Column: Undercurrents: The Dellums Disappearance Debate

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 27, 2007

Generals, so the theory goes, tend to fight the last war, and so my good friends in the local media—many of whom seemed to have missed the fact that the administration of Mayor Jerry Brown was one of the most secretive in our lifetime—have taken out, yard dog fashion, after his successor, Ron Dellums, on the same charge. 

Some of this is legitimate citizen concern. 

Grand Lake area political and business activist Pamela Drake—a former City Council aide and City Council candidate—writes this week in her column in the Grand Lake Guardian that Mr. Dellums needs to get out more. “[Mayor Dellums] told us he wasn’t Superman and some of us were OK with that. We were looking for a partnership—not a savior (admittedly, many will always look for a savior or a fixer to take care of things). So why now does it seem that our former congressman, our new mayor, our fighter for justice seems to have gone into a phone booth rather than out on the street, a sit-down with reporters, or a walk through the farmers’ markets? … Oaklanders need some reassurance. … We’re willing to open our doors as we’ve already opened our hearts but we’re also checking collars for lipstick smudges and looking for cryptic notes in pockets. We need a little face time, Mr. Mayor. We need a fireside chat here and there.” 

Fair enough to ask to see more of the mayor we elected. 

Not quite so fair, however, are two recent entries about Mr. Dellums by two different reporters in the East Bay Express. 

In an April 19 East Bay Express 92510 blog entry entitled “Poverty Pimp Alert” (“poverty pimp” being the name some use to accuse activist leaders of playing up the issue of poverty—usually race-based poverty—in order to line their own pockets), Chris Thompson takes out after the Dellums task forces. 

“So what brilliant ideas have the members of Oakland mayor Ron Dellums’ ultra-secret task forces come up with lately?” Mr. Thompson asks. “You know, the task forces that hid from the public while they debated the most important issues of the city? The task forces whose reports Dellums has been too busy reading to, you know, govern the city? What inspired policy has come out of this grand, clandestine project? Pep rallies.” 

Did the task forces “hide” from the public, as Mr. Thompson asserts? We’ll get to that in a moment. 

Meanwhile, this week in the Express print edition, Robert Gammon writes in his “Full Disclosure” column about what he calls Mr. Dellums’ “secret task forces”: “The mayor, who ran on a platform of transparency and open government, commissioned 41 citizen task forces that have been meeting for months behind closed doors to create his mayoral agenda. The groups, now in their second round of sessions, have been so secretive that the mayor has not even released their names publicly, let alone members’ names and affiliations. … One of the mayor’s top-secret task forces—whose meetings Dellums prohibits the press from attending—is named ‘Transparency in government, public ethics, making city procedures and policies understandable in plain language.’” 

Mr. Gammon, along with a number of other local reporters, has been trying to get the names and affiliations of the task force members for weeks. He reports in his column that “a City Hall source e-mailed Full Disclosure a list of the task-force names and their primary topics. … In a later phone conversation, Dellums’ spokeswoman Karen Stevenson asked Full Disclosure to keep the task-force names secret until mid-May, when the mayor plans to publish their initial results. Now Full Disclosure is not paid to keep secrets. You can find the names posted on our news blog.” 

It’s hard to say how Mr. Dellums’ citizen task forces got the name “secret.” It may have come from San Francisco Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson, who used to have insider access to Oakland City Hall during the Jerry Brown years, but lost his Oakland privileges under Mr. Dellums (a Pulp Fiction reference) for various reasons. Mr. Johnson tried to get information on the task forces from Mr. Dellums’ staff members last summer and, when he couldn’t, labeled the task forces “hush-hush.” “The people serving on those committees since Dellums’ election have not been announced,” Mr. Johnson wrote in a September 2006 column. “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.” 

But how secret were the Dellums task forces? 

The Dellums Campaign began putting out word about the task forces—and invitations for people to join them—shortly after Mr. Dellums was elected in June of 2006. I can’t even remember how I learned about them, but it was common knowledge among Oakland political and activist circles in the summer of last year. From what I understand, more than 800 citizens signed up for 41 task forces, many of them people who had campaigned against Mr. Dellums in the mayoral election, and had goals and interests markedly different from his. Apparently, the task forces were open to anyone who came and signed up. Under those circumstances, how difficult would it have been for local reporters to get information on the task force membership or deliberations in a town, like Oakland, that dearly loves to gossip? Not very. So why didn’t they? 

One of the reasons may be that while there are many media outlets in the East Bay, all of them have been cutting their reporting staffs, or hiring younger and more inexperienced reporters, in corporate cost-saving measures. In addition, some of the area’s better reporters—the Tribune’s Alex Katz, for example—have been lured away to public relations duties, or in the case of Robert Gammon—who used to be with the Tribune before he came to the Express—have become spread so thin in trying to cover so many areas of concern that their work has suffered. So what should have been an easy job—getting information about the task forces from the task force members themselves—is now being made out to be difficult. 

I don’t know why the Dellums administration did not early-on release the names and affiliations of all of the task force members. It would have made things simpler, and the issue would long ago have vanished (how many people, after all, are going to read every name on the 41-task force roster that Mr. Gammon posted to the East Bay Express blog?) My guess is that the names were not earlier released by Mr. Dellums because there is some creative tension going on between the old campaign staffers who have now become city staffers—Dellums loyalists who worked on a volunteer basis during the period last year when the task forces were put together—and the administrative staff who came on after the January inauguration and may have different ideas about how the task forces—and the Dellums administration as a whole—should operate. In addition—or, maybe, as a result of that—the task forces are morphing from independent citizen bodies making recommendations to the mayor to semi-official bodies that help carry out the mayor’s agenda in various policy-interest areas, and there still seems to be some confusion about how that should, and will, operate. But I’m just speculating here, and the Dellums folks will have to answer for themselves. 

But at least the task force debate has some substance behind it. 

In a follow-up posting to his April 19 “Poverty Pimp Alert” blog, this one entitled “Poverty Pimp Alert II,” Mr. Thompson appears to drop over the critical edge. Reacting to a statement in a recent California Majority Report posting that “Dellums has allowed the community to ask a lot of him, but if anyone can harness support for large, institutional changes in Oakland, Ron is probably the man,” Mr. Thompson writes, “Apparently, 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, and his ‘We Shall Overcome’ shtick still plays with people who should know better.” 

Is Mayor Dellums sleeping on the job and pissing away his time in office? We’ll wait for Mr. Thompson to provide more than just his opinion.