Several polls during the past few years have shown that the public’s trust in government is at or near all-time lows. A Pew Research Center survey released in early 2013 revealed that the percentage of Americans who trust their government to make the right decisions has hovered in the mid-20s during the past half-decade — down from an average of about 75 percent in the 1960s. There are numerous reasons for this precipitous decline, but two recent Bay Area examples may help explain people’s lack of confidence in their public agencies to do what’s right.
Both examples involved a complete lack of accountability in government. One involved the apparent illegal activities of Oakland Councilwoman Desley Brooks, and the other involved the gross errors made by Caltrans officials concerning the use of hardened steel rods on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. In both instances, the public agencies involved utterly failed to adequately deal with what happened and have shown no indications that they plan to do so any time soon.
A recent scathing report from the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury titled “Misgoverning the City of Oakland” detailed — yet again — Brooks’ conduct concerning a swanky teen center in her East Oakland council district. It was the fourth such investigation of Brooks. The first was by the San Francisco Chronicle, followed by a probe conducted by City Administrator Deanna Santana and then one by City Auditor Courtney Ruby. All four investigations came to the same conclusion: There is overwhelming evidence that Brooks violated city and state laws.
The grand jury report found conclusive evidence — as did the others — that Brooks repeatedly violated the city’s separation of powers law when she engineered the creation of the Digital Arts and Culinary Academy. The separation of powers law forbids city councilmembers from interfering in the work of city staffers and is designed to prevent cronyism, nepotism, and corruption. The grand jury report concluded that Brooks had “exerted control over nearly every element of the project, making demands of staff from multiple city departments at all levels.”
Evidence showed that Brooks engineered no-bid contracts to construct the teen center and equip it with a high-tech sound system — in violation of city contracting laws. Construction workers were not paid prevailing wages as required by state law. Brooks handpicked the employees of the center without posting the job openings as required by city law. And no background checks were conducted on the hired staffers — as required by state law — until after the center opened and was serving children. The grand jury called the whole thing “a fiasco.”
The grand jury also strongly criticized Oakland city government for doing nothing about it. Grand jurors noted that the city’s Public Ethics Commission is a toothless panel that had no power to fine or punish Brooks. The grand jury also pointed out that the other seven members of the city council have failed to censure Brooks, even though they could easily do so. “[T]he city council looked the other way …,” the report stated, “demonstrating the city council’s inability to self-police.”
The grand jury also should have criticized Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley for failing to hold Brooks accountable. O’Malley and the DA’s Office have a long track record of ignoring wrongdoing by public officials, a practice that has further eroded the public’s trust in local government. It should be noted that the grand jury is a toothless panel as well, and has no power to sanction public officials. The grand jury also has an apparent conflict of interest when it comes to the DA’s office because a prosecutor from that office guides the grand jury. In other words, the grand jury itself represents an example of our government’s inability to police itself.
As for the Caltrans steel-bolt scandal, there is no evidence of criminal behavior, but there is plenty of evidence of incompetence. A series of gross errors, in fact, prompted state transportation officials earlier this week to delay the planned opening of the new $6.4 billion eastern span until December at least.
In a detailed report, a panel of experts found at least nine major errors involving more than 2,300 steel rods on the new bridge and concluded that there was plenty of blame to go around, spreading it between Caltrans, bridge engineers from T.Y. Lin International/Moffatt & Design Joint Venture, and bridge contractor American Bridge/Fluor Joint Venture. The report, however, found that public officials for Caltrans were involved in all nine mistakes.
As has been widely reported, the most glaring error was the decision to use hardened steel rods on the bridge, even though the hardening process can make steel brittle in a marine environment. But the report also noted that Caltrans and private engineers erred when they decided to go ahead with the overly hard rods after learning that they also had been used in the retrofit of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The report called the decision “inappropriate” because rods on that bridge did not need to be tightened to high tension like they would be on the new Bay Bridge.
And sure enough, when crews tightened the steel bolts on the Bay Bridge to high tension earlier this year, 32 of them snapped. This failure ultimately delayed the bridge opening. And while Caltrans and its contractors believe they have come up with a fix for the broken bolts, it remains to be seen whether the 2,200-plus other rods will ultimately become overly brittle and snap, too — because they also must be tightened to a higher tension than those on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
In an interview with Bay Area News Group, state Senator Mark DeSaulnier said, “heads should roll” because of these mistakes. However, there is no indication to date that any such thing will happen despite overwhelming evidence that public officials put people’s lives in danger. It’s no wonder that the public’s trust in government is so low.