An Alameda Power Play?

Some island residents worry that a new three–member council majority intends to undermine the city's strong–city–manager form of government.

Alameda has long been a place of refuge from the tumult of its urban neighbors, an island city whose small-town virtues seemed safe behind a narrow channel of water. But when it comes to politics, life on the other side of the Posey Tube is no longer a respite from the fractiousness of Berkeley civic discourse, or the strong-arm tactics readily found in Oakland or San Francisco. In fact, lately things have gotten downright ugly.

A series of investigations, recriminations, and apparent reprisals have left Alameda government in disarray. Allegations of misconduct are now commonplace, lawsuits have been filed, and the city manager and city attorney have been ousted. The dismissals, coupled with unfilled positions for fire chief, police chief, and economic development director, also have left a gaping hole in city leadership. The situation has undermined the faith Alameda voters place in their elected officials. “Alameda is in turmoil,” said former Vice Mayor A.J. “Lil” Arnerich.

Some island residents also are fearful that a new three-member majority on the city council is making a power play to seize greater control of the city, and undercut Alameda’s strong-city-manager form of government. They point to the recent 3-2 closed-door vote to put Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant on paid administrative leave and not renew her contract. Critics note that the three-member majority, made up of new Mayor Marie Gilmore, new City Councilman Rob Bonta, and longtime Councilwoman Lena Tam, appeared to be so intent on getting rid of Gallant that the trio found a way around a city law that prohibits new council members, such as Bonta, from voting to fire the city manager.

Soon after news broke of Gallant’s ouster, accusations began to spread across the island that the move was nothing more than political payback. After all, it was Gallant who had spearheaded an investigation into allegations that Tam had leaked confidential e-mails to prospective Alameda Point developer SunCal earlier in 2010. In fact, the attorney hired to investigate Tam thought her actions were so egregious that he stongly recommended that the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office press criminal charges. In addition, critics point to how the decision to get rid of Gallant was made: behind closed doors, without public notice, during the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s.

But Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam say the power-play allegations are unfounded. “Absolutely not,” Bonta said. “The charter is the charter. We’re going to honor and respect all aspects of it, especially the form of government that it specifies that we have in Alameda.”

Still, the decision to oust Gallant remains an open wound on the island, particularly when viewed through the lens of last November’s election. There’s reason to believe that Tam, Bonta, and, to a lesser extent, Gilmore, may have benefitted from a barrage of negative, SunCal-sponsored campaign ads attacking Gallant — who wasn’t even running for office — throughout the election season. Tam, in particular, had had a close relationship with SunCal and she ended up defeating staunch opponents of the developer in the election, as did Bonta and Gilmore. SunCal also had sued Gallant for alleged fraud, claiming she had conspired to derail the company’s negotiations to develop the former Naval Air Station.

And now that Gallant is out of the picture, Gilmore and Bonta, the new vice mayor, are personally leading the effort to find a new city manager.

SunCal’s relationship with Alameda began to unravel soon after the council promoted the notoriously sharp-elbowed Gallant from interim finance director to interim city manager in February 2009. Then-Mayor Beverly Johnson said the city needed a hard-nosed city manager to navigate the waters of a tumultuous budget crisis. I didn’t always agree with her,” Johnson said. “But in times like these, tough decisions need to be made that don’t always make everyone happy.”

Gallant’s assertive management style has been credited for getting the city out of the red, including a series of quick, tough-minded decisions, such as closing Alameda’s City Hall West and initiating roughly forty layoffs. “She was extremely aggressive in trying to get things done,” said City Councilman Doug deHaan. “We were living from year to year and she gave us a more long-term focus.” Both deHaan and Johnson voted against Gallant’s dismissal.

Gallant also wasn’t shy about letting the public know that she believed it was getting a bad deal with a SunCal-sponsored ballot initiative one year ago. SunCal needed voters to amend the city’s unique, low-density housing law to move forward with plans to construct so many new units on Alameda Point. But the developer also attempted to circumvent Gallant’s tough negotiation stance by loading up the initiative with city subsidies and giveaways. Gallant strongly opposed the deal SunCal presented to voters, arguing that the developer should have first negotiated a fair deal with the city.

She also contended that the ballot measure would have cost the city’s general fund roughly $4.8 million a year and provided SunCal with an $82 million break in impact fees, while capping the amount the company would be required to spend on public infrastructure at $200 million, even though the costs for upgrades were estimated at roughly $679 million. Gallant eventually won in the court of public opinion; SunCal’s Measure B was rejected by an overwhelming 85 percent of Alameda voters.

After the resounding defeat, SunCal repented by pushing for an alternative plan, but the council and city staff had moved on — except for Tam, a longtime SunCal supporter who wanted the city to continue bargaining with the developer until its exclusive negotiating agreement expired on July 20. That’s when things started to really heat up.

By spring, Gallant and City Attorney Teresa Highsmith suspected that Tam was illegally leaking confidential city information to SunCal. They paid a law firm $60,000 to investigate, and the firm concluded that Tam had leaked confidential e-mails not only to SunCal but to the Alameda firefighters union, which was battling Gallant over staff cutbacks. Tam was also accused of blind-carbon-copying Gilmore on many of the e-mails, raising suspicions that they were working in tandem against Gallant. The firm that Highsmith hired urged the district attorney’s office to press criminal charges and remove Tam from public office.

The embattled councilwoman, meanwhile, denied the allegations, claiming it was an attempt by Highsmith and Gallant to undermine the SunCal negotiations and punish her for not falling in line with their vision. As SunCal’s July 20 deadline approached, Gallant lobbied the council to kill the deal, and it did, voting 4-0 to send the developer packing. Tam was the abstaining vote.

In September, the district attorney’s office announced that it would not press charges against Tam, citing a lack of evidence. Tam, in turn, immediately called for Gallant and Highsmith’s removal. The scandal deepened when SunCal sued Gallant for alleged fraud, claiming that she had hatched a “secret plan” to have the city redevelop the former Naval Air Station in an effort to elevate her stature as a city manager. “This is a case of a governmental bureaucrat gone out of control and taking advantage to enrich herself,” the company alleged in its legal complaint.

The lawsuit also accused Gallant of participating in the same kind of backroom shenanigans — leaking and destroying confidential e-mails, withholding public records — that Tam was allegedly involved in. The developer also sued the city for more than $100 million, claiming the city had received, free of charge, all the company’s plans and research for the development of Alameda Point — work that cost SunCal $17 million. However, the developer’s complaint is short on supporting evidence, and Gallant’s attorneys have ridiculed SunCal’s allegations in court.

All of this made for a particularly rancorous fall campaign season. SunCal may have been ousted from negotiations, but the company made its presence felt on the island by distributing thousands of mailers accusing Gallant of corruption and likening her management to the egregious acts of embezzlement committed by Bell city officials in Southern California. “We’ve been infiltrated with Karl Rove-like politics,” said Gene Oh, owner of Alameda Bicycle. In an op-ed in the Alameda Sun, he objected to the nasty political discourse on the island: “This smells of big money in a small town.”

In the end, the November election reshuffled the power structure on the Alameda City Council, and thereby sealed Gallant’s fate. Although Gilmore publicly denounced SunCal’s attacks on Gallant during the campaign and promised to not bring back the developer, she won the mayor’s chair by defeating a strident SunCal opponent, Councilman Frank Matarrese, and deHaan, who also strongly opposed the developer. Tam, her old friend Bonta, who managed her 2006 council campaign, and Johnson won the three open council seats.

In other words, the election results meant that the city manager who had steered the city through difficult economic times would only be able to count on two members of the five-member council for support.

Alameda’s year of scandal and subterfuge ended December 28 with the closed-door meeting in which Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam voted to show Gallant the door. In the same session, the council voted unanimously to dismiss Highsmith as well, for taking a second job as city attorney in Barstow that her Alameda bosses only learned about through a YouTube video.

Few people have argued against the decision to dismiss Highsmith, but the move to oust Gallant immediately fueled suspicions of foul play. Under city law, Bonta was prohibited from voting to fire Gallant within ninety days of the election. So he, Tam, and Gilmore found a loophole in the law that effectively allowed them to lock her out of her City Hall office. The majority voted to put her on paid administrative leave and agreed to not renew her contract when it expires March 31. “The reason for the closed-door meeting was legitimate,” said Dennis Evanovsky, editor of the Alameda Sun. “But who in the world would send someone home for ninety days with pay? They wanted to fire her but couldn’t because Bonta wasn’t on the council for ninety days.”

Gilmore contended that they had no choice but to make a decision before the end of 2010 because Gallant’s contract stipulates that the city must provide her with a minimum of ninety days notice if she won’t be granted an extension. Gilmore and Bonta also denied allegations that the decision to oust Gallant was political payback for the city manager’s actions involving Tam. “That’s absolutely wrong,” Gilmore said.

But both have refused to explain why they voted to send Gallant home, arguing that their reasons are confidential. “That’s why it’s a closed session,” Bonta said. “We had a five-and-a-half-hour session where we discussed the issues, and I listened closely. … I made the decision I thought was best for the city.”

As for Tam, she was less circumspect about why she voted to put Gallant on paid leave. The councilwoman said there was concern that Gallant’s presence in City Hall would create awkwardness for the human resources director responsible for helping the council recruit a suitable replacement, especially if Gallant wanted to keep the job. “We put her on paid administrative leave because we are recruiting for a permanent city manager,” she said. “I think there would have been some inherent awkwardness and I wanted to avoid any conflicts of interest.”

Still, for some, the behind-the-scenes maneuverings smelled of a possible power-grab. Former Vice Mayor Arnerich notes that the city charter makes it clear that Alameda is a strong-city-manager city, not a strong-mayor city. The council can hire, fire, and direct policy with a three-vote majority, but it’s the city manager’s job to run the day-to-day operations, while the mayor is the chair of the council and a ceremonial figurehead. “The mayor is an official ambassador for the city,” Arnerich said. “Technically, under the city charter, the council cannot interfere with a city manager’s decision. You can’t have two bosses.”

But if the council replaces the assertive Gallant with a city manager more inclined toward the rubber stamp, the locus of power could shift from the city manager’s office to the mayor’s chair. And the circumstances surrounding Gallant’s ouster have convinced some islanders that the Gilmore-Tam-Bonta majority appears to be willing to use strong-arm tactics to achieve its political goals. “They’re trying to make this into a strong-mayor government, but if you want to do that, change the charter,” said Sun editor Evanosky. “The spirit of the charter is not for the mayor to tell the city manager what to do and, you know what, if you don’t like what I say I’ll have my two friends on the council fire you.”

Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam all deny that the decision to get rid of Gallant means they’re trying to change the government’s power structure. “I think the whole idea is ludicrous,” Gilmore said. She said she wants a city manager who is tough and willing to act as a check against the council when necessary. “I don’t want someone that the council can just bulldoze,” she said. “I’m looking for a strong city manager who will be independent and give his or her best professional judgment.”

Vice Mayor Bonta also said the consensus on recent council votes shows that the idea that a power shift is occurring is wrong. He said there are no majorities, minorities, or political factions on the council, just people trying to make difficult decisions. The new council has agreed, for example, that the next attempt to redevelop Alameda Point should involve a concerted effort to bring the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory‘s planned second campus to the island. “Mostly everything we’ve voted on has been unanimous, with the exception of one or two items,” Bonta said. “That means we share a common vision for how to move the city forward.”

“Moving forward” – that’s the mantra on every councilmember’s lips these days. But whether it’s a genuine effort to get beyond the acidity of the past year or a defensive measure to soothe voter angst is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, if Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam do team up, especially on the decision of who will be the next city manager and city attorney, then there’s reason to believe that Johnson, deHaan, and their supporters will have much less of a voice in how the city is governed.

In the months ahead, it also will be interesting to see if Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam, along with the new city manager and city attorney, decide to settle the lawsuit that SunCal filed against the city or fight it to the bitter end.

Islanders, in other words, might want to brace themselves for another turbulent year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Ann Marie Gallant.


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