Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




January 14, 2010

Last week’s column failed to spark any immediate, community discussion on setting standards for judging an Oakland mayoral administration, but that’s to be expected. To paraphrase the Turk from the first Godfather movie, I’m not that influential. A Chip Johnson column or Matier & Ross item in the Chronicle, or a front-page story in the Tribune, can set the direction of Oakland discussion for several days running. But I write an Oakland column for an admittedly struggling small weekly Berkeley newspaper whose influence takes a somewhat dramatic dive at the Oakland border. But we do what we can with what we have.

The mayoral administration judgment column did get a brief mention and a link in Susan Mernit’s blog on her Oakland Local website with the notation to click on the link and “see what [Allen-Taylor] thinks (and what you do).” If any of the readers had any thoughts, they did share them in the comment section.

The column also got a sort of backhanded reference in a January 8 Zennie Abraham blog entry in the Chronicle. Mr. Abraham linked to it without any mention of the column itself, writing only that “there's rumor and talk—uncomfirmed—that Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is considering a run for reelection as Mayor of Oakland.”

In his Chronicle blog, Mr. Abraham then went on to discuss—at length if not in depth—why he believes Mr. Dellums should not run for re-election. The blog entry is as good as an example as any of the shallowness of Oakland’s current political dialogue, and the crying need for reaching around as a community and deciding some criteria for how to judge our political officeholders.

I’ll summarize Mr. Abraham’s arguments for the purpose of this discussion, but in all fairness, I hope you take the time to go back and read his original post online in its entirety. One of the important things in having a dialogue is letting everyone in the discussion have the chance to have their own say without filter, one of the procedures of common communication that has been sadly lacking in our rush to gobble down information in this information age.

Mr. Abraham castigates Mr. Dellums and the Dellums Administration for perceived failures in several areas, including the citizen task force process, mishandling of the media (both old and new), the Deborah Edgerly firing, the Oscar Grant “controversy,” Oakland’s parking fine and enforcement policy, and handling of the federal economic stimulus money.

While he is directly on target on Mr. Dellums’ inconsistency in communicating his message out to Oakland voters (a criticism I’ve long voiced, myself), some of the Abraham criticisms border on the bizarre, and makes one wonder if Mr. Abraham was paying attention, at all, during the periods and issues his criticism purports to cover.

Mr. Abraham writes, for example, that “Dellums [sic] error [during the task force process] was in an insular approach where only supporters and cronies were invited to staff them. Then, rather than have the task force documents available online for everyone to see, Dellums' people placed them in the Oakland Public Library, thereby assuring their invisibility from ready public view in the 21st Century.”

Actually, other than the fact that the task force reports were placed in the library, exactly the opposite was true. Contrary to Mr. Abraham’s contention, the citizen task forces—formed in the period between Mr. Dellums’ June, 2006 election and his actual taking of office the following January—were made up of a wide cross-section of Oakland citizens, many of whom had actively opposed Mr. Dellums’ candidacy.

The nine task force reports (in the areas of City Government, Diversity/Human Relations, Education, Health, Economic Development, Housing, Transportation, Neighborhood Organizing, and Public Safety) were all posted by the Dellums Administration on the City of Oakland’s website shortly after they were published in print form, and there, on the city website they reside to this day for ready public, 21st century type view. It is difficult, in this instance, to see how a critic (such as Mr. Abraham) could get something more wrong.

Although not as clear-cut as his flat-out factual errors in the task force matter, Mr. Abraham’s contentions about Dellums actions in the Oscar Grant and Deborah Edgerly issues are highly debatable, at the very least.

He writes, for example, that “Dellums [sic] failure to come out and make a statement right after the murder of Oscar Grant was horrible. But even worse was the legion of errors made during the Oscar Grant controversy.”

Mr. Abraham does not spell out any specifics on what he calls this “legion of errors” made by Mr. Dellums in the followup to the shooting death of Oscar Grant. Instead, he posts a link to a three-minute YouTube video of local hip-hop journalist and activist Davey D entitled “Oakland Riots—Davey D Rants On Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums". That in itself is weak. If Mr. Abraham feels Mr. Dellums made errors in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant shooting death—errors serious enough to doom a Dellums re-election—then he ought to categorize those errors in his blog posting, so that readers can see—and judge—the details for themselves. To simply throw it off to Davey D is both lazy and disrespectful to readers trying to follow his arguments.

Several thoughts come to mind in rebuttal.

The Abraham criticism of Mr. Dellums for “failure to come out and make a statement right after the murder of Oscar Grant” is reminiscent of the recent right-wing criticism of President Barack Obama for failure to make a statement immediately in response to the Northwest Airlines underwear bomber arrest. It’s a throwaway line, disguising the critic’s (and critics’) lack of substantial analysis of actions actually taken by the officeholder.

If memory serves, only two Oakland public officials unconnected with BART itself made strong statements of condemnation in the immediate aftermath the January 1, 2009 shooting death of Hayward resident Oscar Grant by a then-BART police officer. At a BART meeting several days following the shooting, both Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson characterized the shooting death as a murder.

Mr. Dellums made no immediate similar statement, but that is very much in character with the way he does business.

During the 2006 controversy over the proposed sale of the Oakland Unified School District administration and education property by State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, there was considerable public pressure on Mr. Dellums (then Mayor-elect) to join the chorus of Oakland politicians who had come out condemning the proposed sale. A Dellums spokesperson later revealed that rather than simply making an immediate public statement—which would have quickly gotten lost in the general clatter of opposition—Mr. Dellums chose to meet privately with Mr. O’Connell. (“Dellums Comes Out Against Oakland Unified Land Sale” Berkeley Daily Planet October 31, 2006)

At this September, 2006 Dellums-O’Connell meeting, Mr. Dellums reportedly informed Mr. O’Connell that while the City of Oakland had no power to prevent the OUSD property sale, the incoming Dellums Administration would have considerable power to block city approval of proposed development plans for the OUSD property. The Dellums spokesperson said that such a threat might have backfired had it been made publicly rather than in an unreported private meeting. How much influence did the private Dellums development threat have on Mr. O’Connell? No-one but Mr. O’Connell himself will ever know for sure, but early in 2007, Mr. O’Connell pronounced the OUSD land deal dead, and the property was saved.

One can presume that Mr. Dellums took a similar tack in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant shooting death, choosing to use private influence with members of the BART Board rather than making a one-time public statement.

Public statements by public officials are an extremely important tool, and can have dramatic effect. I was present at the tense BART board meeting when both Mr. Carson and Ms. Brooks made their “murder” charge against former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle and I felt then—as I feel now—that their words had enormous influence over the eventual BART and District Attorney response to the Oscar Grant shooting death. Mr. Mehserle, one must remember, was later charged with murder by the office of the Alameda County District Attorney, and is currently awaiting trial on those charges in Los Angeles. The charges were not brought solely because of the Carson-Brooks statements, of course—both the nature of the Grant shooting and the outraged community and national response were enormous factors—but those early public statements by the two public officials helped set the stage.

But public statements are not the only tools of public officials, and Mr. Dellums—like Mr. Obama in the underwear bomber incident—ought not to be condemned solely for lack of a quick run to the media microphones. It’s the totality of response and activity—both public and private—by which an officeholder ought to be judged.

That’s a good point to leave this discussion, as we continue to work out a framework on setting standards for judging an Oakland mayoral administration. More to come in later columns.