.Alameda’s Council, Up for Grabs

Voters may select a new majority for the five-member council.

Alameda Point is still a potential gold mine. Although the city’s past attempts to redevelop the former Naval Air Station have failed, the 1,500 acres on the northwest side of Alameda not only could transform the island city, but also the entire East Bay with an influx of jobs and new housing and business developments that would feature some of most stunning views in the region. What the City of Alameda ultimately does with Alameda Point will have major ramifications for the city, but how it moves forward with plans to develop it will rest in the hands of new councilmembers elected this fall.

The November election, in fact, could replace a majority of the five-member council. Current Councilman Doug deHaan is termed out and Councilwoman Beverly Johnson chose not to run for re-election after Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to be deputy director of the state’s Office of Administrative Law. However, there is an added wrinkle to this fall’s council race. If Alameda Vice Mayor Rob Bonta wins election to the Assembly, the third-place finisher in the council contest will automatically take his seat.

The race for council is a strong field and includes three attorneys, a former councilman, and one current heath care district board director. And while the differences among the candidates’ positions on Alameda Point are mostly nuanced, all are keenly aware thaat Alamedans have been burned more than once when it comes to implementing a suitable blueprint for the property. “We’ve learned a lot from the past,” said candidate Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who is also a member of the city’s planning commission. Previous attempts to hand the future of Alameda Point to a master developer have been disastrous, she noted.

In fact, the bad taste from the city’s recent experience with master developer SunCal still lingers on the island. The episode prompted a substantial amount of disharmony, and resulted in criticism that the current council majority owes its political good fortune to the developer. For this reason, some candidates, like Stewart Chen, a member of the Alameda Healthcare District Board of Directors, believes the next council needs a greater sense of self-determination when it comes to Alameda Point. “The citizens should have control,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s our plan.”

Jane Sullwold, an attorney and current president of the city’s golf commission, agrees. “About master developers: Been there, done that,” she said. “Parcel by parcel, we need to be our own master developer so we can take charge and not have what some company — in it for profit motive — wants.”

If finding a suitable direction for developing Alameda Point has been a vexing problem over the years, so has cleaning up the toxic mix of chemicals dumped by the Navy there. While the cleanup effort has made significant strides, there is still uncertainty over what the next developer might find when the Navy officially hands over the land to the city sometime at the end of this year. For that reason, every candidate in the race contends that gaining assurances from the Navy that Alameda Point is environmentally stable must be a top priority. Candidate Gerard Valbuena Dumuk, a firefighter for the state, goes further by calling for the Navy to be held liable in perpetuity for any toxic waste found on Alameda Point in the future.

The issue that divides the candidates the most, however, is public-employee pensions. Tony Daysog, an ex-councilman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor two years ago, has made pension reform one of the pillars of his campaign. Public safety employees will need to pay more toward their pension benefits, he said, and the city will have to institute a furlough program for public employees for the next two years. Daysog also advocates setting aside a portion of any new revenue streams to pay down the city’s unfunded pension liabilities.

Daysog, however, does not have the toughest stance on public-employee benefits. Last week, Sullwold raised the possibility of the city using “nuclear options” sometime in the future when it came to negotiating with public workers. “We can, if we get to the point of real desperation, declare a state of financial emergency, and that would require that our unions come back to the bargaining table even if they are in the middle of their contract,” Sullwold said.

By contrast, Jeff Cambra, a former assistant city attorney in Hayward for eight years, contends that the pension issue is overwrought with hyperbole. He pointed out that the city has balanced its budget every year during the recession, and he believes the pension issue needs further study. “I happen to know, personally, that nobody is interested in bankrupting the city,” said Cambra of public-employee unions. “The concept of fiscal emergency is not available to us.”

The Alameda firefighter’s union, which traditionally has been the most influential special interest on the island and which would be impacted greatly by pension reform, has endorsed Ashcraft, Cambra, and Chen.

Also on the ballot is Measure D, a proposed amendment to the city charter that would close a controversial loophole that allowed the council to consider swapping parkland in exchange for property of equal value. The proposed trade of the Mif Albright golf course to developer Ron Cowan was ultimately not approved by the council earlier this year, yet it sparked criticism from those who believe the council was overstepping its authority. Alameda’s charter calls for any sale of public parkland to be put to a vote of the people. However, a section of the law allows for a land swap, which, until last year, was never used.

Residents successfully gathered more than 10,000 signatures to place the closing of the charter loophole on the ballot to avert it’s possibly use in the future. And, at this point, it’s difficult to find anyone who opposes Measure D. “We all value the importance of parks,” noted Daysog, “but it only underscores there’s a disconnect with the people and city hall.”


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