ALAMEDA: Proposed responses to grand jury limit exposure to Vella on charter violation finding

Malia Vella

An Alameda County grand jury last month determined, among other findings, that two Alameda councilmembers violated the city charter by exerting undue influence on the city manager’s decision to hire a new fire chief. The civil grand jury also faulted the city for allowing the councilmembers to participate in the editing of the independent report on their alleged actions prior to its release to the public..

Next week, the Alameda City Council will begin the process of officially responding to the four findings and four recommendations laid out in the grand jury report. By law, the city must provide answers to the grand jury’s findings within six months.

A staff report prepared by City Manager Eric Levitt and City Attorney Yibin Shen in advance of Tuesday night’s meeting offers two possible responses for councilmembers to choose. A few are diametrically opposed in their arguments, others more nuanced.

But when it comes to the most explosive finding, that Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella violated the city charter by attempting to influence former city manager Jill Keimach to choose a candidate for fire chief favored by the firefighters’ union, both possible responses disagree with the grand jury’s finding on Vella.

ALCO grand jury photo
Members of the 2019 Alameda County grand jury.

The staff report gives the council the option to agree with the finding, but with a caveat when it comes to Vella.

“While the City of Alameda agrees with this finding, it is important to point out that the City’s independent investigator concluded that one Council Member, not two, violated the City Charter. Additionally, the City further recognizes the grand jury’s conclusion that the conduct at issue, even if violative of the City Charter, does not rise to the level of “willful or corrupt misconduct in office” necessitating removal from Office,” according to the staff report.

An independent investigation approved by the city council in 2018 by attorney Michael Jenkins found Oddie violated the charter provision on council interference after he sent a letter of recommendation to Keimach in support of the firefighters’ union candidate for fire chief. At the same time, Jenkins determined the same city charter provision lacked clarity. The independent report did not find Vella violated the charter.

Except for the determination that Vella violated the charter, the grand jury report on Alameda interference in many way mimics the independent investigative report issued a year earlier.

Another option for the council is to “partially disagree” with the grand jury’s charter violation finding. This possible response also disagrees that Vella violated the charter.

“The City of Alameda engaged the law firm of Jenkins & Hogin, LLP to conduct an
independent investigation of the alleged conduct at issue. The independent investigation
involved interviews with 22 people along with a review of a substantial volume of relevant documents. This investigation concluded that one Council Member, not two, violated the City Charter,” the city manager and city attorney wrote.

The grand jury also slammed the City Council for allowing Oddie and Vella to participate in closed session discussions that involved the editing of the independent investigator’s final report. The staff report offers the option for the council to agree with the finding, but to add, “ultimately both the edited report and the full report with necessary minimal redactions were released to the public.”

A short version of the independent report was released to the public in May 2018, followed by the entire unedited report.

The city argued at the time that Keimach’s complaint letter asserting council interference never specifically mentioned which elected officials had allegedly exerted improper influence on her and, therefore, did not require any councilmembers to be recused.

The council could also “partially disagree,” according to the staff report, and oppose the grand jury’s finding that the independence of the report was damaged by Oddie and Vella participating in the discussion on the grounds that both versions were ultimately released to the public.

Oddie and Vella are not expected to participate in the grand jury agenda item on Tuesday night.

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