Posted May 17th 2010 at 9:58 am by
in Collaborative Thesis Project

Oakland, California and ARRA $: Don't Scapegoat the Mayor. Solve the Problem.

Photo by www.sfcitizen.com

In recent weeks, much has been made over California Inspector General Laura Chick’s report highlighting Oakland’s misuse of stimulus funds, and in particular, Mayor Dellums’ callous response. It is critical that we hold our public officials accountable, but in this case we should be judging Mayor Dellums more for his poor tact in acknowledging the problem and less for his administration’s ability to procure and actuate stimulus funds.

Americans have placed great optimism in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), but such optimism should not overshadow the fact that the legislation has its problems. For many cities, the stimulus is both a blessing and a curse. It provides them with the opportunity to offer a cadre of services to citizens that would have been impossible without the funds, but it forces cities to spend stimulus awards within a three-year period. While government oversight is a good thing, for cities lacking internal capacity it presents another layer of complexity, which can hinder the activation of ARRA dollars. For this reason it is important to look to history for perspective.

There is a history of misusing federal government dollars in Oakland, but it begins in the 1960s when the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) used Oakland as the pilot city for its Rebuilding Program. The program was a product of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and aimed to stimulate job growth in the nation’s declining inner cities. In that effort the EDA inefficiently spent $23 million ($130.5 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation) and failed to generate less than half of the 3,000 local jobs the program projected. Historians highlight the difficulty of holding contracting firms and agencies responsible for their actions when huge amounts of government monies are involved as the root cause of the EDA failure.

So while Oakland’s recent Stimulus transgression is certainly inexcusable, it should be noted that the City is performing markedly better than the EDA did in the 1960s with a much larger pool of money. The Inspector General’s report explains that Oakland misspent $830,000 and Mayor Dellums quickly responded (and the Inspector General affirmed) that the City is working aggressively to fix these problems. Let’s pray it does. Oakland’s stimulus website claims that it has been awarded $77 million through the Recovery Act for workforce development, training, and energy efficiency. I hope that years down the line the evidence will show that, whether Mayor Dellums was at the helm or not, Oakland truly capitalized on this recovery opportunity. With a 17% unemployment rate and an 18% poverty rate, far too much is on the line.

It is much easier to criticize a public official than it is to address the systemic problems posed by activating massive amounts of federal funding at the local level. We saw a similar set of circumstances in the 1960s, but the present situation suggests that with appropriate oversight and technical assistance, cities do not face an insurmountable problem. We would be better served by exploring ways to affect changes when these issues occur rather than scapegoat a mayor.

Post by Ben Brandin.

2 responses to “Oakland, California and ARRA $: Don't Scapegoat the Mayor. Solve the Problem.”

  1. Ben, thanks for providing this historical perspective on this news item. I think there’s a lot to be learned from the Great Society programs, not only about contracting but also about public participation. I found the book Dilemmas of Social Reform, which focuses on this topic, really interesting.

    Can you recommend some sources on this period in Oakland’s history? I’m interested to know which historians you have in mind.

  2. Ben Brandin says:

    Rob,

    Thanks for posting a question to my piece. Sorry I haven’t responded yet but it’s been a little crazy wrapping things up. I’d be happy to share the names of the couple books I found on the EDA experiment in Oakland. The books are:

    Oakland’s Not for Burning by Amory Bradford, and

    Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland by Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky