Alameda to deny re-payment of legal fees for future city charter violators

In the wake of the release of an infamous secret recording involving alleged impropriety by two elected officials, the Alameda City Council approved an ordinance last week that would deny the reimbursement of legal fees to councilmembers after they are found to have violated the city’s charter.

“I hope this is a rare occurrence, but we don’t know that,” Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Aschraft said. “I think that it’s really important to have clear policies that leave no question.”

After former City Manager Jill Keimach accused Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella of violating a provision in the city charter than forbids political interference in the city manager’s duties, the accusation racked up legal bills for both elected officials totaling roughly $90,000 apiece. The City Council denied both claims.

An Alameda County Grand Jury report issued last June found Oddie and Vella violated the charter by a preponderances of their actions in pressuring Keimach to hire a specific candidate for the open fire chief position. Among the grand jury’s recommendations was for the Alameda City Council to enact a policy against indemnifying councilmembers who violate the charter.

Last week’s lengthy discussion aimed to specify who would make such a determination about a councilmember’s future alleged transgressions. The council ultimately chose to use any future investigation by the state attorney general, Alameda County district attorney, or civil grand jury. as a guide.

The majority of the council could also weigh-in, but only after appointing a special counsel. Members of Alameda’s boards and commissions are not included in the ordinance. But, notably, the legislation does not include all elected officials in Alameda.

The city auditor and city treasurer were not included in the resolution. “It means those two people are not going to be held to same standard and they will be indemnified even if they violate the charter,” Councilmember Malia Vella said, following the meeting.

Vella ultimately recused herself from the discussion last week, as did Oddie, but she made an early attempt to bifurcate the vote on the indemnification issue in order to participate in shaping the future application of the ordinance. But she was rebuffed by the council.

In an interview, Vella said the focus of her comments would have revolved around inclusion of the city auditor and city treasurer into the ordinance. Both are elected offices in Alameda.

Councilmembers appeared wary of allowing Vella into the discussion for fear their comments could be used in any potential litigation against the city by Vella for allegedly violating her privacy by voting to release the secret recording last month. She has also claimed the city manager’s act of recording her and Oddie in meeting in 2017, in itself, violated her right to privacy.

“The thing that concerns me that if there is litigation, I’m concerned that if we proceed down this path and I say something that could be injurious,” Councilmember Tony Daysog said, in reference to allowing Vella to partially contribute to the agenda item. “I just need to be careful about that and I’m not sure I can be that eloquent in trying to do that song-and-dance.”