Civic Engagement on the Rise as City Budget Falters

At the February 4th, 2020, City Council meeting, Finance Director Mark Rasiah and City Manager Karen Pinkos presented the council members with a City budget no longer balanced. On top of that, we learned that the city’s bond rating is now BBB, which means there can not be any new bonds (like a library bond) passed. With council members visibly upset and extremely disappointed, we learned that the promised balanced budget for 2019-2020 required some serious cuts. Mayor Lyman directed staff to come back with 2 million dollars in cuts at the next meeting (February 18th). Furthermore, the City faces ascending expenses and revenues that are no longer increasing at the same levels with literally no safety net.

How did the city find themselves in this mess? What happened to the reserves? Didn’t the previous audit of 2018-19 suggest that the City faced some troubling financial times and why were no actions take then? (See our previous blog post). Engaged citizens organized themselves into the El Cerrito Committee for Responsible Government, and are calling on the City Council for greater transparency and accountability. To learn more about the financial situation facing our city please visit their website.

In just a week, City staff will be hosting a Strategic Planning meeting for community input. In the past, the meeting intended to offer residents a space for visioning the future, to dream big, and prioritize needs. This year residents will be asked to prioritize services, and contest cuts in some areas and favor cuts in others. At the prior public meetings, residents have repeatedly spoken out about protecting the Fire Department staff and council reiterated that as a priority. City staff produced a non-strategic list of random cuts for a 2019/2020 balanced budget. This list included the removal of the annual 4th of July event from the budget as well as a cut in library hours and senior services.

What do you think? Please let the city staff and council know. You can do so using the strategic plan on-line survey due by Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day). You can also email the city manager and the council or speak out an any of the scheduled meetings.

The Strategic Plan OPEN HOUSE is this Wednesday, Feb. 12 from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Council Chambers. There is also a City Council Strategic Plan Workshop is March 14, Saturday, from 9:30 – 2 pm also at the City Council Chambers. 

How can we be progressive rather than reactive amidst this financial challenge?

Some suggestions are:

Reduce operational funding from Departments where it is possible. This is the task of the Department Heads to audit their own internal expenditures. How much are they spending on consultants and why do they not feel that they have the expertise to address issues in their field?

Freeze positions and management promotions- no more new hires until the City can begin to institute new streams of revenue through the engagement with volunteers/citizens who do not charge consultant fees.

Retain needed services including library hours and Senior services. We need to rethink how people with less resources often highly utilize what are considered non-essential services. To many these services are indeed essential? What would be the impact on those residents if the services were cut? What would that mean for isolated seniors who use the Center as a means to break their isolation and/or have a meal. What does significantly reducing library hours mean for working families who cannot afford to order their books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and use the library for computers, printers, and other services that they may not have access to otherwise.

Expect the City Manager and the Finance Director to be accountable to the City Council and provide adequate and timely information so that our elected officials can make informed decisions on our behalf. Expect the City Council to hold them staff accountable and ask the tough questions.

Involve residents by engaging in a transparent budgeting process that allows us to review the assumptions, the analysis and the outcomes of the prepared budgets.

Address the overtime issue of the Fire Department. Overtime Pay was a factor in the poor financial health of this city. This year it is budgeted at 1.2 million dollars. It is not sufficient to get a verbal reassurance that overtime is cheaper than other alternatives. Citizens need a written analysis of staffing patterns vs. overtime. How much revenue is reimbursed? That information needs to be provided to the City Council and the public via the city website. We all cherish the work of the Fire Department but this is an issue not only in El Cerrito. Other cities have cut down on overtime, how did they achieve this?

Engage this very talented community in a task force to create economic development in the community and have a staff person dedicated to this task. When this issue has been brought up many citizens have lots of ideas but city staff seem to disregard them all. This is a crisis it is time to think outside the box.

Citizens need to do their part too. We must hold council accountable. This new transparency is coming forth due to regular citizens demanding a town hall meeting and asking the tough questions. Everyone needs to engage in the manner they can.

We would love to hear your comments on even more ways to help El Cerrito resolve this fiscal crisis in a transparent, accountable, progressive, and compassionate manner. Please comment below with your ideas!

Drones are here: why the City Council should take action

Unidentified Drone spotted at El Cerrito rally in 2019

The ACLU, Oakland Privacy, and El Cerrito Progressives have been requesting the city to adopt an ordinance on police surveillance since 2017. Despite these requests, the police chief has pushed to rely only on internal policies and procedures, which may be changed at any time without public input.

We fully respect many of the policies being offered by Chief Keith; however, an ordinance would provide greater accountability for an issue as important as surveillance in our community.

Sometime in 2019 and without public knowledge, El Cerrito Police acquired a drone. In October the police held a poorly advertised and poorly attended public meeting to hear public comment. Only groups already aware of the situation attended the meeting in addition to one or two concerned community members.  At the meeting, Chief Keith presented the draft Drone Policy, listened to public feedback and informed attendees that the next step for adoption of the policy would include a revised draft presented to City Council. At the meeting, members of the varying organizations advocated for consideration of an Ordinance, to strengthen both accountability and transparency for the acquisition and use of all surveillance technology. Chief Keith and City Manager Karen Pinkos continue to resist this idea, ignoring long-term concerns about the prevalence of surveillance tech. 

We are calling on the City Council to take a long-term view of surveillance policies in our city. We ask the Council to codify their beliefs, practices, and transparency about police surveillance in a city ordinance.

The advantages of an ordinance:

  • Surveillance technology is multiplying rapidly and will grow more extensive and privacy-challenging over time. This is just the beginning.
  • A policy may be changed at any time for any reason. An ordinance is only changed after a public process. Protecting citizen privacy should not rely purely on voluntary acts by unknown future city officials. Making these policies into law ensures that our beliefs and practice will continue in the future, no matter who is in charge.
  • Frequent public discussion slows “surveillance creep” and encourages surveillance to be used only when the benefits outweigh the drawbacks
  • More frequent communication and accountability to the public improves community trust of the police force.

What you can do:

Attend the El Cerrito City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 21st at 7:00 p.m. at El Cerritio  City Hall. Make you voice heard. To make public comment, simply fill out a comment card provided by the City Clerk at the time of the meeting.    

If you cannot come in person, you can view the meeting via the City’s website either live or the next day, and respond via email to the City Manager, Police Chief and City Council Members.  

You can join El Cerrito Progressive’s efforts to continue to advocate for a Surveillance Ordinance. Fill out our Google form here.

California’s New Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)

CCPA

Daily, user input has been aggregated on the Internet, producing an infinite amount of accessible data, and creating for online companies a multi-trillion dollar industry of information exchange.

No one truly knows how far their online information travels to produce data points for which companies and for what ultimate outcomes. According to the Pew Research Center, up to 8 out of 10 internet users express concern over what companies do with their data, while they increasingly understand that the use of their online input is almost entirely out of their control.

Lock In Privacy

The State of California has moved to counteract the profuse collection of user data that perpetually occurs virtually without permission.

As of January 1, 2020, a legal milestone in California gives consumers the right to view the personal information collected about them and to stop companies from selling it. This law is the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

Privacy advocates contemplate the likelihood of consumer rights provided by the CCPA extending beyond the state, with California possibly being the leading edge that emboldens other states to legislate consumer privacy and even inspire a national law.

Here are some primary CCPA mandates:

  • Businesses must disclose what information they collect, for what business purpose(s) they collect the information and any third parties with whom they share that data.
  • Businesses will be required to comply with official consumer requests to delete that data.
  • Consumers can opt-out of their data being sold, and businesses can’t retaliate by changing the price or level of service.
  • Businesses can, however, offer “financial incentives” for being allowed to collect data.
  • California authorities are empowered to fine companies for violations.

California’s resolve to protect internet users’ and consumers’ privacy will undoubtedly bring significant changes to the online marketplace. The positive or negative effects of the CCPA on businesses will probably take years to determine. But the CCPA’s positive effect on consumers is expected to be immediate.

You can find more information about the California Consumer Privacy Act on the following sites:

TechCrunch: California’s Privacy Impact Act – What you need to know

USA Today: California Consumer Privacy Act of 2020: What the new privacy law means to you, from which the bulk of this information was derived

TechCrunch: The California Consumer Privacy Act Officially Takes Effect Today, an information contributor

 

City Council 5-0 on Vote to Support TPS Proclamation

On a chilly November evening residents and immigrant rights activists gathered outside the El Cerrito City Hall for a vigil to support the hundreds of thousands of immigrants at risk of losing their homes, family and work due to Trumps policy to end Temporary Protective Status (TPS). El Cerrito Progressives and the NOR CAL TPS Coalition comprised of labor, church, education and other organizations joined together to rally for the passage of a Proclamation in Support of Protections from Deportation and a path to permanent residency for beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure. The Proclamation passed 5/0. (Readers can find a link to the Proclamation on page 21 of the Agenda Packet here:http://www.el-cerrito.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/5029

During the public meeting, Council members heard from labor organizations including the Contra Costa Central Labor Council and the San Francisco Labor Council, TPS residents with decades of history in our community – describing themselves as workers, homeowners, tax payers and parents. The explained that they came as a result of violence in their own country.

Manuel De la Paz from East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a local group representing 1,000 TPS holders, told the Council 55,000 TPS holders reside in California and in El Cerrito he identified 10 TPS families with there likely being more. He added that 50% of TPS holders own homes .

A political science professor and a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) identified himself as an ex-TPS holder. Now a citizen, married with a son at UC Berkeley, he called the right to TPS a human right. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the US policies that committed genocide against Salvadorans” he explained, 100,000 people died during their civil war fueled by U.S. aid.

The final two speakers during public comment included a mother and her daughter fighting to keep their family together. Crista Ramos, 15 years of age, is the main plaintiff in a lawsuit suing Trump for ending TPS. https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-01-11/california-teen-leads-lawsuit-keep-hundreds-thousands-immigrants-us She is one of 10 children from many different countries, suing to maintain TPS to keep her mother from being deported. According to her testimony, without TPS, 250,000 children are in danger of losing their parents. Christina Morales, mother to Crista, came to the US in 1993 when she was 12. She is a homeowner, living now in San Pablo. For the past 10 years, she and her husband volunteer as coaches and manager for two soccer teams in Richmond. She also works as a full time classroom aid for special need students. She told the audience that the law suit is fighting to keep families together. She said, “I don’t want another home. ”

After the testimony, the audience heard Council members respond. Quinto spoke to his own history and said that These people are innocent, they are not criminals.” Ableson stated that she was “proud to see this item on the El Cerrito council agenda and retold her own family immigration story. Council member Lyman concurred with the previous statements. Council member Fadelli said that the proclamation was “easy to pass because its the right thing to do.” Mayor Pardue-Okimoto broke down in tears stating, “….the thought of being separated from my children kills me and I so sympathize with you, and it’s wrong, so wrong. ” In the end she said, “there is always hope…we are going to continue to say we are not going to stand for this kind of hatred. ” (Readers can find a link to the meeting here.https://elcerrito.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=601

Readers who want to support efforts to protect TPS, DACA and DED holders can send letters, emails and calls to both Senator Feinstein and Senator Harris, asking them to enthusiastically work toward the passage of HR 6. known as the Secure Act. The exact language states: This bill cancels and prohibits removal proceedings against certain aliens and provides such aliens with a path toward permanent resident status.https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6