At the Oakland City Council meeting on Tuesday night, tensions flared as councilmembers discussed a June Alameda County civil grand jury report, which found that an Oakland city councilmember violated government ethics and conflict of interest rules.
According to the report, an Oakland City Councilmember allegedly used her influence as a government official to thwart a developer from building a multi-unit housing project next to her Oakland home. The report does not identify anyone by name, but multiple news agencies have linked the report to Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney using documents and interviews.
According to the San José Mercury News, documents opposing the project were sent from email addresses owned by McElhaney, her husband and her chief of staff to other city staff. The grand jury also stated that the councilmember in question spoke publicly on the topic at two planning commission meetings; McElhaney was the only councilmember who did, according to the Mercury News report. The building contractor has also given interviews alleging that the councilmember is McElhaney.
The grand jury report asked the council to respond to its findings. The grand jury recommended that the council follow their code of ethics, including “its mandate to be willing to censure (expression of disapproval), members who willfully violate ethical rules” by October 31.
The council president was noticeably absent from the early portion of Tuesday’s meeting, with the President Pro Tem Larry Reid (District 7) presiding. McElhaney was also absent from the council’s last meeting on October 4, citing sickness as her reason for being absent both times.
In addition to being absent from the last two council meetings, McElhaney has cancelled the past two Rules and Legislation Committee meetings, on October 6 and 13.
“If she has nothing to hide, she ought to sit up here in front of everybody and state her case,” said councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6). “That is why we have a process, so that people have their due process and have the right to appear and submit their defense.”
During the public comment section of Tuesday’s meeting, Paul Cobb, of the Post News Group, indicated that he was late coming to the meeting because he was attending a re-election fundraiser for Senator Barbara Lee (D-California) at the downtown Oakland Marriott. Cobb told the council McElhaney was in attendance at the fundraiser. Following Cobb’s comments, photos circulated on social media showing McElhaney at Lee’s fundraiser just blocks away from Oakland City Hall. McElhaney eventually arrived at the city council meeting at 9:42 p.m.
McElhaney is running for re-election in Oakland’s District 3, which one of her opponents pointed out during the public comment period. “Where is your council president tonight, when people need her?” asked Noni Session, who is challenging McElhaney for the council seat. “Where is your council president? At a political party for Barbara Lee following up on personal political interests instead of showing up for the people who need her.”
Reid wrote in a letter to the grand jury dated October 18 that the council will await the completion of the city’s Public Ethics Commission’s investigation into the allegations before “considering any action in response to the Grand Jury’s report and recommendation.”
McElhaney did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Earlier in the meeting, more than 100 members of the public, holding large yellow signs with the words “EBR4RD (East Bay Residents for Responsible Development), We BUILD the Middle Class,” stood during the public comment period to voice concerns about the adoption of a proposal for construction in Oakland’s District 2, which includes the Chinatown, East Lake and Cleveland Heights neighborhoods.
The resolution refers to a proposal previously approved by the city’s planning commission to build a new six-story mixed-use building containing 262 dwelling units and more than 13,000 thousand square feet of retail. The construction site is currently a parking lot that encompasses an entire city block bounded by 13th, 14th, Jackson and Alice streets in downtown Oakland.
The resolution would deny appeals by the Coalition of Neighborhood Stakeholders and the East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, an unincorporated association of people and labor organizations that may be adversely affected by development, to stop the construction. The two groups submitted appeals to the planning commission arguing that the plan lacks affordable housing units and violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
Councilmember Abel Guillen (District 2) asked the council to push the adoption of the resolution to the council’s November 1 meeting despite more than 20 members of the public showing up to speak on the issue.
“The item was continued to November 1st to allow the developer and the community more time to discuss project details and benefits,” said Guillen.
“I want to thank councilmember Guillen for pulling the agenda item from tonight’s meeting. It is critical that you did that,” said Matthew Leber, an Oakland resident who lives a block away from the proposed construction site and opposes the new development. “That says that the community voices that are getting together and getting organized, that what we say is important.”
In other business, the council adopted a resolution to establish a grant program to offset the taxes that low-income senior and disabled residents would endure should Measure KK pass in November. Measure KK will ask voters whether the city should approve a $600 million general bond that would invest in street and sidewalk repairs, fixing aging public buildings and parks and preserving affordable housing throughout the city. If passed, the bond would be funded through a property tax paid for by homeowners.
The council also recognized the Bay Area Urban Debate League for their work encouraging students in the Oakland Unified School District to get involved in debate activities.
Update to this story as of October 20 at 12:50 p.m.
Zachary Wald, Council President McElhaney’s Chief of Staff, responded to Oakland North’s request for comment on October 20 at 9:54 a.m. with a comment from McElhaney.
Prior to my being elected, an out-of- town investor purchased the historic Victorian home next to my home and allowed it to fall to ruin. In 2014, he proposed to build a motel-style apartment complex in its place, and my neighbors asked me to help them fight this inappropriate proposal.
At the time, I consulted with the City Attorney’s office, and I was advised to follow the same process that any Oaklander would follow – and that’s what I did. I did not direct city staff and in fact incurred extra personal costs to ensure a fair process.
On Tuesday, the Council authorized the City Administrator to respond to the Grand Jury report that cites concerns with my representation of the community’s objections to the development proposal. It is important to note that the Grand Jury is not a trier of facts and does not provide the opportunity for rebuttal to allegations.
I will make my case at the Public Ethics Commission in the coming months, and I believe that when the facts are known, people will find that I did my best to address concerns raised by members of the community, and that the outcome (the project was approved, and the appeal overturned) follows a pattern of disregard for keeping West Oakland’s historic neighborhoods intact.