The Merry-Go-Round wasn’t really surprised that Councilwoman Malia Vella and her faithful sidekick, Councilman Jim Oddie, didn’t take our advice and push for the selection of a woman or person of color as Alameda’s next fire chief. After all, we didn’t promise them that such a move would produce votes or money for their next campaigns.
But it did strike us as a little, well, graceless that, after City Manager Jill Keimach announced that she had tapped Salinas fire chief Edmond Rodriguez for the top job in the Alameda fire department, neither Ms. Vella nor Mr. Oddie publicly congratulated Chief Rodriguez on his appointment or Ms. Keimach on her choice. Both Council members sat mute on the dais as Ms. Keimach disclosed her decision at the October 3 Council meeting, and their Twitter accounts were silent as well. (Earlier, Ms. Vella, the more frequent tweeter of the two, had posted a laudatory missive – even including a picture of his farewell cake – about retiring Fire Chief Doug Long.)
Instead, it was left to Mayor Trish Spencer to remark on the historic significance of Chief Rodriguez’s selection. “I am pleased that our City Manager was able to find such a highly qualified candidate for the position,” the Mayor was quoted as saying in the City’s press release. “I also think it’s notable that he will be our first person of color to serve in this leadership capacity.”
Now, thanks to Dan Borenstein of the East Bay Times, we have an explanation for Ms. Vella’s and Mr. Oddie’s apparent disinterest in diversity: The two Council members were attempting to strong-arm Ms. Keimach into appointing the candidate designated by the Alameda firefighters’ union – former IAFF Local 689 president Domenick Weaver – as fire chief. What’s more, Mr. Oddie threatened to get Ms. Keimach fired unless she gave the job to the union’s guy.
(Captain Weaver, we should note, matches exactly our previous description of a status quo candidate for fire chief: “a current fire department employee [and a white male], backed by or at least acceptable to the firefighters’ union, who could get a significant bump in his pension by serving an additional couple of years in the role of fire chief, especially if he already has boosted his service credits by purchasing ‘air time’ attributable to a stint with a non-Alameda fire department.”)
We commend Mr. Borenstein’s piece to every Alamedan: http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/12/borenstein-who-runs-alameda-city-manager-or-the-fire-union/. (We also hope the Alameda Journal, a Bay Area News Group affiliate like the Times, will run it on the front page.)
But we wanted to highlight the report for our own readers because, unlike the flack for the firefighters’ union who tried to portray the selection of the next fire chief as raising questions about Ms. Keimach’s “competence,” Mr. Borenstein got his information from public documents and on-the-record interviews.
First, Mr. Borenstein quotes (and links to) a letter from Ms. Keimach to Council describing the extraordinary – and possibly illegal – pressure put on her to appoint the firefighters’ union’s candidate. (We’ve provided our own link below.) “Over the last several months,” Ms. Keimach writes, “I have been approached by elected and appointed officials in Alameda and even at the State level, requesting that I put aside the best interests of the City and select the Fire Chief that has been handpicked by the local IAFF union.” She then goes on to list the tactics employed against her:
- Continued delay of my evaluation since March 2017 in what appears to be an attempt to tie my quantitatively positive evaluation to my selection of a new Fire Chief;
- Increase in requests by two Councilmembers directing untenable operations rather than setting policy to politically justify removal from office (e.g., a proposed requirement that I inform the Council, within an hour after dispatch is called, and before an investigation can verify, all potential hate incidents or crimes);
- The repeat[ed] reference to my impending selection of a new Fire Chief as the basis of my evaluation (i.e., that my selection will determine my continued employment as City Manager);
- Written correspondence urging the selection of REDACTED [presumably, Capt. Weaver] and a two-Councilmember meeting with me to suggest that the selection of their candidate would be in the interest of labor peace and would avoid an incident similar to the one involving Raymond Zack (this thinly veiled threat insults the very notion of good government);
- Verbal threat communicated to others to the effect that if the City Manager does not select REDACTED as Fire Chief, there would be three votes to fire me (this suggests a violation of the Ralph B. Brown Act with a serial meeting);
- Threats to potential candidates for the position in an effort to convince them to withdraw their applications.
But Mr. Borenstein’s piece doesn’t rest on Ms. Keimach’s testimony alone.
The article cites a letter from Mr. Oddie to Ms. Keimach, on official City letterhead, in which the Councilman “strongly” recommends that Ms. Keimach name Capt. Weaver as fire chief. Mr. Borenstein then reports that, a day later, in a conversation with Police Chief Paul Rolleri, Mr. Oddie threatened Ms. Keimach’s job. “He said, ‘well she better do the right thing,’” Chief Rolleri is quoted as saying. “‘There are already two council members who are ready to fire her if she doesn’t.’”
The police chief was stunned, Mr. Borenstein relates, when he realized “they’re actually thinking about canning her if she doesn’t pick the right guy.”
Finally, Mr. Borenstein correctly points out that the City Charter vests the City Manager with the sole authority to hire the fire chief (and other subordinate staff) and prohibits Council members from interfering with her execution of her duties. Indeed, the Charter states that any “attempt by a Councilmember to influence the City Manager in the making of any appointment . . . shall subject such Councilmember to removal from office for malfeasance.”
Following up on this Charter provision, Mr. Borenstein spoke with City Attorney Janet Kern, who stated that “she will hire an outside law firm to investigate.” Since Ms. Kern is known for her cautious approach to the law, and for her circumspect attitude toward the press, her comments themselves are significant.
And what do Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie have to say for themselves? The two Council members did not respond to Mr. Borenstein’s requests to discuss the matter. But in an email to Mr. Borenstein, Mr. Oddie denied improperly influencing the selection process. “As elected officials we have a duty to express our views on matters of concern to our constituents,” he was quoted as saying. “As Americans that is our Constitutional right.”
As a good straight-news journalist, Mr. Borenstein refrained from commenting on the Councilman’s statement. But we won’t: It’s sanctimonious bullshit.
We hope that Ms. Kern and her outside counsel will complete their investigation in time to report their findings to the voters, and, if warranted, to the relevant legal authorities, before next November’s election. And it’s entirely possible that other stories may emerge in the meantime about interference by Ms. Vella or Mr. Oddie in municipal affairs with the intent not of serving their constituents but of benefiting their benefactors. We won’t be surprised if Ms. Keimach turns out not to be the only City staff member to have felt their heavy hands.
Ashcraft: A test of character
At this Tuesday’s Council meeting, the Alameda voters who will elect our next mayor will get a sterling opportunity to gauge the extent to which Councilwoman (and likely mayoral candidate) Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft’s decisions on the dais display principled consistency – or just political expediency.
The occasion is the third attempt by Mayor Trish Spencer to fill two vacancies on the Planning Board. Of the four persons previously nominated by Ms. Spencer, Ms. Ashcraft voted to approve one of them – Alan Teague – and he was the only one to get a seat. Ms. Ashcraft didn’t offer any explanation for her vote against Patricia Lamborn, whose nomination was considered at the same time as Mr. Teague’s, but she delivered lengthy remarks at Council’s July 17 meeting justifying her opposition to the two previous nominees, Steven Gortler and Ruben Tilos.
Messrs. Gortler and Tilos were “fine, upstanding gentlemen,” Ms. Ashcraft said, but they lacked the “experience and background” she believed a Planning Board member should possess. “We have a very talented population of residents in Alameda,” she stated. “We had applicants [for the Board position] with engineering backgrounds, architecture, planning professionals. We have a wealth of knowledge and experience [in these areas].”
It was from this group, Ms. Ashcraft suggested, that new Planning Board members should be drawn. Since Messrs. Gortler and Tilos weren’t part of that group – their expertise was in finance – Ms. Ashcraft declared she would vote no on both nominees.
On Tuesday, Ms. Spencer will present her latest selection: Penny Cozad. According to her application, Ms. Cozad has a bachelor’s degree from U.C.L.A. and a master’s degree in architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Moreover, she is employed by the State of California as a construction inspector.
Architect? Construction inspector? Seems like Ms. Cozad fits Ms. Ashcraft’s desired profile to a ‘t.’
The nominee’s major failing, of course, is that she is not John Knox White, the Inner Ringleader and Spencer detractor now hanging onto his seat on the Board as a holdover until the Mayor can find someone whom Ms. Ashcraft will support to replace him. Already, the gang of mudslingers who idolize Mr. Knox White has begun a smear campaign against Ms. Cozad. (If you can stomach more along the same lines, we’ll bet you’ll be able to find it on Twitter in the next couple of days.)
But if Ms. Ashcraft truly means what she says in public, such tactics will backfire with her. “We should never attack people,” Ms. Ashcraft told the audience on July 17. “There is a way you can disagree, you can state your positions – we have a lot of positions in this room, in this city; they are all valid. So you don’t need to demean and attack someone with an opposing position to strengthen yours; it actually has the opposite effect. So let’s try to disagree with someone’s political position but do it with civility. . . .”
The Merry-Go-Round is quite certain that Council members Vella and Oddie will vote against Ms. Cozad’s nomination simply because they deem it to be in their political interest to do so. But we’ve still not given up – totally – on Ms. Ashcraft. From time to time, she’s proven willing to deviate from the script handed her by the unions and the local Democratic party. Who knows? Maybe she’ll do it again.
October 2, 2017 Keimach letter to Council: 2017-10-02 Keimach letter to Council re fire chief
Cozad application: Cozad_Redacted