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Records Indicate that Gibson McElhaney Used Her Council Office for Personal Gain

In an effort to block a townhouse project next to her West Oakland home, the councilmember used her council office resources and staff, and enlisted the help of a city contractor.

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Although the planning commission denied Gibson McElhaney's appeal at the December 17 meeting, the commissioners referred Brecht and Alatorre to the commission's architectural design subcommittee for further review. On January 9, Brenyah-Addow sent Jensen's sketches to Brecht and Alatorre. Oakland Planning and Building director Rachel Flynn followed up ten minutes later with a direct email to Alatorre about Jensen's architectural drawings: "It would be good if your client would at least consider an alternative design that addresses most of the neighbors' concerns." Flynn added: "[J]ust so you know, the neighbors have the right to appeal the Planning Commission's decision to [Alameda County] Superior Court. I don't know that they have or if they will, but they have that right. If an alternative design could be agreed to by all parties, then such an agreement would prevent further actions that could prolong the review/approval process." If Gibson McElhaney and her husband were to appeal the issue in court, it would require the council president to file a lawsuit against the City of Oakland.

Jensen's architectural firm, JRDV Urban International, does considerable business with the city. For example, in March 2012, the council selected JRDV to be part of the master development team to design the massive Coliseum City project. The contract was worth $1.6 million. On December 10, 2013, Gibson McElhaney voted with the rest of the city council to approve a revision of the Coliseum City contract with Jensen's firm worth $240,000.

"Honestly, I have no idea what she voted on," said Jensen about Gibson McElhaney's votes on city contracts involving his firm. "I have no idea how any councilmembers are voting on that. It's not on my radar."

When asked why he spoke against Brecht's project, and provided alternative designs, Jensen said he wasn't doing a special favor for Gibson McElhaney. "I'm a friend and neighbor and generally interested in things like this," he said. "I'm not being hired by anybody — just a private citizen of Oakland."

When asked if he produced the drawings for free, or whether he billed Gibson McElhaney or the planning department for the sketches, Jensen repeated that he was only acting as a private citizen, and that no one solicited him for the work. "You'd be surprised how fast someone like me can produce that. We just want to offer up something."

In her email to the Express, Gibson McElhaney stated that she had not "retained" Jensen to work on her behalf. However, she also acknowledged that she had "asked Mort" to address the planning commission.

Jensen said he has appeared before the commission in the past to offer alternative designs in disputed projects. However, a scan of the commission's archives turned up no example of him doing so. "I would have done it for anyone," Jensen added. "I don't see it as a special thing. I'm a helpful architect."

The newly approved Government Ethics Act also prohibits Oakland officials from receiving gifts if "it is reasonably foreseeable that a Public Servant or candidate could be influenced by the gift in the performance of an official act." By receiving the help of architect Jensen, and by Jensen supplying architectural drawings to help Gibson McElhaney make her appeal, the councilmember appears to have accepted a gift. In addition, McElhaney's enlistment of Jensen to appear before the planning commission on her behalf, and his gift of architectural sketches to help her fight the project, occurred after the Government Ethics Act went into effect.

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