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Watching the Watchdog

Since Brenda Roberts became Oakland city auditor in 2015, productivity has plummeted, and ex-employees say the office has been wracked by a culture of abuse.



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Sharon Ball, who worked for Courtney Ruby and Brenda Roberts, said Roberts doesn’t want to embarrass city officials. - PHOTO BY TALIESIN GILKES-BOWER
  • Photo by Taliesin Gilkes-Bower
  • Sharon Ball, who worked for Courtney Ruby and Brenda Roberts, said Roberts doesn’t want to embarrass city officials.

Roberts insisted that she has been hamstrung by a lack of resources and that staff turnover and vacancies have limited her ability to publish reports more regularly. "My department is seriously understaffed," she said during an hour-plus-long interview in her City Hall office. "I am frustrated that we can't get to those as quickly as I would like to."

But city records show the budget for Robert's office has grown by more than a half-million dollars since 2014. Roberts responded that most of that money has gone unused because it's reserved for staffing. She blamed the city administration for being slow to fill the positions she needs to get her office up to speed.

But former employees say the turnover is the result of how Roberts treats her staff, and the office is slow to publish audit reports because she refuses to release anything too controversial. Yet because of the way the auditor's position is written into the city's charter — elected by Oakland voters — little can be done by any city official to rein in Roberts' actions or hold her accountable.

In an email to the Express, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth emphasized that Roberts is not under her direct supervision and that the auditor has autonomous authority over her work.

In other words, there's no one in charge of watching the "watchdog."

Sharon Ball realized fairly quickly that the transition from Courtney Ruby to Brenda Roberts wouldn't be smooth.

A certified fraud examiner with decades of experience at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Ball joined Ruby's team in 2009 to relaunch Oakland's whistleblower program.

"Courtney Ruby had a vision for what the city auditor's office was supposed to be. It was supposed to be the watchdog for the people," Ball said.

Ruby, she explained, rebuilt transparency and accountability, along with the whistleblower program — subsequently named the Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Prevention Program — after her predecessor, Roland Smith, left the office in shambles.

Smith stirred controversy in 2006 when he was accused of creating a hostile workplace. Because he was an elected auditor, the city couldn't officially sanction him. However, city officials responded to the accusations against him by reassigning all but two of his staffers to other departments. Two years later, after being voted out of office, he paid $75,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his former employees — in addition to the $125,000 the city paid to settle the claim.

Over the next eight years, Ruby hired and led a diverse and effective audit team, restoring the workflow of the office and ensuring the city was once again being held accountable for the way it spends taxpayer dollars. Ruby, however, decided to leave the position in 2014 to run for mayor. She finished well behind the winner, Libby Schaaf.

Ball initially threw her support behind Roberts during the 2014 campaign, because Roberts promised to continue Ruby's watchdog legacy. Despite having never held public office before, Roberts appeared on Oakland's political scene as a polished and articulate candidate, ready with soundbites, and skilled at seamlessly redirecting difficult questions back to her desired talking points. And the longtime auditor, who spent years working in the private sector, effusively described her love of Oakland during interviews. (The Express endorsed her at the time.)

During her 2014 run, Roberts loaned $62,000 to her own campaign and built her platform on a promise to quell corruption — but with a new approach: She said she intended to strengthen positive relationships with city officials.

Roberts contends that her style helps ensure the office can identify issues in Oakland and work collaboratively with the city to solve them. "I work intimately and closely with city leaders and the city administrator's office," she said. "An audit report is not worth very much if it is just submitted with a lot of paper.

"That's where the collaboration comes in — to say, 'Now that we all agree that we have got a problem here and the change needs to happen, let's make sure that the management action plan makes sense and we can work together to make that come about.'"

In November 2014, Roberts won in a landslide, garnering nearly 80 percent of the vote. Ball reached out shortly after, eager to get the new city auditor up to speed. "I spoke with her after the election — before she was inaugurated — and showed her everything," Ball recalled. "I said, 'This is where we are at, and these are the kinds of things we need to do. If you want to put your own spin on it, we need to get that out in the first six months.'"

Before Ruby decided to run for mayor, her office developed plans to launch another communications and outreach campaign to raise awareness about the Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Prevention Program and conduct the next "Ethical Climate Survey," an annual report card designed by the Institute for Local Government to help identify which areas in the city warranted a closer look.

The previous one, published in 2014, noted that the ethical climate in Oakland was at a "critical junction," with elected officials receiving a low rating. It was important for the work to continue quickly, and Ball tried to get Roberts on board.


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