No cause left behind

For the last two years, Council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella have been leading their own “#Me Too” movement in Alameda.

But the goal of this movement isn’t to eliminate sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.  Rather, it’s to make sure that our Council follows the lead of other cities, in the Bay Area and across the country, in adopting left-leaning ordinances cooked up by right-thinking political activists.

The maneuvers by the two Council members haven’t accomplished much for the ordinary citizens of Alameda, but that might not have been the point.  As Donald Trump will tell you, playing to the base can be a winning strategy, and Mr. Oddie’s and Ms. Vella’s #Me Too efforts surely have solidified their support from the labor and “progressive” wings of the local Democratic party.

The latest project undertaken by the duo involved a United States Supreme Court case that hasn’t even been decided yet.

In 1977, the Court upheld so-called “agency shop” laws requiring public employees who don’t want to join a union nevertheless to pay a fee to the union for other services it provides.  Last term, the Court agreed to take a case (Janus v. AFSCME) in which it was asked to overrule that decision – and the public-employee unions panicked.  If agency shops were outlawed, they feared, their revenue would plummet – and with it their ability to fund campaigns by pro-labor candidates for federal, state, and local office.

Apparently, both organized labor and the legal pundit class are convinced that the Court will strike down agency-shop laws.  (For our part, we find it hard to buy the argument that such laws infringe upon the First Amendment rights of public employees.)  So the  potentially affected unions have engaged in an all-out effort to neutralize the impact of an adverse ruling.

Thanks to Council members Oddie and Vella, the City of Alameda now has enlisted in the cause.

On June 5, Mr. Oddie submitted a referral directing staff to “work with” the public-employee unions “by cooperating to mitigate impacts and by engaging in good faith discussions around implementing membership cards and release time for rank and file union leaders to explain the implications of a negative Janus decision.”  (As a practical matter, this means that union leaders would be allowed to meet with employees, on City time, to try to convince them to pay union agency fees “voluntarily.”)

When the referral came up for discussion, the Council members fell all over themselves expressing their devotion to organized labor.  (Even Mayor Trish Spencer was moved to relate that her father had been a union member.)  But Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, seconded by Mayor Spencer and Councilman Frank Matarrese, warned that, as written, the resolution stepped “outside our lane” under the City Charter because the direction given by Council to staff was so specific.  They wanted staff to prepare a resolution retaining the message but revising the language.

Ms. Vella was having none of it.  Addressing the meeting by speakerphone from the Hilton oceanfront resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the Vice Mayor told her colleagues that “this language” had been adopted in Baltimore; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Durham, North Carolina; El Paso, Texas; Nashville; Philadelphia; St. Louis, and San Francisco.  Moreover, she asserted, the City of Emeryville and Alameda County had “unanimously adopted this exact resolution” that very night.

The latter statement wasn’t exactly true – the Emeryville City Council and the Alameda Board of Supervisors indeed passed resolutions on June 5, but the wording was different.  Nevertheless, Ms. Vella insisted that Council stick to the text she submitted:  “It’s imperative that we enact [the resolution] tonight,” she said.  “I do not know why we have to re-write something that so many jurisdictions who represented similar workers with similar charter provisions have already enacted.”  (The source of Ms. Vella’s knowledge about the provisions of the Alameda County and Emeryville charters – and those in the other cities she named – was unstated.)

Ms. Ashcraft persisted – diplomatically – and, ultimately, the Vice Mayor agreed to sign off on a semantic change suggested by Ms. Ashcraft. The resolution passed, 4-1 (Ms. Spencer dissented).

This most recent resolution inures to the benefit of our local public-employee unions with agency-shop contracts, IBEW Local 1245 and Operating Engineers Local 3.  Together, these unions  represent about 150 workers employed by the City and Alameda Municipal Power, and they contributed a combined $1,500 to Mr. Oddie in 2014 and $1,000 to Ms. Vella in 2016.

In other cases in which Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella have sought to make sure that the City jumps on the “progressive” bandwagon, they haven’t appeared to be targeting any specific beneficiary (other than themselves).  We’ll give you two examples.

In late 2016, opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline began a campaign to get municipalities to withdraw their funds from the Wells Fargo Bank, which was one of 17 lenders on the project.  They focused first on Seattle, which previously had cancelled a bond deal with Wells Fargo after the bank was caught in a scandal involving the fraudulent opening of bank and credit-card accounts.  The anti-pipeline activists demanded that the city sever its business relationship with Wells Fargo altogether.  Their campaign succeeded, and the Seattle city council voted to move the municipal accounts to another financial institution once the current contract with Wells Fargo ended and not to buy any securities issued by Wells Fargo for three years.  The same day, politicians in Davis, of all places, likewise voted to pull that city ’s bank accounts from Wells Fargo.

The Seattle and Davis votes occurred on February 6, 2017.  Three days later, Council members Vella and Oddie submitted their own referral.

Like their “progressive” counterparts in the other cities, the two Council members wanted to cut all ties between the local government and Wells Fargo.  Their referral directed staff to draft a request for proposals to provide banking services for the City and to “exclude” Wells Fargo from consideration for the job (the same direction given by the Davis city council).  In addition, it directed staff to “refrain from making new investments in Wells Fargo securities” for three years (the same prohibition imposed by the Seattle city council).

At the February 17 Council meeting, both Council members spoke in support of the referral.  After noting that protesting apartheid by demanding divestiture was “the cool thing to do” in the 1980s when he was a college student, Mr. Oddie declared that, “We want to stand with the citizens of Davis and Seattle, and add our voice to that list, and change corporate behavior.”  Ms. Vella acknowledged that there might be “operational issues” in moving all of the City’s accounts.  Nevertheless, “If there’s bad behavior and we do nothing, we’re passively condoning it.”

Since the referral did not (and could not) mandate any immediate change in the City’s banking arrangements, even Mayor Spencer voted for it, and it passed unanimously.

Staff has carried out the investment direction (which wasn’t too hard to do; all it took was adding one sentence to the City’s investment policy, which staff was in the process of revising anyway).  But, as far as we know, the City has yet to engage another financial institution to take over its operating accounts.

In this regard, the Seattle experience may furnish guidance.  Carrying out the directive from the city council, Seattle’s finance director searched for months to find an alternative to Wells Fargo, even splitting financial services into different contracts to try to attract a variety of bidders, including smaller banks.  He got no takers whatsoever.  Staying with Wells Fargo, he was forced reluctantly to conclude, was “our best and only course of action.”

And the Dakota Access pipeline?  It became operational in June 2017, and oil has been flowing through it ever since.

Our second example involves a follow-on to the “sanctuary city” ordinance proposed by Councilman Oddie in November 2016 and enacted by Council in January 2017.

As the staff report pointed out at the time, the Alameda police department already had adopted, and was following, a policy prohibiting officers from arresting people for civil violations of federal immigration law or notifying the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service when they booked arrestees at the County jail.  The “sanctuary city” ordinance didn’t require our local cops to do anything new or different; it merely reaffirmed the existing policy.  Police Chief Paul Rolleri confirmed to us that APD is continuing to toe the line.

But some activists decided that “sanctuary city” ordinances like the one passed in Alameda didn’t go far enough.  An Oakland group calling itself “#Deport ICE” began urging Bay Area cities to enact new laws declaring that they would “not do business with companies that provide data to identify, profile, or target undocumented California residents for ICE.”  The group drafted, and posted on its website, a model ordinance for cities to use.  Under the ordinance, city officials would be prohibited from entering into, amending, or renewing any contract with any entity that provided “Data Broker” or “Extreme Vetting” – essentially, data collection – services to ICE.  Moreover, the city could not invest in any securities or “other obligations” issued by such a “provider.”

#DeportICE enlisted sympathetic politicians in Berkeley and Richmond to introduce the ordinance in those cities.  In Alameda, they turned to – who else? – Vice Mayor Vella.

On April 2, Ms. Vella submitted a referral asking Council to consider adopting a “sanctuary city contracting and investment ordinance” modeled on the one on the #DeportICE website.  “Other cities have moved similar ordinances forward,” Ms. Vella told her colleagues when she presented the referral on April 17.  “It would be nice if the City of Alameda could join those cities.”

A #DeportICE spokesman led off the four speakers, only one of whom was an Alameda resident (a representative from the group calling itself the “Alameda Progressives”), in support of the ordinance.  Of those on the dais, Mayor Spencer alone raised any question about the “ramifications” of the action being proposed.  But Ms. Vella insisted that enacting the ordinance was an “urgent” matter, and, by a 4-1 vote, with the Mayor dissenting, Council directed staff to “look at adopting” the model ordinance.

We haven’t seen any subsequent agenda item, but we don’t envy the staff person assigned the task of implementing the referral.  For example, the City’s investment portfolio as of December 31, 2017 included short-term commercial paper issued by about three dozen companies.  How is the City’s money manager supposed to determine whether any of these companies provides “Data Broker” or “Extreme Vetting” services to ICE and therefore should be stricken from the acceptable list?  We don’t think they’ll find the information in the Form 10-Ks.

Now, we suppose it’s possible to argue that Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella should be praised for putting referrals like the ones we’ve discussed before Council.  Maybe ensuring that the City enacts every ordinance that the apostles of organized labor and “progressive” politics can come up with in the Bay Area and nationwide is simply a matter of civic pride:  What kind of reputation would the City of Alameda get in the halls of the enlightened if it continued to let upstarts like Emeryville and Davis beat it to the punch?  And what Democratic party leader would back Mr. Oddie or Ms. Vella for higher office if their own city lags behind the curve?

On the other hand . . .

Call us myopic, but we still cling to the belief that laws governing the management of municipal affairs ought to benefit the public in general, not just those who shout the loudest or contribute the most.   (At the risk of misstating his position, we think ACT’s Paul Foreman was making a similar point when he objected to Council members who “consistently prioritize the narrow interests of special interest groups, especially those who support them politically, ahead of the interests of the community as a whole.”)  Sorry, but we fail to see how assisting union organizers, punishing the Wells Fargo Bank, or policing contractors’ ideological purity benefits Alamedans at large.

Likewise, we are mindful that, unless laws like those promoted by Council members Oddie and Vella are meant only as symbolic gestures, they may end up mucking up the works at City Hall.  City staff has a finite number of people with a finite amount of time, and they have plenty on their plates already.  Why add more?  (Again, at the risk of finding concurrence where none was intended, we note that Councilwoman Ashcraft often admonishes her colleagues to consider the impact of a proposal on staff’s workload.)  Sorry, but we’d rather have City staff spend their time figuring out how to balance the budget without cutting municipal services rather than coming up with litmus tests for banks and contractors who want to do business with the City.

We end with a wager.  Keep your eyes open for the next initiative undertaken by organized labor or “progressive” activists elsewhere in the Bay Area or across the country.  We’ll bet you’ll see a referral from Mr. Oddie and/or Ms. Vella on the same subject on the Council agenda very soon.


Janus referral: 2018-06-05 Oddie referral re Janus2018-06-05 Draft Resolution; Alameda County Supervisors Janus resolution2 ; Emeryville Janus resolution

Wells Fargo referral: 2017-02-21 Vella-Oddie referral re WFB

Contracting/investment referral: 2017-01-17 staff report re sanctuary city resolution 2018-04-17; Vella referral re sanctuary city2018-04-17 Attachment 1 – Sample Ordinance; 2018-04-17 Ex. 1 to staff report – Quarterly Investment Report

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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4 Responses to No cause left behind

  1. Bill says:

    Unions at times, can be dangerous. Vella forced Greenway Golf for example to use union workers to develop the new Corica Park South Course. Because of that, it cost more and took longer. Is that good for Alameda? Though Unions have their place in our society, they do not represent the broader base of Alameda residents. If an elected official is too tight with Unions, they need to go. We need broad thinking residents on our Council and as Mayor. What we have now is not helping Alameda citizens. If we continue to vote for them and support them, we have only ourselves to blame.

  2. Steve Gerstle says:

    In anticipation of the Janus decision, I have helped my union (AFT) sign up new members. We are at about 80 percent right now. We never asked management for a handout and we did it on our own time and our own dime. To ask management to bail out unions seems counter productive at best. What Vella and Oddie do not seem to understand is that regardless of their day jobs, when they are on the city council they represent management — us. They are on the council as representatives of management, not labor. They need to get the best deal from the unions as possible and they need to pressure unions to get those best deals. If they are uncomfortable doing that, then they need to stick to their day jobs. I would be very unhappy if after paying $1800 a year in union dues, I found out that my labor union was in cahoots with management. I would be equally unhappy to find out that my elected representatives were representing the interests of the unions rather than those of the taxpayers as that would seem to be a betrayal of their fiduciary responsibilities as elected representatives.

  3. carol says:

    I’m sorry but aren’t these people CITY councilmembers? Encinal Ave between Sherman and Park Street hasn’t been resurfaced for at least the past twenty years. The concrete pavement in front of 1112 Grand Street hasn’t been patched in more than fifty years. The curbs along the Fourth of July parade route are crumbling…and posting on SeeClickFix receives a canned automated reply without action.
    And the 400+ page 2008 comprehensive study to bring Alameda city facilities up to ADA standards goes largely unaddressed, collecting dust on a city shelf. Even Mastick Senior Center still has serious accessibilty problems [ramps too steep, doors requiring too much effort to open].
    Meanwhile, Vella/Oddie have managed to resolve to: 1. Impeach Trump. 2 Make Alameda a sanctuary city 3. Divest from Wells Fargo. [and how many Alamedans still have their accounts at Wells Fargo–which is bending over backwards to improve customer service].. Now spending time on Janus. Where are their priorities?
    It’s fine to think globally. But not at the expense of utterly failing to act LOCALLY. Alameda cannot afford to become a progressive utopia, while it decays into a municipal dystopia.

  4. Barbara Thomas says:

    Why does Mary Hatsume Vella, aka Malia Vella, an attorney for the Teamsters, vote on union matters? Shouldn’t she at least declare that she has a possible conflict of interest before voting on union matters? Why doesn’t she abstain from the discussion and leave the dias for the vote? Especially knowing that she has 3 votes to do what the unions want anyway? Oddie, Matarrese and Ashcraft are not going to do anything against the unions. Ever.
    Not sure what, if any affiliation teamsters have with Alameda firefighters, but what law firm would allow an attorney to represent unions professionally, without carefully obtaining a conflicts opinion on that attorney’s votes on union matters when that attorney is elected to office and acts on union matters? And going over it with that attorney. I guess Councilmember Vella’s First Amendment rights still TRUMP her responsibilities/ and her oath of office as Councilmember.

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