Monday, October 3, 2016

Town Business: Late Grand Jury Response; Oak Knoll

By Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Oct 3, 2016 at 8:40 AM

Late Grand Jury Response: Coun
click to enlarge Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
  • Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
cilmember Desley Brooks' disruptive "filibuster" at last Thursday's Rules and Legislation Committee meeting ruffled some feathers but she raised a couple good points. One of them — made as an aside — was about the city council's need to respond to the Alameda County Grand Jury investigation of Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney's use of her office for personal gain.

In June, the Grand Jury reported that Gibson McElhaney had her city-paid staff work on an appeal to stop a developer from building a townhouse project on land next to her personal residence. Furthermore, McElhaney recruited Oakland's top planning and building official, Rachel Flynn, to intervene in the process. Flynn tried to get the developer and his architect to substantially change their building's design, which they did. But McElhaney's interference ultimately caused the developer to abandon the project.

According to Oakland's ethics rules, it is illegal for a councilmember to direct city staff like the planning and building director for any reason. The city's rules also state that city council staff and office resources cannot be used to do things that directly and personally benefit the councilmember. Gibson McElhaney violated these rules, according to the Grand Jury.

The Express first reported these ethics violations in February 2015. The Grand Jury's report largely confirmed our story.

But the Grand Jury also noted that the City of Oakland has yet to do anything to hold Gibson McElhaney accountable for breaking the law. Now, the city hasn't even responded to the Grand Jury's report on time.

State law requires that cities respond in writing to the presiding judge no later than 90 days after the Grand Jury issues its report. That would have been September 21, but Oakland has yet to issue a response to the court, or to even schedule a hearing at which a response could be publicly heard and approved by the city council.

Cassie Barner of the Alameda County Criminal & Civil Grand Jury told the Express in an email that Oakland officials asked for an extension in order to prepare their response regarding McElhaney's ethics violations. Oakland has been granted until mid-October to respond, she wrote, adding that such extensions are "not unusual."

Perhaps the city asked for more time in order to wrap up the Public Ethics Commission investigation into McElhaney? According to PEC director Whitney Barazoto, the commission opened an investigation into McElhaney's role in the demise of the townhouse project on February 18, 2015, seven days after the Express ran its first story about the matter.

In June, Barazoto told the Express that the case was still pending, due in part to the PEC's lack of staff and resources needed to clear its backlog of cases. She wrote in an email that she expects McElhaney's case to be resolved "by the end of this year."

It'll be interesting to see what the PEC investigation finds, and how and when Oakland responds to the Grand Jury.

click to enlarge screen_shot_2016-10-03_at_8.29.38_am.png
Oak Knoll: One of the biggest development projects in the city is coming before the Planning Commission on Wednesday. Formerly a naval hospital, the Oak Knoll project will add almost 935 townhouses and single family homes to Oakland's housing stock. The developer, Suncal, tried to launch the project once before in 2006, but the Financial Crisis derailed it.

Affordable housing wouldn't be part of Oak Knoll's mix because Oakland doesn't have an inclusionary housing ordinance. However, the city's recently adopted impact fees will likely raise millions from the project because it falls in the city's "Zone 2" area where fees ranging from $2,600 to $16,500 apply to new townhomes and single family homes.

Suncal's plan calls for preserving 85 acres of the old naval hospital land as permanent open space, and for restoring Rifle Range Creek. The historic Club Knoll building will also be moved and refurbished as a community center.

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