Column: Undercurrents: The Politics of Citizen Access in Oakland

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylo
Friday November 10, 2006

It’s doubtful that politics brings out more silliness in the human character than any other human endeavor—it just seems that politicians, and the people they employ, seem so much more intent than anyone else on broadcasting the odd things that are sometimes on their minds. 

And so, in response to a recent UnderCurrents column criticizing the Jerry Brown administration, we have Dave Grenell, aide to Mayor Jerry Brown, writing a letter to the last Daily Planet that “Despite his celebrity, the mayor does not surround himself with guards, handlers and chauffeurs. He refuses to isolate himself from citizens on the street. He recently called his staff at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night to report that a dozen bulbs needed to be changed on Lake Merritt’s ‘Necklace of Lights.’ Such interventions on the Mayor’s part are not unusual.”  

One wonders why Mr. Grenell bothered. His letter was appearing about the same time that California voters were roundly rejecting my long and many criticisms of Mr. Brown if even they read any of them, predictably electing the former governor, former secretary of state, and outgoing mayor by a 57 percent to 38 percent margin over Republican State Senator Chuck Poochigian. 

Still, when your defense of your two-term tenure as mayor is that you walked around the city in the evenings making sure the lights were turned on, you know you’re working on a thin résumé.  

Meanwhile, I’m not sure how long Mr. Grenell was on the team, but actually Mr. Brown once surrounded himself with at least one guard, chauffeur and handler, the since-disappeared Jacques Barzaghi, who once received a concealed weapons permit through the Oakland Police Department in order to carry out those duties. Mr. Barzaghi, who seemingly could not be physically separated from Mr. Brown from the early 1970s on, left the country and disappeared from public view about the time Mr. Brown’s Attorney General’s campaign was gaining public attention. Mr. Barzaghi, it seems, was a political albatross and embarrassment because—while on the job given to him by Mr. Brown—he had been reprimanded and punished for sexually harassing City of Oakland staff members. 

Interestingly, Mr. Barzaghi surfaced in the newspapers again about the time it became apparent that Mr. Brown was a shoo-in for the attorney general’s office, talking to a Los Angeles Times reporter by telephone from his new home in Morocco about the sexual harassment charges.  

In any event, now that the children have gotten through playing with Oakland’s problems, it’s time for the adults to step in and clean up the considerable mess left behind. 

Even before his scheduled inauguration in January of next year, incoming Mayor Ron Dellums has been attempting to deliver on his campaign promise for a more inclusive Oakland government, first over the summer organizing task forces of active and interested citizens to work up policy recommendations in several areas of city life, then convening a series of mass workshops this fall to open up the conversation to a larger layer of citizens. 

The efforts have met with some grumbling, of course, as is our right. Oakland grumbles with the best of them. 

Last September, San Francisco Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson wrote in a column called “Dellums’ Panels Are Hush-Hush” that he was having difficulty finding information about the task forces. Mayor-elect Ron Dellums… said [the task forces] would be a completely open government process,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “But the people serving on those committees since Dellums' election have not been announced. And while some of their meetings have been held on the third floor of Oakland City Hall, very little information has been released to the public—or to the media. … As with the fraternal order of Masons, you apparently have to be a member to know what's going on.” 

Given that the task forces involved close to a thousand volunteers, and given that Oakland is a town irredeemably addicted to political gossip, it’s difficult to see how a newspaperperson of Mr. Johnson’s caliber could not track down information about task force activities.  

And, in fact, a week later, Mr. Johnson admitted that in response to his “Hush-Hush” column he “received so many e-mails, phone calls and comments from participants in the citizen task forces created by Oakland's Mayor-elect Ron Dellums that it's only fair to devote more space to the process.” And though his second column on the task forces was equally as critical of the process as the first, to his credit, Mr. Johnson did grudgingly admit that the Mr. Dellums’ “task-force project is a purely democratic exercise, not one of the 800 applicants was rejected,” also noting that “no one can say is that there was a lack of interest in the mayor-elect's task-force project. The council chambers were absolutely packed for the first meeting of the groups, and organizers ran out of pencils, introductory folders and other supplies.” 

What was true of the task force process—an abundance of interest—was also true of Mr. Dellums’ “Neighbor to Neighbor” mass strategy sessions last month.  

Held in various sections of the city in late October (Calvin Simmons Middle School and Castlemont High School in East Oakland, Oakland Tech in North Oakland, and McClymonds in West Oakland), the gatherings invited citizens to share their thoughts and ideas on a wide group of topics ranging from health care, economic development, housing, diversity, and transportation to education, arts, youth affairs, and public safety. The idea was to have members of the various mayoral task forces come and mainly listen to the conversation, taking back information on community attitudes and policy and implementation suggestions to the task forces. 

Mr. Dellums himself has been conspicuously absent during the Neighbor-to-Neighbor meetings, and that has prompted some grumbling, at least in some quarters. On one local email list, one woman, saying that she supported Councilmember Nancy Nadel in last June’s election, wrote that “Dellums—like most other smooth-talking politicians—likes to use homespun phrases like ‘neighbor to neighbor’ but it takes a bit more than that to deal with the myriad crises that face Oakland today. Besides that, when my neighbors plan a neighborhood meeting, my neighbors actually show-up.” 

The sentiment is understandable. After the Jerry Brown years there is considerable touchiness in Oakland about mayoral accessibility, and not having been in close proximity to Ron Dellums for many, many years—members of Congress, after all, do most of their work in Washington—Oakland residents have a right to wonder how extensive will be the ability to have direct citizen communication with the newly-elected mayor. We won’t know that for a while. 

The Neighbor-to-Neighbor meetings, however, were not the proper forum for direct chats with the mayor. They were designed for citizens to break up into small meetings and speak among themselves, to ourselves, and had Mr. Dellums begun wandering in and out of the meeting rooms, it would have led some to the conclusion that the time for “important” pronouncements was only when the new mayor was present, and the time when he was not was just so much wasted space. Keeping away—while trusting his aides to get back unfiltered reports to him—was probably the best thing Mr. Dellums could do to keep the mass meeting process going. 

Citizen participation is, however, a dangerous leap for any officeholder who does not intend on keeping it up. For many years, the average Oakland citizen has been shut out of much of Oakland decision-making, relegated to two-minute presentations before City Council to speak on too many issues that were long-ago decided once the pay-to-play big boys and girls in the business had their input and say. By operating on a whomsoever-shall-let-them-come policy so early in the process, Mr. Dellums gives Oakland citizens the distinct impression that they have a right to be heard on and participate in city decisions. History has taught us that once having taken hold, such a notion of democratic rights is hard to take away, even by the ablest politician. We know Mr. Dellums to be a keen student of history, and so we can only assume, for the present, that he intends to keep his “inclusive government” word.