Johnny, we hardly knew ye

The decision by Councilman John Knox White not to seek reelection this November will deprive the Merry‑Go‑Round of one of our favorite pastimes:  listening to Mr. Knox White enlighten the public every first and third Tuesday about what studies show and everyone knows.

But his departure may have more significant consequences:  it could portend a realignment of the balance of power on Alameda City Council.

We’ve looked at all of the non‑unanimous votes on substantive issues that occurred after Mr. Knox White was elected to Council in 2018.  That research reveals that Mr. Knox White has been a member of two blocs of Council members who, one after the other, have called most of the shots on the dais.  But his exit, following the defeat in the last election of Councilman Jim Oddie, may just break up this old gang of theirs.

For the first two years of Mr. Knox White’s term, the controlling faction consisted of Mr. Oddie, Mr. Knox White, Councilwoman Malia Vella and Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft.  Of the 97 non‑unanimous decisions on the merits made during 2019 and 2020, 82 motions were decided by a 4‑to‑1 vote in which these four constituted the majority and Councilman Tony Daysog was the sole dissenter (or abstained).  That amounts to the group getting its way 85 percent of the time.

The four‑person bloc consisted of politicians who, to one extent or another, proclaim themselves to be “progressives.”  It enacted, over Mr. Daysog’s dissent or abstention, a variety of laws that played to its base:

  • For the Alameda Renters Coalition and other tenant activists, it passed ordinances banning no‑cause evictions; capping annual rent increases; and requiring relocation payments, and then, when the pandemic hit, imposed a moratorium on evictions and rent increases;
  • For pro‑housing activists, it put a measure on the ballot to repeal Article XXVI of the City Charter with its prohibition of multi‑family housing and limitations on residential density;
  • For advocates for the homeless, it put a measure on the ballot to confirm the re‑zoning of the McKay Avenue property for a “wellness center,” and, after the measure succeeded, approved what was supposed to be the first step in the project – rehabilitating an existing building as a “senior living convalescent home”; and
  • For the anti‑automobile (or, if you’d like, the pro‑bike‑and‑pedestrian) crowd, it authorized a contract for pre-construction work on a “complete streets” project on Central Avenue and construction of a “safety improvement” project on Otis Drive, and, after the pandemic hit, designated “slow streets” throughout the city where motor vehicles were banned.

In addition, the bloc took care of its public‑safety union backers by voting to spend City money to provide the matching funds required to keep the “community paramedicine” program alive and SAFER firefighters on the job, and later approving a new contract with the IAFF providing for a 2 percent raise in both 2022 and 2023.  It also managed to kill a proposal for renovation of the Carnegie Library by insisting that the non-profit developer agree to a project labor agreement with the construction-trade unions.

We could go on.  (Did we mention the ordinance sponsored by Ms. Vella requiring installation of baby diaper‑changing stations in all newly constructed or renovated publicly accessible buildings?  Didn’t think so.)  But you get the drift.

Given how often the four Council members in the bloc agreed, it is interesting to note a couple of areas where they didn’t.  One was cannabis, where Ms. Ashcraft opposed ordinances supported by the other three to increase the number of retail locations offering sales for recreational use.  (She was concerned, she said, about establishing an adequate “buffer” between pot shops and “sensitive uses” where young people congregated.)  Another was the Sunshine Ordinance, where Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White were less willing than the other two to strip the Open Government Commission of its power to declare an action “null and void” without replacing it with an equally potent remedy.  (Later, rather than relying on the City Attorney or the O.G.C. itself, Mr. Knox White helpfully devised his own substitute.)

Perhaps the most significance divergence, however, arose on the issue of “police reform.” After the George Floyd killing, Mr. Knox White appeared eager to launch a vendetta against the Alameda Police Department and demanded that Council cut the police budget by 42 percent and direct the City Manager to prepare a “work plan” for a “top-to-bottom change in the community service culture” in A.P.D.  Mr. Oddie initially signed onto this approach, but Ms. Vella and Ms. Ashcraft urged setting up a “community‑led process” instead.  They proposed creating a steering committee composed of non‑officeholders that would appoint subcommittees to recommend reforms.

And that’s what Council ended up deciding to do.  The vote was 4‑to‑1 – with Mr. Knox White opposed.

Then, in 2020, Mr. Oddie failed in his bid for reelection and his seat was taken by Councilwoman Trish Spencer.

As a direct result of the change in Council membership, the number of non‑unanimous votes on substantive issues went up – way up.  During Ms. Spencer’s first year on Council, 40 motions were decided by a 4‑to‑1 vote in which she or Mr. Daysog (and, in one case, Mr. Knox White) was the sole dissenter, and 56 motions were decided by a 3‑to‑2 vote.

For the 3‑to‑2 category, the “progressive” bloc – now consisting of Mr. Knox White, Ms. Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft – still held sway, joining to pass a motion in 34 cases over the opposition of Ms. Spencer and/or Mr. Daysog and to defeat a motion supported by one or both of them in another eight cases.  (Five of those cases involved a referral submitted by either Ms. Spencer or Mr. Daysog.)  This amounts to a 75 percent success rate.

Like the four‑person faction that controlled Council in 2019 and 2020, the three‑person coalition that emerged after the 2020 election passed laws with a “progressive” and pro‑labor bent – but its legislative record was more incremental than dramatic.  For example, the bloc

  • Amended the rent control ordinance to specify the types of capital improvements a landlord could make for which it could “pass through” costs to renters, and to give affected tenants the option to leave and obtain a relocation payment;
  • Approved demolition of all of the existing buildings at the site of the McKay Avenue wellness center as well as the design for the “medical respite facility” included in the plans;
  • Approved the “final concept” for the Central Avenue “complete streets” project; eliminated minimum off-street parking requirements, and extended the “slow streets” program; and
  • Expanded the requirement for a union‑friendly project labor agreement to all construction projects of a certain size on land leased by the City or sold to a developer, not just public-works projects. (The bloc also passed an ordinance requiring “hazard pay” for grocery workers.)

But signs of a decline in cohesiveness among the “progressives” also began to appear.  During 2019 and 2020, one member of the four‑person coalition took the opposite side from the others on 15 of 97 of the contested motions (15 percent).  By contrast, in 2021, the three-person bloc split 14 times on the 56 motions decided by a 3‑to‑2 margin (25 percent).

Three of the areas of disagreement involved hot‑button issues – and in all of them, it was Ms. Ashcraft who went astray.

The Mayor joined Mr. Daysog and Ms. Spencer in voting to allow APD to keep its Emergency Response Vehicle (which its detractors pejoratively but inaccurately labeled the “tank”); Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella wanted it gone.  Likewise, Ms. Ashcraft requested more information from Police Chief Nishant Joshi before deciding whether to approve his request, to which Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella objected, to seek out vendors of automated license plate readers.  Once she got the answers, she voted yes.  Finally, Ms. Ashcraft made the case for engaging experienced mental‑health professionals – specifically, an outfit called the Felton Institute – to establish and run a pilot program for responding to mental‑health calls; Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella argued for giving the job to Alameda firefighters and paramedics – and with Ms. Spencer’s vote, they ended up prevailing.

Why did Ms. Ashcraft break ranks?  We can suggest a couple of reasons.  First, she never has marched in total lock step with Mr. Knox White.  Having been an elected or appointed official since 2006, she doesn’t feel the need to take her cues from anyone.  Moreover, she always has struck us as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue – a Nancy Pelosi, if you will, to Mr. Knox White’s Bernie Sanders or Mr. Oddie’s and Ms. Vella’s AOC.  Just listen to her remarks from the dais:  they usually contain analysis rather than bromides, bombast or buzzwords.

(On a lighter note, we also want to mention the disagreement among the three‑person bloc on a less weighty issue:  which local newspaper would get the City’s legal advertising business.  Ms. Ashcraft and Ms. Vella voted for the Alameda Journal; Mr. Knox White preferred the Alameda Sun.)

Now that Mr. Knox White has taken to the sidelines, only Ms. Vella (who was re-elected in 2020) and Ms. Ashcraft (who, presumably, will seek reelection as mayor [after this piece was posted, Ms. Ashcraft confirmed to us that she is “definitely running” for reelection]) are left on the left.  At the same time, Ms. Spencer has two years remaining on her term, and Councilman Tony Daysog confirmed to us that he is going to seek another four‑year stint.

Suppose both of the incumbents up for reelection this November (Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Daysog) run and win.  Whoever replaces Mr. Knox White is going to be holding the trump card (unless Ms. Ashcraft continues her apparent drift toward the center).  Will the new Council member take up the “progressive” escutcheon wielded by Mr. Oddie and Mr. Knox White?  Or will that person cater to the “mom‑and‑pop” businesses Mr. Daysog is so fond of, or the little guys to whom Ms. Spencer pitched herself as the “people’s mayor”?

Alas, research won’t answer those questions.  And, of course, if either Ms. Ashcraft or Mr. Daysog doesn’t win, all bets are off.  For some political junkies, the most interesting races this fall will be for control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.  We’ll be paying as much, or more, attention to the battle for dominance on the Alameda City Council.

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Firefighters, Housing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Johnny, we hardly knew ye

  1. Fernside Freeway Rez says:

    Seriously. Every response he has given me has pointed to his studies and then he tells me it’s all social media. Alameda isn’t more crowded, there isn’t traffic, there aren’t more accidents, and there isn’t more crime. It’s all down in #s. Life is peachy in Alameda. Good riddance!

  2. Fernside Freeway Rez says:

    Seriously. Every response he has given me has pointed to his studies and then he tells me it’s all social media. Alameda isn’t more crowded, there isn’t traffic, there aren’t more accidents, and there isn’t more crime. It’s all down in #s. Life is peachy in Alameda. Good riddance!

    And your bot won’t let me post.

  3. Publius says:

    The worst bit of his legacy is his success in gutting the police force. While he was not able to get his explicit goal of “42% defunding” enacted — council has in fact voted to increase APD’s budget — APD is till severely understaffed. The city used to have 5 patrol zones, meaning 5 officers on patrol any time. Now there are 3, a 40% reduction in force. Though denied a de jure victory, he has achieved a de facto one.

  4. Observer says:

    I wonder which one of Trish’s friends will decide to run, to get her her long-sought three-seat majority. Even our friend Lauren Do thinks it will be Carmen Reid, which makes sense given her frequent activism in city meetings. It will be very uncomfortable having to explain her sudden resignation from the Open Government Commission though, after (ironically!) refusing to comply with some Public Records Requests. Maybe we can get Gig or Janet Gibson to try.

    • Good Swimmer says:

      Yea, I don’t think Carmen Reid is a good choice at all. There’s this video of her taking more than a minute to spit out a sentence during an OGC meeting, with a lot of “ums” and “uhhs.” Very painful to watch. She quit the OGC shortly after. I do think Robert Matz is worth another look, good moderate. He almost won last time, somehow Oddie pulled ahead at the last minute.

  5. Common Sense says:

    Adios JKW, who “doesn’t speak” to one council member, hates the police and landlords, and loves ugly big block housing developments. Great legacy.
    His move to not seek re-election is a sign the progressives peaked and are done. Look for a more centrist candidate to replace him.

    • Thank You JKW! says:

      You’re painting a pretty ugly and false caricature of JKW. He won his seat with the most votes ever in Alameda history, and could easily win re-election and 2nd time as vice mayor, given Alameda’s large population of young families, minorities, renters, and working class people who share JKW’s values. And he’s a landlord himself. He channeled his intention to serve only one term about a year ago, and even took down his campaign website early last year. So this isn’t surprising, and not a “sign the progressives peaked and are done.” I know he has been frustrated with the glacial pace of council meetings, often running late into the night and key agenda items not being heard until after 10pm when families with children are already asleep. I thank him for his service.

      • Publius says:

        “could easily win re-election”

        Win? Decent shot.
        Easily? No way.

        Measure Z, a signature issue of his, was soundly defeated. Discontent over rising crime & lack of policing continues to grow, and he’s on record loudly favoring a gutted police force.

        While his chances odd of winning again are certainly well above zero, his record is a very hard one to run on and even if he were to win, it would surely be with a much smaller share of the vote than in ’18.

      • Thank You JKW! says:

        Publius. Perhaps you need to get out of your social media bubble, because the vast majority of Alameda does not have your angry prism to look through to fuel their wishful thinking.

        Housing will be a big issue this election due to the state increasingly amping up the pressure to build more, and when voters ask how’d we get here, JKW and his bloc will be the only ones prescient enough to say: “well, we tried to warn you guys last election.” Remember that the library ballot led by Ashcraft was defeated, tried again, and now the main library is hugely popular. Don’t plot your predictions based on one data point.

        JKW stumped for Suncal, which was hugely defeated (and ironically is now being trotted out by the “build everything at the base” ACT AAPS crowd as Suncal 2.0), and he had no problem winning his first election by a landslide, so perhaps you don’t know what you speak.

      • Eleanor says:

        So what if he won with the most votes. Look at Alameda today, and look at CA!!! It is a mess.

  6. anonymous says:

    It goes without saying that, come June, he’ll change his mind. He’ll run again. Mark my word.

  7. Eleanor says:

    I am so glad that I moved out of Alameda, and even better out of state. Previously, I loved my Oakland neighborhood, but when the quality of life there started to change, I thought the move to Alameda would be an improvement. My first Alameda shock was the noise level on the west end (starting with 5 am garbage pickups), my second was the difficulty parking, my third was how unneighborly I found people.
    During my 9 years there, life further deteriorated. More noise from all those illegal car shows that our city officials denied existed, and the increase in crime, the garbage, and the crowding. I applaud Trish and Tony for caring and trying to do the right thing. John, Jim, and Malia have helped to ruin Alameda.
    Honestly, I just could not take it anymore; I felt I was constantly under siege. As I write this in our new home, I look out at the green belt behind our 1/3 plus acre property. It is quiet and peaceful here. We couldn’t ask for better neighbors or a more beautiful neighborhood, and it is an HOA that works. People need space around them and a place to park their cars, and to not be bombarded with constant noise. I hope that the residents of Alameda see how some of the present council members have been self serving and not working to improve the quality of life, and elect new counsel people who are not working their way up the hierarchy (like Mia Bonta on the Board of Ed. and how Jim tried, and I believe Malia is trying.) to support people who really care about safety and the quality of life.

  8. Eric Smiler says:

    John Knox White has been a terrible City Council member. A sanctimonious, self righteous, moralist. He called the citizens of Alameda ignorant and fools for voting against prop. Z. He led the charge there is systemic racism within the APD after the Mali Watkins incident. Chief Rolleri retired early rather then deal with JKW. More then twenty cops have the APD because of JKW. It will take years for the Alameda Police Dept. to recover from the damage JKW has done. This is the legacy of JKW.

  9. Eric Smiler. You seem to have anger management issues that need to be worked out. Councilmembers, whether you agree with them or not, volunteer 4 years of their life for free.

    There absolutely is institutional racism in police departments throughout the country, and anyone who thinks APD is an exception just don’t know the history.

    Chief Rolleri’s retirement was made known in advance long before the Watkins incident, and was moved up only because it was better to implement changes with fresh leadership than with someone who already had one foot out the door.

    Staffing in police departments has been in a freefall across the country, yet the number of police officers has remained more or less the same in Alameda. JKW and the rest of council voted for a $30,000 poaching bonus to lure officers from other cities, and voted to bring police staffing up to 88 officers again. So your narrative is not only crazy, but completely fabricated to validate your anger.

    • Common Sense says:


      JKW jumped on the defund the police bandwagon and called for a 42% cut in staffing and for the city council to start micromanaging the police. Not coincidentally, that’s when Chief Rollieri suddenly resigned way before he announced he was going to…

      And you left out the part explaining “why” there is a dearth in police rehiring-politicians like JKW who promote no bail, slap on the hand sentences, revolving door arrests, and no prosecution by DAs leading to an explosion of crime and more police officers shot than ever before. Policies have consequences.

      • Imi says:

        JKW looked so gleefulness when the incident occurred that I questioned if the progressives paid a crisis actor to create an incident to jumpstart a series of nonsensical costly policies that always diminish our quality of life on the island.

  10. Imi says:

    Thank god. We have so many different bicycle lane designs, it’s almost a safety issue in and of themselves. Maybe we can abandon the Grand street proposal with no street parking just begging to create delivery and service cars on the bike lane. Bikes will need to swerve into the auto lanes.

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