Over the past two years, the 55-minute audio recording that former Alameda City Manager Jill Keimach secretly made of her meeting with two city councilmembers attained almost mythic proportions. After an independent investigation concluded that one councilmember violated the city charter, an Alameda County civil grand jury later concluded that both elected officials inappropriately interfered in the manager’s duties — specifically, her search for a new city fire chief. Through all the controversy, just one thing was absent from the public’s consideration: The actual recording.
Last week that changed. But the audio of Keimach and councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella provided little new information and mostly buttressed information already provided in the two investigations. In fact, many observers found the recording to be anticlimactic.
“The tape is not a smoking gun,” said Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. Well-read Alameda blogger Lauren Do wrote: “My first impression is: that was a huge letdown.” However partisans on both sides of the dispute heard what they wanted in the recording — suggesting that the events of last week are unlikely to still the island’s waters any time soon.
The investigator first tasked by the city to report on the matter discovered the existence of Keimach’s audio recording during the course of his probe. Yet lawyer Michael Jenkins did not review the recording out of fear he would be abetting a crime. Secretly recording another without their consent is illegal in California.
When the city council learned about the recording, it placed Keimach on administrative leave. The manager never returned to her job and the council later agreed to a separation agreement of nearly $1 million. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley declined to charge Keimach after determining she made the recording with a reasonable expectation beforehand that a crime could have occurred during the course of the conversation with the councilmembers.
A highly vocal minority of Alameda residents agreed with this assessment. Calls for the councilmembers’ removal from office were common, along with insults, primarily toward Vella, who was called a “union whore” by a conservative local group, and asked during a council meeting, “what rock did you crawl up from under?” One resident has issued at least a dozen hastily prepared recall petitions against Oddie and Vella, including one last week.
Meanwhile, Oddie and Vella had made requests for reimbursements of roughly $90,000 apiece in personal legal costs accrued to defend themselves against Keimach’s allegations of political interference. The bids further angered their critics. Oddie later dropped his request, where Vella’s was denied by the city council. Prior to the recording’s release last week, Vella had claimed that dissemination of the recording would be an invasion of her privacy. Legal actions by Vella against the city remains a possibility, she said, in an interview
In the meantime, the clamor by Alameda residents who believe the recording, once heard, would contain a smoking gun that clearly reveals wrongdoing by Oddie and Vella, reached a fevered pitch. The legal maneuvering, perhaps, backfired on Oddie and Vella by providing critics with a heightened sense that both were stifling the release of the recording because it contained incriminating evidence of their wrongdoing. In order to truly understand the depth of the councilmember’s actions, critics opined, the recording needed to be heard. For the next two years, chants of “release the tape” were periodically heard at city council meetings.
The logjam over whether or not to release the recording was broken last month when O’Malley sent a letter to the Alameda city attorney urging for the recording to be made public. “After a thorough review, it is the opinion of the district attorney’s office that there is a strong public interest in disclosing the recording,” O’Malley wrote. On Nov. 5, the city council voted to allow the release of the recording, along with a transcript of the audio.
While the recording failed to titillate, it revealed added nuance to Keimach’s participation in the August 2017 meeting. In a letter sent by Keimach to the entire city council almost two months later, she described the selection process for hiring a new fire chief as “driven by unseemly political pressure.” In an interview with Alameda magazine that same month, Keimach said she had “never been subjected to this much intense pressure” during her three decades in city government.
The tenor of the audio recording, the only documented meeting in the saga between the three participants, paints a different picture. A large portion of the meeting dwells on the seriously frayed relationship between Keimach and Jeff Del Bono, the hard-edged former president of the Alameda Firefighters union, and how Oddie and Vella attempt to mend the association. It’s also clear that Oddie and Vella, at times, straddle the line and obliquely lobby on behalf of the firefighters’ preferred pick for fire chief, a veteran of the department named Domenick Weaver. They never explicitly direct her to choose Weaver, but their efforts are not without Keimach’s protestations. “So you’re saying you want me to hire Dominic?” Keimach told Vella. The reference to Weaver is notably first mentioned by Keimach and inconsistent with the flow of the conversation. “You want Dominic, regardless of who else is in the pool?” Keimach continued.
On several occasions Oddie and Vella communicated that they were not instructing Keimach to make a decision. “And just to be clear, I didn’t tell you who to hire. And I don’t think Malia did, either — so just to be clear. That was not the point of the meeting,” Oddie said. But Keimach also repeatedly offered examples of feeling pressured. In one instance, Keimach expressed frustration with Del Bono and the firefighters union for having reneged on a promise to have an “open and fair process, without any pressure. And it’s been the opposite from the Fire side and, including this meeting.”
The councilmembers both said the meeting with Keimach followed a recommendation from a consultant hired by the city for the councilmembers to smooth over disagreements in the fire chief hiring process, not at the behest of the firefighters’ union.
Oddie chose not comment for this report, other than to add, “I called for the release of the transcripts so the community could draw its own conclusions.”
Alameda resident Stephen Slauson, perhaps the most fervent critic of Oddie and Vella, said the recording makes it clear that both exerted pressure on Keimach to select Weaver. “It is the most blatant conflict of interest,” Slauson said. “Vella is absolutely promoting the union candidate. Openly advocating for the union in budget proceedings. Urging for labor peace. No question this is unlawful conduct.” Slauson, also a candidate for the assembly next year, is currently circulating a petition for Oddie’s recall, and preparing another for Vella, he said. “We’re making an effort to get it in front of Alamedans, even if we don’t get it done,” he said.
In an interview, Vella disagreed with the assessment. “The conversation was collegial,” she said. “It was calm. She thanked me for not pressuring her. I think the tape is a nothingburger. The only person who knew the conversation was being recorded was Jill Keimach. A conversation where she was very much leading us, getting us to say something. Which is nefarious to me. She had the motive to show herself in the best possible light.”
While the city’s independent investigator did not find Keimach’s claims of interference credible, and cleared Vella, he did conclude that Oddie violated the charter by sending a letter of recommendation to Keimach in favor of Weaver on official city letterhead. But the investigators said the charter’s provision on interference was vague and should be fine-tuned in the future. The civil grand jury, however, concluded that both Oddie and Vella violated the charter. That body’s finding contained a number of simple factual errors and provided little evidence to support its claim. Vella is frustrated by that. “I’ve been shadowboxing a ghost,” she said. “There is nothing there. I cannot prove the absence of what did not happen. It’s an impossible standard.”
Vella voiced exasperation at the grand jury’s decision and called for an overhaul of the government watchdog group, which tends to consist mostly of older white residents. “Everyone has a bias and political agenda. I don’t think people on grand juries are exempt from that,” she said.
In July, the city council voted, 3-0, to support the grand jury’s findings that Oddie and Vella had violated the charter. Vella called the council’s decision reckless. “They had not heard the tape,” she said. “Most of them weren’t even on the council when this happened.”
Ashcraft said she listened to the recording for the first time earlier this month prior to voting to release the recording to the public. She stood by her decision to back the grand jury’s findings, citing a “totality of circumstances,” Ashcraft said, and urged for the city council to put the issue behind it. “At some point, it’s good to start talking about other things that are affecting the city, for instance, pedestrian safety,” she said.
The Alameda secret audio recording scandal, however, may still have life. Next week, the city council will discuss a proposed resolution that would prohibit councilmembers from requesting the reimbursement of legal fees associated with instances when they have willfully violated the charter. If approved, the resolution could provide a further schism among council’s ranks and reignite the rancor from some in the public.