[Alameda County] A hefty bill: Alameda council members seek $200,000 for legal fees over city manager dispute

Jim Oddie, Malia Vella accused of violating city charter, costing $1 million

ALAMEDA — Two city council members, whose actions a grand jury said have already cost Alameda more than $1 million, are seeking approximately $200,000 from the city for reimbursement of their legal costs as a result of allegations that they violated the city charter over the hiring of a fire chief.

So far, Councilman Jim Oddie is seeking $91,187 and Councilwoman Malia Vella $111,116, according to legal bill summaries that were filed with the city in April and obtained by this news organization.

The current status of the claims, including whether they have been or will be recommended to be paid, was not available Wednesday from the city’s attorney’s office. The council must approve any payments.

On Monday, a report from the Alameda County civil grand jury said both Oddie and Vella violated the city charter by putting political pressure on former City Manager Jill Keimach as she was looking to hire a chief for the Alameda Fire Department in 2017.

But the grand jury also said that the conduct of Oddie and Vella did not rise to the filing of an “accusation,” a legal charge from the grand jury that would start the process to remove them from office for willful or corrupt misconduct.

Both Oddie and Vella have denied wrongdoing.

The Alameda city charter puts all hiring decisions for key personnel in the hands of the city manager and prohibits interference from council members.

In an April 17 letter to the city, San Francisco attorney Eliot Peters, who represents Oddie, said the councilman has “acted at all relevant times as a conscientious public servant” and wants to resolve his claim “as swiftly, efficiently and amicably as possible.”

In her claim, which was filed the same day as Oddie’s by San Francisco attorney Mark Hejinian, Vella said that her “privacy and reputation have been damaged in unspecified amounts” and says an investigator hired by the city cleared her.

The grand jury’s report, however, said Oddie and Vella took part in a closed council session where the investigator’s findings were reviewed and that they “participated in editing facts leading to conclusions” for public distribution.

“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 said.

The grand jury described the situation around the hiring process of the fire chief as a “fiasco” that cost the city more than $1 million in legal and other costs, including a $945,000 separation agreement with Keimach in May 2018. The jury indicated that the chief recommended by Keimach was a qualified candidate.

The grand jury did not name Oddie and Vella in its report, though the jury was clearly referencing them based on previous reports by this news organization and others.

Vella and Oddie wanted Keimach to pick as chief a candidate that the firefighters union favored, according to the grand jury. Instead, Keimach went with Edmond Rodriguez, the former chief of the Salinas Fire Department.

Keimach felt her job was on the line unless she consented to what Oddie and Vella wanted and was so concerned about the pressure she was under — which she described as “unseemly” and “intense and unrelenting” — that she secretly audio recorded a 55-minute meeting with Oddie and Vella in August 2017, the grand jury said.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office exonerated Keimach of wrongdoing, despite Oddie and Vella saying the recording was made without their knowledge or consent.

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

June 27, 2019

The Mercury News

By Peter Hegarty

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