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.
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Spencer originally backed a tax measure on the November ballot, before reversing course after the council refused to expand her authority.
An irritated Rolleri responded that he would look into the matter, but told the resident that “sending your tickets to the Mayor is not the appropriate way to try and resolve your citations. The Mayor does not have the ability to dismiss citations. There is a process in place to contest them, and that process is explained on the back of your citation. I strongly encourage you to follow that process.”
Earlier this year, the mayor also appeared to position herself as an advocate against the city’s own interests involving the Frank Bette Center, which city officials had red-tagged for safety reasons. A March email from the city’s code enforcement department noted that the center was riddled with safety problems: The facility had a room containing a fuse box that was locked and inaccessible to the building’s tenant; a water heater was installed with potentially flammable materials; hazardous electrical wiring was evident all over the dwelling; and there was a rotting second story walkway. Even after a second inspection by the city, many of the most serious violations had not yet been fully corrected, according to the email, and “still constitute serious life safety issues and are sufficient to require the building be vacated until they are corrected.”
But according to City Hall sources, Spencer interjected herself in a dispute between the city’s code enforcement division and the Bette Center’s tenant, which along with its attorney was seeking to challenge the city’s decision to red-tag the building. The challenge was denied. Spencer “isn’t licensed by the state to make any of these code decisions,” said one source with knowledge of the incident.
Morodomi and other good-government advocates say that while it’s understandable that citizens might take their complaints to the mayor or a councilmember, elected officials should steer clear of trying to become fact-finders in disputes with the city. That’s particularly true if a citizen’s complaint might turn into a lawsuit against the city involving police conduct or code enforcement decisions. “It begins to encroach on interference,” said Morodomi. “The constituent might think that the city official can intervene, when the city charter doesn’t allow it.”
Mayor Spencer has also attempted to expand her authority during city council meetings since the hiring of City Manager Jill Keimach in March. Spencer adamantly opposed Keimach’s hiring, and even questioned Keimach’s credentials for the city manager’s job, despite the fact that Keimach had already served as the city manager of Moraga. The council voted 4-1 to hire Keimach, with Spencer opposed.
In May, Spencer’s antipathy toward Keimach bubbled over during a seemingly inconsequential issue—a council resolution naming the city manager to lead an administrative body known as the Disaster Council, which is charged with preparing the basic framework for the city’s response in the event of a disaster in Alameda. During two council meetings this summer, Spencer repeatedly pushed for the mayor, not the city manager, to head this group. The leadership of the city during an actual natural or man-made disaster on the Island was not the question, just the makeup of the body that would design a disaster plan for the city. In another 4-1 vote, with Spencer in opposition, the council decided that the city manager should lead the Disaster Council.
The council majority’s vote obviously irked Spencer, and later during that same July 5 meeting, the mayor changed her position on the city’s proposal for a November ballot measure that seeks to modernize Alameda’s Utility Users Tax, or UUT. Spencer had previously supported the Utility Modernization Act, or UMA, a ballot measure to revise the tax, but then decided to oppose, as if in payback for the Disaster Council vote.
The ballot measure is not a tax increase, but rather an attempt to include new technologies, such as cellphones, in the existing UUT. The tax has not been updated since 1970, and while many Alamedans pay the small tax as part of their cellphone bill, not all carriers charge their customers. The failure of the ballot measure would mean a loss of $5 million to the general fund.
Before the July 5 vote on the Disaster Council, Spencer participated in a short video produced by the city to educate the public about the UUT and the proposed ballot measure. City staffers then posted the video on the city’s website. It appears to show Spencer’s advocating for the ballot measure, but not fully. However, raw video obtained through a public records request includes an outtake of Spencer clearly backing the ballot measure. “I support the measure because I really do want to protect the quality of life in Alameda. That is my charge as mayor of this city, and it’s just important we do it.”
Spencer also noted in the raw video that the UMA would help maintain streets and parks, among other city services. But by July, Spencer had reversed course and opposed the UMA, asserting that its proceeds would not necessarily go toward city services. Instead, they could be used for city employee salaries and pensions, including for police officers, she argued.
The mayor then took the unusual step of becoming the official spokesperson against the ballot measure, personally writing the ballot argument in opposition to it. And in a rebuttal to the argument penned by the city council, Spencer lashed out at Keimach, accusing her of “falsely accusing me of wanting to bankrupt Alameda and canceling my meetings with city staff.”
Spencer also attempted to yet again overstep her city charter authority when she demanded on July 6 that Keimach remove the UMA video from the city’s website. Under the city charter, the mayor has no direct authority over the city manager—only the council as a whole can hire or fire her or give her orders. (In strong mayor systems, like Oakland, the mayor can give orders to the city manager.) Nonetheless, Spencer wrote to Keimach in a follow-up email on July 27, “After seeing the video in its entirety, I think it is deceptive to voters and could cause people to vote for the tax that otherwise would vote against it. I request that you remove the video from the City’s website and stop all dissemination of the video.”
In an email, Keimach said Spencer is being edited out of the video per the mayor’s demand.
Senior editor Robert Gammon contributed to this report.
Published online on Sept. 1, 2016 at 8 a.m.