Undercurrents: The Measure of Leadership Is Not Running Somewhere Just Because the Crowd Is Going That Way

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

Some years ago, my brother and I and a friend were in Los Angeles at the opening of Che, the Omar Sharif movie that was considered by some to be favorable to the late Cuban revolutionary leader. L.A. had a large Cuban exile community that was not so sympathetic to Che, and so we had to walk through an angry picket line to get inside the theater. The movie itself went off without a hitch until the climactic battle scene in which Che was killed. During the gunbattle on the screen, someone inside tossed a couple of smoke bombs into the crowded seats. 

There was predictable panic, with almost everybody breaking for the aisles, shouting and smashing themselves up to try to get out the doors. I half stood up in my seat, but then noticed that my brother and his friend were looking around, but otherwise had not moved. I sat back down. Gradually, the smoke cleared, showing that only a handful of people had stayed in the theater, scattered among the seats. Incredibly, the movie had continued without a pause, and we were among the few who stayed to the end to watch. The tossing of the smoke bombs amounted to nothing more than—well—the tossing of some smoke bombs. We heard later, however, that several people had gotten injured in the crush at the doors. When we walked out several minutes later at the end of the movie, unmolested, both the pickets and the movie crowd had dissipated. 

Showing leadership does not mean moving just for the sake of movement, and just because the crowd is running that way. 

It’s a lesson that a good deal of Oakland in these Edgerly Controversy times ought to be paying attention to. 

Some of us seem to be in full-bore panic mode, with frantic calls for somebody to do something—now!—without a clear idea of the nature of the problem, or what, exactly, the something it is that ought to be done to correct it. 

That was reflected in a statement made by our good friend, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, during an appearance last week on the KQED radio talk show Forum. 

Asked by host Michael Kransky why he had been critical about the mayor’s action that week—when he announced that Ms. Edgerly would remain as city administrator until a planned July 31st retirement—Mr. Johnson replied that “the mayor had a chance to be decisive, to make a decision. To lead us. To show by example to Oakland residents that he was the guy running the show at City Hall and making that hard decisions that affect our lives. He didn’t do that. He opted out.” 

(Here’s a minor point that we can’t let pass. In framing his question, Mr. Kransky told Mr. Johnson that “you were at City Hall when the mayor announced that Deborah Edgerly was leaving her office at the end of July.” Mr. Johnson let that assertion go without a comment. Maybe he was at City Hall that day, but was he actually at the Dellums-Edgerly press conference? I don’t remember seeing him, nor did anyone else I spoke with. It doesn’t matter to me if Mr. Johnson was actually at the press conference or not. A columnist can’t be everywhere, and often relies on news reports rather than personal observation. But if he wasn’t there, he shouldn’t leave the impression that he was.) 

In any event Mr. Johnson, in his answer to Mr. Kransky’s question, seems to be confusing the failure to make the decision that Mr. Johnson is advocating with making no decision at all. But in deciding last week to keep Ms. Edgerly in her job until the end of July, the mayor was making a decision. He was deciding that he was going to resist calls for her immediate suspension. One may criticize Mr. Dellums for failing to immediately suspend Ms. Edgerly. One may also criticize the mayor for reversing himself three days later, and announcing that suspension. But to criticize the mayor for doing nothing misses the point, it seems. 

Interestingly, even some of the Oakland City Councilmembers who thought that Ms. Edgerly should be immediately suspended were, at the same time, urging a measured, careful response and criticizing the recent media frenzy over the Edgerly Controversy that was calling for blood, any blood, and quickly. 

In her June 28 newsletter, District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan wrote that “while all persons are presumed innocent until found guilty by our legal process, the charges are so serious that I and many Council members and staff advised the Mayor to put on Edgerly on administrative leave. The City often does this when serious charges are made against personnel; it is not a presumption of guilt.” 

Ms. Quan said she made that recommendation because “it was clear that even if the media was sensationalized or unfair, that the interests of moving the City forward must come first.” The councilmember added that she “would ask our citizens to pursue the truth in possible wrong doings, but to tone down rhetoric that paints all city employees or officials as corrupt.” 

But charges of blanket corruption at Oakland City Hall are exactly what some of our media colleagues are now loudly shouting. In his KQED appearance last week, Mr. Johnson said that Oakland City Hall corruption “should be investigated by an outside law enforcement agency.” In a column this Tuesday entitled “Edgerly Probe Should Focus On Corruption” he was a bit more specific, saying that “Investigators from Oakland and other agencies looking into allegations of corruption in the office of ousted City Administrator Deborah Edgerly should start in 2004, her first year in office... The alleged improprieties and nepotism go back four years, to soon after then-Mayor Jerry Brown permanently appointed Edgerly to the city administrator’s position.” 

But what corruption investigation is Mr. Johnson speaking of? 

In her June 28 newsletter, Ms. Quan wrote that “the main allegation is that Edgerly may have interfered with police operations by giving her nephew, who was arrested, information about police investigations. The police turned their information over to the District Attorney both to avoid any perceived conflict of interest (Edgerly had oversight over all departments including the police) and because the office has jurisdiction over charges of public corruption. The DA in turn has asked the FBI to conduct an investigation.” 

That indicates an FBI investigation into the narrow charges that Ms. Edgerly tipped off her nephew, not about general City Hall corruption, as Mr. Johnson is advocating. 

There is, actually, an ongoing federal investigation into corruption at Oakland City Hall, but Mr. Johnson may not be aware of it, since it never appears that he’s written about it. 

In January of 2005, in an article entitled “Don Perata: Influence, Family And Political Favors,” San Francisco Chronicle reporters Christian Berhelsen, Jim Herron Zamora, and Todd Wallack wrote that the flow of money between State Senator Don Perata and “several close political associates” is “the focus of an FBI investigation into whether Perata has been paid for wielding his influence on public issues-influence that extends throughout the East Bay, where Perata’s fund raising has helped elect or appoint at least a dozen loyalists to the Oakland City Council, BART, the Port of Oakland and other boards that make multimillion dollar decisions.” 

In March of 2006, Bob Gammon and Will Harper of the East Bay Express reported that it had been “nearly eighteen months since a federal grand jury started issuing subpoenas in the sprawling Perata investigation. The probe began when an ex-boyfriend of a former Perata aide, Lily Hu, accused her of facilitating kickbacks. At the time, Hu was a powerful Oakland lobbyist whose client list included many of Perata’s closest friends and largest campaign contributors.” In their story, Mr. Gammon and Mr. Harper wrote that FBI agents had showed up at Oakland City Hall that week to interview several City Councilmembers.  

“While Perata spends most of his time in Sacramento running the state Senate,” Mr. Gammon and Mr. Harper continued, “he has considerable juice to get things done for his developer buddies in Oakland. City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente is his closest political ally, and several other councilmembers count on his support and fund-raising prowess at election time.” 

In December of 2007, Mr. Gammon reported that prosecutors in the Perata Oakland corruption probe had recently contacted former San Francisco Chronicle reporters Robert Salladay and Christian Berthelsen and asked for their notes. The veteran reporters wrote extensively in early 2004 about Perata and his questionable financial dealings with his friend and business partner Timothy Staples.” 

And in April of this year, Philip Matier and Andrew Ross wrote in their San Francisco Chronicle column that “already almost five years in the works, it doesn’t appear the federal corruption probe of state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata will end anytime soon. For the second time this year, the U.S. attorney’s office has asked defense attorneys representing Perata and some other potential defendants for an extension of the legal deadline for filing charges. Additional time would allow prosecutors to wrap up their work, sources close to the case tell us.” 

Why is Mr. Johnson calling for a new Oakland City Hall corruption investigation while, at the same time, seemingly ignoring the one already going on? 

Despite the fact that this longtime, ongoing, and still active Oakland corruption investigation by federal officials has been talked about in every local newspaper, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where Mr. Johnson works, I can find no mention—ever—in a column by Mr. Johnson that specializes in East Bay politics and concentrates, most recently, in talking about allegations of corruption at Oakland City Hall. But perhaps this is because the target of the federal investigation is Mr. Perata—who Mr. Johnson feels would be a “good fit” for the next mayor of Oakland—rather than Mr. Dellums, upon whom Mr. Johnson has been conducting a lively vendetta for the last year and a half, or Ms. Edgerly, who is his most recent target. 

But perhaps I am mistaken in all of this, and this is merely wild speculation and accusation in a time that has already seen too much of both. If so, Mr. Johnson is free to straighten me out, appropriately, either in his column, or in another radio appearance. 

Meanwhile, I don’t have enough facts on hand to properly judge whether Mr. Dellums was correct in first keeping Ms. Edgerly on as city administrator through her planned July 31 retirement, rescinding that decision three days later to suspend her, and then eventually firing her outright. I won’t, therefore, join the yard-dog chorus of howling criticism over the mayor’s actions. I continue to have my own criticisms of the mayor and the Edgerly Affair, however. Regardless of what decisions he took, Mr. Dellums should have come before us—personally—and explained those decisions to Oakland citizens in as much detail as legally possible, answering all the proper and legitimate questions which residents now have about the current state of the operation of our city government. That’s where the mayor fell short on leadership. Fortunately, it’s not too late for Mr. Dellums to correct this particular error.