Following a series of corruption scandals that have rocked the state capital, lawmakers in Sacramento have been rushing to implement stricter ethics rules during the past few months. Although it’s disheartening that the state legislature didn’t act until elected officials were arrested, indicted, and convicted, the proposed reforms are welcome nonetheless. Likewise, Oakland City Hall would be smart to push for ethics reform this year — and not wait until it suffers its own corruption scandal.
In fact, Oakland’s ethics and corruption laws have long needed an overhaul. Last year, the Alameda County Grand Jury rightly criticized Oakland’s public ethics regulations for being weak and ineffectual. In addition, the city council has starved the Oakland Public Ethics Commission (PEC) of funds over the years. As a result, the city’s regulations are not only insufficient, but the watchdog agency in charge of investigating and enforcing the rules has been unable to effectively do so because of a lack of funds.
However, Councilmember Dan Kalb and a group of good government activists in Oakland, including the League of Women Voters, are now proposing a comprehensive plan to upgrade the city’s ethics rules and enforcement. Late last week, the group announced its proposal for a November 2014 ballot measure that would strengthen the city’s regulations and guarantee staffing for the PEC. In addition, the group wants an ordinance that would establish new anti-corruption, conflicts-of-interest, and code-of-conduct regulations for elected officials. The plan was developed over the past several months and is based on the best practices of other large cities.
“The public wants to feel better about government, and we need to prove that we can do that” for city residents, said Kalb, who represents North Oakland and ran for office in 2012 on a platform of restoring transparency and trust in government. “This has been an issue that has been building for a number of years.”
The new ethics blueprint also is just the first phase of the plan. Later this year, Kalb and the Oakland Ethics and Good Government Working Group intend to propose tougher campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics laws for the city. “For the people of Oakland to retain faith in their city government, they need to be assured that adequate structures are in place to keep it fair, open, and ethical,” said Oakland League of Women Voters President Katherine Gavzy, a member of the working group that developed the blueprint, in a statement.
Under current Oakland law, the Public Ethics Commission typically deals with campaign finance, lobbying, and open government violations in the city. But the PEC has historically been understaffed, because councilmembers — who are required to follow the city’s campaign finance and open government rules — routinely withhold funds from the agency. It’s a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse.
The PEC, as result, operates on an annual shoestring budget of just $300,000 and has only two full-time staffers, including its executive director, Whitney Barazoto. The lack of funds and staffing means that the agency can’t effectively investigate complaints of official wrongdoing. By comparison, San Francisco’s ethics commission has a staff of seventeen and a robust annual operating budget of $2.2 million.
Under the new proposal, city voters would be asked to approve a minimum staffing of seven full-time positions for Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission. The plan is based on a similar mandate in the City of San Diego. Over the next several months, the working group also plans to consider new ways to fund the PEC, including an annual fee on local campaign committees based on how much money they raise. Other cities also levy hefty registration fees on lobbyists to help finance ethics watchdog agencies.
In addition, the blueprint proposes giving the PEC more autonomy by making it tougher to remove commissioners and staffers. The proposal also would change a current law that allows the mayor to appoint three members to the commission and would give one of those appointments to the city attorney and the city auditor, respectively. The plan also proposes strengthening ethics requirements for the commissioners themselves, and to allow them to serve longer terms.
The plan also calls for greatly expanding the authority and duties of the PEC to investigate and penalize ethical wrongdoing. The PEC, for example, would have the power to formally reprimand or censure councilmembers for illegally interfering in the city’s administrative affairs. The PEC also would have the power to investigate and enforce the city’s anti-nepotism law, conflicts-of-interest rules, and whistleblowers’ protection law.
The plan also would eliminate the maximum fine of $1,000 that can currently be imposed by the PEC, replacing it with stiffer fines based on the severity of the wrongdoing. The PEC also would have the power to enforce code-of-conduct rules on the mayor, city attorney, city auditor, and city administrator. The proposal also calls for establishing “revolving-door restrictions” that would prohibit city officials, after they leave office, from accepting work with employers to whom they awarded government contracts.
In short, the plan is excellent — and one that Oakland desperately needs. Kalb said the blueprint will get its first public airing soon in front of the Public Ethics Commission. In the meantime, it’s available for review on Kalb’s council District One website. He’s planning to ask his fellow councilmembers to vote in late July to put a city charter amendment on the November ballot and to approve changes to existing laws in order to strengthen Oakland’s ethics regulations.
Let’s hope he’s successful, because good government reforms in Oakland are long overdue.