News & Notes 

Devona Walker's tighter ship, Kevin Greene's uphill climb, Jack McLaughlin's costly legacy.

The Daily Devona: A month ago, Judith Scherr quit as editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet to write a book, as reported in this space. Enter new editor in chief Devona Walker, whom the Planet imported from its sister paper in San Mateo. To put it lightly, the first month of Walker's reign hasn't been pretty. First, there was the questionable decision to run an anonymous -- and potentially libelous -- letter to the editor accusing two Copwatch leaders of overdosing on heroin. Now, 7 Days learns that Walker has abruptly canned veteran City Hall reporter John Geluardi and accepted the resignation of staff writer Hank Sims in an apparent fit of pique (careful Planet readers may have noticed their names suddenly missing from the staff box last week). Reached by phone, Geluardi confirmed his new unemployed status, though he didn't offer a lot of insight into why his new boss had it in for him. "I thought she was moving the paper in a good direction," he said. "But then there was just a sudden reversal in attitude toward me that I don't understand."

Sims, meanwhile, said he quit to avoid the same fate as Geluardi. "She told us at the beginning there was going to be open communication, that we could say what was on our minds," Sims recalled. "But when that was put into practice, she flipped." According to Sims, he and Walker clashed over (among other things) the new editor's edict for staff reporters to pen two stories a day instead of one, which he said would result in lamer, more superficial articles.

With two-thirds of her reporting staff gone, Walker is contributing plenty o' copy to the cause, including this sic-filled gem from February 18: "Another purposed (sic) of The Clearinghouse is to enable policy makers (sic) and to get a sense of the extent of the types of theft that is taking place."

Planet publisher Arnold Lee said he couldn't go into details, but did observe, "There was no sinister plan here. ... We have had staff turnover in the past; we'll have it in the future." He also noted that the Express itself has undergone a tremendous amount of turnover in the past year including the recent resignation of founder and editor John Raeside. "Why don't you guys report on that?" he asked.

An uphill climb: Kevin Greene is still upset about Barbara Lee's lone vote against the use-of-force resolution passed after September 11. And he hopes others are too.

"Will we continue to define our politics by poking the country in the eye every chance we get?" Greene asks. "Does that serve our interests? I don't think so."The Castro Valley civil engineer and lifelong Democrat is Lee's sole challenger in the March primary -- but not the first. That honor fell to Audie Bock, the Green turned Independent turned Democrat, who dropped her candidacy for the Congresswoman's seat in December after just two months, complaining that Lee was turning the race into a "smear Audie Bock" campaign. (This from the woman who started a "Dump Barbara Lee" Web site after Lee's vote, with the slogan "It's OK to love America" and a stark image of Lee's face inches from the crumbling World Trade Center towers.)Greene, a four-term member of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee who was Bock's campaign co-chairman, says not only did Lee mischaracterize the resolution as a "blank check for waging war," she's also neglected local issues.

"There's been a lot of advocacy on broad national issues, but not any focusing on taking care of business for this district," Greene says. That business includes increasing security at the port and negotiating for the turnover of the Oakland Army Base and Oak Knoll to the city. Greene also takes credit for Lee's recent stays in town.

"I've been thanked for keeping her in town instead of on her normal out-of town midwinter junkets," Greene says, a gibe based on a December Oakland Tribune article that reported Lee went on twelve fact-finding missions in 2001.

Greene, who is running a low-key, do-it-yourself crusade (the man answers the phone himself and crunches his own data on his home PC), says he won't speculate on his chances against Lee. So 7 Days will. Given that eighty percent of the district comes from Lee's home base in Oakland and Berkeley, where votes of conscience are hardly frowned upon, Greene had better invest in some mountain-climbing equipment for his uphill battle.

Although history shows that those who have voted against military action in wartime found themselves without a seat come re-election, Lee's campaign hasn't furrowed a brow over possible backlash.

"People add it all up and take a look at her record and say she's been a great representative," says Lee Halterman, Lee's campaign chairman.

About that contract, Robert: On February 16, a crowd of Oakland voters arrived at East Oakland's Acts Full Gospel Church to hear mayoral candidates Wilson Riles Jr. and Jerry Brown debate one another. But first, they were treated to a fifteen-page report on how great life is under Jerry, handed out by none other than Robert Bobb, our supposedly impartial City Manager! Just before the debate got underway, Bobb and his minions passed out a brochure breathlessly hyping all the city's big development projects in the pipeline, complete with architectural drawings and drafted precisely for this event. Such naked partisanship did not go unnoticed by publisher Jeanette Sherwin, who tipped us off to the debacle. Nor was the Wilson Riles campaign too happy about it. "I had no knowledge of it beforehand, but Robert Bobb shows up and had clearly been prepared to give a presentation about Oakland economic development," Riles says. "It was very inappropriate." Have we mentioned that Jerry Brown has postponed renewing Bobb's contract for the last three months?

Mistakes were made: By now, the financial picture at the Berkeley Unified School District has drained the blood from the face of every parent in town. In order to cut $6 million from next year's budget, neophyte Superintendent Michelle Lawrence has proposed laying off up to three hundred employees -- including a hundred teachers -- boosting high school class size to thirty-one students, eliminating an entire period from the Berkeley High schedule, and closing the City of Franklin magnet school altogether, disrupting the education of almost two hundred elementary students. The school board is scheduled to vote these cuts up or down on February 27, the day this paper hits the streets. Some people privately claim that the fiscal crisis is so dire that a state takeover is inevitable.

How did things get so bad? District representatives have a dozen different answers, but none of them are satisfactory: the recession, falling enrollment, severe organizational dysfunction, antiquated data-processing technology. No one was regularly reporting how much money was being spent, and over the course of almost ten years, almost no one on the Board of Education or within the Superintendent's office cared enough to ask if maybe this neglect should stop. The district was issuing checks to dead people, for God's sake. But when asked who is specifically responsible for such a massive oversight failure -- who should get fired, in other words -- district representatives are frustratingly vague. "Who caused it is not my concern," says Superintendent Lawrence. "I'm here to solve the problem."

Does anyone else find this completely inadequate? Someone inside district headquarters was so late in filing certain state documents that the state has fined the district $1.1 million. Who cost the Berkeley schools more than one million dollars? The superintendent's office has no idea -- and isn't trying to find out. "I don't know if pointing fingers and laying blame helps us deal with the current budget," says John Selawsky, one of the few board members willing to acknowledge the problem before it was obvious to everyone. "Honestly, I think this is systemic."

But lack of accountability is exactly the sort of practice that got the schools into this mess in the first place. And don't bother to hold accountable the people who were running the district five years ago, because they've all left for better-paying jobs. Former Superintendent Jack McLaughlin is now the state of Nevada's Superintent of Public Instruction. Former Associate Superintendent of Administrative Services Frank Brunetti is now superintendent of the Orinda school district -- and in case you were wondering, he professes complete ignorance as to how Berkeley got in this hole. We don't let Enron officials get away with wiping out the financial futures of twenty thousand people, but we are apparently perfectly willing to let someone get away with undermining the education of thousands of Berkeley kids. Can anyone say grand jury?


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