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Remove cap on fines for municipal ordinance violations

Measure RR

TL;DR: Amends the City Charter to remove the $1,000 limit on fines.

Measure RR, if passed, would remove the limit on fines for ordinance violations (illegal dumping, building code violations). A “yes” vote means that future fines could be greater than $1000. The new fine limit would be set by the City Council. But who pays attention to every Council meeting agenda?

What happens if Measure RR passes?

This measure was introduced primarily to address illegal dumping. In some neighborhoods, the extent of illegal dumping makes it hard to walk down some sidewalks. This Oakland resident has joined a cleanup in one of those impacted neighborhoods, and understands the desire to change the behavior of people who travel to poorer neighborhoods to use them as their personal dump. If an illegal dumping fine is less expensive than buying a permit or paying for the requisite number of trips to the transfer station, it’s tempting to dump—especially if your chances of getting caught are pretty low.

Current fees are high enough to hurt someone who’s financially strapped, but low enough to be nearly meaningless to someone who’s not. The goal of this measure is to deter dumping (and other code violations) by making them more expensive. However, any fine-based approach to municipal violations will disproportionately affect people with fewer resources, particularly if there is no community service option for a person who cannot afford the fine. The code lists jail as an alternative to a fine, but jailing people because they cannot afford a fine ought to be a “remedy” too Dickensian for us to tolerate. (This segment from John Oliver lays out a case for why municipal code enforcement is problematic, racist, and potentially ruinous; it also contains occasional language some of our readers may find offensive.)

It is possible that, if this measure passed, the provision stating that “the Council shall establish the fine limit by ordinance approved following a public hearing” would give members of the public opportunity to advocate for a fine structure that is progressive and indexed to a person’s ability to pay, so fines could be meaningful for wealthier dumpers but not devastating to dumpers who are less well-off. At least until a more punitive petitioner appeals the idea at a later Council meeting.

Can Measure RR actually work?

Without stepping up enforcement, increasing fines will not deter illegal dumping. Stepping up enforcement on a nonviolent code offense, especially when so many Oaklanders are arguing for diverting money from policing into other city services, is a peculiar decision.

One enforcement solution floated by a number of council candidates for District 7—one of the two districts most affected by illegal dumping—involves posting cameras directed at dumping hot spots. However, recording public space in some neighborhoods but not others unfairly subjects some residents to incidental surveillance as they go about their business. What’s more, the City’s pilot camera program to catch illegal dumpers has been ineffective.

Oaklanders don’t necessarily agree on what’s trash. In some neighborhoods, a desk on the side of the street with a “FREE” sign on it will be picked up within a couple hours by someone who can use it and will be glad not to have to spend money on it. In some neighborhoods, furniture left on the side of the street becomes infrastructure for an encampment. In the first instance, the item spends little enough time in the public eye that no one will call SeeClickFix about it. In the second, the item cannot be removed, because we have decided not to trash items that are in encampments, recognizing that people who are living outside cannot afford to replace what the City takes.

Leadership of the Alameda County Taxpayers Association object to what they see as the broadness of the measure and express concerns that a yet-to-be-determined fine could be assessed for a cracked sidewalk, tall grass, or old fence.

We wonder if instead of adding a punitive measure, the city could better publicize its bulky waste pickup program, which offers one free pickup of bulky materials per year. No car or travel required (so long as you only use the service once a year). Making sure everyone is aware of this program (including people who do not have Internet access or who are more comfortable reading a language other than English) could help everyone stop illegal dumping. Why go to the effort of hauling your trash when you could ask the city to take it away for you?

Measure RR Supporters

  • Sierra Club
  • Wellstone Club
  • San Jose Mercury News/East Bay Times

Measure RR Haters

Alameda County Green Party

Vibes

Forget the carrot, use the stick. There’s so many better ways the City could incentivize residents to avoid illegal dumping. Maybe we could try the better ways first, before the regressive punitive way?