Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks
ALAMEDA COUNTY//GRAND JURY REPORT | The Oakland City Council lacks the ability to self-police itself, says an Alameda County grand jury report released Monday. In addition, the grand jury’s investigation of similar complaints laid out in a city auditor’s report last March alleging Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid for violating the city charter also came to some of the same conclusion.
The annual grand jury report also calls for the Oakland city auditor to release its own findings to the City Council charging both members of interfering with staff’s day-to-day operations. In addition, they recommend adding teeth the Oakland Ethics Commission’s powers, including the ability to levy fines against negligent public officials.
Although the grand jury report does not specifically name either Brooks or Reid, however, from the description of their findings regarding the Oakland Digital Art and Culinary Academy (DACA), it is clear one council member described is Brooks. According to the report, the grand jury made repeated attempts by all manner of communication for the unnamed council member, believed to be Brooks, to appear before grand jurors, but they refused.
The grand jury’s investigation found city staff were confused by the actions of some councilmembers regarding some pet city projects along with fearful of recriminations from elected officials. The city auditor’s reported anonymous staff members lodging similar complaints against Brooks.
“Testimony indicated that throughout the different stages of the DACA project, there were concerns by some staff involved that if they failed to cater to the council member’s needs, their jobs could be in jeopardy,” said the grand jury. “Since some city department heads were copied in a variety of emails, staff assumed they were to move forward with their efforts regardless of city rules and regulations. Whatever the reasons, the Grand Jury finds a clear failure by the chain of command to stop the unauthorized behavior.”
Similar to the Ruby report last March, the grand jury labeled a perception of some Oakland council members acting as “mayors of their own districts,” and exacerbated by the city’s large bureaucracy and its default for slow change.
“District elections, a history of hands-off mayors, and the fact that large government bureaucracies operate using policies and procedures that can cause change or improvements to occur slowly, all contributed to this behavior,” said the grand jury.
The report in many ways corroborates Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby’s report last March citing violations of the city charter regarding non-interference. In the report, Ruby alleged 12 violations of the charter by Brooks regarding the building of a teen center in her district and 2 violations by Reid pertaining to the Oakland Army Base deal.
The grand jury’s investigation found a city council shackled by alliances and an inability to fund further investigations into council member’s alleged wrong-doings. “This brings into question the council’s ability to self-police,” said the grand jury.
It also calls for additional funding for the Oakland Ethics Commission, whose budget has routinely been cut by the City Council over the years and is currently just over $186,000 with one full-time staff person. By contrast, San Francisco’s public ethics commission employs 17 staff members with a $2.2 million annual budget, says the report.
Meanwhile, the grand jury recommends giving the commission power to levy fines, penalties or other sanctions. “This would also better serve the citizens of Oakland because traditionally, the city council’s ability to self-police or censure its own members who commit wrongdoing is an ineffective tool.”
Despite the uproar surrounding the allegations against Brooks and Reid, the City Council showed little desire to tackle the issue contained in that report. However, Councilmember Noel Gallo broached the subject in May, urging Ruby to release her report, but Council President Pat Kernighan successfully steered the controversy to the backburner a few weeks later.