OAKLAND -- The City Council's refusal to police itself or unshackle Oakland's political watchdog commission allowed one council member to skirt discipline after she improperly seized control over the construction and operation of a city teen center, the Alameda County Civil grand jury found.
The panel scolded council members for not investigating Councilwoman Desley Brooks after receiving evidence last year that she violated the city charter's prohibition on giving orders to city staffers in connection with the teen center project.
The grand jury also called on the council to strengthen and better fund Oakland's Public Ethics Commission, which has just one-full time staffer and a budget under $200,000. The San Francisco Ethics Commission has the equivalent of 17 full-time workers and a budget of $2.2 million.
"An ethics commission with appropriate resources and power to enforce ethical standards is of the utmost importance," the grand jury wrote in a 22-page report titled "Misgoverning the City of Oakland."
The report was one of several released Monday by the watchdog panel, which also looked at but took no issue with two Hayward programs.
Cities must respond to grand jury reports but are not required to implement the recommendations.
Brooks, who was not mentioned by name in the report, did not cooperate with the grand jury's investigation or return phone calls Monday. With the council scheduled to approve a budget this month, she has opposed a proposal to increase the ethics commission's staffing. A budget plan she helped draft, which the council will consider Thursday, would remove funding for a part-time worker who focuses on registering lobbyists and government transparency projects.
The grand jury's findings echoed those of the city administration and City Auditor Courtney Ruby, who have both looked into Brooks' work spearheading the Digital Arts and Culinary Academy in her East Oakland district.
While council members have power collectively to approve budgets and set policy, Brooks "took the unofficial role of project manager" for the teen center and "exerted control over nearly every element of the project," the grand jury found.
What ensued, the grand jury wrote, "was a complete fiasco" in which Brooks procured construction contracts and electronics equipment without the required competitive bids and staffed the center with her own office workers, none of whom had undergone requisite background checks before starting their jobs.
The City Council last year declined to further investigate the matter, which in part led to Ruby's report that cited Brooks for 12 violations of the charter's prohibition on interfering with city staffers.
The council has delayed consideration of Ruby's report until July. The center is still open with the city now in charge of it.
Oakland voters established the Public Ethics Commission in 1996 to oversee open government and campaign finance laws, but left its powers up to the City Council, which has effectively neutered it, the grand jury found.
The commission has been given little power to fine and punish violators and no investigators to seek out wrongdoing. The city charter didn't give the commission authority to investigate or punish Brooks over the teen center episode.
"We have essentially a weak, unstaffed ethics commission that will never be able to do its job, and that is exactly what the City Council wants," former commissioner Ralph Kanz said.
The commission's lone full-time employee, Whitney Barazoto, said it needed five full-time staffers to effectively do its job. As of the end of last year, the commission had 16 open complaints, half of which were filed in 2009 and 2010, she said.
Councilman Dan Kalb, who took office this year, said the city should explore taxing campaign contributions to help fund the commission. A competing budget proposal he co-authored with council members Rebecca Kaplan and Lynette Gibson McElhaney would add another full-time staffer to the commission.
"That's not nearly enough, but it would help," he said.
Hayward projects not cited
The grand jury found that Hayward is correctly administering its emergency services facilities tax, adopted in 1990 to fund seismic retrofitting of government buildings. The city issued $37.1 million in bonds to build a new City Hall and fire station.
The city pays $2.6 million on the bonds annually, with the tax generating $1.9 million. The difference, $700,000, comes out of the city's general fund.
The tax will expire in 2027, when the bonds will be paid off.
The grand jury also received a complaint about notification of residents to apply for an exemption from the Measure G school parcel tax approved in June 2012. Senior citizens had 24 days the first year to apply for an exemption from the $58 annual tax.
According to the grand jury report, the limited notification time was unavoidable to meet the county's deadline to include the tax in property tax bills.
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