On November 4, Oakland voters sent a clear message to City Hall that they wanted stricter ethical standards for public officials. Residents overwhelmingly approved Measure CC, which established new ethics rules and gave new sweeping powers to the city's Public Ethics Commission. The vote wasn't close: Measure CC won in a landslide, 73.9 percent to 26.1 percent. But on Monday, Oakland city councilmembers ignored city residents and acted as if the November 4 election never happened. The council voted 6-1-1 to elect Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney to be president of the council despite the fact that she has repeatedly violated city, state, and federal laws.
As the Express has reported, Gibson McElhaney failed to file her campaign finance statements last year as required by city and state law. In addition, public records show that Gibson McElhaney failed to pay a total of more than $150,000 in federal taxes in 2006, 2008, and 2009, and has still not paid them in full. The Express also reported that despite speechifying about the dangers of gentrification in Oakland during the past two years, Gibson McElhaney used her social-justice nonprofit in a house-flipping scheme in the city. And in another moment of hypocrisy, Gibson McElhaney said on Monday, after her colleagues elected her president, that she intends to "raise the professional standards" inside City Hall.
The only councilmember to vote against Gibson McElhaney was Noel Gallo. Desley Brooks abstained. Councilmember Larry Reid nominated Gibson McElhaney to be president. After she was elected, Gibson McElhaney nominated him to the council's second most powerful position — president pro tem. He won in a vote of 7-0-1, with Brooks again abstaining. The nominations and vote outcomes appeared to be well orchestrated.
Councilmember Dan Kalb, who sponsored Measure CC and helped write it with good government advocates, seconded Reid's nomination of Gibson McElhaney and also voted for her presidency. Gibson McElhaney subsequently appointed Kalb to a plum committee assignment, naming him chair of the powerful Finance Committee.
In an interview after the vote, Kalb said he backed Gibson McElhaney for president because he thinks "she will do a good job." Kalb said he would have voted for Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan if she had run for council president against Gibson McElhaney. He said Kaplan pulled out of the running last month for unexplained reasons. Kalb, who represents North Oakland on the council, said he had no interest in being president himself. He said the job duties would take away from more important work that he wants to do on the council.
Prior to the council's vote, Kaplan declined to comment on why she decided to not run against Gibson McElhaney. According to sources, Kaplan didn't have the votes to defeat the popular Gibson McElhaney. After Kaplan decided to not challenge Gibson McElhaney, the council elected Kaplan to the position of vice mayor in a 7-0-1 vote, with Brooks abstaining. Kalb said the Express' investigative stories on Gibson McElhaney came too late in the process to derail her presidency. The Express published its first investigative report on Gibson McElhaney on December 17 — nearly three weeks before the council's vote on Monday. In other words, councilmembers had decided long ago that they were going to elect Gibson McElhaney as their president.
It also seems clear that some councilmembers, including Kalb, had not read the Express' investigative reports. For example, he said he was unaware of Gibson McElhaney's repeated failure to pay her federal income taxes even though the Express wrote about them in two reports. He also downplayed her failure to file her campaign donation statements in 2014, noting that she did not run for reelection last year. He acknowledged, however, that Gibson McElhaney likely will be fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for violating state law. According to the city clerk's website, Gibson McElhaney still had not filed her campaign reports by Monday's council vote even though she was required to file them on July 31, 2014.
Considering the fact that Kalb has publicly championed the importance of ethics in politics, his support of Gibson McElhaney's presidency is troubling. It also raises questions about whether his ongoing advocacy for governmental transparency has been real or politically expedient. When I asked Kalb how he could vote for Gibson McElhaney in light of the fact that he had campaigned on a platform of restoring trust in Oakland government, he said "ethics in government is not the same as being perfect all the time."
The votes in favor of Gibson McElhaney by new councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington and Abel Guillen also were disappointing, considering their commitments to respect the will of Oakland voters. In fact, all the council votes in favor of Gibson McElhaney completely ignored the stated desire of Oakland residents for tougher ethical standards in politics.
In other words, 2015 looks like it will be yet another year of business as usual at Oakland City Hall.