Oakland City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

Are you passionate about government transparency? Do you want to help enforce campaign finance laws and city ethics rules? There might be a place for you on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission.

Between now and October 27, the seven-member commission is recruiting a vacant seat on the board. The new commissioner will likely be selected in December and they will start in January 2024. 

Two more vacancies are opening at the start of next year—one appointed by the mayor, the other by the City Attorney.

Requirements to join the commission are low: Applicants must be residents of Oakland and registered to vote in the city. They also need to have attended at least one commission meeting. Registered lobbyists and city employees are not eligible.  Commissioners are volunteers who serve three-year terms and are supposed to participate in monthly meetings, plus occasional subcommittee meetings. According to the commission’s website, commissioners usually spend five to 10 hours per month on commission business. Many commissioners are attorneys, but lack of legal experience doesn’t preclude someone from serving. 

“We’re really looking for people who are civically engaged, who care about the city of Oakland, and who care about local democracy,” said Nicolas Heidorn, executive director of the commission. “Anyone who brings that civic spirit would be a great fit for the commission.” 

The Public Ethics Commission was created in 1996 as an independent body to oversee Oakland’s campaign finance rules during elections, and enforce transparency and ethics rules. That includes overseeing some of Oakland’s most important laws, including the Government Ethics Act, the Oakland Campaign Reform Act, the Oakland Sunshine Ordinance, and the Lobbyist Registration Act.

Last year, the commission issued a $19,000 penalty against Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan for allegedly failing to disclose her ownership of a condo in Jack London District next to a park she voted to expand. That same year, the commission launched an investigation into an ethics complaint against Sheng Thao for allegedly ordering city staffers to work on her mayoral campaign. As a watchdog, the commission can also deliver powerful blows against corruption: In 2021, the commission issued its largest ever fine, $309,000, against a former building inspector for bribery and extortion.

On top of these more exciting duties, commissioners are also supposed to ensure that Oaklanders have access to public records. Residents contact the city every day seeking police reports, building records, contracts, and other documents, and the commission makes sure that process works.

“I think this is something a lot of people can relate to, and it has a lot to do with how people judge the effectiveness of government,” said Commission Chair Ryan Micik.  

Commissioners also helped administer the Limited Public Financing Act, which made it easier for people from all walks of life to participate in elections by providing public funds to candidates. The act was repealed by voters last year to implement Measure W which would give eligible Oakland voters $100 in “Democracy Dollars” vouchers to spend as they like in local elections. The program was supposed to start in 2024, but the City Council postponed it two years due to a severe budget deficit. The commission is currently working with city staff to lay the groundwork for a successful rollout of the program in 2026, and to restore a version of the Limited Public Financing Act. 

The commission is also struggling with lack of resources for its enforcement unit, which investigates ethics complaints. In May, the enforcement unit’s chief informed the commission that due to inadequate staffing, he was putting approximately half of the pending cases on hold indefinitely. Micik acknowledged they’re short on funds, but he emphasized this won’t stop the commission from doing its work.

“When staff are facing challenges like this, it really is up to the commission to set priorities and figure out how to use limited resources to be most effective,” Micik said.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.