[Alameda County] Alameda to release secret tape made by former city manager

Jill Keimach recorded council members she suspected of wrongfully pressuring her to hire their choice for fire chief

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report. This is a continuing story.

ALAMEDA — The contents of a tape that a former city manager secretly recorded to show that two City Council members were allegedly putting her under pressure over who she picked as fire chief will be soon made public.

The council has voted unanimously to release the audio recording, which former City Manager Jill Keimach made in August 2017 because she believed council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella could be violating the city charter by urging her to hire a union-backed candidate.

Both Oddie and Vella recused themselves from Tuesday’s vote.

The hiring of key employees is solely in the hands of the city manager and council members are prohibited from interfering, according to Alameda’s charter.

Both a transcript and an audio version of the recording will be made public, the council decided during a closed-door session.

During the same door closed-door session Tuesday, the council unanimously rejected Vella’s request for reimbursement of approximately $93,000 in attorney fees she said she incurred from the fallout of Keimach’s allegations.

Oddie announced in August that he was withdrawing his request for reimbursement of legal fees, saying it was time for the city to move on from the scandal.

Both the written and audio versions of the tape will be redacted.

“The transcript will come out first, and that will probably happen sometime next week,” City Clerk Lara Weisiger said Thursday. “The audio version will come out after that.”

Release of the audiotape will come out after the transcript is made public because of the challenge of creating a redacted version, Weisiger said.

“Our vote was unanimous, and we did this in the interest of transparency,” Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said in an interview.

Oddie said he supported making the recording public.

“It is illegal to tape private conversations without the knowledge and permission of all parties, and the former city manager violated those ethics,” he said in a statement. “However, I concur the public should have the opportunity to hear the recording themselves and draw their own conclusions. Those who have worked with me know that my style is blunt and straightforward, and my role in that conversation is no different.”

In California, it is illegal to record another person without their consent. However, there is an exception: State law allows recording confidential communications if there is reason to believe it would relate to criminal conduct, including bribery or extortion.

Vella also said she supported releasing the tape.

“This recording was made without my knowledge,” she said via email. “It reflects an almost hour-long meeting that touches on many topics. Now that the City Council has voted to release the recording, I believe that the entirety of the recording should be released so there is context for the whole meeting and what transpired.”

She added: “Contrary to the few who have sought to exploit the supposed content of this recording, my intent was never to pressure Ms. Keimach into hiring one individual, but rather to encourage better communication regarding the process. I joined this meeting because members of the community had voiced their concern that certain candidates in the fire chief selection process were not receiving a fair shake.”

The council’s decision to release the tape follows Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley sending a letter to the city that said a strong public interest existed in disclosing the recording, although she did not have the authority to demand its release.

“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.”

The DA’s office cleared Keimach of any wrongdoing in making the recording.

The Alameda County civil grand jury in June said both Oddie and Vella violated the 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 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.

She is currently town manager of Paradise Valley, a community of about 13,000 in Maricopa County, Arizona, according to her Linkedin page.

November 7, 2019

The Mercury News and East Bay Times

By Peter Hegarty

 

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