I got a pleasant surprise yesterday when Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums named well-qualified and experienced people (PDF) to the key City positions of CEDA Director and Assistant City Administrator. My delight was short-lived, however, because, in a not at all surprising move, Dellums at the same time named his longtime friend Dan Lindheim as Oakland City Administrator.
Lindheim, with his experience as an economist at the World Bank and as a longtime aide to Dellums while he was in Congress, is certainly more than qualified to serve in some sort of policy capacity, as an advisor to the Mayor, for example. But City Administrator is a whole different question. Let’s not forget that until just over a year ago, when Dellums named him interim CEDA director, Lindheim had no experience whatsoever in municipal administration.
Councilmembers Jane Brunner and Larry Reid praised Lindheim’s appointment yesterday, citing his intelligence and proficiency with budget issues. Even ignoring the problems that intelligence is not a substitute for experience and the budget he was so helpful with had to be developed with the assistance of outside consultants and relied heavily on direct service cuts (many of which were later fixed by the Council), Brunner and Reid are off base here. The Mayor is reorganizing the City Administrator’s office largely according to the recommendations in the PFM Group report (PDF), which means the Assistant City Administrator will be chiefly responsible for budget and finances. The City Administrator will not have direct responsibility for the budget, but instead be left to oversee direct services such as police fire, parks and rec, public works and so on.
The City Administrator is the single most powerful person in Oakland. With the police department currently in total chaos, why on earth would we hand responsibility for it over to someone who has no experience in such matters? Direct services to Oakland’s citizens and the primary responsibilities of City government – safety, blight clean-up, nuisance abatement – have been steadily eroding for the past two years. Particularly in light of the City’s forthcoming budget shortfalls, it is imperative that the person responsible for making the City run smoothly has experience in, well, making cities run smoothly. Or at all. Perhaps in boom times, when money flows freely to the City’s coffers, we might be able to afford a learning curve. But right now, we need someone who knows how to make do with less and who knows how to manage a large organization.
Lindheim lacks these skills and experience. While serving as interim CEDA Director, he frequently complained that the responsibilities of the office were beyond his capacity. When questioned about why this wasn’t happening or that wasn’t working, he would respond by talking about how hard it is to oversee 500 employees and that he doesn’t “have time” to fulfill all the demands of his job. While in this position, he ignored the direction of the Council, rendering them incapable of exercising their oversight abilities.
When Dellums fired Deborah Edgerly last summer, he said he was going to conduct a “nationwide search” for her replacement. But there appears to be no evidence that any such search was ever conducted. The only names ever floated for the position were formed City Manager Robert Bobb, who was currently consulting for the City and the Mayor’s longtime friend Dan Lindheim. It strains credulity to think that after spending an entire year hunting for candidates from all over the country, the most qualified person the Mayor was able to find to run the City had never worked in any similar capacity ever before. It appears that Dellums did not even make a good-faith effort to find the best person for the job.
The saddest thing about all this is that the City Council looks poised to confirm the appointment. The inclination is understandable. Nobody wants to further strain relations with the tremendously unpopular Mayor by rejecting his decision and his friend. Nobody wants to insult Lindheim, who is, after all, by all accounts, a nice guy, by telling him he’s unqualified for the job. And this is exactly what Danny Wan was talking about when he said that the desire to be civil and polite are holding Oakland back. Carlos Plazola is right – Oakland deserves better management.
The question now is, does the Council agree? We’ll find out next week, when the Council votes on Lindheim’s confirmation, what the priorities of our elected officials are. Do they care about providing Oakland’s citizens with the best possible leadership or are they willing to settle for mediocrity because they’d rather be polite?
The concern here is not whether Lindheim is nice or smart (I’m sure he’s both), but whether he has the administrative experience to run a City of over 400,000 people. Even the Charter says so:
Section 500. Appointment. The Mayor shall appoint a City Administrator, subject to the confirmation by the City Council, who shall be the chief administrative officer of the City. He shall be a person of demonstrated administrative ability with experience in a responsible, important executive capacity and shall be chosen by the Mayor solely on the basis of his executive and administrative qualifications.
Both Becks and dto510 are asking you today to please contact your representatives and let them know that you expect qualified and experienced management in Oakland. I’ll add my voice to the chorus. Oakland deserves better.