Buy one, get one free

As former Councilman Tony Daysog (among many others) is fond of saying, “Elections have consequences.”

The latest case in point in Alameda involves Mr. Daysog himself.

Now that our elected officials are taking their August recess, the Merry-Go-Round decided to review all of the Council votes in the seven months since Mr. Daysog lost his seat to Malia Vella.  Three conclusions emerged:  with Mr. Daysog out and Ms. Vella in,

  • The disparity among Council members on contested issues has decreased.
  • The authority of the mayor over municipal affairs has diminished.
  • The ability of the unions and pro-renter groups to achieve their agendas has improved.

We’ll start with the voting patterns.

Since the newly elected Council was sworn in, there have been 30 motions on which the vote was not unanimous.  (Twenty-one were decided by a 4-1 margin, nine by a 3-2 tally; we’re not counting votes on purely procedural matters like extending the meeting past 11 p.m.).  In every one of those 30 cases, whether the item was big-ticket or small-bore, Ms. Vella voted the same way as Councilman Jim Oddie, her predecessor as the Alameda firefighters’ union’s choice for Council, except for one item on which she abstained.

Moreover, confirming the extent to which the two Council members are of one mind, Ms. Vella joined Mr. Oddie in co-sponsoring two resolutions catering to the leftist wing of the local Democratic party:  forcing the City to end its banking relationship with the Wells Fargo Bank, and urging Congress to “investigate” impeaching Donald Trump.  Both times, Mr. Oddie presented the resolution at the Council meeting, but he took care to credit Ms. Vella for “doing the heavy lifting.”

It is, of course, not unusual to find two legislators of the same political persuasion on the same side of most contested issues.  What is unusual is to find two politicians on the same side of every issue.

Even Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft hasn’t voted the same way as Mr. Oddie every time.  Twice, she was the sole dissenter in 4-1 votes, and she abstained once when her colleagues were unanimous.  Two other times, she was part of the minority in 3-2 votes, once with Ms. Spencer and once with Mr. Matarrese.  None of these five items was particularly earth-shaking, and the reason Ms. Ashcraft is a member in good standing of the Triumvirate is that she votes with Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella on the highest-profile issues.  But her failure to join them one out of every six times shows that she hasn’t totally lost her capacity for independent thinking.

Ms. Vella’s record of voting “me, too” with a politically simpatico fellow Council member stands out even more dramatically by comparison to Mr. Daysog.  The former Councilman wasn’t the reliable ally of Mayor Spencer that his political foes condemned him for being.  Of the 94 non-unanimous votes during Ms. Spencer’s first two years, Mr. Daysog sided with the Mayor only 34 times.  Nor was Mr. Daysog a pea in the same pod as Councilman Frank Matarrese.  On the non-unanimous items, Mr. Daysog and Mr. Matarrese voted the same way less than half the time (45 out of 94 votes).

The replacement of Mr. Daysog by Ms. Vella made a difference not just in statistics but also in outcomes.  Two 3-2 votes, with Ms. Vella in the majority, undermined the mayor’s authority; two other 3-2 votes, with Ms. Vella again on the winning side, advanced the unions’ and pro-renter groups’ agendas.  All four votes would have gone the other way had Mr. Daysog remained on Council.

Take the anti-Spencer votes first.

Under the Municipal Code, any Council member may “call for review” a decision by the Planning Board.  Not surprisingly, developers don’t like this provision, since it creates the risk that the full Council will reject a project that had managed to make it through the Planning Board.  That is exactly what happened in September 2016 to Pacific Union Land Investors, LLC, which proposed to build a high-end “senior assisted living facility” on Harbor Bay Isle.  The Planning Board approved the project, but Mayor Spencer called the decision for review, and, despite having been treated to a video presentation by the estimable Becca Perata, Council overruled the Board by a 3-2 vote, with Mr. Daysog in the majority together with Ms. Spencer and Mr. Matarrese.

The political fallout for Mr. Daysog was immediate:  an outfit called Hartz Holdings, Inc., which shares the same business address as Pacific Union Land Investors, contributed $10,000 to the PAC – misleading calling itself “Alamedans United” – formed by out-of-town unions and developers to influence last November’s municipal election.  The PAC promptly spent about $13,000 to attack Mr. Daysog; among other things, it paid for mailers denouncing the Councilman as “anti-senior” for voting against the Pacific Union proposal.

But the Council decision to reject the project also gave new impetus to the drive to prevent a single member – read, Trish Spencer – from being able to require a development proposal to undergo scrutiny by the full Council.  Mr. Oddie had begun the effort in May 2016 by submitting a Council referral requiring a majority vote by Council to call a Planning Board decision for review.  Despite receiving the blessing of Inner Ringleader and then-Board president John Knox White, the idea didn’t play well with Mr. Oddie’s fellow Council members.  Ms. Ashcraft ended up offering a face-saving motion directing staff to “conduct a review of the current Council review process.”

As far as we know, staff never presented any report on the subject to Council.  But then Mr. Daysog departed, and Ms. Vella arrived, and Ms. Ashcraft was back before Council this March with a new referral for requiring two votes by Council members – rather than the three proposed by Mr. Oddie – to call a Planning Board decision for review.  In addition, the members seeking review would be obligated to “state a reason for the appeal.”  Mr. Oddie was only too happy to agree to the revised restriction; Ms. Vella, as usual, went along, and the referral was accepted by a 3-2 vote.  The result would have been different had Mr. Daysog remained on Council.  How do we know?  Because we asked him, and he replied, “I’d have kept the process the same as it is.”

The appointment process is the second area in which the replacement of Mr. Daysog by Ms. Vella has made it possible for the new regime to clip Ms. Spencer’s wings.  Under the City Charter, the mayor nominates, and Council appoints, the members of City boards and commissions.  The only qualification legally required to serve is that the nominee be a registered voter in Alameda, and, traditionally, Council has rubber-stamped the mayor’s choices (or so we’ve been told).

That changed after Ms. Spencer took office.  The terms of two Planning Board members – Stanley Tang and Dania Alvarez – expired at the end of June 2015, and the Mayor nominated David Mitchell and Sandy Sullivan to replace them.  (As it turned out, Ms. Spencer may come to regret one of those choices.  See following story.)  Mr. Tang did not seek re-appointment, but Ms. Alvarez did, and her Board colleagues, led by Mr. Knox White, showed up before Council to demand her retention.  On cue, Ms. Ashcraft proclaimed she was “troubled,” and Mr. Oddie professed to be “distressed,” by the Mayor’s failure to re-appoint Ms. Alvarez.  Both Council members then voted against the nominations of Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Sullivan.

Mr. Daysog, too, offered praise for Ms. Alvarez, but his personal feelings (or political calculations) didn’t determine his vote.  The Charter gave the mayor the authority to nominate Board members, he said, “and if the mayor has a certain agenda in mind, that comes with the territory of elections,” citing the well-known aphorism with which we began this column.  Consistent with this principle, he furnished the third vote (with Ms. Spencer and Mr. Matarrese) to appoint the Mayor’s nominees.

Two weeks after failing to quash the Mitchell and Sullivan nominations, Mr. Oddie once again took the first step to rein in Ms. Spencer, submitting a referral directing staff to “review the process” for making board and commission appointments.  Once again, as far as we know, staff never presented a report to Council on the topic.  But, once again, after Mr. Daysog lost and Ms. Vella won, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft found the third vote they needed to thwart the Mayor.

The terms of two more Planning Board members – Mr. Knox White and Lorre Zuppan – expired this June.  Ms. Spencer chose two Alameda businessmen, Steven Gortler and Ruben Tilos, to replace them.  As we previously reported, the Triumvirate could find no objective fault with either nominee, but they nevertheless insisted that neither was worthy to serve on the Planning Board.  Mr. Daysog no longer was around to counsel deference to the mayor’s role under the Charter, and the nomination of Messrs. Gortler and Tilos failed by a 2-3 vote.  Mr. Daysog confirmed to us that, had he remained on Council, these two gentlemen would be sitting on the Planning Board today.

Finally, we come to the firefighters’ union and the pro-renter groups.

After the election of Ms. Vella put a third candidate backed by IAFF Local 689 on Council, we figured it was only a matter of time before the fire department asked for more funds from the City for personnel, equipment, or both.  Lo and behold, staff submitted to Council this April a request to add three new firefighters (one of them with the rank of captain) at an annual cost of $799,206, and to buy three new “staff vehicles” for $188,684.  The stated purpose was to “re-instate” the Fire Prevention Bureau and assign two firefighters, supervised by the captain, to conduct residential and commercial fire inspections on a full-time basis.  (At the time, this task was being performed by existing “suppression staff” – i.e., firefighters already on the job – and, according to Fire Chief Doug Long, a backlog had developed.)

The staff report didn’t mention the Ghost Ship fire that had occurred in Oakland last December, but Councilman Oddie wasn’t shy about exploiting the event to justify the annual expense of close to a million dollars.  Alameda was not “immune” from what he called the “Ghost Ship situation” because “I hear from firefighters all the time that we have similar situations in town,” he said.  “To cut corners on this not only puts our firefighters’ lives in danger, it puts our citizens’ lives in danger.”

In response, neither Ms. Spencer nor Mr. Matarrese expressed any wish to endanger firefighters or Alameda residents.  But both suggested that the number and frequency of fire inspections could be increased, at a lower cost to the City, by hiring and training additional civilian inspectors rather than putting more sworn firefighters on the payroll.  As Ms. Spencer put it, directly addressing the 30 or so firefighters who packed Council chambers:  “With all due respect to all of you, I do want you fighting fires.  I don’t want you doing inspections.  I want to hire someone, non-sworn, to do the inspections so that we can employ you long-term to fight fires and protect our citizens’ lives.”

Had he remained on Council, Mr. Daysog would have taken the same position. “We don’t need to create a new level bureaucracy with the added cost that’s entailed by hiring three new fire persons to bring buildings up to code,” he told us.  “We can contract that out and get the same level of service at far lower immediate and long-term (i.e., retirement) costs.”  But Mr. Daysog wasn’t on Council any more, Ms. Vella was, and she supported the fire department’s request for additional personnel and equipment wholeheartedly.  Indeed, she recited her “understanding” that the City had “made a promise” during negotiations with the firefighters’ union that “when this item came back up we would have a conversation about” re-instating the Fire Prevention Bureau.  The motion passed, 3-2.

Next it was the pro-renter groups’ turn.  During the lengthy debates over “rent stabilization,” the Alameda Renters’ Coalition had urged Council to ban so-called “no cause evictions,” in which a tenancy can be terminated simply by serving a 30- or 60-day notice.  Staff drafted an ordinance containing such a ban, but no Council member – even Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Oddie – took up the cause, and Council ultimately passed an ordinance that permitted no-cause evictions but required a landlord to pay relocation fees to the old tenant and limited the rent she could charge to the new tenant.

Sticking to its guns, ARC collected signatures to place on the November ballot an initiative for a Charter amendment that, among other things, would prohibit no-cause evictions altogether.  The measure, known as M1, was defeated by a 30 percent margin.  At the same time, Alamedans voted, 56 percent to 44 percent, to ratify the ordinance passed by Council.

During the campaign, Ms. Vella never expressly endorsed Measure M1, either in her campaign literature or at any of the candidates’ forums (at least the ones we attended).  Nevertheless, she benefited from an apparently widespread perception that she favored the initiative.  For example, the East Bay Express stated in endorsing her that, “Vella gets major points for being the only candidate who voices support for renters and Measure M1.”

After the election, ARC continued to press for a ban on no-cause evictions.  When the rent stabilization ordinance came up for a regularly scheduled review by Council in April, the pro-renters’ group presented six suggested changes to the law.  “End no cause evictions” topped the list.  As it happened, it was not Ms. Vella but Ms. Ashcraft who first proposed amending the ordinance to require “just cause” for evictions.  Almost as if by pre-arrangement, Ms. Vella immediately spoke up in favor of the idea, stating that the absence of such a requirement was the “biggest loophole in the ordinance.”

That night, not having gotten the memo, Mr. Oddie questioned the need to tamper with a key term in an ordinance the voters had just approved.  Less than 72 hours later, he had experienced an epiphany – as well as an avalanche of adverse publicity – and he now led the charge to insert a ban on no-cause evictions into the law.  Indeed, Mr. Oddie’s conversion was so complete that one tweeter suggested nicknaming him, “Just Cause Jim.”

The move to rewrite the ordinance never would have gotten so far had Mr. Daysog remained on Council.  “I would have voted to keep [the rent stabilization ordinance] as is,” he told us, “and I firmly believe that no evidence-based case has been made showing why it should be changed.”  But Mr. Daysog was out of the picture, and the “just cause” requirement demanded by the pro-renters groups became law by another 3-2 vote.

All of the consequences we’ve discussed so far have occurred only nine months after the election that put Ms. Vella in Mr. Daysog’s seat.  One can only imagine – shudder at? – what might happen in the year and a half before Alamedans go to the polls again.  Our bet?  We suspect there is more to come for the firefighters’ union and its allies in organized labor.  And we won’t be surprised if the developers start looking for a tangible return on their investment, too.


Referrals re calls for review: 2016-05-17-oddie-referral-re-calls-for-review2017-03-07 Ashcraft referral re calls for review

Referral re board/commission appointments: 2015-09-15 Oddie referral re appointment process

“Fire prevention bureau”: 2017-04-18 staff report re adding new positions

Ban on “no-cause” evictions: 2017-06-06 Ex. 1 to staff report – Redline version of Ordinance

Ms. Spencer’s mistake

Jim Oddie was the Alameda firefighters’ union’s candidate for Council in 2014.   Malia Vella was the union’s choice in 2016.  Who will get the nod in 2018?

The Merry-Go-Round got an inkling of the answer when we read the list of potential candidates in IAFF Local 689’s favorite online outlet, the East Bay Citizen.  But our suspicions weren’t confirmed until we saw the picture below posted on Twitter.

That’s Ms. Vella, of course, on the right.  The man on the left is Planning Board member David Mitchell.  And the two are wearing aprons because they’re serving at the annual pancake breakfast sponsored by . . . the Alameda firefighters’ union.

As our main story notes, Mayor Trish Spencer nominated Mr. Mitchell to the Planning Board in 2015, and, over the objections of Mr. Oddie and Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Council appointed him.  Since then, Mr. Mitchell has become for Ms. Spencer what Earl Warren was for Dwight Eisenhower.

Following the path laid down by Ms. Vella, Mr. Mitchell has begun to cozy up to both the firefighters’ union and pro-renter groups.  This April, he appeared before Council to endorse adding three new firefighters and buying three new “staff vehicles” to set up a Fire Prevention Bureau.  In June, he again showed up at a Council meeting to speak in favor of rewriting the rent stabilization ordinance to ban no-cause evictions.   In the meantime, he has found time to post tweets demeaning Ms. Spencer.  (“Not sure she knows the difference between Protesting & Governance.”)

What’s next?  Keep your eyes open for the announcement of the Mitchell campaign kick-off party at 2027 Clement Avenue.

And one other prediction.  If Councilman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft runs for mayor, and wins, her Council seat, too, will become open, and the unions will get the chance to make Council 100 percent pro-labor by electing a third candidate in addition to Mr. Oddie and Mr. Mitchell.

Our sources tell us – alright, we’re guessing – that the unions will try for the trifecta by putting up Dennis Popalardo, a lawyer specializing in bringing workers’ comp claims for firefighters’ union members, for Council.   In 2016, Mr. Popalardo finished dead last in the race for School Board despite endorsements from IBEW Local 1245, Teamsters Local 856 (Ms. Vella’s employer), and UFCW Local 5, but he recently secured an appointment to the Alameda Health Care District board, a traditional stepping stone for a wannabe Council member (just ask Rob Bonta, Lena Tam, and Stewart Chen, D.C.)  It also doesn’t hurt that he works for a law firm headed by Senator Barbara Boxer’s husband.

Stay tuned.

About Robert Sullwold

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

5 Responses to Buy one, get one free

  1. Joe Camicia says:

    Great analysis. Two points: This move to union control of local elections has been brewing for 30 years now. The firefighters endorsed candidates as far back as the early ’80s. However they were not as well organized as they are now. More than other local public employee unions, the firefighters have become increasingly sophisticated at the machinery of getting their candidates elected.

    Second, Alameda is not alone when it comes to union control of elected officials. It’s just about impossible for a Democrat to be elected to the legislature without broad union support. To get the endorsement (money and “volunteers”) of any union these days requires a candidate to agree to a long list union positions on a variety of issues. To disagree, is to not get the union endorsement/support and lose the election.

    A good example of how this plays out is the gas tax Gov. Brown signed recently. The State’s revenue only supports the day-to-day infrastructure of government. To actually do any work requires a special tax. Be interesting to see how long the electorate– local or state, puts up with this.

  2. dave says:

    We can’t stop the IAFF from supporting candidates but we can — and should — stop council members from voting for their contributors’ benefit. Alameda needs a firm recusal law that will prevent a council member from voting on any item that benefits an individual or entity that contributed to their campaign.
    This should of course be a simple matter, as both unions and council members insist there is no quid pro quo….

    • MP says:

      Recusal would take all the fun out of it. As an alternative, a couple of years ago there was a group that tried to qualify a measure for the statewide ballot that – over First Amendment right-to-fashion objections – would have required legislators to wear stickers or patches bearing the logos of their donors/contributors while on the job, a la stock car drivers and professional soccer players. (Rob Bonta, unfairly, was featured in the group’s campaign.) From the look of things, there are at least some who wouldn’t have too big of a problem with it. Come to think of one recent example, and leaving aside any objection you might have to deceptive place-of-origin labeling (if you are one to insist, say, on at least a 5% threshold), “Alamedans United” did rather sound like a pro soccer team. Logo-ed jerseys might have been quite nice.

    • So, then, folks who take Realtor money wouldn’t be able to vote on items that affect the real estate market? Like development or rent control?

      • dave says:

        Specifically, council members cannot vote on items that spend or otherwise direct public funds to a contributor. For example if a real estate entity contributed to a politician, that politician could not vote for a city contract with that entity.

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