Ten Strategies to Make Oakland Better (4): Public Ethics Commission Reform

Ten Strategies to Make Oakland Better

Strategy Four: Put Public Ethics Commission Reform On The Ballot and Pass It Now

Make Oakland Better Now! was established to advocate for public safety, public works, government transparency, accountability and budget Reform. Often, however, we are recognized simply as advocates for increasing the size of the Police Department. While we stand by our position that Oakland desperately needs 925 sworn officers, much more is needed to make Oakland the city its residents want and deserve. This is the fourth installment in our ten part series on steps Oakland can and should take to make this a better, safer and more sustainable city. We announced some time ago that our public ethics commission reform ideas would be coming up “shortly.” But before we got there, Council Member Kalb, and a “Good Government Working Group” including highly respected members of the League of Women Voters, MapLIght, California Common Cause, California Forward, The Greenlining Institute and other good government groups put together a proposal, and we thought their proposal deserved an evaluation before we went further.

We’ve completed that evaluation, and it’s a positive one. On Tuesday, July 15, Council will consider placing this on the ballot. We believe it should, and that voters should support it. Here’s our brief analysis.

The proposed ballot measure is the product of a study of what has worked in other California cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. It tracks recommendations of the Alameda County Grand Jury in 2012-13 (discussion starts at page 43) and the existing Oakland Public Ethics Commission in 2013, input from a number of ethics experts, all taking us to the following City Charter amendment proposals:

  • A newly established Public Ethics Commission of seven members. Instead of the typical Oakland approach to commissions, where the Mayor appoints members and each council member gets to nominate one, the Mayor, City Attorney and City Auditor each appoints a member (and qualifications for each are specified in the measure), and those three members appoint the other four. Members are precluded from working for or having a contract with the City, lobbying the City, participating in a municipal campaign or supporting, endorsing or opposing a candidate, and except for political participation, these limitations last a year after the members’ service on the Commission.
  • The Commission’s jurisdiction is significantly broadened, as it is directed to “foster and enforce compliance with”: the Charter’s non-interference and nepotism restrictions, the Campaign Reform Act, Public Financing, False Endorsement in Campaign Literature Act, Conflict of Interest Code, Code of Ethics, Lobbyist Registration Act, Sunshine Ordinance State Political Reform Act, Brown Act and Public Records Act as they relate to Oakland and “any other Oakland laws regarding campaign finance, lobbying, transparency, or governmental ethics.”
  • Enforcement includes investigations, audits, issuing subpoenas, submitting referrals to the District Attorney, FPPC or Attorney General.
  • Most importantly, the measure requires a minimum staffing level for the Commission to fulfill its duties: Presently, the staff consists of the Executive Director, a program analyst, three interns and a law clerk. In other words, there is no investigative capacity at all. The ballot measure proposal requires that in the absence of “extreme fiscal necessity,” minimum staffing shall consist of the Executive Director, Deputy Director (serving at the pleasure of the Executive Director), Public Ethics Investigator, Three Public Ethics Program Analysts and an Administrative Assistant.

Generally we would oppose building budget set-asides into the City Charter. But we make an exception for positions that by their nature must be independent from elected officials. Accordingly, we believe both the City Auditor and the Public Ethics Commission, as watchdogs over our elected officials, need an independent source of funding. And there is much more that needs to be done to make government more ethical. But while these other steps and the City Auditor’s funding are not before Council at this point, that is no reason to miss this opportunity. Make Oakland Better Now! will urge City Council to place this on the November ballot, and will urge Oaklanders to support it at the polls.

 

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