Unlike the presidential election, the race for Alameda City Council has yet to be described as “existential.”
Nevertheless, the Council elected this November will be called upon to make decisions in a number of areas that will affect the well-being of the city and its residents for some time to come.
Today, we’ll talk about three of them.
One of the myths being promulgated by the proponents of Measure Z, the ballot measure to repeal Article XXVI of the Charter, is that repeal will make it easier for the City to “comply with state law,” specifically the state housing element law. In fact, repeal won’t make much, if any, difference in the City’s ability to satisfy the legal requirements set by the state. City staff, the Planning Board, and the next Council still will face a daunting challenge regardless of whether Article XXVI remains in the Charter.
State law requires every city to adopt a “housing element” as part of its general plan. The city must submit this plan to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for approval. To get the OK from HCD, the plan must show, among other things, how the city intends to meet the regional housing needs allocation assigned to it by the relevant regional agency (in this case, the Association of Bay Area Governments).
Like other cities in the region, the City of Alameda is required to adopt a new “housing element” by January 30, 2023. As a practical matter, this means that the City must submit its plan to HCD by the summer of 2022. City staff, led by Planning, Building, and Transportation Director Andrew Thomas, prepares the draft housing element, and both the Planning Board and Council need to review and approve it.
Mr. Thomas has his work cut out for him. Recently, ABAG informed the City of Alameda that it must “make available” sufficient “housing opportunity sites” to accommodate 4,900 new housing units during the next eight-year planning cycle, which covers the period between June 30, 2022, and December 15, 2030. (In addition, the RHNA sets quotas in four income categories, but to keep things simple we’ll focus on the overall total.) By comparison, the City’s RHNA during the current cycle was 1,723 units.
The 4,900 unit number is subject to revision, and the mayors of five Alameda County cities recently sent a letter to ABAG objecting to the way in which the agency assigned RHNA quotas in the East Bay as compared to the South Bay, and demanding a reduction. Even under their proposal, however, the City of Alameda still would be responsible for 3,500 new housing units, more than double the quota in the last cycle.
Once the RHNA numbers are finalized, the City will need to identify “housing opportunity sites” with sufficient density to yield the required number of new units.
In 2012, this task required a bit of creativity (cynics might call it legerdemain). To meet the City’s RHNA quota of 2,420 units, Mr. Thomas invented the 30-units-per-acre “multi-family overlay,” which the Planning Board and Council then applied to 16 individual parcels. Having re-zoned these sites in 2012, the City was well-positioned in 2014 to satisfy its RHNA quota of 1,723 units for the next cycle. The multi-family overlay didn’t need to be applied to any additional sites, and a couple of the sites re-zoned for a higher density in 2012 actually got taken off the “available” list.
Meeting a 4,900-unit (or even a 3,500-unit) RHNA quota won’t be so easy.
The first task will be able to come up with the list of “housing opportunity sites.” Measure Z itself won’t provide the solution. Even if the ballot measure passes and enables the next Council to re-zone areas for residential use, it won’t render the parcels in those areas automatically “available” for new housing. The next Council could re-zone the Park and Webster Street business districts for high-density, multi-family housing, but HCD may not deem it sufficient that new residential units could be built on a commercial site. More likely, it wouldn’t allow the City to count, for example, the site on which the CVS pharmacy now sits against its RHNA quota unless the owner actually intends to put housing on the property.
Unfortunately, there is not much land left in Alameda that truly can be considered “available” for new residential development as of June 30, 2022. Already fully built projects won’t count (unless Council decides to increase, retroactively, the density allowed for them). The City can, however, include parcels where a project has been approved but not all of the necessary building permits have yet been issued. For example, all of the North Housing and Boatworks sites, and the unbuilt portions of the Alameda Landing waterfront and Alameda Marina sites, can go on the list. Moreover, the City can take credit for the balance of units remaining under the no-cost conveyance agreement with the Navy at Alameda Point, but it cannot not go beyond the 1,425-unit cap set by that agreement, even though there is a lot of vacant land at the Point that might seem to be developable.
Then what? The Marina Village, South Shore and Harbor Bay shopping centers are candidates for re-zoning for residential use. So is the infamous Harbor Bay Club, which the late Ron Cowan himself once proposed turning into housing. (Due to restrictive covenants, residential use is not allowed in the Harbor Bay Business Park.) But it wouldn’t make sense for the City to re-zone these parcels if their owners had no intent to build housing there. And, absent such intent, HCD isn’t likely to let the City count any of them toward its RHNA quota.
After the “available” sites are selected, the next task is to assign a maximum (or minimum) density to each of them. Again, the fate of Measure Z is irrelevant. If the ballot measure passes, the next Council can choose to create a new maximum density for every residentially zoned site in the city (or for all parcels within a defined area). If it fails, the next Council can engage in a maneuver similar to the one used in 2012 and create another high-density “multi-family overlay.” For purposes of satisfying the RHNA requirement the result is the same either way.
But assigning densities may get complicated. For one thing, the 30-units-per-acre density used for the multi-family overlay in 2012 probably won’t generate enough units to reach the target for the next cycle. Theoretically, the right number is just a matter of mathematics (total acreage times X equals 4,900). But a case could be made that different types of housing, or the same types located in different areas, should be given different maximum densities – as long as the total continues to add up to 4,900. If so, we’d expect that people living in certain neighborhoods might argue that the highest density housing belongs somewhere else on the island. But where might that “somewhere else” be?
The next Council, with input from the Planning Board, will need to approve the overall scheme devised by Mr. Thomas and his staff to meet the new RHNA quota. But it will also become heavily involved in refereeing disputes over specific re-zoning decisions. And we’re afraid that Isaiah’s prophesy may come true: “People will oppress each other – man against man, neighbor against neighbor. The young will rise up against the old, the nobody against the honored.” We wouldn’t want to be sitting on the dais when that happens.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and the arrest of Mali Watkins in Alameda, the current Council embarked upon a campaign to “reform” the Alameda police department. It will be up to the next Council to decide how to finish what the current one started.
For a while, it looked like “transformational” change was on the way:
- On June 16, Council passed a motion written by Councilwoman Malia Vella and Vice Mayor John Knox White freezing hiring in the police department (even though there were then 11 fewer cops on the job than the most recent budget had authorized), and requiring the police chief to obtain advance approval from Council before making any “policing policy changes.”
- On July 21, two Council members (Mr. Knox White and Councilman Jim Oddie) presented a resolution declaring racism to be a “public emergency”; calling for cutting the police department budget by 42 percent; and establishing a host of new “oversight” procedures, including “a process for non-police review of all instances involving physical contact and use of force as well as a monthly random audit of Alameda Police Department’s bodycam footage for traffic stops and non-use of force arrests.”
But Mr. Knox White and Mr. Oddie appear to have gotten out over their skis. Council passed only the portion of their proposed resolution that declared an emergency, and, rather than cutting the budget and imposing the oversight procedures, it voted to establish a “community-led process” for addressing five topics suggested by Ms. Vella: “unbundling services currently delivered by the Police Department”; “a review of Police Department policies and practices”; “Police Department accountability and oversight; “a review of laws that criminalize survival”; and “systemic and community racism/anti-racism.”
Except for the first, these “topics” were so broadly and vaguely worded – it was, after all, Ms. Vella who came up with them – that one wasn’t sure exactly what the “process” was supposed to produce. (In business-school lingo, they call this the “deliverable.”) Nevertheless, City Manager Eric Levitt appointed a four-member “steering committee” whose task, according to a City press release, was to “take the lead in developing a community-led process and work plans to address the future of policing and systemic racism in Alameda.” The steering committee then appointed a “task force”/ subcommittee for each of Ms. Vella’s five topics; every subcommittee has nine or 10 members.
According to another City press release, the steering committee and subcommittees meet individually and hold joint monthly meetings. As of October 6, they had “met several times to identify their mission, goals, and information needs,” and, on that date, they met jointly to “meet the Interim Police Chief, discuss the City’s budget, and talk about how information requests will be managed.”
So at this point it’s fair to say that, over the last four months, a lot of people have gotten involved in the “process” and that they’ve held quite a few meetings. But we continue to be unsure about what is supposed to happen next – or when. At its July 28 meeting, after a welter of wordsmithing, Council adopted a resolution “pledg[ing] to return in October 2020 prior to the next quarterly budget review to begin the process to develop, adopt and implement a comprehensive strategic plan informed in part by the community-led workgroups.” Whatever that may mean, no such item appeared on the agenda for either the October 6 or the October 20 Council meeting. Indeed, as far as we can tell, none of the “community-led workgroups” has yet forwarded any recommendations to staff.
Even more fundamental questions remain (at least to us) about what to expect from the “process.” For example, the Council members repeatedly emphasized that they wanted to “center Black voices” in the structure they were setting up. Does this mean that the subcommittees’ mission is to present Council with recommendations reflecting only the will of the Black community (assuming there is such a homogeneous group)? Likewise, although the impetus for Council’s actions was the Mali Watkins incident, the fifth topic identified by Ms. Vella is “systemic and community racism/anti-racism.” Does this mean that the charge given to the subcommittees (or at least one of them) includes recommending not only how to reform the police department but also how to restructure municipal government, or even society as a whole?
And then there’s the issue of when and how the general public will get a say on the topics being considered by the subcommittees. At the July 21 Council meeting, Mr. Levitt stated, in response to a question by Councilman Tony Daysog, that the committees would “receive community input,” but “the method has yet to be determined.”
Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems likely that a lot of work will still need to be done after the current Council leaves office. This being Alameda, we are hopeful that our fellow citizens will manage to develop a set of concrete proposals for the next Council to consider. But we confess that we were somewhat taken aback by recent stories in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (our onetime employer) and the New York Times about how the campaign for police reform has played out in Minneapolis, which is, of course, where it all started.
Initially, nine members of the city council signed a pledge to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating [a] new transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.” But it turned out that not everyone agreed what the pledge meant, and, if it was interpreted as a call to abolish the police department, the city’s mayor, a plurality of residents, and an increasing number of community groups all opposed it. A city commission then rejected a proposed ballot measure for eliminating the charter requirement to fund the police. Since then, no more public hearings have been held, and no further council votes have been taken. “Instead,” the Star-Tribune reported, “council members are relying on the city’s staff to help them create a plan.”
Which, of course, makes us wonder: Would it have been wiser for the current Alameda City Council to have done that in the first place? Is it too late for the next Council to do it anyway?
Public-safety union contracts
The current public-safety union contracts will expire on December 18, 2021, and, under normal circumstances, the next Council will face the task of approving the next round of MOUs some time next year.
The timing is uncertain because it appears that negotiations for a new contract between the City and the firefighters’ union apparently already are under way. (Council “provided direction” on this issue to staff “by unanimous vote” in closed session on September 15.) City Manager Levitt told us that he will not be presenting any new public-safety union contracts before the election, but “I can’t provide a definitive for the rest of the year.” (Our bet: The timing will depend on whether Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie, the two candidates backed by the firefighters’ union, win re-election. If they don’t, get ready for a November/December “surprise.”)
Whichever Council reviews the next round of public-safety union contracts, they will deserve close scrutiny – which prior Councils haven’t always exercised before rushing to put them into effect.
As its last official act in December 2012, the outgoing Council approved public-safety union contracts covering the period from June 30, 2013, to June 24, 2017. (How those contracts were sold to the public is a story in itself. Basically, then-City Manager John Russo ginned up an argument about needing to settle a “grievance” filed by the firefighters’ union – and denied by the City – three years previously. The argument was a crock.) This contract introduced the concept of guaranteeing an annual minimum raise for firefighters and cops but enabling them to get an even greater raise based on a formula – the so-called “Balanced Revenue Index” – reflecting annual increases in tax revenue.
In April 2015, even though the 2013-17 agreements would not expire for more than two years, Mr. Russo presented Council with a set of new public-safety union contracts that would run from November 1, 2015, to December 18, 2021. (It was Mr. Russo’s last official act as city manager).
The staff report did not explain why the contracts needed replacing so soon, but a long line of union honchos and politicians (including State Assemblyman Rob Bonta and Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan) took turns at the podium endorsing the new MOUs. Also urging approval were two citizens (and future union-endorsed Council members) named Malia Vella and John Knox White. Council ended up authorizing the new contracts by a 3-2 vote, with Councilman Oddie and current Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft in the majority and former Mayor Trish Spencer and current Councilman Tony Daysog dissenting. (Former Councilman Frank Matarrese supplied the deciding vote.)
The new contacts retained the guaranteed raise/BRI method of the agreement they replaced. And that method has worked to the public-safety union members’ benefit, producing greater-than-minimum raises in every one of the five years in which a pay hike was guaranteed (no raise was due in 2019).
Here’s the data:
In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been surprising, since the BRI formula included revenue from one tax – the property-transfer tax – that could be expected to go up significantly every year as development heated up at Alameda Point and along the northern waterfront. Indeed, former Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam recognized this consequence, and when she negotiated contracts with the City’s miscellaneous employees in February 2016, she removed property-transfer tax revenue from the BRI formula for the next round of MOUs.
According to Transparent California, the average Alameda fire captain earned $294,979.77 in salary and benefits in 2018, the last year for which data was collected; the average fire apparatus operator earned $266,156.40; and the average firefighter $217,949.85. At the same time, the number of IAFF Local 689 members on the City payroll has gone up: between FY 2013-14 and FY 2019-20, authorized positions for the fire department (net of the chief, deputy chief, and division chiefs) increased from 99 to 110. The result is that total fire department salaries and benefits have jumped by 28.12 percent since the current contracts went into effect.
Similarly, according to Transparent California, the average Alameda police sergeant earned $290,427.55 in salary and benefits in 2018, and the average police officer earned $218,493.28. Unlike the fire department, authorized positions for the police department remained the same between 2014 and 2019 (88 officers), but the number of cops actually on the job fell from 84 to 77. As a result, police labor expense has increased less than fire labor expense over the life of the current contract. For the cops, the increase is 17.27 percent.
Taken together, salaries and benefits paid to firefighters and cops ate up more than half (53.36 per cent, to be precise) of the revenue coming into the General Fund in FY
2018-19 – and if future tax receipts decline as a result of the pandemic, the size of the slice of the pie going to public-safety union members will get even bigger.
Under these circumstances, will the firefighters’ union (which usually leads the negotiations from the labor side) demand further raises for public-safety workers in the next round of contracts? We can’t imagine otherwise. But can the City afford to give it to them? That’s an entirely different question that the next Council will need to answer.
And what, if any “concessions,” real or imagined, will the firefighters and cops be asked to make in exchange for higher pay? If the negotiations were conducted at arms’ length, one could imagine the City insisting, for example, on increased employee contributions for pensions and retiree health benefits. But the negotiators for the City know that any agreement has to get the votes of a majority of Council members, and how hard a line they are able to take may depend on who wins the two Council seats in November.
* * * * *
So there are our three key areas in which the next Council will need to make decisions. (There are, undoubtedly, others.) We suggest that, before casting their ballots, Alameda voters should evaluate the candidates on the basis of whom they trust to exercise informed and unbiased judgment in these areas.
And which of the five might that fit that bill?
You really didn’t expect us to tell you, did you?
New RHNA quota: 2020-10-08 TVC Letter to ABAG Executive Board President
The BRI computations for each fiscal year are shown in the Comprehensive Annual Financal reports available on the City website (https://www.alamedaca.gov/Departments/Administration/Finance.)