The Trespass, the Mayor and the Political Spat
The gulf between the mayor and her supporters and Alameda’s political establishment enter the arena of political appointments.
Photos of Trish Herrera Spencer and Jim Oddie by Chris Duffey
The antipathy between Alameda’s freshman mayor and her opponents is no secret. The gulf between both sides has manifested frequently since Trish Herrera Spencer was elected last year to the mayor’s office. Now the proxy war has a new venue: appointing residents to Alameda boards and commissions.
Until this year, the process was seldom controversial, as council members typically approved the mayor’s selection without a hitch, but also without much vetting. But in recent months the process has become more contentious, as City Councilmembers Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Jim Oddie have argued for the council to play a greater role in the process.
As outlined in a city ordinance and described in the City Charter, which is akin to the city’s constitution, the mayor nominates board members and commissioners and the City Council decides whether to confirm.
Ashcraft and Oddie have argued that the council should question prospective board members more vigorously. For instance, during a confirmation hearing for the Planning Board last August, the only public information on each candidate was a single one-page application. Last month, Oddie asked the council to study whether the charter should be changed to add more rigor to the appointment process, but the item failed.
However, there was absolutely no lack of information available when the council considered the proposed appointment of Carol Gottstein to the city’s Commission on Disability Issues on Sept. 15. The surprise public disclosure of a police report detailing a trespassing complaint against Gottstein may have made her an unwitting pawn in Alameda’s political wars.
On Feb. 16, after a city employee found Gottstein inside City Hall West during a holiday afternoon, that person immediately called the police, Gottstein said.
Gottstein, who does not own a computer, said it was normal for her to use the library contained in the building. She said she was unable to print important documents related to a complaint against her medical provider, adding that the computers at the library and senior center were closed those days. In the police report and in a lengthy interview last month, Gottstein admitted she was wrong to be in the building after hours and is sorry for the incident.
The late February police report described her trespassing inside of City Hall West on two occasions—once on President’s Day and five days later on a Saturday.
Although the police never spoke to Gottstein on the day of the first incident, they procured a statement from her more than a week later. Despite the commotion, Gottstein returned to City Hall West the next weekend, also after business hours. This time, though, two Alameda police officers confronted Gottstein and gave her a handwritten note from former City Manager John Russo saying she was trespassing.
A few days later, Gottstein said she briefed the mayor on the incident. Gottstein, also a member of the city’s Restoration Advisory Board, said she worried the note would preclude her from attending its meetings, also held at City Hall West. But Spencer told her the matter did not rise yet to the level of council intervention and Russo gave Gottstein permission to attend the RAB meetings at City Hall West, Gottstein said.
Whether Spencer knew that Gottstein had trespassed at City Hall West before nominating her to a city commission is clear. Spencer could not be reached for comment. But knowledge of the incident was widespread at City Hall. Oddie said he and others were aware of the incident but had not seen the police report about it until a few hours before the Sept. 15 council meeting.
Oddie used Gottstein’s nonappointment that night to argue the process for choosing board and commission members is broken and that people run the risk of being subjected to public controversy and scorn because of it. Gottstein said she doesn’t know the mayor well and does not blame her. Instead, she blames Planning Board member John Knox White, the person she believes led the effort to scuttle her appointment.
“I don’t know what I did to him,” Gottstein said of White, who sent a letter late Tuesday afternoon to the council strongly objecting to her appointment, along with details of her trespassing incident. And Gottstein said that White’s opposition amounts to a double-standard since a Planning Board member he supported, Mike Henneberry, was arrested in 2012 for a well-publicized skirmish at a labor demonstration in Alameda. No charges were filed against him.
In an email response, White said, “While I’m sure this feels personal to Ms. Gottstein, it wasn’t. I raised the issue of our Mayor Trish Spencer nominating an individual who had illegally accessed a city building on multiple occasions to use employee computers to watch funny videos and check email. I asked the council to consider the impact of appointing a person to a city body that is staffed by those same employees. What message does that send to the hard-working staff in this city? She was caught by an employee who came in to work on President’s Day. The council majority apparently agreed.”
Gottstein speculates that the campaign against her was payback for Spencer’s decision to not reappoint Planning Board member Dania Alvarez weeks earlier. White said he believed that Alvarez deserved to return to her seat, although he recognizes Spencer’s right to nominate whomever she wants. “I encouraged the council to make sure that they knew who they were being asked to appoint,” said White, adding one of Spencer’s selections had voiced skepticism about the efficacy of the state’s open meetings law, and another held “anti-renter” views. “This appointment is just another in a growing list of inappropriate nominations from the mayor,” White said. “The nonappointment is rather unprecedented, speaking to the egregiousness of the lack of consideration that was given.”
Gottstein’s reputation for being a strong critic of City Hall and the police and fire departments is well known. In an interview, Gottstein questioned whether the city employee who found her at City Hall West on President’s Day showed up for work that day with the sole intent of earning overtime pay. She also skewered the Alameda Police Department for picking on some residents, including her. “Making mountains out of molehills is what APD does best,” she said.
Gottstein insisted that she did not seek to steal anybody’s identity during the incident, as suggested in the police report by a city employee whose computer Gottstein had used. The city employee expressed a desire to press charges against Gottstein for identity theft, but the complaint went nowhere, she said. During a meeting with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, neither the employee nor anyone from the city showed, Gottstein said.
Nonetheless, the incident clearly highlighted another problem: The offices at City Hall West are compromised. Gottstein says she routinely finds doors in the building unlocked. Last month, Public Works Director Bob Haun reiterated to the council that the city building does not have an alarm or surveillance cameras, and replacing doors with a more sophisticated keypad system might cost around $20,000, he told the council. “We’re at-risk in the building,” Haun said.
After the mayor’s appointment to the Commission on Disability Issues was rejected following disclosure of a police report involving her appointee, Councilman Jim Oddie suggested changes to the appointment process.