Taking the Initiative

The new year started with a bang at city hall.

On January 2, 2019, the city council decided to put a measure on the ballot that challenges the McKay Avenue Open Space initiative previously qualified by citizens wanting to zone 3.65 acres of federal property near Crab Cove as open space.  The council also decided to hold a special election on both measures in April, which will cost taxpayers between $580,000 and $730,000.  Waiting for the November 2020 general election would only cost $25,000.

The property contains a few buildings that once served the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  A nonprofit entity wants to acquire the property for a senior citizens assisted living facility and supportive services for homeless individuals.   The federal government has already agreed to hand over the property to the nonprofit for free.

In December 2018, the city council removed the “government” part of the property’s zoning designation to make way for the privately-run facility.  The council also directed staff to analyze the potential impacts of the open space initiative and to consider the possibility of a city ballot measure.  Staff returned in January with its analysis and a ballot measure upholding council’s support for the private facility.

It’s the third time in recent history that the city has tried to undercut a grassroots effort by placing its own competing measure on the ballot.  This is disturbing.  If the council does not like a citizens’ measure, they should simply lend their names to the opposition campaign.

It does not matter that I agree with the city’s support for the facility.  Populist measures should not be undermined by alternate council measures, funded with public money, supposedly for the “public good” or for “informational purposes.”  That is what campaigns are for.

Councilmember Oddie called the council’s ballot measure a “values” proposition on whether we are willing to help deliver supportive homeless services.  Mayor Ezzy Ashcraft said that side-by-side measures are good because some voters do not read the ballot arguments and that the city would do what it takes to support the facility.

Reasons for placing the ballot measures on a special April election date are murky.  Before the council made their decision, neither the representative for the nonprofit nor city staff gave any reasons for needing a special election.  And the proponents of the open space initiative said they did not want taxpayers to incur extra expenses for the advanced election date.

Councilmembers, however, came up with their own reasons.  Oddie said the nonprofit will incur costs and add value to the property.  He wants to resolve the matter sooner rather than later so that the city is exposed to less liability in case there is lawsuit for downzoning (“taking”) the property should the open space initiative pass.  Vella agreed and said construction costs could also rise.  Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor Knox-White said the nonprofit was at risk of losing its committed funding.

Councilmember Daysog parted ways on both counts, saying no one, including the executive director of the nonprofit, had said project funding was at risk of being lost if the election were held in November 2020.  Daysog stated the city does not have the money for the special April election and abstained on introducing the competing measure.

Over 6,000 registered voters signed a petition to place the open space initiative on the ballot.  Now four people on the city council have decided to call a special election on both measures in three months when voter turnout will be lower than in a general election. The city council returned for a special meeting on January 10 to finalize the ballot language.

Whether placing competing city measures on the ballot is underhanded or fair play, I hope this tactic against citizen initiatives does not become a trend.

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15 Responses to Taking the Initiative

  1. Mike McMahon says:

    Is it citizen’s effort when paid signature’s gather are used? The effort to save the golf course was citizens’ effort, this initiative not so much.

    Click to access FOCCDec31.pdf

    If the citizen’s initiative exposes the City to significant financial liability, does the City Council have an obligation to protect itself?

    • Gregg de Haan says:

      The same folks that saved the golf complex from your friends poor decisions support open space and the signatures gathered against APC. What is your point?

  2. JRB says:

    Article is missing a lot of facts and important context. The city has a fiscal and moral responsibility to stave off financial challenges for the city by shielding the people from costly lawsuits and an expensive and unnecessary boondoggle park that could cost taxpayers $11 million to $22 million. Having more choices – and to be cognizant of the financial and moral consequences of making those choices – is the very definition of democracy.

  3. Steve Gerstle says:

    What if the reverse were true? What if a conservative council attempted to defeat a progressive ballot measure by offering its own watered down alternative? That is essentially what happened in the M1/L1 battle. (I was a supporter of M1.) Whatever the issue, I do not want the council using public money to put its own measure on the ballot and then using even more public money to run an “informational” campaign to get it passed. If we accept the council inserting itself into a political campaign in this way when we favor what they do, then we cannot complain when another council does the same in a matter we do not support. If councilmembers feel strongly about a ballot measure, they can sign the ballot statements for or against it and contribute their private money to the campaign. I know that this is a very passionate issue, but the council is setting a precedent and we may find that every ballot measure — ones we strongly support or oppose — is met by a council alternative that seeks to undermine it.

  4. Gregg de Haan says:

    How can John Knox white vote on a special election issue if he sits on the APC board of Directors? Seems like a conflict of interest to me. How come Glen Lewis, Tim Lewis Properties relative was responsible for the land survey to subdivide the property?

    I smell a inside deal here.

    Looks like council is making this a litigious issue to conduct their Tim Lewis property development deal in closed session without public input.

    • JRB says:

      So you’re admitting that the “open space” initiative was really to try and screw over APC. I thought it was just about some park?

      And the GSA split the property way back in 2005. EBRPD was informed and knew about this before their 2008 measure WW initiative. You always do a land survey if you’re about to buy a property.

    • Lauren Do says:

      I know it’s been a long time since you’ve lived in Alameda Gregg, but the internet is still the internet and Google still works as well as it always has. Before slinging out bad information perhaps you could have performed a simple Google search to uncover who actually serves on the Board of Directors of APC currently. Here’s a handy link: http://bfy.tw/LleX

  5. Kenneth Charles Peterson says:

    On the council, Tony Daysog came through with an informed and thoughtful position.
    “As is so often on these historic 4 to 1 votes, only one Councilmember seems to know or value the facts.”
    “Councilmember Daysog parted ways on both counts, saying no one, including the executive director of the nonprofit, had said project funding was at risk of being lost if the election were held in November 2020. Daysog stated the city does not have the money for the special April election and abstained on introducing the competing measure”
    The city does not have the money to be foolish with it. Four to one said, “Yes, let’s waste the money”

  6. JRB says:

    This version is very different from the version published in the Alameda Sun, which is even more slanted. This key section is missing in the Sun version: “He wants to resolve the matter sooner rather than later so that the city is exposed to less liability in case there is lawsuit for downzoning (“taking”) the property should the open space initiative pass. Vella agreed and said construction costs could also rise. Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor Knox-White said the nonprofit was at risk of losing its committed funding.”

    How can you act sanctimonious when you are obviously engaging in such a blatant omission of key facts?

    • Irene says:

      Hi JRB, Please do not confuse my support for the care center with my opposition to the city placing a competing measure on the ballot. Allowing citizen ballot initiatives came about during the Progressive Era in the early 20th century as a check on the power structure. If every initiative measure that a council does not like is undermined by a council-approved alternative, it defeats the whole purpose of initiatives.

      My opinion piece in the Alameda Sun was not about the council’s reasons for the special election so those comments were irrelevant to the topic of the second ballot measure.

      • JRB says:

        The “citizen ballot initiative” was made possible by $14,000 for paid signature gatherers, who were incentivized to obtain signatures however they can – and 77% of FOCC’s funding came from outside investors. It is the same astroturfing strategy we saw with Measure K, another “citizen ballot initiative” that was heavily defeated – by the citizens.

        The city council was elected by the citizens, and are expected to have a better understanding of the intricacies of city governance than the average person – for this reason, it made complete sense for them to put forward an alternative initiative that’s in the best interest of the city, to shield Alamedan taxpayers from financial disarray should this $11.7 million “open space initiative” pass.

  7. Steve Gerstle says:

    Without mentioning names, because embarrassing someone tends to be very counterproductive, I would like to remind that in February 2010, a special election was held in Alameda. A major developer, using paid signature collectors, put a measure on the ballot. Some prominent names, who vocally oppose the present special election and measure, were strong proponents of the special election and measure in 2010. The 2010 measure went down to defeat by 85 to 15 percent.

    As for the voters’ lack of knowledge and understanding, we do not elect dictators to rule over us. I am unwilling to give up the hard won democratic battles for progressive reforms even though the results may not always go my way. Should we make cannabis illegal again because the voters did not understand the complexity of cannabis usage? Should we all bow down before Trump and give him his wall because he, as President, knows better than the “average person?” I hope that this disdain for the average person does not represent those who favor the homeless facility.

  8. Steve Gerstle says:

    If the voters do not “confirm” the city council measure, does that mean that the wellness center will not be built regardless of the outcome of the open space measure? Otherwise, isn’t the council measure little more than, “Heads I win, tails you lose?”

    • JRB says:

      From what I understand – if both measures fail, the wellness center still happens. If both passes but “Caring Alameda” gets more votes, the wellness center still happens. If “Open Space” gets the most votes or the only one to pass, then the following two scenarios are most likely to happen – the city would have to buy for $6 million, or the federal government could exercise the Supremacy Clause and do whatever homeless shelter it wants, local zoning laws be damned.

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