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.



Guest Post: Numbers And Nonsense In Oakland’s Search for Public Safety

Make Oakland Better Now! has started a 10 part series on strategies for making Oakland better, and we will be continuing with that soon.  But others have good ideas as well, and we want to share some.   The ideas in this guest post are those of Steve Spiker. A self-described urbanist, technologist, photographer and husband and father, almost new home owner, he is the Research Director for Urban Strategies.    His blog, where this post first appeared, is here.  

Oakland is once again talking about data and facts concerning crime, causes and policing practices, except we’re not really. We’re talking about an incredibly thin slice of a big reality, a thin slice that’s not particularly helpful, revealing nor empowering. And this is how we always do it.

Chip Johnson is raising the flag on our lack of a broad discussion about the complexity of policing practices and the involvement of African-Americans in the majority of serious crimes in our city, and on that I say he’s dead right, these are hard conversations and we’ve not really had them openly. The problem is, the data we’re given as the public (and our decision makers have about the same) is not sufficient to plan with, make decisions from nor understand much at all.  Once again we’re given a limited set of summary tables that present just tiny nuances of reality and that do not allow for any actual analyses by the public nor by policy makers. And if you believe that internal staff get richer analysis and research to work with you’re largely wrong.



City Council to Consider Adopting Budget and Amendments Tonight

Tonight, beginning sometime after 6:30pm, the Oakland City Council is expected to adopt the fiscal year 2013-2015 budget (item #9).  The importance of the budget can hardly be understated: this document will control the City’s expenditures over the next two years.  The budget is where the Council is called upon to put its money where its mouth is; more than any other document, it reflects the values and priorities of our elected leadership.

In April the Mayor submitted her budget to the City Council, which proposes $487 million in appropriations over two years.  You can find MOBN!’s discussion of the Mayor’s budget here, here, and here.


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Make Oakland Better Now! Looks at the Mayor’s Budget and Two Proposed Amendments – Part 3

On June 13, Make Oakland Better Now! will be present at the Oakland City Council Meeting at 6:30pm to urge the City Council to adopt the Mayor’s proposed budget with Council President Kernighan’s proposed changes.  In recent posts, we’ve been looking at budget amendments proposed by Council President Kernighan and others proposed by Council Members Brooks, Reid, and Gallo.  We encourage all Oaklanders to join us at council in urging your representatives to adopt a budget reflecting the city’s need for public safety and fiscal responsibility.

A recent resolution enacted by council has significantly increased the involvement in the budget process of the Budget Advisory Committee.  That committee met last week, and has submitted its recommendations to council here.  The highlights:


Oakland City Auditor’s Report: “A Culture of Interference”

The city auditor’s report on Non-Interference in Administrative Affairs Performance Audit found that five council members or their aides interfered in administrative affairs and violated section 218 of the Oakland City Charter, which states that council members or their aides cannot interfere with daily activities such as “contracting, hiring, appointing or firing City employees, or giving orders to City employees who are under the City Administrator’s supervision.” City Auditor Courtney Ruby called this provision “the underpinning of an ethical structure” that was created to protect citizens and businesses of Oakland alike. According to the report this ethical structure is being threatened, something that is troubling at a time when Oakland is working to earn the trust of its citizens.

The audit, conducted from 2009 through 2012, analyzed 27 anonymous reports, 67 hotline tips, 40 individual interviews, tens of thousands of emails and all applicable phone calls. The audit found that the administrative interferences originated from two council members’ offices and that those two council members “violated the law by exerting inappropriate influence in City contracting and operations.” The council members will remain on the Oakland City Council, but if they are found guilty of a misdemeanor crime for administrative interference they will be removed.


Transparency and Accountability in the Oakland City Council: Examining the Mid-Cycle Budget Process

While much of Make Oakland Better Now!’s recent advocacy has involved public safety and budget issues, two of our key values are transparency and accountability.  To us, these mean keeping City Hall’s inner workings open and honest. Now that City Council is in its August recess, we want to wrap up our discussion of the recent mid-cycle budget process, which ended in a dispiriting and opaque action by the Council.

As those who follow City Government know, Oakland operates on a two-year budget cycle.  When things are going smoothly, the City makes “mid-cycle adjustments” once, after the first year.  Other times, as in the 2009-11 cycle, it may seem as if the City is making adjustments every month.

This January, the City made significant adjustments in its budget to reflect the loss of redevelopment money after the California Supreme Court upheld legislation eliminating redevelopment agencies.  Then, in May of this year, the Mayor and City Administrator  proposed further adjustments that focused heavily on public safety and economic development, anticipated a general purpose fund revenue increase of $3.93M, and an increase in GPF spending of $3.86M, resulting in a slight net increase in the surplus.

While we noted some flaws in and questions raised by the proposal, we were generally supportive.  The administration acknowledged that the proposal did not fix all of the City’s long-term deferred expenses (e.g., pensions, retiree health care, deferred maintenance on the City’s assets), but it was operationally balanced and its emphasis on public safety and economic development made sense.  The proposals went to Council at three public hearings.  In advance of each hearing, the administration provided written reports to the public and the Council addressing questions raised by both.

What happened next?  Read about it after the jump.




The MOBN! board is proud to endorse City Attorney Barbara Parker.  We strongly encourage Oaklanders to vote for her in November.  The factors that contribute to our endorsement include her record both as  City Attorney and Chief Deputy City Attorney, her broad range of experience in the practice of law and in law office management, and her strong performance in the past year in reducing outside counsel costs by millions of dollars.  We were also strongly influenced by the candidate’s responses to the MOBN! questionnaire, which we reviewed and compared to some of our own observations of the two candidates.

In her approximately ten years as Chief Deputy City Attorney during John Russo’s years as City Attorney, and in her first year as City Attorney after her appointment to complete Russo’s term, Barbara Parker has demonstrated unwavering professionalism, integrity and competence.  While she was Chief Deputy, she was the most frequent representative of the City Attorney’s office at City Council meetings, where we often had cause to observe her even-handedness and professionalism in advising Council on both procedural and substantive matters.

Barbara Parker is a Harvard Law School graduate and a lawyer with experience in a broad range of public and private sector practices for more than thirty years. She has the depth of experience it takes to lead the City’s representation in these challenging times.  The City Attorney’s office provides a broad range of legal representation to a municipal corporation with nearly a one billion dollar budget.  The City Attorney is essentially the managing attorney  of this mid-sized law office.  Someone with Barbara Parker’s experience can best serve in this role.

In her first year in office, City Attorney Parker’s fiscal management of her department has been impressive.  In the previous nine years, the City Attorney’s Office lost more than a third of its staff (19 attorneys and 14 support staff) to City budget cuts. As the need for legal services increased and the number of in-house lawyers declined, the cost of outside law firms had increased every year because of the loss of in-house resources.

But that pattern reversed when Barbara Parker became City Attorney. In the fiscal year that just ended (FY11/12), the cost of outside counsel is down almost 40 percent from the prior year, from about $6.4 million to about $4 million. This may be the most significant recent cost reduction by any still-operating department in City government.

We carefully reviewed the questionnaire responses we received from both candidates, and appreciate the time and effort they devoted to these.  Some of the key responses and our reactions to them appear after the jump.



Make Oakland Better Now! Opposes Proposed Changes to Lobbyist Ordinance

Update — the proposal discussed in this post has been withdrawn from the City Council Agenda for next week.  MOBN! will keep members updated on future developments.

On Tuesday, May 3, at or soon after 6:30 p.m., the Oakland City Council will be considering revisions to Oakland’s lobbyist registration and reporting ordinance that will effectively eliminate registration and reporting by in-house lobbyists for corporations and unions.  These changes would move Oakland a major step away from government transparency and would allow paid employees of corporations, unions and other organizations to exert influence on Oakland city government in the shadows.

A description of the proposed changes appears in Council Member Brunner’s memo  here.  Many of the problems with the proposal, and a reasonable alternative, can be found in Council Member and former MOBN! board member Libby  Schaaf’s memo here.

The problem is this:  Like most major  California cities, Oakland requires both in-house and contract lobbyists to register with the City, and to report their non-public contacts with city officials.  Lobbying is a perfectly appropriate activity, but it often constitutes the use of money (whether by paid to outside lobbyists or to salaried in-house lobbyists) to influence City policy.  Registration and reporting requirements are designed to ensure that the public knows who is spending the money and where.

Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission recommended some modifications to the ordinance, some of which were intended to clarify exactly who was a lobbyist.  Specifically, the Commission recommended that for the employee of a corporation or other organization to be deemed a lobbyist, influencing City decisions must be part of the employee’s “regular” job duties, meaning that

such activity is specified in or inferred from that individual’s job title or description, or if that individual influences two or more items of proposed or pending governmental actions within a consecutive six-month period.

Council Member Brunner, however, proposed a far narrower definition of in-house lobbyist, providing that a company or organization employee would be deemed a lobbyist only if he or she

spends one-third or more of the time, in any calendar month, for which he or she receives compensation from his or her employer, engaging in direct communication, other than administrative testimony, with a public officer or designated employee for the purpose of influencing legislative or administrative action only on behalf of his or her employer.

We have been told that there are no in-house lobbyists who spend that much time lobbying Oakland officials.  So the effect of the proposal is to eliminate any registration or reporting requirements for employees of corporations, unions or other organizations who are paid to influence City policy.

MOBN! strongly supports government transparency, and believes transparency is a prerequisite of good government.  We will be at the the city council meeting on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. to urge council members to reject this step backward.  If you can join us Tuesday night, please e-mail us at oaklanders@makeoaklandbetternow.org;  we’ll contact you to coordinate our activities and presentation.

League of Women Voters of Oakland has put out a call to its membership urging them to contact their City Council representatives urging them to vote “no.”   We urge MOBN! members to do the same.  Our letter to City Council appears right after the jump.  Council member contact information is here:


Council District 1 – Jane Brunner
Phone: (510) 238-7001
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: jbrunner@oaklandnet.com

Council District 2 – Patricia Kernighan

Phone: (510) 238-7002
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: pkernighan@oaklandnet.com

Council District 3 – Nancy Nadel

Phone: (510) 238-7003
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: nnadel@oaklandnet.com

Council District 4 – Libby Schaaf

Phone: (510) 238-7004
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: lschaaf@oaklandnet.com

Council District 5 – Ignacio De La Fuente
Phone: (510) 238-7001
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: idelafuente@oaklandnet.com

Council District 6 – Desley Brooks
Phone: (510) 238-7006
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: dbrooks@oaklandnet.com

Council District 7 – Larry Reid (Council President)

Phone: (510) 238-7007
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: lreid@oaklandnet.com

Council member At Large – Rebecca Kaplan

Phone: (510) 238-7008
Fax: (510) 238-6910
Email: rkaplan@oaklandnet.com

Our letter to the City Council: