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




March 30, 2007

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house,” Lewis Carroll writes in his classic Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, “and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea in it; a Dormouse was sitting between them… The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. … Alice … sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table. … ‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter [after they had eaten for a while]: ‘let’s all move one place on.’ He moved on as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him: the March Hare moved into the Dormouse’s place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change; and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare had just upset the milk-jug into his plate.”

And so Jerry Brown, our particular version of the Mad Hatter, has moved on from his previous job as Mayor of Oakland to a new “clean spot” in the State Attorney General’s office, while we who remain behind must straighten up the mess he has left in his wake.

In the last few days comes news of two more such political brownfields left by Mr. Brown, one whose effects will be felt immediately, one whose residue will linger throughout the ages.

First, the immediate mess.

In a March 23 article in the Oakland Tribune, reporter Heather MacDonald writes that “less than a year after reveling in a $16 million surplus, the City Council must grapple with a projected budget deficit of nearly $13.5 million.”

The article’s headline says that the projected $13.5 million deficit is for the next fiscal year; it’s actually projected for the next budget cycle, which is for a two year period. Still, that’s a lot of money to be in the hole, even over a two year period, and a big swing from the surplus fiscal year 2005-07 budget. And, in fact, there are rumors circulating around Oakland City Hall that the actual budget shortfall—rather than the one reported to City Council and the Mayor’s office by the City Administrator’s office—could be considerably higher, a nasty surprise given to the incoming Dellums Administration in its first days in office. But that’s a story for another time.

As for the official $13.5 million two year budget deficit, how did the city get so deep in the hole so quickly?

The Tribune’s Ms. MacDonald speculates it is City Council’s fault, writing in her second paragraph that “the council spent the surplus on a host of programs, including tree-trimming and roof repairs. In addition, each council member got $250,000 to spend as they wished on projects and programs in their districts.”

Even if that explains how the surplus got eaten up—and we’re not yet sure it does—it doesn’t reveal why the city has failed to take in the tax and fee revenue that it was raking in only a year ago. Ms. MacDonald moves on to that issue in the next paragraph of her story, where she writes that Oakland’s tax base withered with the cooling off of the housing market. “Because Oakland has few shops and stores,” she says, “the city's budget relies heavily on property and real estate transfer taxes, leaving it vulnerable to the highs and lows of the housing market. Most large cities in California get a much larger percentage of their total revenue from sales tax than Oakland does, officials said.”

Actually, the way city tax revenue is structured by law in the post-Prop 13 era is that cities make money on retail, and lose money on housing. That’s why California cities are always battling over new retail development. Only Oakland, in its strange wisdom, seems to be giving gobs of subsidies away to attract housing developers.

Meanwhile, in her article on Oakland’s budget dilemma, Ms. MacDonald goes on to quote or refer to several city officials and citizens in her article: Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan, Mayor Ron Dellums, Mr. Dellums’ Budget and Policy Director Dan Lindheim, even Budget Advisory Committee member Mike Petouhoff, all of whom talked about the potential budget deficit can be closed. But one name left conspicuously out of the article is probably the one person whose policies are most responsible for that gap: Jerry Brown.

We’ve walked this particular ground several times before, so it is remarkable how quickly this is forgotten.

Mr. Brown swept into the mayor’s office in 1998 in part on his dazzling 10k plan promise to revitalize Oakland’s downtown retail core. The plan was always thin on the end game details—Mr. Brown always said, for example, that retail would build in downtown once the 10,000 new residents moved in, but we were always expected to take that on faith rather than being shown a plan or solid commitments on paper. Meanwhile, 10k was such a catchy phrase, and poor Oakland, like the actress Sally Fields at the Academy Awards, was so starved for someone from the outside who actually acted like they liked us, that the skeptics and our doubts were swept away in the general euphoria and fits of expectation that Mr. Brown was going to “put Oakland on the map.”

Mr. Brown has come and gone, his 10,000 people are either already living in downtown Oakland or soon to be here, the retail has not yet followed, and the map of the Bay Area looks pretty much the way it did eight years ago. We are told that the Forest City uptown project will be the answer, and the commercial revenues will come flowing as soon as that project is completed. But we’ve been told a lot of things before, and while construction is booming in the uptown area, as far as we know few quarters have yet to be dropped into new retail store cash registers in Oakland as a result of that development. So we will wait and see.

But budget shortfalls come and go, and Oakland will get through this one, as we have gotten through all the others. The second revealed mess we recently learned Mr. Brown left behind will not be so easily cleaned up, however. That would be the discovery that on his way out the door at Frank Ogawa Plaza, Mr. Brown’s staff either took or destroyed some amount of office records from his two four year terms. Nobody outside of Brown’s staff knows which records, or how many, although only a handful have reportedly been discovered and recovered, so far.

"We got rid of all the stuff that we thought was electronically backed up," the Tribune reported one of Mr. Brown’s former aides as saying. "A lot of things were thrown away, Raiders documents, things like that."

And according to the Tribune, a current Brown aid in the Attorney General’s office, Nathan Barankin, “said Brown is a notoriously poor record-keeper, that he didn't generate many records to begin with and that copies of any destroyed documents were likely available elsewhere in city government. Barankin, who did not work for Brown in Oakland, said that after looking into the issue for several days he believed that no crime occurred. ‘Copies are around. It ought to be all findable,’ he said. ‘No records were improperly disposed of.’” So says Mr. Barankin.

But why were records from Mr. Brown’s terms as mayor disposed of at all? Two possible reasons might be suggested.

The first is that Mr. Brown was being tidy, and wanted to leave a neat, clean office for the new occupant. Only Lewis Carroll, at his best absurdity, would try to assert that this was the case, however.

The second possible reason for the wholesale records disposal is that there was something in the records that Mr. Brown did not want us to see, either documents which show something which he did, or documents which demonstrate how little he did on Oakland business while he was in office. Perhaps both. Public records requests stemming from the time before the documents turned up missing, for example, showed that Mr. Brown spent considerable time raising money for his private schools, when we were paying him to work on city business.

But this is speculation, why the mayoral records were taken or destroyed, and in the end, this is a point-story, and that is not the point. The records of a mayor are the property of the citizens of the city and taking them or destroying them is a criminal act, in the same way that embezzling city money would be a criminal act, or chipping out some of the marble from the City Hall stairway on your way out the door and slipping it into your pocket. It robs Oakland of its history, and cripples our ability to document the actions of our city government over the past eight years, actions for which we paid with our tax money. In lawsuits and the confusions generated by our inability to understand the roots of various city policies generated during Mr. Brown’s terms, we will probably continue to pay, many times over, for many years to come.

Part of the lost records, for example, might explain how Oakland went from a budget surplus to a budget deficit in the last year of Mr. Brown’s second term. Who knows?

In Alice In Wonderland, Alice walks away from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in disgust, leaving the Hatter and his friends to their madness. In real life, it has been the opposite, with the Hatter himself—Mr. Brown—walking away from the mess. But there is an irony to the Oakland situation that Mr. Carroll—the master of political absurdity—would have appreciated. If anyone wants to determine whether the former mayor of Oakland committed a crime in disposing of city records on his way out the door, whose office do you suppose would be the logical stop for such a legal determination? If you guessed the office of the California Attorney General, where Mr. Brown now sits, you win a prize.

And some people wonder why I keep writing about Jerry Brown.