Wassup with Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft?
The Russo/Gilmore administration and the Alameda firefighters’ union usually can count on Ms. Ashcraft as one of their most reliable supporters. Indeed, a quick check of the minutes shows that, in her first 18 months on Council, Ms. Ashcraft voted the same way as the Mayor and her IAFF Local 689 slate-mate, Councilwoman Lena Tam, on every significant issue.
But, during the last two meetings before the August recess, Ms. Ashcraft broke ranks not just once, but twice, to dissent from the party line. In addition, Ms. Ashcraft actually questioned the deputy fire chief – politely, of course – about the budgetary impact of the department’s latest proposal to expand its empire.
If this trend continues, there may be cause for concern at City Hall and union headquarters: Councilman Tony Daysog marches to his own drummer, and even a smear campaign may not keep former Councilman Frank Matarrese from defeating one of the two union-endorsed candidates for a Council seat this November. Even though Mayor Gilmore and Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C. can be expected to continue to toe the line, it takes three votes to pass legislation. So an independent-minded Ms. Ashcraft could put the administration/union agenda at risk.
The Vice Mayor showed her first spark of independence when Council considered a “companion measure” to the initiative to re-zone 3.89 acres of land at Crab Cove from residential to open space. As originally drafted, the ordinance set forth two options – raising taxes or selling the property – for paying the costs of any suit filed to challenge the initiative. On July 1, Ms. Ashcraft joined her colleagues in adding a third option suggested by Councilman Daysog – cutting other City services or modifying the general fund budget – to the list.
But then, sometime between July 1 and July 15, Mayor Gilmore and Councilwoman Tam apparently concluded that the Daysog amendment sent the wrong message. Its language was broad enough to cover cuts to fire department programs – goodbye Basic Life Support – or modifications to the fire department’s budget – hello downsized Emergency Operations Center. But suggesting that Council might put parks ahead of perks wouldn’t sit well with IAFF Local 689. So the Daysog amendment had to go. It was a matter, Councilwoman Tam proclaimed, of reassuring the “community” of “what our priorities are.”
The Vice Mayor either wasn’t privy to the strategy or didn’t appreciate its purpose. When the Mayor put forth her recommendation to delete the Daysog amendment, Ms. Ashcraft appeared nonplused. As she explained, she understood that the companion measure was intended to ensure payment of litigation costs “without decimating our budget,” and, for that reason, it identified three distinct options. “I think we need to consider that we need to rely on all three of those possibilities,” Ms. Ashcraft said, “and I thought that was why we included them all.”
The Vice Mayor remained unconvinced even after the Mayor and Councilwoman Tam, despite having voted for the Daysog amendment two weeks before, persisted with their efforts to get rid of it. “I am still concerned that we, as a city, leave ourselves as many options as possible to pay for litigation costs if it should come to that,” Ms. Ashcraft said. If a tax increase or a property sale were the only ways to pay for litigation costs, “how then do we reconcile that with creating the open space that people want?”
Confessing she was “conflicted,” Ms. Ashcraft ended up voting against deleting the Daysog amendment (as, of course, did Mr. Daysog). Councilman Chen, the guest of honor at a recent fundraising luau and barbeque put on by the firefighters’ and teachers’ unions, needed no persuasion to go along with the Mayor’s plan. He provided the third vote to consign the offensive amendment to the trash bin.
Two weeks later, when the companion measure came up on the consent calendar for final passage, Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Daysog again cast “No” votes. But the Vice Mayor wasn’t done for the night.
The last item on the agenda involved the fire department’s latest proposal to expand beyond fire protection services and to add sworn personnel to its roster accordingly. Deputy fire chief Doug Long proudly announced that the AFD had been selected to participate in an Alameda County “pilot program” to “assist” frequent callers to 911 in “accessing primary care and social services” and to “provide follow-up care” for recently discharged hospital patients.
An Emergency Medical Services division chief – could the slot be reserved for IAFF Local 689 president and veteran paramedic Jeff DelBono, who was recently promoted to captain? – and two paramedics would be needed to staff the program. At least for the first year, the County would pick up their salaries and benefits. But, according to the staff report, assigning three current firefighters to new tasks would necessitate a “temporary backfill through the ranks, including the hiring of three ‘limited term’ Firefighters.”
(Regular readers will recall that, had the City not been kicked out of the Rockefeller Foundation’s “resilient cities” program, the fire department likewise proposed to “backfill” by promoting a captain to division chief, promoting a firefighter to captain, and hiring a new “limited term” firefighter).
No one could doubt the nobility of the project’s goals. But it wasn’t obvious why the fire department should fill this role. What does “assisting” frequent 911 callers and caring for discharged hospital patients have to do with preventing and putting out fires? In addition, the “pilot program” was scheduled to last only two years. What would be the impact on the City budget once the County grant money ran out?
Surprisingly – to us – these questions were on the Vice Mayor’s mind, too. Like everyone else on the dais, she was quick to praise the proposal. (Especially effusive were – can you guess? – Councilwoman Tam, who called it “ideal,” and Mayor Gilmore, who described it as a “tribute” to the fire department).
But, unlike the others, Ms. Ashcraft didn’t stop there. “What happens after the two-year pilot program ends?” she asked Chief Long. “How will we fund those new hires that you’re bringing in to backfill some of the positions? And what if Alameda Fire Department decides this is a service they want to continue – where does the funding for that come from?”
Unfortunately, Ms. Ashcraft may be a lawyer but she’s no litigator, and she allowed Chief Long to wiggle off the hook without giving her a definitive answer. (In this regard, the Vice Mayor ought to consider taking lessons from Councilman Chen, a chiropractor by trade, who at the July 15 meeting tenaciously cross-examined City Attorney Janet Kern until she answered his question).
Indeed, even though the “pilot program” was “perhaps beyond the scope of what we think of as providing emergency services,” the Vice Mayor appeared apologetic about even raising an issue about it. “So it’s not that I’m against this,” she assured Chief Long (and Captain DelBono, who was present to monitor the discussion). “I just want to keep a close eye on where the funding will come from, but perhaps that’s information that will be developed.”
Restrained though Ms. Ashcraft might have been, any inquiry about the budgetary impact of a fire-department-promoted program is unusual for a Russo/Gilmore team member. In Alameda, Fire Knows Best. Equally extraordinary is challenging the manner in which the City Manager is running the development process for Alameda Point. Yet Ms. Ashcraft also ventured into that forbidden territory at the July 29 meeting.
On the agenda was staff’s recommendation for the City to enter into Exclusive Negotiating Agreements with an outfit called “Alameda United Commercial LLC” for development of two parcels at Alameda Point: the former Bachelor Enlisted Quarters and 5.5 acres of taxiways north of the Seaplane Lagoon. If the ENAs ripened into Disposition and Development Agreements, these would be the first new projects to be built at the former Naval Air Station.
As we previously have pointed out, the staff report contained scant information about either the developer or its proposals. It said nothing about the track record or financial resources of AUC or its “designer/developer team” partner, an architect named Sal Caruso. (In fact, as Ms. Ashcraft noted at the meeting, the only information the public had about the AUC team’s background came from investigative reporting done by Michele Ellson for The Alamedan). Nor did the staff report offer any details about the specific projects being proposed for the two parcels other than that the BEQ would be used for a “combination” of senior living, student housing, and office space and that 200 condominiums and two hotels with 250 rooms would be built on the taxiways.
At the July 29 meeting, the presentation by Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott added no new information. When Ms. Ott offered to bring the development team to the podium to answer inquiries from Council, only Ms. Ashcraft was prepared with a list of questions. Mr. Caruso performed, well, like a well-coached deposition witness. What was the name of that senior living project in San Jose you say you “paired” with a nearby school? I don’t recall – it’s been several years. What’s your experience with redevelopment at former military bases? None, really – but let me tell you about all of the historic buildings I’ve worked on.
Neither Council nor the public ended up knowing much more than they had at the beginning. But none of those on the dais – with one exception – regarded the paucity of information as a problem. After all, the AUC team would fill out a “Statement of Qualifications” and give it to staff. Staff would review it, and if Mr. Russo didn’t like what he saw, he could pull the plug – unilaterally. If the developer met his standards, he would proceed to negotiate some sort of deal for some sort of project with AUC, and when and if he got an agreement, the public would be permitted to take a look. “I don’t understand why we’re not jumping into this,” opined Councilman Chen.
The exception was Vice Mayor Ashcraft. Since this was the first ENA presented to Council, “we’re setting a standard for everything that goes forward from here,” she noted. “I am concerned because going into this item and the staff report we really have very little information on the development team, the individuals, what they’ve done together.” Her concern was heightened, she said, by the nature of the ENA process, which (unlike a request for qualifications) did not allow for competing proposals. “[I]f we’re going to do these sorts of proposals with no competition, I want it to be something that comes to us with a little more flesh on the bones from the beginning.”
Ever the diplomat, Ms. Ashcraft expressed sympathy for the “herculean task” Mr. Russo and his staff had given themselves to vet the developer and its proposals on their own (and confidence in their ability to perform it). Even so, she concluded, “I just don’t feel like I’ve seen enough” – and she voted against entering into ENAs for either project. Mr. Daysog joined her in opposing an ENA for the taxiways, but the Gilmore-Tam-Chen triumvirate once again stuck together.
As it happens, this was not the first time that Ms. Ashcraft had tangled with Mr. Russo over the process for managing development at Alameda Point. Back in April, she chastised staff for failing to explain in a staff report why they had assigned only 800 housing units to the Town Center without approval from the Planning Board. This “concerns me on a number of levels,” Ms. Ashcraft said, “one of which is open government.”
Talk about waving a red flag in front of a bull! After Ms. Ashcraft finished, Mr. Russo jumped in: “Madam Vice Mayor, I’m confident that you didn’t mean to insinuate that staff was acting with a lack of transparency,” he declared. “This staff is completely devoted to transparency and always has been.” Ms. Ashcraft then made the mistake of pushing back, and Mr. Russo became the Brooklyn bully. “I have to tell you, what you just said before is offensive to me as the leader of this administration. You can’t say things like that unless you mean them.”
Taken aback, Ms. Ashcraft tried to be conciliatory. “I wasn’t intending to insult the City Manager,” she began, only to be interrupted by Mr. Russo: “You didn’t insult the City Manager. It’s the entire staff, Madam.”
Having taken care to sugarcoat her remarks on July 29, Ms. Ashcraft did not provoke the City Manager’s ire again. Still, it was remarkable, in light of what had happened four months before, that she chose to speak against his recommendation at all.
Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the Vice Mayor’s recent conduct. It may be that Ms. Ashcraft was just feeling feisty during the last two meetings before the August recess or that she was simply venting. Maybe, come fall, she’ll return to the fold refreshed and ready to play ball.
But if her recent actions in fact signal a nascent independent streak, the Russo/Gilmore administration and its friends at the firehouses might start to worry. It’ll now be more important than ever to ensure that Councilman Chen gets reelected and that true-blue political factotum Jim Oddie rather than Mr. Matarrese fills the seat being vacated by Ms. Tam. At least those two can be trusted to stick to the script.
Amended “companion measure”: 2014-07-15 companion ordinance
Paramedic “pilot program”: 2014-07-29 staff report re paramedic program