Our Backyard: Mayor Trish Spencer Is Out of Order

If Alamedans want their mayor to be in charge of City Hall, then they need a different form of governance.


Trish Spencer.

Photo by Chris Duffey

Alameda City Hall has a serious governance problem. As reporter Steven Tavares notes in this month’s news story, “The Meddlesome Mayor,” Mayor Trish Spencer appears to have repeatedly run afoul of the city charter—the basic law governing Alameda—since she won election in November 2014.

At issue is that many of Spencer’s supporters seem to think the mayor is in charge of City Hall. And Spencer seems to view herself as some sort of personal crusader for Alamedans who have a beef with the city’s bureaucracy.

But that’s not the mayor’s role under city law. The reason is that Alameda has what’s known as a weak mayor system of government—not a strong mayor one like Oakland has.

In Alameda, the mayor is merely the ceremonial head of the city council. As such, it’s illegal for Spencer to interfere in the day-to-day operations of the city or to tell department heads, like the police chief, how to do their jobs. Spencer can’t even tell the city manager what to do. The reason is that under the Alameda City Charter, the city manager reports to the council as a whole—not the mayor. Indeed, Spencer opposed the hiring of current City Manager Jill Keimach but was overruled by her council colleagues.

Now, this arrangement might seem odd—or even wrongheaded—to many Alamedans. After all, don’t we want to elect officials who will “get things done?” Of course we do. But under Alameda law, the mayor and the council are supposed to get things done by passing laws and allocating public funds in ways that improve the lives of residents. And it’s the job of the council as a whole to hold the city’s bureaucracy accountable by holding the head of it accountable: the city manager.

If Alamedans want their mayor to tell the city manager what to do, and by extension, the people who work for the city manager, including the police chief, then the Island needs to switch to a strong mayor system. That’s what Jerry Brown did via a city ballot measure in Oakland in the late ’90s. And so today, Oakland’s mayor is the head of the city’s bureaucracy.

It’s a legitimate form of government. It’s just not Alameda’s form of government.

Our Backyard is an occasional opinion column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

Published online on Sept. 6, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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