Last year was a rough one for government ethics in Oakland.

An Alameda County grand jury investigation faulted elected officials for creating a culture of interference at City Hall. The Oakland city auditor also found that, in years past, council members had interfered with staff's work and that some may have violated the city charter by exerting inappropriate influence.

In July, the City Council even voted to formally admonish its own past, collective misconduct.

Specific allegations of impropriety should be investigated in a fair manner, consistent with due process, by someone with the power to actually impose penalties.

All public officials should be held accountable. By the same token, there needs to be a way for falsely accused officials to clear their names.

Instead, in Oakland some allegations float like dark clouds over Frank Ogawa Plaza without any adjudicative process to clear the air.

Councilmember Dan Kalb shared this unhappy perception: "There's a sense ... in the community that residents have lost trust in city government."

Oakland, like other cities, has a Public Ethics Commission that is charged with ensuring fairness, openness, honesty and integrity in city government. In many ways, however, Oakland's commission is just a paper watchdog.


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As the commission reported last year, "(c)ontrary to our name, there is no ethics-related city ordinance that gives (us) the authority to act upon ethics-related violations such as voting when one has a conflict of interest, using public resources for private or campaign purpose, or accepting inappropriate gifts."

To rebuild the public's trust, that must change. Our Ethics Commission needs to be given the means to live up to its mandate.

Add teeth: The most urgent need is to give the commission actual enforcement powers so it can hold violators accountable and deter bad actors.

San Francisco's ethics commission has the power to fine politicians for violating ethics laws and even remove them from office for official misconduct; Oakland's Ethics Commission, on the other hand, does not -- but should.

Full staffing: Watchdog agencies are only effective when they have sufficient staff to investigate and prosecute violations. During the recession, commission staffing was reduced to one, and from June 2011 through April 2012, the commission had no staff at all and effectively ceased functioning.

While the current budget increased staffing to two positions, this is still below the five to seven staffers needed to fulfill the commission's core legal mandates.

Guarantee independence: Ultimately, the powers, jurisdiction and funding of the commission need to be enshrined in the city's charter to protect it from political influence. The commission's budget, for example, should not be subject to council discretion.

The commission also should have the ability to hire its own independent counsel.

To his credit, Kalb has recognized the need for ethics reform. He has assembled a distinguished panel of municipal ethics and good-government experts to advise him on legislative reforms for this term.

Hopefully, the end product is a robust strengthening of our ethics laws.

Ethics reform needs to be a priority in 2014 because Oaklanders have a right to expect clean and honest government.

Failure to enact reforms, however, could have palpable impacts. If voters do not trust City Hall come November, they may vote down the renewal of a vital, multimillion dollar violence prevention and community policing parcel tax. A public trust deficit could become an actual fiscal deficit.

Nicolas Heidorn is a board member with Make Oakland Better Now!, a nonprofit that advocates for public safety, budget and good government reform.