For the first time since the creation of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission (PEC), we have a chance to create a stronger watchdog over Oakland government. With the assistance of an expert working group, I have introduced a proposal for a PEC Charter Amendment ballot measure, which will be brought to the July 15 meeting of the Oakland City Council for a vote to place it on the November 2014 ballot.
The proposed Charter Amendment would improve the PEC by:
The overarching goal of an independent and empowered PEC is restoring and safeguarding the public's trust and confidence in city government. Since its inception in 1996, the PEC has never been sufficiently funded to perform its duties ordained by the council and desired by the public. There is an inherent structural conflict of interest in having the budget of a government ethics agency or watchdog set by the officials it regulates.
As a comparison, the ethics commissions in Los Angeles and San Francisco are: independent agencies; have significantly larger budgets and more staff than in Oakland; supervise their agency's executive director; have significant enforcement powers; and were established by robust charter provisions, all of which provides the protection of requiring voter approval before amendments can be made to their core structures.
The Charter Amendment includes a modest budget set-aside that would provide the PEC with minimum staffing, based on the PEC executive director's assessment of its current duties, as well the anticipation of new duties proposed by the Charter Amendment. The proposed cost of the Charter Amendment, slightly more than $500,000, is very small compared to the city budget as a whole, and a necessary investment in good government. Additionally, a provision in the proposed Charter Measure would allow the council to suspend the minimum budget requirement in case of a significant fiscal necessity, such as during a recession.
I campaigned for office in 2012 in part on restoring confidence in City Hall, improving government transparency and strengthening the PEC. After taking office, I began work on convening a working group of local experts on ethics and good government, including current and former board members of the League of Women Voters of Oakland, two current California Common Cause board members, a program director at the campaign finance research organization, Maplight, and former PEC commissioners. The group was formed with the purpose of researching best practices in governmental ethics law and identifying needed reforms regarding the PEC.
Subsequently, in June 2013, the Alameda County Grand Jury issued a report stating that "local independent oversight of public ethics is essential" and that, while the PEC is a remedy for achieving such oversight, its limited staffing and resources hamper its viability. The Grand Jury concluded with this formal recommendation: "The Oakland City Council must provide the Public Ethics Commission with sufficient financial resources to properly investigate allegations of ethics violations."
In response to the Grand Jury, the council wrote, in part, with unanimous approval: "Enhanced powers and authority for the PEC would be helpful to enforcing ethical behavior and legal requirements for Oakland public officials. ... After the recommendations have been publicly vetted with and possibly supplemented by the PEC, they will be brought to the City Council for discussion and adoption."
In May of this year, the working group and I released our first blueprint for ethics reform in Oakland, which included the Charter Amendment proposal. At a June meeting, the PEC unanimously recommended the Charter Amendment. Later in the year, the working group and I will publish a second blueprint regarding proposed reforms for Oakland's existing the campaign finance, lobbying, sunshine, and whistle-blower protection laws.
Please contact City Council members via email at DLfirstname.lastname@example.org and urge them to fulfill their statement to the Grand Jury and vote "Yes" on putting the PEC Charter Amendment on the November ballot.
In addition, your attendance at the July 15 council meeting is strongly encouraged to voice your support for the PEC Charter Amendment. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. and discussion of the Charter Amendment will begin no earlier than 6:30 p.m., and most likely later in the evening. The meeting is located in the third-floor chambers of City Hall. These reforms are long overdue, but they will only be enacted if you make your voice heard.
Dan Kalb is the District 1 representative on the Oakland City Council.