About those referrals

Perhaps by now you’ve seen the billboards sprouting up all over town.

Want to improve traffic conditions on Bay Farm Island?  BETTER CALL JIM.

Want to preserve the wetlands at Alameda Point?  BETTER CALL JIM.

Want to protect the jobs of union grocery workers?  BETTER CALL JIM.

Better Call SaulWe’re just kidding about the billboards, of course.  (Or maybe we can’t wait for the “Breaking Bad” spin-off featuring Walter White’s regular outside counsel to begin).  But it does seem to us that first-term Councilman Jim Oddie is holding himself out as the man to call if any interest group whose support he covets wants to circumvent the usual legislative or administrative process.

At the very first regular Council meeting after Mr. Oddie was sworn in, he submitted three “Council referrals” requesting that Council direct staff to take specified actions.  Those referrals ended up being postponed for two meetings, then were heard and – as modified – approved on January 21.

Now Mr. Oddie has placed a fourth Council referral on the agenda for next Tuesday’s meeting.  This one calls for Council to direct staff to draft an actual ordinance.

Mr. Oddie is acting well within his rights as a Councilman.  Ordinarily, the City Manager, in consultation with the City Clerk, prepares the Council agenda.  Only the Mayor gets any advance input.  But, under the Municipal Code, a Council member – or, for that matter, any City official – may get “reports, communications or other matters” placed on the Council agenda by giving a copy to the City Clerk on the Monday two weeks before the scheduled meeting.

This right is rarely exercised.  In fact, based on our review of the City’s database, there were no Council referrals at all in 2014.  Former Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C., made all three of the Council referrals in 2013, and two of them involved national (immigration reform) or statewide (vehicle registration fees) issues with little, if any, impact on the daily lives of Alamedans.

If Councilman Oddie continues at his present pace, he easily will beat the record of former Vice Mayor Doug deHaan, who submitted six referrals during his last two years on Council, which happened to coincide with the first two years of the Russo/Gilmore administration.

Oddie reads speechSo what’s Mr. Oddie up to?

The first two of Mr. Oddie’s referrals were aimed at benefitting people who live on Bay Farm Island.  One of the referrals requested Council to direct staff to “study” four “suggestions” for improving traffic conditions on Island Drive, including changing the hours of operation on the Bay Farm Bridge and the start time for Lincoln Middle School.  The other asked Council to direct staff to install “flashing pedestrian crosswalk signs” at two intersections on Bay Farm.

Mr. Oddie was unabashed about the parochial character of these referrals.  “I’m the only person on the Council that has actually lived on Bay Farm,” he told his colleagues, “and the issues on Bay Farm are still important to me although I don’t live there anymore.”  He was moved to make the referrals, he said, because complaints about Island Drive traffic and pedestrian safety had become a “recurring theme” as he “knocked on doors” during the campaign.

Nor was Mr. Oddie fazed when Councilman Tony Daysog questioned the propriety of putting the problems of Bay Farm residents ahead of those of other Alamedans.  “Folks on Harbor Bay, they’re tired of being told they’re medium priority,” he said.  “They’d like to have a little bit more attention.”  (Nevertheless, he agreed to Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen’s suggestion to place the pedestrian crosswalks on Bay Farm “in the queue” of similar items being considered by the Public Works department).

Mr. Oddie surely expected that his referrals would please Bay Farm residents, and, indeed, they have.  The Merry-Go-Round asked Tim Coffey, head of the Harbor Bay Neighbors grassroots group formed to oppose Ron Cowan’s plan to move the Harbor Bay Club, for his reaction.  Noting that the Neighbors had not played any role in the referrals, Mr. Coffey commented:  “However, they appear on first take to be very common sense, potentially beneficial enhancements to the quality of life for all Bay Farm residents.  We applaud Councilman Oddie for his initiative.”

We suspect those words will be music to Mr. Oddie’s ears, since Bay Farm is a potent source of potential votes for a politician seeking public office in Alameda.  Indeed, it can be argued that Bay Farm voters supplied the margin of victory for Trish Spencer in her race to un-seat ex-Mayor Marie Gilmore.  Mr. Oddie himself got only 177 more votes than Dr. Chen in the Bay Farm precincts, and he may have seen a need to enhance his standing among his former neighbors.  Based on Mr. Coffey’s comments, Mr. Oddie seems to have taken the first step in the right direction.

Of course, we understand that cynics will accuse Mr. Oddie of “pandering” by submitting referrals designed to benefit Bay Farm residents/voters.  For our part, we prefer to characterize these two referrals simply as efforts by Mr. Oddie to respond to citizen concerns.  “Constituent service” is what we’ll call it.

Remember, as Mr. Oddie reminded us during the campaign, he’s a Chicago boy.  As such, he’s probably familiar with how politics once was practiced in the Second City:  If a citizen had a problem – like potholes in the street – she’d call the ward boss, who’d call the alderman – who’d make sure that city employees took care of the problem.  All that was expected in return (in most cases) was her vote for the alderman in the next election.  Maybe Mr. Oddie is taking his political cues from the late Mayor Richard Daley and not just from his current boss, Assemblyman Rob Bonta.

Mr. Oddie’s third referral displays a similar sensibility.

Nationally, the Sierra Club long has advocated “a consistent public policy to preserve and restore the hydrologic, biologic, and aesthetic values of wetlands” – places, like swamps or marshes, filled or soaked with water during at least part of the year.  Alameda Point contains a number of areas designated as wetlands, and local Sierra Club activists have urged creation of a “wetlands mitigation bank” in which “mitigation credits” would be sold to developers and the proceeds would be used to pay for preserving the wetlands at the Point.

During the campaign, now Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese championed the idea, but it was Mr. Oddie who made it the subject of a post-election Council referral.  He requested that Council direct staff to engage a consultant to study the “feasibility” of a wetlands mitigation bank in the Northwest Territories and along the Seaplane Lagoon, including the costs of removing concrete in those locales.

Alamedans and Sierra Club members Richard Bangert and Irene Dieter sat patiently through two Council meetings and part of a third waiting to speak in favor of the proposal.  “This is a perfect opportunity for moving forward,” Ms. Dieter said when she got her chance.  “Please do the right thing and support this referral.”  (Mr. Bangert also suggested inviting input first from the state department of fish and wildlife).

These words, too, undoubtedly pleased Mr. Oddie.  The local Sierra Club chapter endorsed Mr. Matarrese, but not Mr. Oddie (or Dr. Chen), in the last election, and Mr. Oddie appears to be positioning himself to get the nod next time.  We doubt that the Sierra Club has as much political influence as some of its members believe it does.  Nevertheless, it can’t hurt Mr. Oddie to become known as an environmentalist.

But we’d advise him to stay consistent:  Early in Dr. Chen’s tenure, the Councilman submitted a referral on an issue important to the conservation community (for creation of a “nature reserve” at Alameda Point), but he later managed to destroy any warm feelings – and to lose any chance for the Sierra Club endorsement – by publishing an op-ed piece favoring the scheme to turn Crab Cove into a residential development.  It’s not only birds but politicians the Club’s members are watching through their binoculars.

If Mr. Oddie’s first three referrals were intended to expand his support among Alameda voters, the one on next Tuesday’s agenda seems directed toward solidifying his base.

That referral asks Council to direct staff to draft an ordinance “relative to a transitional retention period upon change of ownership, control, or operation of grocery stores.”  As an example of what he has in mind, Mr. Oddie attaches a copy of the Grocery Worker Retention Ordinance adopted in Los Angeles.  Under this ordinance, whenever a grocery store containing more than 15,000 square feet changes hands, the new owner is required for 90 days to hire only the store’s existing employees and to keep those so hired on the payroll for at least 90 days.

It may be just a coincidence, but the referral comes on the heels of the merger between the Albertsons and Safeway grocery chains.  When the deal was announced, an Albertsons spokesman stated that, “No store closures are expected as a result of the transaction,” but that’s what the private equity firms always say when they take over a business.  And if the new company decides to shutter one of the three Safeway stores or the one Lucky store in Alameda, the jobs of the grocery workers may be at risk.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents Albertsons and Safeway employees, including (as far as we know) those who work in the Alameda stores, and it was a major backer of the Los Angeles ordinance.  It just so happens that Local 5, the UCFW local covering Alameda, runs a political action committee that has contributed to the campaigns of both Mr. Oddie and his boss, Assemblyman Bonta ($250 to Mr. Oddie in 2014 and $2,500 to Mr. Bonta in 2012) as well as to the Alameda County Democratic campaign committee ($2,000 in 2012 and $3,000 in 2014).

There is also a personal connection:  Local 5’s communications director, Mike Henneberry, is the chair of the Planning Board, and his wife, Solana Henneberry, successfully ran for School Board last year.  Mr. Oddie has proven receptive to the Henneberrys’ interests in the past.  Shortly before the election, they published a letter in the Alameda Sun praising Mr. Oddie for “coordinating” with state agencies to get new curbs installed on the block of Otis Drive where they live.  “Oddie got results for our block,” the Henneberrys wrote.  “He can do the same for the whole city if he’s elected to the City Council.  Please join us and vote for Jim Oddie for city council.”

Having seen Mr. Oddie’s latest referral, we sent an email to Mr. Henneberry asking about his role, if any, in its genesis.  He did not respond.  (After this column was published, Mr. Henneberry submitted two comments, which are posted below).

Mr. Oddie was more forthcoming.  In response to our request, he explained his rationale for the referral this way:

The idea of a state-wide grocer retention ordinance came to Asm. Bonta’s office last year, when another Assemblymember was considering a similar measure modeled on the LA grocer retention ordinance.  Given the opening of the new Safeway in Alameda Landing, the Marina Village Lucky’s is at risk of being sold before any state-wide bill could pass this legislative session and take effect.  San Francisco, Santa Monica, Gardena, and LA have these types of ordinances.  San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley have similar ordinances for airport/hotel/marina/hospitality workers, and the constitutionality of the LA ordinance was upheld by the California Supreme Court.

If enacted (and there is a change of ownership at Lucky’s), this measure will help alleviate growing anxiety among workers at the store and their families by letting them keep their jobs for 90 days if the store is sold and giving them an opportunity to show they can meet the needs of the new employer.  The new owner gets the benefit of employees who know the store and the community.

As far as we’re concerned, there is nothing especially perverse about an elected official sponsoring legislation favored by his supporters and campaign contributors.  If Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio can do it for the Koch brothers, Jim Oddie should be able to do it for Mr. Henneberry and Local 5.  And, in pushing for an ordinance backed by his friends in organized labor, Mr. Oddie is simply following in the footsteps of his mentor, Mr. Bonta, who submitted the Council referral that led to the adoption of a “prevailing wage ordinance” in 2012.  All we would hope is that, when Mr. Oddie presents his referral Tuesday, he eschews any rhetoric describing the ordinance as necessary for the health and welfare of the populace at large.

If we had to bet, we’d wager that the practice of Council referrals will continue, and, indeed, may proliferate in the next four years.  Former Vice Mayor deHaan used the device to bring up issues that he knew the Russo/Gilmore administration wouldn’t put on the agenda on its own (and, in fact, was likely to oppose).  He always lost – but at least the public got to hear what he had to say.  To the extent the deposed former ruling class feels aggrieved by the Spencer regime, referrals furnish a convenient vehicle for them to make their point.

But, please, Mr. Oddie:  no referral directing staff to boost firefighters’ salaries and benefits.  We’re sure you’ll get IAFF Local 689’s bucks and boots on the ground next time without having to go quite that far.

Sources:

Bonta Council referral: Bonta referral

Oddie Council referrals: Referral – Traffic on Island DriveReferral – Flashing Pedestrian CrosswalksReferral – Wetland Mitigation BankReferral – Grocery Workers

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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6 Responses to About those referrals

  1. frank says:

    The history of the various ‘grocery mergers’ is confusing but Lucky’s in Northern California and Nevada is owned by Save Mart having been spun off by Albertson’s years ago. . However this doesn’t change anything else.

  2. United Food & Commercial Workers Local 5 represents workers employed by Encinal Market, Lucky Stores, Nob Hill, Safeway & See’s in Alameda. Encinal used to be owned by the Wendling family and is now owned Joe Trimble. Lucky Stores used to be owned by Cerberus and is now owned by Save Mart. Nob Hill was owned by the Bonfante family and is now owned by Raley’s. Safeway was locally owned, then taken over by KKR and is now owned by Cerberus. See’s was family owned originally and is now owned by Warren Buffet.
    Purchases of companies in retail are not uncommon but sometimes they come with negative consequences including no notice of the purchase to the workers. This is particularly disruptive when the new owner has no interest in keeping the existing workers on staff and wants to replace them. The suggested grocery ordinance would alleviate some concern by requiring the new employer to retain everyone for ninety days so the new management can objectively evaluate its new workforce instead of firing them wholesale. While Luckys at Marina Village would seem to be the focus of Mr. Oddie’s referral it will apply to all grocery in Alameda including Trader Joe’s should it become a takeover target.
    Mr. Oddie’s referral is a modest proposal aimed at helping workers who find themselves in a bad position, through no fault of their own, deal with the situation.
    I find it interesting that Mr. Sullwold finds it objectionable or somehow unseemly that a politician would act in the interests of his constituents. I would think that Mr. Oddie was elected to get things done not sit around like a potted plant. The beneficiaries of Mr. Oddie’s referral on the grocery industry live and work in Alameda and should their workplace be taken over by a firm with ill-intent they deserve a city government willing to back them up.

  3. Oh by the way, the matter of Oddie submitting referral regarding Firefighters wages & benefits would be a matter of collective bargaining between the city and the Firefighters Union. But you knew that….

  4. Councilman Oddie’s grocery worker retention referral was passed by the city council to staff to craft an ordinance by a 5-0 vote at last night’s meeting (2-3-15).

  5. The city council voted unanimously Tuesday April 21 to approve Alameda’s Grocery Worker Retention Ordinance. The Mayor, Vice Mayor and Council members all spoke out forcefully in support of the new regulation. That’s consensus.

  6. joe smith says:

    What makes groceries unique? What about the workers at, say, the Old Navy store? Do they need a relative in the Alameda political arena to be heard?

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