Not on Board With the Plan

The Alameda City Council’s progressive, pro-growth majority has rejected four of the mayor’s planning board choices this year.


Alameda City Council meeting

Photo by Darryl Barnes

When Trish Herrera Spencer defeated Marie Gilmore in a stunning upset in the 2014 Alameda mayor’s race, Spencer’s position on housing was fairly clear. Although she wasn’t completely anti-housing, she ran on a slow-growth platform, raising concerns that too much housing would create traffic nightmares and spoil the quality of life on the Island. But with the election of pro-growth progressive Councilmember Malia Vella in 2016, Spencer found herself in the distinct minority on the Alameda City Council. Spencer has often been on the losing end of 4-1 or 3-2 council votes concerning development issues, with Vella joining with Councilmembers Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Jim Oddie, and sometimes, Frank Matarrese.

During the past several months, Spencer has attempted to make good on her 2014 slow-growth promises by nominating planning board members with similar ideas about limiting development in Alameda. Besides the council, the planning board is the most important political body in the city when it comes to growth issues.

But even though the mayor has the power to nominate planning board members, the full council has the final say on who actually gets appointed. And the council’s progressive majority has repeatedly blocked Spencer’s picks this year for the planning board. At times, the mayor’s appointments to the planning board have felt like the local equivalent of high-stakes ideological battles over U.S. Supreme Court nominees.

In summer, Vella, Oddie, and Ashcraft voted down two of Spencer’s nominations to the planning board—Ruben Tilos and Steven Gortler. The progressive majority viewed both nominees as being hostile to new housing.

Spencer then returned in September with two new nominations—similarly from the slow-growth camp. The council rebuffed Patricia Lamborn for the same reason as Tilos and Gortler, but ultimately approved Alan Teague. His appointment was clinched by Ashcraft’s support, a turn of events that City Hall insiders believe was a nod by Ashcraft to moderates who might help her likely run for mayor next year.

Then in October, the council majority rejected a fourth nomination by Spencer to the planning board: Penny Cozad. Ezzy Ashcraft voted against Cozad, pointing to comments Cozad made in support of the Measure A, the ballot initiative approved by Alameda voters in the early 1970s. Measure A has significantly limited construction of new housing on the Island for the past four decades. It has also played a key role in Alameda failing to meet state and regional mandates for the creation of new housing.

Spencer’s inability to appoint slow-growth candidates to the planning board represents a departure from the norm in Alameda. Traditionally, the council has given the mayor wide latitude to make appointments to city boards and commissions, rubber-stamping the selections. Spencer’s critics, though, say the mayor shattered convention in 2015 when she declined to reappoint popular planning board member Dania Alvarez. Until Alvarez, if a board or commission member asked for another term and was considered qualified, the reappointment was almost always automatic.

“It started with Dania Alvarez not getting reappointed, and it has since escalated,” said David Mitchell, current chair of the planning board. “She’s relying on an old tradition of putting a name out there and hoping everyone else will sign off on it. If she’s not going to follow the tradition and reappoint someone who is qualified, then the tradition isn’t going to be followed.”

If the mayor’s contentious picks to the planning board are similar to the rancor involving U.S. Supreme Court nominations, then Mitchell is Spencer’s David Souter. Like Souter, who was appointed by a Republican president and was expected to be a conservative jurist, Mitchell was appointed by Spencer in 2015, but later publicly voiced strong opposition to her politics. “I’ve definitely grown more liberal since she picked me,” he admitted.

“The mayor is a nice lady, but she doesn’t play honest politics,” Mitchell continued. “You lose faith in someone when you don’t know where they stand. I think people would respect her more if she said, ‘I’m against housing; I’m against this. This is my vision of the city.’ But she’s done none of that. Her politics are undeclared. Ultimately, it is important who is on the board and who she appoints, and it’s obvious she is appointing people that are anti-housing.”

In an interview, Spencer said she was most disappointed by the council’s rejection of Tilos. He grew up in Alameda and is a Filipino American and would have added diversity to the planning board, the mayor said. “To me, it’s really sad when they don’t support these people who want to give back to the community,” she said. She also said she believes the council’s reasons for voting down some of her nominations have been arbitrary.

In addition, Spencer called the comments made by Mitchell “overly harsh,” and she rebutted the charge that she and her appointees are anti-housing. As proof, she pointed to her support for the proposed Site A housing development at Alameda Point. “It’s unfortunate he would make that comment because it’s not true. People can say whatever they want to say,” she said. “I try to pick people who are good listeners and do well for the community.”

Progressives in Alameda, though, believe the composition of the planning board should represent the will of the voters who have elected pro-growth liberals like Ezzy Ashcraft, Oddie, and Vella. “We have three people on the council who really understand we’re in a housing crisis and understand one of the ways we got here is by trying not to build housing,” said planning board member John Knox White.

He also noted that if the planning board is dominated by slow-growth moderates, its decisions will often conflict with the council’s pro-housing desires. “If we end up with a planning board making recommendations that are counter to that conclusion, it’s going to go to the city council, and the majority is going to overturn the planning board. You’re going to have to kick things back so they have to be re-planned.”

Knox White’s term on the board was supposed to end in June, but he continues to serve while Spencer and the council wrangle over his replacement. Like Alvarez two years ago, Knox White reapplied for his seat, but Spencer declined to nominate him. That’s not surprising, given the fact that he has been a consistent critic of the mayor.

Councilmember Matarrese, who has voted for each of Spencer’s planning board nominees this year, called Knox White’s view that the planning board should be in step politically with the council on housing issues “weak.”

“Addressing the housing crisis rests with the council. The council sets housing policy, approves the General Plan and its Housing Element, zoning, and ordinances. Also, any planning board decision can be called for review at the council level if mistakes are made or policy is not followed.” Matarrese said he made a point of speaking to each of Spencer’s nominees to assess their education and experience. “The last four nominees were very well qualified on all counts, in my opinion,” he said.

Battles over Spencer’s nominations to the Planning Board seemingly always lead to one councilmember urging for a consensus candidate to be placed for consideration. In July, Oddie did so, asking for a candidate who would be palatable to housing advocates on the left like the nonprofit Renewed Hope and those on the right such as the Alameda Citizens Task Force.

But Robert Sullwold, who writes a blog popular for Alamedans on the right, and one that Spencer often appears to take cues from, wrote following Oddie’s comments: “There is a better chance that Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer would be able to agree on a ‘consensus candidate’ for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court than there is that ACT and Renewed Hope would agree on any ‘consensus candidate’ for the planning board. And why should they?”