The Oakland Public Ethics Commission decided to hire an independent hearing officer to determine whether Councilmember Lynette McElhaney used her elected position to “interfere” with the construction of a building next to home. The commission voted unanimously to support the staff recommendation to hold the hearing, based on their investigation that found there was “probable cause” that the councilmember committed ethics violations.
Commissioners also voted to urge staff and the councilmember to continue to hold discussions to try to reach a settlement of the case.
Once the hearing is completed, possibly within two months, the hearing officer will report back to the commission, which could impose penalties, including a fine of up to $15,000.
In an interview with the Post, McElhaney said she thought it was positive that commissioners emphasized they wanted to pursue a settlement.
“This has been a witch hunt,” she said, emphasizing that she was not just fighting for herself but also for her neighbors, as she was elected to do, to oppose the construction of the large “ugly” building that is “like a motel.”
The major issue, said McElhaney, is that the city’s Planning Department approved a project that should never have been approved and often ignores the voices of people who live in flatland neighborhoods.
“We end up being bound by bad decisions,” she said. “There is so little accountability for these administrative decisions.”
According to ethics commission staff, McElhaney may have committed three ethics violations.
First, she received a gift from an architect worth $800 when McElhaney solicited the architect to speak for free at the Planning Commission in December 2014 in opposition to the development project. The architect at the time was doing business with the City Council.
The limit for a gift is $50 in calendar year.
Second, she voted the next month, in January 2015, to increase funding for the architect, allegedly violating the provision that prohibits a council member from participating in a council decision that benefits someone who has given a gift to the council member.
Finally, she failed to report the gift as required.
McElhaney said she had consulted with the City Attorney in an attempt to avoid conflicts of interest and that she did not realize at the time that what the architect did could be considered a gift.
The commission is also looking into whether to investigate and issue a report on the findings of the Alameda County Grand Jury, which alleges conflicts of interest that are outside the scope of the upcoming administrative hearing.