One of Oakland’s most important oversight bodies is the Public Ethics Commission (PEC). The Commission does critical work to promote governmental transparency and ethics through educational and enforcement efforts. In addition, the Commission has the responsibility to roll out the Fair Elections Act, including Oakland’s new campaign finance laws. To help you become better acquainted with the Commission and perhaps inspire you to consider serving as a commissioner, Alana Sese, a student volunteer, recently interviewed Nicolas Heidorn, Executive Director of the Commission.
(The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Question: Welcome Director Heidorn. You've recently assumed this role of the executive director of the PEC. What drew you to this position and what part of the mission inspires you?
Response: Yes, I'm incredibly excited to be joining the PEC. Oakland was one of the first cities in California to have an ethics commission and has one of the most robust ethics programs in the state, with excellent staff and dedicated and thoughtful volunteer commissioners. I think the PEC’s work of ensuring honest, trustworthy government and expanding participation in local democracy are incredibly important, especially in the time period that we're in now. With the recent passage of the Oakland Fair Elections Act, the PEC will be taking on an even greater role in making our democracy more inclusive, so that all Oaklanders feel they have a stake and can participate in our political process. It’s an inspiring mission.
Question: Would you describe the big picture of the Commission’s role and how it operates within Oakland government?
Response: Yes, very broadly, the Public Ethics Commission is a Charter-created independent agency, with a responsibility for providing oversight over Oakland's transparency, government ethics, and campaign finance laws. We have a number of specific roles.
First, we educate the public and regulated parties on these laws. For regulated parties like lobbyists or candidates running for public office, we develop materials and trainings about their responsibilities under Oakland law.
Second, on the side of enforcement, we monitor whether city laws are being followed, and bring enforcement actions if necessary.
Lastly, we also review the laws that we administer and recommend policy changes to the City Council to promote greater transparency, accountability, and ethical conduct in the City.
Question: As you know, the Oakland League was part of bringing the Fair Elections Act to the ballot in 2022. Although the measure passed, implementation is happening in stages. Most of the measure took effect in January 2023, but the rollout of the Democracy Dollars vouchers has been postponed. How is the PEC handling implementation?
Response: The PEC is very active in implementing the Fair Elections Act. Some elements of the Act, like new transparency requirements for who is funding independent expenditures, have gone into effect. We have sent out advisories about those new laws and are updating our training materials. Other parts of the Act, notably the distribution of Democracy Dollars vouchers, have been pushed out to the 2026 election cycle. Once implemented, this will be a transformative program. Every eligible Oakland resident will receive four $25 vouchers which they can contribute to any qualifying candidate running for City office. This means wealth will not be a barrier for ordinary Oaklanders to participate in supporting their preferred candidates, and it means that good candidates who have strong community support, but are not independently wealthy or connected to networks of wealth, are more likely to run for office and have a higher chance of being elected.
However, there is a lot of work between now and 2026 to launch a Program of this size and scope. In the lead up to 2026, we will be building out the Program’s infrastructure and developing an inclusive outreach strategy. One of the top things that we've got to get done is build the database for tracking, processing and distributing vouchers. Thankfully, the budget provided us with some funds to do that work and funded one new program manager position to direct the effort. Beginning next year, we will also start planning out a comprehensive outreach strategy to ensure all of Oakland’s diverse communities are aware of the Program when it launches.
Question: When the Fair Elections Act passed Oakland’s prior limited campaign finance law was rescinded. Now that democracy dollars have been postponed until 2026, will there be any public funding for candidates in 2024?
Response: Currently, no, but stay tuned. When the Fair Elections Act passed, it repealed the City’s prior public financing program in anticipation of the Democracy Dollars Program being in place for 2024; however, with Democracy Dollars postponed, we are ironically left without public financing for 2024. The PEC is actively working for approval of an interim program. The PEC has proposed to the City Council to reestablish a limited public financing program for 2024 only, similar to what we had previously but not including any mailed vouchers, just to bridge that gap so that there's no absence of public financing until the Oakland Fair Elections Act can take effect in 2026. We're also incorporating some elements of the Oakland Fair Elections Act into that one-time proposal so that we have opportunities to test and fine tune them before ultimate implementation in 2026. The PEC’s proposal passed an important legislative hurdle before the City Council this week, so we are optimistic that the proposal will be adopted next month in November.
Question: When the Fair Elections Act passed, it changed other laws that the PEC enforces such as laws about lobbying and the limit on donations to candidates. Those changes have gone into effect and are part of your work, aren’t they?
Response: Yes, exactly. Measure W, which enacted the Fair Elections Act, had a number of components, one of which is Democracy Dollars, but also other components, which have gone into effect.
For example, Measure W also lowered campaign contribution limits and requires additional disclosure of independent expenditures.
It also puts in some restrictions about how long elected officials have to be out of office before they can become registered lobbyists.
Basically, all elements of Measure W are in effect, except for the Democracy Dollars program, which due to budget constraints has been postponed to 2026.
Question: Let’s explore a bit the PEC’s enforcement role?
Response: One of the primary functions of the PEC is to enforce the city's government ethics and campaign finance laws. When there are allegations of violations of those laws, or if we suspect there have been violations, we investigate. If we find that they're well founded, we can bring an enforcement action, which is handled administratively. In practice, what that means is that the Enforcement Program will present its case against the person who is alleged to have violated the law and they will present their defenses. The PEC’s voluntary commissioners act similar to a jury in deciding whether or not there has been a violation. If they do find that there has been a violation, a fine will be assessed.
One of the challenges that the PEC is facing in enforcement is that our caseload currently is very high. We have capacity issues to get to all our caseload in a timely fashion and so we have to prioritize cases based on the severity of the allegation and other factors. We're in the process of hiring an additional investigator, but the PEC will need to expand its enforcement staff to get a full handle on our caseload.
Question: The League and its members are very focused on the areas of government accountability and transparency, as well as on the need for campaign finance reform. Can you describe the responsibilities commissioners have so our members can know whether they or other interested members of the community have the skills they need to serve?
Response: The Public Ethics Commission is governed by a seven-member board of Oakland residents, who are appointed by a combination of the Mayor, City Attorney, City Auditor, and the Commission itself. This is a part-time, volunteer position. In January, we have one vacant Commission-appointed position that we're currently recruiting to fill. The application period for that position is open until October 27.
The commissioners really play a central function in the PEC’s operation. They set priorities for the Commission. This can include looking at policy areas under our jurisdiction where we may want to recommend changes to the law. As I mentioned earlier, they also adjudicate violations of the government ethics and campaign finance laws the PEC enforces.
The Commission-appointed position that we're currently recruiting for is intended to be a public position. We encourage everyone interested in promoting stronger government ethics and transparency in Oakland, or strengthening our local democracy, to consider applying. Commissioners do not need to have specialized knowledge in these areas of law. The Commission typically meets about once per month in the evenings. Overall, the workload is probably about four to eight hours of volunteer work a month which would also include service on subcommittees that meet between the Commission’s regular monthly public meetings. I should note that in this our commissioners receive support from our experienced staff.
Question: Please elaborate on that staff support.
Response: We have seven staff positions at the Commission. The staff and the commissioners really work together in partnership to accomplish the goals of the organization.
In the Commission’s policy role, staff will typically take the lead in doing research, writing memos and reports, and bringing forward policy proposals for the board’s consideration.
In the Commission’s enforcement role, staff will investigate allegations that the laws under the PEC’s jurisdiction have been violated, decide whether to bring an enforcement action, and recommend a penalty. The board serves as the adjudicator in enforcement cases: commissioners impartially review the evidence presented and decide whether a violation has occurred or not and, if so, the appropriate penalty.
Thank you so much, Executive Director Heidorn.