Little did the do-gooders at the Rockefeller Foundation realize it when they chose Alameda to be one of 100 “Resilient Cities” upon which to bestow a grant to hire a “Chief Resilience Officer,” but they were about to get a lesson in the cardinal principle of civic life on this island:
In Alameda, Fire Knows Best.
The Alamedan broke the news last weekend of the events leading to the withdrawal of the grant. Having read the article and the emails upon which it was based, the Merry-Go-Round saw a familiar scenario being played out – and going awry.
The Foundation folks probably thought that they’d be able to have a say in setting the terms and the timetable for turning over the funds to pay for Alameda’s CRO. After all, it was their money. But that’s not how our fire department, which sought and obtained the grant for the City, does business.
Here’s the amount we want, former IAFF Local 689 president and current Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi informed the erstwhile grantor.
Here’s the guy we’ve picked to pay it to.
And here’s when we want the payments to start.
Got that? Good. Now sign here.
Had the Chief been seeking funds from the Alameda City Council, the deal undoubtedly would have gone through without delay. Mayor Gilmore then would have hailed it as the latest achievement in the “partnership” between the Russo/Gilmore administration and the City’s public-safety employees.
Unfortunately, the Rockefeller people aren’t as well-trained as our local politicians.
In the politest of ways, the Foundation folks expressed “concern” about forking over $630,000 to Alameda to pay the salary and benefits of Chief D’Orazi’s handpicked CRO for two years. (The City of San Francisco found a qualified candidate – its former earthquake safety czar – who’d do the job for only $440,000). Likewise, they were puzzled about why Alameda’s CRO had to be a fire division chief with an ambiguous reporting relationship to the Mayor. And they were perplexed by what seemed like Alameda’s all-fired hurry to appoint its CRO before the Bay Area kick-off workshop even took place.
This behavior exasperated and annoyed Chief D’Orazi, who couldn’t understand why the Rockefeller people refused to acknowledge that, in Alameda, Fire Knows Best.
Eventually, Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen was brought in to close the deal. He made demands, then issued an ultimatum, and finally pulled the City out of the workshop. But in the end he was left to write the press release declaring the deal dead. The grant may have gone away, but the principle had been preserved.
It always is.
Back in 2009, the City retained the International City/County Management Association (“ICMA”) to prepare an “operational assessment” of the Alameda fire department. Among other things, ICMA recommended a “restructuring” that would result in fewer fire stations and leaner staffing.
No sooner had the ICMA report been posted on the City Website than IAFF Local 689 president Domenick Weaver rushed to denounce it. “For $75,000, it is my opinion that the city could have obtained a much better analysis from a consultant who is experienced with the Bay Area and California as a whole,” Weaver wrote in an op-ed. “The report paints a radical and unsubstantiated view of the fire department without ever really getting at the heart of Alameda’s response needs.”
Or, to put it another way, there’s no need to seek advice from a national consulting firm since, in Alameda, Fire Knows Best.
The same principle got applied during the two incidents for which the Alameda fire department gained notoriety in recent years: the FISC fire in 2009, in which the vacant Army Medical Center burned for 19 hours and sent asbestos debris flying around the Island, and the Raymond Zack drowning in 2011, in which firefighters (and cops) stood by on shore as a 53-year-old suicidal man died in five feet of water off Crown Beach.
West End residents later chastised Alameda firefighters for not calling for assistance from agencies with expertise in asbestos containment as the FISC fire burned. Likewise, when the former State Fire Marshal issued a report about the Zack drowning, he didn’t blame the Alameda firefighters for keeping their feet dry. But he did criticize them for failing to call for assistance sooner from the City of Oakland, which had a rescue boat capable of navigating shallow waters two-and-a-half miles away.
In both cases, the critics didn’t get it: In neither incident was there any need to enlist aid from outsiders since, in Alameda, Fire Knows Best.
The emails provided to The Alamedan about the Rockefeller Foundation grant show the latest example of the principle in action.
From the beginning, the grant was a fire department production. In September 2013, Jennifer Capitolo, a lobbyist for the City (whose relationship to one of our politicians’ favorite political consulting firms, Duffy & Capitolo, is unknown to us), alerted the fire department’s ace grant writer, Maria Raff, to the Rockefeller Foundation’s “Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge.” (If you don’t know what a “resilient city” is, don’t ask us. All we can tell you is that the Foundation was offering to provide funding to enable grantees to hire a CRO who would oversee development of a “resilience plan”).
It was hardly surprising that Chief D’Orazi and his staff jumped on the chance to go after the Rockefeller grant. The fire department has sought – with full backing from the politicians whose campaigns the firefighters’ union finances – to run the City’s emergency preparedness programs ever since the Russo/Gilmore administration took over.
First came the creation, back in December 2012, of a new position called “Disaster Preparedness Fire Captain.” This position, which will cost more than $1 million over the four-year term of the IAFF contract, brought to 21 the total number of captains in a department with 98 sworn personnel (and, not coincidently, opened up a captain’s slot to be filled from the ranks).
Next came the Emergency Operations Center. You know the story: The Russo/Gilmore administration first tried to convince voters to pay for building both a new EOC and a new fire station no. 3 through a sales tax increase (Measure C); when that failed, they got Council to authorize re-financing a municipal bond issue to pay for the EOC and to OK the concept of arranging “external financing” to pay for the new fire station. As a result, the Disaster Preparedness Fire Captain will work out of a brand-new two-story edifice – described by Planning Board member John Knox White as “this giant monolith sitting in the middle of this sea of asphalt” – that will cost taxpayers $4 million to construct.
When it comes to emergency preparednesss, it’s thus a given that, in Alameda, Fire Knows Best. After learning of the Rockefeller grant opportunity, Ms. Raff, with assistance from the Disaster Preparedness Fire Captain and Ms. Capitolo, put together a grant application, and, lo and behold, Alameda was one of 100 cities to get the nod.
The City’s press release announcing the award came as a surprise to some at City Hall, but they quickly figured out what was up. “Having no clue what a Resilience Officer is, I thought I’d give Maria a call once I saw D’Orazi’s name on this,” Human Resources Director Jill Kovacs emailed a colleague. “And sure enough, it’s their baby.”
As indeed it was.
Chief D’Orazi knew exactly how he intended to use the Rockefeller grant: give the CRO job to a fire division chief, pay his salary and benefits with the Foundation’s money, and then “backfill” the vacancy by promoting a captain to division chief, promoting a firefighter to captain, and hiring a new “temporary” firefighter.
He also knew exactly who he wanted to fill the CRO slot: Fire Division Chief Ricci Zombeck, who had served a term as IAFF Local 689 treasurer and who was the senior officer at the scene of both the FISC fire and the Zack drowning. (Chief Zombeck gave what was perhaps the most widely repeated quote about the latter incident. Asked by a television news reporter whether he would enter the water to save a drowning child, Chief Zombeck replied: “Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do.”)
And Chief D’Orazi knew exactly when he wanted the money. The Chief intended to “backfill” using the existing captain’s promotion list – which happened to include IAFF Local 689 political director Jeff DelBono – but the list was set to expire at the end of February. The CRO needed to be in place, and getting paid with Rockefeller money, before then. (As it turned out, the Chief promoted Mr. DelBono and another firefighter to captain at the end of January anyway after he found out that the promotion list really was expiring at the end of that month).
For their part, the politicians promptly pitched in to help the Chief carry out his plans.
In mid-January, Mayor Gilmore joined Chief D’Orazi in an introductory meeting with the Rockefeller Foundation’s “relationship manager” for the Alameda grant, Amy Armstrong. Beforehand, the Chief advised the Mayor to make sure to “express your support for our desire to make this the equivalent of a Division Chief position.” A few days later, Council passed without discussion a resolution authorizing the City Manager to negotiate a grant agreement with the Foundation and to implement the Chief’s promote-and-“backfill” plan.
With that formality taken care of, Ms. Raff sent the Rockefeller people a draft grant agreement on February 6 obligating them to pay the City $280,000 per year for two years to cover the CRO’s salary. (This actually was less than Chief Zombeck’s compensation package as a Division Chief. Of the $647,171 in salary and benefits to which Chief Zombeck was entitled under the Alameda Fire Chiefs Association contract, less than half represented base salary. The rest consisted of “special pay” and City-paid health and retirement benefits).
“We are prepared to sign the grant agreement as is,” Ms. Raff wrote to Ms. Armstrong, “and the Mayor is ready to assign the CRO position immediately.” Chief D’Orazi chimed in with a message of his own: “I wanted to let you know that I plan on moving forward with the CRO assignment immediately. There are many reasons for doing so, most of which have to do with the need to fill open positions created by the CRO assignment.”
And then the wrangling began. “Wonderful to hear the energy and excitement on your end,” Ms. Armstrong replied to the Chief, but “I need to remind you of the process necessary for 100 RC to proceed with a grant to the City,” which included such items as submitting a job description and candidate resumes for Foundation approval. A few days later, Ms. Armstrong’s boss informed the Chief that his recent message “seems to indicate that there is a reason to act with haste. We don’t believe this is the case.”
The dispute soon ratcheted up a notch, with Mr. Nguyen taking point for the City. You can read the details of the denouement in The Alamedan. In a nutshell, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, Mr. Nguyen told the Rockefeller people to take it or leave it: Fund the CRO position on our terms – remember, in Alameda, Fire Knows Best – or move on without us. They chose the latter.
The emails reveal one tidbit The Alamedan left out. Michael Berkowitz, a Rockefeller Foundation managing director and president of the Resilient Cities organization, offered to hold off on kicking Alameda out of the program until he had met the City’s designated CRO, Chief Zombeck, face to face. The two men in fact did meet. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Berkowitz pulled the plug.
Experienced in embellishing the Russo/Gilmore administration’s accomplishments, Mr. Nguyen faced the task of putting the best spin on the story. His first draft of the press release quoted Chief D’Orazi as saying, “There is a silver lining,” and he asked the Chief to elaborate. Back came the insert: “The Rockefeller initiative was designed primarily for large cities. This set-back will not deter our commitment to community resilience planning. We will collaboratively build a resilience strategy that makes sense for Alameda.”
Or, to put it another way, in the future we’ll do it our way, since, in Alameda, Fire Knows Best.
Whatever Chief D’Orazi decides to do next, it won’t be what the Rockefeller Foundation had in mind. After Mr. Nguyen issued the press release, a citizen asked whether the fire department still planned to hire a Chief Resilience Officer. Mr. Nguyen’s one-word reply: No.
The last word goes to Chief D’Orazi, who apparently remained on the Foundation’s email list even after the deal cratered. He thus received the announcement from Mr. Berkowitz hailing San Francisco for appointing “the world’s first Chief Reliance Officer.”
The Chief had only one comment to make when he forwarded the announcement to Ms. Raff: “He, Berkowitz, what an a…..e!”
Emails: Combined selected emails
ICMA report: ICMA Report
Weaver response to ICMA report: 2009-05-28 Weaver op-ed re ICMA report
ABC7 News report on Zack drowning: ABC News story on Zack drowning
Zack drowning report: ABC News story on Zack drowning
Staff report on IAFF MOU: 2012-12-11 staff memo re IAFF MOU