Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Grand Jury: Oakland City Council President Had Conflict of Interest, Violated Ethics Rules to Undermine Housing Project

Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney faces city censure.

By Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Jun 21, 2016 at 11:24 AM

click to enlarge Lynette Gibson McElhaney's home and the empty lot where a five-unit townhouse was planned for construction. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Lynette Gibson McElhaney's home and the empty lot where a five-unit townhouse was planned for construction.
Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney violated government ethics and conflict of interest rules when she used her council office resources to prevent a developer from building a townhouse project next to her Oakland home, according to the final report of the Alameda County Grand Jury that was issued today.

As the Express first reported in February 2015, a developer submitted a building application to the city in 2014 to build a five-unit townhouse project next to Gibson McElhaney's home. Gibson McElhaney and her husband opposed the project because they objected to multi-unit housing next to their home, and they did not like the architectural design of the townhouses.

According to the Grand Jury, "Shortly after submitting the building application on January 23, 2014, the property owner was contacted by the next-door neighbor who stated that his wife was an Oakland city councilmember and further stated that he and his wife would be working to stop the project if the design was not changed to their liking."

McElhaney then contacted Rachel Flynn, Oakland's director of planning and building and voiced her objections to the townhouse project. The Grand Jury investigation discovered that after speaking with Gibson McElhaney, Flynn visited the property and conducted her own review of the proposed design. Flynn attempted to change the design to Gibson McElhaney's liking. City staff said that Flynn's personal involvement was highly unusual.

But even after the developer made some changes to the project design per Flynn's recommendations, Gibson McElhaney and her husband filed an appeal and argued to the planning commission that the project shouldn't be approved.

The project became so bogged down that the owner and his architect appear to have given up. According to the Grand Jury: "The property was then listed for sale and as of the writing of this report, the project has not been built. The property owner is concerned that further battles with the city may occur while attempting to obtain permits and constructing the townhouse project."

The Grand Jury concluded that Gibson McElhaney had a conflict of interest for personal gain, and that she should not have used her official position to influence the planning and building department's staff.

"Here, the councilmember privately contacted a department head three levels above the staff person handling the project to register discontent with the project," the Grand Jury found. "This conduct directly violated ethics rules and alienated staff."

The Grand Jury also found that Gibson McElhaney used city resources to fight the housing project. She directed her chief of staff Zachary Wald to write her appeal against the project.

The Grand Jury also criticized the Oakland Public Ethics Commission for not investigating Gibson McElhaney and enforcing Oakland's applicable laws.

The City Council also was criticized by the Grand Jury for failing to censure Gibson McElhaney.

Gibson McElhaney did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. The Oakland Public Ethics Commission also did not return a phone call.

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