Page One

Civil Grand Jury ‘Appalled’ By Oakland’s Credit Card Policies

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:29:00 AM

The Alameda County Civil Grand Jury took a major swipe at what it called a lax City of Oakland credit card policy, but otherwise made no blockbuster charges or recommendations in its final report for the 2007-08 session issued this week.  

Instead, the grand jury took minor shots at the City of Oakland’s police staffing issues, and gave dire warnings about the operation of the Oakland Unified School District under state administration. 

In its only investigation of activities of the City of Berkeley, the grand jury report mildly criticized city officials regarding shutdowns of illegal drug houses. 

The civil grand jury is a 22-member citizen body made up of appointees of Alameda County Superior Court judges. The grand jury serves as a “watchdog” commission overseeing the actions of Alameda County public agencies, as well as responding to any citizen complaints it chooses to investigate. The annual reports—made up of the results of those investigations—have no legal au-thority but sometimes have powerful political weight. 

Because the grand jury has wide discretion regarding issues it chooses to investigate—or ignore—its investigations and reports either can be objective or can be easily bent to serve political agendas. 

In its major findings, this year’s Civil Grand Jury reported on the following:  


City of Oakland use of credit cards 

Found what it called “several problems” with the City of Oakland’s purchasing card program, including failure to comply with existing city policies, “ambiguous” city policies that it called “weak, ineffectual, ambiguous or hard to locate,” and the absence of city credit card policy altogether in areas such computer or furniture purchases or approval of credit card expenses by elected officials and the city administrator. 

In perhaps its most explosive passage, the grand jury report noted that the investigation “found that a number of the City of Oakland cardholders used their credit cards for ‘business lunches,’ many of those at upscale restaurants including Max’s, Verbena, Scott’s and Bay Wolf. In most instances the documentation for those lunches failed to identify the purpose of the lunch or the names of those in attendance. One elected official had over 50 business meals at city expense during one fiscal year with total charges of over $3,000, dining mostly at the restaurants listed above. Most of the receipts lack itemization and purpose of meeting. One charge for $150 at Max’s showed $26.89 for a tip as the only detail.” 

In its report, the grand jury listed several pages of city credit card expenses, among them a $322 lunch at Kuleto’s restaurant in San Francisco for the purpose of “meeting with OPD personnel after appearance in Federal Court to discuss next steps regarding court orders.” The Grand Jury reported noted that items ordered at the luncheon included calamari, salmon steak, tiramisu and crème bruleé. 

Calling itself “appalled by the city of Oakland’s use of taxpayer funds for the questionable expenditures uncovered during this investigation,” the grand jury report made several recommendations involving tightening up its credit card policies, including suggesting that the city “revise its description of permissible work-related expenditures and authorized expenditures for credit cards, providing specific guidance to credit card users as to the categories of permissible usage; required approvals; and the dollar limits applicable to any such category.”  

The Grand Jury also recommended that monthly credit card use statements be given in more detail, including the reason for the credit card use and the persons benefiting, as well as calling for an annual audit by the city auditor or an outside agency of city credit card purchases. 


Oakland police staffing 

While “having more uniformed officers on the street … is not the sole solution” to reducing crime, because “adequate policing of city streets is an absolute necessity for the safety of Oakland’s residents,” the report concluded that “the City of Oakland must immediately find the money to increase uniformed police patrols.”  

The grand jury recommended that the city “increase its number of sworn officers with the Oakland Police Department to a minimum of 1,200.”  

That was a minimum staffing that had been widely advocated earlier this year in a “Safe Streets” ballot initiative circulated by political consultant Larry Tramutola and a small coalition of Oakland residents. The “Safe Streets” initiative was later abandoned after the group reached a deal with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums for Dellums to support a police increase parcel tax initiative for the November ballot. That parcel tax initiative is currently being considered for sponsorship by the Oakland City Council.  


Oakland Unified School District 

The grand jury concluded that “after nearly five years of state management, OUSD’s budget remains unbalanced and the district’s future is unclear. The budgeting process must be based upon accurate projections of student enrollment. The grand jury learned that previous accounting methods overstated enrollment significantly. 

“Overstating ADA causes monies to be distributed by the state to the district, which in turn must eventually be repaid to the state. It also results in retention of excess teaching staff, which the district must retain unless pink slips are sent out by the legally mandated deadlines.”  

While not making any recommendations on how to rectify the situation, the report added that “once the school board gains full control from the state, it will be handicapped because of the actions of the current state administrator.” 

Oakland Unified has been under state control since 2003, following a state loan mandated by a massive budget shortfall. In the last year and a half, several operations of the district have gradually been returned to the control of the OUSD school board. 


City of Berkeley drug houses 

Defining a drug house as “a private residence where illegal drug activity takes place,” the grand jury investigated a civilian complaint that the City of Berkeley “has been derelict in its duty to safeguard public safety and has shown willful intent to not enforce local and state laws pertaining to abating public nuisance drug houses.” 

Although the particular drug house that was the subject of the civilian complaint was not mentioned by address or owner, details in the grand jury report made it clear that the complaint referred to the Oregon Street home owned by elderly Berkeley resident Lenora Moore.  

Charges by neighbors and police that the residence had been used for years as a drug-dealing center by Moore’s children and grandchildren were the subject of a series of Daily Planet articles in 2005 and 2006. Neighbors eventually won two small claims court nuisance settlements against Moore. 

In her defense, the then 75-year-old Moore had argued that there were never any allegations that she participated in any drug dealing herself and that she was powerless to stop any such activities that might have been conducted by her offspring. 

In its conclusion, the grand jury said, “In 2006, the city of Berkeley failed to take action on the owner occupied drug house when the court concluded and the property owner stipulated that the property was indeed a nuisance. … The city failed to follow through with all possible measures to eliminate this drug house problem. The property remains a chronic nuisance to the neighborhood.” 

The grand jury recommended that Berkeley “apply the same standards regarding abatement of owner-occupied drug houses as it does for tenant-occupied and commercial properties,” and adopt or modify city ordinances to abate drug house problems if current municipal codes and state legislation are insufficient.