OAKLAND -- One year after the Alameda County grand jury scolded Oakland for shackling its political watchdog commission, a City Council member wants to more than triple the commission's staff and expand its oversight powers.
Councilman Dan Kalb has proposed transforming the Oakland Public Ethics Commission from an understaffed body with little power to enforce city ethics laws into a quasi-independent outfit with authority to fire its executive director, seek independent legal advice and impose fines that would only be appealable to a superior court judge.
"We have a responsibility to increase the public's confidence and trust in City Hall," Kalb said. "You can't engender trust if your government ethics watchdog is neutered."
Oakland voters established the Public Ethics Commission in 1996 to oversee open government and campaign finance laws but left its powers up to the City Council, which subsequently passed laws restricting the commission's authority.
The commission's plight gained attention last year when the City Council declined to discipline Councilwoman Desley Brooks after receiving evidence that she violated the city charter's prohibition on giving orders to city staffers.
In its investigation into the episode, the grand jury urged council members to expand the commission's authority to discipline council members. It also noted that the commission, which currently has two full-time staffers and a $300,000 budget, pales in comparison with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, which last year had 22 staffers and a $2.2 million budget.
"An ethics commission with appropriate resources and power to enforce ethical standards is of the utmost importance," the grand jury wrote in its report, titled "Misgoverning the City of Oakland."
Kalb's proposal, which he drafted in conjunction with a group of good government experts, would guarantee seven full-time equivalent workers for the commission. A fee on campaign committees registered with the city might be able to offset the costs, he said.
Kalb also wants to grant the commission broader authority to oversee issues involving council member interference, nepotism and retaliation against whistle blowers, as well as responsibility for handling campaign finance and lobbyist registration filings, currently overseen by the city clerk.
The proposal must win approval both from council members and voters, who would be asked to amend the city charter.
It is unclear yet how much political support there will be in cash-strapped Oakland for granting more authority and power to the commission, which has had to cancel several recent meetings and has a backlog of ethics complaints dating back five years.
"My priority is public safety," Councilman Noel Gallo said. "The public ethics commission is the least of my worries. I will not invest another 25 cents on that effort."
The commission's executive director, Whitney Barazoto, said the current staffing shortfall has prevented it from clearing the backlog and adequately serving the city.
Bob Stern, the former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said the proposal appeared to be a big improvement for Oakland's commission, but questioned whether the political support would materialize.
"Ethics commissions everywhere are really stepchildren of government," he said. "No elected official likes ethics commissions because they don't like to be second-guessed and regulated."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.