To her detractors, former Mayor Trish Spencer, who is running to return to Council this November, is the Candidate of No. She is, they say (or, rather, post or tweet), against everything a Right-Thinking person is for:
Anti-labor (or, to use the preferred term, “working family,” assuming that term can be applied to a firefighter earning $217,949.85 per year).
And, some of her foes hint, she’s something even worse: a . . . Republican who allegedly parties with Donald Trump!
Well, the Merry-Go-Round doesn’t know anything about Ms. Spencer’s political party registration or attendance at inaugural balls. But we’ve reviewed the votes she took during her term as mayor in four of the areas on which her asserted reputation as a naysayer depends. And the facts are more complicated than the Twitter trolls, Facebook aficionados, and polemical bloggers would have one believe.
Yes, it’s true that Ms. Spencer, perhaps more than any other Council member (we haven’t looked at every vote), often dissented from the majority on contested matters. It’s also true that her dissents increased after Malia Vella was elected in 2016 and joined Jim Oddie and (most of the time) Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft to form a Triumvirate controlling Council.
Nevertheless, an examination of Ms. Spencer’s record shows that during her term as mayor she also cast what can be characterized as pro-renter, pro-homeless, pro-development, and pro-labor votes. She may not have consulted the “progressive” handbook or the “woke” dictionary before raising her hand. But neither did she promote a rightward-leaning agenda. The line she toed was the center line, not the ideological one.
Indeed, it may not stretching things too far to say that Ms. Spencer was the Joe Biden to the Triumvirate’s Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
Let’s look at the record, beginning with renter issues.
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The “rent crisis” dominated Council’s attention for much of the first two years of Ms. Spencer’s term as mayor. During that period, Council acted incrementally to address the issue of rising rents. First, it passed an ordinance “strengthening” the existing Rent Review Advisory Committee process. Then, it imposed (and later twice extended) a moratorium on rent increases and evictions so that it could work with staff to come up with a comprehensive remedy. Finally, after a series of late-night/early morning meetings, it passed a “rent stabilization” ordinance that required landlords to submit any proposed rent increase exceeding five percent to the RRAC; barred them from evicting tenants except on one of 10 enumerated grounds; and directed them to pay “relocation assistance” for “no cause” and “no fault” evictions.
All of these votes (except the last, when Councilman Frank Matarrese dissented) were unanimous. And all of the Council members declared themselves satisfied with the result. As Ms. Ashcraft put it, “Nobody’s happy with [the ordinance], but I happen to think it’s striking a fair balance.”
But a newly formed tenants’ advocacy group – the Alameda Renters’ Coalition – was more than just unhappy. ARC demanded that Council do more – i.e., set a firm cap on rent increases and ban all “no-cause evictions,” and when no one on Council – even Mr. Oddie – took up its cause, ARC prepared a ballot measure to get the voters to write its demands into the City Charter.
The five Council members had to decide how to respond. They ended up voting to take no position on the ARC initiative – Ms. Spencer wanted them to oppose it; later, she signed a ballot argument against it – but also to put their own measure on the ballot asking voters to “confirm” the rent stabilization ordinance. Although Councilwoman Ashcraft joined with Councilman Oddie in opposing the idea of a competing ballot measure, she ended up suggesting that she and Mr. Oddie write the argument in favor of it. And so they did.
The November 2016 election appeared to validate the middle-of-the-road approach Council had taken. The voters confirmed the rent stabilization ordinance, 55.51 percent for / 44.49 percent against, and rejected the ARC initiative with its more drastic provisions by an even greater margin, 34.07 percent for / 65.93 percent against.
If crafting – and passing – and then defending – laws that hamper a landlord’s ability to raise rents or terminate tenancies makes a politician “pro‑renter,” Ms. Spencer earned that description during her first two years. And if not giving the tenant advocates everything they want makes a politician “anti-renter,” well, hello, Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Oddie circa 2016.
The November election had one other significant result: Ms. Vella, a Teamsters Union lawyer who had never run for office, beat out veteran Councilman Tony Daysog for the second Council seat. The days of a “moderate” majority consisting of Ms. Spencer, Mr. Matarrese, and Mr. Daysog were over. Going forward, control rested in the hands of Ms. Ashcraft, Mr. Oddie, and Ms. Vella. And now that they were calling the tune, the melody changed.
A few months after the election, at a Council meeting intended merely to tweak the rent stabilization ordinance, Ms. Ashcraft floated the idea of amending the law to add a provision banning “no cause evictions” – which was, of course, one of the very goals of the ARC initiative the voters had just rejected. It took an emailed threat to get Mr. Oddie to go along, but within 72 hours he became a zealous convert, and Ms. Vella jumped on board as well. So on May 16, 2017, staff presented Council with an amendment deleting the paragraph allowing a landlord to terminate a tenancy simply by serving the 30- or 60-day notice provided under state law.
Ms. Spencer was incensed. To her, the proposed amendment represented a betrayal – not only of the voters who had just confirmed the City ordinance and rejected the ARC initiative, but also of the prior Council that had “worked really, really hard to get everyone on board.” And she made clear whom she had in mind for the role of Judas: Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft. They had voted for an ordinance that failed to ban “no cause evictions” and then signed a ballot argument praising that ordinance as “a common sense and balanced approach” to the rent crisis. “I think it was then, I think it is now,” Ms. Spencer declared, “and I think it is very important that these members are now refusing to honor their own words.”
Now we suppose it’s possible to characterize Ms. Spencer’s reaction as petulant: after all, Council members Ashcraft and Oddie aren’t the only politicians who act hypocritically. Moreover, other than citing the overwhelming defeat of the ARC initiative at the polls, Ms. Spencer didn’t explain in any detail whether, or why, she thought the proposed ban on “no cause evictions” was a bad policy. But labeling her “anti-renter” for opposing the new Triumvirate’s maneuver? We don’t think so.
(The irony is that the ordinance banning no-cause evictions never took effect while Ms. Spencer was mayor. A landlord’s group qualified a measure for a referendum to repeal the law, and, in response, Council rescinded the ordinance so that it could try again later. And that was happened: after Ms. Spencer lost her bid for re-election and the Triumvirate became the Gang of Four, Council enacted an ordinance imposing the ban in April 2019.)
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For most of her term as mayor, the next issue – homelessness – was less contentious, and, until the very end, Ms. Spencer joined with her colleagues in Council’s efforts to aid the growing homeless population in Alameda.
One of those efforts consisted of providing “outreach” and case‑management services to homeless people. In December 2016, Council approved a $122,242 contract with a non-profit organization, Operation Dignity, to provide such services for 11 months; later, it agreed to pay $61,534 to extend the contract for another six months. Ms. Spencer voted for both motions. In addition, she voted in favor of including $120,000 for “mobile outreach” (presumably provided by Operation Dignity) and another $88,400 for three new programs in the fiscal year 2018-19 budget.
The other major project was to relocate the Alameda Point Collaborative and two other service providers to a complex to be constructed in the “Main Street Neighborhood” at Alameda Point. During Ms. Spencer’s term as mayor, Council approved an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with a consortium led by a non-profit housing provider to develop the site; a “specific plan” that called for construction of new market-rate units to fund the backbone infrastructure needed for the project; and, ultimately, a Disposition and Development Agreement in which the City would provide the land at no cost. Ms. Spencer voted in favor of each of these actions.
It would be misleading to assert that Ms. Spencer was the driving force behind the City’s efforts to assist the homeless, and, as far as we know, she has never claimed to be. But her record of support for Operation Dignity and the relocation project belies any accusation that she is “anti-homeless” – unless, that is, her opposition to the “wellness center” on McKay Avenue wipes out any credit for her other actions.
The wellness center was a proposal by APC to take over “surplus” property owned by the federal government and convert it to 90 units of assisted senior housing for formerly homeless individuals; a 50-bed “medical respite center” providing rehabilitation services for homeless patients who recently had been discharged from the hospital; a “resource center”; and a primary care clinic. After the federal government approved the proposal, the next step was for APC to get Council to re-zone the parcel to permit the intended uses.
The request came before Council after the November 2018 election in which Ms. Spencer lost her re-election bid; in fact, it was the second-to-last Council meeting over which she presided. And Ms. Spencer voted no.
Her arguments were primarily technical and legalistic. The notice to property owners was deficient, she contended; Measure WW, passed by the voters in 2008, had designated the parcel for use as open space, she claimed. In addition, she said, the buildings were contaminated and needed to be cleaned up, and the street was too narrow for emergency vehicles. “I appreciate the serious concern for the homeless, and how we’re going to address their needs,” she concluded. “At the same time, it’s critical that we vet this location for that need. I don’t think that’s happened.”
For our part, we weren’t persuaded. But were Ms. Spencer’s arguments a smoke screen concealing bias against the homeless? It’s not for us to say. At the April 2019 election, two competing measures were placed on the ballot, one to confirm the rezoning (Measure A), the other to change the zoning to open space (Measure B). Ms. Spencer did not sign the argument in favor of the latter, but she did sign the argument in opposition to the former. By doing so she allied herself with the proposition that the wellness center was a “regional” facility that belonged somewhere other than the City of Alameda. So if not anti-homeless, maybe a NIMBY? Her detractors can pick their poison.
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During Ms. Spencer’s term as mayor, Council approved four major development projects: Site A at Alameda Point, Encinal Terminals, the Alameda Landing waterfront, and the Alameda Marina. It also approved a “specific plan” for the Main Street Neighborhood, and it changed the zoning at the North Housing site to eliminate the 435-unit cap on new housing units.
Ms. Spencer did not take the same side on each of these decisions. She voted to approve the Disposition and Development Agreement with Alameda Point Partners for Site A (800 new housing units), but she later opposed all three of the amendments proposed by the developer for the project. She voted against the master plans for the Encinal Terminals and Alameda Landing waterfront projects, but in favor of the master plan for the Alameda Marina (760 new housing units). And she voted for the Main Street Neighborhood specific plan but against the North Housing re-zoning.
At first glance, it is difficult to discern a pattern, but, if there is one, it is not that Ms. Spencer is “anti-development.” Instead, one can discern two themes running through her votes.
The first is an emphasis on what she (and others) call “workforce housing” – i.e., units priced somewhere between the “affordable housing” required by the City’s inclusionary housing ordinance and the market-rate housing favored by for-profit developers. Her “priority,” Ms. Spencer said at a Council workshop early in the second year of her term, was to get developers to build housing that “people in the middle can afford.”
The evolution of the specific plan for the Main Street Neighborhood illustrates the single-mindedness with which Ms. Spencer pursued this goal.
When staff first sought Council input, Ms. Spencer made clear that the specific plan should include workforce as well as affordable (i.e., below-market) and market-rate housing. “My concern is that we never seem to be able to figure out how to do workforce housing,” she said. “If all we do is the same – luxury and very low – it’s going to be very hard for me to support” the plan.
The draft plan later presented by staff, however, didn’t satisfy her, primarily because it didn’t specify the mix between types of housing. As Ms. Spencer saw it, further development in the Main Street Neighborhood should consist of more units in the workforce category than in either the affordable or market-rate segments. Staff promised to have its consultant analyze the economic feasibility of various scenarios, and the final plan it presented a few months later showed that a scheme with 45 percent workforce units indeed would work (provided that the workforce housing included all of the units remaining under the cap established by the no‑cost conveyance agreement with the Navy for Alameda Point).
And that was good enough to gain Ms. Spencer’s support for the specific plan. “That’s what a project on the people’s property should look like,” she declared.
The second theme is that, to Ms. Spencer, a “mixed-use” project should contain a significant commercial and (where appropriate) maritime component as well as a residential one. At the same workshop at which she endorsed workforce housing, Ms. Spencer said that the City should look for projects that provided “mid-level and high-level jobs where people can have a job here in town and be able to live here.” “Low-level retail,” she added, “won’t get us there.”
Ms. Spencer subjected specific projects to this test. She objected to the proposed
re-phasing of Site A because it relegated commercial development to the last phase, which she feared might never get built. Likewise, one reason she didn’t like the Encinal Terminals master plan was that it devoted so little space – 30,000 square feet – to commercial uses. And one reason she opposed the Alameda Landing waterfront master plan was that the developer refused to “guarantee” that a portion of the property would continue to be used for commercial and maritime activities. By contrast, the master plan for the Alameda Marina won her support after Councilman Matarrese proposed an amendment expanding the area designated for “maritime commercial” use.
It is possible to argue with Ms. Spencer’s stated development priorities. It is also possible to get annoyed by her occasionally picayune criticisms of specific projects. (We suspect City staff believed she never saw a nit that she didn’t want to pick.) But anti-development? Only if one believes in “build, baby, build” more housing, and everything else be damned.
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The Alameda firefighters’ union did not endorse Ms. Spencer when she ran for mayor in 2014 or for re-election in 2018 – and for good reason: Ms. Spencer wasn’t willing to give them what they wanted.
True, she did vote to construct the combined Emergency Operations Center/Fire Station No. 3 on the corner of Grand and Buena Vista (which Vice Mayor John Knox White once described as “this giant monolith sitting in the middle of this sea of asphalt”), and she even voted to increase the construction budget to remedy the allegedly unknown hazardous-waste problem at the site. But she balked at appropriating $446,000 to pay for “furniture, fixtures and equipment” inexplicably left out of the original plans.
Ms. Spencer’s real sin, however, was resisting the union’s efforts to increase salaries and personnel. She voted against the five-year public-safety union contracts guaranteeing minimum annual raises to firefighters and cops regardless of the City’s financial condition, and against adding three new sworn positions to the fire-prevention bureau at a cost of about $800,000 per year. She also opposed creating a new $365,723-per-year position for a “fire marshal.”
But is it fair from these votes to brand Ms. Spencer as “anti-labor” – or just as a Council member who, unlike two of her colleagues we can think of, isn’t amenable to taking orders from IAFF Local 689?
During her term as mayor, two proposals backed by organized labor came before Council. One was to require that all contractors working on significant projects for the City enter into a “project stabilization agreement” with the construction trades unions requiring, among other things, that they hire all of their workers through union hiring halls and pay into union benefit funds. Such agreements have been shown to increase construction costs – paid by the taxpayers – by around 25 percent. Nevertheless, after receiving assurances that the PSA would give preferences to Alameda high-school graduates, Ms. Spencer voted yes. We imagine that at least, say, Andy Slivka of the local carpenters’ union, was pleased with her vote.
The other labor issue involved minimum wages. Ms. Spencer herself had submitted a referral in July 2016 asking Council to consider enacting a minimum-wage increase in Alameda, but Council took no action until April 2018, when it directed staff to review ordinances passed by other cities. Ultimately, staff came up with a proposed ordinance to raise the minimum-wage for all workers, public and private, in Alameda to $15 per hour by July 1, 2020, 18 months sooner than state law required.
Ms. Spencer opposed the ordinance. She wasn’t satisfied, she said, with staff’s responses about the fiscal impact on the City. Moreover, local small business owners had told her that accelerated minimum-wage increases might cause them to fire or lay off employees or even go out of business. (Her own referral, she said, had been targeted at chain stores that could afford the wage increase.) She suggested that, rather than raise minimum wages across the board, Council adopt a “tiered” system. No one else on the dais liked the idea, and Council passed the ordinance as proposed. But given her prior support for a minimum-wage increase, and her stated concern for employees of small businesses, it’s hard to see how Ms. Spencer’s no vote can be characterized as anti-labor.
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The point of this column isn’t to endorse Ms. Spencer for Council. Indeed, there’s a lot more that can be said, pro and con, about her track record and her candidacy.
Instead, our purpose is to urge voters – assuming they haven’t sent in their ballots already – not to judge Ms. Spencer based on the labels pasted on her by her detractors. Donald Trump thinks he can get people to vote against Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by calling them “Communists.” We hope Americans are smarter than that. And we trust Alameda voters won’t be fooled into voting against Ms. Spencer because some local social-media savant similarly calls her something she’s not.
The votes are taken from the minutes, and the quotations from the videos, of Council meetings. Both are available on the City’s website (https://alameda.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx).