Not So Pressing After All 

Minority contracting study once expected to embarrass Brown administration is now not such a high priority.

The City of Oakland has shelled out nearly $300,000 for a controversial minority-contracting study that has yet to produce results and is now more than one year overdue. The study, which the City Council approved two years ago, was designed to be a comprehensive look at whether local contractors were shafted by the Jerry Brown administration.

Mason Tillman Associates, the authors of the study, were supposed to complete it by February 24, 2006, according to the contract signed with the city. But Mason Tillman, led by influential black businesswoman Eleanor Ramsey, has repeatedly blown its deadlines.

Even so, the city has continued to cut checks to Mason Tillman — to the tune of $283,474 so far. Once the study is finally done, the contract allows Mason Tillman to collect up to $550,000.

"The study is long overdue, obviously," said City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who attempted unsuccessfully two years ago to limit the study's scope. "Here we are in March 2007, and it's still not done."

The council originally commissioned the study in March 2005 at the request of black business leaders, along with council members Desley Brooks and Nancy Nadel. At the time, the study's backers expressed a sense of urgency.

The city chose Mason Tillman in part because it had conducted numerous similar studies before, including one for Oakland in the mid-1990s and for Alameda County more recently. The thought was that Mason Tillman could finish the study quickly because it maintains a vast database of East Bay minority firms.

But some observers believe the study was politically motivated. The planned completion date coincided with the beginning of last year's heated mayoral campaign. If the study showed that local minority companies were not getting their fair share of city contracts, De La Fuente's mayoral bid would have been damaged, because he was one of Brown's closest political allies.

But after Ron Dellums jumped into the mayoral race, the study disappeared from the radar. The ex-congressman was drafted by many of the same people who pushed for the study in the first place. And the popular black progressive didn't need a contracting study to trounce De La Fuente in June 2006.

Deborah Lusk-Barnes, who works for City Administrator Deborah Edgerly and is in charge of overseeing Mason Tillman's performance, acknowledged that the study has taken longer than anticipated. "I know the city council wanted to have this done as quickly as possible," she said. But she said the study has been delayed because Mason Tillman needed to contact every possible minority contractor: "They've done an extraordinary amount of business outreach."

Eleanor Ramsey did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

For her part, Councilwoman Brooks, a Dellums supporter, said she never wanted the study expedited, and expressed surprise when Full Disclosure told her the contract specified that Mason Tillman finish its work more than a year ago. She said she knew from the beginning that the study would take a long time.

Lusk-Barnes said Mason Tillman should finally complete the study's first phase by the end of April. It should be interesting to find out if Brown's administration really did shut out minority firms, as some have alleged. But if true, the study's impact has been blunted by its timing. Brown has moved on to higher office, and the new mayor is committed to running an "inclusive" administration.

But what if Mason Tillman finds that Brown did nothing wrong? Then you'd have to wonder if the study's results were purposely delayed so as to not exonerate De La Fuente in the middle of a campaign and thereby hurt Dellums' chances.

Tell It to the Judge

By long tradition, government agencies must tell us exactly how they spend our money. But try telling that to Alameda County, which recently decided that the names and salaries of all public employees are off limits. What makes its decision particularly galling is that the county agreed to a different view of the law nearly two years ago.

It all started in February, when Full Disclosure filed a series of routine public records requests with local government agencies, asking for the names, titles, and pay of employees who made more than $100,000 last year. The cities of Oakland and Berkeley responded quickly and fully, as did Contra Costa County. But not Alameda County. Instead, county officials dispatched Assistant County Counsel Donna Ziegler to write a two-page letter explaining why this basic public information is actually private. The county, she wrote, would release only the titles and pay — not the names.

Ziegler said that the agreement the county signed June 15, 2005 to disclose both names and pay was no longer valid. That agreement came in response to litigation between The Contra Costa Times and the county over the very same information Full Disclosure requested. Ziegler maintained that the agreement no longer applies because a similar lawsuit involving the Times and the City of Oakland is now in front of state Supreme Court.

The City of Oakland, which is involved in this litigation, has decided to continue to release this information while waiting for the Supreme Court. But the county, which is not, has decided the opposite.

So I guess we'll have to wait to find out the name of the county sheriff's sergeant who made $263,305 last year — including $160,529 in overtime. It makes you wonder whether he or she is related to a top county official.

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