Current members of the Oakland Public
Ethics Commission.

OAKLAND//ETHICS COMMISSION | The Oakland Public Ethics Commission is having a major identity crisis. After years of being part of Oakland’s backwater of appointed boards and commissions and without any tangible power, a scathing Alameda County civil grand jury report has breathed new life into what should be the city government’s ethical compass.

Although, ironically, the county civil grand jury has no power to enforce its findings, either; its words tend to have weight. Coupled with a City Council interested in burnishing a new public image, a new council president and its three new members, along with a public bent on greater government transparency, the time may be ripe for change at the Public Ethics Commission.

However, until then, the commission faces a host of problems some critics deem were designed to defang the potency of a group created and financed by the Oakland City Council ostensibly to keep watch of themselves and other city agencies. The commission has no power to fine or reprimand those found in violation of city rules and can only forward potential violations to the Alameda County District Attorney. In fact, it’s jurisdiction over matters is so limited in scope that it was forced last year to turn down 18 different cases brought to their attention.

Its staff numbers just two and it hopes promises by the City Council to boost the commission’s budget will yield a staff of at least five. Comparably, according to the grand jury report, San Francisco‘s ethics commission employs a staff of 17. The council’s power of the purse and a legal structure seemingly at odds with an independent government watchdog has long hamstrung the commission.

The grand jury’s report released last June scolded the City Council for not funding the commission. Some members of the commission have questioned the role of the city attorney’s office, which acts as the its legal counsel while also representing the levels of government under the commission’s purview. Although, the commission admits the current legal arrangement has not been an issue, it may consider the option of hiring outside counsel, said Whitney Barazato, the executive director of the Public Ethics Commission, “if not for public perception.” Barazato is appointed by the mayor.

Among the powers the ethics commission may seek include, formulating rules for disciplinary action, the ability to issue advisory and warning letters to violators, administrative fines, debarment, censure and the removal of public officials from office for misconduct.

A working group created by Councilmember Dan Kalb is due to convene in the next few weeks with the hopes of bringing the City Council a publicly-vetted proposal to strengthen the commission’s role in Oakland city government. Kalb told the commission last week his goal is to have plan ready for the City Council by January 2014. “Hopefully we’ll have something that is strong,” said Kalb, including what he called a package of recommendations featuring not only an ordinance, but tweaks to a number of laws already on the books. However, Kalb told the commission, “I can’t make any promises now.”

Last week, the contentious censure hearing into alleged violations of the City Charter by Councilmember Desley Brooks fell short, but yielded a motion approved to create specific rules for censure. An amendment to the motion offered by Brooks also faulted past and seemingly widespread violations of the city’s non-interference laws by council members. The general admission may be an opening for the ethics commission going forward.

With a high-profile grand jury report advocating for beefing up the commission’s powers, coupled with strong support by the public and local media, Roberta Johnson, a member of the commission, thinks a perfect storm exists for change. “It’s appropriate to have an ethical presence in Oakland,” she said. “If there is an opportune time, this is it.”