Port of Oakland arial view
By Kheven LaGrone
When news leaked out about the Port of Oakland's internal audit, it became known as the "Port Scandal."
The port did not release it immediately, but announced that the audit led to further investigation. This built suspense, speculation and gossip.
"Why now?" skeptical former employees asked, "It's been going on for years." In fact, local news station KTVU did an expose of misappropriate spending by the port commissioners a few years ago. The public soon forgot about it.
The port promptly (smartly?) released both audits on Dec. 10. Many skeptics believe they too soon will be forgotten.
Bottom line, the "Port Scandal" exposed the lack of accountability in Oakland city government.
Just the facts
The Port of Oakland is a department of the city of Oakland. The Oakland City Charter - the fundamental law of the city - governs the port department. Oakland voters can hold city officials responsible for making changes at the port and city officials simply have to enforce the charter, state and federal laws.
For example, the mayor and/or City Council can enforce the city charter to have the city auditor investigate the port. The city auditor could publicly recommend corrective action. The Council could then enforce the charter and amend the port accordingly. In fact, the city charter already requires the port to publicly report its budget to the City Council, City Administrator and city auditor on a regular basis. The City Council can enforce this law, as well.
When the port declined releasing its internal audit last month, it may have violated the California Public Records Act. The act states “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s [public] business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.”
Every person has the right to know what is going on at the port and who is accountable. Port documents are public documents. Upon request, any individual should have easy access not only to that original port internal audit, but also to any in-house correspondence questioning the audit. One does not have to be with the media or a government agency nor does one need to explain why he or she wants to see the documents.
Thus, the mayor and City Council could amend the port to make it more responsive to anyone requesting port documents. A position can be created for responding to requests for public information. Contact information should be posted on the port website and every requester should automatically receive written verification that his or her request has been received and is being processed. This prevents the risk of the port’s “conveniently” missing requests it doesn’t want to answer. The verification should include a tracking number. If there are any problems with the request, it would be the port’s contact person's responsibility to assist the requester to make sure he or she gets the document.
(Note: This is different from community affairs or public relation literature promoting the port with brochures such as Your Port, Your Partner and Powering Jobs and Empowering Communities.)
The mayor, City Council and city auditor are elected offices. Oakland voters should hold them accountable. They can be questioned at City Council meetings. If Oakland officials are serious about building public trust, they should make sure every department follows the laws and is transparent. No city official can be silent or point fingers. Voters should know what’s going on or know who to ask. Knowing that their official actions and decisions are open to public review should keep public agencies more honest.
As the Port scandal showed, lack of transparency and accountability invites corruption, abuse and fraud - and eventually public mistrust.