Should the City Pay Councilmembers' Legal Fees?
A request by Jim Oddie and Malia Vella to be reimbursed for the costs of defending their names highlights the economics of running for public office.
Malia Vella and Jim Oddie asked the city to pay their city-related legal fees, though Oddie later dropped his request.
File photo Jim Oddie
An Alameda County civil grand jury report released this summer reignited residual anger among some in the city that two councilmembers violated the City Charter by pressuring the city manager to hire a fire chief endorsed by the local firefighters union. When the Alameda City Council was asked to provide the grand jury with an official response to their determination that Councilmember Jim Oddie and Malia Vella violated the city’s guiding document, the hearing provided residents another opportunity to register their discontent. One person demanded that Vella resign. Just prior to the July 16 meeting, an Alameda resident had served Oddie with a notice to recall.
But amid the rancor, a number of public speakers made repeated references to perhaps the next chapter in Alameda’s long municipal nightmare — a demand by the councilmembers for the city to pay legal costs associated with their defense against the charges made by Jill Keimach, the former city manager who accused each of political interference and later secretly recorded them in an effort to obtain evidence of their alleged wrongdoing.
Both Oddie and Vella filed claims with the city last year in an effort to recoup roughly $90,000 each in legal bills accrued in their defense of Keimach’s allegations. Behind the scenes, there has been an effort to persuade the city council to indemnify Oddie and Vella, under the theory the accusations against them were made while performing the duties of their office. For example, the infamous surreptitious recording of the meeting involving Keimach, Oddie, and Vella was portrayed by each as a business meeting and, in fact, occurred at City Hall. In many other cities, potential exposure to legal claims made against an elected official in the course of their duties is covered by the city. For Oddie and Vella, however, this did not happen and it remains unclear why.
The issue is larger than merely whether Oddie and Vella are compensated for their legal fees. If elected officials are at risk of incurring huge personal expenses for a job that only pays $50 per meeting, that might discourage people without great resources from choosing to seek elected office in the city.
Vella said in an interview that some blame lies at the feet of former Alameda City Attorney Janet Kern, who retired last December. An independent investigation of the allegations released in May 2018 revealed that Keimach alleged Kern had given her the legal go-ahead beforehand to secretly record the meeting with Oddie and Vella. Kern denies doing so.
“Kern should have disclosed to us that she was subject to a potential investigation,” Vella said. “We should not have had to wait several months to find out that she was. All she said to me was that she could not represent me and she just left it at that.” The councilmembers’ requests to be made whole has only further inflamed a section of the Alameda’s electorate that is already seething over both the independent investigation last year and the grand jury report and a sense that corruption has taken over City Hall.
The Alameda City Council appeared particularly sensitive to this sentiment when it formally accepted the findings of the grand jury, without any equivocation last July, despite a number of glaring errors in the report.
In addition, the grand jury report, which leaned heavily on findings made by the city’s independent investigation, however, arrived at a notably different conclusion. The previous investigation by attorney Michael Jenkins cleared Vella but found that Oddie violated the charter by sending a letter of recommendation to Keimach in support of the fire chief candidate on city letterhead. The grand jury made the same determination regarding Oddie, but also included Vella without fully explaining its rationale. “I was exonerated by a report that was far more complete than the report by the grand jury,” she said.
Vella said the grand jury’s finding against her has wrongly sullied her image among the public. “I’m always held to an unattainable standard to a small minority in Alameda and the media. They need to do a big look in the mirror and ask, ‘Why am I being blamed for something another white Protestant male did?” she said. “The letter Keimach sent to the city council did not name me. All I did is attend a meeting with Jim and the city manager.”
The stakes for Vella and Oddie are high. Both are up for re-election next year. For her part, Vella has been viewed as a potential prospect for higher office, perhaps to replace Assemblymember Rob Bonta when he is termed out of office in 2024.
Oddie is also believed to have an interest in higher office down the line. It may have been a reason why he dropped his request for reimbursement of legal costs on Aug. 12. “I do so in the spirit of allowing me and the City to fully focus on the teamwork necessary to addressing the tough issues of school safety/security, housing affordability, homelessness and vital services for all Island families,” he said in a statement.
Vella said she will continue with her claim. She acknowledges Oddie’s decision does not help her case, but she notes her claim differs significantly from his. In addition to a request to recoup legal costs, Vella’s complaint also alleges defamation by Keimach and Kern.
The City Council’s decision to accept the grand jury’s report may provide fodder for Vella’s complaint. In her interview, she hinted as such, criticizing the three councilmembers who accepted the report without corrections (Vella and Oddie recused themselves from the discussion.)
“There were a number of material errors in the grand jury report and they still approved it,” Vella said of the city council. Among the errors, she said, was a claim by the grand jury that she participated in the editing of the independent investigator’s report before it was released to the public, and a glaring factual error that stated she voted for a $900,000 settlement with Keimach, when in fact she had voiced strong opposition, and ultimately voted against the payout.
What happens next could be a politically dicey proposition for both Vella and the city. The council’s discussion on the grand jury report last July revealed the remaining three councilmembers who may be asked to indemnify Vella in a closed session vote have great interest in avoiding any tangential connection to the scandal. “The cost to the city was not just financial. Public trust in government was diminished and the city’s reputation has been tarnished,” Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said during the meeting. If indemnification is denied, Vella would have the option to sue the city.
“Hopefully this is a one-off,” Vella said, but at minimum, Alameda needs to create a formal process for when its city attorney cannot represent a city official. The message that the city will not defend elected officials from complaints made against them while in the line of duty sends a chilling message to residents who may mull a run for elected office in Alameda, Vella said. “The fact that it could cost you in excess of six-figures if you get sued while doing your job creates a terrible standard for the city.”