Undercurrents: Reading the Implications of Dellum’s Latest Budget-Gap ‘Suggestions’

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:48:00 AM

Oakland is a complicated city, impossible to understand in a single season or to explain in a single story. For Mayor Ron Dellums, especially, there is no overall way to explain all of his actions of the past three years. You must search and pay attention, and put together pieces from disparate places and times. 

A colleague once told me his analysis of our current mayor is based largely on the fact Mr. Dellums had to be enticed to return to Oakland to run for the job. “He never wanted to be mayor,” my colleague told me, “and he’s acted like that ever since. He’s never put full time into the job.” 

The comment, I believe, demonstrated a lack of understanding both of human nature and of world political history. The persons who beat the drums earliest and loudest for a particular cause are very often the ones who abandon it at the first sign of crisis or discomfort. On the other hand, those who are reluctant to sign on—and do so only after much intensive soul-searching—often see the business to the bitter end. 

Thomas Becket begged King Henry II of England not to appoint him the Archishop of Canterbury. Henry the King ignored Becket’s objections, and Becket thereafter took the job so seriously—and so against Henry’s political interests—that the king had him assassinated in the church sanctuary. 

Robert E. Lee was famously opposed to Southern secession. Yet General Lee became the Confederacy’s greatest soldier. In explaining why he joined and led a cause whose goals he did not support, General Lee often said that his loyalties lay with his native Virginia, and when Virginia left the Union, he was obliged by duty to follow. 

While Mr. Dellums’ initial reluctance to take on the Oakland job may explain why it took him until that raucous, emotional Laney College rally to make his decision, I think it fails as a barometer to judge his subsequent actions following his election. Mr. Dellums, I believe, feels he has a responsibility of service to Oakland, a responsibility to both carry on the legacy and work of his uncle, C.L. Dellums—the railroad porters union leader and organizer whose statue stands at the entrance to the Oakland Train Station—as well as to give back something tangible to the city of his birth and the voters who supported him, year after year, so that he could make his mark and make history in Congress. 

Whatever one thinks of the quality of the decisions Mr. Dellums has made as mayor, I believe that it is this sense of responsibility of service and doing what he thinks is best for Oakland—not necessarily what is best for himself—that is the foundation of his work. 

(This is not the same as my saying I believe that everything Mr. Dellums does is what’s best for Oakland; it’s only a belief that this is what Mr. Dellums himself believes.) 

This belief crystallized during the mayor’s September 2008 press conference—almost two years into his administration—in which Mr. Dellums introduced his proposals to close the pending $37.4 million deficit in the 2008–09 Oakland City Budget. That was Mr. Dellums at his best, speaking for 35 minutes on budget details without notes or documents in front of him and, as I wrote at the time, “indicating the depth of his involvement in the budget process.”  

Aside from the clear demonstration that Mr. Dellums was putting in long hours of work on the budget, I was struck by two other points that day. 

In his presentation, Mr. Dellums proposed a detailed combination of $13 million in revenue increases and $15 million in staff cuts and fund transfers, suggesting that the City Council could close the remaining $10 million gap either by a once-per-week city business shutdown or 120 additional layoffs. 

But what struck me at the time was the mayor’s position on Oakland’s longstanding practice of making up similar budget deficits—or “finding” money for popular new programs after earlier declaring that all the money in the budget had been allocated—by drawing the dollars out of various city funds outside the General Fund, carrying over those auxiliary fund liability deficits for years. It was a hidden debt that would sometime have to come due. Mr. Dellums called this Oakland’s “long-term, systematic, historical structural problems with the budget.” 

Mr. Dellums could have used the same tactic that was popular in the Jerry Brown–Robert Bobb years—putting off the problem down the road—but declared flatly that the fund-borrowing practice was finished. “This cannot continue to happen,” he said at that September 2008 press conference. “We’ve got to stop engaging in this ‘magic.’ ‘Magic’ is what got us into this problem. There is no ‘magic.’ It’s all over.” I wrote at the time that “the mayor said as soon as the current budget-deficit problem is addressed, he will move forward in the next budget cycle with proposals to end the city’s process of carrying over structural fund deficits.” 

    Mr. Dellums could have ensured his own political popularity by drawing from future revenue, leaving a legacy of shiny new buildings or programs with the Dellums imprint on them, but also leaving a city severely weakened in its ability to cope with future budget difficulties. That’s when I concluded that—at least for a bright and shining moment—Mr. Dellums was putting the city’s long-term economic health ahead of his own short-term political gains. 

Contrast the Dellums administration proposal a year ago to close the 2008–09 $37.4 million deficit with last month’s proposal to close the pending $18.8 million deficit in the 2009–10 budget. For one thing, the new proposal suggests closing the gap by—you guessed it—transferring part of the General Fund’s liabilities to so-called “healthier funds.” In other words, just the type of budgetary “magic” that Mr. Dellums de-nounced only a year before. 

Meanwhile, this month’s budget-balancing proposal—written by the City of Oakland’s Budget Office and Finance and Management Agency—was not actually a Dellums proposal at all but passed on to the City Council by City Administrator Dan Lindheim without recommendation. These “suggestions” or “discussion points,” we should call them, were described by Mr. Lindheim as “ideas and proposals [that are] not meant as a full catalogue of what can be done, should be done or might be done.” 

A year ago, you may remember, the Dellums administration proposed a similar “discussion” point on alternative solutions, but only with $10 million of the $37.4 million deficit, and by giving two alternative strategies—one-day city business closings or staff layoffs—to reach the same $10 million goal. 

   This year, the Budget Office and Finance and Management Agency’s proposed budget solutions add up exactly to the $18.8 million shortfall. While Mr. Lindheim said these gap-closing solutions—including the highly controversial proposed sale of the Oakland Convention Center and the Kaiser Convention Center—were only meant to generate discussion, the practical effect was that if the City Council does not adopt the budget office plan, the council must come up with its own alternate solutions. 

That caused at least two councilmembers to criticize the mayor’s office for failing to exercise leadership in the current budget crisis. 

“The mayor cannot just provide suggestions or provide ideas,” Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said. “It’s the administration’s responsibility to give its recommendations, good or bad.” Good point. 

So is this an indication that Mayor Dellums has thrown in the towel, has given up all thought of a second term, and is simply riding out the string on his first term, leaving the tough decisions to someone else? 

Actually, I think the indications lean in the opposite direction, at least in terms of the second term thing. 

The 2009–10 Budget Office and Finance and Management Agency budget gap document—and the accompanying Lindheim indication that these are “suggestions” rather than “proposals”—are what you might normally expect from a first-term mayor facing a tough re-election challenge from the sitting head of the City Council Finance Committee (Jean Quan) and the recently retired president of the California State Senate (Don Perata). This was an intensely political performance and, if I were being cynical, I would say that it was specifically designed to put the onus of the tough budget cuts or possible tax increases on mayoral challenger Quan—through whose Finance Committee the proposals will first go—rather than on the mayor himself. 

I don’t think that in a year’s time Mr. Dellums has abandoned his goal of doing what he thinks is best for Oakland. Instead, it seems more an indication that Mr. Dellums may believe that what’s best for Oakland is for Ron Dellums to be mayor for a second term, when the long-term budget reforms he proposed a year ago can be achieved, and his recent actions are being taken to enhance his re-election chances. Or, as I’ve often said, he wants—at the very least—to keep open the option that he can run for mayor again, and win. 

Or do you think I’m reading too much into this complicated man and complicated scenario?