Oakland City Auditor Wrong: Staff Asked Black Local Firm To Front For White Livermore Company

kenhoustonA key part of the “non-interference” report issued by Courtney Ruby, the Oakland City Auditor, and that blamed Councilmember Larry Reid (District 7) and Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6), leading this blogger to brand it as racist, was proven to be completely wrong in a bombshell speech and interview at last night’s Oakland City Council meeting.

Ken Houston, who represents Turner Group, stepped forward during the public comment period on the Oakland Budget, to explain that his firm was not offered as an alternative to Top Grade Construction, but that Pat Cashman, who has been the City of Oakland’s Staff point person on the Oakland Army Base Project (and someone I worked with in the past, and a friend, so this is not intended to be hostile), asked Turner Group to be in the project and such that the black construction organization would be a “front” for the white Top Grade Construction company, which isn’t even based in Oakland – it’s in Livermore.

Moreover, Ken Houston says that no one from the Oakland City Auditor’s Office bothered to contact he or anyone at Turner Group to confirm the assertions made in the Auditor’s Report. Additionally, no one from the media talked to him about this, although Mr. Houston said he’d just got a text from Matthew Artz at the Oakland Tribune.

Here’s Ken Houston’s Interview with me at Oakland City Council last night:

Mr. Houston’s statements make this part of Ruby’s report completely wrong.

Interference in the Oakland Army Base
Both Councilmembers from District 6 and District 7 were involved in Redevelopment’s contracting process for an Oakland Army Base demolition and remediation contract worth approximately two million dollars (Building 6 contract). The Districts 6 and 7 Councilmembers’ involvement appears to show favoritism to one company, Turner Group Construction (Turner). The Councilmembers’ actions interfered in administrative affairs by coercing or influencing staff regarding the contract. Section 218 says that Councilmembers:
• May only make informational inquiries of administrative staff
• Shall not give orders to any administrative staff
• Shall not coerce or influence administrative staff with respect to any contract, purchase of supplies, or any other administrative action
According to Redevelopment, this contracting process was highly irregular and “messy.” It is the audit’s conclusion that the Councilmembers’ inappropriate involvement and interference in the contracting process appears to have significantly contributed to this highly irregular process. Under the standard contracting process for construction contracts exceeding $50,000, the Administration should have conducted a competitive bid process. However, Redevelopment staff incorrectly began working with Top Grade Construction (Top Grade) for a sole source contract4. This occurred because, according to Redevelopment, in an effort to speed up the remediation work on the Army Base, Redevelopment attempted to contract with Top Grade Construction who was a contractor of the master developer of the project.

(Note, that’s on Page 23 of the report.)

I’ve not yet reached out to Pat Cashman for a response as of this writing. To put things in their proper timeframe, Mr. Houston and I had the talk at 10 PM last night; the video was made last night and the blog post started at 7:30 am this morning.

Oakland City Administrator Guided Auditor, Accused Of Power Grab

The Oakland City Auditor’s Report also, in a way, points a finger at Deanna Santana, the Oakland City Administrator, where it says that it was the Oakland City Administrator who essentially requested the audit as her office lacked the staff time to commit to it. But the real story is in how the Oakland Auditor’s Report is an effort to not just punish two Oakland Councilmembers who have been working to make sure the City adhere to “Hire Oakland First” policies, but who were also critical of the way the Oakland Army Base Project was handled.

It’s also a power grab.

In full disclosure, this blogger was an advocate for California Capital Group getting the Oakland Army Base project, as Phil Tagami, the company’s managing partner, has been a friend of mine since 1990. Thus, this should not be read as an effort against Mr. Tagami. Rather, the focus here is the obvious existence of race-bias in all aspects of this process, and also in the City Of Oakland relationships that gave rise to this matter. As a note, I’m the only media person who will openly disclose who his friends are, and are not – something other local media reporters and columnists don’t do.

Now, on the matter of the power grab, the overall upshot of this Auditor’s Report is not just punishment, but also the restoration of a level of power held by the Chief Administrative Officer, not seen since the Craig Kocian-era of Oakland City Management. Ms. Santana was working under Mr. Kocian at that time.

Craig was seen by a number of Oakland Councilmembers as trying to hold decision-making power over them, only he did so in a way that could be called politically clumsy, and with all due respect to Craig. Ultimately, Craig saw the writing on the wall and bolted to manage a small and not ethnically diverse city in rural Colorado.

Ms. Santana has seen how Oakland works and it could be said that she’s in a good place to settle some scores – trouble is, she’s hired to run the City of Oakland’s staff, not use her office to engineer a power grab via the use of gossip dressed up as a legal mandate. This effort to get the Oakland City Council to “behave” via picking on its two black councilmembers will only serve to bully rookie councilmembers, piss of the Oakland black community and its supporters, and give the city staff the chance to play favorites with the City Council – in other words, the more a staffer likes an Oakland City Councilmember, the more that staffer will allow that councilmember free access – calls and contact that could be seen as a violation of Section 218 of the City Charter.

This must stop.

Ms. Santana is gaining a reputation as a city manager who manages not by the act of being a leader, but by one who uses whisper campaigns against people. Courtney Ruby, who’s gaining a reputation of using her office to conduct public character assassinations of good Oaklanders, could have put an end to this process by not agreeing to make the report. Instead, Courtney Ruby took up the cause as her own, and failed to work with a set of racial blinders that Oakland leaders, from the late Lionel Wilson to Elihu Harris, Jerry Brown, and Ron Dellums, and the great Oakland City Manager Henry Gardner, have always had, and out of not just respect for, but a deep appreciation of, Oakland’s diversity.

None of these great leaders in Oakland would have handled the accusations against an Oakland councilmember by using the legal system to punish them – instead, they would have done it with class, and behind closed doors, all the while showing the utmost respect for the city councilperson.

Note that in this I did not mention the one person who must be held responsible for the growth of this crazy circus: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. Mayor Quan can also put a stop to this, and improve Oakland City Council relations, but thus far, she’s not done that. And why not? As the person who hired Ms. Santana, Mayor Quan ultimately benefits from her actions and those of the Oakland City Auditor. But this is not the way you achieve power – you do so by being recognized as a leader who’s able to bring Oaklanders together, and who’s able to make good decisions quickly, and with resolve.

Some of you reading this may think my take is one that advances a “male” form of leadership – it’s not. I have worked in City Government for many years, and in the private sector for the past 12 years, and have seen a number of women who’s management styles were exemplary regardless of sex.

Dr. Camille Cates Barnett is one of those women.

Dr. Camille Cates Barnett was hired as assistant to the city manager, then became assistant city manager as I was an intern in the Dallas Planning Department in 1985. Then, as now, she was called, not by me, as “The Dragon Lady,” and because she was a no-nonsense person who was not known for gossip, but for good management and leadership. If Dr. Barnett were in Oakland, this problem would not have been handled in public, but “back-channel” and that would be with the objective of maintaining good morale. Also, she was known for her diverse hiring practices.

She told the Washington Post “I don’t think you can function in a politically charged environment without being strong. I try to be sensitive, but I also want to be sure that I perform and that government performs. I know what my job is, and I’m going to do it. That’s the only way that citizens get the services they deserve.”

Today, Dr. Barnett has taken time away from city management after the loss of her husband, James, in a car accident in 2008. She is a resident scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

I think I made my point.

Stay tuned.

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