Two Alameda councilmembers violated the city’s charter by interfering in the city manager’s duties to independently hire a new fire chief, the Alameda County civil grand jury concluded in a report released Monday.
In the case of one of the councilmembers, the determination runs counter to prior investigations into the matter that rocked Alameda politics over the past two years.
“The Grand Jury’s investigation revealed a pattern of conduct by two councilmembers that, taken together, amounted to inappropriate interference in the fire chief hiring process and resulted in lasting damage to the city,” the grand jury reported.
Although the report does not name each elected official by name, it is commonly understood they are Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella.
Among the grand jury’s findings is a determination that Alameda’s city charter lacks enforcement of its non-interference rules and councilmembers should receive annual training on governance issues.
It is within the grand jury’s power to seek the removal of an elected official for malfeasance related to their actions. In this instance, the grand jury found Oddie’s actions did not rise to this level.
A vast majority of the report sheds little new light on the matter that was investigated by an independent investigator in early 2018 and the Alameda County District’s office later the same year.
The grand jury report, however, for the first time quotes the infamous audio recording secretly made by then-City Manager Jill Keimach of a meeting between her and Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella.
The independent investigator did not review the audio recording out of fear of abetting a potential crime. Surreptitiously recording of another is a crime in California punishable by fines and imprisonment. The Alameda County DA’s office, however, listened to the audio recordings after determining Keimach had a reasonable belief that the councilmembers were attempting to coerce her into hiring a candidate for fire chief who was backed the local firefighters’ union. The DA’s office did not find evidence of wrongdoing in the recordings.
The 55-minute recording of the meeting focuses heavily on Jeff Del Bono, the then-head of the Alameda firefighters union, according to the grand jury report. Oddie and Vella also appear to be lobbying Keimach on the positives of hiring the union-backed fire chief candidate.
At one point, Keimach remarks that simply selecting the union’s choice for the job would be the easiest solution. Oddie then added, “And if he does and you pick him, I mean, you’ll have to be able to tell the folks that think you were pressured that you weren’t.”
The meeting concludes with Oddie jokingly telling Keimach, “And just to be clear…I know I didn’t tell you who to hire, and I don’t think [Vella] did either, so just to be clear [laughs loudly].”
The grand jury said it believes, “These joking words were intended to erase 55 minutes of pressure to hire the labor candidate and appease the labor leader.” The report adds that Keimach repeatedly voiced discomfort over feeling pressured over the course of the recording, even though she was the only participant at the meeting who was aware the conversation was being recorded.
Similar to two previous reports, the grand jury also concluded a letter written by Oddie to Keimach that recommended the union’s favored candidate violated the city charter prohibition on council interference. “At least two councilmembers (including [Vella]) refused to do so, in part, because it lwas not appropriate. [Oddie]’s letter was a direct and very public violation of the charter provision prohibiting councilmembers from attempting to influence the city manager in making an appointment,” the grand jury wrote.
Oddie said he could not comment on the report before the city sends an official response to the grand jury, but added, “I am pleased that the Grand Jury has concluded its deliberations and happy that the Jury determined that no further accusation proceedings are warranted, Oddie said, referring to the grand jury’s decision not to seek his removal from office.
In a statement, Vella said the grand jury failed to hear testimony from a host of people mentioned in the report. “Today another independent review of events put into motion in 2017 by former City Manager Jill Keimach show again that her allegations against me were baseless. Even after the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury listened to Ms. Keimach’s surreptitious recording of my meeting with her, they declined to make any recommendations to take action against me,” Vella said.
“I am glad this report is now public and that another investigation finds nothing new. While this has been a distraction, I continue to work hard for and serve the people of Alameda.”
Amid the growing scandal was the approval of a a consultant hired by the city to facilitate the city manager’s job performance review. The grand jury found that the two councilmembers were attempting to use the review as leverage against Keimach and her selection of the next fire chief.
“During the interviews, it became evident to the consultant that selection of the fire chief was an issue of interest for [Oddie] and [Vella]. It was clear that [Oddie] supported a specific candidate and tried to connect the issue to the city manager’s evaluation. [Vella] also brought up the fire chief selection process and inquired about how to communicate with the city manager,” the grand jury wrote.
“Rather than using the evaluation process as a tool to communicate expectations, goals and priorities, it appeared that the process was being hijacked to accomplish individual councilmembers’ goals of installing their preferred candidate for fire chief,” the grand jury continued.
The grand jury curiously praised the judgment of Alameda’s consultant at the time, a former Santa Monica city manager named Rod Gould, who allegedly violated the city’s anti-corruption laws in 2015 when he took a job with a consulting firm and allegedly signed contracts for the company while still serving as city manager.
The report is also littered with assumptions and opinions as to the motives of Oddie, Vella, and former Alameda Firefighters Union president Jeff Del Bono. The report also contains some simple, but pertinent errors.
The grand jury states that Oddie and Vella voted against a $900,000 settlement with Keimach. In fact, Vella and Spencer voted against the settlement for fiduciary reasons, not Oddie.
Errors on the settlement vote have been a curious occurrence in Alameda. The proponent of a recall effort against Vella repeatedly asserts Vella voted for Keimach’s settlement, despite the correct result being easily found in city documents and media reports.
The report also claims without evidence that several high-ranking city employees resigned and took positions in other cities due to the fire chief hiring scandal, including the city attorney, assistant city attorney, assistant city manager and the head of the city’s redevelopment effort at Alameda Point.
Forty members of the public sent the grand jury complaints on the Alameda interference issue, according to the report. The makeup of this year’s grand jury is decidedly older and Caucasian. Four of the 19 members of the grand jury hail from Alameda, the second-most from one city behind Oakland’s seven members.