources: employee contributions from the City of Oakland, and returns on investments authorized by the PFRS board. 

Here’s where it gets complicated. 

Under the Oakland City Charter, Edgerly and other PFRS board members say that retirement fund managers are “severely restrict”[ed] in their ability to get the “highest rate of total return possible” on investments, limiting investments to stocks and mutual funds and prohibiting investment in non-dividend paying stocks without approval by the Board. 

In its place, the PFRS Board wants the ability to apply what the California Constitution calls the “prudent person standard” in investments. The details of that standard are beyond the scope of this analysis to explain, even if we had the ability to do so. 

PFRS is a defined benefit plan, one of the “old school” plans in which retirees are guaranteed a certain monthly benefit rather than the newer “defined contribution” plans which tailor individual benefits to how much money is in the overall fund. Because of that, taxpayers in the City of Oakland are ultimately responsible for keeping the fund up at a certain level so that PFRS retirees are able to receive their mandated benefits. 

But unless the investments completely collapse, approval of the investment guidelines under this proposed charter amendment will not have immediate fiscal effect on Oakland taxpayers, according to the city administrator’s report. The City of Oakland is already paid up on its employer contribution to the PFRS through 2010. 

Of local political organizations taking a position on Measure M, the Metropolitan Greater Oakland Club recommends a Yes vote, while neither the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club or the John George Democratic Club chose to take a position.  



MEASURE N. Library Improvement and Expansion Bonds 

(To construct a new Main Library at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center and to acquire land and construct new branch library facilities and to renovate and expand branch library facilities, shall the City of Oakland issue $148,000,000 in bonds?) 

Measure N is an attempt to address three separate City of Oakland issues: 1) upgrading Oakland’s branch libraries, including renovation and expansion of existing branches as well as constructing new branches; 2) finding a new home for the Main Library to replace the existing facilities at the lower end of 14th Street near Lake Merritt; and 3) finding a public use for the recently-closed Kaiser Convention Center. 

Until the Oakland Coliseum was built in 1966, the Kaiser Convention Center, with its massive arena and adjacent auditorium, was Oakland’s major public venue for large events, hosting everything from rhythm & blues music concerts to graduation exercises for the city’s largest high schools. 

Even after the Coliseum took over the major-audience events, the Convention Center continued as the city’s mid-range venue, serving as the home of the Oakland Ballet, for example. All that ended when, in a controversial decision, the Oakland City Council chose to close the Center down in January of this year because of falling revenues. 

The Convention Center sits directly across from Lake Merritt in a prime location that will soon become “primer” when, using the Measure DD bond money, the 12th Street-14th Street “highway” in front of the building is completely overhauled and the Center will essentially sit on the banks of Lake Merritt. Because of that, developers have had their eye on the massive, now-vacant building, with proposals ranging from tearing it down entirely to making it a part of the high-rise condominium and commercial development proposed for the Oakland Unified School District Lake Merritt-area properties. 

But there have been proposals to keep the Convention Center as a public entity. One of them, turned down last year by the Oakland City Council, would have turned the center into an entertainment and performing arts venue jointly operated by a private management company and the Peralta Community College District. 

The Peralta District was part of another proposal that would have established a joint City of Oakland-Laney College library in the building. That proposal fell through when representatives of the Laney College Library and Laney College faculty felt it was unworkable. 

A portion of Measure N would authorize bond money for a go-it-alone move of the Main Library from its present location to the Convention Center, with the library taking up a portion of the facilities (between 120,000 and 160,000 square feet), and the rest of the convention center left in reserve “for future expansion.” 

One of the questions not specifically addressed in the bond measure is what will happen to the existing Main Library facility. Will it remain in public hands—either the library’s or the city’s—or will it be a candidate for private development? 

The rest of the bond money not expended on the main library move would go to expansion and upgrades of several existing branch library facilities. Voters should check the actual ballot language to see which branch facilities will be upgraded.  

Of local political organizations taking a position on Measure M, the Metropolitan Greater Oakland Club recommends a yes vote, while neither the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club or the John George Democratic Club chose to take a position.  



MEASURE O. Instant Runoff Voting Charter Amendment 

(Shall the City Charter be amended to require the use of ranked choice voting, known sometimes as instant runoff voting, to elect city offices by a majority vote at a November election without holding a prior June election?) 

Some voters are understandably confused by the measure, since many believe that Oakland City Council already authorized ranked choice voting, sometimes called instant runoff voting (IRV). However, that was only for special elections to fill the unexpired City Council term. 

In addition, because Oakland runs its elections through the Alameda County Registrars office and because Alameda County does not currently have machines capable of handling IRV, Oakland’s special election IRV provision—like Berkeley’s general IRV—has not yet been implemented. 

Measure O would put Oakland in the same position as Berkeley—authorizing instant runoff voting for all city offices (including the Mayor, Councilmembers, and School Board members) but not being able to actually implement it until Alameda County purchases the machines capable of doing so. 

Oakland now operates a system in which a “nominating election” is held in June. If a candidate for city office wins a majority of the vote in that election, she or he wins office, and no further voting is necessary. This is what happened in last June’s mayoral race, where Ron Dellums won a majority of the vote over several challengers. 

If no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the “nominating election,” the top two vote-getters face each other in a November runoff. This is the case in Oakland City Council District Two, where no candidate got a majority of votes in June, and therefore the top two candidates—incumbent Pat Kernighan and challenger Aimee Allison—face each other again in a runoff. In this case, the candidate who did not come in first or second in June—Shirley Gee—was eliminated and will not appear on the November ballot. 

Under the proposed instant runoff system, the June “nominating election” will be eliminated, and only one city election will be held in November. If there are more than two candidates on the ballot of a city office, voters will have the chance to “rank” their choices; that is, the voter will give their first choice for the office a #1 ranking, their second choice a #2 ranking, their third choice a #3 ranking, and so forth. The theory is that the voter will give a #1 ranking to the person they most want to win the election, and give a #2 ranking to the person they want to win if their #1 choice doesn’t win. 

The votes are then counted in “rounds.” If one candidate gets a majority of votes in the first “round” of counting, that candidate automatically wins, and there is no more counting. However, if no candidate gets a majority of the votes in the first round, the candidate getting the least amount of votes is dropped off the ballot. 

The voters who voted for the last-place candidate then have their second choice votes applied to the remaining candidates. If any candidate now gets a majority of votes—including the second choice votes from the ballots of people supporting the last place candidate—then that candidate wins the office. 

The voting keeps going through new rounds—eliminating the last-place candidate each time and applying their next-ranked votes—until someone eventually gets a majority, and wins the election. 

Proponents of instant runoff voting for Oakland say it will save the city money by not forcing a second, runoff voting when one candidate does not get a majority. 

Opponents say that it is unfair to ask voters to make a second or third choice of candidates, when all they want is to pick their top choice. Critics also say the system could end up in confusion if it is not clear to voters how a particular candidate got enough votes to win. 

The Metropolitan Greater Oakland Club, the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, and the John George Democratic Club are all recommending a yes vote on Measure O.