Undercurrents—Dellums Administration: No Vendetta, Vindictiveness

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 06:29:00 PM

The two-year long season of criticism of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums—some of it thoughtful and reasoned, some of it thoughtless and unreasonable—has tended to set an arbitrary standard and then judged the mayor against it. Is crime and violence in the city at a “reasonable” level, for example, or are there “enough” new retail outlets or employee-generating businesses being built in Oakland; is there enough “transparency” at City Hall, or is the mayor is putting the time and energy into his job that should be expected? 

Those seem fair and reasonable questions to ask. Most Oakland residents want crime and violence to come down and revenue and jobs to come up, most want to know more about what’s happening in our government so that we can judge its effectiveness and how our tax money is being spent, and most want our city officials to refrain from slacking off. 

The problem, of course, is in setting standards by which such judgments can be made. We don’t have to all agree on the standards—in fact, it is certain that we will not. But in the absence of some standard, even a self-identified one, criticism is reduced to mere carping. 

Mr. Dellums won the 2006 mayoral election in large part because of the enormous reputation he gained in Congress fighting (and many times leading) in such epic battles as the struggle to end the war in Vietnam or to destroy apartheid in South Africa. In many ways, the undertow of bewilderment and disappointment in some city circles over Mr. Dellums’ two-year mayoral administration stems from the mayor’s failure to repeat those successes on Oakland streets. How could the man who took on the Afrikaaners or the American military-industrial complex not be able to solve Oakland’s problems? That bewilderment and disappointment is what fuels the Dellums criticism and gives it life. 

It is fair to hold Mr. Dellums to a standard of performance and expectation (so long as such standards and expectations are reasonable and defined). However, because elections are an exercise in choice—you vote either for one candidate or the other—it also seems prudent to ask two questions in order to put the Oakland situation in perspective. 

First: would Oakland have been better off today if Mr. Dellums’ closest opponent, Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, had won the 2006 race? Second: rather than a possible second four-year Dellums term, would Oakland be better off if, as some of the mayor’s critics are beginning to loudly urge, Mr. De La Fuente’s political mentor, the now-former state Senate president, Don Perata, were to run and win the mayor’s seat in 2010? 

There are many areas in which to make such a judgment. Today, let us examine one of them. Whatever the criticism of Mr. Dellums as mayor, no one so far has accused him of practicing the politics of vindictiveness, letting vendettas against individuals get in the way of his policy decisions. Both Mr. Perata and Mr. De La Fuente are famous for such practices, and if either one were to become Oakland mayor, such practices would almost certainly form an integral part of the way they governed the city. 

For a recent example of the potential destructiveness such politics of vindictiveness and vendetta would bring to the city, you have only to look at Mr. De La Fuente’s recent attempt to redraw the criteria for council pay-go funds. 

Pay-go (short for “pay as you go”) is the $200,000 in city money the mayor and each of the eight Oakland councilmembers receive in order to pay for various city projects of their choice (the $200,000 figure was cut in half recently in the current budget crisis). When the funds were originally established under former City Manager Robert Bobb in the ’90s, they were tied exclusively to capital projects. Since that time, however, the source of the money has been changed from the capital bond fund to the general fund, and the guidelines for the expenditures were expanded beyond simply capital projects. It’s a small pot of money out of a large city budget that, within certain guidelines, can be used at the officeholder’s discretion. The money can be used to fund worthwhile projects in the city. It can also be used as a political slush fund, to help incumbent councilmembers or the mayor get or keep favor among their constituents and to beat off challengers to their council or mayoral seat. Or it can do both. Politics and money intertwine, so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate them. 

In early November, as part of his recent, loudly proclaimed efforts to “end corruption” in City Hall, Mr. De La Fuente proposed making changes to the criteria for pay-go-funded projects. “There has been continued confusion and concern about what types of expenditures are pay-go eligible and whether pay-go funds may be granted to private entities,” the council president wrote. To eliminate that confusion, Mr. De La Fuente proposed that the council adopt new pay-go guidelines that eliminated, among other things, use of the money for “food, clothing, (and) entertainment.” 

One of the pay-go projects that Mr. De La Fuente’s new criteria would have eliminated was the free outdoor concert series at East Oakland’s Arroyo Viejo Park, sponsored each year by 6th District Councilmember Desley Brooks. While Ms. Brooks does not pay for the concert performers out of pay-go, she does use the money to rent sound systems and to put up a portable stage for the events. 

For the past several years, I’ve written often about those concerts, summing up my feelings about them in an August column this year: “Three to four times a summer, for the past several years, Ms. Brooks has been holding free concerts at Arroyo Viejo Park at the far southern end of her council district. Arroyo sits in the middle of one of the roughest areas of Oakland, surrounded by one of the city’s most violent killing fields, the center of one of its drug trafficking hubs and close to the prostitute stroll between 73rd and 98th along International Boulevard. When they began, many people privately predicted that Ms. Brooks’ events would quickly end in violence, as did Mosswood Park’s Carijama some years before. They did not. … Whereas in the beginning, when the Brooks events first started, there was an uneasy anticipation of problems, now people come out with the expectation that they are going to have nothing but a good time, with no violence marring. … It is the first step in re-creating an East Oakland ‘community,’ where residents learn to trust each other and their ability to retake their streets and parks and schools and business districts, reclaiming them for community and family benefit. For those of us who believe that Oakland’s violent neighborhoods must be rehabilitated from within, by their own residents—rather than ‘pacified’ from without—it is a major step, a small, planted seed that has been steadily growing, to bear fruit in later years.” 

Were Mr. De La Fuente’s new criteria aimed specifically at pay-go projects sponsored by Ms. Brooks? Given the long and ongoing feud between the two councilmembers—beginning with Ms. Brooks’ failure to vote for Mr. De La Fuente as council president at her first council meeting, continuing through Mr. De La Fuente’s sponsorship of Peralta Trustee Marcie Hodge to run against Ms. Brooks for the 6th District Council seat in 2006—that seems an appropriate question to ask. And although most of Ms. Brooks’ pay-go projects would come under the new De La Fuente criteria, others of them—such as providing food and entertainment for volunteers to build children’s play structures in 6th District city parks—would also have been eliminated. 

In fact, after Ms. Brooks sent out an alert email for supporters to come to the November 18 council meeting where the pay-go issue was to be decided, Mr. De La Fuente appeared to acknowledge in a responsive e-mail that the new criteria were, at least in part, aimed at Ms. Brooks.  

“Some council members,” he wrote, “chose to use this General Fund Pay-go money to pay for entertainment, food, tent rentals, special events, DJs, to ‘create a festive atmosphere,’ and even hotel rooms. I think this practice is completely unacceptable. … Not only do Councilmember Brooks’ expenses not adhere to the original intent of the Pay-go program, they are also extremely expensive. … I fully support special events and festivals—but there are other means which council members can pay for these.” 

After a large number of citizens came out in support of Ms. Brooks’ pay-go projects, including the summer concert series, councilmembers rejected Mr. De La Fuente’s proposals on a voice vote. 

The disturbing part of this whole exercise, however, is that it came in the middle of a widely acknowledged crime and violence crisis in the city, in which both residents and city officials are scrambling to find a solution. That the council would consider gutting one solution—which involves little city money and works to permanently solve the problem on a long-term basis from within the community itself, rather than using the short-term solution of simply arresting more people—seems madness. This is particularly true in light of the fact that Mr. De La Fuente’s criteria for the pay-go money, rather than enhancing accountability, seemed entirely arbitrary. The new criteria would have, for example, continued to allow councilmembers to fund capital projects outside their own council district, something that Mr. De La Fuente openly acknowledged having done prior to the 2006 election, and something that critics at the November 18 meeting charged was done solely to enhance the council president’s run for mayor that year. 

There are many things for which to criticize Mayor Dellums. I have done so in the past and will continue to do so in the future. But criticism must be balanced with an honest assessment. While we are criticizing the mayor for things we feel he has not done, we ought to also acknowledge that he has not appeared to let personal vendettas and political vindictiveness get in the way of policy decisions. Oakland has had far too much of that. I, for one, am glad that it seems to not be practiced in the mayor’s office, at least for the current term.