Three weeks ago, we wrote about whether Vice Mayor John Knox White would declare his independence from the Alameda firefighters’ union by voting to turn down the proposal – rejected twice by the previous Council – to create a new senior management position in the fire department, which already has a chief, a deputy chief, a “staff chief,” and three division chiefs to oversee a complement of 22 captains and 76 firefighters.
He did not.
Instead, at the March 5 Council meeting, he provided the decisive third vote needed to give the fire department what it wanted: a new “fire marshal” position that will cost at least $355,000 per year in salary and benefits, plus a new $70,000 staff car for the new chief.
We bring up the issue again today not to comment on Mr. Knox White’s . . . loyalty to the union that endorsed him and spent $10,116.17 to get him elected. The jury is still out on which member of the Conway family – Kelly Anne or George – he will turn out to resemble.
Rather, we want to highlight the performance of our new mayor, Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who was one of two Council members – the other was Tony Daysog – to vote against the proposal.
Ms. Ashcraft’s decision to vote no was not, in itself, surprising, since she had not supported creating the new position the last two times the fire department asked Council to do so. Nor was it unusual for her to begin her remarks by noting that she had spoken privately with City staff before the meeting.
From there things quickly got interesting, as Ms. Ashcraft disclosed three separate occasions on which City management – and fire department management in particular – had provided incomplete or inaccurate information to convince her to vote in favor of one of their ploys to increase fire department staffing (and thereby take more money out of the municipal till).
The first involved the successful effort in April 2017 to get Council to revamp the existing Fire Prevention Bureau by adding two new positions for union firefighters as inspectors and a new position for a union captain to manage them.
When she became aware of the proposal, Ms. Ashcraft said, she met with then-Fire Chief Doug Long, who gave her a printout purporting to show that more than 3,000 commercial buildings in Alameda were overdue for an inspection. “Based on that information and his insistence that only sworn firefighters could adequately staff this bureau,” she said, “I voted for those sworn positions.”
“Later,” Ms. Ashcraft recounted, “I learned that many other fire departments, and Oakland is one of them, staff their fire prevention bureaus with civilian personnel,” with a sworn person only in the role of supervisor. Moreover, she said, the fire department never has provided an updated report – although she has asked for one – showing how many commercial buildings have been crossed off ex-Chief Long’s list since April 2017. “I’d like to know,” she said, “what has the Fire Prevention Bureau accomplished . . . with those sworn positions that we did add?”
This wasn’t the only time that, having trusted statements by the fire chief in deciding how to vote, Ms. Ashcraft later found out that she had been misled.
Back in 2014, the City entered into an agreement with the County for the Alameda fire department to run a “community paramedicine program” that paid the salary and benefits of the “staff chief” and two firefighters. For the first two years, the program was fully funded by a County grant. Since then, it has been extended twice, with the County, the City, and Alameda Health Systems (which runs Alameda Hospital) agreeing each time to split the additional costs equally.
Last month, Fire Chief Edmond Rodriguez came before Council seeking a third extension, to February 2020. This time, only the County had committed to provide funding, and, if the City wanted to keep the program alive (and paying for the “staff chief” and one firefighter), Council would need to approve spending $195,604 from the General Fund. But Chief Rodriguez assured Ms. Ashcraft that the City could count on AHS to “reimburse” it for half of that amount. Getting the funds, he said, was just a matter of “educating” the “new leadership” of the Hospital.
Relying on this presentation, Ms. Ashcraft voted to okay the extension and appropriate the funds. But at the March 5 Council meeting, Ms. Ashcraft disclosed that she had met the week before with AHS’s chief operating officer and asked, “So when can we expect our money?”
His response: “No, we turned down that request; we didn’t see that it was that much of a cost savings to the hospital. . . .”
As a result, Ms. Ashcraft noted, the City actually was spending a “little more than $200,000” – twice the amount she expected the City would be out after the promised reimbursement – to keep the program going.
The Mayor didn’t say so directly, but these experiences must have given her pause when she sat down to review the fire department’s latest request for additional staffing. But it wasn’t just history that gave her reason to be skeptical.
When Interim City Manager David Rudat informed Ms. Ashcraft that staff intended to bring the proposal to add another division chief to Council on March 5, the Mayor asked him to hold off. In just two months, she pointed out, Council would begin a series of workshops on the next two-year budget. “Every other department in this City is currently preparing their requests for increased staffing and expenditures for the budget process,” Ms. Ashcraft argued, and “it is more prudent to consider all budget requests at the same time to give the Council and also the public a more realistic view of City finances.”
In response, Mr. Rudat insisted that the fire department couldn’t wait two months; the position needed to be created and filled now. Failure to do so, the ICM told the Mayor, would “delay development projects and construction of new residential housing.” (Coincidentally, Chief Rodriguez had made this very same claim when he tried last May – unsuccessfully – to get the former Council to create and fund the fire-marshal position as a mid-cycle amendment to the FY 2018-19 budget.)
This was a pitch calculated to appeal to Ms. Ashcraft’s pro-development proclivities. But she wasn’t willing to take it at face value.
“So I’m always one who likes to do my homework,” Ms. Ashcraft told her colleagues and the firefighters who, as usual when they’re asking Council for money, filled the front rows of the audience. “I reached out to Andrew Thomas, our planning director, and Greg McFann, our city building official, and asked them, ‘Have you run into delays in our development, new development, new residential?’ and they both looked at me and said, ‘What? No!’ Mr. McFann even checked with all his building inspectors, and that isn’t happening.”
Moreover, Ms. Ashcraft reported that she had just attended the ground-breaking for the very first new residential building at Alameda Point – a 60-unit senior assisted living facility, which was going up nearly four years after Council approved the Site A development agreement. Her point, she said, was that, “for many reasons,” residential development “is just not happening fast and furiously” in Alameda or elsewhere in California.
So much for the need for speed.
The report prepared last year by Michael Jenkins about the interference by two Council members in the selection of a new fire chief demonstrated that Ms. Ashcraft wouldn’t be bullied by the firefighters’ union and its truculent former president, Jeff DelBono, into letting the union dictate personnel decisions for the City. Unlike one of her colleagues (Councilman Jim Oddie), she didn’t write a letter of recommendation for the union’s choice, and unlike Mr. Oddie and Councilwoman Malia Vella, she didn’t lobby City Manager Jill Keimach in person to give him the job.
By her recent conduct, Ms. Ashcraft appears to have served notice that she likewise won’t be hornswoggled by the fire department into swelling its staffing, and padding its payroll, at the expense of other city departments and services. Indeed, she sounded positively Kennedy-esque (and we mean City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy), when she declared, “I want all of you folks in the front rows to have your pensions and your retirement because you have earned them, you have worked hard, you have risked your lives, but I can’t do that if this City doesn’t stay solvent, and we don’t have to look too far from Alameda to see examples where cities went bankrupt and the obligations to the retirees could not be met.”
Ms. Ashcraft concluded her remarks by saying, “As a Council, we have a greater responsibility to look out for the good of the entire city, which is made up of many valuable departments.” Is it too much to hope that, having been thus admonished, one of her colleagues will look beyond his political debts and join Councilman Daysog in supporting the Mayor when the fire department comes back to the trough at budget time?