Let’s give Mayor Ron Dellums the benefit of the doubt: He’s thinking really hard. He wants to do the right thing by Oakland, but hey, it’s a tough job running a hard-luck town plagued by crime and a timid bureaucracy. His task forces have racked their brains on everything from housing to health care. His crackerjack staffers have labored to figure out the bureaucratic culture and inspire the pen-pushers to make life better for everyone. But it takes time. Don’t want to rush into anything. Wouldn’t be prudent.
Eight years ago, Jerry Brown had already shocked everyone with the speed of his changes. He offered a four-point plan to remake the city and denounced the civic culture’s “drug of gradualism” that got in the way. He fired do-nothing police chief Joe Samuels and faced down an army of supporters who picketed his loft. He teamed up with state Senator Don Perata and members of the school board to eventually force Superintendent Carole Quan out the door. He netted the city millions by letting the military play war games at Oak Knoll, and when a pack of infantile protesters occupied his office, he called in the cops. He also put the overrated egotist Harry Edwards in charge of Parks and Recreation on a whim, and when the school district’s board of directors refused to hire his pal George Musgrove as superintendent, his temper tantrum paralyzed the city for years.
So maybe a little prudence is in order. But when, exactly, will the new mayor do something significant? When asked what was on Dellums’ agenda for the rest of the year, spokeswoman Karen Stevenson declined to answer, claiming that she had to first consult with the mayor. It’s been almost eighteen months since Dellums announced he was running for office. If his staff has to retreat and double-check their notes before explaining what they want to do, it means they just don’t know.
Here’s what Dellums has done so far. He has started reorganizing the Police Department, boosting the number of cops on patrol and reorienting the leadership around an area command system — a good thing, given how ineffectual the cops became in Brown’s last years. He meets with city department heads every two weeks, instructing them to come up with “hundred-day plans” to do something extraordinary like fixing lots of potholes. He ran an emergency preparedness drill. He’s reviewing city jobs to find out which can be filled by ex-cons.
Dellums also organized an economic summit, where he presented a report on strategies to attract biotech and green industries. Bill Claggett, the city’s former economic development director, called it a welcome change from Brown’s obsession with housing construction. “He recognizes that paying attention to economic development is critical,” Claggett said. “That’s something the previous mayor never understood.” Still, it’s yet more woolgathering, and not much in the way of concrete action.
Finally, Dellums produced his first budget, and it’s essentially the same as the city’s last one. It should be said that this is not his fault. Oakland already mortgaged its future by turning most of the city into a redevelopment zone, and until a small windfall was announced last week, there wasn’t any scratch to spend. Nonetheless, readers can be forgiven for discerning a pattern here: In his first five months, the mayor has offered next to nothing in terms of action or even a specific vision.
Dellums’ defenders attribute this to two catastrophes he inherited: the empty, disheveled offices left by Jerry Brown, and the cowardice and turf-consciousness of city department heads. With such a mess to sort out, they say, is it any wonder that Dellums has yet to stretch his legs? “He learned the hard way that the city bureaucracy really slowed them down,” said councilwatcher Sanjiv Handa. “I think they all ran into problems not knowing how City Hall works.”
Others are beginning to wonder, oh-so-politely, how long such excuses will last. Councilwoman Jane Brunner was careful to praise Dellums, but added, “The ‘Model City’ — I’m not clear what that is. One of the things that Dellums seems to have done is hire some very smart and really good staff, and they are just learning the system. And I assume that they are going to come forth with specific examples at some point.”
It’s a measure of Dellums’ power that his critics are afraid to speak openly. But they’re out there, and they’re not happy. “He’s absentee,” said one City Hall source. “He’s not spending time in City Hall, not talking to councilmembers. … I don’t see any work being done.” Another source snorted, “Mayor who? I mean, where is he?”
Dellums has done himself few favors with his secrecy and defensiveness. His office has refused to divulge details of the citizen task forces that are supposedly drafting his policies. His personal minister, J. Alfred Smith, used his inaugural prayer to gratuitously insult a press corps that has gone out of its way to give Dellums time to govern. He barely communicates with the public, other than to parade the usual bromides about how he’s not Superman and cannot, in fact, turn water into wine. This might play with the lefty true believers, but to those who think there’s more to democratic government than the veneration of an aging ’60s icon, his act is growing stale.
It’s an old adage that big-city mayors can do two things: hire and fire people, and sell their city to investment capital. For all his faults, Jerry Brown knew this, and he pitched Oakland to private capital till he was blue in the face. Dellums has decided to pitch Oakland to public capital, by begging Governor Schwarzenegger and Congress to help this ailing, troubled city.
Some people are impressed with the ex-congressman’s Beltway connections, but there’s a drawback to this strategy. Set aside the fact that Dellums probably won’t get much money. And that, even if he does, it’ll be years before it reaches Oakland. As long as Dellums calls on Sacramento and DC to help with Oakland’s terrible problems, he’s calling attention to — you guessed it — Oakland’s terrible problems. He’s telling entrepreneurs and developers that the city is once again desperate and broke, and they should think about starting their businesses somewhere else.
It would be one thing if he were trying to solve the city’s problems. But Dellums has offered no original thinking, no new programs, no new directions. He’s fallen back on the David Dinkins model: We’re helpless until the federal government saves us. If he keeps it up, Oakland is in for a long four years.