How much do you know about Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission (PEC)? If you’re like most Oaklanders, you probably didn’t even know we had one. (Yes, I realize that my readers, of course, are much more aware of these things than the average resident.) Anyway, the Public Ethics Commission deals with sunshine, transparency, lobbying, campaign laws, and stuff like that.
The Commission’s website describes their function like this:
The City of Oakland Public Ethics Commission was established in November, 1996 with the passage of Measure J which amended City Charter §202 (see Governing Legislation).
The mission of the Public Ethics Commission is to promote the highest confidence in the ethics of the government of the City of Oakland. We help ensure that government works the way it’s supposed to – that you are treated fairly, with honesty and integrity. We do this by:
- Informing you about your rights to obtain information about your City government;
- Creating easier access to information and meetings of public bodies in the City;
- Educating City officials, employees, Board and Commission members, and candidates for elected office about ethics laws;
- Investigating complaints about possible violations of ethics laws under our authority;
- Recommending changes in laws to promote ethical government; and
- Setting the standard, by example, for ethical conduct.
So how does that work in practice? Well, let’s take a look at two upcoming PEC discussion items. At the PEC’s March 1st meeting (PDF), the Commission will be considering ethics complaints involving Mayoral candidates Jean Quan and Don Perata.
The first, filed by Pamela Drake, claims that City resources were improperly used (PDF) to promote the Mayoral campaign of Don Perata. Some of you I’m sure will remember this controversy from last fall, when Oakland Police Officer’s Association (OPOA) President Dominique Arotzarena announced at a community meeting introducing new Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts that the OPOA would be endorsing Don Perata for Mayor. The event was held at OPOA headquarters, but invitations to the event were sent out to community groups by City Neighborhood Services staff.
Drake says that since the OPOA used the event for political purposes, they should have to pay back the City for the time and resources used to promote the event. Commission staff basically says that since Neighborhood Services Staff didn’t know the OPOA was going to announce their endorsement of Perata at the event, and since OPOA didn’t know that City resources were being used to promote the event, nobody did anything wrong, and the Commission doesn’t have the authority to demand reimbursement.
The second complaint, filed against Jean Quan by Anthony Moglia, alleges that Jean Quan acted in violation of law by using City resources to promote her Mayoral campaign (PDF). Visitors to Quan’s City Council website are invited to join her Mayoral campaign e-mail list. Additionally, Moglia objects to a feature included in one of Quan’s constituent newsletters regarding the implementation of Instant Runoff Voting for the 2010 City elections. Moglia claims both actions violate laws prohibiting the use of public resources to promote political campaigns. Commission staff basically says no big deal (PDF). The reasoning is that since Quan claims she maintains a strong separation between her Council work and her campaign for both her and her staff, it’s all totally okay.
This is pretty much how ethics complaints usually go. Either nobody did anything wrong, or maybe they did, but the Commission doesn’t have any power to do anything about it, or they did do something kind of iffy but it wasn’t that big a deal and it’s too late to fix it now. Almost everyone I’ve ever known who has filed an ethics complaint in Oakland has been disappointed in the result. (For a current example of this, see today’s post on Marleen Sacks’s blog, about a complaint she filed regarding the Measure Y Oversight Committee.) And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, people who are passionate about a particular issue tend to get really obsessive about all sorts of improprieties, both real and imagined, that in the long run, don’t really matter all that much. I don’t say that with judgment – I am often guilty of the same thing myself. It’s just the way things work.
Do I believe for a second that the OPOA had no clue that city resources were being used to promote the event with Chief Batts? Um, no. Do I believe for a second that Jean Quan is careful to separate her Mayoral campaign from her Council work? Um, no. Give me a break. When the decision about IRV came to the Council, she gave this interminable speech about how IRV is so great because it will make her more likely to elected Mayor. But Councilmembers do stuff that is technically illegal or against the City Charter or whatever all the freaking time, and as much as I personally hate that, I also don’t know what you’re going to do about it.
Or maybe I’m wrong and the Public Ethics Commission is a total failure and they should be doing something about all this and other people have better ideas of what. In any case, I do think it’s good for people to at least make an effort to draw attention to these sorts of things, and to that end, I’m grateful for the people who keep filing complaints, even if nothing ever comes of them. It’s important to remind ourselves that just because something’s the status quo that doesn’t mean we should be okay with it.
Does the Public Ethics Commission perform a vital function? Does it ensure transparency in government? Does the Commission do a good job? Or is it a toothless waste of time and resources? These are all important questions, and who better to help you answer them than Oakland’s League of Women Voters?
At this month’s League hot topics meeting, Andrew Wiener, immediate past chair of Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission will be on hand to talk about the Commission’s role in ensuring open and transparent government. Regarding the discussion, this month’s League newsletter offers:
Come join the League in a lively discussion of what “sunshine” means in the affairs of your city and your rights as a citizen to know what and how your government is doing. Oakland passed the Sunshine Ordinance in 1997. Among other things it created a Public Ethics Commission to administer the Ordinance. It was the LWVO Task Force on Sunshine in the early 1990s that shone a light on the need for the public to have access to public records and the activities of their elected officials. To this day debate follows the decisions of the PEC as it administers the Sunshine Ordinance.
The event will take place next Wednesday, February 24th, from 6:30 to 8 PM at the Redwood Heights Community Center, which is located at 3883 Aliso Avenue (Redwood Road just below Highway 13).
As long as we’re talking about the League, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another upcoming event, a party celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the League of Women Voters. Gotta love that 19th Amendment! The party will be held tonight – Friday, February 19th from 6 to 8:30 PM at the Pro Arts Gallery, 150 Frank Ogawa Plaza (by Broadway and 15th). There’s also a great article about the history of the League in this month’s VOTER newsletter.
And if you’re not yet a member of the League, I strongly recommend you consider joining. They do great work. And you can join online!