EXECUTIVE SUMMARY — For the full report
In 2017 the city of Alameda faced a vacancy at the department head level, a common occurrence for most organizations. Few could have predicted the pandemonium that would unfold after Alameda’s city manager at the time started a recruitment to replace the retiring fire chief. What should have been an internal, administrative decision by the city manager based on a professional recruitment and interview process turned into a full-scale political battle. Unrelenting pressure by the city’s firefighter labor organization in support of its internal candidate resulted in pressure on the city council to inappropriately intervene in the process.
The Alameda City Charter is filled with rules and principles to help ensure the effective and honest administration of government. This document plainly prohibits the city council from interfering in the hiring process or trying to influence the city manager. The prohibition, common in municipal charters throughout the nation, is intended to combat cronyism and corrupt government decisions.
In the case of Alameda, two members of the city council violated the city charter. They took steps at the behest of a labor organization to push for its candidate by privately meeting with the city manager and pressing the issue. They also appeared to use the city manager’s performance review as leverage in the matter. One councilmember went further by making an indirect threat to the city manager’s job to a member of the city manager’s leadership team. This same councilmember also wrote a letter using city letterhead openly advocating for the labor-backed candidate. These actions put the city manager in a very awkward position, creating a reasonable belief that her job was on the line if the labor- backed candidate was not selected. As a result, she took steps to publicly protest the inappropriate interference in the process. The city manager also surreptitiously recorded a conversation she had with the two councilmembers out of fear of additional threats.
The interference in the Alameda fire chief hiring process ultimately cost the city over a million dollars in investigations, legal fees and an employee separation settlement. While stability and continuity in leadership are often keys to success of a government, this malfeasance cost Alameda a city manager, a city attorney, and contributed to several other senior staff leaving the city for new opportunities. Finally, this interference damaged public trust in government at a time when such trust is so important.
This story began with the then-fire chief announcing his retirement in March of 2017. What resulted was a fiasco that cost the city well over a million dollars, the loss of multiple talented and hard to replace senior staff, and a government body with a very damaged reputation.
The Alameda City Charter clearly bestows the power to hire administrative staff on the city manager. At the same time, it makes clear that city councilmembers must not attempt to influence the city manager during this process. While these governing documents are important, a well-functioning municipality relies on the strength and fortitude of its leaders, both elected and appointed, to stand up against external pressures to skirt the tenants of good government.
The external pressure exerted during the fire chief hiring process and the resulting actions by two councilmembers represented the very conduct that good government advocates were trying to eliminate when city charter amendments preventing council interference began to pop up throughout the nation. Cronyism and back room deals are corrosive and can destroy the public’s trust in the fair administration of government. While the fire labor organization had every right to lobby for their candidate, it was unethical to lobby councilmembers to intervene and influence the city manager when the city’s governing document expressly prohibited such council interference. The resulting damage caused by the actions of elected officials and staff that followed is undeniable.
The city of Alameda’s failure to provide councilmembers with adequate training upon first being elected to council as well as annual training on governance helped contribute to inappropriate interference in the fire chief hiring process.
The city of Alameda’s charter fails to provide enforcement mechanisms when councilmembers and staff violate provisions of the charter, creating uncertainty when such violations occur.
Councilmembers who were the obvious subjects of the independent investigation were allowed to participate in the editing of the outside investigator’s report, damaging the “independence” of the analysis.
In violation of the city’s charter they had sworn to uphold, two councilmembers did interfere with the city manager’s ability to conduct an open and transparent recruitment for a new fire chief.
The Alameda City Council must establish policies mandating initial training and orientation and ongoing annual training for elected officials and senior staff related to ethics and governance.
The Alameda City Council must investigate possible charter or municipal code amendments to clarify and strengthen provisions relating to city governance. The charter should delineate the specific types of conduct that constitute a violation of section 7-3, as well as outline an enforcement process.
The Alameda City Council should adopt a policy stating that councilmembers who knowingly violate ethical codes of conduct or charter provisions may not seek reimbursement for related legal representation.
The Alameda City Council working with the city attorney, city manager and city clerk must develop and implement a code of conduct and councilmember handbook.