Oakland Has a Transparency Problem

Numerous boards and commissions in Oakland — and elsewhere in the East Bay — routinely violate local and state open meeting laws.

Oakland has a transparency problem. Numerous city boards and commissions do not comply with California’s Ralph M. Brown Act and the Oakland Sunshine Ordinance, which require that government agencies inform the public about public meetings in advance. The Brown Act requires that the public be notified 72 hours before a meeting. The Sunshine Ordinance requires ten days notice for city council, planning commission, and port commission meetings, and 72 hours for other boards and commissions. State and city laws also require government agencies to post the agendas in a public place that is accessible 24 hours a day.

However, the city is part of a public joint powers authority (JPA) that receives taxpayer funds and has no functioning website and hasn’t posted meeting agendas or minutes in years, despite the fact that the JPA’s board is holding frequent meetings and spending public money. And that’s not the only board or commission that has failed to inform the public about what it’s doing. “Telling people when a public meeting is and what’s on the agenda is one of the most basic functions of government,” said Joshua Daniels, a good government gadfly who closely watches Oakland City Hall.

On Thursday, April 7, Daniels was hoping to attend a meeting of the city’s Housing Residential Rent-Relocation Board. The Rent Board typically meets on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month to mediate disputes between landlords and tenants. Daniels went on the board’s website, and looked for an agenda for that night’s session. It wasn’t there. Frustrated, he tweeted: “No agenda is posted for tonight’s mtg of the #Oakland Rent Board, in violation of Brown Act & Sunshine Ord.” The tweet circulated widely, and at 5:42 p.m. the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, using its Twitter account, replied that it had contacted the City Attorney’s Office, and that the Rent Board meeting had been cancelled.

“There’s all this open government cheerleading in Oakland — like we’re transparent,” said Daniels. “But that’s not the case at all.”

I called the Rent Board about the incident. “The meeting was cancelled,” said Rent Adjustment Program Manager Connie Taylor. “We didn’t realize it had to be cancelled until the last minute.” Taylor didn’t say why the meeting was cancelled, or why the agenda hadn’t been posted online, and then said she would have to get permission from the City Administrator’s Office before answering any more questions. She didn’t call back.

Ironically, the Rent Board is one of the most observant city boards when it comes to complying with the Brown Act and the Sunshine Ordinance. Its webpage includes agendas and minutes from past meetings, and usually provides the proper legal notice for future meetings. But many other boards and commissions have no website, or they have inaccurate and outdated information online, and they fail to post materials in a timely manner.

For example, the website for Oakland’s Workforce Investment Board (WIB) is missing agendas and meeting minutes for every meeting held since December 2, 2010. Links to many of the WIB’s subcommittee pages don’t work. The City/Port Liaison Committee has no webpage. It’s unclear if or when this committee has met in recent months. Its staff liaison didn’t return a phone call. I called the contact number on the Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness Council’s website. “The council’s meetings are not open to the public,” said the person who answered the phone.

Oakland Emergency Service Manager Cathey Eide, who oversees the Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness Council, called me back immediately to correct her staff member’s mistake. “The meetings are open to the public,” said Eide. “Anyone can attend.” Eide said she emails notices of the council’s meetings to City Clerk’s office. “I don’t think anybody has ever asked us to post them anywhere,” Eide said. Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance doesn’t require most city boards and commissions to publicly post their meeting agendas on the web, but many aren’t posting these materials in any public location; instead, they’re filing them with the City Clerk.

But the clerk’s office isn’t in charge of noticing board and commission meetings, or providing agendas and minutes and other records for the public. “Boards and commissions are a decentralized activity,” said LaTonda Simmons, Oakland’s city clerk. “Each board and commission is assigned a staff liaison, and they’re responsible for noticing meetings and preparing agendas.”

On April 7, the same day Daniels was raising questions about the Rent Board’s missing agenda, Simmons and Mayor Libby Schaaf convened a training session for staff liaisons to boards and commissions. “The City Attorney’s Office presented, explaining what [about noticing] to fulfill their responsibilities,” said Simmons, adding that she thinks the city is making progress.

But it’s not just Oakland’s boards and commissions that are failing to notice properly. For example, there’s the Youth Ventures Joint Powers Authority (JPA). Its meetings aren’t noticed anywhere on the city’s website, or the bulletin board in front of City Hall. Created in 2007, the Youth Ventures JPA is an independent governmental body, different from boards and commissions under Oakland’s authority. It’s subject to the Brown Act’s requirements, including that it post its agendas 72 hours before any meeting in a publicly accessible place. The Youth Ventures JPA’s board is composed of members of the Oakland City Council, the Oakland Unified School District, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and the San Lorenzo school district. Oakland pays the JPA $150,000 a year, which represents a big chunk of the authority’s budget. But its recent meetings, including a board meeting on March 5, and a retreat on March 27, weren’t publicly noticed.

The City of Oakland provided the Express copies of the JPA’s recent and past agendas and meeting minutes. According to Nai Phan, an administrative analyst in the City Clerk’s office, these records were sent by the JPA to the city, but the city isn’t responsible for publicly posting them. Oakland schools spokesperson Troy Flint said OUSD also isn’t responsible for publicly noticing the JPA’s meetings. There’s no mention of the JPA on Alameda County’s website. An outdated website for the JPA lists Jean Quan, Nancy Nadel, Jane Brunner and Anthony Batts as the city’s representatives on the board — none of whom currently hold office in Oakland. The last meeting agenda for the JPA available on the website is from January 24, 2011.

Kathleen Harris, CEO of the Youth Ventures JPA, said that the authority’s agendas are noticed on the websites of its members, including Oakland and OUSD. But her assertion is untrue.

Oakland Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington was recently appointed to the Youth Ventures JPA board along with Schaaf and Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney. All three attended the JPA’s meetings in March. Campbell Washington said the city is not posting the JPA’s agendas, because it’s the JPA’s responsibility. “We should probably both be doing it,” said Campbell Washington. She said she’s working to fix the problem.

Daniels said he’s seen some progress since he pointed out the Rent Board’s missing agenda. “The city has made some new webpages for some of the committees, but they still have a lot of work to do.”

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