Oakland’s political watchdog commission has brought on a new executive director to guide the organization through a challenging period.
The Public Ethics Commission announced on Tuesday the hiring of Nicolas Heidorn as its new executive director. Heidorn will lead the commission’s six-person staff in overseeing the administration and enforcement of city campaign finance, lobbying, government ethics laws, and transparency programs. He will also preside over the implementation of the new Fair Elections Act, which created the Democracy Dollars program.
“After an exhaustive search, we are thrilled to have selected an exceptionally qualified executive director,” Commission Chair Ryan Micik said in a statement.
Heidorn, who holds a Harvard law degree and a bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College, has a long track record working on government policy. He previously advised state lawmakers about elections, campaign finance, and governance policy as staff director and chief consultant of the California State Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee.
Before that, he worked as the policy and legal director of the government watchdog group California Common Cause, where he helped pass state legislation that created campaign contribution limits and legalize public financing of campaigns. He was also responsible for passing local reform measures, including the ordinance that produced Sacramento’s ethics commission. He promoted local redistricting best practices and drafted Senate Bill 1108, which authorized California cities and counties to adopt independent citizens redistricting commissions. Heidorn also served as an assistant general counsel at the California Environmental Protection Agency.
He currently operates a consulting firm that provides election reform policy and legal analysis to good governance organizations. He has consulted for organizations that pushed for Oakland’s Measure W Democracy Dollars campaign.
The city’s Public Ethics Commission “plays a critical role in maintaining and strengthening the health of Oakland’s local democracy,” Heidorn said in a statement.
Heidorn joins the commission at a time when it’s experiencing staffing and budget problems. Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed budget for 2023-2025 would postpone the rollout of the Democracy Dollars program—a voter-approved ballot measure that would give residents cash vouchers to support candidates in city elections. The $4 million for the vouchers was supposed to come from the city’s general fund, which is experiencing a $360 million deficit. The program’s rollout will likely be delayed from 2024 until 2026.
The commission’s enforcement team is also severely case burdened. According to a recent enforcement report, the commission has 70 pending cases—ranging from investigations and settlement negotiations to administrative hearings—but only one investigator. Faced with this problem, commission staff have decided to place approximately half the pending matters on indefinite holds. The report notes that some respondents may try to take advantage of the enforcement team’s staffing problems by taking steps to delay investigations.
Heidorn arrives at the commission following a period of turnover at the top. He is replacing acting director Suzanne Doran, who has held the reins since her predecessor Kellie Johnson left in November 2022. Johnson only briefly held the role of executive director, starting in August 2022 after the commission’s longtime leader Whitney Barazoto retired.
“With his wealth of experience and track record working for good governance and campaign finance reform, the Commission is gaining a great asset in Nicolas,” Doran said.