OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — An Oakland City councilwoman must face an administrative hearing on whether she violated city ethics laws by stalling the construction of an apartment building next to her West Oakland home.
The Oakland Public Ethics Commission voted Monday night to send the matter to a hearing before an independent hearing officer, in light of evidence that Lynette Gibson McElhaney enlisted the architectural firm JRDV Urban International to propose changes to the project for free, and voted to extend city contracts with the firm for roughly $2.5 million.
The commission will issue a final ruling once the administrative finding is made.
“What has been presented to us this evening leaves a lot of questions still to be answered,” Commissioner Dana King said just before the unanimous vote. “I’d like to know why a professional architect would provide free services to a councilmember. Was there an expectation of something in return? Those are answers that can only come from a hearing.”
The ethics commission began investigating Gibson McElhaney in February 2015 to determine whether she violated the Oakland Government Ethics Act after her husband appealed a developer’s zoning application to build a five-unit residential building on a vacant lot next to the couple’s home.
Developer Robert Brecht had submitted the zoning application to the city a year earlier, which was approved. When Gibson McElhaney’s husband appealed, the councilwoman asked JRDV president Morton Jensen to testify on her behalf at a city hearing where the appeal was to be considered, according to the ethics commission investigators’ report.
Just before that meeting, Jensen met Gibson McElhaney at her home to review Brecht’s lot and application, and created an alternative design for the project, which Gibson McElhaney presented to the planning commission that night, according to the report.
The planning commission denied the appeal, but Jensen continued to protest the project on Gibson McElhaney’s behalf, offering to have the firm redesign the project for Brecht for free, discussing alternative designs with a city planner, and researching ways to object to Brecht’s design, the investigators found.
Jensen denied the report’s findings about him in a July 27 email to the commission.
Gibson McElhaney painted a different picture of events at the Monday meeting, telling the commission that she hadn’t intended to stop the project, but simply joined with her neighbors to demand that it conform to public safety standards and the neighborhood’s historic architectural style.
“These are demands that are routinely honored in other parts of town, and routinely ignored in West Oakland,” Gibson McElhaney said, asking the commission to dismiss the matter.
She blamed the fiasco on the city planning department, telling commissioners that staff had ignored her neighbors’ concerns, prompting them to go to her for help.
“I know too well the legacy and ongoing injury of being marginalized by race, gender, class, ZIP code,” she said of the historically black neighborhood. “In this matter, not only were the concerns of the community ignored, I have been dragged through the mud for simply trying do what my community elected me to do: advocate for fairness in this process.”
According to the ethics commission investigators, Gibson McElhaney received $800 in free services from JRDV, which she did not disclose in a mandatory statement of economic interests.
City Council members are prohibited from soliciting or accepting gifts of more than $250 a year from a single person. They also are prohibited from soliciting or accepting gifts totaling more than $50 annually from firms doing business with the city.
Investigators found that Gibson McElhaney voted multiple times to extend two of JRDV’s three architectural services contracts with the city, increasing the amount of money originally promised to the firm. One of the contracts is for a project in Gibson McElhaney’s district.
Gibson McElhaney asked for JRDV’s help a day after she voted to extend one of the contracts, investigators reported.
Gibson McElhaney’s attorney James Sutton told commissioners his client was willing to admit she had made a mistake, but added that she had not known it at the time. He urged them to forgo the administrative hearing and restart settlement talks.
The parties have been trying to negotiate a settlement since March, but have been unable to agree on a figure. The investigators recommended a penalty of up to $15,000.
Commissioner King seemed skeptical of the councilwoman’s olive branch in light of the evidence.
“Our commission is created and designed to work on behalf of the public,” she said. “We have an obligation to the citizens of Oakland to help them better understand what happens with their elected officials.”