The Meddlesome Mayor
Trish Spencer’s intrusions into city operations, including one incident involving a police officer who arrested her husband, appear to violate Alameda’s charter.
During the past two years, Mayor Trish Spencer appears to have positioned herself as a personal advocate for residents who have a beef with Alameda City Hall.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
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Last spring, Alameda resident Parminder Dhingra sent an email to Mayor Trish Spencer, Police Chief Paul Rolleri, and others, alleging that he was treated unfairly by one of the city’s police officers. Dhingra was complaining about Officer Brandon Hansen, who had been dispatched on March 31 to deal with a dispute between Dhingra and one of his neighbors. The issue was minor: Dhingra’s neighbor had accused him of driving over some ornamental rocks on the neighbor’s property. But Dhingra became upset, alleging in his April 1 email that Hansen had sided with the neighbor in the dispute.
Mayor Spencer quickly responded to Dhingra’s email, replying just before 9 o’clock that same morning. Later that day, Spencer met with Dhingra in his living room for about 30 minutes to discuss the incident, Dhingra said in a recent interview. Spencer subsequently demanded in an email to Chief Rolleri that he discuss the issue with her.
But what Dhingra didn’t know is that the mayor’s husband, Joel Spencer, had previously been in a serious run-in with the same police officer. Just two weeks prior, on March 17, Hansen had pulled Spencer over for allegedly speeding and driving his car through a stop sign on Central Avenue, according to Rolleri and court records. Spencer was later booked into county jail on suspicion of DUI. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office subsequently filed misdemeanor drunken driving charges against Spencer, alleging that his blood alcohol level was 0.15 percent, nearly double the legal limit, court records show. Joel Spencer, 57, pleaded not guilty on April 18, and as of press time, was still awaiting trial.
Mayor Spencer’s demand to talk with Chief Rolleri concerning an issue involving the cop who arrested her husband is not an isolated incident. Interviews, emails, and public records show that since Spencer was elected mayor in November 2014, she has repeatedly inserted herself in routine city business in apparent violation of the Alameda City Charter.
Unlike Oakland and San Francisco, Alameda does not have a strong mayor form of government. Instead, it has what is known as a weak mayor system, also sometimes known as a strong city manager system. Under this setup, which is common in cities throughout the state, the mayor is merely the ceremonial head of the city council, while the city manager runs the day-to-day operations of the city and oversees all department heads, including the police chief. Alameda’s city manager reports to the council as a whole—not to the mayor. And the Alameda City Charter specifically forbids the mayor and councilmembers from interfering in the city manager’s duties and responsibilities.
Records and interviews show that in addition to the incident with Officer Hansen, Spencer personally involved herself in a city code enforcement department’s decision to close the Frank Bette Center for the Arts. Spencer has intervened on behalf of residents on a variety of issues, including those who have sought to get out of paying their parking tickets.
Along the way, Spencer has angered her council colleagues, the city manager, and the heads of various city departments and city employees, according to numerous City Hall sources who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Spencer has developed a reputation for seeking retribution against those who oppose her. City Hall sources believe that the mayor’s recent decision to take the unusual step of personally opposing a council-backed ballot measure regarding utility taxes was in response to the council majority’s decision to not expand her powers.
In a brief interview following the grand opening of a restaurant in Alameda in early August, Spencer referred to a question about her involvement in the incident with the police officer who arrested her husband as “a fabrication.” She also denied that her actions violated the city charter’s provisions that forbid the mayor from interfering with the city manager’s duties. But before Alameda Magazine could ask follow-up questions concerning the records and emails obtained for this report, Spencer quickly walked away.
According to good-government experts, actions such as those taken by Spencer raise serious questions. Alameda’s City Charter Section 6.1 states that the mayor is a councilmember, and 7.3 states, “Neither the council nor any of the members thereof shall interfere with the execution by the city manager of his and her powers or duties.”
Mark Morodomi, a former longtime deputy city attorney in Oakland and an expert on public ethics, said such language is common in cities with weak mayor systems, which Oakland also used to have before it switched to a strong mayor one under Jerry Brown. Morodomi made it clear that while he was not commenting specifically on Spencer’s actions, city bans on inferring with the city’s manager’s “powers or duties” also includes prohibitions on interfering with “the people who work for the city manager,” he said. In Alameda, the police chief works for the city manager.
Nonetheless, in an April 1 email, time stamped 8:44 a.m., Spencer wrote directly to Chief Rolleri concerning Dhingra and Hansen, saying, “I’d like to discuss this ASAP. I telephoned Mr. Dhingra and would like to meet with him this afternoon.”
Rolleri responded about an hour later, telling Spencer that he would assign a lieutenant to investigate the matter. “At this point, given that Mr. Dhingra just emailed me at midnight, it would be premature to have a discussion about the incident,” wrote Rolleri. “None of us know anything beyond what was included in his email, and I am certain there is more to the story.”
Rolleri then alluded to the city charter’s prohibition on the mayor interfering with police department matters. The chief wrote that he would inform his boss, the city manager—not Spencer—of any further developments. “I respectfully ask for your patience while we gather further information,” he wrote to the mayor. “I will share whatever I learn with the City Manager.”
But Spencer defied the chief and decided not to wait. Dhingra said he met with the mayor later that afternoon.
Some Alameda residents have a general misunderstanding about the mayor’s limited role in city government, and sources say Spencer has exploited the situation by repeatedly acting as if she’s the personal advocate for those disgruntled with City Hall. “There’s no doubt that she meddles,” said one department head.
Some city employees interviewed for this report say Spencer often attempts to tell department heads and their workers what to do. Sources say lower-level city employees are often put in a bind over whether to acquiesce to Spencer’s orders or ignore them. “I can talk back to her,” one department head said, “but they can’t.”
Spencer’s populist streak is no doubt part of her appeal with some Alameda residents, said one department head. “Some people think by simply calling or emailing the mayor, she will get involved, and it will get done quickly. But if they just called the correct department, it will also get done in the same amount of time.”
Spencer has sometimes attempted to involve herself in trivial city matters, including helping residents clear parking tickets. In one instance, emails show that Rolleri was tiring of the people usurping the established process for challenging tickets issued by the police department. Spencer had forwarded an email to the chief from a city resident about citations she received for partially parking on a sidewalk. In her forwarding email, Spencer acknowledged that she had specifically asked the resident to email her about the parking ticket problem. The mayor added that she was “hopeful that the City can make progress on all your concerns this time.”