Careful What You Wish For, Mayor Spencer

Detractors suggest Trish Spencer needs to develop leadership skills, but the mayor says she is comfortable with her populist approach.


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Mayor Spencer is satisfied with the transition and believes productive discussion now occurs. Her predecessor was a stickler for adhering to the rules.

Photo by Megan Small

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After viewing a video recording of the March 3 Alameda City Council meeting, blogger Lauren Do called it “my all-time favorite TV show episode.” Do favorably compared the meeting’s entertainment value to one particularly melodramatic episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. What she found so painfully watchable was the dysfunction that she believes typifies city council meetings since the election of Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer.

Do uploaded and annotated a two-minute YouTube video clip. As senior city staff members quietly huddled to answer some questions from council members, former Board of Education candidate Kurt Peterson approached the other side of the council dais and talked to the city clerk in an apparent effort to reopen public comment. Several council members looked exasperated by this unscripted interruption.

Then Mayor Spencer rose from her seat and began walking toward the audience member, as if to talk or receive a note from the man. That prompted City Manager John Russo to sternly scold the mayor. “Excuse me; Madam Mayor, I’m sorry,” Russo said. “You know, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the public process. This, however, is a business meeting that needs to be conducted like a business meeting, and Mr. Peterson walking up to the proscenium and directing everybody how the meeting should proceed is, frankly, inappropriate. … This is the point; Madam Mayor, I need you to get control of the chamber, please.”

Russo’s admonition echoed criticism from the mayor’s detractors, who are still smarting from her surprise upset of former Mayor Marie Gilmore. Now, some of Spencer’s opponents from her six years on the Alameda school board are champing at the bit to capitalize on her transition to the mayor’s office, drawing attention to her missteps and the perceived ineffectiveness of her laissez-faire management style. The interlude also highlighted a nagging subtext of council infighting and dysfunction since Spencer’s December swearing-in.

For Spencer, however, it all seems to be business as usual. “I’m very comfortable with how the council meetings are going,” Spencer said, adding that there was nothing unusual about the March 3 crosstalk, which resulted in a five-minute adjournment. “It was one part of one council meeting,” she said. “I like public participation that is meaningful and healthy, and I think that’s what we’re getting now.”

Spencer called the entire scene a misunderstanding, explaining that as Russo and staff talked among themselves, Peterson believed the council was in recess when it was not. Regarding the city manager’s pointed statement toward her, Spencer said, “Mr. Russo handled it in a manner he believed was appropriate.” But other council members appeared flummoxed. A perturbed Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft urged Russo to take control of the meeting.

The floodgates of animosity toward Spencer opened a bit wider one day later when President Jeff Del Bono of the Alameda Firefighter’s Association, IAAF Local 689, sharply criticized her for being the lone vote against a new fire station on Buena Vista Avenue and an emergency center on Grand Street. Spencer maintained that her opposition was based on fiscal responsibility. But Del Bono, who had been noticeably quiet since Spencer’s election, said he felt compelled to speak out because Spencer had not properly vetted the proposal. “She said nobody explained to her where the money was coming from,” Del Bono said. “Maybe it’s staff’s fault, but it’s her fault, too, for not looking for the answers.”

Del Bono said the mayor has not made much of an effort to engage in a dialogue with the union, even with a standoff looming between the firefighter’s union and the city over post-retirement benefits. “If she does the work and makes decisive decisions, I can live with that,” Del Bono said. “But if you vote and never talked to us, we’re going to have a problem.”

In general, the vocal group of Alamedans who claim that Del Bono’s union possesses outsized political power at City Hall often also make up a significant portion of Spencer’s strongest constituency. Tending to view government skeptically, some of these Spencer supporters have been among those people routinely disrupting city council meetings by attempting to debate council members and staff. In fact, the impetus for the March mayhem was one such Spencer supporter’s attempting to rebut comments made by staff members.

“That’s the group that she has to get a balance with,” Del Bono said. “As a mayor, she can’t listen to one group.”

Former City Council candidate Adam Gillitt, who worked on Spencer’s campaign last fall, said he believes that unions and other entrenched Alameda interests are reacting to Spencer because they fear her as an unknown. “Trish is not representative of any one group,” Gillitt said. “That’s the point of why she ran.” He added that Spencer, as an outsider to City Hall, currently lacks staff perceived to be wholly loyal to her. But that will soon change with Russo’s departure to become the city manager of Riverside, Gillitt noted. “When you can have your own city manager, that’s important,” Gillitt said. “It’s not even 100 days on the job, and the city manager is already running for the hills.”

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