Like a diabetic staying away from sweets, the Merry-Go-Round makes it a rule to avoid private communications about political issues with the fine folks who sit on the dais at Council chambers every other Tuesday. If they haven’t said it, or won’t say it, on the record, we don’t want to hear it.
But we realized that our readers who are still considering their mayoral and council choices might be interested in a broader perspective. So we sought out someone who not only is well-informed about the candidates’ public positions but also, based on her own contacts with them, is well-acquainted with their personal qualities.
As it happens, we didn’t have far to look.
Jane Sullwold served as a member and later chair of the Alameda Golf Commission from 2005 to 2013 and as a member and later foreperson of the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury in 2016-17 and 2017-18. A life-long Democrat without ties to either the labor or leftist wings of the local Democratic party, she ran unsuccessfully for Council in 2012. She’s an insightful analyst of civic affairs and a good judge of character (except, perhaps, when it comes to a marital partner).
So we’re pleased to turn today’s column over to her for the last word before Tuesday’s election.
By Jane Cosgriff Sullwold
Is anyone else as confused as I am about whom to vote for in the upcoming Alameda mayoral and council elections? I’ve been thinking about the candidates a lot since the slates were set in August, and, try as I might, I just keep coming up with positives and negatives for each of them. Mind you, I’m not looking at campaign platforms – for the most part, the candidates’ websites are vague about the specific policies they intend to pursue if elected. I’m really looking at character, whether I can trust them to make the right choices for Alameda. To help me make up my mind I was encouraged by the proprietor of the Merry-Go-Round to write down my lists of pluses and minuses and see how they balanced out.
I’ve known and watched most of these candidates for years. I got to know Frank Matarrese and John Knox White while I served on the Golf Commission and worked on strategies to save our Alameda golf courses. I met with Frank early on when we were pushing for an outside management company to take over in order to reduce expenses. As a Council member, Frank was concerned about the loss of jobs for highly paid City workers, but his fears were allayed when the unions consented to the transition.
Some years later I had conversations with John about the ballot initiative for a Charter amendment prohibiting the sale, without a vote of the people, of City property that was in use as parkland. John’s concern was that this restriction would apply whenever land was even designated on a plan as prospective parkland. After I explained that the parks had to be used rather than just planned to trigger the restriction, he decided not to come out against the initiative.
After all of the golf issues were settled, I decided to run for Council in 2012. During that campaign I came to know the three other candidates who ended up beating me: Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Tony Daysog and Stewart Chen. I also got to know Trish Spencer during that campaign, as she was running for reelection to the school board. And I first met Jim Oddie when I participated in the Alameda Democratic Club candidates’ forum – he was then the president of the club. (Later, I was dismayed when Jim stood up at a Council meeting just after the election and falsely accused the four of us who had been defeated of having “run on platforms of attacking working families.”)
Robert Matz is the only candidate I hadn’t met before this election cycle, but he reached out to my husband and me several months ago to discuss his reasons for running and his positions on the issues.
Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft does her homework. She comes to Council meetings fully prepared on the items on the agenda. She is thoughtful, and respectful to those with different opinions (except, of course, the mayor, whom she appears to loathe).
On the other hand, Marilyn has an unfortunate tendency toward self-aggrandizement. I, for one, am tired of hearing about her role in bringing about the new library, and I’m not impressed by her customary recitation of the list of each and every staff person she consulted before a Council meeting. More substantively, I remain deeply troubled by her past pandering to the public-safety unions by approving their requests for additional staffing and guaranteed salary increases without regard to the financial consequences to the City. But I do commend her for her refusal to accede to the demands by the firefighters’ union president that she collaborate in the effort to interfere, in violation of the City Charter, with the City Manager’s selection of a new fire chief.
Frank Matarrese has been a voice of calm reason on a highly politicized Council during the past four years. His comments on difficult issues are always carefully considered and politely expressed.
On the other hand, I don’t necessarily trust him to stick to what he said he would do. On two occasions I spoke with Frank shortly before meetings at which important items would be up for a vote. In both cases, Frank told me he intended to vote no, but at the meeting he voted yes, and on neither occasion did he say anything publicly that would explain his change of heart.
One of those issues was the contract extension for public-safety union members in 2015, which outgoing City Manager John Russo touted as containing generous concessions that would help the City in funding retiree healthcare. City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy and City Auditor Kevin Kearney urged Council to delay a vote on the proposed contract until it could be determined whether the guaranteed salary increases over the next five years were justified by the amount of the OPEB concessions. There was plenty of time to conduct that study because the current contracts were not due to expire for another two years. Frank told me privately in the afternoon that he agreed with the Kevins’ position, and would be voting no so that the necessary financial analysis could be completed; that night he voted yes without explanation. (Marilyn Ashcraft and Jim Oddie also voted yes.)
Trish Spencer has picked the perfect slogan for her reelection campaign: “The People’s Mayor.” In sharp contrast to her immediate predecessor, Trish is down-to-earth and highly visible around town. There is hardly any public event in Alameda that she doesn’t attend, and hardly a resident she doesn’t know. She is extremely responsive to the concerns of her constituents. At Council meetings, she is not afraid to ask what some regard as “dumb” questions in order to provide the public with information that otherwise might not be apparent from staff presentations, nor does she hesitate to challenge so-called “experts” about the factual basis for their conclusions.
On the other hand, Trish has a habit of making up her mind quickly on issues, then digging in regardless of new information that emerges. And occasionally she has difficulty explaining her positions clearly during Council meetings, leaving herself vulnerable to attack from her opponents (who presume they know more than she does anyway.)
Stewart Chen is very charming and personable. As an Asian-American he represents an important segment of Alameda’s population. During one-on-one conversations, he is quite knowledgeable and articulate about issues facing our city.
On the other hand, Stewart’s previous term on Council showed that he had few ideas of his own, and that he was a pushover for whichever advocacy group got to him last. And, although it was a long time ago, I am concerned that his involvement in an insurance fraud scheme reveals a significant character flaw. Calling it a “youthful indiscretion” is disingenuous: Stewart was 30 years old when he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.
Tony Daysog has a number of the best traits of other candidates. Like Marilyn and John, he comes well-prepared to meetings; like Frank, he takes care to think through his positions, and, like Trish, he makes it a point to seek out input from citizens at farmers’ markets and elsewhere. More so perhaps than his colleagues, Tony can be counted on to throw out a lot of different ideas for how to address difficult City problems. Many – maybe even most – of those ideas turn out to be impractical, but occasionally he will come up with something that moves the ball forward. A good example of this is his referral asking Council to address transportation issues on a city-wide basis rather than project by project, which ultimately resulted in the transportation choices plan adopted this year.
On the other hand, Tony seems to go off on weird tangents at times that provide those who dislike him with fodder for ridicule. Sometimes, too, when he tries to be clever, he ends up being confusing. I am also troubled by a statement he made years ago that Council should routinely grant funding requests by the fire and police chiefs. What is best for those departments may not always be in the best interests of the City as a whole, especially from a financial perspective.
Since Robert Matz is a newcomer to Alameda politics, and someone I met only recently, my opinions are based on just a few face-to-face meetings, plus information online. Robert seems aware of and prepared to tackle the important issues facing Alameda, particularly the looming fiscal crisis (as our reserves are depleted to make required CalPERS contributions in the next few years), and the increasingly acrimonious relations between landlords and tenants (he has represented both groups as a practicing lawyer). I am impressed that he got the endorsement from Daniel Borenstein of the Bay Area News Group (owner of the Alameda Journal and the East Bay Times) for his knowledgeable approach to these fiscal issues. (Full disclosure: I got a similar endorsement from Mr. Borenstein in 2012, for similar reasons, but it obviously didn’t help my candidacy.)
On the other hand, Robert never uses 10 words when an idea can be expressed in 50 or more. Unless he learns to be more succinct, he will have difficulty complying with the time constraints recently adopted by Council.
Jim Oddie occasionally has demonstrated that he can ask tough questions on issues before Council . . . at least those that do not involve his major backers. For example, Jim grilled the pitchman for Tim Lewis Communities about its foot dragging on the Del Monte project, and what that might mean for Encinal Terminals. I also believe it is a good thing that Alameda has an openly gay Council member – again, representation of an important constituency.
On the other hand, Jim has displayed unswerving and unquestioning deference to the interests that paid for his first run for Council (unions), and, after some initial hesitation, those whom he hopes will help re-elect him (renters).
I can single out one particular instance in which Jim’s promotion of the labor agenda actually will hurt the very “working families” that he purports to support. Greenway Golf had already agreed to pay its workers “prevailing wages,” i.e., union salaries, for the reconstruction of Alameda’s Earl Fry course. Responding to the demands of the operating engineers and other unions, Jim and Malia Vella made it known that they would not approve Greenway’s contract extension without a project labor agreement, and since the contract required a super-majority, it was doomed without at least one of their votes. After extensive and expensive negotiations, Greenway agreed that its regular crew of workers would join a union for the duration of the project. What this means, however, is that those 12 workers – and their families – will get less in their pay envelopes than they would have without the Oddie and Vella interference because union dues will be deducted from their wages.
The same uncritical readiness to do the unions’ bidding also caused Jim to violate the City Charter. The final chapter hasn’t been written – although it is highly unlikely that the District Attorney will initiate proceedings to remove him from office – but the investigation conducted by Michael Jenkins at considerable expense to the City found that Jim exerted inappropriate pressure on City Manager Jill Keimach to hire Domenick Weaver as fire chief. Especially galling was the finding, corroborated later by the District Attorney, that Jim told Police Chief Paul Rolleri he had the votes to fire the City Manager if she “didn’t do the right thing.” If nothing else, that statement demonstrates an incredible lack of judgment.
John Knox White’s years of public service demonstrate his commitment to working hard, digging deeply, and coming to meetings ready to address all aspects of the items on the agenda. I have no doubt that he would bring these same traits to Council. He has an institutional memory that will come in handy, and he appears to have at his fingertips the latest academic studies on the subjects he cares about.
On the other hand, John has displayed an amazing degree of arrogance during his past service. He acts as if he believes his take on every issue is the only correct one, and anyone who disagrees is stupid or worse. And history has proven that sometimes he is out of touch with ordinary Alamedans – witness the resounding no vote on the SunCal initiative that John backed. John’s big ideas often ignore geographic context – e.g., strategies that work in land-locked Boulder, Colorado, may not work on an island like Alameda. And he too easily dismisses collateral damage that would result from implementing the “ideal” plan – e.g., an “unbundled parking” requirement for a new development may create problems for the surrounding neighbors.
I also am concerned about whether he has deemed it necessary to make promises to support the firefighters’ union in upcoming contract negotiations in order to gain the union’s endorsement of his candidacy.
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There you have it, my personal evaluation of the positive and negative qualities of the eight candidates for mayor and city council. The exercise of putting these lists down on paper got me to choose who will get my votes next week (assuming no game-changing revelations before then). But I’m not going to tell you how I came out. I urge everyone to go through the same kind of analysis I did. Even if you disagree with my assessments, the important thing is to reach an informed judgment and then make it effective by casting your ballot.