Oakland to require contractors to disclose ties to slavery

OAKLAND — As lawmakers around the state are exploring potential ways to pay reparations for slavery, Oakland has revived and says it’ll enforce a seemingly forgotten city law that requires certain city contractors to disclose any historic ties to slavery.

The ordinance, approved by a city council 15 years ago, also creates a fund of reparations money that’s supposed to be disbursed to help residents in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But it doesn’t force companies to put any money into the fund.

It applies to contractors that provide insurance or financial services to the city and to textile, tobacco, railroad, shipping, rice or sugar companies that do business with the city. Those businesses must complete affidavits confirming they searched company records for evidence that they had or hadn’t “bought or sold people subjected to slavery, used people subjected to slavery as collateral, provided loans to purchase people subjected to slavery, insured such transactions or the people subjected to slavery during the slavery era and/or provided related or other services to aid and abet such transactions.”

The affidavit has to include the name of enslaved people and slaveholders in company records and any evidence of business transactions that profited from slavery, according to a memo from City Attorney Barbara Parker, who brought the issue to the City Council on Tuesday night along with council members Larry Reid and Loren Taylor.

Although the ordinance was approved in 2005, there’s no record that it was ever implemented, according to Parker’s memo. There also isn’t any accessible form for contractors to submit or any public information showing whether or how city contractors are complying with the ordinance.

“The City Attorney’s Office has also heard reports that the City Administrator may have waived the requirements of the Ordinance for certain contractors, but that has not been verified,” the memo says.

The resolution passed by the City Council on Tuesday to revive the ordinance requires the city administrator to immediately prepare an affidavit form for contractors and to tell the council by the end of the year how the process is going, according to Chief Assistant City Attorney Maria Bee.

The ordinance also mandates the establishment of a fund to support education and economic development in “economically depressed” Oakland neighborhoods. City contractors or others could contribute to the fund, but won’t be required to.

By March 31, the city administrator will have to draft guidelines for how the city would use the fund, subject to the council’s approval. The city administrator will also have to create regular annual reports about the fund and the disclosure affidavits.

It’s unclear how many Oakland vendors would be subject to the ordinance, but the city attorney’s memo reports that an initial search yielded at least nine: JP Morgan Chase, New York Life Insurance, Wachovia Bank, Brown Brothers Harriman, Barclays, AIG, Aetna, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Other cities have implemented similar disclosure policies and funds, including San Francisco, but according to that city’s 2017 disclosure report — the most recent one available on its website — no firms have contributed to the fund, even after the city issued letters in 2015 asking for donations.

California became the first state to require a study of how it can provide reparations to Black residents and descendants of slaves. A nine-member task force has been created to come up with recommendations for what reparations could look like and who might receive them.

Though California was a free state when it joined the union in 1850, slave owners were allowed to bring enslaved people to the state.

City officials across the country have begun proposing measures to explore reparations, as well.

Bee told council members that fostering transparency about the history of enslavement is one of the “important first steps” of addressing its impacts.

This ordinance “shows ways wealth has been accumulated on the backs of those who were enslaved,” Bee said.

Taylor said the city should have enforced its ordinance upon its initial enactment but now has a chance to do so.

“Implementation is going to be important,” he said.

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