Frank Matarrese didn’t run for Council as part of a team with mayoral candidate Trish Spencer, but you couldn’t blame Spencer supporters for voting for Mr. Matarrese in the belief that he would work hand-in-hand with Ms. Spencer if both were elected.
After all, despite having previously held office, Mr. Matarrese and Ms. Spencer were “outsiders” in the 2014 race: neither had been endorsed by the Alameda Democratic Club, and neither took – or was offered – a dime from the Alameda firefighters’ union. Moreover, at campaign events, the two echoed each other in advocating fiscal restraint and slow growth.
The voters, of course, chose Ms. Spencer as Mayor, and Mr. Matarrese got the most votes for Council and became Vice Mayor. Even if the two didn’t run together, the stage had been set for them to become Alameda’s own dynamic duo.
It didn’t turn out that way.
In fact, since taking office, Mr. Matarrese has voted with Mayor Spencer far less frequently than he has voted with either Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft or Councilman Jim Oddie, both of whom (unlike Ms. Spencer) are favorites of the Inner Ringers. What’s more, when the issue has been a close one, Mr. Matarrese has joined Ms. Spencer’s opponents far more often than he has had her back.
Some team indeed. It’s as if, instead of Robin, Ms. Spencer found the Dark Knight at her side.
Through November 3, the last meeting for which minutes are available, there were a total of 38 non-unanimous Council votes on substantive motions (as distinguished from, say, a motion to continue the meeting past 10:30 p.m.). Mr. Matarrese recused himself twice (on items relating to the Harbor Bay Business Park, where he owns property). On the remaining 36 motions, Mr. Matarrese voted with Ms. Ashcraft 28 times and with Mr. Oddie 27 times. By contrast, the Vice Mayor sided with Ms. Spencer only seven times. In fact, Councilman Tony Daysog concurred with the Mayor twice as often as Mr. Matarrese did.
Perhaps most significant are the 12 instances where Council decided the motion by a 3-2 vote.
On three of these 12 occasions, Ms. Spencer was on the winning side, but Mr. Matarrese voted with her only once. And on the other nine – which Ms. Spencer lost – Mr. Matarrese voted against her eight times. In those matters, he joined with Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Oddie seven times, and with Mr. Daysog and Mr. Oddie once, to form a majority. Had he gone the other way, Ms. Spencer’s position would have prevailed.
From these statistics, one might be tempted, if one were a Spencer supporter, to accuse Mr. Matarrese of having gone over to the dark side – or, if one were a Spencer detractor, to acclaim him for having seen the light. And, indeed, a closer scrutiny of the Council votes shows that the Vice Mayor has proved to be an uncertain ally when the Mayor’s opponents challenge her authority.
During the first five months of Ms. Spencer’s term, Councilwoman Ashcraft submitted two referrals whose purpose – although it wasn’t described that way – was to slap down the Mayor for conduct that had upset the Inner Ringers and their camp followers.
After Ms. Spencer annoyed the pro-development crowd by placing a resolution revoking approval of the Del Monte warehouse project on the Council agenda, Ms. Ashcraft sought to require the Mayor to “adhere to” the “process” for referrals allegedly established by a resolution adopted eight years ago. Then, after Ms. Spencer offended public-transit advocates by comments she allegedly made at an Alameda County Transportation Commission meeting, Ms. Ashcraft urged Council to direct the City Attorney to issue “guidelines” on how the City’s representative to regional boards should act.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Spencer opposed both of these proposals, and Mr. Oddie took Ms. Ashcraft’s side. Councilman Daysog voted against one of the motions and abstained on the other. And Mr. Matarrese? “Yes” – both times.
In another incident, Inner Ring-leader John Knox White sought to embarrass Ms. Spencer by torpedoing her nominee to the Commission on Disability Issues. At 4:21 p.m. on the day of the Council meeting, he circulated an email accusing the woman selected by Ms. Spencer of “utter disrespect of City Staff who’s [sic] work lives were violated” through unauthorized use of a City computer.
That evening, when Ms. Spencer moved approval of a slate of nominees that included the one targeted by Mr. Knox White, Mr. Daysog supported confirmation and Ms. Ashcraft opposed it. When Councilman Oddie unexpectedly abstained, the fate of the purported reprobate fell into Mr. Matarrese’s hands.
He voted, “No.”
One might be tempted to surmise from these votes that Mr. Matarrese has hitched on to the drive to “rein in” Ms. Spencer – at least when she’s exercising her mayoral authority in ways displeasing to the Those Who Know Best.
But there is one piece of counter-evidence: When Ms. Spencer chose to nominate two new members to the Planning Board rather than re-appoint an incumbent, Mr. Knox White and his cohorts mounted an offensive to get Council to overrule her. When it came time for a decision, Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Oddie, true to form, voted against Ms. Spencer – but, this time, Mr. Matarrese joined Mr. Daysog in taking the Mayor’s side, and her nominees were confirmed. So it would wrong to conclude that the Vice Mayor never wants to see the Mayor get her way.
Politics aside, it’s difficult to discern any emergent philosophical difference between Ms. Spencer and Mr. Matarrese that explains the divergence in their voting patterns. Not that we didn’t look for one. And, for a moment, we thought we’d found it.
As we have previously pointed out, the new public-safety union contracts negotiated by departing City Manager John Russo were a spectacularly bad financial deal for the City. They will cost the General Fund between $6.25 million and $9.8 million in increased salaries and pension contributions through the first five years of their six-year term. (This estimate, we should note, does not take account of CalPERS’ recent downward revision in assumed investment return rates, which will increase municipal pension costs even further). In exchange, the contracts will reduce the City’s annual payments for retiree health benefits over the same period by all of $272,000. And for the privilege of obtaining these token savings, they require the City to pay $5 million upfront, and $250,000 per year for 10 years, to establish an “OPEB trust.”
(No, we haven’t forgotten about the supposed future reductions in pay-as-you-go costs touted by Mr. Russo. If you can find an economist who can explain the assumptions underlying the ballyhooed $47 million in savings, have her call us. The City Attorney already has ruled that it’s none of the City Treasurer’s or Auditor’s business).
For any Council member who claimed to be a fiscal conservative, there was only one way to vote on these contracts: HELL, NO!
And that’s what Ms. Spencer (and Councilman Daysog) did. Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Oddie, who were endorsed by the public-safety unions in their respective campaigns, predictably voted “Yes,” and so the decision on whether to approve the contracts came down to Mr. Matarrese. He gave them the thumbs-up.
In explaining his vote, the Vice Mayor never mentioned the increase in salaries and pension costs imposed by the new contracts or the multi-million-dollar expense to the City of establishing the OPEB trust. Rather, he suggested that the unions’ willingness to allow their members to begin contributing a small percentage of their wages toward retiree health care costs was such a magnanimous concession that the quantifiable and immediate detrimental impact on the City’s financial condition didn’t matter. So much for fiscal restraint.
So there’s the bright line – Ms. Spencer wants to mind the store, Mr. Matarrese wants to give it away – right?
Unfortunately, it’s not so clear. During the Council budget workshops, both Ms. Spencer and Mr. Matarrese (and their colleagues) rejected every one of staff’s ideas for reducing General Fund expenses, and both ultimately voted to approve a budget with a $1.3 million operating deficit in Fiscal Year 2016-17 (and a forecast predicting increasing annual deficits every year thereafter).
Similarly, although Ms. Spencer opposed Mr. Matarrese’s motion to direct staff to put together a menu of suggestions for spending the current “excess” in the General Fund balance, she proved to be as eager as any of her dais-mates to sign off on the items staff came up with. These items included spending $457,000 to cover cost overruns on the $14.5 million Emergency Operations Center and fire station no. 3 resulting from the failure to dig deeper than a foot down into the soil in order to test for lead. Two Council members voted against authorizing this expense, but they were Mr. Matarrese – and Ms. Ashcraft!
If foolish consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of little minds, we’ve surely got some big thinkers on our City Council.
To us, the most tantalizing aspect of our review of Council voting patterns is what it suggests for the Council election coming up in 2016. The terms of two Council members – Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Daysog – will expire, and we expect both will run for re-election. If you’re a Spencer supporter, you’d better get out the vote for Mr. Daysog. Should the Councilman be replaced by someone more in tune with the Inner Ring or the firefighters’ union, you won’t be able to count on Mr. Matarrese to hold the line.
What’s Jim up to?
As we were preparing the main column above, we were intrigued to learn that the firefighters’ and police unions were putting on a campaign fundraiser for Councilman Jim Oddie. We can’t resist a brief comment.
There’s nothing unusual, of course, about the public–safety unions raising money for Councilman Oddie. The IAFF Local 689 Political Action Committee itself spent $10,894.90 to get Mr. Oddie elected to Council, and since then he has proved that he deserves every penny of the money showered upon him by organized labor.
What is unusual is that the election in which Mr. Oddie won office occurred just last year – and his term has another three years to run before he’s up for re-election in 2018.
So why start fundraising so early?
When the Merry-Go-Round inquired, Mr. Oddie tendered an innocuous explanation: “I’d prefer to space out the fundraising effort over time with smaller events rather than have to raise the entire amount in a concentrated time frame like I had to do last year.”
We don’t doubt the Councilman’s veracity, but he is, after all, a politician, and we wonder whether he has something else up his sleeve. Specifically, could Mr. Oddie be raising money now that will be used to jump-start the campaign of the candidate ultimately selected by the unions to try to drive Councilman Tony Daysog off Council next year?
Under California law, one campaign committee can make unlimited contributions to another, and, in Alameda, the candidates backed by the Democratic party and the public–safety unions frequently have taken advantage of this provision to finance each other’s election bids. Mr. Oddie’s own case offers a perfect example. The very first contribution to his 2014 campaign – $1,000 – came from the campaign committee of his boss, State Assemblyman Rob Bonta. Subsequently, Assemblyman Bonta’s committee pumped another $6,500 into Mr. Oddie’s campaign coffers.
Perhaps the Councilman will return the favor for the candidate tapped to try to guarantee a pro-firefighters’ union Council next year. (Is it too soon to run Gray Harris for a Council seat?) When we asked Mr. Oddie about this possibility, he replied: “I haven’t thought about any 2016/other candidates vis-a-vis contributions from my campaign committee and to date, no one has asked. But, it’s perfectly legal to do so.”
And so it is. We hope the Councilman won’t mind if we read the campaign disclosure statements carefully to see what he does next year with the money he’s raising now.
Council minutes are available online at https://alameda.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx.
Campaign disclosure statements are available on line at http://docs.ci.alameda.ca.us/WebLink8/Browse.aspx?startid=310100&row=1&dbid=0.