The Merry-Go-Round wasn’t surprised when the leftist/labor Triumvirate now in control of Council – Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Jim Oddie, and Malia Vella – voted down the two Alameda businessmen tapped to fill the open seats on the Planning Board.
After all, both candidates had been nominated by Mayor Trish Spencer.
And neither of them was named John Knox White.
Those may not seem like very good reasons for rejecting otherwise qualified candidates – but the Triumvirate didn’t offer the public any more rational or less political explanation.
Most significantly, none of the three suggested that the nominees, Ruben Tilos and Steven Gortler, weren’t fit to serve on the Planning Board. Indeed, based on their comments, the three Council members regarded the candidates as stand-up guys. Unfortunately, neither man possessed the qualities that, according to the triumvirs, a Planning Board member ought to have.
And what might those be? We’ll take it one-by-one.
Start with Ms. Ashcraft. Among the applicants not chosen by the Mayor, she pointed out, were architects, engineers, and “planning professionals.” Neither Mr. Tilos, a financial analyst for a firm providing mortgage banking and wealth management services, nor Mr. Gortler, an independent financial advisor to local governments, matches that description. Ms. Ashcraft didn’t go so far as to argue that “only design professionals need apply,” but she made clear her conviction that the kind of expertise these two “fine, upstanding gentlemen” would bring to the Planning Board was irrelevant:
I appreciate that both gentlemen have backgrounds in finance, [but] that isn’t something that is much called upon in approving projects and analyzing projects. There would be financial experts brought in; it’s always hard to stay in our lanes because we all do come from other professions.
That’s what she actually said. Really.
Frankly, it is one of the silliest statements we’ve ever heard any Council member, much less a Council member with Ms. Ashcraft’s experience, make: The ability of a Planning Board member to evaluate the economics of a development proposal doesn’t matter??? (Note to Joe Ernst and Bruce Dorfman: Forget about those pro formas you prepared to justify amending the development agreement for Site A. As far as Ms. Ashcraft is concerned, the officials charged with reviewing your request don’t need to understand the numbers.)
For her part, Ms. Vella stressed the importance of a Planning Board nominee already knowing the details about the projects that would come before the Board and the laws affecting them. “If you’re really interested in serving on a board or commission,” she said, “I would hope you’d been paying attention to those sort of things throughout the years, not just . . . that you woke up one day and said, I think I’ll put in for the Planning Board.”
Ms. Vella’s insistence on current familiarity with development issues was a little odd given her own limited involvement with this, or any other, aspect of municipal affairs when she decided to run for Council. (Ms. Vella, born in Alameda and raised in San Leandro, was appointed to the Historical Advisory Board in 2014, the same year in which Mr. Tilos, a lifelong Alameda resident, was appointed to the Recreation and Parks Commission, which he now chairs.) Likewise, as Ms. Vella herself recently demonstrated when she questioned staff about the “risk” to the City’s state-approved Housing Element if 800 units weren’t built at Site A (there isn’t any, since Site A isn’t included in the Housing Element), even the most basic facts about the largest development in town may elude a new officeholder despite having had six months on the job.
In any event, Ms. Vella never specifically stated that Mr. Tilos or Mr. Gortler lacked the qualities she thought were required of a Planning Board member. “I do have some concerns relative to the things that I’ve mentioned, and knowledge, and a knowledge base of those particular items,” she stated. Council was “supposed to be looking at making sure that this dialog is going to be happening, and that the work can be happening, and we don’t have a delay in terms of the learning curve and what types of decisions are being made and what the parameters are,” she concluded. “That’s what’s motivating my decision tonight.”
If you can figure out what that means, let us know.
And then there was Mr. Oddie. Mr. Tilos and Mr. Gortler were “fine individuals,” the Councilman said, but “if I was the mayor,
I think my preference would be that we would bring forth more of a consensus candidate to serve on the Planning Board, one that the [Alameda Citizens Task Force] is comfortable with, one that [housing advocacy organization] Renewed Hope is comfortable with, one that the business community is comfortable with. . . . So I would like to see that type of person brought forward.
Good luck with that. There is a better chance that Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer would be able to agree on a “consensus candidate” for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court than there is that ACT and Renewed Hope would agree on any “consensus candidate” for the Planning Board. And why should they? The differences between the two groups are philosophical, not merely political. Just listen to what their representatives say at public meetings: One ACT member has urged Council to impose a moratorium on any further residential development on the northern waterfront; one Renewed Hope officer has hinted at legal action if the City were to turn down any project proposed for a site listed in the Housing Element.
Maybe a politician who speaks out of both sides of her mouth could mollify those who hold these opposing views – but do we really want such a charlatan on the Planning Board?
(Mr. Oddie also would like “the business community” to sign off on Planning Board nominees. But, from the comments made by the Chamber of Commerce’s Kari Thompson at Tuesday’s meeting, it’s hard to know what fault the Chamber found in Mr. Tilos or Mr. Gortler: “It is bad for business, it just is not a good thing, and so at this point, I’m sorry to say, from the mayor’s own mouth, that to recommend no on projects, just because to say no, just doesn’t make sense, especially from a business standpoint, so we’re urging you not to support those candidates.” Huh?)
So let’s get out Occam’s razor: If none of the reasons stated by Ms. Ashcraft, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Oddie makes any sense, the explanation for their rejection of Mr. Tilos and Mr. Gortler must lie in the Triumvirate’s antipathy toward Ms. Spencer and their admiration for Mr. Knox White.
Of those attitudes there is little doubt.
Both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft, who are expected to run for Council and mayor, respectively, next year, have made their contempt for the incumbent abundantly clear. Last year, one of his publicists quoted Mr. Oddie as describing Ms. Spencer’s tenure as “unfolding like a Nixonian tragedy.” More recently, Mr. Oddie demanded that Ms. Spencer “own up” to the purported influence of race and ethnicity on her treatment of public speakers at Council meetings; when the Mayor understandably took offense, he replied, “It’s fair to call it like I see it.” Ms. Ashcraft eschews public insults like these, but when she addresses Ms. Spencer during Council meetings, she often resorts to a condescending sneer rather than her usual schoolmarm-ish tone. Not only that, she has submitted Council referrals designed to clip Ms. Spencer’s wings by restricting the Mayor’s authority to place items on the Council agenda, appoint City representatives to regional boards, and call Planning Board decisions for review. And, although we haven’t seen Ms. Vella descend into the snark pit, she knows full well that no true “progressive” would ever want to be found on Ms. Spencer’s side on any issue.
By the same token, Mr. Knox White, like Mr. Oddie, has been a mainstay of the City of Alameda Democratic Club, and he served, albeit briefly, with Ms. Ashcraft on the Planning Board. He endorsed Ms. Ashcraft for Council in 2012 and 2016, Mr. Oddie in 2014, and Ms. Vella in 2016. (The Oddie endorsement was especially effusive: Mr. Oddie “rises heads and shoulders above” the other Council candidates, Mr. Knox White wrote in the Sun.) More importantly, Mr. Knox White espouses a “vision” for the City that the Triumvirate, like every good forward thinker, ascribes to: Alameda should strive to become a magnet for millenials who scorn automobiles and single-family homes in favor of walking or riding bikes from high-rise apartments to public transit that will take them to high-paying jobs across the Bay.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the triumvirs took care not to bash Ms. Spencer or boost Mr. Knox White overtly. Indeed, Ms. Ashcraft was the only one of them to mention Mr. Knox White by name – and then only by reading an adulatory email she said she had received that very morning from a “now retired gentleman who keeps up with what’s going on in town.” Likewise, when Ms. Vella and Ms. Ashcraft began the Council discussion by criticizing the “process” by which Ms. Spencer chose the two nominees, they said they were merely trying to promote “transparency.”
We weren’t fooled – and we don’t think any objective observer was, either.
But if it’s “process” Ms. Vella and Ms. Ashcraft want to talk about, we do have a suggestion. At present, the Municipal Code provides that the mayor nominates and the council appoints board and commission members. Let’s add a preliminary step: Rather than submit an application to the City Clerk, the candidate first should deliver it to the co-chairs of the City of Alameda Democratic Club, who then would consult with Ms. Ashcraft, Mr. Oddie, and Ms. Vella about the nominee. (Since Mr. Oddie is one of the co-chairs, he would need to consult with himself, which might not be a bad idea, since he sometimes does strange things like voting against the motion to appoint Messrs. Tilos and Gortler and then abstaining on subsequent motions to appoint each man individually.) If all three pledge to vote for the candidate, the application would be forwarded to the City Clerk, with an appropriate notation, and thereafter the process would continue as it does now.
(For those concerned about a potential violation of the Brown Act, which otherwise would prohibit non-public communications among three Council members through a third party, the new policy would specify that the co-chair should consult with Ms. Ashcraft and either Ms. Vella or Mr. Oddie. Our running tally of Council votes shows that the two of them have been on the same side on all 25 non-unanimous votes since Ms. Vella joined Council, so if you’ve got one, you’ve got the other.)
If this “process” works as well as we think it would, why stop there? City Manager Jill Keimach could adopt it for every staff recommendation she is considering bringing before Council. Think of the staff time and effort that would be saved if she could agendize only those action items Ms. Ashcraft, Mr. Oddie, and Ms. Vella have committed to vote for and keep any other misguided proposal – like setting standards for mixed-use development projects – off the calendar.
We’ll end by expressing our condolences to Messrs. Tilos and Gortler. If they need a sympathetic ear, they might try contacting the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The Honorable Merrick Garland knows all too well what it feels like when those who control a legislative body deny a job to a well-qualified candidate, simply because they want to undermine the elected head of government who nominated him.
Tilos and Gortler applications: Planning Board Nominees (2017)