So, I generally don’t say much about Chip Johnson around these parts, mostly because I assume that anyone reading me is also reading the Chronicle. But in case you missed it, Johnson wrote a column last Friday about the City’s refusal to provide City Auditor Courtney Ruby with necessary documents to complete the hiring practices audit authorized by the City Council last year.
City Administrator Dan Lindheim is quoted in the column saying that he’s just trying to protect employee privacy, suggesting that the request for supervisors to disclose their relatives and cohabitants who also work for the City was too invasive, and that he doesn’t trust Ruby’s office to keep confidential information confidential. In remarks at an event on Friday, Lindheim called the column a “hit piece” and assured the audience that there was “not a fact in there, period.” He went on to say that “As to the nepotism and cronyism ordinance that it was referring to, that it is being absolutely implemented. So, in case anybody has any questions about that, just be assured that this bureaucrat is in fact doing what the Council has determined ought to be done.”
So…there were actually many independently verifiable facts in the column that are a matter of public record, and the column was about the hiring practices audit, not the cronyism ordinance at all. But aside from that, it’s not inconceivable that Johnson got some of the details wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time. However, also on Friday, City Auditor Courtney Ruby sent out a message to her mailing list saying that Johnson’s column was accurate, and that “the Administration is trying to withhold key documents essential to my audit of the City’s hiring practices.” Ruby asked that residents contact the Mayor’s office and demand that the Administration provide the necessary documentation to complete her audit.
I’m definitely not Courtney Ruby’s biggest fan, but I also have no reason not to believe her when she says that the City won’t provide her with the documents she needs. I certainly trust her more than I trust Dan Lindheim.
So Johnson wrote about the issue again today, this time talking mostly about Ruby’s e-mail and responses to it from various City officials. In today’s column, Lindheim once again questions the appropriateness of the information employees are being asked to disclose:
On Monday, Lindheim re-iterated his concerns about employee privacy and used employees in a secret same-sex relationship as an example.
“This ordinance is not just about nepotism – it asks about who you’re sleeping with, and that, in and of itself, is delicate and can play out in the workplace, but more an issue for non-heterosexual couples. If the information gets out, then they get outed,” Lindheim said.
So…this is outrageous. Dan Lindheim is the appointed City Administrator. It is his job to do what the Council tells him to do. It is not his job to decide whether he approves of the Council’s instructions. The objections to employee disclosure over privacy concerns were aired and discussed at great length, both by the Finance & Management Committee and the City Council as a whole. The Council heard the objections, listened to legal counsel, and then made a decision. It is now the City Administrator’s job to ensure that their direction is followed. That’s how government works.
How is it possible to have an orderly, efficient, or accountable government when bureaucrats decide they have the liberty to ignore Council direction if they don’t like it? Councilmembers are accountable for their decisions – if they make bad ones, they can be voted out of office. City staff is accountable to no one.
This is not the first time Lindheim has behaved as though he is above listening to the Council. Last March, when the Council was poised to vote on a motion regarding zoning near the Central Waterfront, Lindheim (then acting CEDA Director), approached the mic and told the Council that they were not empowered to do so. Ignacio De La Fuente responded that of course they were, and that he was obligated to do as directed in their motion. Lindheim then complained that he didn’t like the motion and got all huffy when they passed it anyway.
Then, of course, there was the time this summer, when (still as acting CEDA Director), Lindheim simply didn’t submit a report requested by the Council about what’s happening with the millions of dollars a year the City allocates under the Workforce Investment Act. After refusing to provide the Committee with an explanation for his failure to produce a report, the Committee tried to reschedule the item for a few months in the future, and Lindheim told them that they could schedule it for whenever they wanted, but he wouldn’t have the report for them then either.
At the aforementioned event last Friday, Lindheim also spoke about the ongoing zoning update process:
We’re in the process now of redoing the downtown area to make it consistent with the General Plan, which means that there’s this fight back and forth between what does the General Plan really mean? Because the problem is most General Plans or most planning exercises don’t mean much until you have a twenty foot building sitting in your backyard, and then you realize that maybe you didn’t want that.
This is now the third time I have listened to Lindheim suggest that our new zoning should not necessarily follow the dictates of the General Plan, because he doesn’t think people like the General Plan. Nevermind that the General Plan is the official document governing land use in Oakland, or that it was adopted by the City Council a decade ago after being craft with years of public input and debate.
This attitude is completely unacceptable. We cannot have unelected bureaucrats behaving like policymakers. Having the public’s business conduct in public is the cornerstone of transparent, accountable government. When the City Council makes a decision, staff has to follow it, whether they agree with the instructions or not. When the City Administrator himself, the most powerful official in Oakland, decides that it is within his discretion to ignore instruction, then what hope is there for transparency and accountability at any level within City government? The behavior is outrageous.
By the way…after reading a comment on The HarriOak News from someone who had tried to call the Mayor’s office about the issue only to be told that the Mayor’s office does not accept comments by telephone, I called myself. After all, I thought, such a thing couldn’t possibly be true? You can’t call the Mayor’s office to say what you think? It’s inconceivable! Sure enough, when I called, I got exactly the same response.