Michelle Romero is Claiming Our Democracy director at The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org.

This November, Oakland voters will have the chance to make sure the city has a Public Ethics Commission with real power needed to enforce our ethics laws. It’s about time.

Other ethics commissions, such as those in Los Angeles and San Francisco, have significantly more staff, independence, and enforcement authority than Oakland’s PEC.

Last year, after receiving a citizen complaint, the Alameda County Grand Jury investigated an instance in which an Oakland City Council member circumvented the city’s contracting, purchasing, and hiring rules in order to advance a special project in their district, at a time when many other projects and programs were being cut. You can read the Grand Jury report here.

This issue for Oakland voters goes far beyond the actions of one City Council member. It’s time to address the structural problems that have allowed the ethics lines in Oakland to be fudged more often than they should without any real repercussions. Oakland has had a Public Ethics Commission (PEC) in place to act as a watchdog over local government, but since it has never really been given any real funding or resources to be able to do its job, watching is about all they can do. We need a Public Ethics Commission with the power to act.

Fortunately, on July 15, the Oakland City Council decided to do the right thing and start restoring public confidence in government by passing a charter amendment to give to the PEC the funding and resources it needs to truly be independent and effective. The amendment, which now must be approved by voters, was introduced by Councilmember Dan Kalb, who put together a working group of community-based issue experts last fall – including representatives from The Greenlining Institute, League of Women Voters, and California Common Cause — to help him develop some recommendations for strengthening the PEC once and for all.

A report of the working group’s findings and recommendations is available here.

Borrowing some of the best ideas from PECs already in place in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, the charter amendment would:

  1. Increase staff from two to six, including several analysts to investigate violations
  2. Give the PEC new authority to impose fines and other penalties for whistleblower retaliation and for violations of rules dealing with ethical conduct and open government, fair campaign practices or finance, and lobbying.
  3. Increase the PEC’s independence within city government by giving the citizen commissioners a major role in hiring, evaluating and terminating the Executive Director
  4. Clarify and emphasize the PEC’s responsibility to educate and train elected and appointed city officials in ethical conduct in order to promote compliance

The measure will appear on the November 2014 ballot where Oakland voters will have a chance to make it law. This is an important opportunity for our city to finally get the first-rate Ethics Commission it deserves.

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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8 Responses

  1. James Miller

    LA and SF are rich cities with plenty of resources. Oakland is not. While it is apparently essential for Oakland politicians to spend money on every Liberal Orthodoxy, whether and how this new, mandated expenditure of funds will improve governance or quality of life in the city is unclear. Where is it demonstrated that a “strengthened” PEC helps a city, and in what manner?

    This, of course, is risk-free political candy for Dan Kalb, who can use the inevitable victory of this plan to bolster his credentials. Hopefully, it will encourage him to run for statewide office, where he truly wants to be. In the meantime, real hard choices are left unmade.

    Also, if this PEC were in place, what would it have been able to do about Desley? Please provide details.

  2. OaklandNative

    I read the article and had the same thoughts as yours.
    As you wrote, Kalb gets a shiny apple. Who would vote against “public ethics”?

    I think Brooks did the right thing in going around the bureaucratic BS and getting something done. Those councilmembers against her should be embarrassed. The ones I’m thinking (I won’t say Kalb’s or Kerighan’s name) simply look like a whiner. Ironically, they prove that the system does not work.

    Look at some of the wackos at the City Council meetings. They can abuse this new law. They can use it as a bully pulpit and create more of a bureaucratic mess. Nothing will get done.

  3. Oakie

    I’m all for a full throated PEC. Problem is, however, not what is illegal. The problem is what is legal.

    PEC staff are city employees, organized by one of the city unions. As members of those unions, they have a clear incentive to ensure that their power be maintained and strengthened. That is a conflict of interest on steroids.

    For at least the last 30 years, no one has been elected mayor or to the city council without the support, financial and electioneering leg work, of these unions. As a result, the elected officials who negotiate these union employment contracts are not representing the taxpayer’s best interest. How else is it possible to wind up with $1.5 Billion in unfunded pension liabilities (3 times the entire annual general fund budget)-promises made by those same politicians to those same unions without regard to their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of our city?

    That is why the city is not allowed, by charter and union contract, to eliminate any city jobs when the cost of contracting the work would be less. The spinning off of the Oakland Museum during the Great Recession crunch resulted in a successful suit by the union against the city on these grounds. So we can’t contract out gardening services, or allow teens to be employed for that service, or in any other single case of a service performed currently by any city employee. Our hands are tied and the result is higher costs to be borne by the taxpayer, and fewer services delivered. Why else do we have so few cops in our police force? The money is just not there because of the excessive compensation packages “earned” by the unions via double dealing the contract negotiations. Check out the US Census data on city employment salaries. We pay 20% more than even New York City, where the cost of living is 15% higher than here.

    If you want an honest and effective PEC, the only way that is possible is for the staff to not be made a part of those organizations which self-deal their employment contracts through dishonest interference with the democratic process. It’s legal, but it’s wrong.

  4. OaklandNative

    I don’t put too much faith in these “oversight” commissions/department/offices, etc.

    The City Auditor is an elected office, independent of the City Council. Has that office been effective? Look at the money wasted as part of Port sex scandal. Why didn’t the City Auditor catch that earlier?

    Police oversight was well-intended. It has become its own controversy.

  5. R2D2II

    “LA and SF are rich cities with plenty of resources. Oakland is not.”

    Oakland is a very unequal city. It’s not especially poor, but the poor parts of Oakland are very poor.

    “Whether and how this new, mandated expenditure of funds will improve governance or quality of life in the city is unclear. Where is it demonstrated that a “strengthened” PEC helps a city, and in what manner?”

    Oakland’s major ethical problems have to do with 1. transparency in government, that is, telling the truth and 2. actual accomplishments in government activities. These are not, except marginally, the kinds of matters for which the Public Ethics Commission can do anything.

    Essential dishonesty and incompetence in government are indeed ethical problems. But such problems cannot be addressed by another bureaucracy. The way to address such problems is by electing honest, competent Council members and Mayor. Unfortunately Oakland’s electeds are, as a whole, not honest or competent. For example, most of the heavily-
    funded Mayor candidates are currently residents of City Hall who are likely to be elected again. That’s our ethical problem. It’s us, those who choose to believe in liars and fools and keep them in office.

  6. OaklandNative

    On the news radio this morning, San Francisco’s Public Ethics Commission was trashed by judge. He called the commission a waste of money.

    Oakland is not San Francisco. Oakland should not do everything San Francisco does.

  7. James Miller

    OaklandNative, where did you hear that? Im very anxious to follow up and learn more.


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