Alameda City Hall Makes Room for Baby
Councilmember Malia Vella’s recent childbirth highlights several challenges faced by new mothers seeking to reintegrate into the workplace.
Malia Vella breast-feeds her son while livestreaming a city council meeting.
Photo by Michiye Vella
Alameda renters were on the cusp last May of achieving a long-sought legislative goal of just-cause tenant protections. Councilmember Malia Vella, a strong supporter of renters’ rights and a labor attorney, spoke strongly of the importance of giving tenants the solace of knowing that if they paid their rent on time and followed the rules of the rental agreement, a landlord could not evict them from their homes. In short, Vella felt the renters’ pains, but they had no idea about hers as she spoke from the council dais.
Throughout the meeting, Vella was experiencing wave after wave of labor contractions. Her colleagues were well aware of Vella’s impending due date. It’s the reason the just-cause item on the agenda that night was moved to the beginning of the meeting. The contractions, however, were just the beginning. Vella spent 40 hours in labor. Two days after attending the council meeting, Vella gave birth to her first child, a healthy 7-pound, 11-ounce son. “He has a huge head,” she reported.
The event almost certainly made Vella the first Alameda councilmember to ever give birth while serving on the city council. For most of its history, men dominated the council, and over the past few decades, most of the women councilmembers elected to office in Alameda have been older.
While Vella said the historical footnote is nice, she believes her pregnancy revealed how stunningly silent the city’s charter is about potential issues that could arise for mothers who are also elected officials. In addition, she noted, the last nine months have highlighted just how substandard Alameda City Hall is for new mothers.
“I don’t think it’s fair to my constituents if I miss such an important vote,” Vella said of the just-cause vote, while breast-feeding during a telephone interview, her hungry baby occasionally crying in the background. If just-cause protections were to be approved by the council last May, they needed Vella’s vote because passage required a fourth-fifths supermajority to pass. In the end, they passed, 4-1. “I had to be there. You never know, someone might have proposed some carveouts. And, besides, it was too late for me to call from home.”
In addition, to serving her first-term on the city council, Vella also is a full-time labor attorney for the Teamsters. As with her duties on the council, Vella said she took very little time off from her day job. “We do what we have to do,” she said of mothers.
But like first-time parents preparing a nursery and child-proofing their home in anticipation of their new baby’s arrival, Vella’s advocacy for pregnant working women this year revealed that Alameda City Hall also needed some improvements. Alameda’s seat of government lacked some basic amenities for working mothers. Its restrooms were devoid of the baby-changing tables now common in almost every public building. A dedicated area for women to breast-feed or pump milk for their babies did not exist. In the past, women at City Hall were allowed to use a somewhat secluded area inside the council chambers primarily devoted to monitoring audio and video of council meetings. Conference rooms also were available.
Without the city making some changes to facilitate breast-feeding mothers, Vella vowed early last spring that she would breast-feed her baby at the dais during a council meeting. “I take my job seriously,” she said, arguing that City Hall’s structural limitations made her job needlessly more difficult. “I don’t think my child should suffer because of it.”
Although Vella did not physically attend council meetings in the month following the birth of her son, she participated via teleconferencing. The method is quite common in local government, but typically used when an elected official is on vacation or on business in another city. There are requirements for the exact address of the teleconferencing officials be printed on the council agenda and often included far-flung and exotic locales. Vella’s included Alameda.
During one of these meetings in June, Vella posted on Facebook a photo that epitomizes multi-tasking in its highest form. Sitting in a rocking chair, Vella sat nursing her baby while watching a livestream of the council meeting on her laptop. Her cellphone was at the ready in case she needed to chime in on the agenda item at hand. Vella’s sister snapped the photo after walking into the makeshift situation room. “This is absurd,” Vella recalled of her sister’s reaction to the set-up. “They all thought it was hilarious.”
In July, Alameda Human Resources Director Nancy Bronstein told the council that 15 employees have taken maternity leave in the past five years and that the city has complied with state law to provide conference rooms and private offices for lactating for nursing mothers, although none were permanent. The city recently drafted a new policy to make new hires and women going on maternity leave better aware of these accommodations and how to request them. And on July 2, the council directed Bronstein to begin work on possibly procuring a breast-feeding pod, a spherical structure that gives mothers a clean and quiet room to lactate. The pods are currently used at the Oakland airport and quite popular with mothers, Bronstein said.
Breast-feeding advocate Heather Reed said it’s important for mothers to feel comfortable while nursing because stress can affect the amount of milk a mother produces. Reed is the founder of Monkey Bars, a store for maternity clothing that once resided on Park Street. During street fairs, she provided space at her shop for mothers to breast-feed or pump milk. Reed herself has experience with breast-feeding her son at City Hall during a council meeting.
She lauded Vella for her advocacy on the issue, along with doing away with persistent gender equality stereotypes about women in the workplace. “We as women are expected to work as though we don’t have children, and raise our children like we don’t have jobs,” said Reed.
“One of the great things Malia is doing right now is normalizing the fact that she hasn’t taken a maternity leave from her council job and on a personal leave she has gotten back to work and hasn’t missed a beat,” Reed said. “She is walking the line between remaining effective in her council job and still nursing, and basically, providing for her newborn.”
Vella’s experience has highlighted at least one way in which Alameda’s council rules are unfriendly to mothers. Last spring, the council waived a provision that had the potential to technically render Vella’s council seat vacant if it were applied. The provision prohibits elected or council-appointed officials from being physically absent from Alameda for more than 30 consecutive days without council permission. “You don’t have a choice in Alameda,” she said. Alameda Hospital has not had a labor and delivery department since the 1990s. “If complications arise with your pregnancy, there is a risk of long-term hospitalization.”
The City Charter’s tone deafness to such issues is not exactly surprising, since the document, which is likely to be reformed next year, was written primarily by men. “It highlights why you need a diversity of people in government,” Vella said.
Without such diversity, Vella believes that governments don’t always realize what issues are important. The same broader thinking on women’s issues should extend to other areas of Alameda government, she said, such as the Alameda Fire Department. Like many fire departments in the East Bay, Alameda employs a very low-percentage of women firefighters. Specifically, Vella worries that the city is insufficiently attentive to issues and shortfalls that may revolve around dorms at Alameda fire stations.
“It’s interesting how some things that can seem like a small detail and not something front and center, but when you’re a new mom with a few jobs, it becomes noticeable,” said Gaylon Parsons, an Alameda resident and city hall-watcher. “It’s why we need to elect more women.”
However, Alameda city government does not have an issue with gender diversity. In fact, the Island has not had a male mayor this century, so there certainly has not been a dearth of women with power at City Hall.
On July 2, Vella made her first council appearance since giving birth six weeks earlier. With her support, on that night again passed consequential legislation to set a 2.8 percent cap on annual rent increases. Vella said she was pumping milk during the proceedings, but not before a past foe ambled up to the lectern during public comment and demanded her prompt resignation over unrelated issues. In response, Vella gave him a steely glare — the kind that only a mother could flash at a seriously misbehaving child.