New work group to probe city council’s ethics, accountability
on October 2, 2013
Oaklanders said that they want “more teeth” and more staff strength for the Oakland Public Ethics Commission to help keep the city council ethically accountable.
The Ethics and Good Government work group, a pet project of District One Councilmember Dan Kalb, held its first official meeting, an open forum on Monday evening to invite residents’ feedback about their concerns.
A repeated complaint was a lack of manpower and authority for the Public Ethics Commission, which is technically separate from the new work group.
The Public Ethics Commission has received special attention since June, when the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury found Councilmember Desley Brooks had violated the city’s ethical code by cutting corners in establishing a teen center. (The councilmember defended her actions and, after a fractious meeting, the city council ultimately voted against reprimanding her.)
In a separate but related matter, media outlets reported Tuesday that an audit of Oakland’s worker’s compensation program disclosed that city employees allegedly accepted inappropriate gifts in 2007 and 2008. The audit also charged that the city’s Risk Division overspent its $13 million allowable expenditures by $10 million without required approvals.
Asked about the audit, Kalb told Oakland North that the matter is in the past, and the city has made great strides since then. Some of what was revealed in the report goes beyond the scope of the ethics commission and falls to the city administrator, he added.
“If there is some problematic behavior shown by city employees, then we want to make sure there’s a system set up to find that out and address it sooner rather than later,” Kalb said, referring to the ethics commission.
City spokesperson Karen Boyd said the audit is one of several “legacy issues” in city government, and the city’s effort toward a culture change includes the increased focus on ethics.
“All elected officials now complete ethics training,” Boyd said. “And the city administrator requires department heads and senior staff members to take the same training.”
The board of advisors for the commission is comprised of seven volunteers who meet monthly. There are only two paid, full-time commissioners.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Whitney Barazoto, one of its two paid staff, said that, in a perfect world, there would be five total staff, to include an attorney, an administrative assistant and an investigator. The city recently allocated funding to hire another, and the position of program analyst was created.
The five paid staff members would be in addition to the seven volunteer commissioners.
Barazoto added that she is optimistic about the effect the work group will have on the commission.
“There was a lot of community sentiment expressed tonight,” she said. “[I hope the work group] will take the sentiment and translate it into law or policy.”
The commission’s lack of staff is a reality that has consequences, said Roberta Johnson, a public ethics commissioner who clarified that she was speaking simply as an individual and not on behalf of the commission.
“To have officials break laws without penalty is worse than having no laws at all,” Johnson said.
“The Oakland City Council does not know how to police itself and needs a strong ethics commission,” said Gary Sirbu, a local attorney.
Sirbu urged the work group and the ethics commission in turn to “seek independent jurisdiction” and “not work through the mayor’s office.”
Norm Budman, a retired Oaklander, said the lack of funding is a major issue that hinders the work of the ethics commission.
“Commissioners need to get more active,” Budman said. “Oakland isn’t a rich city right now. There isn’t enough funding.”
Kalb said the work group was adopted last summer on a 7-0 vote by the City Council and described it as “informal.”
“There’s no formal or official authority or function for it,” Kalb said.
Although it lacks a formal direct relationship, the work group aims to provide additional perspective, a place for more community input and additional proposals for the ethics commission to vet. Kalb said he hopes the group will be able to do some “groundwork” for the commission, which is staffed on a mostly-volunteer basis.
“I think ultimately what I want to come out of this is a set of propals, including a charter change probably, that has some consensus support,” Kalb said.
Correction: Ms. Barazoto is a paid staffer. A previous article incorrectly identified her position.
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