Sealed lips, closed minds

To a small “d” democrat like the Merry-Go-Round, it seems indisputable that those who support a Council candidate at the polls have the right to expect that, once in office, the candidate actually will take a position and cast a vote on the matters that come before the body – especially, the controversial ones.  We also think it’s not unreasonable to expect that a Council member will take the trouble to explain publicly the reasons for her vote.

And we’re not alone:  “There is a strong public policy,” one California appellate court has written, “that members of public legislative bodies take a position, and vote, on issues brought before them.”  Or, as the League of California Cities has put it, “making decisions is what officials are elected to do.  It is manifestly unfair – and unethical – to abstain or otherwise put one’s colleagues in the position of taking the heat for a necessary but unpopular decision.”

Unfortunately, the three members of the Triumvirate who control our City Council – Jim Oddie, Malia Vella, and Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft – have chosen to defy these expectations and ignore these admonitions, at least when it comes to nominations made by Mayor Trish Spencer to the Planning Board.

On the votes taken on the six candidates nominated so far, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella have abstained three times apiece and Ms. Ashcraft has abstained once.  By employing these tactics, the ruling clique has managed to ensure the defeat of five of Ms. Spencer’s nominees – without having to take any personal responsibility for casting the deciding vote.

Here’s the play-by-play:

The Mayor’s first candidates to fill the two Planning Board seats that opened up on
June 30 were municipal advisor Steven Gortler and financial analyst Ruben Tilos.  When Ms. Spencer called for a joint vote on both nominees, Mr. Oddie, Ms. Ashcraft, and Ms. Vella all voted no.  The Mayor then sought a vote on each candidate separately.  Ms. Ashcraft and Ms. Vella continued to say no – but, without offering a reason, Mr. Oddie abstained – both times.  The resulting 2-2-1 tally meant defeat for both candidates.

Ms. Spencer next nominated software engineer Alan Teague and retired union organizer Pat Lamborn.  Thanks to an affirmative vote by Ms. Ashcraft, Mr. Teague made it onto the Board despite opposition by Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella.  Then, when Ms. Spencer brought Ms. Lamborn’s nomination up for a vote, Ms. Ashcraft joined Mr. Oddie in saying no – but this time, without any explanation, Ms. Vella abstained.  This led, again, to a 2-2-1 result – and rejection for Ms. Lamborn.

Ms. Vella repeated her performance when the Mayor’s nomination of construction inspector Penny Cozad for the remaining open seat came before Council.  After Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft voted no, Ms. Vella, once more, abstained.  This time, she stated that she was not voting because she had been unable to talk to Ms. Cozad before the meeting (even though both Councilman Frank Matarrese and Ms. Ashcraft somehow had managed to interview the nominee).  Ms. Cozad ended up being turned down by the now familiar 2-2-1 count.

Finally, the silence of the triumvirs became deafening when Council considered Ms. Spencer’s next pick, Island High School teacher Sylvia Gibson, on November 21.

After two prominent local advocates for “sustainability” extolled Ms. Gibson, the nominee herself gave one of the most eloquent speeches we’ve heard from the podium in some time.  “I offer my services on the Planning Board as a bridge,” she said, and then identified the interest groups she wanted to bring together.  “Like all bridges,” she concluded, “I’m prepared to be walked on, and I’m prepared to bear a load.”

Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft apparently were unmoved.  Invited by the Mayor to comment on the nomination, they passed.  (For his part, Mr. Matarrese praised Ms. Gibson for, among other things, her work on updating the City’s climate-change plan.)  When Ms. Spencer called for the yeas and nays, none of them spoke up.  But then, when the Mayor asked about abstentions, the three, like a latter-day Larry, Mo, and Curly, piped up in sequence: “Abstain.”

(This was the second time the Triumvirate has pulled this trick.  Back in February, Ms. Spencer, concerned by the delay in finalizing a new lease between the City and the Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter, sought to get Council to direct staff to deliver a status report – in open session – at the next Council meeting.  Mr. Matarrese voted with her – but Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft all abstained, resulting in a 2-0-3 vote and failure of the motion for lack of a majority.  The lease negotiations went on for another three months.)

Since the three members of the Triumvirate have not favored their constituents with any explanation for their various refusals to vote on the Planning Board nominations (except for Ms. Vella’s reference to her inability to reach the nominee), we can only guess why they’ve acted this way.  But none of the possible reasons makes any of them look good.

Mr. Oddie may be just a congenital abstainer.  Since he took office in January 2015, Mr. Oddie has abstained 17 times – more often than all of his fellow sitting Council members combined – on Council votes.  (By way of comparison, during this three-year period Ms. Spencer has abstained only once, and Mr. Matarrese never has abstained.)

There seems be no pattern from which a rationale for Mr. Oddie’s voting behavior can be discerned.  Take the issue of whether to place the rent stabilization ordinance passed by Council on the November 2016 ballot for confirmation by the voters.  The first time the issue came up, Mr. Oddie abstained from voting on a motion not to put the ordinance on the ballot.  At the next Council meeting, he voted in favor of directing staff to prepare a ballot measure to confirm the ordinance.  At the meeting after that, he voted against authorizing the ballot measure.  And then he volunteered to co-author the ballot argument supporting the ordinance!  Our Councilman’s flip-flops would have made John Kerry envious.

This hypothesis, of course, applies only to Mr. Oddie.  But there is another theory that fits all three members of the Triumvirate:  Maybe they chose to abstain because they had grown weary of embarrassing themselves by voting inconsistently with their own previously stated positions.

Mr. Oddie himself furnishes one example.  During the Council discussion of the first round of Planning Board nominations, he delivered a speech urging the Mayor to pick a candidate whom housing advocacy groups would support.  (“We shouldn’t kid ourselves, there are votes on the Council, typically a majority, that are more sympathetic to the Renewed Hope, progressive, and business community than there are to the folks that don’t want us to have development and want us to grow.”)  But then, when Ms. Spencer nominated Mr. Teague, who had gotten the endorsement of the Alameda Home Team, Mr. Oddie voted no anyway.

Similarly, during the Council discussion of the first round of nominations, Ms. Ashcraft pooh-poohed the acknowledged financial expertise of Ms. Spencer’s candidates, Messrs. Gortler and Tilos, and suggested that the Mayor turn to one of the “applicants with engineering backgrounds, architecture, planning professionals.”  But then, when Ms. Spencer nominated Ms. Cozad, who has a master’s degree in architecture and inspects hospital construction for the State, Ms. Ashcraft voted against her.

Ms. Vella presents a harder case, since, even when she attempts to state her views, her reasoning often is obscure.  But it did appear from the speech she delivered during the Council discussion of the second round of nominations that Ms. Vella believed that at least one new Planning Board member ought to be a renter, preferably a young one with well-established ties to Alameda.  (“And I also think that it’s important – we do have applicants that are currently on the list who are renters; they are young, they are long-time members of our community.  I would love for them to have a seat at the table.”)  The Mayor’s last nominee, Ms. Gibson, fit that description, but it wasn’t good enough to earn Ms. Vella’s vote.

By the fourth round of nominations, Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft may have realized that they had looked a little foolish by denying a seat on the Planning Board to nominees who possessed precisely the quality they previously had declared essential for the position.  And if foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, foolish inconsistency is even worse.  Far better just to abstain and say nothing.

Finally, it’s possible that Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft are just too, well, abashed to admit what they’ve really been up to.

After President Obama was elected, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell bluntly stated that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”  And for the next eight years he proved true to his word, opposing the President on virtually every important issue.  For this he was condemned as an obstructionist – but at least he had been candid.

In like fashion, Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft may have decided after the 2014 election to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Ms. Spencer to accomplish any of her goals, including bringing a balance of perspectives to the Planning Board.  By taking such an approach, they, like Senator McConnell, would be playing to their base of ideologues who regarded the incumbent with distrust, and even disgust.

But do our self-proclaimed “progressive” Council members really relish the reputation of being less forthright with their followers than the Republican leader was with his?  If, for political reasons, Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft want to deny Ms. Spencer the ability to choose the members of the Planning Board, they should have the backbone to vote no on her nominations, not just mutter, “I abstain.”  And they should have enough respect for the Alameda citizens who have volunteered to serve on the Board to make clear that their opposition has nothing to do with the candidates themselves, and everything to do with Ms. Spencer.

This Tuesday, the three members of the Triumvirate will get another chance to redeem themselves when Ms. Spencer submits her seventh Planning Board nominee, consultant Jeffrey Cavanaugh, for Council approval.  Will Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft actually do their duty and vote on the nomination?  Will they, for once, disclose the true reasons for their position?

We aren’t holding our breath.


Abstention: CLC article re abstention (Part 1); CLC article re abstention (Part 2); Kunec v. Brea Redevelopment Agency_ 55 Cal. App. 4th 511

Votes on Planning Board nominations: 2017-07-18 CC minutes; 2017-09-19 CC minutes; 2017-10-21 CC minutes

Vote on FAAS referral: 2017-02-21 CC minutes

Votes on rent stabilization ballot measure: 2016-07-05 CC minutes; 2016-07-19 CC minutes; 2016-08-08 CC minutes


About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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10 Responses to Sealed lips, closed minds

  1. Shameful beharior! says:

    I’m afraid Mr. Cavanaugh is doomed right out of the gate, pour soul. In addition to being a long-time resident of Alameda (they hate the locals) he works in environmental consulting (oohh – kiss of political death on this council).

    Another one will bite the dust, and my guess is that his ‘lack of engineering or urban planning” experience will be the only excuse the dynamic trio may try cough up after this public and more than justified shaming.

    Just disgusting. What a waste of everyone’s time. Nominee number 7? I wish I could believe it will be lucky this go-round but it’s bound to go down in flames. Hopefully, come election time, the voters remember and return the (un)favor.

  2. Well, Jeff Cavanuagh is a “friend” of Jim Oddie, thus he may have a chance? His LinkedIn profile though says that he lives in San Francisco. Is that true?

    • Consistent with the usual practice, the address line on Mr. Cavanaugh’s application is redacted. But the Municipal Code requires that, at the time of their appointment, Planning Board members be “electors” in Alameda.

  3. carol says:

    Cavanaugh’s Facebook page says he lives in SF, also. A cursory glance thru his 500+ friends doesn’t turn up many who live in Alameda. In fact, the only one I found IS Jim Oddie, Cavanaugh’s app says he is a “fourth-gen Alamedan”. That doesn’t necessarily mean he still lives here-just that he was born & raised. I lived in LA for ten years, but I will always be a third-gen Alamedan.
    This application needs more sunshine.

  4. Shameful beharior! says:

    My apologies for the uninformed comment – I assumed from his application/letter that he was an islander. Thanks to all for the follow-up – do we know what happened with the nomination?

    • The nomination of Mr. Cavanaugh was approved by a 3-0-2 vote. Council members Spencer, Matarrese, and Oddie voted in favor. Council members Ashcraft and Vella abstained.

      The only Council member to address the nomination was Mr. Matarrese. Ms. Vella and Ms. Ashcraft neither commented on the nominee nor offered any reason for abstaining. For those who’re counting, this makes Ms. Vella’s fourth, and Ms. Ashcraft’s second, abstention on Planning Board nominations.

  5. Shameful beharior! says:

    Well then, 7 did turn out to be the lucky number.;-)

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