Landreth Leaves Legacy of Obstruction at Oakland Police Commission

Posted on January 7, 2020



Landreth in 2018, with her warning that giving the Police Commission independent review of OPD was comparable to Trump Administration actions

Though many Oakland City Administrators leave their position in a shroud of scandal, current Administrator Sabrina Landreth seems to be leaving on a flat note. When she announced her resignation earlier this month [effective March 2020], local papers reported that she characterized her time at the City as one of cultivation, where she had gifted the City with an institutional “muscle memory that would outlast my tenure.”

Whatever reflexes Landreth bequeathed to Oakland City government—and whatever scandals she may be washing her hands of—the one thing that she can take credit for is stifling the birth of Oakland’s historic Police Commission. Though Measure LL was a historic ballot initiative that passed with 82% support from Oakland’s voters in 2016, its first years have been a record of institutional impediments placed by Landreth’s office, manipulating, and at times, apparently breaking Oakland laws. It will be for the future to determine whether the damage will “outlast” her efforts.


Initial elation

Measure LL Advocates, like the Coalition for Police Accountability, were understandably excited when the ballot measure they’d helped craft and influence won passage in November 2016. But ballot measures like LL that amend the Oakland Charter require enabling legislation passed by the City Council, and for the Police Commission, this presented yet another set of battles—battles that would be fought on City government turf, where the Mayor, Administrator, City Council and City Attorney are the level bosses. For months, the enabling legislation languished in City Administrator supervised “meet and confer” negotiations with OPD’s union, which the City argued had mandated input into the ordinance.

When the enabling legislation finally made it into Council chambers in early 2018, Landreth, with the aid of City Attorney Barbara Parker, began a tug-of-war over Commission staffing that would again delay the establishment of the Commission as a fully empowered body [though the Commission members were appointed, and the Commission had noticed regular meetings beginning in December, 2017]. Landreth maintained that while LL granted the Council the ability to create Commission staff positions through ordinance, the Inspector General position envisioned in the enabling ordinance couldn’t be established free of her control. Parker’s office shared Landreth’s objections, insisting that the Commission could not have the independent legal counsel enumerated in LL outside the control of the City Attorney’s office.

Both objections raised concerns among advocates. Parker represents OPD in lawsuits and other areas where the Commission’s work could prove negative for their defense—being able to control the Commission’s legal counsel would subject the Commission to influence from Parker’s office in favor of the police. The Office of the Inspector General envisioned in the enabling ordinance would have wide latitude to pursue investigations of the police freely and that would create a troubling situation for a City Administrator in general. But there was an even more direct conflict for Landreth—for nearly a year Landreth was the standing Oakland Police Department head after the Celeste Guap rape scandal. Landreth now sought to have control over the Commission hire that could conceivably be asked to investigate OPD policies and actions under her control at that time.

The enabling legislation finally passed at a 2018 Council meeting, after a long struggle on the dais that saw one of its chief architects, Dan Kalb, back away from support [not surprisingly, just as Mayor Libby Schaaf publicly endorsed Kalb in his state assembly campaign]. Advocates won ostensible Police Commission control over the staffing positions.

Landreth pretended no objectivity over the loss, taking the mike and comparing the granting of the Commission IG hire to the lawlessness of the Donald Trump presidency. Regardless, the power to create the job description and hire the Inspector General went to the Commission by ordinance.


The Commission’s Struggle with a “weird and nebulous” Administrator’s Office

But the passage of the enabling ordinance only shifted the struggle to other fronts. As the Commission got up and running, Commissioners found a perplexing and indifferent City Administrator seemingly obstructive at many turns.

Former Police Commissioner Maureen Benson, a community appointee who resigned from the Commission in 2019 says that the City Administrator’s office was a “weird, nebulous structure…nothing was supportive.” Benson says the City Administrator used what was stated to be legitimate concerns and processes to stifle the Commission. “What I kept hearing was we can’t break the law, we have to follow the charter. It was a convenient use of the letter of the law.”

The perception came to be widely felt among Commissioners. Andrea Dooley, a mayoral appointee who resigned from the Commission in late 2018, initially thought that Landreth’s office was over-taxed with the burden of running a large city. But Dooley eventually came to believe that Landreth had a vested interest in thwarting the Commission. “ [Landreth] never introduced herself to commissioners, never attended a meeting, and didn’t reply to calls or emails from the Commission President. Poor management skills were deployed strategically to kill the things she doesn’t support.”

Benson contrasts Landreth’s orientation to the Police Commission to the Administration’s ongoing battle to win certification of Measure AA, the Oakland Promise ballot initiative which unlike LL, failed at the ballot box. “People are going to decide what hill they are going to die on,” Benson says. “[Landreth’s office] is willing to die on the hill of bending the law on behalf of Oakland promise, when most educators in the community think that’s political trash.”

Both Benson and Dooley believe that the Administrator’s ultimate objective was to frustrate the Commission on behalf of the Mayor and City government.

“When [Landreth] and the Police Chief and the Mayor realized that this was not just a standard citizen board that would focus on individual ‘bad apple’ cops, but would truly interrogate the system of policing there was very little appetite among leadership to see the Police Commission be successful.” Dooley said.

Benson has similar suspicions. “It’s clear that Landreth and the administration felt threatened by the Police Commission. There’s no way that the Administrator took actions like stifling the IG without the Mayor knowing. I can only speculate as to why she resigned but it does give the mayor a pass on responsibility for the Commission.”


Obstruction: Phase 2

After the enabling ordinance was passed, the Commission set about crafting the job position and sent it along to Landreth for the approval of her office some months later. But Landreth didn’t respond for over 5 months, according to Commissioner Edwin Prather, who spoke publicly about the issue at an April 2019 Public Safety Committee meeting. When Landreth finally did respond, she sent back a significantly altered job description.

At the meeting, Prather called Landreth’s efforts “dilatory and obstructive.” According to Prather, Landreth had blown off the Inspector General hiring instructions in the enabling ordinance, and was essentially saying “‘We don’t care what the City Council voted to do, we’re going to do what we want to do.’”


Prather also noted that the City Attorney was obstructing the hiring of independent legal counsel mandated in the enabling ordinance, leaving them only with counsel directed by the City Attorney. The unanimous protest of the Commission prompted additional proposed legislation for the IG postion by Council President Rebecca Kaplan. Kaplan prepared a draft resolution instructing Landreth’s office to proceed with the job description as created by the Commission for an April Council meeting. Parker, apparently coordinating with the City Administrator, independently sought a new opinion from the City Attorney’s outside lawyer, Remcho, Johansen and Purcell against allowing the IG to be directed by the Commission. Parker’s office then substituted Kaplan’s resolution at the last minute for an agenda item that now simply instructed the City Administrator to do as she pleased with the IG position.

Despite the opposition from both Landreth and Parker, Council passed Kaplan’s original legislation which instructed the Administrator to allow the Commission to create the IG and hire for it. Parker’s last-minute change was so unusual that Council’s official legislative record carries a cover sheet showing that the resolution passed was the “alternate” resolution by Kaplan—which had actually been the primary one before the Attorney removed it.


But the matter wasn’t settled there either as far as Landreth was concerned. The Commission announced at an August meeting that Landreth still refuses to accept the Commission’s job description for IG—despite the passage of this second instruction to her office to allow the Commission to do so.


Acknowledging that the IG position would be impossible to craft independently, the Commission voted in October to ask Council to re-purpose IG budgeted funds for the time being.


Situational Legal Concerns at the City Administrator’s Office

Landreth often invoked concern about the violation of the Charter in defense of her obstructions. But there’s much in her record of actions on LL to suggest that concern for the Charter and City law as established by Council ordinances has been arbitrary. The Charter amendment instructs the City Administrator to assign a Commission liaison and support staff, but as Council President Kaplan and Dooley both claimed, Landreth instructed staff to forego the Commission’s instructions, deny support and skip meetings.

Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability notes that Landreth failed to change the intake area of the Community Complaint Review Agency to a ground-level property, as the enabling ordinance required. Though the change presents no conflict with the Charter, Landreth again apparently refused to obey the City’s laws.

Grinage highlights another act that has no support either in the Charter or the enabling ordinance and that came as a shock to Council members. According to Grinage and others, Landreth hired outside counsel to investigate Commissioner Ginale Harris. “That’s entirely irregular and outside the scope of Measure LL as well as the Ordinance,” Grinage says.

Kaplan has introduced a resolution to have official clarity on Landreth’s use of City resources to investigate a Commissioner. But many view Landreth’s act as yet another obstruction from the City Administrator at the behest of her boss. “There is no way that the City Administrator used City funds to hire a firm to investigate Commissioner Ginale Harris and the Mayor didn’t support it,” Benson observed.

Landreth has apparently been indifferent to Oakland law in other areas of her work, as well—but its not just Commissioners and police accountability advocates who say so. In November, the Oakland City Auditor’s Office found that Landreth had violated Oakland law from 2016 to 2019 when she failed to create a formal lease or agreement with Oakland Promise for the use of office space the organization enjoyed at the City. That led to the unincorporated organization enjoying free rent at City Hall for years. Landreth also allowed David Silver to be Schaaf’s “unofficial” “Director of Education” for over a year, with no contract or MOU governing access, roles or tasks in what could be violations of both City law and the Charter. During the same period that the City Administrator refused to follow City Council ordinances and instruction on the Police Commission, Landreth was violating Oakland law by lavishing largesse on Schaaf’s non-governmental political partner. Parker’s office has yet to opine on these issues and nothing has come of these violations.


Unclear Future

It’s still unknown who Schaaf will appoint as her new City Administrator. There were high hopes for the Police Commission, but it has been forced out of the box with a stumble, damaging its credibility and calling into question its future. Kaplan, with the support of other City Council members like Noel Gallo, has introduced new legislation for another City Council directed ballot measure that will tighten the language of the LL amendments. But should the measure win in November, any new outcome is still likely more than a year away. Then there may be a whole new fight over enabling legislation, as well.

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