OAKLAND -- Upon hearing that Councilwoman Desley Brooks faced a public reprimand for overstepping her authority in the construction and operation of a city teen center, Councilman Larry Reid predicted there wouldn't be enough votes to punish her and the proceeding would be "a dog and pony show."

Sure enough, the votes weren't there, and there was plenty of histrionics.

Instead of censuring Brooks, the council voted 6-0 with two abstentions late Thursday to reprimand themselves for years of bossing around city staffers in violation of Oakland's city charter.

The vote likely will put an end to what had become a polarizing and increasingly racially charged 18-month saga over the teen center and whether the council should formally scold Brooks for what appeared to be a particularly egregious case of directing city staffers.

Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks, 2013.  (Ray Chavez/Staff)
Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

Several council members took shots at each other during the nearly four-hour debate. And a boisterous crowd of about 100 people defended Brooks and heckled Council President Pat Kernighan.

Councilmember Noel Gallo had to be talked out of leaving the meeting early in protest and compared the scene to a raunchy television program. "With all due respect, this has gotten better than the Maury Show," he said.

The censure vote would not have carried any penalty for Brooks other than perhaps to stain her reputation as she prepares for re-election next year in her East Oakland district.

Kernighan called for the vote to show that the council could police itself after a scathing Alameda County grand jury report last month found that Brooks had broken laws in connection to the teen center.

Instead, the proceeding raised questions about whether the election of three new council members last year had done much to remedy dysfunction on the council and soothe long-standing animosities among veteran council members. Brooks sparred with Kernighan and accused Councilwomen Libby Schaaf and Rebecca Kaplan of violating the same law for which she faced punishment. Reid lobbed similar allegations and questioned efforts to build rapport among council members.

"If we don't like each other, we just don't like each other," he said. "It doesn't stop us from doing the job that we were elected to do."

Several council members were reluctant to single out Brooks because the teen center episode occurred two years ago during a period when it was common practice for council members and their aides to violate the prohibition against telling city workers what to do.

Public speakers also questioned why Brooks was the only target. "Let's not hide behind any BS," said Shelly Garza, a former council aide. "All of us used to direct staff."

While council members have collective power to approve budgets and set policy, they can't direct city staffers and are supposed to address their concerns with the mayor or city administrator.

Yet, multiple investigations found that Brooks exerted nearly total control over the Digital Arts and Culinary Academy, for which she procured construction contracts and electronics equipment without the required competitive bids and staffed the center with her own office workers, who started their jobs before going through required background checks.

The grand jury last month called the project "a complete fiasco."

That report came on the heels of a city auditor's investigation, which infuriated African-American leaders because it leveled interference allegations against both Brooks and Reid -- the council's only two African-American members during the period audited.

During Thursday's meeting, Reid said that Ruby "sits in her office and does nothing" and that she "makes it seem like the only folks violating the law are the two African-American council members."

The three council members who appeared willing to censure Brooks were Kernighan, Schaaf and Dan Kalb.

After seeing slim support for a censure, Kalb worked with Kaplan and Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney on a compromise that would not have mentioned Brooks by name but still would have referenced the grand jury's findings.

However, Brooks objected to the reference, and the council didn't challenge her. Kernighan and Gibson McElhaney both abstained on the final vote, which also called for the council to form a committee on ethics issues.

Brooks smiled and thanked her supporters after the votes were cast.

"Hopefully, this is done," she said before leaving the meeting early. "With the motion tonight to vote down the censure, I hope we can put this behind us and be about the business of Oakland."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435 or martz@bayareanewsgroup.com.