Fans of the long-running political farce, “The Bully and His Henchmen,” got the opportunity this week to listen to both the national and the local editions of the show.
Turn on CNN and they’d hear how the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, sought to carry out the mission given to him by the man to whom he owed his job, President Donald Trump, to get the president of Ukraine to investigate his political rival.
Download the audio file and transcript from the City website and they’d hear how two Council members, Jim Oddie and Malia Vella, sought to carry out the mission given to them by the man to whom they owed their seats, Alameda firefighters’ union boss Jeff DelBono, to get the city manager to appoint his hand-picked candidate as fire chief.
The Merry-Go-Round will leave the commentary about the events in Washington to others. But, having read the transcript of the meeting on August 16, 2017, between Council members Oddie and Vella and former City Manager Jill Keimach, and compared it to other accounts of the same meeting, we do have a few comments to make about its revelations about both the bully and his two henchmen.
As to the latter, we’ll focus on Councilwoman Vella, since, of the two, she’s surer to be on the 2020 ballot. (We’re not counting Mr. Oddie out, but the firefighters’ union may look for a replacement candidate if its polling shows that he can’t get enough votes from “progressives” to enable him to retain his seat.)
For months, Ms. Vella has attempted to characterize her role in the meeting with Ms. Keimach as entirely innocuous.
For example, Michael Jenkins, the attorney hired by Council to look into the fire-chief scandal, wrote that Ms. Vella “recalled merely wanting to talk with Keimach about the process for hiring the Fire Chief because she had been getting complaints suggesting that Keimach was not conducting a fair process and Councilmember Vella simply wanted to clear the air.” She then “described a constructive conversation in which Keimach, at Councilmember Vella’s request, walked them through the selection process, to which Councilmember Vella responded positively.”
This was not how Ms. Keimach had described Ms. Vella’s conduct to Mr. Jenkins, but, having decided not to listen to the recording of the meeting, he chose to accept Ms. Vella’s version and concluded that she had “adopted a measured approach in her communications with Keimach” and had “avoided attempting to influence Keimach’s appointment.” He thus found that her actions “fell short of” violating the City Charter.
Perhaps emboldened by this “exoneration,” Ms. Vella has insisted strenuously on the righteousness of her conduct ever since. Indeed, on the eve of the release of the transcript, she was quoted by the East Bay Citizen as saying: “Contrary to the few who have sought to exploit the supposed content of this recording, my intent was never to pressure Ms. Keimach into hiring one individual, but rather to encourage better communication regarding the process. I joined this meeting because members of the community had voiced their concern that certain candidates in the Fire Chief selection process were not receiving a fair shake.”
The recording and the transcript paint a much different picture.
In fact, Ms. Vella did advocate for “hiring one individual” – Domenick Weaver, the former IAFF Local 689 president whom the then-current president, Mr. DelBono, had picked for the fire chief’s job. And her primary concern about “communication regarding the process” was that Ms. Keimach wasn’t reporting frequently enough to Mr. DelBono about developments or doing enough to keep him in the loop.
The transcript shows that, after a brief discussion about other matters, Mr. Oddie turned the meeting, which he and Ms. Vella decided to request during a joint car ride to Mr. DelBono’s wedding, to his Council colleague. Whereupon Ms. Vella launched into making the case that Ms. Keimach should appoint Mr. Weaver fire chief.
As is her wont, Ms. Vella often spoke in sentence fragments. But it is possible to discern her main arguments for the Weaver appointment from the transcript. And those arguments have little, if anything, to do with Mr. Weaver’s managerial skills (although at one point Ms. Vella opines that being a union president is “probably more difficult, or at least as difficult,” as running a City department). Rather, she focused on what she said was the high regard in which Mr. Weaver was held by firefighters’ union members – and the benefits to the City that would flow from giving the fire chief’s job to a figure so popular with his prospective subordinates.
Shrewdly, Ms. Vella began by playing on Ms. Keimach’s concerns about future budget deficits resulting from CalPERS rate increases. The City might need to ask the public safety unions to contribute more for their retiree benefits, Ms. Vella acknowledged. Since the firefighters’ union undoubtedly would resist making any such “concessions,” the next fire chief should be someone who could get the union membership to go along. (She didn’t know, of course, that her words later would be available for scrutiny at IAFF Local 689 headquarters.)
Mr. Weaver was that guy. According to Ms. Vella, while serving as a member of the OPEB task force when he was union president, Mr. Weaver was instrumental in overcoming his members’ resistance to contributing to the OPEB trust. Accordingly, he could be relied on to sell a “tough bill of goods” to the firefighters during future budget battles. “And the way I look at it is, you know, he did something that I thought was very difficult to do,” Ms. Vella told Ms. Keimach, “and he still has the support and buy-in from his, from his colleagues, which is huge.”
Along the same lines, Ms. Vella argued that Mr. Weaver’s appointment would assure rank-and-file firefighters that City management was on their side. In several extraordinary passages, Ms. Vella (and Mr. Oddie) described how Alameda’s bravest have felt abused by allegedly unfair public criticism – and not just for their refusal to go to the aid of a drowning man at Crown Beach. “I really hope that we end up with somebody who’s going to be able to work with this group (i.e., the firefighters’ union members),” Ms. Vella told Ms. Keimach, “because I think it’s a group that, there’s a lot of wounds that still haven’t healed for them.”
Again, Mr. Weaver was the guy for the task. After the Crown Beach debacle, Ms. Vella said, Mr. Weaver, as union president, had “kept people together, and he’s kept people on the job, and, he’s, you know, shown up, and been there, and been a leader in that respect.” As a result, Mr. Weaver was far more likely to enjoy the “trust” of the rank-and-file than the deputy chief who also had applied for the job – whom Ms. Vella described as “not a long-timer,” but rather someone who’s “gonna spike his pension” and then leave. (She called the other applicant from A.F.D., believed to be a captain who also serves on the Hospital Board, a “total disaster.”)
From our perspective, Ms. Vella was an excellent advocate for Mr. Weaver in a city where maintaining “labor peace” is an obsession not only of elected officials but also senior managers. (And who can blame them? They, too, remember what led up to the refusal by the firefighters and cops to go into the water at Crown Beach.) We may not like the idea of the star player getting to pick the coach – and Jeff DelBono is no LeBron James – and we grew up in an era when coaches paid scant regard to their players’ delicate psyches. But Ms. Keimach was selecting a fire chief in present-day Alameda – and Ms. Vella knew just what buttons to push to get her to see things the union’s way.
In any event, the bottom line is that the recording and transcript of the August 16 meeting simply do not jive with the version Ms. Vella has been pitching for so many months. Instead, they corroborate, in every jot and tittle, the description of that meeting in the Grand Jury report that found that both Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie violated the City Charter. They also match, in every material respect, the account given by Ms. Keimach to Mr. Jenkins.
Not, of course, that this will make any difference. We won’t be at all surprised if, when Ms. Vella runs for re-election, she will continue to insist that she didn’t promote the union’s candidate but merely sought to ensure a “fair” process. And what does she have to lose? Just as 40% of Americans still believe Donald Trump’s denial of a quid pro quo, the “progressive” segment of the local electorate likely will remain convinced by Ms. Vella’s denial of an attempt to influence the selection of the fire chief. No transcript of the key phone call will change any minds among diehard Trumpsters; no audio recording of the key meeting will persuade any dedicated Vella loyalists.
Even as the recording and transcript undermine Ms. Vella’s characterization of the August 16 meeting, they flesh out the depiction by both Mr. Jenkins and the Grand Jury of the extent to which she and Mr. Oddie devoted themselves to making sure that Ms. Keimach gave Mr. DelBono the obeisance he considered to be his due. Even if Mr. DelBono need not be given the final say, the two Council members made clear, he must be coddled and catered to.
For her part, Ms. Keimach didn’t dispute the desirability of paying attention to Mr. DelBono. Indeed, she related to Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie how she had tried to involve the union boss from the very beginning of the selection process by soliciting his views about the fire division chiefs whom she could appoint to the top job. When Mr. DelBono responded by asking whether she would consider candidates below the division-chief level, she responded affirmatively: “I just want it to be open, and a fair process,” she told him. “And I want everyone to be treated equally.”
Ms. Keimach told the two Council members that Mr. DelBono expressed assent to her objective. Nevertheless, he came back two days later and informed her, “I have the person I want you to hire.” Ms. Keimach reminded him that he had agreed to let her run an “open” and “fair” selection process. Despite what he had said, this wasn’t what Mr. DelBono wanted to hear. So the union boss began a “campaign” to pressure her to hire Mr. Weaver – and he never spoke to Ms. Keimach about the subject again.
As described by Ms. Keimach to the two Council members (who didn’t dispute her reporting), the campaign included spreading the false story that she had recruited an out-of-town candidate for the fire chief’s job and then lied about it – the person mentioned hadn’t even applied – and ginning up letters of support for Mr. Weaver from various politicos.
One of them was Mr. Oddie, and the transcript provides a few enlightening exchanges between him and Ms. Keimach on that topic. Apparently, at the time of the August 16 meeting, Ms. Keimach hadn’t yet received Mr. Oddie’s letter endorsing Mr. Weaver, and when he said he’d written one, she inquired, point-blank, who asked him to prepare it. “Well, I’m not going to tell you that,” he replied. But Ms. Keimach persisted, and Mr. Oddie immediately caved: “Well, I actually got the ask from Dom, but it’s okay.” Then, later in the meeting, he changed his story again: “I got asked by Ben Kim” – who succeeded Mr. DelBono as the firefighters’ union’s political director – Mr. Oddie stated. “I remember now.” He went on to say that the “talking points” supplied by Mr. Kim were “useless. So I had to write it from scratch.”
(We commend this part of the transcript particularly to the Oddie-Vella defenders who argue that Mr. Oddie did nothing more than draft a standard “letter of recommendation” for Mr. Weaver – which, they say, the City Charter does, or should, permit.)
Ms. Keimach emphasized to Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella that she didn’t appreciate the campaign being waged by Mr. DelBono. Indeed, she told them, she saw it as counter-productive to his presumed goal. If she ended up appointing Mr. Weaver fire chief, Ms. Keimach pointed out, she could be accused – with a solid basis in fact – of yielding to the union pressure. “The pressure makes it so much harder,” she said.
Having heard Ms. Keimach’s grievances, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella could have gone one of two ways: They could assure her that they’d ask Mr. DelBono to call off the dogs and let her do her job. Or they could tell her to get over it and make nice with the union boss.
The transcript shows that they chose the latter course. If Mr. DelBono seemed to be ignoring her, she should reach out to him, Ms. Vella told the City Manager. “[M]aybe it’s asking you to be the more mature person,” she said, “but I do hope you’ll ask Jeff to sit down when he’s back [from his honeymoon] and have a conversation with him.” But that wasn’t all. In addition, Ms. Keimach should “bring [Mr. DelBono] back into the process” of selecting the next fire chief by setting aside 30 seconds or a minute each day to give him an up-to-date status report. A daily “automatic email” – whose hypothetical contents Ms. Vella suggested (e.g., “There has been no change today”) – would suffice.
What she was asking Ms. Keimach to do may be “exhausting,” Ms. Vella admitted, but then, in the most remarkable passage in the transcript, she discussed with Mr. Oddie and Ms. Keimach why this kind of effort was necessary with Mr. DelBono:
MALIA VELLA: But I really feel that this is the chihuahua that’s like going to keep barking at you until you’re like, give it a little attention, and let it know it’s okay, and this is what’s going on, and –
JILL KEIMACH: Right. When does it get better (unintelligible)?
JIM ODDIE: And then it runs around, and then it falls asleep, and then you can (unintelligible)
MALIA VELLA: And then you’re good.
JILL KEIMACH: Until he wakes up.
JIM ODDIE: And (unintelligible)
MALIA VELLA: Until it wakes up.
JIM ODDIE: Well, yeah, then you’ve gotta – yeah.
JILL KEIMACH: Yeah.
MALIA VELLA: And then you’ve got to do it all over again. . . .
Naturally, Mr. Oddie seconded his colleague’s admonition to Ms. Keimach to keep Mr. DelBono frequently and fully informed about the status of the fire-chief selection process. But he also wanted to address the larger issue of what he called the “deterioration” in the “relationship” between the City Manager and the union president.
What had caused the deterioration? Mr. Oddie said he’d give examples. He then cited two occasions on which City staffers had made remarks to which Mr. DelBono had taken offense. (“Jeff DelBono doesn’t run the City, Jill does,” said one; “You know, Jeff DelBono has been a naughty boy,” said another.) Disrespectful behavior like this had to stop, Mr. Oddie advised Ms. Keimach. And he looked to the City Manager to make sure it did. She should “set an example,” he said later in the meeting, and “kind of tell people it’s not okay to bash the Fire Department.”
After reading the transcript, one is left to wonder why elected officials like Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella were so solicitous of Mr. DelBono’s needs and desires – or why they should be. “Jeff is one of my dearest friends, and I love him dearly,” Ms. Vella told Ms. Keimach at one point during the meeting. But then one reads how, according to Mr. Oddie, Mr. DelBono publicly reduced the Councilwoman to tears one night at Angela’s Restaurant. Ms. Vella confirmed the incident, and added, “I was at my breaking point with him.” And even Mr. Oddie observed that Mr. DelBono is a “little bit of a diva” and “goes a little overboard.” Lovable, or even likeable, the union boss doesn’t seem to be.
But maybe, like Machiavelli, Mr. DelBono would rather be feared than loved. Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella might well have been worried that he’d withhold the funds and “boots on the ground” they needed for their next campaigns if they didn’t do his bidding. That is, after all, exactly what happened to Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft when she refused Mr. DelBono’s directive to lobby Ms. Keimach to appoint Mr. Weaver as fire chief. Ms. Ashcraft’s record of public service and breadth of community support enabled her to get away with defying Mr. DeBono and win the mayoral race anyway. Politicians new on the scene like Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella might not be willing to take a similar risk.
If any of this makes you think of Donald Trump and how he keeps Republican legislators in line, you’re welcome to draw the parallel. All we can say is that, based on the photographic evidence, Mr. DelBono has better hair.
The audio recording and transcript are available for download at www.alamedaca.gov/government/recording-release,