At first glance, Jim Oddie and Malia Vella, the current Council members running for reelection, might seem to be two peas in a pod.
Both are proud proponents of “tenants’ rights,” championing rent control and “just cause” ordinances that essentially enable most Alameda renters who already have found an apartment to continue to live there as long as they pay the rent – which can’t go up annually as much as consumer prices do.
Both are ardent advocates for “transformational change,” co‑sponsoring resolutions to freeze hiring in a police department already experiencing a shortage of officers (Ms. Vella) and to cut the police budget by 42 percent (Mr. Oddie), as well as voting to put on the ballot a measure that would allow a Council majority to open up the entire city to high-density, multi-family residential development.
And both are fast friends of organized labor, relying on the unions, including public-employee unions, to fund their campaigns. Ms. Vella got 62.86 percent of her cash and “non-monetary contributions” from organized labor in 2016; 39.04 percent of Mr. Oddie’s cash and “non-monetary contributions” in 2014, and 43.97 percent in 2018, came from unions. (These figures do not include so-called “independent expenditures” made on behalf of the candidates.)
But, as the 2020 campaign goes on, a difference between the two Council members has emerged in one key area: how they are defending themselves before the voters against the Grand Jury finding that they violated the City Charter by trying to pressure former City Manager Jill Keimach into selecting the hand-picked candidate (and former president) of the Alameda firefighters’ union as the City’s next fire chief.
Mr. Oddie has settled on what has become known in political circles as the “modified limited hangout” route. Ms. Vella? Well, not so much. Mr. Oddie has begun to sound like Bill Clinton; Ms. Vella comes across like . . . Donald Trump.
Mr. Oddie’s response to the fire-chief scandal has . . . evolved over time.
As the East Bay Times was about to reveal the Council members’ shenanigans, including Mr. Oddie’s boast that he had the votes to fire Ms. Keimach if she didn’t “do the right thing,” the Councilman sent the paper an email asserting that he and Ms. Vella had been acting out of principle. “As elected officials we have a duty to express our views on matters of concern to our constituents,” he said. “As Americans that is our Constitutional right.”
He was similarly unapologetic when Michael Jenkins, the attorney hired by the City to look into the matter, issued his report finding that Mr. Oddie had violated the City Charter. All he had done, Mr. Oddie suggested in a statement to union publicist Steve Tavares, was to write a letter of recommendation for the candidate who happened to be endorsed by IAFF Local 689. (Later, it turned out that the firefighters’ union political director had asked him to prepare the letter and had even given him “talking points,” which he deemed so “worthless” that “I had to write it from scratch.”)
If I violated the Charter by writing a letter of recommendation on behalf of a man I know well and believed would be a great fire chief, then, as the investigator’s report recognizes, the Charter needs to be changed. There was nothing improper about writing a recommendation letter for a highly qualified candidate, and although I regret the wasted time and money occasioned by Ms. Keimach’s allegations, I cannot apologize where the record reveals that I did nothing wrong. As an elected official in this City, I will not compromise on being heard in support of what I believe is best for my constituents, the citizens of Alameda. And as the investigator recognized and I want to reinforce, I never intended in any way to influence or pressure Keimach in any even slightly improper way.
Then came the November 2018 election, when Mr. Oddie ran for a second term on Council. In one of his many mailers (he spent $79,122.23 on his campaign), Mr. Oddie pulled back just a teeny bit and addressed the fire-chief scandal this way:
A question that I’ve received is whether it is appropriate for City Council members to recommend personnel to lead top departments in our city. I am deeply committed to having excellent city staff who meet the high standards you expect and deserve. It was in that spirit that I recommended a qualified candidate for Fire Chief last year. I regret and am sorry that my doing so caused some disappointment in the community. . . .
Mr. Oddie finished third, but he was selected to fill the two years remaining on the Council term of Mayor-elect Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. He thus still occupied a Council seat when the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury published its report finding that both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had violated the Charter and thereby “cost the city over a million dollars in investigations, legal fees and an employee separation settlement”; “cost Alameda a city manager, a city attorney, and contributed to several other senior staff leaving the city for new opportunities”; and “damaged public trust in government at a time when such trust is so important.”
This time, the tone of defiance was missing from Mr. Oddie’s response. “I am pleased that the grand jury has concluded its deliberations and happy that the jury determined that no further ‘accusation’ proceedings are warranted,” he told the East Bay Times, referring to a potential legal action to remove him from office. “As the Alameda City Council will be formally responding to the grand jury’s report in the coming weeks, it is premature and inappropriate for me to provide any additional comments at this time.”
And so the backpedaling began.
Both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had submitted their bills from outside counsel for payment by the City. With the approval of the City Attorney’s office, the City paid four invoices totaling $14,807 for services rendered between September 2018 and March 2019 by Keker & Van Nest LLP, the San Francisco law firm representing Mr. Oddie, and the Councilman asked the City to pick up the rest of his legal tab, which amounted to $96,187.56.
Council had not yet acted on Mr. Oddie’s submission – and a similar one by Ms. Vella – when the Grand Jury released its report. But in August, Mr. Oddie sent a letter to new City Manager Eric Levitt withdrawing his request. In a statement to the Alameda Sun, Mr. Oddie explained that, “I do so in the spirit of allowing me and the City to fully focus on the teamwork necessary to addressing the tough issues of school safety/security, housing affordability, homelessness and vital services for all Island families.” He didn’t mention that he already had established a legal defense fund and used it to pay a portion of his legal bills.
Mr. Oddie is now running for a full four-year term, and since the campaign began, he has – almost – put on the hair shirt.
At the first of the Council candidate forums, sponsored by the City of Alameda Democratic Club, he interjected what sounded like prepared remarks into an answer to a question about his support for Measure AA:
I apologized and took responsibility for my role in the ultimate outcome first in the campaign mailer two years ago, last year when I accepted responsibility for legal fees incurred while defending myself, and later, when it was no longer required as evidence, by calling for the release of the recording. . . . I recognize that confidence must be earned and never taken for granted. I’ve taken these commitments seriously, and while I’ve taken political positions that people may disagree with, there hasn’t been an issue with me staying in my lane. Some will judge me solely on that incident and never vote for me. That’s your right. Some disagree with me politically – they’ll use those events as a cudgel. That’s part of politics. Others were justifiably disappointed in me and I’ve worked hard to regain your trust. So I will ask them and everyone else who doesn’t fall into the first two buckets to evaluate me on my entire record.
Similarly, at the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Mr. Oddie gave this answer to a question about an “event” he “regretted”:
We remember what happened. My intentions there were basically to serve the public safety of our city and were intended to serve that core priority. In retrospect, however, I understand and accept responsibility. There are things that I did that I wouldn’t do again, and I’m sincerely sorry to all of you for that, for those things, for the disappointment, for the turmoil that this caused in our city. . . . Your confidence in me must continue to be earned and never taken for granted. I understand that. I’ve taken these commitments seriously, and while I’ve taken political positions that some people may disagree with, I’m confident that our valued staff and my colleagues would agree that there hasn’t been any issue with me staying in my lane. So while I’ll never ask you to ignore what happened, or never ask you to forget it, I will humbly ask that you evaluate me on my entire record of service to the people of Alameda. . . .
Now, we’ll leave to a Jesuit to determine whether this kind of statement, accepting “responsibility” and regretting “disappointment” – but not actually admitting any wrongdoing – would entitle Mr. Oddie to absolution if he made it in the confessional booth. The Councilman’s audience, however, isn’t the body of believers, but the body of voters. And we well remember – Mr. Oddie’s consultants surely do – how President Clinton’s approval rating declined only slightly, and then actually went up, after he copped to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Oddie may be placing the same bet.
From the beginning, Ms. Vella echoed Mr. Oddie’s original denial of any misconduct whatsoever. When the East Bay Times story broke, she quickly endorsed the appointment of an “independent investigator.” “I am absolutely confident,” she said in a statement furnished to the Times, “that the investigator will find the allegations that have been made against me to lack any basis in reality and that I will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”
And when Mr. Jenkins released his report – which had been edited in a closed Council session in which both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella themselves participated – she proclaimed vindication. The report “concluded,” Ms. Vella said in a press release, that “the evidence does not support any of Ms. Keimach’s baseless accusations that I improperly attempted to influence Ms. Keimach’s selection of a new Fire Chief in violation of our City Charter.”
Well, not exactly. What Mr. Jenkins actually wrote was that, “on balance, Vella’s conduct fell short of attempting to interfere with Keimach’s performance of her job or attempting to influence the appointment” – but only those who actually read the report would notice the difference. What’s more, Mr. Jenkins took pains to point out that, in reaching his conclusions, he had chosen not to review the tape of the key meeting Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had with Ms. Keimach.
Then came the report from the Grand Jury, which took testimony, reviewed documents – and listened to the tape of the key meeting. The jurors found that both Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie had violated the Charter, and, in their conclusion, they didn’t mince words:
The external pressure exerted during the fire chief hiring process and the resulting actions by two councilmembers represented the very conduct that good government advocates were trying to eliminate when city charter amendments preventing council interference began to pop up throughout the nation. Cronyism and back room deals are corrosive and can destroy the public’s trust in the fair administration of government. . . .
The resulting damage caused by the actions of elected officials and staff that followed is undeniable.
We don’t envy any consultant whom Ms. Vella asked for advice about how to respond to this damning summation. But whatever advice she got, the Councilwoman’s strategy was to brazen it out.
In a press release, she began boldly by again claiming vindication. “Today,” she declared, “another independent review of events put into motion in 2017 by former City Manager Jill Keimach show[s] again that her allegations against me were baseless.” (That was our jaw you saw dropping.)
Then, she offered a few rather odd criticisms of the report itself. She found it “troubling,” she stated, that the Grand Jury had chosen to “rel[y] on” an allegedly disreputable consultant who had been hired to do performance reviews of City staff. About two pages of the report did indeed delineate how Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had “hijacked” the performance review process “to accomplish [their] goals of installing their preferred candidate for fire chief,” but that was hardly the grand jurors’ focus.
What really must have galled Ms. Vella was that the report also related that the consultant had resigned before his engagement was up because he “did not want to participate in an unethical misuse of the performance review process.” (And how’s this for irony? When the infamous tape later became public, it turned out that, according to Ms. Vella, she had sought the meeting with Ms. Keimach on the advice of the very same consultant whose reputation she was now trashing!)
Then, even more perplexingly, Ms. Vella accused the grand jurors of “fall[ing] short in their search for truth” because “they never even subpoenaed testimony from many people whose actions are cited in the report, including union officials.” Grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret, but Ms. Vella apparently managed to put together her own list of grand jury witnesses. And who, pray tell, would these unsubpoenaed “union officials” be? Perhaps Jeff DelBono, former president of the Alameda firefighters’ union, or his political director, Ben Kim?
We can infer from the Jenkins report itself that these gentlemen refused to be interviewed by Mr. Jenkins (except upon conditions he found “unacceptable”), and there’s no reason to suppose they reacted differently to an invitation from the Grand Jury. But citing her allies’ failure to cooperate voluntarily as grounds for impeaching the Grand Jury report takes a whole lot of . . . chutzpah.
(The press release also contained the catch-all claim that the Grand Jury “failed to review the documents upon which their report is based, resulting in numerous factual errors, including publicly recorded votes.” This mirrored a charge made by Mr. Tavares, and, indeed, the grand jurors did get one vote count wrong. But this error undercuts their findings to the same extent that one of Joe Biden’s gaffes undermines his fitness to be president.)
Ms. Vella wasn’t done yet.
A few months later, she gave an interview to Mr. Tavares for an article in Alameda Magazine. For some reason she chose to unload on former City Attorney Janet Kern, who was no longer around to defend herself, for declining to represent Ms. Vella at City expense without telling her that Ms. Kern herself was “subject to a potential investigation.” (For what wasn’t clear.) Then, she suggested that she was the victim of racism and sexism. “I’m always held to an unattainable standard to a small minority in Alameda and the media,” she was quoted as saying. “They need to do a big look in the mirror and ask, ‘Why am I being blamed for something another white Protestant male did?”
Given her attitude, it was not surprising that, unlike Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella went ahead with her demand for payment of attorneys’ fees. With the approval of the City Attorney’s office, the City paid invoices totaling $17,518.33 for services rendered between October 2018 and March 2019 by Coblentz, Patch Duffy & Bass LLP, the San Francisco law firm representing Ms. Vella. The Councilwoman wanted the City to reimburse her for another $77,907.50 in legal fees she had used campaign funds to pay. But last November, Council unanimously denied her request.
Likewise, Ms. Vella has chosen not to follow Mr. Oddie down the path of (partial) contrition during the campaign. Indeed, at both the Democratic Club and the League of Women Voters meetings, she dismissed her role in the fire-chief scandal in a couple of sentences.
“In terms of regrets,” she told the Club, “I would have cancelled that meeting back in August if I had known everything that was swirling: that a letter had been written, that our City Manager was upset. I would have cancelled it; I never would have gone.” A month later, she told the League that, yes, there had been “a number of violations” of the City Charter – but not by her. “We’ve had Council members who . . . we had a mayor that stole money from the City, went after police officers who arrested their husband for a DUI, this [i.e., Measure AA] still would need to address these situations,” she said.
We’re guessing that this smear was aimed at former Mayor Trish Spencer, but since it appears to have been based on hit pieces by Mr. Tavares, we cannot, and do not, vouch for its accuracy. In any event, Ms. Vella seems to be engaging in what we believe the psychologists call “projecting” – a habit usually associated with the current occupant of the White House.
Ms. Vella thus has been playing hardball since the very beginning. And the tactic might well work – except for one thing: the tape of the August 16, 2017 meeting she and Mr. Oddie had with Ms. Keimach.
Ms. Vella consistently has maintained that the meeting was entirely innocuous. She told Mr. Jenkins that she “merely want[ed] to talk with Keimach about the process for hiring the Fire Chief because she had been getting some complaints suggesting that Keimach was not conducting a fair process” and she “wanted to clear the air.” She reiterated that claim in a later press release:
[T]he purpose of the meeting with Ms. Keimach was not to demand that Ms. Keimach appoint Alameda Fire Captain Dominic Weaver. Ms. Vella’s intent was to address concerns raised earlier with her that Ms. Keimach had already decided on a favored candidate, and that despite the process set up for the Fire Chief selection Captain Weaver would not be considered at all by the City Manager, including because he lacked a college degree.
But read the transcript for yourself. Two key points emerge:
- Ms. Vella did promote the firefighters’ union’s pick, Domenick Weaver, for the fire chief’s job.
“I think it’s important,” Ms. Vella told Ms. Keimach at the beginning of the meeting, “that we talk with you about at least our, our input, relative to the Fire Chief.” (Remind us again of what the Charter says about Councilmembers attempting to influence the City Manager in the making of any appointment.) And then she, rather than Mr. Oddie, took the lead in providing that “input.”
From the outset, it was clear that Ms. Vella wanted the job to go to Capt. Weaver. She launched right away into making the case for the former union president, leading Ms. Keimach to ask, “So you’re saying you want me to hire Dominic? Or not do a – open recruitment?”, and then to declare, “You want Dominic, regardless of who else is in the pool.”
With only occasional asides from Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella went on to tout Capt. Weaver not for his managerial skills but for his rapport with the firefighters’ union membership. As IAFF Local 689 president, he had persuaded his members to “sign off” on contributing to the OPEB trust fund – i.e., start funding their retiree health care – which was a “huge” concession, Ms. Vella said. Moreover, after the Raymond Zack incident, in which firefighters and cops stood by as a man drowned at Crown Beach, Capt. Weaver had “kept people together,” “kept up morale,” and “kept people on the job,” she said. “[H]e’s, you know, shown up, and been there, and been a leader in that respect.”
The bottom line: “And I think, you know, I know that there’s a number of different applicants, but when we look and try to define what’s good, and what’s best and everything else, I really do, at least from my perspective, I want somebody who’s going to bring a coalition with us, and at least have a relationship with that coalition. . . .” That “somebody” was Capt. Weaver.
Moreover, in addition to promoting Capt. Weaver, Ms. Vella also saw fit to disparage the other “internal candidates” for the fire chief’s job. One would be a “disaster,” she told Ms. Keimach. The other would not “have a lot of trust” because he planned to retire after spiking his pension.
- Ms. Vella admonished Ms. Keimach to give special attention to union boss DelBono during the selection process.
Much of the second half of the meeting was devoted to suggestions by the two Council members about the care-and-feeding of Mr. DelBono, whom Ms. Vella analogized to a “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.”
At the time of the meeting, Mr. DelBono was on his honeymoon. (Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie had driven together to the wedding.) Upon his return, Ms. Vella urged, Ms. Keimach should “bring him back into the process” by briefing him about how many applicants were being considered for the fire chief’s job and “where we’re at in the process.” “Whatever you – whatever you know, basically,” she said. “And just go over it again, and like – you know.”
As the process continued, so should the City Manager’s rundowns for the union boss. Give Mr. DelBono “an extra 30 seconds to a minute a day,” Ms. Vella recommended. “You know, build in an automatic email to him that just says, ‘There has been no change today,’ or whatever,” she went on. “’And this, you know, I’ll give you an update when there’s one to give,’ and, and that sort of thing. And I think if you can solidify, and, and maybe clarify what, you know – go over, ‘Hey, Jeff, I. . .’ you know, and – you know.”
Alameda voters can choose to believe the myth Ms. Vella has concocted about distancing herself from the scheme to get Ms. Keimach to appoint Capt. Weaver as fire chief. But as a football coach might remind her (and them), the tape don’t lie.
Let us end with this: We have read in press reports – far too often – that there may be American citizens who will vote for Donald Trump in spite of his many indiscretions because they approve of his policies (such as they are). We suspect that something similar may go on with voters in local elections. We can only say to our readers who are thinking that way when they fill out their ballots for Alameda City Council: Okay, do what you want – but just don’t hold your nose too tight. You may find yourself unable to breathe.
Grand jury report: Grand jury report
Transcript of August 16, 2017 meeting: 2017-08-16-meeting-transcript-redacted