City Manager Under Fire
Alameda’s influential firefighters’ union is at war with Jill Keimach over how she selected the new chief of the Island’s fire department.
City Manager Jill Keimach said that in her 30 years of public service, she has "never been subjected to this much intense pressure."
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
After firefighters extinguished a small blaze on an early September morning at an apartment building less than a mile from Alameda City Hall, Fire Chief Doug Long surveyed the damage. It would be one of his last duties as head of the fire department. A few days later, the well-liked and well-respected fire chief retired after a 30-year career in the department.
But his departure and the process leading to his replacement has sparked a heated debate at City Hall between Alameda’s powerful firefighters union and City Manager Jill Keimach.
In early October, Keimach tabbed Ed Rodriguez, who served previously as fire chief in Salinas for four years, and before that as deputy chief in Stockton, to replace Long. Rodriguez himself is not the subject of controversy. By all indications, his résumé appears to be well-suited for the Island. But the process leading up to Keimach’s selection of him has created a deep rift between the city manager and the leadership of the Alameda International Association of Firefighters, or IAFF, Local 689, which is perhaps the most politically influential group in the city.
In an interview, firefighters union President Jeff Del Bono alleged that the city’s recruitment and interview process led by Keimach was a sham from the start. “The whole thing was not transparent, and she was disingenuous about the process,” he said of the city manager. “None of it was honest.”
Before she announced her choice, Keimach was under significant pressure to select Domenick Weaver, a former firefighters union president and current Alameda fire captain, as the new chief. Weaver was initially the only in-house candidate for the job, and he had secured not only the union’s backing, but also letters of support from Assemblymember Rob Bonta, firefighter unions in Oakland and San Francisco, former Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore, and former City Manager John Russo.
At one point, with Long’s retirement date quickly approaching and before Keimach made her decision on a permanent replacement, Del Bono suggested that the city manager appoint Weaver as acting fire chief. Keimach, according to Del Bono, opposed the idea, arguing that it would give Weaver an unfair advantage over other candidates. Instead, Keimach appointed Division Chief Ricci Zombeck.
But the move incensed Del Bono and union leaders after they learned that Keimach gave Zombeck an interview for the permanent chief’s job after she appointed him interim chief. The union viewed it as a double-cross. “I told her, ‘You’re just lying here,’ ” said Del Bono. “She’s delusional. There’s not a lot of trust there. It really makes it hard to work with somebody that nobody trusts.”
In an interview, Keimach denied Del Bono’s characterization about how she chose Zombeck as acting fire chief, saying he routinely served as acting chief when Long was unavailable and that it was “logical to pick him.”
In a strongly worded letter to Keimach that echoed statements made by Del Bono, Weaver pulled himself out of consideration for the position just days before the city manager announced her decision to hire Rodriguez. “I started thinking even if I was picked for the job, how would I be able to work with her,” said Weaver, in an interview. He also felt his candidacy was being strung along. He alleged that Keimach mishandled the selection process and that she repeatedly postponed or missed promised dates with him.
Keimach fired back that the selection of Rodriguez was the result of a “fair and proven process.”
“The process delivered this candidate,” she said. “I’m not trying to change the department. It’s doing great. I’m just trying to find it the best possible leadership. If the process was just pick the candidate the union wants, then we wouldn’t have Ed Rodriguez.”
Keimach added that in her 30 years of public service, “I have never been subjected to this much intense pressure. What they wanted me to conduct was the opposite to having a rigorous process.”
Keimach also has no doubts that she is now persona non grata with the firefighters union. “This is all about me doing what the union wanted me to do,” she said.
When asked whether other city officials attempted to interfere in her decision-making, Keimach said she “felt pressured by a number of people,” but declined to say who. Later, she cited the specific section of the Alameda City Charter that prohibits the city council from interfering in the day-to-day operations of the city administration.
In an interview, Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer also suggested that there may have been improper interference in the selection. “It may or may not be appropriate, and the council might be looking at this going forward,” said Spencer. “There are statements that suggest there may be interference. I think if it rises to that level, I would expect we would look into it.”
The strong comments made by Del Bono toward Keimach sound familiar, said Spencer, who has battled with the influential union leader in the past. “There have been similar quotes in reference to me. I thought it was poor form when he did against me, and it’s the same when he does it to her. She is the city manager and I am the mayor,” Spencer said. “We can have a professional conversation without name-calling. When he resorts to name-calling, it does not help.”
Spencer’s defense of Keimach comes in stark contrast to her vote against hiring the city manager in early 2016. The mayor was the lone vote against Keimach, calling her unqualified for the job. In addition, Spencer came under intense fire last year for allegedly violating the same city charter prohibition on interfering in the city’s day-to-day operations that Keimach cited in the fire chief selection flap.
But the war of words with the firefighters’ union isn’t the only controversy involving Keimach recently. After businesses and residents at Alameda Point were left without potable water for five days in September, some public officials questioned whether Keimach was sufficiently attentive during the crisis. Shortly after the city ordered people and businesses to cease using the contaminated water, Keimach spent the next few days in Sacramento at League of California Cities convention.
A few days later, the city council held a closed-door meeting to discuss Keimach’s job performance. Councilmembers declined to reveal the substance of the meeting, but its timing was unusual, because Keimach’s annual review isn’t until March.
Meanwhile, questions about whether the heat between the union and city administration will spread to the fire chief’s office when Rodriguez takes over on Nov. 13 appear to be settled. “This has nothing to do with Ed Rodriguez,” said Del Bono, who added that as part of the interviewing and recruitment team, he was impressed by Rodriguez and rated him highly. “We’re going to work with him because if he’s successful, we’re successful.”
Editor’s Note: After the print edition of this report went to press, Alameda City Attorney Janet Kern said she is hiring an independent investigator to probe whether city councilmembers improperly interfered with City Manager Jill Keimach’s hiring of the new fire chief.