Major opportunities to improve the way a city operates and serves its residents are rare. Last year, the City of Oakland encountered such a chance. After a groundswell of community support and months of working on a solution, our time is now to decide whether we want to make Oakland’s government more accountable to the public by strengthening the city’s Public Ethics Commission.

In March 2013, the Oakland City Auditor released a report that alleged serious ethical violations by a number of City Council members. In a dramatic meeting, the City Council determined that they did not have sufficient legal mechanisms to handle the allegations. In a moment of agreement between City Council members and the public, it was decided that these sorts of matters would best be handled by the Public Ethics Commission.

Created in 1996, the Commission operates under a dual mission to “promote the highest confidence in the ethics of the government of the City of Oakland,” and to “ensure that government works the way it’s supposed to — that its people are treated fairly, with honesty and integrity.”

Even with such a public mandate, the Public Ethics Commission doesn’t have the legal authority or staff capacity to carry out its critical mission. In July 2013, four months after the Auditor’s report, the Alameda County Grand Jury confirmed this deficit of authority. They released a report stating that “the City Council had not given the [Public Ethics Commission] the tools necessary to address such transgressions that undermine the notion of fair and open government.”

Public outcry and steps towards reform soon followed. Councilmember Dan Kalb organized an “Ethics and Good Government Working Group,” consisting of members from MapLight, the League of Women Voters, the Greenlining Institute and other leading organizations in good governance. The Working Group took an exhaustive look at the way the Commission was structured, gathered feedback from the public, and assessed best practices in good governance from across the state and country. In May 2014, they issued a report making recommendations to Oakland for Public Ethics Commission strengthening.

Last week, on June 9, the Public Ethics Commission met for a special meeting to discuss a proposal drafted by Councilmember Kalb. The proposal takes in these recommendations and suggests amending the City Charter by ballot measure to make it possible for the Commission to ensure that Oakland’s government operates fairly and ethically. The proposal includes clarity on many internal procedural issues, but also includes the following six significant changes (read a full analysis published by the Public Ethics Commission):

  1. Staffing of the Executive Director will be decided by upon by the Commission instead of City Administrator;
  2. Creation and fulfillment of seven full-time positions within the Public Ethics Commission, including additional investigators;
  3. Oversight authority given to PEC regarding upcoming ethics ordinance;
  4. Oversight authority given to PEC regarding Oakland Conflict of Interest Code;
  5. Oversight authority given to PEC regarding Charter Codes dealing with Non-interference in Administrative Affairs, Nepotism and Conflict in Office; and
  6. Oversight authority given to PEC regarding enforcement of any ordinance intended to protect City whistleblowers from retaliation.

When the the Public Ethics Commission was chartered nearly 20 years ago, Oakland was a leader in the effort to make government more responsive to public concerns. But the charter no longer reflects the City’s recent laws, and lacks clear guidance on the role and authority of the Commission.

One year has passed since the original Auditor and Grand Jury reports outlined the challenges and deficiencies in the Public Ethics Commission. Much work has been done to create solutions that will remedy these issues.

We now have an opportunity to update the laws that strengthen the body designed to oversee ethics issues in Oakland government. The question before us is whether the City of Oakland will once again lead, or if it will allow this issue to fade away.

To express your thoughts about what should be done, the Rules Committee will meet June 19 at 10:45 a.m. to discuss the measure. But more importantly, the measure will be before the full City Council on July 15th starting at 5:30 p.m.


Eddie A Tejeda serves as the Vice-Chair to the Public Ethics Commission and is the co-founder and Director of Technology to OpenOakland, a non-profit that works to advance civic innovation and open government through community partnerships, engaged volunteers, and civic technology.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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26 Responses

  1. Len Raphael

    The Ethics Commission is a toothless watchdog. No question it needs to be fitted with a good set of chompers.

    Over the years there have been many complaints brought before the commission that get blown off. Doubtless many more that people don’t bother filing.

    But Auditor Ruby’s indictment of Reid and Brooks is more politics then anything else. Even her report states that interference in City operations by Councilmembers is widespread. So why only aim the spotlight at Reid and Brooks? No explanation given.

    I get the impression that you haven’t been around City Hall all that long. If you had, you’d know that unlike normal cities like San Francisco or Berkeley, council members here are all mini-Mayors and even mini-City administrators. Brunner, Nadel, and IDLF were examples of that at it’s worst and it’s best. At it’s worst it probably was similar to what Ruby accused Reid and Brooks of doing. At it’s best it was squeezing quality constituent services out of a highly dysfunction city bureaucracy.

    If Auditor Ruby really wanted to take on a tough ethics issue, how about reviewing all the Grand Jury criticisms of Oakland City Government over the past 20 years and evaluate the City’s response to the criticisms. Case in point: the Grand Jury recommendations about the building inspection abuse of blight inspections and liens.

    Yes we need an adequately funded and staffed Ethics Commission with the power to enforce it’s decisions.

    But even more we need a city government with a strong and effective Mayor and City Administrator who overhaul the bureaucracy and the systems so that residents don’t have to depend on their Council members to make the system work properly.

  2. R2D2II

    “Auditor Ruby’s … report states that interference in City operations by Councilmembers is widespread.”

    True. You can for example find Council member Schaaf’s emailed newsletters online on her Council website where she brags about interfering with how building inspections are done. Interference is no doubt universal in the Council but that does not make it right or good.

    I disagree that Ruby’s naming of Reid and Brooks was political in nature. I think it was just the opposite–politically naive and counterproductive. Politicians need to know how to play political games well if they are to be effective. Ruby’s game-playing in that case didn’t work.

    “If Auditor Ruby really wanted to take on a tough ethics issue, how about reviewing all the Grand Jury…”

    That’s a good idea. The GJ has made lots of quite obvious statements about how Oakland could work better. Like adequately resourcing the police department so it could actually prevent and solve crimes.

  3. Adam Stiles

    Thanks to Dan Kalb and the PEC — this is basic to the health of Oakland government.

    What is definition of “oversight authority”? Will this be specific (and strong) enough to be effective?

    How was the number of recommended positions determined (“seven full-time”)? In any case, a vast improvement; just unclear from the outside what the logic is.

  4. livegreen00

    Len, you’re right about the interference of City Councilmembers being wide spread. But I disagree it is necessarily political. It also might be a) B/c these were the most recent interference that happened on Courtney Ruby’s watch; b) B/c they were the most egregious examples.

    One cannot expect Ruby to examine & investigate the past 20 years of wrong doing. One also cannot expect her to investigate everything. She has neither the staff nor the budget. She MUST pick her battles.

    Who has oversight over her budget? Who has cut it over the past several years? Who has NOT increased it OR the budget to reform & get effective city services for citizens from “a highly dysfunction city bureaucracy.”?

    Why, the City Council. For the latter, that includes Dan Kalb.

    I do thank Dan Kalb, Eddie Tejada, and other members of the PEC for their efforts to reform & fund the PEC. It’s a good start and, although the government is failing it’s citizens in other areas of good government, I believe first steps are great.

    PS. The lack of perfection is not a reason to shoot down any progress, a reason commonly given to not get anything done in Oakland.

  5. OaklandNative

    I dealt with the Public Ethics Commission (department?) a few years ago. It was a waste of time.

    Len said the Public Ethics Commission was a dog without teeth. I would say they were just windowdressing.

    As far as the City Auditor. I’ve sent public records requests to that department several times and never even got a courtesy reply. I don’t know how she is choosing who to investigate or not. There are bigger issues to be investigated.

    Even if the councilmembers do give the Public Ethics Commission some teeth, the question becomes who will use them? As we see at the council meetings, the people who scream the loudest get the most attention. Their demands don’t even have to be sensible or reasonable.

  6. Len Raphael

    Hugh, we’re not talking perfection expected of a City Auditor who’s been in office for some 7.5 years now and has maybe come up with a couple of million dollars of mispent money out of an annual city budget almost a billion.

    If she had no staff and had audited OPD OT by herself, she would have come with some $millions of padded OT.

    I don’t know Ruby’s motivation for waiting years before investigating council interference in City operations. But I do know that her choice of targeting Reid and Brooks and her consistently great self-promotion made her look like a fearless champion of the voters against City Hall to affluent hills voters who are convinced Reid and Brooks are evil and who have no idea how to evaluate the performance of a City Auditor.

    Coincidental timing before running for Mayor.

  7. Len Raphael

    The best deterrent to Council Member violation of the separation of legistlative and operations would be for our City Council members to write a charter amendment that gives more power to the office of Mayor and takes power away from the Council.

    t the charter should be amended to strengthen the powers of the office of Mayor and weaken that of the Council.

    I say that even though I was treasurer of the second effort to recall Mayor Quan.

    I’ve come to realize that a competent mayor could overcome many of the limitations of the office, but the responsibility for our many of our failed public security and fiscal policies falls squarely on three decades of elected council members. Result has been a poorly running city which often needs to be goosed by a phone call from a Council member’s staff member.

    Yes, the repeated failure of Dellums and Quan to nominate City Administrators who knew the nuts and bolts of operating a city and managing 3’000 employees did contribute to our city government’s failure to effectively deliver high quality services. But under the current Charter the responsibility for hiring those administrators belongs to a decade of City Council Members.

    Better to give the Mayor full authority to hire and fire the City Administrato.

    Then hold the Mayor responsible for performance.

  8. R2D2II

    Although I think that LR’s comments on the ways that Oakland’s government fails are accurate, I don’t follow most of his suggestions for improvement.

    Fine-tuning the Charter is indirect and could very well fail.

    Even a wholesale rewriting of the Charter to prescribe a ideally much-more-effective government could fail.

    The bottom line is competency among our elected officials. I think that our problems in Oakland are due to a largely very mediocre group of people who have been in office for far too long. They have subscribed wholeheartedly to doing things in ways that do not work: there is little if any long-term planning; there is no rational workplan for solving problems according to a set of clearly-stated priorities; there is a notable lack of vision for a better future for Oakland.

    Our government is short-sighted, makes one poor decision after another, is reactive rather than proactive and so on. It just doesn’t work to be this way.

    The bottom line is to start electing a higher quality of person to the Council and Mayor’s offices. Yes, most of the candidates are not very good. Perhaps if we succeeded in electing a really competent mayor and just a couple of really competent Council members and had some real successes this would improve morale and creativity throughout the city and much better people would run for office.

    I am always discouraged when I read comments in various media from editors and from readers about how “well-intended” or “hard working” they think some of our electeds are. I think the results are clear–the “work” being done in city hall simply isn’t working.

  9. Len Raphael

    R2, you’d have us depend on getting better candidates or smarter voters, preferable both.

    What makes you think that’s inevitable or that we have the time to wait for it?

    Instead let’s make some structural changes to the setup of Oakland government that encourages good decisons by giving the Mayor’s office the power and the responsibilty to run the city so the Mayor and Council can’t point fingers at each other. So that the Council gets rewarded for side deals that help every Council member to get re-elected but don’t help the City as a whole to move forward.

    Continue with improving transparency as Eddie T has been doing so the voters can reward and punish the politicians.

  10. R2D2II

    LR–You are right. There’s no reason not to proceed on as many paths to improvement as possible.

    I only wanted to make the point that the quality of the people involved is always the bottom line.

    Further, to improve the quality of the electeds Oakland needs competent investigative journalists and media which are sadly lacking. A model which is recent in San Francisco is Tim Redmond’s 48 Hills progressive blog. I hope that someday soon we might be able to do something similar.

    It’s impossible given the current media obscurity in Oakland to make any sense out of the EIGHTEEN candidates running for Mayor. It’s a real zoo and there is no easy way for the competent candidates to establish their competency for the voters. This means just based on random assignment of preferences we’re likely to see more of the same after the fall elections.

  11. Len Raphael

    R2, yes good people can overcome bad structure everytime.

    Why don’t we get better people for both our elected offices and top administrative positions?

    For some elective offices the financial compensation is not competitive with what someone in the peak earning years of a private career would earn working full time.

    Start with a profession I’m familiar with. For example our City Auditor is paid about 139k/year plus medical/dental plus about 10k/year pension contribution by the City.

    The median national total compensation of a “director of internal audit” is 200k/year.

    Doubtless the head of internal audit in a private sector company has to put in many more long days than a public sector City Auditor and gets shorter vacations.

    Even so, the former Oakland chief finance person who worked under Santana earned about 240k plus benefits before he left for a better job in Concord.

    You’d think the City Auditor should get paid close to what the city finance person gets paid if for no other reason, the City Auditor has 0 job security theoretically, though in Oakland incumbency is a whole different universe.

    Audit partners in private CPA firms earn 250k to 500k/year.

  12. R2D2II


    I agree that better-focused financial incentives could make a difference for Oakland.

    One suggestion I heard a few years ago from a board member of a local conservative political organization was that Oakland Council members should be paid more. Council members make about $100K including benefits. With higher pay (say $175K) which wouldn’t break the bank perhaps we could attract a more competent, more competitive class of Council members than we have now. I would describe our Council members largely as losers and hangers-on who would be very unlikely to get a job elsewhere. So they stick around and keep us as a city from moving ahead.

    Of course the chief problem is that there would be very little public support for paying more to the existing crew of elected miscreants. Maybe a petition drive could foster a ballot measure for higher pay only for newly-elected people.

    Other thoughts about getting new blood in city hall:

    1. Make Oakland electoral politics partisan so that there would always be an opposition party to the status quo. Nonpartisan politics in Oakland is a joke and keeps our politics from being more lively and more transparent.

    2. Have candidates who are not currently city hall residents join together for some of their campaign and outreach efforts and present a united front at least on the issue that change is needed and alternatives are available.

    I could see, for example, an alternative mayor candidates forum here before the fall elections to include candidates like Tuman, Parker, Siegel and others but excluding Quan, Schaaf, Kaplan and possibly Ruby who already have more name recognition and thus have a step-up in getting first-, second- or third-choice votes. As it is many voters no doubt thing some tiny incremental improvement over Quan will be good. A group of alternative candidates could focus on getting out the message that cleaning house is what is needed.

  13. Len Raphael

    R2, City Council member is officially a part-time position with full time benefits. I haven’t checked, but I assume that City Auditor, City Attorney, and Mayor are all categorized as full time positions.

    I don’t know what the Charter or city ordinances define as full time. Suppose one could ask the PEC but if they’re as understaffed as claimed, that could take months.

    While on the Council, Jane Brunner worked full time for the law firm of Dan Siegel and Alan Ye, and still does according to their website. I heard some complaints that her day job made it hard for her to prepare for council sessions. I do know that her constituent services were handled very ably by her staff and her chief, Zack Wald.

    Ignacio De La Fuente had a full time job as a business rep or shop stewart for a small union at an East Oakland/San Leandro factory/foundary.

    I always thought Nancy Nadel worked full time as a geologist at one of the public utilities, but someone told me that she only had her city council job until she started her chocolate biz.

    Can someone find out and post what, if any, the non-city employment/business of current city council members? Would think it’s disclosed in one of reports on the City Clerk’s election site.

  14. OaklandNative

    I don’t think modifying the City Charter makes a difference if nobody’s read it.

    The officials should refer to it. The public should know about it.

    Particularly, right now with all these people campaigning for mayor. What does the City Charter specifically list as the duties and power of the mayor? Are these candidates making promises they can’t keep?

    By the way, I don’t know how much of a strong mayor I want. I think it is better to have the different opinions. Yes, it causes bickering, but who should be the one person to make all the decisions? Also, the councilmembers are more accessible than the mayor. They can at least make sure their district is heard.

    Like Len said, certain districts might be against Reid and Brooks. However, they are loved by many in Oakland (including me).

  15. Len Raphael

    ON, darn good suggestion. All these years and I never read the Charter’s definition of the roles of Mayor, Attorney, Auditor, and Council etc.

    “Section 305. Functions, Powers and Duties. The Mayor shall be the chief elective officer of the City, responsible for providing leadership and taking issues to the people and marshalling public interest in and support for municipal activity. The Mayor shall have the following powers, duties, and responsibilities:

    The Mayor shall be responsible for the submission of an annual budget to the Council which shall be prepared by the City Administrator under the direction of the Mayor and Council. The Mayor shall, at the time of the submission of the budget, submit a general statement of the conditions of the affairs of the City, the goals of the administration, and recommendations of such measures as he may deem expedient and proper to accomplish such goals.
    Recommend to the Council such measures and legislation as he deems necessary and to make such other recommendations to the Council concerning the affairs of the City as he finds desirable.
    Encourage programs for the physical, economic, social and cultural development of the City.
    Actively promote economic development to broaden and strengthen the commercial and employment base of the City.
    Appoint the City Administrator, subject to confirmation by the City Council, remove the City Administrator and give direction to the City Administrator. The Mayor shall advise the Council before removing the City Administrator.
    Serve as ceremonial head of the City.
    Represent the City in inter-governmental relations as directed by the Council.
    Provide community leadership.
    Should compare our charter to that of a bigger charter city like SF or LA. SF is a charter county also, its Mayor is also the SF County Chief Executive. Just judging by articles in the Chron over the years, it seems like the SF Bd of Supervisors plays a smaller role than the Oakland City Council. “

  16. Len Raphael

    ON: “Are these candidates making promises they can’t keep?”


    Unless the can jawbone as well as Brown did and is so popular that she/he can threaten to go directly to the voters,.

  17. OaklandNative

    Read the City Charter’s discussion of City Auditor. Can Ruby really argue that she’s done her job in compliance with the City Charter?

  18. R2D2II

    “Jane Brunner worked full time for the law firm…her day job made it hard for her to prepare for council sessions.”

    I cannot remember a single CC meeting at which Brunner presided when she was prepared for the meeting.

    My opinion of someone who fails to perform a public trust in such fashion is that they should be removed from office and subjected to criminal sanction.

    The discussion here regarding clarifying the responsibilities of our elected officials is quite revealing. Oakland’s governance is largely a mess and no one running for office is proposing a way out. That would seem to be the first order of business–to create a functional government. Next would be to write a public safety plan and so on.

  19. Len Raphael

    ON, re Ruby’s performance in her 7.5 years as City Auditor.

    I’ll quote Bob Gammon comment paraphrasing Matt Artz “But as Oakland Tribune reporter Matthew Artz noted at the April 3 mayoral debate at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Ruby has failed to uncover substantial waste of public funds during her tenure as city auditor. That’s why Ruby was flummoxed by Artz’s question about how she could expect to find the millions needed to hire 200 to 300 new police officers when she hadn’t found substantial waste as auditor.”

    Ruby and Kaplan have perfected similar approaches to achieving popularity. Avoid controversial issues that affect potential allies and future campaign contributors. But do take a stand on something that no one else is championing so you look like a fearless leader. Communicate the heck out of what little you have done.

  20. R2D2II


    There is a problem of showing useful outcomes with all of the city-hall-resident Mayoral candidates and with Oakland electeds generally. They invariably say “I’ve done this or that” towards accomplishing something but never provide evidence that there is a measurable outcome. Measure Y is a prime example but there are very many others. Typically what the electeds say they’ve “done” is to support something by voting for it in Council. That’s what passes for “doing” and I see it as a fail.

    I don’t think you are being fair to Ruby. She may have flubbed the answer to the question about whether she can support 200 more cops by identifying enough governmental waste to cover the costs. That could well be a sign of an unwillingness to spew forth a big lie.

    Ruby does claim, however, to have identified 6 dollars of waste for each dollar her office has cost. That seems to me to be an accomplishment but I haven’t checked out the numbers. I have read many Auditor’s reports from her office over the years where she does specify amounts of money she has returned to citizens from overpayments and so forth.

    Ruby also harps on the problem of pension debt/finance which the incumbent and competing Council members carefully do not mention as far as I know.

    Ruby also identifies clearly the lack of leadership. That’s not something that Quan or current Council members like to talk about because they simply do not have the slightest idea what leadership is all about. The quotes cited above from the Charter do indeed mention leadership.

  21. Len Raphael

    Ruby was about 7 years too late “harping” on the retirement liabilities. And even then she put too much of the blame on the recession.

    btw, did you ever read her so called “performance audit” of Measure Y anti-violence programs? It evaluated how well the programs “performed” at documenting how they spent our money.

  22. Len Raphael

    R2, re Ruby’s performance. Yes, we’re getting what we paid for with her. Which is not that much.

    Sad part is that her performance looks great compared to our other elected officials.

  23. Oakie

    How pathetic is this:

    Did you read today’s Matt Artz story in the Tribune about Kaplan’s shenanigans illegally using “Independent Campaign Funds,” tricks invented by Willie Brown to subvert campaign finance laws?

    The current “purpose” of that Kaplan run fund is to support Measure BB, and after collecting $53,000 in this slush fund and apparently already spending it for likely illegal purposes, she’s decided to terminate it under pressure from her friends. Now that it’s getting unwanted attention.

    At the end of the article is this nugget:

    “Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission would have jurisdiction to review Kaplan’s use of her ballot measure fund, but no complaints have been filed.

    Stern said that Kaplan’s decision to terminate the fund was itself a victory for compliance. ‘It’s a good thing,’ he said. ‘There won’t be any question about it this year.'”

    There is the little matter of how the fund was a vehicle for collecting $29,000 in 2010 from exactly two people, the bulk from a developer with a variance before the City Council for which she voted in his favor (surprise, surprise).

    The balance of the fund was spent on a consultant who states he worked exclusively on her mayoral campaign and employees who worked exclusively on her campaign. All of which is illegal.

    So it looks like 100% of that fund was used for illegal purposes. Good job, Kaplan.

    My take on it here:

    So here’s my question to the gathered collective wisdom of Oakland:

    Exactly how does this proposed change alter the behavior of the PEC toward these outrageous illegal actions intended specifically to subvert all our campaign ethics laws?

    As far as I can see, it spends more money for more employees with lifetime employment guarantees and above market salaries for which we will accomplish bubkis.

  24. OaklandNative

    The honeymoon with Kaplan is over. When she was out of the race, people/media could point to her as the darling. Now that she is in the race, she’ll get the same scrutiny as the rest.


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