Jean Quan Needs to Learn the Words "I Don't Know"

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Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has received a considerable amount of bad press since taking office, and a substantial part of it has been self-inflicted. The most recent example is the San Francisco Chronicle story last week that revealed that Quan had made an inaccurate statement to the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, concerning Oakland’s badly backlogged police crime lab. Quan told grand jurors that the FBI was helping clear the backlog when it was not. And her incorrect statement reflects what has become a troublesome pattern for the mayor — asserting something publicly when she clearly doesn’t know for sure whether what she is saying is true.

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Quan may have gotten away with such conduct as a member of the city council and the school board, but as mayor of a high-profile city, her words and actions are under much greater scrutiny. As such, the mayor needs to be much more careful with what she says. She cannot afford to inflict damage on herself — and by extension, her office and the city — by making statements that can easily be proven incorrect, such as the FBI-crime lab issue.

Many politicians are afraid of looking ignorant, but leaders should be even more wary about saying something that isn’t true. For Quan, that means double or triple checking the accuracy of statements told to her before repeating them.

A recent example was the mini-scandal over her repeated misstatements about how much violent crime occurs within the one hundred blocks the city has been focusing on. The mayor said she was given bad information, but also said she’s responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the statements she makes.

She’s right about that. She also should not be afraid to say: “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know when I know for sure.”

Yes, she will probably be criticized by some for not knowing the answer to particular questions. But voters are smart, and not many of them are going to expect a mayor of a city with as many problems as Oakland has to know the inner-workings of the police department’s crime lab. They will care, however, if their mayor claims to know something when she doesn’t.

By itself, the crime-lab misstatement is not that consequential. It doesn’t really matter whether Quan knows what’s happening in the lab or not. She’s better off delegating those kinds of issues — in this case, to Police Chief Howard Jordan and his direct supervisor City Administrator Deanna Santana. But by making another inaccurate statement, Quan transformed the news cycle from being a question about what to do about the crime lab’s problems to being about her again saying something that isn’t true.

There is little doubt that Quan is a hard-working mayor and that she deeply cares about Oakland. She’s also made some smart moves since taking over for Ron Dellums. But if she continues to make inaccurate statements, it will come to define her tenure as mayor, and she almost assuredly will only serve one term in office.

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