Despite a highly critical grand jury report last week that skewered Alameda City Hall and urged them to bolster its city charter with specific interference laws, Alameda officials have actually been working on the issue for more than six months.
The grand jury and an independent investigation by the city into allegations that Councilmember Jim Oddie and Malia Vella interfered in the city manager’s power to select a new fire chief both prescribed adding clarity to what is a flimsy charter provisions when it comes to a firewall between decision-making duties given to elected officials and the city manager.
Councilmember Tony Daysog said he could not comment on the report until the city offers its official response to the grand jury, but added, “If nothing else the events of the last two years underscore how fragile our democracy is, even in Alameda,” said Daysog.
Alameda’s mayor has not received a pay increase since 1970 and receives an annual salary of just $3,600… Alameda councilmember’s have it even worse, earning $1,200 a year without a pay raise since 1977.
Making changes to the charter, though, is a painstakingly long process, primarily since they must be made through a vote of the people. But even before the city hall scandal hit in late 2017, there has been talk of updating the charter for years.
In addition, to adding specificity to what an elected official can and cannot do when it comes to interference, while also detailing the consequences for violating the provision, the charter discussion in Alameda could result in significant changes to the way their leaders are elected.
Marilyn Ezzy Aschraft first act as mayor back in December 2018 was to form an ad-hoc committee to study potential changes to the charter. She tabbed Councilmembers John Knox White and Tony Daysog with leading the effort.
A pair of charter workshops last week hinted at some of the progress the ad-hoc committee has made in narrowing down potential charter reforms.
Among potential changes to the charter is switching from the current at-large election style to district elections. Doing so would involve the city council being tasked with drawing the lines for five new districts. Alameda has never used district elections in its history, according to the League of Women Voters.
Ranked-choice voting, the election system used by Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro to elected voters through a ranking system is also a possibility. Proponents of the system tout its ability to produce more congenial elections since the ranking system favors a consensus candidate and saves money by eliminating the need for a run-off election.
A proposal made during last year’s campaign by Knox White to rotate the mayor’s position among the five councilmembers is also on the table. The arrangement is typically seen in smaller cities like nearby Emeryville, which has a population of over 10,000. Alameda rotated its mayor prior to 1972.
A far more political charter reform and potential inflammatory one, at least for Alameda moderates and conservatives, is the proposed elimination of the city auditor and city treasurer as elected offices. The current holders of the office are viewed among conservatives as vocal counterweights to the firefighters union’s dominance in city politics.
Critics of the City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy and City Auditor Kevin Kearney say the position is vestige of the past and most of their duties have slowly been folded into the work of the city’s professional staff. Oakland and Berkeley is the only other cities in Alameda County that directly elects an auditor. Only three cities have treasurers. Albany is the only one to elect its treasurer, the others are appointed.
Some proposals, meanwhile, could avoid the trouble of travailing the ballot measure process. The city council could simply enacting them as ordinances, such as campaign ethics rules and campaign finance restrictions. The latter is non-existent in Alameda. Increasing council pay could also be enacted by the council, although the optics of elected officials giving themselves a raise is not positive, even with the extremely low pay they currently receive.
Alameda’s mayor has not received a pay increase since 1970 and earns an annual salary of just $3,600. By contrast, nearby San Leandro, which is roughly the same size as Alameda, earns $25,000 a year. Alameda councilmember’s have it even worse, earning $1,200 a year without a pay raise since 1977, according to the League of Women Voters. The low pay, critics fear, sidelines working people from running for offices and favors the well-to-do and retired people.
It’s conceivable the list of potential charter reforms will have to be whittled down further or risk ballot fatigue for voters,” said Daysog. “We’re here to gauge the temperature of voters.” The issue is not likely to come before voters until November 2020.