Ms. Spencer’s choice

Mayor Trish Spencer would have good reasons, principled as well as personal, for not reappointing Inner Ringleader John Knox White, whose term expired on June 30, to another four-year stint on the Planning Board.

But if she doesn’t, the Council majority dedicated to defeating the Mayor at every turn may find a way to force her to accept Mr. Knox White’s continued presence on the Board anyway.

For the Mayor, it’ll be:  Heads, they win; tails, I lose.

And that has to grate.  For the remainder of her term – and most of her second term if she wins re-election – Ms. Spencer can count on Mr. Knox White being around, as a sitting office holder, to deride her personally and attempt to derail her politically.

In his tweets and blog comments, and in his own blog, Mr. Knox White has made no secret how intensely he detests Ms. Spencer.

Three years ago, when he predictably endorsed Marie Gilmore – “an intelligent, competent leader” – for re-election as Mayor, Mr. Knox White trashed Trish this way:

Trish Spencer, who is well known as the opposite of Marie Gilmore, very few accomplishments, not able to form coalitions of support, and don’t get me started on her creepy “Alamedans First” slogan, which comes way to [sic] close for comfort to the extreme right’s “America First” anti-other sloganeering.  Then there’s her well-known siding with the radical religious right in standing up against the LGBT community.  The best argument against Spencer is her own answers to the Green Party questionnaire, where asked multiple times to provide specifics on her solutions, she rambles through generalities.  If you think projects like the Alameda Theater and the revitalization of Park Street were awful and that nothing in town should ever change . . . Spencer’s your candidate.

Not being a follower of Mr. Knox White on Twitter or Facebook (or anywhere else), we haven’t compiled a compendium of his more recent comments about Ms. Spencer.  But from what we’ve seen, it’s fair to say that his contempt for the Mayor hasn’t diminished since she was elected.

The quote from Mr. Knox White’s blog is revealing for two reasons.  First, his description of Ms. Spencer provides a classic example of his rhetorical style:  He is not expressing opinions, just stating “well-known” facts.  By contrast, his opponents are extremists who take irrational positions – “nothing in town should ever change” – that appeal only to similarly ignorant Neanderthals.  Long before Donald Trump began tweeting from the Oval Office, Mr. Knox White already had shown himself to be a master of the art of argument by insult.

In addition, Mr. Knox White’s blog post provides an example of his obsession with an issue Ms. Spencer faced as a member of the School Board back in 2009.  We don’t intend to get into the whole Lesson 9 debate – for the Mayor’s version, see her op-ed in the Alameda Sun – but Mr. Knox White’s animus toward Ms. Spencer for her conduct in the controversy has lasted for years.

This fixation resurfaced very recently, when Mr. Knox White was one of the primary instigators behind the attempt to embarrass the Mayor when she presented a proclamation declaring June to be “LGBTQ Pride Month.”  A day before the event, Mr. Knox White tweeted out a “Pride month reminder:  our mayor stood with anti-gay bigots to stop protections for gay youth in our schools.”  The same day, Blogging Bayport Alameda re-published his tweet, and Mr. Knox White promptly submitted a “comment” announcing that a “parallel photo op is being organized for those who want to attend but don’t want to feel like they are condoning or ignoring the Mayor’s past acts.”  Pretty well orchestrated, dontcha think?

(And note, again, the cleverness with which Mr. Knox White crafts his slurs.  He never says that Ms. Spencer is a member of the “radical religious right” or an “anti-gay bigot.”  Instead, she “sides with” the former and “stands with” the latter.  Accusations of bias by association, of course, are a quintessential form of ad hominem attack.)

The Merry-Go-Round doesn’t purport to be privy to Ms. Spencer’s thinking on appointment issues.  So we don’t know the extent to which her personal feelings affect her public decisions.  But it would be entirely understandable if she declined to reappoint someone who not only vilifies her views but impugns her integrity.

In addition to being a polemicist, Mr. Knox White is also an ideologue.  There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this trait, and, indeed, it is one that endears Mr. Knox White to the cognoscenti.  But it doesn’t necessarily make him a good policy-maker.  And Ms. Spencer may want someone on the Planning Board whom she can count on to listen to, rather than lecture, the hoi polloi.

Consider the debate over parking that occurred during the Planning Board’s consideration of the proposed development of the Del Monte warehouse.  The primary issue was whether onsite parking should be “bundled” (i.e., a parking space would come with each unit) or “unbundled” (i.e., if a new resident wanted a parking space, she’d have to pay separately for it).

To the uninitiated, this issue may seem arcane, but to the true believers in “transit-oriented development,” the necessity for “unbundled” parking is an article of faith.  If a new resident has to pay separately for parking, they argue, she’ll stop using her car – thereby reducing traffic.  Likewise, if the developer can exclude the expense of building a parking space from her unit costs, she can lower the sales price or the monthly rent – thereby increasing affordable housing.  By the same token, including a parking space as part of the price of a unit forces those who don’t drive to subsidize those who do, thereby creating unfairness.

Now is not the time to debate the soundness of this reasoning.  Suffice it to say that, during the Planning Board debate, Mr. Knox White made most, if not all, of the canonical arguments to support his desire to see “unbundled” parking implemented at the Del Monte warehouse.  His summation was typically dogmatic:

I don’t think, as a Planning Board, it’s our job to make it easier for people to sell these houses and for the developer to sell these houses.  Our job is to address the concerns we hear about traffic and whatnot.  And the number one thing we can do to address the concerns about traffic is unbundling spaces.


We should be planning for the future.  We should be planning for people who may or may not need a car, or may or may not want a car, and give them the flexibility to make that decision for themselves.

As the first major development project in Alameda in many years, the Del Monte warehouse represented the perfect opportunity to put the “unbundling” theory into practice.  There was just one problem:  the people who lived in the neighborhood weren’t buying it – and the majority of the Planning Board took their side.

From the beginning, a citizens’ group calling itself PLAN! Alameda resisted the effort to try out the TOD apostles’ parking creed at the Del Monte warehouse.  Their argument was based on empirical fact and common sense:  Street parking already was tight in the neighborhood, especially at night when youth sports events were taking place right across from the Del Monte building at Littlejohn Park.  If the residents from the new development also parked their cars on the streets, the situation would get worse.  And that was exactly what was likely to happen.  “Giving the Del Monte residents a choice of whether to buy a $30,000 parking spot, a $20,000 parking spot, or parking for free on the street, how many people are going to park on the street?” Alison Greene, the PLAN! Alameda leader, asked rhetorically at one Planning Board meeting.  The burst of applause from her neighbors in the audience provided the answer.

In the end, staff presented the Board with a variety of alternatives for the parking element of the transportation demand management plan.  And the majority chose the option favored by the neighbors rather than the one preached by Mr. Knox White:  each unit would be assigned an indoor parking space, for which the new resident would not be required to pay separately; if the resident needed a second parking space, she could lease it from the property manager.  Finding himself potentially on the losing side of a 4-3 vote – Board members Dania Alvarez, Mike Henneberry, Stanley Tang, and Lorre Zuppan agreed with PLAN Alameda! – Mr. Knox White graciously voted in favor of the motion to send the majority’s recommendation to Council.  Undoubtedly, he expected to live to fight another day.

Now, it can be argued that Mr. Knox White should be praised for sticking to his guns despite the failure by the residents and even his fellow Planning Board members to see the light.  After all, we were once told that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.  On the other hand, we can appreciate why the Mayor might prefer someone on the Board who gives more weight to neighborhood concerns than to TOD doctrines.

One thing is sure:  If Ms. Spencer chooses not to reappoint Mr. Knox White, she will be getting herself into a battle royale.

Before last November’s election, Ms. Spencer twice faced challenges to her appointments:  her decision not to reappoint Ms. Alvarez to the Planning Board, and her selection of Carol Gottstein for the Commission on Disability Issues.  Both times, Mr. Knox White himself took a leading role in attacking the Mayor’s choices.  (His invective about Dr. Gottstein was especially over-the-top:  Her “utter disrespect of City Staff who’s [sic] work lives were violated is beyond belief. . . .”)  Ms. Spencer won the first fight by a 3-2 vote and lost the second when Council split 2-2 and Councilman Jim Oddie – inexplicably – abstained.

Ms. Spencer’s staunchest ally on both occasions was Councilman Tony Daysog, who urged deference to the Board and Commission nominations made by any mayor.  But, thanks to the out-of-town unions and developers who funded the misleadingly named “Alamedans United” PAC, Mr. Daysog lost his Council seat and was replaced by Teamsters’ lawyer Malia Vella in the last election.  Based on her performance thus far, Ms. Vella is highly unlikely to cut Ms. Spencer any breaks, much less show her any deference.

The terms of two Board members – Mr. Knox White and Ms. Zuppan – expired on
June 30, but Ms. Zuppan is termed out and not eligible for reappointment.  It is conceivable that, taking the Biblical admonition to love thine enemies to heart, Ms. Spencer will decide to reappoint Mr. Knox White.  But suppose she doesn’t and instead announces two nominees for the Planning Board, neither of whom is Mr. Knox White.  We can only imagine the long line of speakers who queue up at the meeting at which Council votes on the nomination to demand that Mr. Knox White retain his seat.  It probably will be even longer than the group of Democratic party and union honchos who vouched for Ms. Alvarez.

After such an outpouring of “public” sentiment, the Mayor’s detractors – Ms. Vella, Mr. Oddie, and Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft – surely will refuse to vote for Ms. Spencer’s nominees.  (Having done her “due diligence,” we expect Ms. Vella to say, it is her “fiduciary duty” to ensure that Mr. Knox White is reappointed.)  In that event, both Mr. Knox White and Ms. Zuppan (assuming she’s willing) will “hold over,” since the Municipal Code states that a Board member serves for “terms commencing on the first day of July following such appointment and continuing for four (4) years thereafter until the successor of such member is appointed and qualified.”

So then what happens?  Ms. Spencer could go down the list of other Alamedans who have applied for the Planning Board position – or even go outside the list of applicants – to try to find another pair of candidates whom the majority would accept.  But if Ms. Ashcraft, Mr. Oddie, and Ms. Vella insist that they will not approve any nomination that doesn’t include Mr. Knox White, he will continue to hold over indefinitely – or at least until the Mayor’s term ends.

Ms. Spencer could escalate the controversy by making only one nomination – not of Mr. Knox White, but of a person with impeccable credentials whom it would be hard for even the most partisan of her foes to find fault with.  Since the Municipal Code does not address the situation where two terms have expired but only one person is nominated and appointed, it’s not clear whom such a candidate would replace.  The labor/leftist triumvirate thus would run the risk that, if they voted to approve the unblemished candidate, she’d take Mr. Knox White’s seat.  But if they didn’t, they’d open themselves up to charges of obstructionism – which isn’t something someone running for mayor herself may want to hear.

One doesn’t have to agree with Mr. Daysog to conclude that these scenarios would turn the appointment process set forth in the Municipal Code on its head.

All that being said, we have to confess that, for selfish reasons, we’ll be disappointed if Mr. Knox White doesn’t continue on the Planning Board for another four years.  Other than, perhaps, Mr. Henneberry, he’s always been the most quotable Board member, and now that David Burton is recusing himself so frequently because of conflicts of interest,  we don’t know where we’d turn when we need to be told what “everyone knows” about development and transportation.  City Planner Andrew Thomas is just too, well, even-handed to perform that function.

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ms. Spencer’s choice

  1. MP says:

    Mr. Sullwold, who is this Merrick Garland (“impeccable credentials..”) nominee?

  2. Steve Gerstle says:

    I would hope that the Mayor, Council, City Manager, Police Chief and Fire Chief boycott tomorrow’s parade in order to not associate themselves with White racist slave owners who refer to Native Americans as, “Merciless Indian Savages.”

  3. nyborn2013 says:

    The Del Monte area will be a mess. There won’t be enough parking, and as a result the neighborhood area will be burdened with cars parking in front of their homes. Not good. So many people are buying condos, with no intention in living there. They buy and they rent to 3-4 people in a two bedroom unit, and they all have cars. They are not going to take public transit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s