Civil grand jury hammers county office of education

Daily Planet Wire Service
Friday July 05, 2002

High marks go to Oakland
Parks and Recreation 


OAKLAND — The Alameda County civil grand jury has released its final report of the year, which gives high marks to Oakland Parks and Recreation Director Harry Edwards, but finds problems in the Port of Oakland and the Alameda County Office of Education. Edwards, who was hired in May 2000 to head the Office of Parks and Recreation and was given a record $57 million to work with, is credited in the report with turning around a decline in services by overhauling a weak central management structure. 

Seeing that the office had become a personnel”dumping ground,” Edwards fired some 100 employees, reassigned others and even brought in the Alameda County District Attorney's Office to investigate two cases of suspected embezzlement. 

The report concludes that Edwards “has made progress in restoring (Oakland) Parks and Recreation to acceptable service levels and has established integrity within the department increasing staff morale and accountability.” 

The report recommends that Edwards be kept as director and that the city of Oakland continue to place a high priority on the parks and recreation office in its budget. The grand jury was also asked to look into a disputed security contract at Oakland International Airport after receiving a complaint that alleged that ABC Security Inc. received the contract using improper political considerations and illegal means. 

Ultimately, although the grand jury found that the selection process was flawed, it found nothing to substantiate the allegations of wrongdoing. 

However, in investigating the Port of Oakland, the grand jury also found a tense working relationship between the board of commissioners and airport staff. The problem is characterized as of a more serious nature and endemic to the current structure of governance. 

According to the report, the grand jury investigation found that the commissioners — who are appointed by the Oakland mayor and confirmed by the City Council — appear to believe that the staffers work for them.  

In a particular case, the report says, a commissioner referred to a staff member as non-responsive, burnt out, entrenched and civil service protected. 

The staff members on the other hand, consider the commissioners as political appointees concerned only with political matters. 

“These respective allegations reveal a work atmosphere that is antagonistic and not functioning in the best interest of the citizens of Alameda County,”the report states. 

The report recommends that the Port of Oakland adopt and publicize a clear mission statement outlining the responsibilities of commissioners and staff and establishing a clear line of authority. 

According to Port spokesman Harold Jones, the port is pleased that the grand jury found no wrongdoing in the awarding of the contract.  

Addressing the alleged problem, Jones said that the airport contract allowed the port to see that there was”room for improvement”in dealing with the relationship between staff and the commission. 

Jones said that the port has already made the necessary adjustments and that there is no need for the mission statement, because there is already a clear notion of what the responsibilities are for commissioners and the staff. 

The grand jury's harshest criticism was heaped upon the Alameda County Office of Education, marking this the second year in a row that the grand jury has targeted the institution in its report. 

Last year, the grand jury found a strained relationship between the Board of Education and the superintendent, suggesting that either the superintendent be appointed by the board, or that the board be eliminated completely. 

This year, the grand jury found that the relationship between the superintendent and the board remains adversarial. 

“An apparent unwillingness to collaborate and/or compromise to establish an effective working relationship is hampering the work of the (Alameda County Office of Education),” the report says. 

The grand jury also found that most of the elected board members do not have a clear understanding of the budget or the budget process, which impairs the board's budget responsibilities. 

According to Superintendent Sheila Jordan, most of the grand jury's concerns were settled at the last election, when she was re-elected to her seat and several board members lost their bids. 

Their departure, Jordan said, has led to the beginnings of a reorganization that will result in a more productive Office of Education and have the board working alongside the superintendent. 

Should the grand jurors take another look at the Office of Education next, Jordan predicted, their report will be different. 

“I think they're going to see a hard-working majority,” Jordan said.