Does Alameda Need a Strong Mayor?
The city’s weak-mayor form of government has been raising questions about who is really in charge in City Hall.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
When news emerged from Alameda City Hall last October that City Manager Jill Keimach had penned a memorandum brimming with pointed claims about alleged interference by unnamed members of the city council, it created a political firestorm. Keimach’s letter subsequently led to an independent investigation into her allegations, and then, in a twist, led to the council later placing her on paid administrative leave in March.
In large part, the firestorm and confusion surrounding Keimach and the city council stems from Alameda’s so-called weak-mayor form of government, say several of the city’s leaders. (It’s also known in some cities as a strong-city manager form of government.) Under Alameda’s city charter, the city manager holds much of the power. He or she runs the day-to-day operations of the city and oversees the hiring and firing of all city employees.
Although the city manager reports to the city council and the mayor, the council and mayor hold mostly figure-head positions in Alameda. They set policy and allocate funds but have no authority over the conduct of city employees. In fact, the mayor is actually just a member of the council and the only extra power she has is to chair council meetings. The council and the mayor are also specifically prohibited under Alameda’s charter from interfering in the city manager’s duties. Keimach’s letter concerned such alleged interference during her hiring of a new fire chief last year.
By contrast, under a strong-mayor form of government — like the one Oakland employs — the mayor is in charge of the city’s bureaucracy, directly oversees the city manager, and has the power to hire and fire the police chief.
“The way this is set up, the public doesn’t have a way to hold the city manager accountable,” said Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, of the Island’s weak-mayor form of government. Spencer also said that she believes many Alamedans don’t understand the city’s governmental structure and the fact that she really isn’t in charge. “A large majority of people I have spoken to have the perception that you vote for mayor, vote for the council — they make all the decisions. The reality is the city manager hires everyone, and we only get asked to fund the positions. I ask, ‘Who is accountable to the city when important decisions are not made by the mayor and city council?’”
For her part, Spencer came under fire in 2016 for alleged interference of Keimach and the
police chief’s responsibilities. And because Spencer is mayor, it may not be surprising that she has criticisms of Alameda’s weak-mayor system.
She acknowledges this critique but adds that she has witnessed how a more streamlined power structure better serves the community. In early April, when a sinkhole on the Oakland side of the Webster-Posey tubes presented a transportation headache for both cities, Spencer said she was the first person to learn of the problem through a late-evening email from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Oakland city government operates under the strong-mayor model where Schaaf is the city’s chief executive, much like a governor or a president, while the Oakland City Council serves in a role somewhat akin to the state legislature or Congress.
In working with Schaaf on the sinkhole issue, Spencer noticed how well Schaaf was able to mobilize city departments to quickly fix the problem. “She reached out to her people: the city administrator, their public works, and to us,” Spencer said. “I cannot do that. I have to send email to the city manager and others to expedite the process. It takes too much time. I started asking myself, ‘How would this job be different as a strong mayor?’”
Councilmember Frank Matarrese, who is running this fall against Spencer in the mayor’s race, also favors switching to a strong-mayor form of government. “Maybe the time for it is now? I tend to favor it,” he said.
But John Knox White, a former planning board member and declared candidate for the city council this year, contends that the city doesn’t need to change its system of governance and that City Hall dysfunction stems from personal dynamics. “The idea of this is downright silly,” said Knox White. “Anyone who has watched one or two council meetings knows the system of government is not the problem. It is the result
of having a city council that doesn’t work together.”
Former Alameda Councilmember Barbara Thomas, a supporter of Spencer, raised the question of the city switching to the strong-mayor model in an opinion piece published in the East Bay Times in March. Thomas asserted that city’s current staff is not serving the council, but, instead, the city manager’s interests.
Thomas also called for an increase in the council’s pay, which was last set shortly after World War II (Alameda elected officials only earn up to $250 a month). A decade ago, when the city removed salary restrictions on some department heads, including the city manager, the city staff did not broach raises for the mayor and council. “Why?” wrote Thomas. “Staff wants our leaders to be limited and controlled by staff.”
Spencer said she favors a more professionalized city staff in Alameda, which is not surprising considering the fact that the mayor often grills city staffers during council meetings over information she believes is lacking in reports.
But Spencer’s ideological opposite, Councilmember Jim Oddie, also questions the city staff’s loyalty. Calling the idea of a strong mayor “interesting,” Oddie said that under a strong-mayor system like Oakland’s, councilmembers could have a staff member whom they believe is acting in their interests, not the city manager’s. “That staff is not our staff. That’s the city manager’s staff,” said Oddie. “We hear what they want us to hear.”
Alameda Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who is also a candidate for mayor this fall, believes the current system works just fine. “Alameda’s experience these past three years makes me reluctant to endorse a ‘strong mayor’ form of city government, which could include the mayor appointing and removing department heads,” she said, in reference to instances during Spencer’s term when the council’s progressive majority moved to block the mayor’s appointees to various boards and commissions after deeming them inexperienced or too conservative. “I think the collective judgment of a city council provides important safeguards, regardless of who is mayor and also encourages collaborative decision making.”
Of course, any change to the charter requires a vote of the Island’s citizens, and the switch would be somewhat unusual. Among charter cities in the East Bay, the strong-mayor model is only employed in Oakland. Berkeley uses a hybrid model, in which the mayor has more power than councilmembers but also sits on the council.