Promising an end to the secret backroom-deals corrupting Oakland politics, newly elected Mayor Ron Dellums has vowed repeatedly to restore "transparency" to city government and provide every citizen with "a place at the table." But if Monday's inauguration ceremony was any indication, then Dellums' transparency is fairly opaque. At least one prominent member of his inner circle is openly hostile to the press and "transparency" looks like it may only apply to the privileged few.
The first swipe at the Fourth Estate came before Dellums was sworn in. J. Alfred Smith, who is senior pastor of the giant Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland and who performed Dellums' wedding ceremony, took the stage and openly prayed for the new mayor in his dealings with the press. Smith, who referred to himself as Dellums' "spiritual advisor," warned the mayor and the 1,800 members of the audience about reporters "whose salaries are based on reporting human frailties as if they're gods of perfection."
Dozens of members of the press from several news organizations were on hand at the three-plus hour event at the Paramount Theater, which included a raucous City Council meeting. But then, after the ceremony was over, this reporter noticed that a member of Dellums' staff was whisking just two "gods of perfection" into a side room behind a dark curtain. The two reporters work for the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle, so I followed them, and was immediately met with anger ... not Christian love.
A security guard quickly got in my face and demanded to know what I was doing there. I told him that I'm a reporter for the East Bay Express and showed him my event press pass, which I had clasped to the front pocket of my shirt. But the guard, who works for a private security firm, CSC San Francisco, told me I wasn't invited and that I should leave. But I refused, telling him that as a member of the press, I had a right to ask questions of Dellums in an after-ceremony press conference.
The guard then asked me to leave again, and I refused, so he radioed for backup. But then I noticed the Chron and Trib reporters and the Dellums staffer - his new press secretary Karen Stevenson - going through another room backstage after Dellums walked off the dais. Dellums, who was surrounded by an entourage, then quickly went down some back stairs, followed by Stevenson, the Chron, and the Trib. When I attempted to follow them, one of the guards grabbed my arm to stop me.
But I twisted free and went down the stairs after Dellums, who was quickly walking ahead, chatting up the two daily news reporters. Guards chased me down the stairs and yelled "stop" as I followed Dellums' entourage under the stage. Two members of the entourage then attempted to block me as Dellums headed up the stairs on the opposite side of the theater. But I slipped past them and finally reached the "press conference" at top of the other staircase.
It was a disappointment. Dellums' staff only allowed one question from each of the reporters. Both the daily reporters queried him about how he would deal with the city's rising crime problem. I then asked him about what it meant for him to have to interrupt the day's events to quiet a crowd that was enraged about the re-election of the City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente (see the earlier post for his answer).
Afterward, Stevenson apologized and vowed to include the Express in any future such events. Time will tell if reporters from other news organizations will be allowed to question the new mayor as well.
I should have also mentioned in the above post a young community college journalism student who was blocked by the security guards. His name is M. Joseph Hunt, and he writes for the Laney Tower, the newspaper for Oakland's Laney College . Hunt followed me behind the dark curtain, in an attempt to ask Dellums questions. But he was quickly blocked by the guards and was unable to follow the entourage down the stairs.
The decision by Dellums' staff to stymie Hunt also contradicted the new mayor's promise to bring young people into the political process. In fact, Dellums made that same vow during his inauguration speech, promising to "appoint young people to every board and commission in Oakland." The question now is: will he allow these young appointees to publicly question him? If Monday is any indication, the answer appears to be "no." Dellums' staff wanted nothing to do with a spunky young reporter - who writes for those very same "young people" - getting anywhere near the "transparent" mayor.