Along with negotiating an end to a divisive garbage lockout and backing the police department's plan to redeploy its forces, one of Mayor Ron Dellums' few significant accomplishments during his first year in office was the appointment of port commissioners Margaret Gordon and Victor Uno. Gordon and Uno represented a stark contrast with the pro-corporate majority of the seven-member commission, which oversees the city's waterfront, including the airport and the seaport. Yet a sweeping new plan quietly circulating at the port would diminish their influence, and that of the mayor, by granting the port's executive director sole authority to award millions of dollars in contracts.
During the administration of Mayor Jerry Brown, the port commission, along with its then-Commercial Real Estate Director Omar Benjamin, repeatedly handed lucrative deals to the friends and campaign donors of state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. Dellums' mayoral victory last year was supposed to usher in an era of change at the port. Now, however, the old guard is on the verge of outmaneuvering the new mayor, who often appears either unaware of how politics work in Oakland or unwilling to do what it takes to prevail over officials beholden to Perata.
The reshuffling is believed to be backed by a majority of current port commissioners and was pushed by Benjamin, who took over as port executive director earlier this year. The changes would not only blunt the power of Dellums and his new appointees, but promise to undercut the authority of two additional members that the mayor will be able to nominate to the commission next July.
The plan, which Benjamin is selling as a way to increase port "efficiency" and "flexibility," received a brief public airing earlier this week at a port committee meeting. The proposal includes at least ten recommendations that would transfer decision-making powers from the commission to Benjamin. They include:
Allowing Benjamin to "split" large, lucrative contracts into smaller ones so that he can award them himself without obtaining port commission approval;
Giving Benjamin the authority to award public works contracts, which traditionally are the biggest contracts handed out by the port and can reach tens of millions of dollars each;
Handing Benjamin the power to deny bid protests from contractors who believe their competitors were given unfair advantages.
The plan also recommends shifting power away from the port commission by allowing Benjamin to approve purchases of up to $250,000 (the current cap is $50,000); award leases on port property for up to one year; disqualify contractors from bidding on contracts; waive bonding requirements; and eliminate public bid requirements for professional-services contracts.
In an interview last week, Benjamin said the plan was not a power grab. "This is not Omar Benjamin trying to wear a crown on his head." Instead, he said, the initiative was the result of a months-long review by port staff and based on suggestions from "customers and stakeholders" to make the port more competitive. He also promised to maintain transparency, saying that he planned to publicly disclose the contracts he awards and the decisions he makes either monthly or quarterly. "This is not an attempt to hide the ball," he said.
Benjamin said that he has been working on this plan since taking over the public agency in February. He said both port staffers and customers believe the port has unneeded "bureaucracy" and that it takes too long to get deals and contracts approved by the commission. "At some level, we're simply just trying to be more efficient," he said.
Meanwhile, the mayor, true to the cautious and conciliatory political style he employed throughout 2007, declined to even take a position on Benjamin's plan, much less criticize it. In a prepared statement released after questions posed by this newspaper, Dellums spokesman Paul Rose said: "The mayor and the executive director have a strong working relationship and meet on a regular basis to discuss the direction of the port and how it will benefit Oakland. This specific issue will be discussed as the mayor's office works with the port to ensure that the city of Oakland moves forward in a way that is responsible, efficient, and transparent."
Dellums' new appointees also were reluctant to speak out about the plan. An assistant to labor organizer Victor Uno said he wanted to talk about the issue, but then he did not return phone calls seeking comment. Meanwhile, the normally outspoken Margaret Gordon, a West Oakland activist, declined to comment, expressing concerns about angering her fellow commissioners.
At least one of those commissioners, however, has expressed strong reservations about the initiative. Darlene Ayers-Johnson, who was appointed by Brown in 2000 and has consistently been the most independent voice on the commission, said she opposed any plan to surrender power to Benjamin. "That's not an idea that warms my heart," she said. "I have no intention of delegating my fiduciary responsibility to anybody."
Ayers-Johnson, whose term expires in July 2008, and is one of the commissioners whom Dellums has the power to replace next year, said she was upset that Benjamin apparently consulted with several other commissioners and received their input on the new initiative before it was released late last month. Benjamin declined to identify those commissioners when asked to do so by this newspaper.
To get his plan passed, Benjamin needs the backing of Port Commission President Anthony Batarse Jr., and Commissioners Kenneth Katzoff, Mark McClure, and Patricia Scates when the proposal comes before the full board on January 15. The four Brown appointees typically vote in lock-step with each other and overwhelmingly supported Benjamin's promotion to port executive director.
In his previous job as director of the port's commercial real estate division, Benjamin crafted several controversial deals that appeared to both undervalue port assets and benefit the friends and campaign donors of Perata, the state's most powerful Democrat. For example, he assembled the 2003 deal to sell sixty-plus acres of waterfront land known as Oak to Ninth at a steeply discounted price to major Perata contributor Signature Properties. The year before, he also brokered the sale of most of Jack London Square to Perata friend and supporter Jim Falaschi and his partner Hal Ellis for less than what other developers had offered.
The proposed port restructuring also coincides with weak financial news at the port during a year of fiscal missteps. Under Benjamin's command, the port failed to produce an on-time budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year, blowing the deadline as required under the city charter by several weeks, while the 06-07 financials revealed that the agency's operating revenues had declined about 9 percent. In a presentation two weeks ago, Benjamin cited financial difficulties such as these as the major reason for why the port needed to restructure its operations.
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