News & Opinion » Feature

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.