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Alameda Council Turns Left

Following November's election, 4-1 progressive majority has big goals.

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The measure that limits apartment construction is in the council’s crosshairs. - PHOTO BY CHRIS DUFFY
  • Photo by Chris Duffy
  • The measure that limits apartment construction is in the council’s crosshairs.

Alameda was once viewed as a conservative island in sea of progressive politics. The former Naval Air Station was imbued with a conservatism that melded with the city's nativist instincts. Housing was tamped down in 1970s and public officials often suggested raising Alameda's bridges at night so as to keep crime from Oakland oozing onto the island. But what once was of the most homogenous enclaves in the Greater East Bay is now one of the most diverse in country. And after a potentially paradigm-shifting election last November that produced a clear progressive majority, the city is on the cusp of joining Berkeley, Richmond, and Oakland as one of the East Bay's most progressive cities.

Over the next few months, the Alameda City Council is poised to enact a large number of new protections for renters, some of which local landlord groups have stymied in recent years through expensive ballot initiatives. Meanwhile, over the next year, the council will embark on one of the most extensive updates to the City Charter in decades, which could revamp city government, along with potentially eradicating an infamous 1970s-era charter amendment that severely limited new housing construction for a generation. It also appears as if progressives are aiming to settle a few old scores with conservatives, colloquially, referred to as "Old Alameda."

While Alameda's politics have been moving to the left for more than a decade, November's election brought a solid a 4-1 advantage for progressives on the City Council. Since 2016, Alameda landlords and renters' groups have been at war, each notching victories before reaching a stalemate prior to last fall's election. Landlords turned away a bid for rent control at the ballot box and then forced the council to repeal its own just-cause amendment. In November, renters trounced an initiative to place the city's watered-down Rent Stabilization Ordinance in the City Charter. But the November election swapped a conservative mayor and moderate councilmember with two progressives who had pledged the result would usher in a wave of left-leaning legislation.

The first few months of this new reality in Alameda was uncommonly quiet until a sweeping number of new rent protections were proposed during a council meeting earlier this month. Without any equivocation, councilmembers proposed just-cause, a cap on annual rent increases, new Ellis Act regulations, and a short-term rental ordinance. The package of reforms was a wish list that tenants have tirelessly advocated for the last three years. Landlords have been noticeably silent about their next move and after spending roughly $750,000 on a losing rent initiative last November, the results of last week's special election affirming the city's zoning of a senior homeless center near Crab Cove may give them pause. In addition to a vote in support of homeless services, the special election results were framed as a community referendum against NIMBYism. Alameda voters were clearly energized by the issue. Nearly 45 percent of Alameda voters participated in the special election, an extremely high turnout for a special election less than six months after voters went to the polls.

But bolstering rent protections in Alameda may only be a quick-strike by Alameda progressives. Changing the City Charter could be long-lasting. Underscoring its importance, new Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft's first directive as mayor was to form a City Council committee to study updating the Charter. She named Councilmember John Knox White, also newly elected to the committee, along with the council's lone moderate, Councilmember Tony Daysog to the two-person committee. Knox White, though, had campaigned on reforming the City Charter, proposing to do away with the direct election of the mayor and eliminating the city treasurer and city auditor as elected offices. The latter proposal appears innocuous at first glance, but is a dog-whistle for Alameda moderates and conservatives.

"I have heard many multiple people suggest, and I have also been one of those people who suggest, that they don't need to be elected officials," Knox White said of Alameda City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy and City Auditor Kevin Kearney. "They do very, very little work, actually. Their actual jobs are just a few hours a year for the most part. It's clear why they used to exist because they used to have a whole workload, but we now have a professional staff that does most of the work and they basically just sign off on most it," he said. "So, the question is 'Why are we electing these two positions and what are they bringing?'"

Kennedy was perplexed by the criticism. "That's funny, because in the past, we have been criticized for doing too much," he said. "They need to pick which side they want to be on."

For years, Kennedy and Kearney have been a voice of fiscal restraint in Alameda city government. For the most part of this decade they have consistently warned that escalating pensions and the failure of the City Council to control them will ultimately lead to fiscal insolvency. Their rhetoric is so intertwined that many refer to them as the "Two Kevins." While their opinions have made them popular among Alameda conservatives, they also have elicited a great deal of scorn from progressives and the powerful Alameda firefighters union.

"If they argue that government doesn't need oversight, that would be probably the first time I've heard that in a long time," Kennedy said of eliminating the treasurer and auditor from the City Charter. "It baffles me. Just like having an elected council, an elected treasurer and auditor is a matter of oversight."

Kennedy views the Charter proposal as a political ploy and just another attempt to eliminate his office after the firefighters union bankrolled two candidates to run against the Two Kevins two years ago. "The only option left is to get rid of the whole position," he said. "I just wonder if they would feel the same way if it wasn't the personalities ... I kind of doubt they would."

But Knox White isn't the only councilmember speculating about the future of the treasurer and auditor. "I'm not sure the return on the investment is there because I'm not entirely sure what they do isn't redundant to something an outside professional already does for us, but I will contemplate that," said Ezzy Ashcraft.

Daysog disagrees. "I don't look at the removal of the auditor or the treasurer as something the community is suddenly clamoring for."

Another conservative sacred cow also could be on the chopping block. Measure A, an initiative approved by Alameda voters in 1972, essentially suppressed new housing for a generation by limiting construction to single-family homes and duplexes. Many today blame Alameda's housing crisis on the lack of supply fomented by insular and nativist instincts among some Alamedans and enforced by Measure A. Although in recent years, Measure A has been neutered with various go-arounds, such as the formation of zoning districts and density-bonus ordinances, removing the controversial measure from Charter could be a cathartic moment for Alameda progressives. "Maybe it's time to come in through the front door," Ashcraft said.

The committee reviewing the Charter also is interested in clarifying the rules prohibiting council interference with the city manager's duties. An independent investigator last year determined the Charter lacked clarity on the issue, while concluding that Councilmember Jim Oddie had crossed the line when he sent then-City Manager Jill Keimach a letter of recommendation on city letterhead in favor of a candidate for fire chief. "It's a conversation we have to have," said Daysog, who ran largely on voter dissatisfaction regarding the city manager scandal. Daysog said he believes there were no consequences for the violations under the current Charter language.

Not all potential changes to Charter are likely to be controversial. Increasing the City Council's pay, typically a politically problematic proposal in most municipalities, may not be an issue in Alameda. That's because a vestige of Alameda's Charter includes a council stipend of just $100 a month. "If we want to have a broad breadth of people who run for the council, we can't assume that everyone can afford to give up 20 hours a week for $100 a month," Knox White observed.

Term limits, reforms to the initiative process, and creating a finance committee also could be on the table. Daysog believes the city should move toward district elections rather than the at-large voting method used currently because of a spate of lawsuits threatened across the state asserting at-large elections violate the state's Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority candidates. Last year, Fremont received such a notice and rather than fight the costly legal fight, chose to quickly instituted district elections.

While enacting Alameda's proposed rent protections will fall to the City Council, any changes to the Charter would require a public vote, likely in November of 2020. Kennedy believes, in the meantime, that Alameda progressives, including the firefighter union, will attempt to push the city to the far left, while conservatives such as the Alameda Community Taskforce will stick their heels further into the ground. Kennedy views the tensions between these two poles as being extreme. "There has to be something in between," he said.

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