Strange place, Oakland. A city with its own transparency laws, yet its government isn't close to transparent. It's a city with an ethics commission, yet the city's campaign finance laws, which the commission oversees, can be ignored, apparently with impunity.

And Oakland's a city with a deeply troubled police department under federal oversight, a process that shields the people making key decisions about its future from much public scrutiny. When one examines Oakland as a whole, this much is clear: It ought to be called Opaqueland.

The effective boss of the police is former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier. He works for U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who's been attempting to overhaul the department ever since the infamous Riders scandal nearly 14 years ago.

Frazier's paid by Oakland taxpayers. His job is to get police in line, basically, with the U.S. Constitution. You know, that whole respect-peoples'-rights thing -- don't crack them on the head for no reason other than you can or make untrue statements on search warrants affidavits.

It's no easy task to reform arguably the worst big city police department this side of New Orleans, one where Henderson's photograph, debased in a "racially offensive manner," once hung in a room used by police commanders.

Who can blame Oaklanders from not trusting the department? Yet Henderson lets Frazier operate in near secrecy by making all his communications with city leaders and police exempt from disclosure.


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Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that police wouldn't identify eight people arrested as part of a vaunted crackdown on the city's rampant violence, or their alleged crimes. This happed despite the clear mandate of state law that police make public the names of people arrested and the fundamental details of their alleged crimes.

In extraordinary circumstances they can withhold that information. But in Oakland, how can the process be trusted, or the arrests of people off the street be considered credible unless there is full disclosure?

Naturally, police later said they simply made a mistake. One wonders what Frazier might have said about this, but anything he would have put in writing to city leaders is exempt from disclosure. The public won't know unless it comes out in a sanitized report someday filed in federal court. All this does in Opaqueland is fuel distrust and suspicion.

The public might wonder why Oakland's elected leadership isn't more outspoken on transparency issues. But there are problems there, from Mayor Jean Quan's inherent inability to be direct or clear, to the dysfunctional City Council.

Take the dilemmas of Councilwoman Desley Brooks -- an example of how Oakland fails to keep order in its own house.

Brooks' campaign finance accounts are a mess. As this newspaper reported this year after trying to make sense of her befuddling documents, she has routinely filed incomplete and misleading reports, ones that "simply don't add up" over a 10-year period even though she received thousands of dollars in public financing during that time.

In other words, if Desley Brooks isn't a crook, she certainly struggles to avoid looking like one. A veteran campaign treasurer told reporter Matthew Artz that Brooks' filings are "an absolute travesty" that reveal neither how much money came in nor went out of her accounts.

This in a city -- Opaqueland -- with its own, heightened campaign finance rules overseen by an ethics commission. Yet, as Artz reports, both the commission and the state Fair Political Practices Commission have largely failed to hold Brooks accountable.

The commission, which a new executive director is trying to strengthen, isn't a paper tiger. It's a paper kitten. Why would a politician like Brooks ever vote to give it teeth?

When elected officials aren't held accountable, what are the government workers they oversee left to think? When someone in such a key position like Frazier's is allowed to operate in everyday secrecy, what does that tell police officers?

"An absolute travesty" -- that is the state of transparency in Opaqueland.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is also co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, Freedom of Information Committee. Reach him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.