With a segment of Alameda residents fuming over a scathing civil grand jury finding that two Alameda elected officials violated the city charter, the Alameda City Council on Tuesday night voted to accept its findings and recommendations. Jim Oddie and Malia, the councilmembers alleged by the Alameda County grand jury of violating the charter each recused themselves from the agenda item.
At lease two of three remaining councilmembers were clearly intent on moving forward from one of the most fractious moments in Alameda’s recent political history.
Alameda’s city hall scandal was precipitated by a letter written by then-city manager Jill Keimach to the city council that alleged undue political interference by two councilmembers during the process of hiring a new fire chief. Keimach alleged the councilmembers inappropriately advocated for the candidate for fire chief that was backed by the Alameda firefighters’ union.
On Tuesday night, Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft called the episode a “regrettable chapter in our city’s history.”
The fallout included a secret recording made by Keimach of a meeting with Oddie and Vella, a rekindling of concerns by some over the immense power of the city’s firefighters’ union, and a $1 million settlement between the city and Keimach. Ashcraft said the problems run deeper. “The cost to the city was not just financial. Public trust in government was diminished and the city’s reputation has been tarnished.”
“We cannot pretend that this series of events did not happen or wish it away,” Ashcraft said. “The only way to bring closure to our city is to address the issue head-on. It is imperative that we do so now because this council has so many issues to resolve.”
Councilmember John Knox White, who was elected last November, after the scandal had subsided, also urged for closure. Although he suggested the current uproar among some of Alameda’s right-of-center electorate is politically-motivated, he added the city’s independent investigation and grand jury report “show a city in chaos.”
“Things went badly. From my standpoint, this council has acknowledged mistakes had been made,” Knox White said. “It’s time for the community to move forward and move on. I believe both the independent investigation and the grand jury report came to the correct conclusion. People made mistakes. It doesn’t mean they should be removed from office.”
Although the trio of councilmembers voted unanimously to agree with the grand jury’s findings, Councilmember Tony Daysog said, “I don’t believe the city of Alameda is ready to move on yet,” at least, until reforms are made to the city charter, he added.
“No person is above the law. The law of the land is the Alameda city charter,” Daysog said. Echoing a number of comments made by the public Tuesday night, Daysog urged for a discussion on a number of actions the council could take toward officially rebuking Oddie and Vella, including censure, or a recall campaign.
An Alameda resident kickstarted a recall petition against Oddie earlier this month. But the same individual has attempted a total of six other petitions against Oddie and Vella over the past year. None have come anywhere close to gaining any traction.
But later in the meeting, Daysog said he was not advocating for censure or a recall of colleagues, but merely reiterating public sentiment on the issue.
Daysog staked his return to the city council last fall on the premise the scandal and the firefighters’ union had thrown city hall into complete disarray. He was successful at the ballot box and has become the frequent lone opposition on a city council now dominated by progressives.
Although members of the firefighters’ union and housing advocates voiced support for Oddie and Vella, Tuesday night’s discourse was dominated by those unnerved by the grand jury’s findings.
Former Alameda Police Chief Burney Matthews excoriated Oddie and Vella and urged the council to discipline them for their alleged actions. “Let us not do a Trump move and allow the behavior to have no consequences,” he said.
Matthews, like several others, urged for the council to release the audio recordings made in August 2017 by Keimach of a meeting with Oddie and Vella, in which they discussed the hiring of a new fire chief. An investigation by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office released last October found no evidence of bribery or extortion by the elected officials. The DA’s office also found Keimach did not violate any laws by making the surreptitiously-made recordings.
Although there was some justification for the city council disagreeing with the finding for Vella, the council wordsmithed some responses to the grand jury report, which are required by law to be completed within six months, but largely sidestepped any discussion on the specifics or merits of the findings.
A more thorough independent investigation released last year, for example, determined only Oddie violated the charter, not Vella. However, the report compiled by attorney Michael Jenkins found the charter provision Oddie was alleged to have violated also lacked clarity.
Yet, despite the wishes of some officials to be done with the scandal in Alameda, it is unlikely to go away any time soon. Sometime after the August recess, the council is expected to take up the issue of whether to indemnify Oddie and Vella. A move that would result in the city paying the legal expenses each incurred during the scandal.