This is the Executive Summary, Conclusion, Findings and Recommendations only. For the entire report go to : Grand Jury 2014 -2015 Report
The Grand Jury received a complaint that the chief of staff (COS) of a member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors (BOS) was inappropriately pressuring county departments to influence administrative decisions on behalf of a favored constituent. The Grand Jury’s investigation uncovered that such interference by county political operatives is not uncommon and undermines the integrity of the governing and administrative operations of the county. In one instance, interference ended up costing a county department nearly $100,000 in legal fees and hundreds of extra staff hours to remedy the matter. In another, the COS of a supervisor pressured administrative staff regarding several different projects after receiving a personal home loan from a mortgage company run by the applicant of the projects, creating an appearance of impropriety. This behavior is unethical and fosters a public perception that back-room deals and political favoritism are commonplace within county government.
While the Grand Jury understands that elected officials must represent constituents and, at times, must inquire with administrative staff regarding the status of a project or to pass on grievances about agency conduct, the degree of interference found within this investigation went well beyond acceptable constituent services. To varying degrees, politicial interference was applied to staff of the Public Works Agency, the Community Development Agency, and to a lesser extent, the Environmental Health Department.
Public trust in the honest administration of government is essential. Citizens both demand and deserve to be treated fairly and equitably when dealing with the public agencies that are supposed to serve them. Political interference by elected officials or their agents applying pressure on administrative staff to give preferential treatment to favored constituents damages the effectiveness of government organizations and can quickly destroy an agency’s hard-earned reputation.
The Grand Jury believes good governance is demonstrated when decision making is done in a fair and transparent manner. Policy decisions should be implemented by county professional staff in an equitable and effective manner without political interference. Members of the public seeking permits and approvals deserve impartial treatment. Staff should be insulated from backroom political pressure applied by elected officials directly, or by their staff, to ensure a fair process.
The Grand Jury concludes that county department heads being dependent on and subordinate to the board of supervisors invites unethical interference into day-to- day operations by board members. It puts inappropriate pressure on county staff to acquiesce and abandon good judgment and the objective of fairly administering county policies, rules, and regulations. Alameda County’s organizational chart depicts the county administrator’s position as a buffer protecting department staff from the type of meddling by county supervisors revealed by the Grand Jury’s investigation.
The Grand Jury has documented several examples of inappropriate conduct that damaged the county’s reputation and caused it to suffer direct economic losses. This inappropriate conduct was also responsible for indirectly damaging Alameda County residents and business owners who appeared to be punished because they followed the rules.
To protect against damaging conduct, many public agencies have rules in place forbidding political interference. Unfortunately, Alameda County does not. The Grand Jury believes that developing and implementing robust anti-interference and conflict-of-interest policies would best serve Alameda County. Finally, the Board of Supervisors should immediately take steps to enforce the conflict policies within the county charter by investigating questionable practices and taking swift action to deter undue political interference.
Finding 15-1: There was unethical and persistent interference by a supervisor’s chief of staff, which compromised the county’s integrity and improperly influenced staff decisions regarding land use, resulting in wasted county resources.
Finding 15-2: Multiple department heads and county staff were unable to perform their duties in a fair and consistent manner due to political interference.
Finding 15-3: The Alameda County Board of Supervisors directly participates in hiring and reviewing department heads, which creates a culture where political interference is allowed to permeate the day-to-day administration of county business.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors must investigate the unethical behavior reported by the Grand Jury and take appropriate measures.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors must adopt a code of ethics policy covering all county employees, similar to the policy used by the General Services Agency, but revised to include a confidential reporting mechanism covering observations of unethical conduct.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors must adopt an anti-interference policy to ensure elected officials and their staffs do not inappropriately influence the administrative responsibilities of county staff.
Training for elected officials and county staff must be conducted under the new anti-interference and ethics policies, including state whistle-blower statutes.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors must take steps to have the county charter amended to relinquish its control of hiring of non-elected department heads to the county administrator.