Civil Grand Jury Cites Culture of ‘Intimidation’ and ‘Interference’ by Oakland City Council

(Bay City News/KQED) The Alameda County civil grand jury issued a report Monday criticizing the way city of Oakland officials oversaw the development of a teen center in East Oakland, calling the process “a complete fiasco.” The grand jury report, called “Misgoverning the City of Oakland,” also criticizes a culture of “intimidation” and “interference” by the City Council in its dealings with city administrators.

Downtown Oakland. (Photo by: Craig Miller/ KQED)
Downtown Oakland. (Photo by: Craig Miller/ KQED)

“The Grand Jury learned that some council members would often put pressure on city staff to get their own issues prioritized above other city matters,” the report said, citing the Rainbow Recreation Center and the adjacent Digital Arts and Culinary Academy on International Boulevard, projects that have been championed by City Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who represents that area.

The grand jury said that after interviewing numerous witnesses and sorting through hundreds of documents it found that “city contracting, purchasing and hiring rules were circumvented during the teen center project.”

The report didn’t mention Brooks by name, but it said, “One council member stepped out of their role on the council and inappropriately made administrative decisions throughout the process, often with full knowledge and complicity of city staff.”

The panel said former city executives as well as current and former department heads “failed to stop this inappropriate conduct” and allowed the project to move forward “at a time when other parks and recreation programs were being cut and projects with higher priorities went unfounded.”

The grand jury’s report is similar to a report issued in March by City Auditor Courtney Ruby, who said Brooks interfered with city workers in her efforts to get the Rainbow Recreation Center built as well as another teen center in her district, the Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center.

Brooks couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday.

The grand jury report said it made numerous attempts to get the council member mentioned in its report to appear before the panel but “the council member refused to cooperate with the investigation.”

The grand jury said the council member “lacked the experience and expertise to ensure that city rules — and more importantly — state laws intended to protect the city were followed.”

The panel said, “What ensued was a complete fiasco that diverted city administration’s attention away from many other dire issues the city was facing.”

The grand jury said that among the problems with the project are that construction work wasn’t put up for competitive bidding and the center’s employees hadn’t gone through sufficient background checks before being allowed to work with children.

The report said, “The Oakland City Council’s interference with, and intimidation of staff, diminish the overall effectiveness of city government” and failure by city staff and department heads to report or stop council interference “contributes to the unacceptable culture of intimidation and leads to continued misconduct.” The report said there were many instances of interference by council members and pointed to delayed projects within the Office of Parks and Recreation as an example. That department “would not move forward on a host of projects until they obtained approval from a specific council member,” the report said. “This approval ranged from the replacement of trash cans and benches, to making decisions about the exterior design and façade.”

The grand jury recommended that the City Council provide the city’s Public Ethics Commission with sufficient power and funding to enforce the city’s ethics-related ordinances and that city elected officials receive ethics training every two years, with proof of compliance made available to the public through the city’s website.

The panel also said, “No member of the city council should conduct any city business outside of the realm of their council powers as designated in the city charter and in the municipal code.”

City spokeswoman Karen Boyd said Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana agree with the grand jury that, “The public must be able to trust that the City of Oakland’s day-to-day operations – such as contracting, hiring and management of City staff – are shielded from inappropriate political influence.”

Boyd said Quan and Santana also agree that the Public Ethics Commission must have adequate staffing and additional authority and their proposed budget calls for increased staffing for the commission.

Boyd also said Santana has stressed good governance and ethics since she assumed her position in August 2010, at which point work on the teen center was already under way.

Boyd said the goal of Quan and Santana is to “continue to provide quality service to the community while maintaining appropriate interactions between city council members and staff.”

She said Quan and Santana are encouraged by an “ethical climate survey” conducted by Ruby, which found that between 2010 and 2011 they had “moved the dial towards greater accountability and improved governance.”

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