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Oakland Capped Fines for Violations Like Dumping in 1968. Will Voters Raise It?

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A pile of illegally dumped trash underneath a 'No Dumping' sign in East Oakland. (Oakland North via Flickr)

Back in 1968, Oakland capped the amount anyone could be fined for major city code violations.

Amazingly, that $1,000 cap remains in place today. And many city leaders argue it needs to go up – way up – to crack down on flagrant offenses that have long plagued the city, like illegal dumping.

Under Measure RR, which the City Council voted unanimously to place on the November ballot, the city would be able to remove that limit and impose higher fines for some of the worst violations. (Note: Oakland's Measure RR is not to be confused with Santa Clara County's Measure RR, a sales tax for Caltrain).

"For very egregious violators of the municipal code, $1,000 is not enough to deter them from breaking the rules," said Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb, who introduced the measure. "Sometimes they will just pay the $1,000 and keep doing it."

Kalb said the cap should be raised to at least $5,000 to effectively thwart serial violators.

"It hasn't been changed in 50-plus years. That's crazy," he said. "The goal is not to get more money — the goal is to deter the bad behavior."

If passed by a majority of voters, the measure would require the City Council to hold public hearings before raising limits for specific violations, Kalb said. He noted that most fines for less serious violations that are currently well below the $1,000 cap would not go up.

The measure, he said, is particularly aimed at certain bad actors who hire themselves out to haul away people's junk, ostensibly to the county dump, but end up tossing old mattresses, broken refrigerators, construction debris and whatever else in various places around the city. For many of these operators, getting caught and paying the maximum fine costs much less than paying disposal fees at the dump, leaving the city to foot the bill — which adds up to millions of dollars each year — to clean up the mess.

"This happens time and time again," Kalb said. "Sometimes it's just a one-off of someone moving out of an apartment," Kalb said. "It's the ones that do it repeatedly and make money that we are trying to go after."

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The Alameda County Taxpayers Association strongly opposes the measure, calling it a "half-baked plan" that would give the city too much punitive power to impose excessive fines for minor infractions like cracked sidewalks or unmowed grass — a claim that backers of the measure say is inaccurate — while doing little to stop illegal dumping.

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"The Proponents are BLIND to the fact that this Charter Amendment will create a bigger mess than the problem than they are trying to solve," the group wrote in its official rebuttal.

Illegal dumping is one of Oakland’s most persistent code enforcement challenges. In 2019, nearly 29,000 Oakland residents made 311 service requests about it, accounting for over 30% of all 311 requests in the city that year — far more than any other quality-of-life issue — according to the city. So far this year, almost 40% of all 311 requests — more than 27,000 — have been illegal dumping complaints.

"It's much more common than a pothole," Kalb said.

The majority of dumped detritus comes from residential sources, a “significant percentage” of those being Oakland residents, according to a 2017 report by the city’s Public Works Department. And while the problem is widespread, the dumping is “rampant” in neighborhoods below Interstate 580 and Highway 13, the report said. It is unclear if that junk is primarily dumped by residents or by bad-actor businesses.

The city has tried a range of approaches to try to stem the problem, including a recently launched youth-based education campaign and a once-a-year free bulky waste pickup service. It even deploys a small enforcement crew focused exclusively on illegal dumping and offers rewards to residents who report it in their neighborhoods.

But without the teeth of a hefty fine, Kalb says, the problem is unlikely to go away.

"We need to update our toolbox to stop the most egregious offenders," he said.

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