I love the story of Bell, California. It really highlights the depths of corruption to which city leaders can sink, without anybody noticing. Thanks to the L.A. Times and information they ultimately obtained through public records, however, we have now learned about the exorbitant salaries, pensions, and other shenanigans going on in Bell.
Is Oakland so different? Well, we do have our local newspaper group that publishes public employee salaries annually, which I think helps deter and expose similar issues from happening here. But the newspapers had to go all the way to the California Supreme Court to get access to that information. Fortunately, they had the money to spend for that legal battle. Your average citizen submitting public records requests to Oakland doesn’t have those sorts of resources. And Oakland takes full advantage, let me tell you. Hopefully, that will stop soon.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I submitted a complaint to the Public Ethics Commission more than a year ago, regarding the City’s abysmal record at producing timely and comprehensive responses to my public records requests. I have also since filed a lawsuit. Have I seen any improvements since then? No. I recently submitted requests to both Jean Quan and Jane Brunner. Both ignored for over 10 days, until I hounded them. (The law requires a response within 10 days). Quan produced documents; Brunner did not. Claimed she didn’t have any, which of course, I don’t believe. Meanwhile, other Oakland folks have contacted me from time to time to share their own, similar experiences. One guy submitted a request to Desley Brooks, for her calendars. She refused to produce them. The City Attorney then sent this guy an email informing him that they would not represent Ms. Brooks in her refusal to produce the records. I interpreted that to mean that they knew there was no legal justification for her refusal, and were throwing her to the wolves. So another complaint with the PEC was filed.
Meanwhile, at the last PEC meeting, they acknowledged that there appeared to be a systemic problem with the City failing to comply with the Public Records Act, and ordered a full hearing of the matter. Hallelujah! Finally - there will be some light shining on the multiple abuses that have been going on for years. One of the commission members requested that the hearing take place before the end of the year (when the term of several members expires). While the Executive Director seems determined to drag things out as long as possible, hopefully we’ll have the hearing sooner rather than later. Anybody with a sob story to tell should be invited, so let me know if you have something to contribute.
I wish we had investigative journalists like they do at the L.A. Times. There are so many scandals and abuses here in Oakland that don’t get due coverage. Like blatant and systematic violations of the Public Records Act. Like the fact that there is no proper monitoring of employees other public officials having to file conflict of interest statements. Like the fact that budgets involving tens of millions of dollars are overseen by children. Like the fact that we have a billion dollar budget and the City can’t find the money to pay for even a minimum number of police officers. But let’s hope that exposing the public records abuses, and paving the way for better access, will keep Oakland from becoming another Bell.