Boy, the Inner Ring sure doesn’t like Mayoral candidate Trish Spencer.
No, we’re not talking about the anonymous proprietor of the Tumblr site – TrashTrish, we think it’s called – devoted to denigrating Ms. Spencer. We’re referring to two of our most prominent political pooh-bahs.
If you were checking the online political chat a week or so ago, you would have seen the following:
First, the Emperor of the Enlightened, Planning Board member John Knox White, went after Ms. Spencer on Facebook.
“If you think that the business of the city should grind to a halt, Trish Spencer’s you’re [sic] candidate,” he pronounced. And it wasn’t just what Ms. Spencer actually had done that condemned her, but what she would have done. “It requires zero leap of logic,” Mr. Knox White declaimed in his typically omniscient manner, “to know that Spencer would have aligned with Doug deHaan and her core supporters in being against” the Alameda Theater project.
Later the same day, the King of Condescension, Ms. Spencer’s fellow School Board member Mike McMahon, took his turn.
Mr. McMahon re-published as a blog comment the diatribe he’d unleashed against Ms. Spencer at the June 24 school board meeting. (“For 10 years now there has been no moving forward on anything that meets [doesn’t meet?] your approval.”) Later, Mr. McMahon sniffed that, while Ms. Spencer may have been a “viable” candidate for the School Board, “I see very little in [her] current resume that would qualify her to be a candidate for Mayor.”
The oracles have spoken. Any further questions?
Well, the Merry-Go-Round has a couple.
What are such esteemed community leaders as Mr. Knox White and Mr. McMahon so exercised about? And, more importantly, do they have a point?
Stripped of invective, the case against Ms. Spencer seems to be that she is the candidate of No. (Sound familiar? It’s the same theme Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are urging Democratic candidates to use against their Republican opponents).
So we decided to look at two of Ms. Spencer’s most recent “No” votes – against the three-way swap among the City, the Housing Authority, and the Alameda Unified School District and against the $179.5 million school bond measure – to see if her opposition had any rational basis. If Ms. Spencer’s arguments made sense, demonizing her as an ignorant obstructionist can be marked down to sheer arrogance – or to bad manners.
First, the swap. From AUSD’s point of view, the transaction worked this way: AUSD transferred its interest in two pieces of real property – the so-called Tidelands parcel along the northern waterfront and a 12-acre parcel at Alameda Point – to the City. In addition, it transferred a third piece of real property – the site of the former Island High School – and turned over $4.6 million in a housing fund to the Housing Authority. In exchange, AUSD got a 20-acre parcel at the Point and $1.95 million in cash it could use to fix the Encinal High swimming pool.
The initial presentation to the School Board about the swap lasted less than four minutes. Despite the complexity of the deal, no Board member asked any questions – except Ms. Spencer, who had a bunch. But she didn’t get answers. Instead, no fewer than three times, Superintendent Kirsten Vital flatly refused to provide the information Ms. Spencer asked for. For his part, Mr. McMahon explained that “a number of items” were “so complicated” that the Board couldn’t discuss them in public.
Two weeks later, the School Board voted, 4-1, to approve the agreement. Essentially, Ms. Spencer made three points in dissent:
- AUSD should not proceed with a real-estate swap until the School Board had received an estimate of the value of each of the parcels involved in the deal.
- AUSD should not agree to give up the Island High property until the School Board had evaluated the potential school-related uses that could be made of that site.
- The School Board should defer a vote until it could hold a workshop at which the public could ask, and get answers to, its questions about the swap.
Was this pure obstinacy? It doesn’t seem so to us. Instead, if one were so inclined, one could defend Ms. Spencer’s position as an attempt to ensure, respectively, “fiscal responsibility,” attention to community needs, and “transparency” – all of which, of course, are values regularly professed by the Inner Ring itself.
Ms. Spencer’s first point was an economic one: How much was AUSD giving up in order to get money to fix the Encinal High swimming pool (and a substitute site for a school at Alameda Point)? You couldn’t know the answer to that question unless you knew what the parcels being transferred by the District were worth. And you couldn’t know what they were worth unless you got an estimate – by appraisal or otherwise – of their value.
To golf war veterans, hers wasn’t an odd request. When Ron Cowan proposed to swap cash and vacant scrubland for the Mif Albright golf course, one of the first steps taken by the City was to commission an appraisal of the Mif. This would enable the City – and the public – to determine whether Cowan was offering enough to compensate the City for the property he wanted it to give him. Sure, the swap would enable the City to meet a long-standing need for youth sports fields. But no one, at City Hall or in the golf community, desired to pay too much for that benefit. And if the Mif was worth more than Cowan was offering, he ought to put more money on the table. As it turned out, it was, and he did.
Ms. Spencer appears to have been motivated by similar concerns. She wanted to know the value of the property being transferred because that represented the price the District was paying to get the swimming pool money and the substitute school site. If the three parcels were worth more than staff was saying, the City and the Housing Authority should give up more to get them. And the more AUSD got, the more it could do for the schools beyond just fixing a swimming pool.
AUSD staff, and Ms. Spencer’s fellow School Board members, didn’t see it that way. They focused solely on the benefit being received and ignored the price being paid. The swap provided the long-sought-after money to fix the Encinal pool as well as a better location for a school at Alameda Point. To the Board majority, that was all that mattered. Who cares about the value of the property the District had to transfer in exchange? As Board president Margie Sherratt put it, “It isn’t about a tit-for-tat; it’s about the best use for what our students need in this community.”
Ms. Spencer’s other two objections were met with similar derision – even though, they, too, were hardly frivolous.
Back in October 2013, Ms. Spencer got the School Board to expand the scope of work being done by its architectural consultants to include potential uses by the District of the Island High site. Under the swap, that property would go to the Housing Authority. Before the Board agreed to let it go, Ms. Spencer wanted to know whether the consultants had completed their analysis of Island High. Yes, said Chief Business Officer Robert Clark. Can their findings be made public now? Ms. Spencer asked. No, said Superintendent Kirsten Vital. When can we see them? Ms. Spencer asked. In May – i.e., after the swap had been voted on, said the Superintendent.
And then there was the matter of communication with the public. After listening at two meetings to citizens raise questions about the swap – none of which Ms. Vital deigned to respond to – Ms. Spencer moved to postpone the vote so that the Board could hold a workshop at which the public could get its questions answered. The motion failed for lack of a second. Mr. McMahon then moved for approval of the agreement. He ended his pitch with a lecture about the Board’s right to conduct business in closed sessions. “Yes, we’re not obligated to do it that way,” he said. “But in most cases it makes the most sense, simply because that’s how it gets done.”
The swap discussion demonstrated that Ms. Spencer surely approaches decisions differently than District staff and the School Board majority. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe we want a Mayor or Council member who will demand that economics be analyzed, alternatives considered, and public questions answered. Had such a person been on Council during the last two years, the City might not have ended up borrowing $4 million to build an Emergency Operations Center whose only regular occupant will be one fire captain.
The tortured saga of Measure I likewise fails to support the portrayal of Ms. Spencer as an unthinking naysayer.
The measure on the November ballot asks voters to authorize issuance by AUSD of $179.5 million in school facilities bonds. If approved, it will add $60 per $100,000 of assessed value to District taxpayers’ bills, which already include debt service on bonds issued in 2004 as well as the Measure A parcel tax.
(Incidentally, although Council candidate Jim Oddie publicly accused Ms. Spencer at the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society candidate forum of never supporting any ballot measure providing money for the schools, she in fact voted to endorse Measure A; the only parcel tax she voted against was Measure E – which contained the same flaws as the later-invalidated Measure H).
Beginning late last year, the School Board undertook the task of assessing the District’s facility needs and finding a way to raise funds to address them. The Board hired an architectural consultant to prepare a “Facilities Master Plan” and a financial consultant to put together a bond proposal. The intent was to take advantage of Proposition 39, which requires approval by only 55 per cent, rather than two-thirds, of the electorate to issue school facilities bonds.
The financial consultants presented their report last April. Based on assessed property values for 2014-15, the District’s “maximum bonding capacity” was $202 million. A month later, the architectural consultants delivered their draft Facilities Master Plan. It identified $134 million in “critical facilities needs,” $342 million in “educational program needs,” $106 million in “future facilities needs,” and $9 million for hazard abatement – a total of $591 million.
Then came the hard part. Since the facilities work would cost three times the maximum bonding capacity, the School Board had to select which projects took priority. At first, the Board agreed that $160-$170 million of bond proceeds should be devoted to repairs and upgrades at the two high schools. But it then did an about-face. Under “Implementation Plan B,” the amount to be spent on projects at the high schools was cut to $90.2 million; the balance of the bond proceeds would go to fix and improve the elementary and middle schools (as well as charter schools).
Mr. McMahon joined Ms. Spencer and Board member Barbara Kahn in voting, “No,” on the high-school-oriented plan. He then provided the third vote in favor of Plan B after the list of specific projects for the high schools was eliminated. But both Ms. Spencer and Ms. Kahn voted, “No,” on the modified Plan B, too. (“We’re being stampeded into a hasty decision,” Ms. Kahn said). Which created a problem: It takes four votes to put a bond measure on the ballot.
For bond proponents it became time to find a “creative” way to lure Ms. Kahn into the fold. Distrustful of District staff, she demanded a “guarantee” that the School Board, not staff, would control the decisions on which projects to undertake. Bond counsel promised that he could draft appropriate language. Thus reassured, Ms. Kahn, “with stones in my heart,” voted to put the measure before the electorate.
Ms. Spencer dissented. She might well have justified her “No” vote simply by reciting the foregoing history and asserting that a jerry-built product like this one didn’t belong on the ballot. But, typically, she offered a detailed explanation for her vote. Among other things, she objected to:
- The failure to specify, other than in general terms, or to prioritize, the projects at the elementary and middle schools that the bond proceeds would be spent on;
- The decision to create a $90 million “pot of money” for the high schools that the School Board would determine later how to spend;
- The omission of language in the ballot statement – which is what the voters see at the polls – making clear that, unlike parcel taxes, there were no exemptions from the tax imposed by these bonds.
Mr. McMahon responded to the first two of these objections by bemoaning Ms. Spencer’s “lack of understanding” of “basic governance principles.” (Maybe he was vexed because Ms. Spencer was criticizing a feature of the implementation plan that he himself had been responsible for proposing). He cleverly avoided a vote on a ballot statement containing Ms. Spencer’s desired language by moving first for approval of a ballot statement that didn’t include it.
This last maneuver was particularly petty. It is not unreasonable to fear, as Ms. Spencer did, that seniors familiar with parcel taxes would assume that they were exempt from the tax imposed by the school bonds. True, the “tax statement” in the voter information guide disclosed the lack of exemptions – to those who read it. (They’re the same folks who read prospectuses before they invest).
But how hard would it be to highlight this fact in the statement that would appear on the ballot? Apparently, not hard at all, since bond counsel was able to draft a ballot statement that made the point – and still stayed within the 75-word limit.
Thanks to Mr. McMahon, the School Board never got to consider adopting that language. Any seniors who vote for Measure I in the mistaken belief that they won’t have to pay the tax should feel free to contact him directly.
Ms. Spencer’s first two points raise more basic policy issues. One relates to the high schools. From what we gathered watching the videos of the School Board meetings, a significant contingent of Alamedans would like to build one new high school that would serve the entire city. An equally committed group wants to preserve the two high-school model.
Again, it is not unreasonable to expect the School Board to resolve this policy issue first instead of going to the public for authority to raise $90 million for the high schools and then deciding whether to keep the existing two or build a new one. Likewise, since the potential sites for a new high school include two current middle schools, it would seem prudent for the Board to make up its mind about the high schools before it asks for funds to fix up a middle school that may end up being torn down.
Ms. Spencer was not the only person disappointed by the School Board’s decision to duck having to choose its preferred alternative. Speaking at the meeting at which the Board approved the bond measure, former Board member and Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Garvine was quite direct: “The one high school issue should have been decided,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have a position, because I don’t know enough about it. I don’t think you do, either.” Mr. Garvine’s recommendation? “Take your time, do your homework, answer the questions. If you have to come a little closer to the parcel tax [expiration date], do it.”
The other issue – specificity and prioritization – can be argued either way. Bond counsel told the Board that an appellate court had upheld a project list, like the one in Measure I, describing the projects just “by type.” But is that sound policy?
On the one hand, it seems like a good idea to give the School Board the ability to change the details, or revise the order, of the projects funded by the bonds to take account of changing circumstances. On the other hand, it isn’t such a good idea to grant the Board the discretion to spend bond proceeds on any project it can fit into one of the broad categories in the project list.
Ironically, Ms. Spencer and Mr. McMahon agreed that it all boiled down to trust. “We’re now to a bigger issue of trust; it’s the five people sitting behind this dais,” Mr. McMahon said. “How are we going to go to the community and say, trust us, give us $180 million without really getting specific, but trust us?” To him, the language in the bond text requiring that the Board approve each project individually supplied a sufficient constraint. To Ms. Spencer, it didn’t.
Watching the School Board discussions reminded us of the debate on City Council over how much discretion the elected officials should cede to staff to implement the plans for development at Alameda Point. City Manager John Russo argued that staff could be trusted to find and bring before Council only those projects that fit the overarching planning documents. But several Council members wanted to lay down more detailed guidelines for the developer selection process. Had Ms. Spencer been on Council, she probably would have been found among the “intransigents” insisting on specificity.
Having now reviewed the record on Ms. Spencer’s two most recent controversial “No” votes, we find the case against her considerably overstated, if not grossly exaggerated. Yes, she voted against two actions the Inner Ring and its acolytes wanted to see happen. But she had her reasons – many of which, upon review, make eminent sense. Reasonable people may disagree with her positions – but only the truly arrogant would dismiss them out of hand.
We can only speculate about why Mr. Knox White, Mr. McMahon and their camp followers dislike Ms. Spencer so, but, to us, it seems that’s their problem, not hers.
Facilities implementation plan: 2014-05-13 staff presentation re MFP; 2014-05-20 staff presentation re implementation plan; 2014-05-27 staff presentation re implementation plan; 2014-05-27 staff presentation re implementation plan; 2014-06-10 staff presentation re implementation plan; 2014-06-24 staff presentation re implementation plan