City officials in Oakland have been engaged in a power struggle for months now over the question of who will control key staff of the new police commission created by voters in 2016 through a ballot measure. Last night, the city council voted to finalize an enabling ordinance that puts the issue of who's in charge to rest, for now. But the vote was not without one final and highly unusual display of division.
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Just before voting on the ordinance, Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth told the city council that it was her belief, and City Attorney Barbara Parker's opinion, that the councilmembers were about to "violate" and "erode" the city charter by not allowing the city administrator to have direct control over commission staff.
"The legal advice provided to all of us by the city attorney and by outside counsel, and made public in at least one briefing and posted on the city's website, opines that the enabling ordinance, as written, and before you for final adoption tonight, contains provisions that violate the city charter as it relates to administrative functions," Landreth said.
She then went on to compare the city council's actions to those of the Trump administration, saying that "as we are all living through what is happening at our national level of government, we should tread very carefully and not willfully ignore the rule of law."
Landreth and Parker have both taken the position that the police commission's new inspector general must be under Landreth's direct supervision.
According to a legal analysis
prepared by an outside lawyer hired by Parker, "under the Charter, the City Administrator must be the appointing authority for the Inspector General, and will have the ability to discipline and dismiss the person who holds that office."
But activists with the Coalition for Police Accountability, one of the organizations that spearheaded the creation of the new police commission, believe that giving the city administrator this power will undermine the commission's independence.
Activists point out that the city administrator is the police chief's boss, and that in the past, police chiefs have been directly implicated in covering up misconduct by OPD officers — including the sex trafficking scandal of 2016.
Landreth herself was actually the acting police chief for a brief period that year. And the city administrator's office has other duties that may present a conflict of interest when it comes to holding the police department accountable and criticizing its policies and practices, as the commission'greys inspector general will be tasked to do.
The enabling ordinance passed last night places the inspector general under the supervision of the commission — not the city administrator.
If, however, Landreth and Parker are correct that the enabling ordinance violates the city charter, it's unclear what the consequences could be or whether some party will file a lawsuit.
Councilmember Dan Kalb voted for the ordinance last night, despite Landreth's warning. He said that because the ballot measure and ordinance contain a "severability" clause, it's his belief that any provision that might be in violation of the charter could be nullified without throwing the entire commission and its legal underpinnings into disarray.
"In the law, there's always room for disputes and gray areas," said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan in response to Landreth's comments. "But the will of the voters was for independent oversight."
Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney called the council's actions a "good faith effort" to enact what the voters wanted for the police commission.
Only Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington voted against the ordinance. "Unfortunately, it's not possible for me to vote for something that's in violation of our city's charter," she said.
"The adoption of the enabling legislation reflected the council’s understanding that the intent of the ballot measure was to ensure that the oversight of the police would be under the authority of a citizen body that was independent of the city’s administrative structure, which had failed for decades to rein in the abuses of its police department," said Rashidah Grinage, an activist with the Coalition for Police Accountability.