The Need for Ethics

The city council is scheduled to hold a final vote next week on a proposal to implement a set of much-needed ethics rules in Oakland. Plus, Obama pushes for body cameras.

On November 4, Oakland voters overwhelmingly approved Measure CC, thereby greatly strengthening the city’s Public Ethics Commission. Measure CC received a whopping 73.92 percent of the vote, and it was an important victory, because the ethics commission has long been a toothless agency that suffered from a lack of resources and the authority it needed to be an effective political watchdog in Oakland. But Measure CC was only a start.

The second prong of a plan by city Councilmember Dan Kalb to increase transparency and accountability in City Hall calls for the council to approve the Oakland Government Ethics Act. The act would give the ethics commission the power to enforce a new, sweeping set of ethics rules in the city. The council is scheduled to hold a final vote on the act on December 9.

As strange as it sounds, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission (PEC), created by city voters in 1996, has never had the authority to actually enforce ethics rules, in part because Oakland didn’t have a comprehensive set of regulations like other cities do. Instead, the PEC has focused mostly on political campaign reporting violations, local open-meeting violations, and other issues. However, the PEC lacked the staff and authority to actually do anything about those violations when it found evidence of them.

Measure CC, a city charter amendment, changed that aspect of the PEC. It mandated that the city council, beginning on July 1 of next year, increase the PEC’s budget from about $300,000 a year to about $750,000 a year so that the commission can hire four additional full-time staffers. Currently, the PEC only has a budget for two full-time staffers — not enough to effectively investigate campaign finance and open-meeting laws.

Measure CC also gave the PEC the power to enforce Oakland laws that ban nepotism and conflicts of interest and prohibit councilmembers from interfering in administrative affairs. And it gave the PEC subpoena power and the authority to enforce the city’s lobbying laws and state public records and open-meeting laws. In addition, the measure allows the ethics commission to levy fines in excess of $1,000 and to censure public officials who engage in wrongdoing.

But not included in Measure CC was a comprehensive set of ethics rules. And that’s where the Oakland Government Ethics Act comes in. Drafted by Kalb and a working group of good-government advocates and co-sponsored by City Attorney Barbara Parker, the act would give the PEC the power to enforce new rules that ban so-called revolving-door and pay-to-play politics and limit the value of gifts that politicians can receive from lobbyists and other special interests.

The act incorporates aspects of state and federal laws and ethics rules from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego — three cities that have much stronger good-government rules than Oakland does. The act also provides the PEC with the authority to enforce those rules. “The act includes several important good-government provisions,” Kalb said in an interview. “… And it gives the local ethics commission the ability to enforce the law.”

Like San Francisco’s regulations, the act would bar revolving-door actions by former city officials and employees, banning them from “working for others on projects on which they had previously worked or supervised for the city,” according to a letter to the council from Kalb and Parker. The act would also prohibit ex-city officials and employees from lobbying their former city agency or department for up to one year after they stop working for the city.

Oakland’s act also lowers the dollar amount in gifts that a politician can receive annually from lobbyists from $440 to $250. It also decreases the gift limit to $50 from persons who do business or seek to do business with the city. And, similar to San Diego laws involving pay-to-play, the Oakland act would ban “officials from giving or promising anything of value in exchange for being nominated, appointed, voted for, or elected,” Kalb and Parker wrote.

Because the act is an official ordinance, the council must approve it twice, according to city law. On November 18, the council gave its first okay of the act, voting 7–0 in favor of it. (Councilmember Larry Reid did not participate in the vote.) Kalb told me that he’s confident the council will officially approve the act on December 9.

Three-Dot Roundup

Last week, we wrote about police body cameras and the need for the federal government to fully finance them in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, along with other similar incidents involving white cops killing young black men. As we noted, body cameras are being pushed by Brown’s family and are widely supported by civil rights organizations. Many law enforcement officials also back the use of the chest-mounted cameras because they’re convinced that the video-recording devices will limit the number of false accusations leveled against police. On Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he is proposing that the federal government spend $75 million in order to equip 50,000 police officers with body cameras nationwide, McClatchy News reported. …

And the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last week that it was abandoning its controversial plan to clear-cut eucalyptus groves in the East Bay hills and instead will fund a scaled-down proposal to thin the flammable trees, the Oakland Tribune reported. FEMA officials said the clear-cutting plan would have destroyed habitat for some species, including the endangered Alameda whipsnake and the red-legged frog.


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