So what has Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C., accomplished during the 18 or so months since he squeaked onto Council as the third highest vote-getter in November 2012?
If you look at the list of achievements the Councilman has posted on his website, you might say: Quite a lot.
But if you look at the list a little closer, you’ll be forced to conclude: Not as much as he wants you to think.
At the Merry-Go-Round, we’re long-time fans of columns like The Fact Checker published by the Washington Post and PolitiFact.com run by the Tampa Bay Tribune. Both specialize in scrutinizing statements by politicians to determine how far the speaker has strayed from the facts.
We decided to apply similar scrutiny to the claims about his achievements made by Dr. Chen on his website – with one caveat: As a Councilman, Dr. Chen cannot make policy on his own. So we decided to cut him some slack in cases where his primary role was simply to vote in favor of somebody else’s idea.
The Post’s Fact Checker awards “Pinocchios” based on the outrageousness of the politician’s statement (from one Pinocchio for “some shading of the facts” to four Pinocchios for “whoppers”). We decided to award fire chief hats instead. If Dr. Chen only slightly exaggerated either the achievement or his responsibility for it, he gets one hat. But if the record shows that Dr. Chen is taking bows he doesn’t deserve, he gets all four.
The result? Let’s put it this way: The good doctor better find room in his closet for a lot of new headgear.
On the website, Dr. Chen proclaims that, “together, we were able to make some significant achievements during my tenure.” He then lists nine items, and we’ll take them one by one.
(1) “earning an AA+ credit rating for the first time in our city’s history – this can potentially save our city millions in current and future bond fees”
Standard & Poor’s did indeed bump the rating on the City’s general obligation bonds up a notch from AA to AA+ in September 2013, but nothing done by Councilman Chen, any other Council member, or even City staff prompted this action. In addition, he wildly overstates its significance.
As we’ve previously reported, the Alameda bond upgrade resulted from S&P’s decision to change the criteria it used to rate municipal G.O. bonds, not from any re-assessment of the City’s creditworthiness after the Russo/Gilmore administration took over or Dr. Chen was elected. At the same time it added the plus sign to Alameda’s G.O. bond rating, S&P estimated that, as a result of the change in methodology, about 30% of rated municipal debt – i.e., about 1,200 issues – would get an upgrade. Alameda was no special case.
Moreover, although it is generally true that the higher the rating on a bond, the lower the interest rate it must pay, the financial experts we consulted told us that the difference between AA and AA+ is “immaterial” to a bond offering. The yield “spread” between municipal G.O. bonds rated AA+ and those rated AA is about 5 basis points, which means that, for a $10 million fixed-rate issue, the annual interest “saved” by the higher rating amounts to $5,000.
Councilman Chen thus is simply wrong when he suggests that the ratings change could save “millions in current and future bond fees” (by which we assume he means interest). Although he isn’t the only politician who’s made a spurious claim about the rating upgrade, he’s the one who included it in his campaign materials, so he has to take a full hit.
(2) “successfully renegotiating employee pension contributions and post employment benefits with our labor unions and maintaining labor peace”
In fact, the City has not “successfully renegotiat[ed] employee pension contributions and post employment benefits with our labor unions” since Dr. Chen was elected to Council. Indeed, the only bargaining unit with whom the City has entered into a new contract during that period is the Electric Utility Professionals of Alameda. Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam told us that this contract, which was approved in May 2014, simply adopted the previous contract with the Alameda Management and Confidential Employees Association; no new provisions were added.
Nor can Councilman Chen be referring to the fire and police union contracts approved by Council before he was sworn in. (Although not yet a sitting Councilman, Dr. Chen showed up at the December 2012 Council meeting to read a prepared speech endorsing the contracts). The pension and retiree health benefit provisions in those agreements haven’t changed since then. Firefighters and cops still will pay only an additional 1% per year toward the cost of their pensions, and they still will share only a percentage of the increase in health care costs rather than picking up a portion of the total cost.
A year ago, after hearing a presentation about the City’s $86.4 million in unfunded liabilities for retiree health benefits (aka “OPEB”), Council voted to accept a staff recommendation to authorize the City Manager “to initiate informal discussions with the bargaining units,” presumably about ways to reduce the debt. But those “informal discussions,” if indeed they occurred, have not resulted in any proposal, much less any agreement, for cost savings.
Although there was no change to the union contracts, Council did approve an amendment to the City’s contract with CalPERS, which runs the employee pension plans, shortly after Dr. Chen was elected. But the effect of this change was to increase rather than reduce the City’s pension costs.
The amendment allowed Alameda firefighters (including then IAFF Local 689 president Dom Weaver) to purchase “service credits” – aka “air time” – for time spent on the federal government payroll before going to work for the City. Those who choose to buy air time will get higher pensions – and the City’s employer contribution rate will go up accordingly. The amount remains unknown.
We’re inclined to give Councilman Chen a full four hats for this claim. But he’s saved by the last phrase he includes: “Labor peace” has reigned during his time on Council. (That’s what annual raises of up to 4% in 2014, 5% in 2015, and 5% in 2016, together with limitations on cost-sharing for pensions and OPEB, will get you). So we’ll knock a hat off the score.
(3) “successfully completing the Navy Base zero re-conveyance and approving the Final Environmental Impact Report, as well as the associated planning and zoning amendments”
The agreement between the City and the Navy for transfer of 509 acres of land at Alameda Point pre-dates Dr. Chen’s election. Council approved the terms of the deal – which include no payment by the City to the Navy as long as no more than 1,425 housing units are built (and a $50,000 per unit penalty for exceeding the cap) – in October 2011. City Manager John Russo signed the formal contract amendment in January 2012.
By the time Dr. Chen joined Council, all that remained to close the deal was an exchange of deeds. Since that formality took place in June 2013, technically it’s true that the transaction was “successfully complete[d]” on his watch. But the Councilman did nothing to make it happen.
Dr. Chen was present at the meeting at which Council approved the EIR and planning documents for the Point, which had been in works for two years. Led by Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott, City staff began working on the zoning amendments in January 2012, and the City hired consultants for the EIR in September 2012. After multiple hearings, the Planning Board signed off on the package in January 2014 and submitted it to Council. Dr. Chen joined his colleagues in a unanimous vote of approval.
Since Dr. Chen played no role in the land acquisition or the planning process, we’re going to give him two hats for exaggerating his responsibility for progress at the Point.
(4) “successfully collaborating with AUSD in maintaining City services for our students and the general public, including the access to public swimming pools”
Politicians running for Council invariably proclaim their devotion to Alameda schools, so it’s no surprise to see this claim on Dr. Chen’s list. But the opportunities for “collaborati[on]” between AUSD and the City in “maintaining City services” are quite limited. Council doesn’t run the schools, and the School Board doesn’t run the recreation and parks (or any other) department. There is a joint School Board/Council committee that “meets periodically to address matters of mutual interest,” but it has no decision-making authority, and Dr. Chen isn’t on it anyway.
The highest-profile joint enterprise between AUSD and the City is operating the Encinal High and Emma Hood swimming pools. And the mostly hotly debated issue has been who’s going to pay for fixing up the facilities. This issue came before Council twice in the last year, and both times Dr. Chen supported the staff recommendation.
The first idea endorsed by Council (on a 4-1 vote) was for the City to contribute $750,000 and loan an additional $1.15 million to AUSD to pay for renovating the Encinal High pool, but the parties never agreed on the terms of a loan. Then, this March, Council unanimously approved a deal whereby, among other things, the School District got $1.9 million from the City to cover the full estimated cost of the Encinal High pool renovations. In the meantime, Council voted unanimously to extend the joint operating agreement for another year.
We suppose Dr. Chen could say that, by going along with staff’s proposals, he “collaborat[ed]” with AUSD to keep the pools open. But nothing in the record suggests he did anything more than say, “Aye.” So we’ll give him two hats for exaggeration.
(5) “successfully acquiring our first grant for the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park”
The City received its first grant for the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park – $60,000 from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to “develop and implement a work plan for environmental investigation” – in September 2013. City Recreation and Parks Director Amy Wooldridge told us she wrote and submitted the application for the grant herself; Council was not involved. So Dr. Chen deserves no credit for “successfully acquiring” this grant.
Nor has the City received any other grant for Sweeney Park for which open-space supporters owe him a thank-you. Dr. Chen did join his colleagues this July in unanimously approving an application for a $2,520,104 grant (net of $289,056 in matching funds from the City) from the state Active Transportation Program for “design and construction of a section of the Beltline’s Cross Alameda Trail” on the park site. Unfortunately, the City did not receive the grant. No success, no credit.
(6) “opening Jack Capon Villa to provide affordable housing for people with disability”
The Jack Capon Villa, a 19-unit apartment complex for low-income people with developmental disabilities, was the last “affordable housing” project built in Alameda with redevelopment money. But the project already had been approved and funded by the time Councilman Chen was elected.
The Planning Board okayed the design of the complex, which was to be developed by a partnership including two non-profit organizations on land formerly owned by the City, in January 2011. The same month, the City committed $1.4 million in redevelopment funds and applied for federal and state grants for the project. The state approved the last piece of financing in July 2012.
Ground-breaking occurred in March 2013, four months after Dr. Chen won his seat, and the complex was opened this May. Perhaps the Councilman attended the ceremony for the ground-breaking or the opening – although news reports do not mention him – but if he was there, it was his only role in the project.
(7) “graduating and hiring several new fire fighters and police officers”
Both the fire department and the police department have indeed hired new sworn personnel since December 2012 (six firefighters and seven cops).
But the new hires did not put any new “boots on the ground” for either department. Instead, they simply filled vacancies. As Assistant City Manager Warmerdam told us, “these new hires were backfills for existing authorized and funded positions, many of which occurred as a result of recent retirements.”
Ms. Warmerdam added that, “No new positions have been created nor new funding authorized.” So Dr. Chen cannot claim credit for increasing the number of authorized sworn positions in the fire or police departments, either. In fact, the two-year budget adopted in June 2013 – the only one on which Councilman Chen voted – shows the same headcount for both departments in FY 2013-14 and FY 2014-15 as in FY 2012-13, except for the addition of a disaster preparedness captain (a position created before Councilman Chen was sworn in) shared by the two departments and a project manager in the police department’s support services division.
We have to wonder why Dr. Chen chose to show his devotion to public safety by including this claim. As we previously have reported, Council has bestowed a bevy of benefits on the fire department (and the firefighters’ union) during his tenure. Maybe Dr. Chen lacked sufficient space to enumerate all of them on his website. But since the claim he made is literally true, albeit misleading, we’ll give him only two hats.
(8) “creating hundreds of jobs for our residents, including College of Alameda students, with the opening of Target and we anticipate more jobs will be created with the completion of Alameda Landing”
Before the new Target store opened at Alameda Landing, the company held a job fair seeking 300 employees. City community development director Debbie Potter told us that Target hired 100 College of Alameda students and that about 50% of the new employees were Alameda residents. (The City does not keep records on the number of Alamedans currently working at Target). So “hundreds” is a bit of a stretch.
More significantly, Dr. Chen played no verifiable role in bringing Target to Alameda. Indeed, construction of the store already was underway when he took his seat on Council.
The Planning Board approved an amended retail development plan for Alameda Landing that included the Target store in January 2012 and the design review for the store in February 2012. Council okayed a parcel map and subdivision improvement agreement in June 2012. Ground was broken in July 2012.
Dr. Chen may have attended the opening of the Target store in October 2013 – although news stories do not report his presence – and he may even shop there. But he did not create any jobs for Alamedans at Target. He gets another four hats.
(9) “personally introducing three resolutions, including a resolution that designates an Open Space/Nature Reserve at Alameda Point – all three resolutions were passed unanimously by the City Council”
Hang onto your (fire chief) hats: This claim is absolutely true. Dr. Chen in fact did introduce three resolutions Council passed unanimously. Whether those resolutions made any difference in the lives of Alamedans is another matter.
A few months after he was elected, Councilman Chen introduced a citizen-written resolution calling for creation of an “Alameda Wildlife Refuge” on federally owned land at Alameda Point. After it was pointed out to him that the City had no control over the use of federal property, Dr. Chen agreed to ask staff to re-draft the resolution. They did so, and Council unanimously passed a watered-down version a month later.
Dr. Chen kindly identified for us the two other resolutions to which he referred on his website. One was a form resolution supporting a bill in the state Assembly – co-sponsored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta – to raise vehicle registration fees in Alameda County. The other was a resolution urging Congress to enact “comprehensive immigration reform.” Although we doubt that these resolutions carried much weight in Sacramento or Washington, they no doubt pleased politically influential people.
No hats on this one.
So there you have it. Nine claims, and a closetful of Fire Chief Hats.
We don’t know what an “average” score would be for a candidate for municipal office, and we realize that the urge to exaggerate is endemic to elected officials at every level. Al Gore did invent the Internet, didn’t he?
Nevertheless, we find the list of “achievements” Dr. Chen chose to post on his website somewhat dismaying.
The list seems have been constructed to make it look like he has done something for everybody. For open-space supporters, it’s the grant for the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park and the designation of an “open space/nature reserve” at Alameda Point. For affordable housing advocates, it’s the opening of Jack Capon Villa. For school parents, it’s the Encinal High and Emma Hood swimming pools.
Indeed, even fiscal conservatives would appear to have a lot to thank Dr. Chen for: an upgraded bond rating, “renegotiated” public employee contracts, and jobs for residents at Alameda Landing.
But it took more than a little dissembling to assemble such an all-inclusive list. Far too often, Dr. Chen takes credit for “achievements” he had nothing to do with. It’s understandable that, having been elected less than two years ago, the Councilman was not present at the creation for many of the accomplishments he cites. But, at least to us, it’s not acceptable for him to commend himself for the results of work done by others before he joined Council. Showing up at a ceremony is a far cry from conceiving, planning and implementing the project the ceremony is intended to celebrate.
Of course, Dr. Chen does have a record to run on. During his tenure he has proven himself a consistent supporter of proposals put forth by the Russo/Gilmore administration and/or pushed by the firefighters’ union. Together with Councilwoman Lena Tam, he has provided the crucial third vote to ensure that the City Manager and the past and present IAFF Local 689 honchos who run the fire department get their way. Touting a record like this on his campaign website may not have struck Dr. Chen or his consultants as the best way to appeal to the average voter. But at least it would have been honest.
Alameda Point: 2011-10-05 staff memo re no-cost conveyance; 2012-01-04 staff memo re no-cost conveyance; 2012-01-09 staff memo to PB re zoning; 2012-09-18 staff report re EIR & MIP; 2014-01-13 staff report to PB re planning documents; 2014-02-04 staff report re EIR, etc.; 2014-02-04 CC minutes
Fire & police personnel: 2013-06-11 FY 2013-4 & FY 2014-15 budget summary