December 16 , 2011

Newspapers and political commentators and columnists are fond of using single-word terms to describe a governmental administration. You might hear of a “failed” administration or a “troubled” administration or a “popular” administration or a “successful” administration, depending upon how much they want to play up or play down. These shorthand characterizations save space and time, and relieve the writers and talkers of the necessity of having to do put out a paragraph or two summary of what the administration might actually have done or failed to do. It also relieves everybody of the inconvenient need to think, either on the part of the writer or of the reader/listener. Just throw in a pre-packaged word, accept it, and move on.

And so, in a recent editorial opposing the proposed recall of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (“Recall Effort For Mayor Jean Quan Should Not Prevail” December 14, 2011), our good friends at the Oakland Tribune describe her predecessor, former Mayor Ron Dellums, as “perhaps the first absentee mayor of a major metropolitan city.”

“Absentee” is the operative word here.

Aside from the fact that this is clearly over-the-top rhetoric—do the editors at the Tribune actually know what every mayor of every major American metropolitan city has done or not done since the founding of the republic?—one wonders what criteria they used for the word “absentee” to make it apply to the Dellums Administration.

I think I know what “absentee” means. An “absentee landlord,” for example, is one who never sets foot on the property they own, but leaves it to a subordinate to manage, if at all. By applying this term to Mr. Dellums, does the Tribune want us to believe that in four years in office, the former mayor never showed up for work? Clearly, that is not what happened, and some other characterization would seem to be in order.

Regardless, to support their “absentee” claim, the Tribune editors supply one sentence summation of the Dellums years in Oakland.

“Because of Ron Dellums' neglect,” they write, “[Mayor] Quan inherited a financially teetering city with mangled accounting, exorbitant pension debts, too few police officers to control unacceptable crime, and dwindling funds for other badly needed services—all at a time of revenue shortages for governments throughout the state.”

Well, that’s not exactly how it happened.

When Ms. Quan took office in January of this year, she did inherit an Oakland with the problems described, but it is a stretch to put the complete blame for those problems on Mr. Dellums. The former mayor had his errors and made his mistakes, but other factors intervened.

One year into his administration, Mr. Dellums gave a famous press briefing on the Oakland budget, in which he outlined financial problems that the Tribune talked about: mangled accounting, pension debts, and dwindling funds for badly needed services. At that press conference, Mr. Dellums said that the city’s financial difficulties had been long neglected, and that we could no longer punt the problem down the road and hope that they could be solved in the future. He set out an ambitious but grim program of restoring Oakland’s financial health by tightening our belts and lowering our expectations of city services while we paid down the city’s debt.

Mr. Dellums’ financial program was never implemented.
That was not because he neglected it, but because the national and state economies tanked almost immediately after the mayor’s budget talk, incoming tax revenues got even scarcer, and Oakland took a further hit when the state balanced its own budget by drawing money out of the budgets of cities like Oakland. For the rest of the term of the Dellums Administration, Oakland scrambled just to keep up with the current crises, with no chance to attack the old debts, the pension problem, and the root causes of the city’s fiscal problems. And, in fact, while Oakland’s financial problems did not grow less during the Dellums Administration, it does not appear that what the former mayor did contributed to making them worse. And this does not even take into account the work Mr. Dellums did to bring in extra federal funds to Oakland’s budget that we otherwise would not have gotten.
While one might argue that Mr. Dellums might have done more, it does not seem fair to blame him for neglect in this area.

As for the “too few police officers” thing, the Tribune editors must have forgotten that in the years between the passage of Measure Y and the election of Mr. Dellums as mayor, Oakland could not figure out a way to implement the hiring of the full complement of Measure Y problem solving officers because it could not bring up the police department to full staffing. In his first State of the City address, Mr. Dellums promised he would solve that problem. A year later, Oakland’s Measure Y officer corp was fully staffed for the first time in its history, and Oakland was running 25 or more total police officers in uniform ahead of its allotted 803.

At the end of the Dellums Administration, the Oakland City Council passed a budget mandating the layoff of officers—bringing us to our current low total—not because of Dellums neglect, but because failing revenues (in large part because of the national recession) made it impossible to maintain core services and keep all of the police on the job, and because the leadership of the Oakland Police Officers Association police union refused to agree to Oakland police officers paying any money on their own pensions, as most other city employees do, so that the layoffs would not have to take place.

But further, in blaming Mr. Dellums for the specific list of difficulties they say he passed on to Ms. Quan, the Tribune editorial ignores both the sequence of events and simple math that is inherent later on in that same editorial.

Summing up Oakland’s fiscal problems, the Tribune editors concluded that “it's not that the city lacks income. Its residents pay some of the highest property tax rates in the region. The problem is that the city has spent beyond its means for more than a decade, running up debts that now are coming due and failing to plan for those payments.”

Mr. Dellums served four years as Oakland mayor. Ms. Quan has served slightly less than one. Putting the problem of Oakland spending beyond its means and running up debts as occurring for “more than a decade,” as the Tribune does, one has to put the roots of Oakland’s budget and police staffing problems in the lap of the little man who preceded both Dellums and Quan.

Funny how the Tribune editors seem to have forgotten about Jerry Brown.