So I’m looking through my archives and I realized that it’s been kind of a while since I ripped on local media. Isn’t that what blogs are for? I’ve been negligent! But now the time has come. Look, I think everyone who reads this blog realizes that I’m no fan of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. And after watching last night’s “special report,” I think it’s pretty clear that the KTVU news staff isn’t either. I often complain that local newsmedia doesn’t place sufficient scrutiny on elected officials. So some might expect me to welcome the expose. But I can’t even remember the last time a news story made me so angry. Wait, I can – it was that horrible East Bay Express Van Hool story. That may have been worse. It’s a tough call. In any case, “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums Living the High Life Despite City Budget Shortfalls” is damn close to some of the most offensive and insulting reporting I can recall watching ever, and that’s saying a lot.
You can watch the video here and read the text version of the report here. I cannot say this strongly enough – everyone involved with this story should be ashamed of themselves. If you don’t want to click through to watch or read, which, frankly, I don’t recommend bothering with because that’s just three minutes of your life that you’ll never get back, the idea of the story is this: Ron Dellums is ruining Oakland because he stays in expensive hotels and flies first class, even though the City is in a budget crisis. Dellums has spent $50,000 on his city credit card since taking office, eating in fancy restaurants and staying in fancy hotels and flying first class. Also, he buys a lot of bouquets. I don’t even know where to start. Every single thing that could have been wrong with it is wrong with it.
First – all the stuff about the expenses is completely pointless. This just does not matter at all. The amount of money they’re talking about in expenses is like one half of a thousandth of one percent of the City’s budget. This is just pure sensationalism. Are we supposed to gasp in horror as sober narration informs us that “Dellums has used hundreds of taxpayer dollars to buy flowers!”? O.M.F.G. The amount of money Ron Dellums spends on floral arrangements falls at roughly #465095459 on my list of things that are wrong with Oakland. The hyperbole continues with absurd assertions like “Frequents elite restaurants such as Bistro Francais”. Give me a break. That’s just making shit up. Every local review I can find of this place classifies its prices as “moderate,” and, well, I don’t want to sound like, I don’t know, some kind of, like, elitist food snob or something, but seriously. It’s not like the man’s eating at Citronelle. I’m looking at the menu of Bistro Francais…I’m sorry, this is just not a fancy restaurant at all. In fact, after reviewing the account statement, I have to say that it appears the Mayor has incredibly pedestrian taste in food.
If you accept that Oakland’s Mayor should be attending events like the US Conference of Mayors meeting or the National League of Cities conference, these expenditures are, frankly, not unreasonable at all. Honestly, the only thing about Ron Dellums’s Personal Expense report (PDF!) that really disturbs me is the large amount of what I can only figure must be travel agent fees – 18 FTE Mayor’s Support staff and not a single one of them knows how to use Expedia? Anyway, here’s where the money went as best as I can break it down:
- Conference Fees: $2990
- Airfare: $8738.32
- Transportation: $939.36
- Flowers: $157 (The KTVU segment said $384.19, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where that number came from based on the expense report they provide. Maybe he ordered flowers through one of the hotels once or something? Who knows.)
- Hotels: $33,079.37
- Meals: $3089.09
- Travel Agent: $539
- Other (either I couldn’t figure out what these were or didn’t know how to categorize them): $544.67
Okay, there is one other thing besides the travel agent that bothers me. While most of the charges seem defendable, no matter how much I think, I can’t come up with any justification for Dellums to be charging his dinners in South Africa to Oakland’s taxpayers – that trip was not City business.
Even when an opportunity to explore a real question appears, KTVU ignores it in favor of the cheap shot. Take this excerpt:
David Chai: If you want to have a conversation about the Mayor’s travel, you gotta ask: what did it get you?
News: Dellums’s staff says by traveling, the Mayor has brought back millions of dollars in grants from Washington. But certainly, flying coach or staying at a Hyatt or Marriott rather than the Ritz wouldn’t have jeopardized those grants.
First, the expense report shows stays at the Hilton and Hyatt and Sheraton as well as at the Ritz. But what really upset me about this part was the way they just accept, then dismiss the claim about grants. Cause when I heard that, my first thought was “really“? We got millions of dollars in grants from Washington? Where is all this money? Are they secret grants? Instead of taking the opportunity to weigh the value or lack thereof of the Mayor’s travel, the story simply glosses over the claim and returns to its petty obsession with fancy hotels. Pathetic.
Their other big problem is staff. KTVU complains that Dellums has too much staff and that his staff spends too much money. Two things wrong with this. First, this isn’t news – Dellums’s massive staff increases should have been a story a year ago, when the City Council approved a budget (huge PDF!) that increased funding for Mayor’s Support staff from $1,888,484 in FY 2006-07 to $3,137,484 in FY 2007-08, and from 10 Full Time Equivalent positions to 18! The time to bitch about that was before we approved it, and if people want to complain about it now, well, that’s on the Council’s shoulders just as much as the Mayor’s.
There is, of course, no meaningful analysis of what all this new staff is doing. They complain about Dellums having a driver, which I suppose might sound ridiculous until you remember that he’s like 130 years old and being the Mayor, has to go lots of places, and that we want to encourage people of a certain age to stay away from the wheel of a motor vehicle for the safety of everyone else on the road. But there’s no mention of the multiple Intergovernmental Affairs positions added to the Mayor’s office. (I have never seen any rational explanation of why the Mayor needs his own personal staff for this in addition to the ones the City already pays.)
On top of that, the reporting on staff and expenditures is downright sloppy. KTVU lumps together expenses and staff costs for the Oaklanders Assistance Center with Mayor’s Support, which is just completely inappropriate. It’s a careless error, and if you want to offer a real comparison of differences in staff between administrations, then you need to limit your query to the relevant data. Doing it this way just makes no sense. And one can’t help but wonder about the level of thoroughness of their examination when Brown staffers like Gil Duran and Jean Rubsamen appear on the report of Ron Dellums’s staff expenses (PDF!). In some cases, the numbers in the video and the numbers in the reference documents they provide don’t even match. The video claims Mayor Brown had $120 in personal expenses, but the document on their website of Jerry Brown’s Personal Expense Report (PDF!) only shows $60.00 in expenses. Nice work, guys!
The report concludes by condemning Dellums for not working enough, explaining that according to their analysis of the Mayor’s calendar, he worked less than four hours a day on a third of the days they examined. Again – WTF? We don’t pay the Mayor by the hour. He’s not a child that needs to be supervised while doing his homework. I just do not understand the fixation people have with scrutinizing the schedules of elected officials. Look. This is how you can tell if your representatives are working hard enough – whether they get anything done for you or not. In 18 months in office, Dellums has brought practically nothing to the Council, and when he has, as in the case of his street outreach plan or accelerated police hiring plan or affordable housing “proposal” or late budget or whack Army Base fantasy, it’s half-baked and poorly presented and often counterproductive. That’s the problem with the Mayor – it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with how many hours he marks on his calendar. This product wouldn’t be acceptable if he was putting in 16 hour days.
Back to the interview:
David Chai: You’re missing the point when you’re talking about the expenditures rather than looking at what we’re getting out of these trips.
Interviewer: We’re talking about budget problems, we’re talking about schools that need money, we’re talking about a police department that needs more people, that needs more money. And we’re talking about a Mayor who spends some of the city’s money on the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, limosines, flowers, $200 meals, and you’re saying it’s justified.
David Chai: Those dollar amounts of what he’s spending isn’t going to close the $20 million budget gap. The dollars that you’re talking about are so small…”
Interviewer: Every little bit helps.”
No. Just…no. Look, I really want to be sympathetic to the idea a lot of people around town seem to have that every penny of taxpayer money needs to be scrutinized to the nth degree. But try as I might, I just can’t. A couple of nights in a fancy hotel or a night in a limo or a first class plane ticket just.don’t.matter. At all. These things have nothing whatsoever to do with the budget shortfall and make no impact on the City’s finances. And they certainly have nothing to do with OUSD’s budget issues, as the reporter seems to suggest.
Please, take a look at just some of the ways your Council will be voting to spend your money on Tuesday. $100,000 (PDF!) to track people on probation using GPS. $40,000 (PDF!) for a new trail which will be built by volunteers. $333,216.00 (PDF!) for copy machines. $295,000 (PDF!) to a number of non-profits to provide services for senior citizens. $989,590 (PDF!) to pay for summer programs for kids. $645,005 (PDF!) to buy tasers for police officers. $249,000 (PDF!) to hire kids to beautify the city. $5,000 (PDF!) on plant containers for MacArthur Boulevard. $970,000.00 (PDF!) to rehabilitate several blocks of storm drains. $1,550,000 (PDF!) to buy a vacant lot and empty building. $153,000 (PDF!) to train kids (PDF!) to clean up (PDF!) graffiti. $191,288 (PDF!) for insurance premiums on some affordable rental property. $34,142.00 (PDF!) in a settlement to a woman who tripped on Piedmont Avenue.
I picked these figures more or less at random from Tuesday’s agenda. I am offering no editorial comment on these particular expenditures as a whole – some I think are good, some I think are bad, most I don’t know enough about to have an opinion. My point is that this is the way the City spends money all the time. Dinner at Yankee Pier isn’t even a drop in this bucket, and a night at the Four Seasons instead of the Marriott going to change anything. When we get the big stuff under control, then I’ll worry about the Mayor getting a club sandwich at Max’s on my dime, and until then, I just don’t give a damn.
By the way, the only thing I found even remotely interesting in this entire segment was David Chai using a figure for the budget shortfall $5.5 million higher than everyone else has been using. What’s with that?
I’m just fuming. Readers might wonder why I care at all. After all, nobody’s forcing me to watch the TV news. Let me tell you about my weekend. Saturday morning I did work for one my real jobs. Then I went and bought some tea and sat by Lake Merritt for a while and drank it. Then I came home and did more work, for another one of my real jobs. Then I went and met some people for cocktails and dinner. Then I went home and read and took notes on this (PDF!). And this (PDF!). And this (PDF!). Then I went to sleep. I usually like to go for a walk and sit outside and have coffee and read the paper on Sunday mornings. And I really wanted to go to the zoo, because I still have not seen the baby giraffe (how long does a baby giraffe stay a baby, anyway?). But I skipped the paper and the coffee and the zoo and instead spent the entire day watching the DVDs I bought last week from KTOP of all the Council budget meetings that I was too busy to pay attention to during the elections so I can write about the budget later this week. I explain all this not to make people feel bad for me – after all, I wouldn’t write this blog if I didn’t enjoy it most of the time. Hopefully, my studying will pay off and I’ll be able to write about the budget discussions with a level of detail that frankly, wouldn’t be interesting to the vast majority of Oaklanders and that there just isn’t room for in traditional media. And I’d like to think that the .5% of the city that takes the time to read this blog will find whatever I come up with valuable, or at least interesting.
But for the people who don’t care about my lengthy ramblings, but bother to read the newspaper or keep the TV news in the background while they do the dishes, there should be some kind of less detailed, but still meaningful, accurate, and clear coverage of what’s going on with their money and what the decisions being made right now will mean for them. And that just seems to be completely absent in the media around here. Instead, KTVU’s news team is apparently spending 2 months “exposing” a bunch of expenditures that just mean nothing.
Shortly after the item went online last night, a friend e-mailed me all atwitter about how “damning” it was (and this is really someone who should know better). In response to my angry ranting about how irresponsible I found it, he told me to “keep in mind that the reason KTVU did this story is because this is what people want to hear.” I just don’t think that’s an excuse. The news is there to inform the public. This isn’t information – it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator, and it’s a complete abdication of the responsibilities of the Fourth Estate. One can’t help but wonder if the decisions that get made in this town – both at City Hall and in the voting booth – might be different if our local media took the time to actually let people know what’s going on.