Tuesday, November 1, 2016
[Alameda County] Oakland ethics commission sues City Council president
Blog note: this article references findings by the county civil grand jury that the subject broke city and state ethics rules.
The Oakland Public Ethics Commission is suing a top Oakland elected official — City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney — saying the councilwoman repeatedly failed to produce records for an investigation into whether she used her office for personal gain.
The ethics commission turned to the Alameda County Superior Court on Oct. 5, saying McElhaney, who faces re-election in a little over a week, led them on for months, breaking promise after promise to turn over records the commission is seeking as it investigates whether the council president thwarted a town house development by influencing a planning commission’s vote on her neighbor’s property.
McElhaney did not return phone calls Friday. A court date on the case has been scheduled for Nov. 7, the day before election day.
The probe began in February 2015 and is centered on findings by a civil grand jury in Alameda County that determined McElhaney broke city and state ethics rules by interfering with the approval process for five town house units next door to her West Oakland home. The grand jury report released in June said the councilwoman inappropriately wielded her influence by contacting a department head to argue objections to the project in January 2014. Oakland’s planning and building chief, Rachel Flynn, then pressured the property owner to severely modify the design, reducing the number of town houses from five to four and diverting views away from McElhaney’s house and toward the freeway.
McElhaney’s interventions delayed and ultimately derailed the project, the report said, and the property owner is now offering the lot for sale.
The grand jury found that McElhaney had a “material financial interest” in decisions related to the town house project, given its proximity to her house and its effect on her privacy.
“As public servants, elected officials are precluded from seeking to influence a decision in which they have a financial interest,” the report said.
The ethics commission filed an administrative subpoena on July 22, demanding that McElhaney release documents “in her control” for its investigation, according to its suit. But McElhaney missed the commission’s Aug. 10 deadline to turn over documents. On Aug. 11, after the commission threatened court action, McElhaney asked for a deadline extension and was granted one for Aug. 26, which she also missed. She then missed deadlines on Aug. 29, Sept. 1 and Sept. 2.
The commission is asking the court to force McElhaney to produce the documents.
Though McElhaney has largely declined to speak with the news media about the alleged ethics violations, she wrote a column defending herself in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper on June 23.
“I did not behave unethically or attempt to use my office to influence the outcome,” McElhaney wrote. She said she intervened in the project on behalf of other concerned neighbors in her West Oakland district, and that they “experienced the same disregard and indifference that has become painfully characteristic of how tenured West Oakland residents are treated.”
Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who frequently spars with McElhaney, is pushing her colleagues to censure the council president. But the council has declined to take action on the allegations until the commission’s investigation is complete.
Council members Dan Kalb, Larry Reid, Abel Guillén, Rebecca Kaplan and Annie Campbell Washington could not be reached Friday to discuss the case, which has jolted City Hall at a time when five council members are fighting to keep their seats.
Only Councilman Noel Gallo spoke up, calling the commission’s lawsuit “the ultimate embarrassment” — not just for McElhaney, but for the entire legislative body.
“When people read about this, they don’t see Lynette, they see all of us,” Gallo said.
The squabble in City Hall has emboldened McElhaney’s lesser-known rival for the West Oakland District Three seat, a community activist named Noni Session.
At an Oct. 18 City Council meeting, Session seized the opportunity to pounce on a well-liked incumbent.
“The grand jury got it right,” she said during the public debate over Brooks’ motion for a censure hearing. The grand jury “identified the unethical use of power and position to (get) an outcome.”
McElhaney was absent for much of the council meeting that night, though she showed up at the very end — after a reporter tweeted video footage of her mingling at a party down the street.
Still, some political analysts doubt that the fallout will hurt McElhaney’s re-election bid, given her popularity among constituents: An October Chamber of Commerce poll of 600 likely voters showed McElhaney with a strong lead of 35 percent support compared with Session’s 10 percent, with 53 percent of voters undecided.
“It remains to be seen whether an opponent has enough money to put out mailers or advertising that will make a real issue out of this,” said San Francisco State University Professor Joe Tuman, who ran unsuccessfully for Oakland mayor in 2010 and 2014. He questioned whether Session has the campaign resources to capitalize on a scandal.
Session could not be reached for comment Friday.
October 28, 2016
San Francisco Chronicle
By Rachel Swan