By Steven Tavares.
Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney used her position for her own personal benefit, said an annual report from the Alameda County grand jury. In addition, the City of Oakland abandoned its own procurement rules for its $1 billion Zero Waste garbage contract, according to the report, resulting in far higher rates for Oakland customers.
According to the report released Tuesday, the grand jury, which only deals with civil, not criminal complaints, found that McElhaney “had a conflict of interest that prohibited her from using her elected position to influence an administrative decision on the townhouse project.”
The grand jury concluded, “Backroom dealing cannot be the standard by which the city of Oakland is governed.”
The townhouse project was slated to be constructed near a property owned by McElhaney and her husband. The grand jury concluded that McElhaney violated ethics rules when she instructed her chief of staff to write a letter in opposition and contacted a city department head registering similar concerns.
“This gave the appearance that the department head was an advocate for the councilmember,” the report concluded. It added, “The Grand Jury believes that was a misuse of city resources solely intended to benefit the councilmember personally.”
The grand jury was also critical of McElhaney using a city planning commission to voice opposition and “inappropriately used her position to question city policy, to challenge staff, and to interrupt proceedings.”
The report also admonished the Oakland City Council and Oakland Public Ethics Commission for failing to address McElhaney’s actions. Later in the report, the grand jury suggests one remedy for McElhaney behavior is censure by the City Council.
The grand jury also came down hard on the entire Oakland City Council and city administration for its handling of the 2014 Zero Waste garbage franchise contract. It found the city failed to offer a “safeguard the ratepayers’ financial interests” leading to vastly higher garbage fees for Oakland residents and businesses above those in nearby municipalities.
“The city’s goal was that the selection process be open and transparent,” the report acknowledged. “However, the process moved to ‘behind closed-door’ negotiations between the two contractors. In the end, the public and even city staff were left on the sidelines.”
The City Council in late 2014 awarded the contract to California Waste Solutions, a small locally-owned company over the previous franchisee, Waste Management, who then sued California Waste Solutions and later settled the lawsuit. The City Council then agreed to split the contract between the competing bidders. But the grand jury concluded Oakland city officials had little to no input on the final outcome of the garbage contract.
“The Grand Jury investigated whether the city of Oakland was an integral party to the settlement agreement between WMAC and CWS, but found no such evidence,” the grand jury reported. “Instead, evidence presented to the Grand Jury suggests the city was marginally involved, if at all, other than simply ratifying the end result of the agreement.”
In recent years, the Alameda County grand jury has been highly-critical of Oakland’s city government. It previously strongly admonished Councilmember Desley Brooks for violating city non-interference rules and shined a light on the dismal record of the Oakland Police Department’s crime lab for processing criminal evidence.