Edmond Rodriguez, who was appointed Alameda fire chief after former City Manager Jill Keimach refused to bow to a pressure campaign to force her to give the position to the candidate selected by the Alameda firefighters’ union, has retired after three years on the job, the last eight months of which were spent on medical leave.
Nancy Bronstein, the City’s Human Resources Director, confirmed to the Merry-Go-Round Thursday that Chief Rodriguez’s retirement took effect on December 30. It had not been previously announced.
Having worked as a firefighter since 1986, Chief Rodriguez would appear to be eligible for an annual pension of around $211,500, the first 50 percent of which will be tax-free if his retirement resulted from a job-related, “substantially incapacitating” illness.
Chief Rodriguez is the second public-safety chief in the City to retire in the last six months. Paul Rolleri, who had served as police chief since November 2013, retired last August. (A first round of candidate interviews to fill the police chief slot is expected to occur in February or March.)
According to City Manager Eric Levitt, Ricci Zombeck will become interim fire chief. An Alameda firefighter since 1983 and an unsuccessful applicant for the fire-chief’s job in 2017, Chief Zombeck has been acting fire chief during Chief’s Rodriguez’s leave. Mr. Levitt praised him for having “done an excellent job as we have had to respond to evolving issues related to the Pandemic.”
Former firefighters’ union president Jeff DelBono apparently will continue in the role of deputy chief for operations.
Chief Rodriguez was hired at the end of a tumultuous process that began with the retirement of Fire Chief Doug Long in September 2017. Mr. DelBono, then a fire captain as well as the union boss, decided he wanted his predecessor as IAFF Local 689 president, Domenick Weaver, to become the next fire chief, and he enlisted a host of state and local politicians to twist City Manager Keimach’s arm to make it happen.
Among them were sitting Council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella. Despite the Charter provision prohibiting Council members from “attempt[ing]” to “influence” the city manager in her hiring of subordinates, Mr. Oddie wrote a letter on City letterhead “strongly recommend[ing]” Capt. Weaver as the “ideal candidate” for the job, and he and Ms. Vella arranged a face-to-face meeting with the City Manager to lay out the political benefits of appointing him. Mr. Oddie also bragged that, if Ms. Keimach didn’t go along, he had enough votes on Council to fire her.
Ms. Keimach blew the whistle. In a letter sent to Council, she disclosed the “intense and unrelenting” pressure to which she had been subjected. “Over the several months,” she wrote, “I have been approached by elected and appointed officials in Alameda and even at the State level, requesting that I put aside the best interests of the City and select the Fire Chief that has been handpicked by the local IAFF union.”
The letter prompted investigations by a lawyer hired by Council, by the Alameda County District Attorney, and by the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, which ultimately found that both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had violated the City Charter.
After sending her letter revealing the pressure campaign, Ms. Keimach announced that she had chosen Chief Rodriguez, who she said had been the top pick by all three interviewing panels involved in the process, as the new fire chief at an annual salary of $235,619. A licensed registered nurse, Chief Rodriguez had been chief of the Salinas fire department since 2012. Before then, he had worked for the Stockton fire department from 1989 to 2012.
After having held the top job in Alameda for 17 months, Chief Rodriguez took what a City press release called “non-COVID-19 related” medical leave effective March 23, 2020. (The nature of his disabling medical condition was not disclosed.) HR Director Bronstein confirmed to us that the Chief had continued to draw his full salary through December 30.
Whatever else may be said about his job performance, Chief Rodriguez can be credited – or blamed – for having presided over the steady expansion of the fire department over the last three years. Indeed, it would be safe to say that he left a bigger fire empire than the one he found.
During Chief Rodriguez’s relatively brief tenure, the fire department’s budget grew from $31.8 million in fiscal year 2017-18 to $38.8 million in FY 2020-21 (pre‑COVID-19). It now consumes 38.4 percent of the City’s General Fund revenue. During the same period, the fire department’s headcount increased from 104 to 110 sworn employees. Its staffing level now is the highest it has been in the last 10+ years.
Moreover, Chief Rodriguez successfully argued to Council – as if the two members owing their seats to the firefighters’ union had to be convinced – in support of three goals long pursued by the fire department and the firefighters’ union: hiring more firefighters; preserving the “community paramedicine” program (with its associated sworn personnel); and creating a position for another division chief. He also started the ball rolling toward achieving another major departmental/union objective: establishing a new Fire Station No. 5 at Alameda Point.
Chief Rodriguez’s successes in the first two areas came relatively easily.
During the discussions about the FY 2019-20 budget, he asked Council for authority to buy a new ambulance, the fourth in the fire department’s fleet, and hire six new firefighters to staff it. “Right now, we run out of ambulances very frequently, and with the amount of projected new transports, there’s no way we could handle that volume” without another ambulance, the Chief told a skeptical Councilman Tony Daysog. “It’s a dire situation.” Moreover, the fire department had applied for a so-called “SAFER grant” from the Department of Homeland Security to pick up part of the tab, the Chief said. Council approved the ambulance purchase and the staffing increase; DHS came through with the grant, leaving the City on the hook for $995,083.50.
Likewise, after the County of Alameda reduced funding for the “community paramedicine” program, Chief Rodriguez took the lead in saving it (and the positions for a firefighter and a division chief that came with it). “This is really a core mission of what the fire department does,” he told a – once again – skeptical Mr. Daysog, and he got Council to approve spending $195,604 to keep the program alive through February 2020. (Later, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after Chief Rodriguez went on leave, Council authorized spending another $477,000 to continue the program and associated staffing beyond February 2020.)
The third achievement took a little more doing.
Since May 2017, the fire department had been trying to get Council to create a position for another division chief, the highest-ranking (and highest-salaried) job authorized for the department after fire chief. Initially, former Fire Chief Long sought to persuade the Council members that such a position was necessary in order to provide supervision for the newly established fire prevention bureau, even though the bureau already had a fire captain supervising its two firefighters. Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella readily agreed, but then-Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft balked – and the new position didn’t make it into the FY 2017-18 budget.
After Chief Rodriguez came onboard, he took a new approach. This time, the new division chief was described as performing the role of “fire marshal.” “[I]f we really want to keep Alameda the best fire-safe community in our county,” he told Council, “it is a paramount position that is sorely needed.” Moreover, Chief Rodriguez maintained, there’d be no need to tap the General Fund to pay salary and benefits for the new division chief, since new and increased fees assessed for fire department services would cover the cost. “Every day the fire department walks by a pile of cash on the table,” he said. “It’s ours. We just have to have the ability to pick it up.”
The revised approach appeared doomed when Ms. Ashcraft again proved reluctant, and the position didn’t make it into the FY 2018-19 budget, either. But then Mr. Oddie came to the rescue. At the meeting at which the budget was approved, he got his colleagues to agree that, if Chief Rodriguez provided a “fee study” that showed that additional fee revenue actually would pay for the new position, the fire department could renew its request. Lo and behold, the fee study commissioned by the department showed exactly that, and Chief Rodriguez presented it to Council in March 2019 with a request that Council now finally approve adding another division chief at an annual cost of $355,000 (and spend $70,000 to buy a command vehicle for his use.) Which, of course, they did.
(As an aside, if you’re ever hit with a $388 bill from the fire department for a fire engine showing up unbidden after your car has been hit by someone running a red light – trust us, we speak from experience – you should know that the “vehicle accident collision” fee you’re being billed for is one of the two new charges created to help pay for the new division chief.)
At the time he went on medical leave, Chief Rodriguez already had taken the first steps toward achieving one of the fire department’s remaining major goals: a new Fire Station No. 5. In his first round of budget requests for FY 2019-20, the Chief asked for $78,000 to evaluate the “feasibility” of “re-opening” the former fire station located at Alameda Point, which the fire department had operated until 2009 and then used as a “training center” and “recruiting academy.” He made clear that what he had in mind was rehabilitating the existing building, but when Vice Mayor John Knox White broached the idea of building a completely new fire station, the Chief didn’t object.
City Manager Levitt then upped the request to $98,000 (which Council agreed to put into the budget) and decided to get separate studies for rehabilitation and new construction. A few months later, Council authorized spending $24,970 for the new-construction study. If any report has been prepared, it hasn’t been made public, and now Chief Rodriguez won’t be around to see the project through.
HR Director Bronstein wouldn’t discuss the financial terms of Chief Rodriguez’s retirement with us. But under certain circumstances he might find himself quite well off indeed.
A public-safety employee who, like Chief Rodriguez, is older than 50 and who has accumulated more than 30 years of service can retire and receive a pension equal to 90 percent of his highest average annual compensation during his “final compensation period.” (This is called the “3% at 50” rule.)
Ordinarily, the pension is taxable. But if the employee sustained a job-related injury or illness that renders him “substantially incapacitated from performing the usual duties of his or her position,” he can file for what is known as Industrial Disability Retirement. (Certain illnesses, like heart trouble or cancer, are presumed to be job-related for cops and firefighters. So, thanks to a bill signed by Governor Newsom in September 2019, is post-traumatic stress disorder.)
If the application is granted, the first 50 percent of retirement earnings will be non-taxable.
Assume, for example, that an employee who meets the standard for 3% at 50 earned $235,000 in his last year prior to retirement. His annual pension will be $211,500. And if the employee qualifies for IDR, half of that amount – $105,750 – will be tax-free.
We don’t know yet whom the firefighters’ union will try to install to replace Chief Rodriguez. (Just kidding, Mr. Levitt.) But, given his short time on active duty, perhaps the most appropriate conclusion is: Farewell, Edmond, we hardly knew ye.
Budget/staffing: 2017-06-06 Ex. 2 to staff report – Budget Summary General Fund and All Other Funds; 2019-06-18 Ex. 2 to staff report – Budget Summary
Additional firefighters: 2019-10-15 staff report re SAFER grant
Community paramedicine: 2019-02-05 staff report re community paramedicine program; 2020-05-20 Ex. 4 to staff report – City Manager Recommended Budget Adjustments
Division chief: 2019-03-05 staff report re new fee schedule & division chief
The writing was on the wall when they hired him!
When I read about the corruption and malfeasance in San Francisco’s planning department I would shake my head and think “glad I don’t reside in SF.” Then I read about Rodriguez and his cozy relationship with the Council and realize that corruption is simply business as usual everywhere.
Why did the FIRE UNION get a two year extension on a labor contract prior to any budget discussions or discussions with other Unions. Maybe their campaign contributions of over $100,000 have influence. Police are extremely understaffed and the firefighters, who have 5 fires a year, have 110 employees. Something smells.
As a way to be a contributing partner during this difficult time of uncertainty, Local 689 requested the contract extension. Prior to the amended contract, Local 689 was due to receive a 2% salary adjustment on 1-1-2021. They pay 6% of the COA share above their maximum employee contribution to the PERS retirement system. The 6% had to be approved by the PERS board as it is above the maximum allowed by regulations for the employee to pay. Additionally they contribute 4% into a post retirement account account for retirement medical, which the COA used to pay. These additional contributions were to sunset at the end of the contract in 2021. With the approved contract, Local 689 removed the salary adjustment for 1-1-2021 until 1-1-2022 and kept the additional PERS and OPEB contributions throughout the amended contract.
With regards to staffing based on an allegation of 5 fires a year, that’s wrong. In addition the Alameda Fire Department provides a certified advanced life support emergency medical services response, certified water rescue, dive rescue, marine operations for a city that has more square miles of water than land property, hazardous materials response, wildland urban interface services, full fire prevention inspection, code compliance program, community paramedic education outreach service. AFD is also a mutual aid resource provider as all departments in the State of California are to our communities as needed. AFD is a Class 1 department which provides the residential and commercial property owners reduced fire insurance rates based on the insurance rating system. There are only 8 Class 1 department in the state of California.
Up until the actions of the city council in 2020, both AFD & APD were fully funded and authorized for full staffing. Unfortunately APD, like many other police agencies in the United States are having significant challenges in hiring and retaining police officers. Alameda has even authorized paid incentives to hire and regain qualified police officers given the dire straights they are in.
So does Alameda pay his pension?? We had him for 2.6 years of 30 years of service. That can’t be so. Also, is there any oversight as to the medical leave? It may all be totally legit, but seems at least worth questioning to go out for eight months medical leave right before retiring. Last, does anyone know budget percentages for other similarly sized cities? Our fire budget seems quite high, but I haven’t researched other cities. Thanks!
Quick to answer to your first question: The City doesn’t pay the pension to the retiree; CalPERS does.
The COA uses the following agreed upon language contained in the union contract to value the salary of “like departments”:
2021: In June, 2020, the City will conduct a total compensation survey for the Fire Department. The agencies to be included are Alameda County, Berkeley, Hayward, Fremont, Livermore-Pleasanton. Total compensation includes Base pay, Educational Incentive, Uniform Allowance, Holiday-in-Lieu pay, Paramedic Assistant Pay, Paramedic Pay, Retention/Longevity Pay. Other compensation should also include negative adjustments, which include PERS Employee Cost Share of Employer Contribution, Salary Reductions, and other employee reimbursement to his/her employer. The salary survey will not include any pay steps that include “recruits” who have not completed academy training. Salaries will be adjusted to the average of these five agencies, beginning the first full pay period after January 1, 2021. The salary adjustment shall not be less than a minimum of 2.0% nor a greater than a maximum of 5.0%. If the total compensation falls above the average of the five surveyed cities, the wage increase for 2021 shall be 2.0%.
As it happens, according to HR Director Nancy Bronstein, the City performed the survey required by the MOU in June and “Alameda firefighters were 4.49% above the average of the survey cities” — i.e., they were being paid more than their counterparts.
It sounds like we probably would have been better off with the union-favored candidate. Oh, the irony.
Out of curiosity, I did a Google search for Rick Zombeck. Apparently, he’s donated quite a bit of money to Donald Trump.
Wow!! He really liked donating to Trump!
Given that Chief Rodriguez was a “classic employee” he earned 3% of his salary every year worked with the eligibility to retire as of age 50. For his tenure with the COA that equates to 3% x 2.6 years=7.8% of his retirement salary. If Chief Rodriguez did receive a disability retirement as stated in the original posting (which I do not know), that means that 50% of the 7.8% or 3.9% of his retirement salary of his tenure with the COA is tax exempt for the remainder of his life.
Having salaries +/- 5% generally keeps employees from leaving to other agencies to do the same job for additional compensation. The inverse for 2021 was the case with APD who has the same language as AFD in their current contact. APD received a 4.5% raise as of 1-1-21.
AFD is not prepared for the soon seven point Hayward fault earthquake. And earthquake that EBMUD has informed us that we will lose water. If an earthquake that causes broken water mains a fire is sure to break out in the Forest of all our Victorian. Without the preparedness of salt water pumps a conflagration is sure to take place. I have confronted the fire department with this issue and they go on the defense of we don’t have enough money to buy salt water pumps. But the real issue is they don’t want to spend money on anything but wages.
From personal experience and observation I, too, and suspicious of AFD’s preparedness (and willingness) in this case to perform water rescue, dive rescue and marine operations. On an island, no less. First there’s Raymond Zack. Second there was a supposed parachutist in the water off Bay Farm and AFD showed up with binoculars and a bullhorn or something. They left the boat at the fire station. Good thing this guy didn’t need rescuing like Raymond Zack got.