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Oakland voters being asked to add muscle to the city’s Ethics Commission

on July 10, 2024

In the face of mounting political pressure, the Oakland City Council reversed course Tuesday and voted in favor of a November ballot measure that would beef up the Public Ethics Commission.

Citing Oakland’s substantial budget shortfall, the council had previously turned down a proposal that includes a slate of reforms meant to modernize the city’s watchdog agency and give it more investigative muscle. Just under two weeks later, Councilmembers Carroll Fife and Rebecca Kaplan changed their minds.

Fife, who called for the second vote, said members of her community strongly urged her to reconsider her initial dissent.

The proposal, initially brought to the council by Dan Kalb, includes a number of administrative upgrades and the tightening of rules concerning political donations by registered lobbyists. What proved to be the main sticking points, however, were the addition of one more investigator to the long understaffed commission, and the $600,000 cost of putting the measure on the ballot. 

“We’re spending money that we don’t have,” Councilmember Kevin Jenkins said during the June 26 meeting in which the council voted down the proposal 5-3. Jenkins maintained his dissenting vote at Tuesday’s meeting, along with Noel Gallo. Councilmember Treva Reid was absent.

Kalb, Janani Ramachandran and Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas disagreed, citing the commission’s out-of-control workload. According to commission Executive Director Nicolas Heidorn, the staff’s two investigators each are handling 44 cases, an amount three or four times higher than that of a San Francisco investigator. 

“At a time when there is a level of distrust in government at every level, including the city level, I would like to see us ensuring that we do have an independent organization that has resources, that can investigate those 140 active cases,” said Fortunato Bas, referring to the total number of current complaints.

Fortunato Bas alluded to investigations into city staffers and former Mayor Libby Schaaf. In addition, Mayor Sheng Thao is embroiled in a federal investigation and is facing a recall vote in November. Thao’s house was raided by the FBI on June 20 along with properties associated with the city’s recycling contractor, California Waste Solutions. 

The mayor has said she is not the target of the investigation. And the FBI has not accused her of any wrongdoing.

The Duong family, which owns and operates California Waste Solutions, has drawn scrutiny from the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the Oakland Public Ethics Commission for alleged illegal political donations. Recipients of those donations include current and former members of Oakland city government. 

Ballot measure would increase taxes to raise millions for affordable housing in Oakland

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