Well, a lot sure got accomplished Tuesday night when Council considered the so-called “fiscal responsibility” ordinance proposed as a way to “protect the General Fund” in the event of a suit challenging the Crab Cove open-space initiative.
Remember the amendments added after midnight at the July 1 Council meeting?
One, authored by City Attorney Janet Kern, would authorize Council to “suspend or stay” the open-space initiative if someone sued. The other, offered by Councilman Tony Daysog, would add “cut[ting] services” or “modif[ying] the budget” to the list of options for paying an adverse judgment.
Two weeks ago, Council passed both amendments, by a 4-1 vote. Tuesday night, Council deleted them both, this time by a 3-2 vote.
So we’re now back to the text of the ordinance as originally written and published (with a few minor editorial corrections). But since Council did not pass the version of the ordinance approved at the July 1 meeting, there will need to be a third reading on July 29.
What went on here?
The “suspend or stay” amendment was a goner from the outset. Even its proponent, Ms. Kern, was unclear about what it was supposed to do. When she introduced the amendment on July 1, Ms. Kern described it as “not really substantive, it’s just more clarifying.” Later in the same meeting, she changed her position and contended that the suspend-or-stay provision “does actually enhance what the City Council’s authority would be.” But then Tuesday, pressed by Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C., she reversed herself again and conceded the provision was not really necessary after all because Council could suspend or stay the initiative without a specific ordinance authorizing it to do so.
If not even the author can make up her mind about the purpose or effect of the suspend-or-stay amendment, what’s the point of including it in the companion ordinance at all?
Ms. Kern was no more convincing when she made a half-hearted attempt to defend the legality of her proposal. Elections Code section 9217 expressly prohibits a legislative body from “amending or repealing” a voter initiative (or an ordinance adopted pursuant thereto). But the “fiscal responsibility” ordinance was only a “companion” measure “consistent” with the open-space initiative, Ms. Kern insisted. Why, the ordinance said so itself! Ipse dixit, we guess.
In any event, the City Attorney went on, the suspend-or-stay provision was “contingent” on the City being sued. (Which was equally true of the companion measure as a whole). So, if we understood her argument, the action authorized by the amendment wouldn’t be illegal until Council actually took it. Feel more comfortable?
The Daysog amendment wasn’t expected to raise any serious objections. Unlike the Kern amendment, it didn’t purport to give Council any authority it didn’t already have. As it turned out, that wasn’t the problem. It was that the amendment sent the wrong message.
The first clue that something was up occurred when Councilwoman Lena Tam, an unabashed advocate for the public safety unions, pulled two items from the consent calendar. Both these items authorized buying equipment for the police and fire departments, including $235,000 for six cop cars and a motorcycle; $673,799 for a new fire engine, and $74,000 for two new fire department “staff vehicles” – a truck and a “police interceptor utility vehicle.”
Ms. Tam wasn’t complaining about spending nearly a million bucks for the cops and firefighters. Her point, she said, was to “highlight our priorities for the General Fund.” Reading from a prepared text, Ms. Tam said that buying new cars, trucks, and engines for the police and fire departments “reflects the highest priority of the City to provide the training and the equipment necessary to keep our public safety officers safe.”
Mayor Gilmore then picked up the ball when it came time to discuss the companion measure. She introduced the item by proposing that the Council strike the Daysog amendment altogether. “As Council member Tam so eloquently stated,” Ms. Gilmore said, “the City Council, in setting the budget and appropriating money throughout the year, has different priorities, and probably the number one priority of the Council is the health, safety, and well-being of the citizens.” It just wouldn’t do to pass an ordinance that recognized the possibility of “cuts” or “modifications” to the police and fire department budgets.
And that, we suspect, was the message Ms. Gilmore and Ms. Tam intended to send – not so much to mollify the public, but to reassure their friends at IAFF Local 689 and its PAC-less cousin, the Alameda Police Officers Association, that the Council members elected with union money understood what their priorities should be. Not to worry, they were saying: If the City has to pay for a lawsuit, we’re not going to bite the hand that feeds us.
As the author of the amendment – and the only Council member not endorsed by the firefighters’ union in his last race – Councilman Daysog wasn’t persuaded. Surprisingly, neither was Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. Cutting services was only one of three options listed in the amended “fiscal responsibility” ordinance for paying an adverse judgment (the other two were raising taxes or selling the property). “We may need to rely on all three of those possibilities,” the Vice Mayor said. “I thought that’s why we included them all.”
When it came time to vote, Ms. Ashcraft joined Mr. Daysog in opposition. Councilman Chen, the guest of honor at a recent luau and barbeque sponsored by the firefighters’ and teachers’ unions at IAFF Local 689 headquarters, cast the deciding vote.
Alamedans, consider yourself informed – or maybe the better word is forewarned.
We can’t leave our account of Tuesday’s meeting without commenting on one other issue: the aggressive, indeed overtly hostile, approach taken by the Mayor and City Manager toward the members of the public who spoke against the “fiscal responsibility” ordinance.
Ordinarily, at Council meetings Ms. Gilmore strictly prohibits any dialog between public speakers and those on the dais. You get your three minutes, but when the buzzer sounds, you must sit down. No requests for explanations directed to staff. And, most assuredly, no back-and-forth with Council members themselves.
But the Mayor and Mr. Russo demonstrated Tuesday that, as far as they’re concerned, this is a one-way street.
The first three speakers – one of whom, to the Merry-Go-Round’s personal knowledge, could have gone toe-to-toe with Ms. Gilmore and Mr. Russo on any legal issue – got a pass. Next up was Irene Dieter, a long-time advocate for parks and one of the Friends of Crown Beach responsible for qualifying the initiative for the November ballot.
Tweeting from Council chambers, Michele Ellson of The Alamedan, an objective observer if ever there was one, provided the play-by-play:
“Both mayor and Russo are engaging Dieter over her comments, which is unusual – typically don’t engage public from the dais,” Ms. Ellson reported. A minute later: “May be fair to say this is a measure of what a highly charged issue this is at City Hall.”
Then, after finally letting Ms. Dieter off the stand – er, away from the podium, Ms. Gilmore and Mr. Russo trained their fire on the next speaker, former City Councilwoman Karin Lucas, another leader of the Friends of Crown Beach.
“Again, it is super unusual for folks to engage speakers from the dais,’ Ms. Ellson tweeted. “This is turning into a bit of a food fight.”
Finally, as the attack from the dais continued, Ms. Ellson commented, “This is getting reaallly ugly.”
And so it was.
The Mayor, in particular, did not distinguish herself.
First, she asked Ms. Dieter, a non-lawyer, “Aren’t you the same person who stood up here and told us it was unlikely the City would ever get sued?” (She wasn’t).
Later, she asked Ms. Dieter to address an absurd scenario under which, after the open-space initiative took effect, the federal government would give a 99-year lease to a developer whom it would “convince” to “build houses, build a hotel, build whatever” on the property. (She couldn’t – neither could we).
And when it was Ms. Lucas’s turn, Ms. Gilmore demanded to know, “So you would be OK with the taxpayers paying for this piece of property twice?” (Ms. Lucas never said or implied that. In fact, open-space supporters were arguing that the Measure WW funds already set aside for purchase of the Crab Cove parcel could be used to reduce the amount of City funds, if any, needed to compensate the property owner in the event of a inverse condemnation award).
To us, nothing justified the diss dished out from the dais. Neither Ms. Dieter – whom we know well – nor Ms. Lucas – whom we know slightly – came to the podium dripping venom. But they committed what, for this Mayor and this City Manager, may have been a cardinal sin: They suggested that the politicians had made a mistake when they voted to re-zone the Crab Cove property to residential back in July 2012. Even worse, they suggested that those same politicians had refused to concede or correct their mistake.
No politician, of course, enjoys owning up to a misjudgment. But many elected officials – even George W. Bush – profess their perfection with a wink and a smile. Not the Russo/Gilmore administration. To the Mayor and City Manager, it’s an article of faith. Admit we were wrong? How dare you! It’s almost as bad as if Ms. Dieter or Ms. Lucas had accused them of being Republicans.
Now that the open-space initiative itself is on the books, we’d like to think this is the last column we’ll be writing on this subject. But we’re going to tune in anyway when the companion ordinance gets its third reading on the 29th. Who knows what message the Mayor, Mr. Russo, or their allies will want to send next?
“Fiscal responsibility” ordinance, v.1: 2014-07-01 Ex. 1 to staff report – Fiscal Responsibility Measure
“Fiscal responsibility” ordinance, v.2: 2014-07-15 companion ordinance
The video of Tuesday’s Council meeting is available on the City’s Website.