My Word: Oakland must drop excuses and create a game plan

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By Courtney Ruby
Guest Commentary

VOTERS SENT a clear message on Nov. 2 -- the time for excuses is over; it’s time to get the job done. 

At least a few people in Washington must have gotten the message with the barrage of bills passed those last few weeks during this lame-duck Congress’ last few weeks. Lets hope local and state leaders figure it out just as quickly.

Even if the economy turns around, the next few years are still going to be rocky, especially for local governments.

Oakland, for example, is projecting its budget deficit to surpass more than $30 million next year and is estimating more than $50 million for 2012-2013. This doesn’t even include the city’s $40 million pension obligation for the police and fire retirement system.

Compounding municipalities’ financial woes, many Recovery Act dollars that cities have relied upon heavily ended this past Dec. 31 (like the infrastructure project program Build America Bonds).

California cities cannot look to Sacramento for a lifeline either, with the $28 billion general fund budget gap predicted by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Amid all of this bad news, we need more of President Harry Truman’s "The Buck Stops Here” mentality at all levels of government and on both sides of the aisle.

There are real obstacles we can’t avoid (both systemic and financial), but we can change. When you’re behind, it’s time for offense, not defense. 

Playing offense means embracing critiques and seeking out alternative ways to do things. It’s taking responsibility for your shortcomings and turning mistakes into stories of successful turnarounds. 

Facing its own crisis, Baltimore instituted Citistat -- a program that held every department head accountable for their results on a bi-weekly basis.  Through this innovative and buck-stops-here approach, the city of Baltimore saved $350 million in seven years. Looking at Baltimore’s undeniable achievements, what are other cities like Oakland waiting for?

Recently, my office discovered that Oakland lost track of $14 million in loans, which now must be written off. When we alerted the administration to these errors, officials offered myriad excuses to justify this bad bookkeeping.

They chose defense -- not offense.

In its response to my office’s latest audit, the administration argued that the Illegal Dumping Abatement Program wasn’t cost effective because it was never designed to be.

Even if these were prosperous times, there can be no justification for operating any city program that’s not cost effective. Again, they chose defense -- not offense.

When city officials shirk responsibility, it’s the residents who end up holding the bag -- mostly in the form of increased taxes and fees.

Passing the buck might be the oldest defensive play in the book, but all it really achieves is the erosion of the public’s confidence in government’s ability to get the job done.

A recent CNN poll found that 86 percent of respondents thought government was broken.  A silver lining to this gloomy poll?  Eighty-one percent of those same people believed that government is fixable.

A resurgence of confidence in government, however, will require our leaders to step up to the plate, take responsibility and stop making excuses. 

New administrations offer new opportunities, a chance to re-examine where the buck stops and to choose offensive strategies over defensive plays.  And it couldn’t come at a better time -- because cities, like Oakland, need a new game plan. 

Courtney Ruby is Oakland’s elected city auditor.