Wednesday, December 4, 2019
[Alameda County] Alameda releases secret city manager recording
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
ALAMEDA — The city has released the audio and transcript of a tape that former City Manager Jill Keimach recorded of a conversation between herself and two council members as they allegedly tried to pressure her into hiring a union-backed candidate as fire chief.
Keimach made the recording in August 2017 because she suspected council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella could be violating the city charter by campaigning for the candidate.
The city charter puts all hiring decisions for key personnel in the hands of the city manager and prohibits interference from council members.
Both Oddie and Vella recused themselves from the City Council’s unanimous closed-door decision earlier this month to release the tape. Both have consistently denied wrongdoing.
However, in the taped conversation, both council members repeatedly praise the firefighters union choice for fire chief, Dominick Weaver, and talk about the merits of hiring an internal candidate.
At one point, Keimbach says: “I don’t want it to feel like one person has it above anyone else. And I’m hearing something different from — at least from you.” Vella responds, “In terms of what?”
Keimbach replied, “You want Dominick, regardless of who else is in the pool.”
At another point, Keimbach asks: “So you’re saying you want me to hire Domnick? Or not do an open recruitment?”
During the taped conversation, Vella notes that Weaver was present on Memorial Day 2011, when Raymond Zack waded into San Francisco Bay off Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach and succumbed to hypothermia as firefighters watched from the shore.
Zack may have been suicidal, according to his friends and family.
Firefighters said they did not enter the water because they were not certified in water rescue, a response which sparked international outcry and brought the fire department stinging criticism.
Vella said of Weaver, “He was one of the union leaders. He kept people together, and he’s kept up morale, and he’s kept people on the job, and he’s, you know, shown up, and been there, and been a leader in that respect.”
Keimach said firefighter union leader Jeff Del Bono was pressuring her as she looked for a new chief fire chief.
“(‘DelBono said) ‘I have the person I want you to hire.’ And I said, ‘Well, remember, this is an open and fair process.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I remember.’ But then (he) has started a campaign. And a campaign isn’t an open and fair, treating everyone equally process.”
During the conversation, Keimach said: “This isn’t — isn’t a political appointment, this is (about) who’s the best person for the job.”
She also said: “And I am a little disappointed in — we agreed initially that this — would be an open and fair process, without any pressure. And it’s been the opposite from the fire side.”
But later Oddie said, “I didn’t tell you who to hire. And I don’t think Malia did, either, so just to be clear. Yeah. That was not the point of the meeting.”
Keimach later said she suspected that Oddie and Vella, who urged her during the talk to build trust with the firefighters union, asked to meet as part of the union’s pressure campaign, which prompted her to record the conversation on her cellphone.
In California, it is illegal to record another person without their consent. However, state law allows recording confidential communications if there is reason to believe it would relate to criminal conduct, including bribery or extortion.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office cleared Keimach of any wrongdoing in making the recording.
The council’s decision to release the tape follows District Attorney Nancy O’Malley saying a strong public interest existed in disclosing the recording.
“It involves conversations of the public’s business by public employees during the scope of their public employment,” O’Malley said in an Oct. 22 letter to City Attorney Yibin Shen.
O’Malley urged “the city to consider the public interest, open governance and transparency when making its final decision.”
A June report from the Alameda County civil grand jury blasted both Oddie and Vella, saying they violated the city’s charter by putting political pressure on Keimach as she was looking to hire a fire chief in 2017.
But the grand jury also said their conduct did not rise to the filing of an “accusation,” a legal charge from the grand jury that would start the process to remove the two council members from office for willful or corrupt misconduct.
The two 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.
Instead of the candidate favored by the firefighters union to head the $33 million fire department, Keimach tapped Edmond Rodriguez, then chief of the Salinas Fire Department, saying he was more qualified.
Keimach quit her position amid the controversy that surrounded the recording and the fire chief’s hiring in May 2018 under a $945,000 separation agreement with the city.
November 20, 2019
The Mercury-News and East Bay Times
By Peter Hegarty