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




June 8, 2007

Investigative reporter Robert Gammon of the East Bay Express doesn’t reach Gary Webb status—who among us does, after all?—but he is one of the best the Bay Area now has when it comes to uncovering essential information to the public that others don’t even think about looking for.

Mr. Gammon is at his most effective when he provides us with the information and allows his readers to put it together and draw the larger picture ourselves. But he is at his least effective when he tries to present quick conclusions.

So it is with one of Mr. Gammon’s latest offerings (“Dellums Chamber Ties,” Full Disclosure column, East Bay Express, May 30, 2007), which tells us that Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums’ chief of staff—Dan Boggan—continues to be a highly-paid member of the board of directors of Oakland-based corporate giant Clorox while he (Boggan) is working for the Dellums Administration. As far as I can tell, the story first broke two weeks before on the website of the Oakland Residents For Peaceful Neighborhoods (ORPN).

That’s good as far as it goes, an important piece of information that you can put in your pocket and put together with other pieces—from time to time—to help understand what the Dellums Administration may be doing and where it may be going. But Mr. Gammon goes a step further in his May 30th piece, including charges and insinuations by both the ORPN and by my good friend, former Oakland City Councilmember Wilson Riles Jr., that the Boggan-Clorox connection means that Dellums Administration decisions are being unduly influenced by what Mr. Gammon calls Mr. Dellums’ “growing connections to East Bay corporate interests and the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.”

Fair enough. Except that this week, the Express has now published a column by the we-thought-he-was-out-the-door reporter Chris Thompson which draws the exact opposite conclusion, that the problem with the Dellums Administration in its early stages is that it has failed to attempt to make corporate connections.

“It's an old adage that big-city mayors can do two things: hire and fire people, and sell their city to investment capital,” Mr. Thompson writes in a “City Of Warts” column called “Anybody Seen Hizzoner?”.  “For all his faults, Jerry Brown knew this, and he pitched Oakland to private capital till he was blue in the face. Dellums has decided to pitch Oakland to public capital, by begging Governor Schwarzenegger and Congress to help this ailing, troubled city. Some people are impressed with the ex-congressman's Beltway connections, but there's a drawback to this strategy. Set aside the fact that Dellums probably won't get much money. And that, even if he does, it'll be years before it reaches Oakland. As long as Dellums calls on Sacramento and DC to help with Oakland's terrible problems, he's calling attention to—you guessed it—Oakland's terrible problems. He's telling entrepreneurs and developers that the city is once again desperate and broke, and they should think about starting their businesses somewhere else.”

So is Mr. Dellums leaning too much toward corporations to help solve Oakland’s problems, or is he not leaning that way enough? Mr. Gammon, Mr. Thompson, Mr. Riles, and the good folks at ORPN are free to draw whatever conclusions they want, of course, but the truth is, perhaps it is simply too soon to tell.

That, however, is not the case with some of the other conclusions drawn by Mr. Thompson’s somewhat-grumpy “Anybody Seen Hizzoner?” column?

Rumor has it that Mr. Thompson has not been working for the Express for a couple of weeks. His name no longer appears on the paper’s staff list, and calls asking for him at the Express switchboard get the reply that he has gone to work for “the Village Voice” (the Express, you may know, recently broke its ties of several years with the Village Voice newspaper chain). But perhaps the Express editors had Mr. Thompson’s last offering in their in box, and present it to us as a last reminder of what we will be missing in their paper in the future.

The “Anybody Seen Hizzoner?” in the column title (“Hizzoner” being a common phonetic rendition of “his honor” and meant to mean Mr. Dellums) is a reference to an earlier conclusion, reached by several local newspapers, that because Mr. Dellums had “disappeared” from public view in the early months of this year following his inauguration, the new mayor was not doing much of anything. As you remember, last April, in a posting on the Express blog, Mr. Thompson himself wrote that “[a]pparently, Ron Dellums can sleep on the job for more than three months, create task forces to conduct secret meetings but do nothing more than draft toothless position papers, and generally piss away his time in office.”

You will have to read Mr. Thompson’s latest column yourself to get its full flavor and his complete reasoning, which often appears to contradict its own self, but several points stand out. The first is when Mr. Thompson asks the question “But when, exactly, will the new mayor do something significant?” The second is what Mr. Thompson concludes is what he calls a “pattern” that the mayor hasn’t done anything “significant”: “In his first five months,” Mr. Thompson writes, “the mayor has offered next to nothing in terms of action or even a specific vision.” Mr. Thompson then “backs up” his old assertion that Mr. Dellums is off-the-job by the somewhat convenient use of anonymous sources who are supposedly afraid to speaking against Mr. Dellums in public, writing that Mr. Dellums is "’absentee,’ said one City Hall source. ‘He's not spending time in City Hall, not talking to councilmembers. ... I don't see any work being done.’ Another source snorted, ‘Mayor who? I mean, where is he?’” Do these anonymous people actually exist? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Only Mr. Thompson knows.

However, the theme of the absent Mr. Dellums is echoed by someone calling himself “Tab,” who responds online to Mr. Thompson’s column by writing “With Ron himself rarely on site, there's a vacuum on nearly every issue.” And Mr. Thompson himself concludes that “Dellums has offered no original thinking, no new programs, no new directions. … If he keeps it up, Oakland is in for a long four years.”

Some light in the midst of all of this heat.

Is Mr. Dellums an “absentee” mayor, “rarely on site?” Nowhere have I seen anyone back up this assertion with facts on Mr. Dellums’ actual schedule, nor, for that matter, has anyone made a case for why it should matter if Mr. Dellums were actually spending a lot of his time in the early days of his administration away from his office. Further, with both a chief of staff and a city administrator in place to take care of the actual running of city business, I don’t think what Oakland voters elected Mr. Dellums to do was to sit behind his desk at City Hall.

But that, in fact, is one of the problems in judging the success or lack of success in the Dellums Administration. What exactly was it that Oakland voters elected Mr. Dellums to do?

The mayor actually made very few specific policy promises during last year’s campaign, instead invoking broad themes that generally spoke of changing the city’s atmosphere and turning the city around. It was good politics, since it drew in a broader coalition of voters who admired Mr. Dellums from his years as Congressional representative, and were looking for a break with and a change from the Jerry Brown years. It also gives Mr. Dellums a freer hand, now, to pick and choose some specific things to do in these first months.

But if it is true, as Mr. Thompson asserts, that Mr. Dellums has “offered next to nothing in terms of action or even a specific vision” in his first five months in office, should that worry us? I wouldn’t think so.

I have long felt that it is the second year of a four year, first-term administration that is the most critical in making accomplishments, whether it be in the office of a president, a governor, or a city mayor. The first year is usually spent in getting a handle on the bureaucracy, massaging the budget, and putting plans in place. The second year is the time for initiating major projects, the effects of which usually only begin to become apparent by the end of the third year and the beginning of the fourth.

If that is the case, five months into its first year, it would seem to be too soon to judge the success or failure of a Dellums Administration that is still working out what its major policy initiatives will be. That will probably only become apparent, one way or the other, by the end of next winter.

But for those who voted for a change from the Jerry Brown years, the differences in the two administrations have already proven to be stark. I give just one recent example.

Last week, the Ad Hoc Committee for Return Of Local Control To The Oakland Public Schools held a forum on the state school takeover and school closures at the OUSD headquarters. Mr. Dellums was one of the panelists. He sat on the stage through several hours of citizen testimony, listening, apparently patiently, as the long line of citizens came to the microphone to give their complaints about the situation in the public schools. In a similar situation, Jerry Brown would have made an early statement and then quickly ducked out the door, holding a de facto press conference in the lobby while the meeting was still going on, so that if you watched the news that evening, you’d think he was the star of the show even though he was long gone while the show was still going on. But Mr. Dellums stayed until the very end, and when the testimony was finished, gave brief remarks that referenced several speaker comments, showing that he had, indeed, been listening. Afterwards, with tired staff members waiting, Mr. Dellums spent another twenty minutes or so in the hallway, talking individually, one by one, with several citizens who approached him on his way out. They were still talking when I left.

If any of those citizens felt that their new mayor was “absent,” none of them mentioned it. And to them, I’m sure, this was something significant that they have a mayor who long after the election is still paying attention to them.