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




February 11 , 2010

One of the challenges in evaluating the administration of an Oakland mayor in these days and times is that twelve years after the passage of Measure X, residents and local media outlets (new and old) still are not certain exactly what a “strong mayor” is supposed to do and be responsible for.

Oakland mayors have had titular power over the running city government since the beginning of Jerry Brown’s first mayoral term in January of 1999. But it was only with the firing of former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly by Mayor Ron Dellums—and his subsequent hiring for his former budget aide, Dan Lindheim, to replace her—that we have seen an Oakland mayor actually fully exercise that power.

One of the problems is that the Oakland City Charter, as modified by Measure X in 1998, is far more vague on the responsibilities of an Oakland mayor than the term “strong mayor” would lead one to believe.

The charter for the City and County of San Francisco, for example defines the mayor as the “chief executive officer” with “general administration and oversight of all departments and governmental units in the executive branch” of the city and county. In other words, the Mayor of San Francisco functions as the city (and county) administrator.

When the City of San Diego initiated its strong mayor form of government by vote in 2006 it did the same thing. Currently, by city charter, the Mayor of San Diego “exercises the authority, power, and responsibilities formally conferred upon the City Manager.” The office of City Manager was abolished, replaced by expanding the duties of the mayor, who was now “to be the chief executive officer of the City.”

When Oakland moved from the City Manager form of government in 1999—as San Diego did in 2006—the duties of the mayor were defined somewhat differently. The “strong” Oakland mayor defined by Measure X was not to be the “chief executive officer” as in San Francisco and San Diego, but rather the “chief elective officer” (emphasis added). The duties of actually running the city were transferred from the City Manager to the City Administrator, to whom the mayor “gives direction.”

One of the major differences between Oakland’s old City Manager and City Administrator form of government—other than the fact that the mayor was no longer a member of the City Council—was the fact that in the new “strong mayor” form of government, the mayor was given the power to hire and fire the city administrator. Under Measure X, the Council has to ratify the mayor’s choice for administrator, but it is the mayor’s choice to make. Under the old Council-Manager form that Measure X replaced, the entire Council participated in the recruitment and selection process of the City Manager.

Oakland residents passed Measure X in 1998 with the understanding that it would create a system in which the “strong mayor” ran city government. How, then, did this ambiguity over responsibility creep in?

Had Jerry Brown come into office in January of 1999 hiring a City Administrator from outside of the government team that was in place in Oakland at the time, there would have been no doubt that it was his team, and his city to run. Instead, Mr. Brown transferred the City Manager in place when he was elected—Robert Bobb—over to the new position of City Administrator.

It was an odd time. Jerry Brown was a highly visible presence in Oakland during his eight years as mayor and frequently asserted himself in issues affecting city residents, including the illegal street sideshow controversy and the school battles that led to the firing of former Oakland School Superintendent Carole Quan and—ultimately—to the state takeover of Oakland Unified.

But he was highly selective in his public intervention on matters pertaining to the running of the city. A large portion of Mr. Brown’s interest centered on his promise to bring back retail development in Oakland’s downtown core by promoting the building of downtown housing capable of housing 10,000 new residents (the famous “10K” plan). Mr. Brown also put considerable time—and considerable city resources—into the creation of two public charter schools, what eventually became the Oakland School for the Arts and the Oakland Military Institute.

But as far as public perception was concerned, Mr. Bobb continued to run most aspects of Oakland city government as City Administrator during the Jerry Brown “strong mayor” years in the same manner as he had as City Manager before Measure X was passed, ostensibly under policy guidance from the Council and the mayor, but in actuality largely at his own direction.

That ambiguity in responsibility—created by the Measure X provision of having Oakland mayors “give direction” to the City Administrator rather than being responsible for administering the city themselves—allowed Mr. Brown to cherry-pick his responsibilities, taking public credit for city government in some areas, remaining in the background in others.

On city budget matters, for example, the Oakland City Charter requires that “the Mayor shall be responsible for the submission of an annual budget to the Council which shall be prepared by the City Administrator under the direction of the Mayor and Council. The Mayor shall, at the time of the submission of the budget, submit a general statement of the conditions of the affairs of the City, the goals of the administration, and recommendations of such measures as he may deem expedient and proper to accomplish such goals.”

Mr. Brown—who was responsible for the writing of those provisions—took them literally, and reviews of his mayoral budget presentations show him making brief, general statements to the City Council on the “direction” of the budget, and then turning over the detailed fiscal presentations to Mr. Bobb, who then personally directed the back-and-forth decisions, negotiations, and fiscal maneuverings that led to the eventual Council-passed budgets. With the exception of certain high-profile items—the infamous subsidies that led to the Forest City uptown project, for example, or the money set aside that eventually led to the restoration of the old Fox Theater—these were, in the public’s eyes, Mr. Bobb’s city budgets, not Mr. Brown’s.

One of the areas where Mr. Brown asserted himself was in public safety, and his handling of that area of government authority is instructive in how public perception got subtly shaped in where authority for Oakland government lies.

Rather than leaving the established chief administrator in place in the police department—as he had in general city government with Mr. Bobb—one of Mr. Brown’s first policy moves as Oakland mayor was to oust Oakland Police Chief Joseph Samuels and replace him with his own man, Richard Word. That action—combined with frequent interventions and public statements by the mayor during his eight year tenure—gave Mr. Brown “ownership” of public safety administration in Oakland in the public’s mind.

While Mr. Dellums’ approach to the running of Oakland city government has been markedly different from that of Mr. Brown, the muddle of ambiguity created in the passage of Measure X and the Jerry Brown years has left, until just recently, continued uncertainty over the mayor’s responsibilities in Oakland.

In the area of public safety, Mr. Dellums left the existing chief in place—since-retired Chief Wayne Tucker—and unlike other areas of Oakland government, where Mr. Dellums tends to be the public spokesperson—he allowed the chief to continue to be the public face of the police department. But because the Oakland media and Oakland public had developed the strong perception—under Jerry Brown—that the “strong mayor” was ultimately responsible for public safety in Oakland, that perception continued under Mr. Dellums. And so, Mr. Dellums—not Mr. Tucker—most often got the public blame when Oakland’s homicide and violent crime rate remained naggingly high during the first years of the Dellums Administration.

But despite the fact that Mr. Dellums has asserted himself in the area of city government in ways that Mr. Brown did not (making the detailed budget presentations and public negotiations himself, for example, or actually publicly emphasizing that the mayor's job is to run the city), Mr. Dellums’ public assessment and reputation has not—interestingly enough—been tied to general Oakland government in the same way.

When charges of nepotism and corruption were made against the administration of former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, for example, Mr. Dellums was publicly blamed in many quarters for failing to “promptly” get rid of Ms. Edgerly, but not for the alleged offenses themselves, a subtle but important difference. And while constantly castigating him for personal failures or errors or omissions made by his personal staff, even Mr. Dellums’ most hard-core detractors rarely, if ever, take the mayor to task for problems of the overall running of Oakland city government.

Should they? Under Oakland’s existing charter, it’s not clear.

This is not a responsibility or failure of leadership so much as it is a sign of Oakland’s immaturity—both in the media and in the public—in failing to either understand or make clear the lines of authority within Oakland city government. If we don’t want wiggle room in city authority, we need to eliminate it both in our minds and in the charter under which our city operates.

That’s just my assessment, anyway.