Costly Alameda special election set for April

The Alameda City Council voted, 4-1, Wednesday to call a special election on April 9 after certification of a ballot measure petition circulated last year opposing the use of a waterfront property near Crab Cove for a $40 million federal and state-funded senior wellness center and services for the homeless.

Alameda’s special election will be expensive, costing taxpayers somewhere between $580,000 and $730,000, and feature a competing ballot measure approved by the council Wednesday asking voters to confirm the council’s zoning decision. Choosing to place the ballot measure on the city’s next consolidated election in November 2020, would have instead cost an estimated $25,000.

Last year, proponents of the ballot measure, a group named Friends of Crab Cove, circulated a petition calling for the city to set aside a parcel of land, formerly owned by the federal government, but now slated for use by the Alameda Point Collaborative, a well-known non-profit offering services for the needy. But Friends of Crab Cove, instead, believe the parcel was already accounted for when East Bay voters approved Measure WW, a $500 million bond extension brought on by the East Bay Regional Park District in 2008.

“Many have called us heartless, soulless and horrible people.”-Friends of Crab Cove member Angela Fawcett.

Detractors question whether the parcel in question is part of Measure WW. The list of benefits listed for Alameda at the time, included $6.5 million for improvements to the Crab Cove visitors center, restoring the beach, and expanding the park boundary. The East Bay Regional Park District, though, says it has no interest in the property on McKay Avenue.

The spring initiative is bound to be another fault line between progressives and conservatives in Alameda, following contentious ballot measures on rent issues, a city manager scandal, in part, involving public safety unions, and a recent hard-fought municipal election last November. For weeks, various Alameda social media sites contain visceral responses to the Friends of Crab Cove initiative and to its members, saying their intent is discriminatory.

Angela Fawcett, a member of Friends of Crab Cove, referenced the vitriol Wednesday night, while describing the group as a “grassroots movement for justice.” “Many have called us heartless, soulless and horrible people,” Fawcett told the council. “The America I grew up in, we have rights, we have a voice, opportunities for input, and to be heard.”

Fawcett added the promises in Measure WW have been broken. “Instead we’re getting a parking lot and a maintenance yard.” The parcel is too high-density for what Alameda Point Collaborative Executive Director Doug Biggs is prescribing for the property, while also citing traffic concerns.

The surplus property on McKay Avenue was lawfully gained, Biggs told the council. “I want the same safe community my neighbors want and I also want a place where elderly and the medically fragile homeless can stay with dignity, get medical health services that improve their life and saves millions in health care costs.”

Furthermore, putting the project on hold until a November 2020 election will be costly for the Alameda Point Collaborative, in terms of project overruns and penalties included in its lease, he told the council. It’s a sentiment the council ultimately shared Wednesday night, as they argued the prohibitive cost of an April 2019 special election is actually much less than the alternative than the “tens of millions of dollars” that could be lost by waiting almost two years.

Special election are prohibitively expensive as opposed to primary and general elections because local cities are not able to defray the registrar’s costs of running the election across multiple jurisdictions.

The tenacity of Alameda voters will certainly be tested just five months after a November election in which more than 70 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Voter fatigue and low voter-turnout is often a hallmark of special elections, especially those held so soon after contentious elections. Additionally problematic for turnout next April is the fact Alameda voters will not be allowed the convenience of casting a Vote-By-Mail ballot. Alameda City Clerk Lara Weisinger told the council Wednesday it was determined the initiative did not reach certain parameters to qualify as a Vote-By-Mail-only election. Some estimate voter turnout on April 9 could be somewhere in the teens.

But the council’s approval of an expensive special elections could also be used as cudgel to frame the initiative’s proponents as wasting taxpayers’ money. It’s a scenario Friends of Crab Cove appear cognizant about, telling the council they preferred a less expensive spot on the November 2020 ballot. “It’s on you” Fawcett told the council if they choose to hold the election this April. Councilmember Tony Daysog, the lone vote against the April special election, also preferred waiting until November 2020, saying he was not convince Alameda Point Collaborative will indeed be financially hurt by the wait.

Alameda Councilmember John Knox White believes language in the ballot measure is false and urged the council to legally challenge some of the assertions, primarily the framing of the initiative as “open space.” He also told the measure’s proponents that the initiative is a “lost cause” and urged them to withdraw it. “Don’t do this to our community. It’s time for healing,” he said. A new law allows proponents to withdraw an initiative within 88 days of the election.

The McKay Avenue property is not open space as the initiative’s proponents contend, said Councilmember Malia Vella, “It’s just not being used. It could also be urban blight and this is what this parcel has become.” If the measure is approved, she added, it will put other city funds at risk and jeopardize funding for other parks in Alameda.

Several councilmembers rebutted a repeated claim by Friend of Crab Cove that the property was already spoken for through voter approval of the park district’s Measure WW a decade ago. “We can’t be held responsible for what they told us to vote for is truth or untruth,” said Councilmember Jim Oddie.

Although voters approved Measure WW in 2008, Alameda Assistant City Attorney Celena Chen said the federal government’s plan for classifying the property as surplus was determined three years earlier. “The intent was clear to both the federal government and park district before it was placed before voters in 2008,” said Chen. The parcel was divided in 2015, she added.

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