Councilmember Kalb’s public ethics
group began work this week.

OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL//ETHICS | Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb took a moment Monday to speak for the entire council. “There’s a sense out there in the community that residents have lost trust in city government,” the first-term council member said during an informal public ethics work shop this week. Gaining their trust, may be easier said than done.

It was only a few months ago the Oakland City Council skirted an opportunity to come down on one of its own enmeshed in alleged ethics violation. The sense Councilmember Desley Brooks shed the allegations without even a political bruise along the circus of race-baiting and name-calling that ensued the night of her potential censure for breaking the City Charter, has again signaled calls for greater input from the Public Ethics Commission.

However, no matter the best intentions of the appointed watchdog group, it simply has few resources, nor tangible power to investigate alleged misdeeds or mechanism to levy any consequences, such as fines or censure. “The Oakland Public Ethics Commission needs more staff,” said Roberta Ann Johnson, also a member of the commission. The city must not only change its laws, but also begin changing the perception of lawlessness at City Hall, Johnson told the work group. “Officials breaking laws without penalty is worse than no laws at all.“

It is true the ethics commission is woefully understaffed and underfunded by the Oakland City Council. In this questionable arrangement, not only do council members have power of the purse over the body charged with investigating their actions, but the City Administrator’s office oversees the group along with legal counsel coming from the city attorney. Ostensibly, it’s only function is to offer recommendations without any power to provide a bulwark against lapses in judgment and ethics by city officials.

Kalb, who has taken ownership of rebuilding trust in Oakland city government through strengthening the existing ethics commission, said Monday night’s initial dialogue is the beginning of what he hopes will become a string of discussions and vetting of ideas well before the offering of a city ordinance to the full council sometime early next year.

“Despite public noticing,” said Kalb, “some issues don’t see much time before hand.” He hopes to avoid the public consternation that often occur at Oakland City Council meeting when controversial issues like the uproar over the Domain Awareness Center last July, to some, seemingly appeared on the agenda without much discussion beforehand.

Part of the proposed ordinance may include increasing the commission’s operating budget and providing a clear template for censure. Earlier this year, Brooks argued the City Charter effectively gave nobody in city government the power to bring censure against another elected official. Others, though, fear increasing the commission’s power will only emboldened some city officials to politicize the group or wage vendettas against enemies.

Although the renewed call for fixing Oakland’s ethics struggles may have began with the allegations against Brooks last March and a scathing Alameda County grand jury report targeting a “culture of interference” among council members and staff. Kalb says his work group is not out to settled an old scores. “We’re not here to make laws that are retroactive,” he said, instead. “We’re looking toward 2014.”