Oakland City Council’s ‘Backroom Dealings’ slammed by Grand Jury
In June, a civil grand jury investigation found that the Oakland City Council disregarded open government laws while pursuing multimillion dollar deals with developers over public land. According to the grand jury’s report, council members made decisions in closed-session meetings that should have been made in public session, as required by the Brown Act, a state law, and by the city’s more stringent Sunshine Ordinance. The grand jury looked at the city council’s actions for three contracts, which together were valued at more than $500 million, and found that agreements in all three cases were hashed out through “backroom deals” that received little to no public input and that appeared to show favoritism. The Brown Act requires that legislative bodies of local governments conduct their meetings in public, with some exceptions, one of which allows for private real estate negotiations so that an agency’s bargaining position is kept confidential. The grand jury reported,
While there is ample opportunity for the public to comment at each open meeting, the ability to speak has limited value if the public does not know what substantive discussions took place in closed session.
The grand jury concluded that Oakland council members have exploited the real estate exception for closed-door meetings to discuss terms outside the scope outlined by the exemption. Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who was council president for most of the years covered in the grand jury investigation, strongly disputed its findings. She claims that the contracts in question received plenty of public hearings and that all disclosable deliberations done in closed session were reported properly in open meetings. The city council has 90 days to send a response to the investigation to the presiding judge of the Alameda County Superior Court.