Report finds Oddie, Vella tried to sway hiring of union-backed candidate as fire chief
From the East Bay Times, June 25, 2019
ALAMEDA — A scathing grand jury report issued Monday takes two City Council members to task, finding that they tried to use their political influence to get a union-backed candidate hired as fire chief.
However, the Alameda County civil grand jury determined it would not take steps to get Jim Oddie and Malia Vella removed from office because of the high threshold that would be needed to effectively usurp the will of voters. The report found that Oddie and Vella violated the Alameda city charter by improperly attempting to influence former City Manager Jill Keimach as she was picking a fire chief.
The elected officials cost the city more than $1 million in investigation and legal fees, eroded morale among city employees and “damaged public trust in government at a time when such trust is so important,” the grand jury wrote. The grand jury did not name Oddie and Vella, though it was clearly referencing them based on previous reports by this news organization and others.
“The grand jury’s investigation revealed a pattern of conduct by two council members that, taken together, amounted to inappropriate interference in the fire chief hiring process and resulted in lasting damage to the city,” the grand jury wrote in its 2018-19 final report.
The Alameda city charter puts all hiring decisions for key personnel in the hands of the city manager. Council interference is prohibited and can be grounds for removal from office. The grand jury, however, found that the conduct of Oddie and Vella did not rise to filing an “accusation,” a legal charge that would start the process to remove them from office for willful or corrupt misconduct.
Vella and Oddie reportedly wanted Keimach to pick Domenick Weaver — the candidate favored by the firefighters union — as head of the $33 million fire department. Instead, Keimach tapped Edmond Rodriguez, then chief of the Salinas Fire Department, saying he was more qualified.
“I am pleased that the grand jury has concluded its deliberations and happy that the jury determined that no further ‘accusation’ proceedings are warranted,” Oddie said. “As the Alameda City Council will be formally responding to the grand jury’s report in the coming weeks, it is premature and inappropriate for me to provide any additional comments at this time. I look forward to putting this behind us and continuing to focus on the important work of serving the Alameda community.”
Keimach was so concerned about the pressure she was under while searching for a fire chief that she secretly audio-recorded a 55-minute meeting with Oddie and Vella in August 2017, the grand jury noted.
“While the council members were careful not to make any direct threats, their message was clear,” according to the jury, which listened to the recording. “They supported the labor-backed candidate and pressed the city manager on that point. They appeared to be doing the labor leader’s bidding, although they claimed the meeting was their idea.”
In a October 2017 letter to the council, sent the day before announcing that Rodriguez was her pick for chief, Keimach said she was subjected to “unseemly” and “intense and unrelenting” pressure to go with the candidate that the union wanted hired. Keimach also said her job evaluation was continually postponed, a delay that she said made it appear as if a positive evaluation hinged on who she would end up selecting as fire chief. Keimach’s letter did not name Vella or Oddie.
“Today another independent review of events put into motion in 2017 by former City Manager Jill Keimach show again that her allegations against me were baseless,” Vella said in an email on Monday. “Even after the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury listened to Ms. Keimach’s surreptitious recording of my meeting with her, they declined to make any recommendations to take action against me. … Finally, the (grand jury’s) search for the truth falls short since they never even subpoenaed testimony from many people whose actions are cited in the report, including union officials.”
In May 2018, Keimach quit her job under a $900,000-plus settlement with the city after it emerged she had recorded the council members. She was initially placed on paid administrative leave as a result of the fallout from her allegations. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office later cleared Keimach of wrongdoing in recording the tape.
Along with Keimach, four other top officials left city employment within about a year after what the grand jury called the “fiasco” surrounding the fire chief’s hiring. Among them were Janet Kern, the city attorney, and Jennifer Ott, an assistant city manager. A consultant brought in by the city to help with Keimach’s performance review also quit before completing the work, the grand jury noted.
“It is quite telling that an outside consultant with years of city management experience terminated his contract with the city, foregoing full payment for his future services, because he did not want to participate in an unethical misuse of the performance review process,” the grand jury report said.
The grand jury report noted that Oddie sent a letter to Keimach to recommend the union-favored candidate on city letterhead and signed it in an official capacity as a councilman, describing that as “a direct and very public violation” of the city charter. The grand jury also criticized Oddie and Vella for taking part in a closed-session council meeting in which the council reviewed and edited a report from an independent investigator brought in by the city following Keimach’s accusations before the report became public.
Among the recommendations from the grand jury are that the Alameda City Council adopt a policy stating that council members who knowingly violate ethical codes cannot seek reimbursement for related legal fees. The grand jury also called for the creation of a handbook outlining a code of conduct for council members. As part of its investigation, the grand jury heard testimony from current and former Alameda city staff, elected officials and statewide governance experts. It also reviewed City Council agendas, minutes and meeting videos, as well as emails and other documents.