A white stone roof with a clock tower on top.
Oakland City Hall. Credit: Darwin BondGraham.

Government officials make decisions every day about awarding lucrative contracts, granting or denying development and construction permits, issuing business licenses, and other activities that can have big economic impacts. And the potential that an official might abuse this power to their own benefit is ever present. That’s why there are state and city laws that prohibit government workers from having conflicts of interest—a situation in which a person’s personal interest could compromise their judgment about an issue. Local governments like Oakland require city employees and elected officials to transparently disclose their personal finances so that the public can be sure there’s no hidden agenda behind a decision.

The Oakland Public Ethics Commission is the city’s enforcer of transparency laws. It’s supposed to act as a bulwark against public corruption, and it can investigate and fine officials who violate the law. But the commission is struggling to make use of Oakland’s most basic conflict of interest tool, a document called the Form 700.  

Also called a “statement of economic interest,” the Form 700 is one of California’s main ways of keeping government officials honest. It provides the public with a clear view into the property, stocks, bonds, companies, and other things of value a public official owns, and it tracks gifts they receive and loans they take out. Because most officials have to fill out and file a Form 700 each year, the paperwork also serves as a reminder  for them to be careful when making decisions so as not to show favor or steer a decision in a direction they could benefit from.

Each year, most elected officials, commissioners, candidates, and hundreds of city employees must file one of these forms, which can then be viewed by members of the public. When an official fails to disclose some kind of asset or property they own on a Form 700, it can result in them making decisions that, in the very least, might appear to be conflicts of interest. This can erode faith in government. That’s why the city is supposed to strictly enforce the rule that officials file their Form 700s on time.

For example, last year, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission fined Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan $19,000 for failing to disclose her ownership of a condo near a park that she voted to use public dollars to expand.

In a lesser-known case from the early 2000s, an Oakland staffer approved a series of contracts with her brother-in-law who had given her a $50,000 loan. The staffer never disclosed the loan on her Form 700, thus concealing the conflict of interest.

The ethics commission’s enforcement chief, Simon Russell, announced recently that the commission is embarking on an ambitious campaign to enforce the Form 700 filing requirement. This year, the Public Ethics Commission is only targeting senior level officials and employees, including department directors, deputy directors, elected officials, and many of the city’s volunteer commissioners.

The commission is starting off gently: people who missed the Nov. 1 deadline to submit their disclosures will have the opportunity to take a training session in lieu of punishment. If they still don’t file after several weeks, the commission will start issuing fines. 

If all goes well, the commission hopes to enforce the filing rule with every city employee next year. The commission’s goal is to have 90% of filers filing their Form 700 by the end of 2024.

Oakland isn’t doing a good job of keeping track of who filed, who hasn’t

The ethics commission’s enforcement campaign has hit a snag because the commission doesn’t have an accurate list of who has filed a Form 700 and who has not. 

The commission got its list from the City Clerk’s office, which is currently responsible for collecting Form 700s and keeping track of the hundreds of city employees, elected officials, and appointed board members who need to file. Russell said this is the first time the commission staff have received this data from the clerk. 

“We’re not at this point 100% sure this is a completely accurate list,” Russell said at an ethics commission meeting last month. As a result, his small team is reaching out to departments directly to verify names on the list. He added that the questionable accuracy of the list is part of the reason the commission is not bringing “hundreds of cases” this year. 

The Oaklandside obtained the city’s list of roughly 1,700 employees and officials who were supposed to file Form 700s to report their economic interests for 2022. According to the data, approximately 744 of the people on the list—over 40%— either did not file a Form 700 by the April 3 deadline, or the city did not accurately keep track of their disclosure forms. 

In a note accompanying the list, Russell said the PEC is not making any representations as to the accuracy of the data. A quick review also  turned up several officials who no longer work for the city or serve on a commission. 

This is not the first time the City Clerk has been criticized for its handling of Form 700s. 

The Alameda County Grand Jury reported in 2022 that the clerk was failing to inform the ethics commission or the state Fair Political Practices Commission when someone hadn’t filed so that these agencies could investigate and fine them, if appropriate. According to the grand jury, the City Clerk and the ethics commission “rarely collaborate,” and the Clerk was unaware the ethics commission has the responsibility to enforce Form 700 filings.

“Because the filing officer does not refer non-filers to the FPPC or the PEC, Oakland does not have a means of fully enforcing its conflict of interest code,” the grand jury concluded.

The Oaklandside requested an interview with the City Clerk, Asha Reed. Public Information Officer Jean Walsh sent The Oaklandside a link to the clerk’s November 2022 response to the grand jury report.

In her response to the report, Reed admitted that the Clerk’s office struggled to fulfill its Form 700 duties. She blamed “15 years of budget and staffing reductions” and delays in hiring people for vacant positions. But Reed said her office had a plan to improve its handling of financial disclosures, and that she had been authorized to fill several vacancies.

The city also objected to the grand jury’s recommendation of transferring all Form 700 duties to the ethics commission, arguing that it would be costly and put additional strain on an already understaffed department. The Clerk noted that her office is committed to working collaboratively with the ethics commission. 

Reed’s office is no longer critically understaffed. According to a staffing report from May, the City Clerk has the lowest vacancy rate of any department in Oakland.

In response to a list of questions from The Oaklandside, Walsh said the City Clerk’s office currently has three vacant positions, all of which are slated to assist with some aspect of the Form 700 process. Walsh also noted that the city is in the process of updating Oakland’s conflict of interest code.

The ethics commission lacks staff and resources to investigate violations

If the city can fix problems with its system for tracking Form 700s, it still may not have the resources needed to carry out investigations of officials who don’t file their disclosure statements on time, or who are the target of complaints alleging a conflict of interest. The Public Ethics Commission has struggled with a lack of investigators for months, and the situation has gotten so bad the commission is having to put numerous cases on hold.

“It’s frankly crazy that we’ve had no permanent investigators for a year,” Russell said during a commission meeting last month. “I’m working as hard as I can, but there’s only so much I can do as one person.”   

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who previously served on the ethics commission, said understaffing has hindered the commission’s investigations for years. She recalled how in 2020 there were cases on the docket dating back to 2015.  

“This is not new, unfortunately,” Ramachandran said.

Earlier this year, Ramachandran unsuccessfully asked her colleagues on the Oakland City Council to fund an additional investigator position for the commission in the 2023-2025 budget. 

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she met with commission staff in May and learned about the caseload issues. The commission later sent the City Council a request for funds to implement Measure W, the so-called “Democracy Dollars” initiative approved by voters last year, which the council agreed to partially fund in 2026. 

“The council and I will have to continue making hard choices about what services to prioritize if and when funds are available to unfreeze positions,” Bas told The Oaklandside. 

Councilmember Dan Kalb, who helped create a 2014 ballot measure to expand the commission’s authority and powers, said he wants the commission to have the resources to do its job. But Kalb noted that it would be premature to see whether the commission needs more resources when it has existing vacancies that need to be filled.     

“We need to see what the situation is when they’re fully staffed,” he 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.