News & Notes

A misunderstood politician, a "misguided individual," and a mistaken publication

Enjoy it while you can: Wilda White sightings are becoming more entertaining than crop circles or Bigfoot. When we last saw the mercurial Oakland School Board member, she was picketing Mayor Jerry Brown’s State of the City address at the Marriott Hotel, hefting a sign that read “Jerry Brown: environmental racist,” and declaring that the mayor’s downtown development policies had contributed to her asthma and breast cancer. To that end, she said, she was resigning from the board and moving to the cleaner environs of Bodega Bay. Could it be that White, who has spread fear among the district staff with her bizarre and impromptu tirades, is finally decamping northbound for a retirement of beachcombing and building sand castles?

Um, no. After Oakland Tribune reporters Laura Counts and Andy Katz broke the story, which we passed along in this column a few weeks back, White declared that she wasn’t resigning after all, and the Trib had merely misunderstood her. When we tried to get the real story from White, she declined to talk to us, citing her displeasure with a recent cover story about her school board antics. So it’s back to yelling at district bureaucrats and voting against grant applications to secure state funds to help turn around failing Oakland schools. Just for fun, try to anticipate the next impulsive declaration White will claim she never made. Will she a): announce that the mayor’s stance on sunshine ordinances has given her a case of the rickets, b): accuse her fellow board members of felony use of scented products, or c): inform Superintendent Dennis Chaconas that his habit of slouching in his chair sends kids the wrong message, and that she can recommend a nice finishing school?

The bigger question is just how long Mayor Brown, the same environmental racist who appointed White to the board, will keep her around. Politicos speculate that since White’s term ends in May, Brown will let her tenure causing mischief in the schools expire quietly, rather than fire her and give his mayoral opponent Wilson Riles another piece of campaign ammunition. So it will probably be four months before White has to find something else to do.

Foggy mountain breakdown: Speaking of public personalities, Berkeley gadfly Carol Denney is at the center of yet another internecine squabble. This time, it’s the Free Folk Festival, an important part of the city’s cultural landscape for the last seven years, despite having to move from venue to venue. Jessica Bryan, who started the festival in 1995, has been sending a poison-penned denunciation of Denney to the City Council, the press, and just about everyone in the folk music scene, accusing her of essentially nickel-and-diming the festival to death for petty personal reasons. Bryan never actually mentions Denney by name, referring to her instead as the “Misguided Individual,” or M.I. for short. But she’s clearly talking about Denney, and the letter burns your fingers with resentment.

“Almost from the beginning, the M.I. launched an attack on both the festival and me personally,” Bryan writes. “Many of the M.I.’s criticisms reflected nothing more than a difference of opinion, such as whether particular performers should be invited to participate. Apparently realizing that such criticisms would not withstand scrutiny — after all, someone must decide who will perform — the M.I. instead took a worthy and legitimate concern, accessibility for the disabled, and used it as a tool to destroy the festival. … [T]he new director and I have both spent so much time fending off the attacks, demands, and histrionics demonstrated by the M.I. that there has been little time left over to raise money or consider plans for an event larger than already exists. … So I conclude with this warning: any worthy cause can be distorted to the point that it becomes injurious, even to those it purports to protect. … When I look at photos from the festival showing a row of happy, smiling faces — including some in wheelchairs — enjoying the music, I ask myself, Does [the M.I.] realize what he/she has stolen like a thief from his/her community?'”

You’re gonna need a euphemism interpreter to make sense of this letter, so we offer our services. It all started with People’s Park. In the early ’90s, UC Berkeley administrators were fed up with the efforts of Denney and Ashkenaz proprietor David Nadel to get rid of the frat boy volleyball court at the park, so they hit the two of them with a lawsuit to intimidate them. The stress of the university’s retaliation drove the two activists to eventually denounce one another and enter into a divisive feud — we won’t go into the maddening details; let’s just say they were both uncompromising, volatile personalities.

When Nadel was tragically murdered outside his club in 1996, organizers dedicated the next festival to his memory. Since his feud with Denney was not resolved, she was persona non grata that year. Festival supporters claim anonymously that Denney retaliated by starting a campaign to hound the festival to death, enlisting the Americans with Disabilities Act in her cause. Denney took the lead in claiming that since the festival took city funds, it must be completely ADA-compliant, and since neither the Unitarian Fellowship Hall nor Ashkenaz meets those standards — neither venue has a wheelchair ramp to the stage, for example — the festival was forced to move from place to place.

Of course, Denney sees things entirely differently. Disabled citizens and activists such as Karen Craig also say that the festival’s ADA compliance has been insufficient, and that Denney was merely echoing their concerns. “I’m being cast as the only voice in this, but I only came because three disabled people asked me to and described the inaccessibility,” Denney said. “I guess I see that as a pretty innocuous thing to do, but oh my god, this woman hates me with a blinding passion. To me, this isn’t rocket science. We should just move the festival to a place that could accommodate the public. Any of the schools would probably be an improvement.”

Where you come down on this fight depends on where you stand on Carol Denney. Disabled City Councilmember Dona Spring, for example, has a vested interest in ADA compliance, but that didn’t stop her from saying that the festival has been “literally destroyed by Lady Macbeth.” This hassle is more trouble than it’s worth, so may we suggest a healing hootenanny?

So which is it? Speaking of roundabout accusations, the Berkeley Daily Planet letters page has had its share of them lately. After the Planet ran a profile of the police watchdog group Copwatch, an anonymous South Berkeley resident wrote a letter to the editor, in which he or she accused two Copwatch “leaders” of having once overdosed on heroin. For some reason, the Planet published the letter, which prompted the following letter from reader Lisa Pascopella: “Publishing anonymous letters to the editor is unacceptable journalistic practice in violation of your printed policy,” she wrote. “What is yet more unacceptable is the inflammatory statement that the author’s name has been withheld from this letter for her safety.’ Why would the editor allow this libelous statement to accompany a libelous letter directed at Copwatch? There are two possibilities: 1. Oversight; or 2. Intentional libel. Which is it?”

Cleaning up his act: Oakland Councilman Moses Mayne Jr. — he of the recently vocal opposition to the proposed new home for the nonprofit Casa Segura needle-exchange program — met with 7 Days last week to clear up confusion over his apparently fluid position on the issue. Mayne said supporters of the needle-exchange program were not “straight up” when they characterized his general support for Casa Segura as a specific endorsement of its proposed relocation to 5319 Foothill Blvd. in East Oakland. Still, Mayne said his staff bears responsibility for the perception that he was trying to sneak one by 7 Days, and the freshman councilman promised to do better next time. “If my act isn’t cleaned up, trying to get the city to clean up its act isn’t happening.”

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