Column: Undercurrents: Dellums Administration Gets Oakland Moving Again

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 20, 2007

Some years ago, in a more energetic time in my life, I used to pick up day work unloading banana boats for Chiquita Brands on the docks at Charleston, South Carolina. By that time they had stopped shipping bananas by the stalk, but instead, they were coming up from Central America in 40 pound boxes. These boxes were stacked up to the roof of each deck of the banana boats, and when you first got on the floor in the morning, there was barely enough room for the 10 man crews to stand in the bare space around the hold, much less start working sending the boxes up the single conveyor belt that took them up the hold to the top deck. 

We had two crews, with a different foreman in charge of each, and with different ways of going about their jobs. Oscar would start us all to work immediately, as soon as we hit the deck coming out of the hold, with nine men all sweating and bumping and cursing in an energetic rush to get the boxes to the single worker who was sitting on a stool beside the hold, sending the boxes one by one up the conveyer belt. We worked out in all four directions, simultaneously, catawampus, as the old people used to describe that sort of thing. As the morning wore on it got easier, of course, as we made room for ourselves getting rid of the boxes. Within a half-hour or so, there began to be enough space to set up metal rollers, along which we could slide the boxes from all ends of the deck. 

We have begun to hearing the beginnings of low rumblings of criticism over the early actions—or inactions—of the administration of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. These criticisms peaked, in chorus, on the passage of Mr. Dellums’ first hundred days in office, the traditional point—since the frenetic time of Franklin Roosevelt in seeking to roll back the Depression, I believe—of marking the initial accomplishments of an administration. 

From Heather MacDonald of the Oakland Tribune of April 10: “Today, his 100th day in office, Dellums' promise to turn Oakland into a model city is very much a work in progress. … Dellums has answered questions from the news media only once since taking office and did not hold the first quarterly town hall meeting required by the City Charter. … Much of the criticism directed at the mayor during his first months in office has been that he is not visible enough, leaving many residents to wonder what the mayor is doing, if anything. Critics inside City Hall say Dellums is too cautious and delegates too much authority to staff members, leaving many unsure of where the mayor actually stands.” 

And from reporter Christopher Heredia in the April 10th San Francisco Chronicle: “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums entered office in January calling for an extraordinary collaboration with everyday citizens and the business community, for peace on the streets, for better schools and improved access to health care. One hundred days later, the mayor has announced a reorganization of the Police Department with an emphasis on community policing. The rest, he's working on. Dellums' lack of specific actions during his first 100 days in office frustrates some residents while others say it shows he is deliberating carefully about how to address the city's most vexing issues.” 

And, finally, from Alex Gronke’s April 10th blog at Oakland-based, commenting on both the Tribune and Chronicle stories: “The Trib story had some startling revelations from Dellums’ press secretary. Chief among them was the news that Dellums was caught off guard by the complexity of City Hall. This was a man who wrangled with the Pentagon when he was chair of the House Armed Services Committee. It’s hard to know what to make of that confession.” Mr. Gronke concluded: “Oakland doesn’t need a mayor who pretends he didn’t really want the post, it needs a mayor who can at least pretend to love the job.” 

And in our own Daily Planet, we recently had a biting editorial cartoon by Justin DeFreitas on Mr. Dellums’ “disappearing act.” 

Neither the Chronicle nor the Tribune articles could be characterized as “hit pieces.” They appeared to attempt to take a balanced view of the Dellums Administration’s accomplishments at the end of one hundred days. I just believe, respectfully, that Ms. MacDonald and Mr. Heredia failed to take some relevant things into account. 

Oakland is going through a transition in our city government that took an eight year delay during the two-term administration of Jerry Brown. Prior to the passage of Measure X—the strong-mayor ballot measure—in 1998, the city was ruled by a Council-Manager form of government in which the mayor functioned as little more than a super-City Councilmember, presiding over City Council meetings but having no more voice over the running of the city—one vote on the hiring and firing of the City Manager—than any of the other seven Councilmembers. The Council hired the City Manager, and the City Manager hired and fired the rest of the city staff, and ran the bureaucracy. 

Measure X broke that system in two, taking the mayor off the Council and putting the mayor in charge of the City Manager—now the City Administrator—and the city bureaucracy under that office. As we now know, Mr. Brown took little interest in the running of city affairs except for certain areas of concern, and for eight years during the Brown Administration the vast army of city workers was run by an uneasy alliance between the City Manager—first Robert Bobb and then Deborah Edgerly—and City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, with Mr. Brown intervening every once and a while. 

In succeeding Mr. Brown, Mr. Dellums has decided to carry through with the original intent of Measure X, pointedly refusing to intervene in City Council matters—such as refusing to intervene in the selection of the City Council President, or to break the recent tie over the selection of a firm to manage the Oakland Ice Center—but at the same time taking over the reins of the city bureaucracy and workforce, as mandated by the City Charter. 

For anyone who knows anything about city bureaucracies, that is not proving to be an easy task. 

It was made more difficult by the fact that while Mr. Dellums repeatedly called last year for a complete audit of Oakland city government in advance of his taking office so that he could make intelligent decisions based on actual conditions, the first audit—of the city’s payroll—only began late last month, only a few days before the end of his administration’s first hundred days. In addition, we have now learned that Mr. Brown destroyed much, most, or practically all of this administration’s records on his way out the door. That means that the Dellums administration had to start almost from scratch in figuring out what the old mayor’s office had been doing, and what, now, needed to be done. And, of course, there is the struggle with the Oakland Police Officers Association, the police union, that is complicating the crime reduction and police activity reforms that the Oakland public has demanded. 

Is this to make excuses for the Dellums administration? Not at all. They’re big kids over there, and can make their own excuses. I have my own criticisms and concerns. Mr. Dellums is reorganizing the police department to “enhance community policing,” but has yet to define, in writing, the exact sort of community policing he means. With Mr. Brown, it always seemed to be a moveable feast. And I think there is some confusion in Dellums’ office over the role of—and public access to—the task forces that needs to be straightened out. 

But it’s my belief that Mr. Dellums—a man who clearly enjoys public speaking—is keeping out of the spotlight now because he’s busy doing one of the major things that Oakland voters asked him to do, reorganize Oakland’s bureaucracy and work force so that it can better serve his policy directions. If that job isn’t done, then Mr. Dellums’ four years in office will simply be as a figurehead, making pretty speeches about lofty goals that his administration cannot back. If that job is done, then we can reasonably begin to see some major policy changes taking shape towards the end of the year. 

Some of it, we are already seeing. Developers and residents, alike, have long complained about the uncertainty of Oakland’s zoning code, which is out of sync with its General Plan, without which planned development that both attracts outside business and meets community concerns cannot take place. Long neglected under Mr. Brown, the process of conforming the zoning code with the General Plan has begun under Mr. Dellums, and we have already seen a dramatic change, with Mr. Dellums’ decision to suspend plans to rezone Oakland’s industrial lands. 

But mostly this is grunt work, policy-wonk work, that most newspapers don’t regularly report on, and most citizens have no idea is happening. I’d like to see the Dellums Administration open up a little more, and give us more information on what they’re doing and trying to do. If Mr. Dellums can’t come out himself, there are other articulate spokespersons in his administration—Chief of Staff Dan Boggan, for one—who might do. But ongoing criticisms aside, which we should continue to do, I’m willing to be a little more patient about demanding major results, because that’s the only way I believe were are going to have major results. Come back in three more months, and let’s talk.