Last week we entered week five of cellphone gate.

I'm talking about the hubbub over Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's June 8 car accident and questions swirling around whether Quan, who was driving a city-issued Lexus SUV, was talking on her cellphone without a headset when the collision occurred. That of course would be breaking the law.

Quan has repeatedly said that she was not talking or texting. Lakisha Lovely, the other driver, says the mayor is not telling the truth. According to her, Quan was talking on her cellphone and ran a red light, causing the crash. Four months earlier, Quan had been convicted in traffic court of running a red light in Newark. According to DMV records, Lovely had a clean driving record at the time of the collision.

In case you missed a few episodes of "As Oakland Turns," the crash happened one week after KRON 4 television had a field day running photos showing Quan driving and talking on her cell without a headpiece. Friday before last, the Oakland Police Department issued a statement saying investigators had ruled out cellphone use by either driver in the June 8 collision -- which would have substantiated Quan's account. The problem is the report by traffic investigator Glenn Hara said the exact opposite: He was "unable" to determine whether Quan was on her phone. On Tuesday, OPD issued a retraction. The police spokesman, we are told, accidentally provided information from the initial report by the police officer who went to the crash scene, rather than from the more in-depth follow from the actual traffic investigator.


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Was this a sloppy, but honest mistake? Or some inept attempt at an official cover-up as some people believe? The plot thickens.

The police can't pinpoint the time of the collision. According to investigators, witnesses gave conflicting testimony about what happened and who was at fault.

So, why has a minor fender bender with no major injuries generated headlines and TV coverage for so long?

As far as "scandals" go, this is pretty small potatoes. We're not talking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine and eating mushrooms. Or former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin caught accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Or God help us, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the poster child for runaway municipal corruption.

Aren't there more pressing issues to be talking about in Oakland with less than four months to go until Election Day?

The traffic collision taps into Quan's Achilles' heel. The incumbent, who is running for a second term, has a history of giving incomplete, misleading or just plain wrong information to the public that has called her credibility into question on a number of occasions. After her traffic accident Quan said she did not believe she had run a red light. Most of us know when we hit the intersection whether the light is green, yellow or breaking red. Unless we are distracted by, a cellphone, say, which the mayor says she wasn't. When KRON 4 aired footage of Quan driving and talking on her cell she said she would do her best to remember to use a hands-free device in the future. Then she accused reporters of following her. Yep, it was definitely the paparazzi's fault.

"She started to parse her language which raised more questions than she needed to," says Corey Cook, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco. "It's the standard critique of her since she has been elected. She doesn't accept responsibility."

Remember the incorrect crime data that Mayor Quan put out when she unveiled her "100-block" crime plan? As it turned out the killings were far more dispersed than she had indicated. Or when Oakland police forcibly removed Occupy Oakland protesters from City Hall plaza? Quan said that she had been out of town and had not been involved in making the controversial decision. How about the mayor's erroneous claim during a radio interview that the crown prince of Dubai was going to help develop the city's proposed "Coliseum City" entertainment complex?

"She has not been able to put forward a message of competence," says David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, who follows Oakland politics.

Yet, despite the public relations disasters, I wouldn't bet against Mayor Quan's odds of getting re-elected.



Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.