The city’s new anti-nepotism ordinance has drawn sharp criticism from the ranks of the police and fire departments, with Oakland’s police union filing a lawsuit charging that the ordinance violates officers’ privacy rights.
The ordinance, primarily crafted by Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (Glenview-Fruitvale), was first introduced in the weeks following former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly’s firing July 1. Edgerly faced allegations of interfering with a police investigation on behalf of a nephew.
Concerns about the ordinance grew in early February when the city began circulating confidential disclosure forms asking supervisors to list any city employees to whom they are related or with whom they have a romantic relationship.
One worry is that same-sex couples could have their sexual orientation outed if the information became public. Attorneys for the Oakland Police Officers Association also said portions of the ordinance are overbroad, and an officer might think he is following protocol when he is not.
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 23, demands the city “meet and confer” with the union over the new law. It also says the ordinance, as written, violates officers’ privacy rights under the California Constitution.
“It’s not that we’re against it,” said Dom Arotzarena, Oakland Police Officers Association president. “We just want to make sure the city safeguards the personal information of all the officers.”
Police supervisors, despite concerns, filled out the forms in question, the lawsuit said. Under a court’s order, the city can either sit down with the union over its grievances or return to court May 12.
Among those watching closely is Local 55 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents Oakland firefighters. Chuck Garcia, the union’s president, said firefighters were required to identify their relatives working in the department last year — and said that should be enough.
Many fire supervisors have declined to fill out the disclosure forms.
“It’s asking too many personal questions,” Garcia said. “Who cares who you’re going out with?”
De La Fuente pushed for the provisions about romantic relationships, believing they were key to stopping improper hiring and promotions at City Hall. The council’s vote on the final version of the ordinance in December was unanimous, with the exception of an abstention from Jane Brunner (North Oakland), who thought the ordinance delved too far into personal lives.
De La Fuente said the ordinance is written in a way to ensure private information does not become public. Asked about the negative reaction, De La Fuente said, “You can quote me on this: I think they’re full of (expletive).”
The longtime council member called the privacy concerns a “red herring” and said the real issue is whether the city can enact an ordinance to achieve what it was designed to do: stop nepotism and preferential treatment at City Hall.
“The reality is we specifically asked for legal opinions before we enacted the ordinance, and I believe the concerns of privacy, which are legitimate concerns, are protected in the ordinance,” he said.
Not so, said Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the police union.
“We’re not saying don’t have an anti-nepotism ordinance,” he said. “We’re saying put one together that makes sense, and falls within the confines of the law, i.e. the California Constitution.”
City Attorney John Russo did not address the substance of the lawsuit. He did question its timing, asking why the Oakland Police Officers Association did not air its problems before the council took its vote.
“Everybody knew about it,” he said. “It was covered in the papers. There was a great deal of attention, an unusual amount of attention to this issue in the press. “… It’s just odd to me that they waited until now.”
He said the union’s decision to wait and pursue legal action is a waste of dollars, and is “going to cost the taxpayers money and, frankly, going to cost the police officers money.”
But the lawsuit says the Oakland Police Officers Association had no prior knowledge that the ordinance had been adopted before the disclosure forms were circulated in February.
City Administrator Dan Lindheim had his own misgivings as the process started.
“I’m not concerned about family relationships,” he said. “I am concerned about personal, private romantic relationships, because I think people have a privacy right to those.”
But Lindheim said that did not stop him from acting in his official capacity to implement the ordinance — and that changes were made as a result of the ordinance taking effect.
“Our initial take was that six employees had situations that needed to be corrected, in which some relative was in too close a line of supervisory authority, and we needed to break that chain,” he said.
Separately, Lindheim and City Auditor Courtney Ruby settled a flap last week over Ruby’s request to obtain all the disclosure forms for her ongoing audit of the city’s hiring practices.
Roughly 85 percent of the forms were handed over to Ruby’s office Feb. 23, Lindheim said. Fifteen percent were not because they appeared to have been filled out erroneously.
Ruby demanded the administration supply the remaining 15 percent, and, initially, Lindheim planned to wait until the employees fixed the errors on their forms.
Ruby threatened to subpoena the records, and Russo agreed — as he has in the past — that Ruby is entitled to see any city record at any time.
The administration turned over the remaining forms Thursday morning, Lindheim said, after he received clear assurance Ruby had an “absolute” responsibility to keep the documents confidential.
For her part, Ruby, who had urged Oakland residents to call Mayor Ron Dellums’ office over the administration’s initial pause, said Thursday she had fresh confidence the administration shared the goals of “transparency and accountability that were vocalized this past week by the Oakland citizens.”