OAKLAND -- New City Council President Pat Kernighan agreed with other colleagues that the prime issue facing the city is public safety and reducing crime.
"That's the number one job for all of us; nobody disagrees about that," Kernighan said during a recent interview with The Montclarion.
Kernighan has represented District 2 since 2005. The district includes the area east of Lake Merritt, San Antonio and Chinatown. In a unanimous vote Jan. 7, the council elected Kernighan president of the council, replacing Larry Reid, who was elected vice mayor.
She said that compared with other urban city police departments, the Oakland Police Department is starkly understaffed. She's pleased that Oakland has hired William Bratton, Los Angeles and New York City's former police chief, as a consultant.
The Oakland City Council voted 7-1 early Wednesday morning to bring Bratton on board after a contentious meeting. The council also voted to fund another police academy, hire 21 civilian staffers and bring in Alameda County Sheriff's deputies to help patrol Oakland's streets.
"I think Bratton can make good recommendations on what needs to change to be more effective," Kernighan said.
Bratton, who is credited with reducing crime but criticized for overly aggressive policing tactics, will be part of a consulting group that is developing a strategic plan for public safety in Oakland.
"Every city that is successful in fighting crime has a strategic plan," Kernighan said. "Oakland has been going from crisis to crisis for several years, which hasn't allowed for long-term planning. Maybe this year, we can catch our breath."
Kernighan said we need to be open-minded to find the best solution to the crime problem.
"Our approach needs to be thoughtful and analytical and not panicked," Kernighan said. "The issues are complex and long-standing; it's going take some critical thinking to come up with the best combination of solutions."
She said increasing the number of police officers is a critical piece of the solution, but that longer-term planning is needed.
"We need to be providing opportunities and guidance for people involved in the criminal world or young people who are likely to get involved," she said.
Oakland's Police Deparment, whose force was drastically reduced in 2010 in a round of budget cuts, is inadequately staffed to perform a department's normal functions, Kernighan said.
"Some people in Oakland don't believe more police is the long-term solution," she said. "I think it is not only the solution, but essential, particularly now when so much crime is happening."
She said the OPD currently doesn't have enough officers to respond promptly or to investigate and try to solve crimes.
"The criminals know that the likelihood of them getting caught isn't high; therefore they're pushing the limits," Kernighan said.
The council member said she's seen a "sea change" in Oakland in the last couple of months.
"Ordinary people are speaking out for more police officers," she said. "The next step in the conversation is, 'How do we pay for them?' "
Kernighan said some people believe that the city should just tighten its belt and eliminate frivolous spending.
"Over the last three years, the city has made huge cuts to expenses in every department," Kernighan said. "All employees have made big concessions in compensation; our civilian employees have taken a 15 percent cut in pay."
She said there's just not enough cutting the city can do to pay for more police officers. To build the Police Department back to its 2010 pre-budget-cut levels -- with more than 800 officers as opposed to about 620 today -- would add about $40 million per year to the budget.
"That was the level OPD was at three years ago, when crime dropped," Kernighan said. "I'm convinced that the drop in officers led directly to the rise in crime; response time is 17 minutes when it should be five (minutes)."
She said the city has to look into an outside source of revenue.
"That's a conversation we're going to have with the public this spring," she said.
Kernighan said the city's monetary reserves are larger than they've been for several years, thanks to an uptick in the economy.
"It's a relief after four years of budget cutting," Kernighan said. "However, we need to hold most of that surplus in case the state takes back redevelopment funds. The state is being very aggressive with cities, including Oakland."
Kernighan said that despite the unexpected surplus, Oakland faces a big financial drain in the form of pension debt.
"Our future revenues are not anticipated to be enough to pay for the level of public services that people were accustomed to before the financial crash," she said.
The councilwoman said getting the city back on a stable financial footing is second only to cutting crime.
"In the next couple of months, we will be looking at the two-year budget, but also with long-term problems in mind," Kernighan said. "Pensions are a huge part of it."
The city will also hold collective bargaining talks this spring with city employees.
"The outcome of those talks will affect personnel costs for years to come," Kernighan said.
The councilwoman hopes to engage the public in talks about expenditures.
"We will have to make tough decisions; therefore I hope people will let us know how they'd like public funds to be spent. There's not enough money to do it all."
As a council member and council president, Kernighan wants to see city processes run in an open and democratic way.
"I want to make sure the public has the opportunity to participate in decision making in a meaningful way," she said.
She believes the public wants the City Council to act together, put aside personal and political differences and work for the good of the city.
"If we want the city to move forward, we have to put aside any personal differences and focus on getting things done," Kernighan said. "I want the dialogue to be civil and respectful, even if we don't agree on issues."