At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan Credit: Courtesy Rebecca Kaplan

At-large City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan is facing a $19,000 fine because she allegedly failed to disclose her ownership of a condominium located next to a waterfront park which she and the rest of the council voted to expand, using over $1 million in city funds. The improvement to the park stood to increase the value of her condo.

The allegations were looked into by investigators from the Public Ethics Commission, who are recommending the commission approve the fine at their Dec. 14 meeting.

The investigators wrote in their report that Kaplan’s failure to disclose her ownership of the property, and her subsequent votes to spend money on the park, amounted to a conflict of interest, which is illegal under city law.

“It is reasonably foreseeable that the Councilmember Kaplan’s votes would impact the property value of her condo,” the PEC staffers wrote. “There is a presumption within the law that any governmental decision involving a project located within 500 feet of an official’s real property will necessarily have a material financial impact on their property. In this case, Councilmember Kaplan voted on matters affecting the development of a park located within 500 feet of her property, therefore the material financial effect on her property is presumptive.”

Kaplan didn’t immediately return a phone call from The Oaklandside for this report.

According to the PEC investigators’ report, Kaplan purchased the condo in 2013 along with her parents, but for the next seven years she did not list it on the annual financial disclosure forms she and other elected officials are required to file with the city.

In 2016, city staff proposed using $27.5 million in Measure DD funding on a range of city park projects, including a redesign of Estuary Park, located 500 feet from the Kaplan family’s condo. Kaplan did not recuse herself from the meeting and voted to approve the expenditure. The next year, city staff came back to council seeking approval to spend $1.2 million of the Measure DD funds to hire an architectural firm to redesign the park. Kaplan voted in favor of the contract when it was approved in 2018. 

According to the investigators’ report, Kaplan told PEC staff “it was not her intention to ever benefit financially from her votes.” The bonds that raised the money for the design contract were approved before she was elected to council in 2009, and city staff selected Estuary Park for improvements without any input from Kaplan.

However, Kaplan told the investigators she “made an error in not reporting her interest in the condo sooner, and in not recusing herself on the votes affecting the park near her property,” according to the PEC report. She added that she didn’t consider the condo her primary residence until she moved into it in 2018 and that “she was voting to move along a project that had already been approved by voters” and “she did not give much thought to the potential impact of her votes on the value of her property.”

PEC staff’s recommendation of a $19,000 penalty is one of the larger fines it has proposed in recent years. The fine is based on two alleged violations of the city’s conflict of interest rule, which has a minimum penalty of $3,000, and three failures to report her financial interests, which each call for a minimum $1,000 penalty. PEC staff increased the penalties because Kaplan is an experienced elected official and attorney who should have been aware of the rules, and because ​​her “multiple failures to timely disclose a property interest hindered the community’s ability to hold elected officials accountable and potentially undermined the public trust in the transparency.”

The Public Ethics Commission will consider the proposed settlement of the case, including the $19,000 fine, at their next meeting on Dec.14.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.