ELECTION 2014: City candidates debate issues
ELECTION 2014: City candidates debate issues
Special interests beware: Contributing money to candidates for Alameda’s mayor and City Council will not buy you influence.
At least that’s what the incumbents and challengers told a crowd Thursday night during a candidate’s forum at the Main Library sponsored by The Alamedan and the Alameda Sun.
Incumbent Mayor Marie Gilmore is facing off against school board trustee Trish Spencer to keep her seat, while incumbent Stewart Chen, who was elected to a two-year term in 2012, is facing off against former councilman Frank Matarrese and Jim Oddie for two open seats on the council.
The question concerned the influence of city labor unions and the council’s role in bargaining contracts for employee groups. Incumbent council members pointed with pride at recent agreements with Alameda’s police and fire unions that require more employee contributions to help cover costly retirement benefits.
Critics insist that some decisions involving public safety programs are often skewed in favor of the unions which donate to local city candidates.
Mayor Marie Gilmore said that while she has support from business, unions and other groups, “no one should expect favoritism if they contribute to my campaign.”
Others, including mayoral candidate and current school board member Trish Spencer and businessman Frank Matarrese, said they would not accept contributions from groups that have contracts with or otherwise make money from the city.
Councilman Stewart Chen also said he had a wide range of support and had not received any checks from local labor unions. He did admit that he has received a donation from the union representing Alameda County workers.
Jim Oddie, an aide to State Assemblyman Rob Bonta, said he grew up in a union household but said he won’t “give in” just because some group made a campaign contribution.
Pension costs also played a role in a discussion of the city’s budget. Chen and Matarrese insisted the city must work in collaboration with the unions to reduce costs, while Spencer warned of the financial impact and insisted that some long term planning is needed to help solve the problem.
Gilmore said that when she became mayor in 2010 she was told that the city was on the verge of going bankrupt. Not only has the city avoided bankruptcy, it is now growing its budgetary reserve.
She insisted that the council will continue to make gains in getting employees to contribute. It’s a 30-year problem that the council is working on without deferring action to later years.
“We’re not kicking the can down the road,” she said.
Oddie said solutions can be found like the compromise that allowed teachers, the state and school districts to each help stabilize the California State Teachers Retirement Fund, which, like its municipal counterpart, is underfunded.
Rising rents were also on the minds of the audience, some of whom asked if the council would support controls to curb them. Earlier this week, the council voted down a proposal for a city sponsored task force that would examine the impact of rising rents and evictions. An attorney will head an informal community process which will advise the council on rent concerns instead.
Spencer said the public should know about the city's existing Rent Review Advisory Committee so they can seek help if they have any rent-related problems (the committee offers non-binding review of rent complaints). Chen and Gilmore said they don’t have enough information to know if rising rents are a problem. Oddie said he isn’t sure if the problem is pervasive or just the work of a “few bad apples” among local landlords.
Matarrese said rent control hasn’t stabilized rents in neighboring communities like Oakland or San Francisco. The city should work with the Alameda Housing Authority to take care of the Island's most vulnerable tenants, he added.
Gridlock in the Posey and Webster tubes can be overcome with transit alternatives paid for with developer fees, some candidates said. But the rate of residential development has been outpacing the city’s ability to plan for transit, Spencer said advocating for slower growth.
Gilmore countered that traffic in the tubes has actually decreased and that the gridlock is part of a bigger regional problem.
“When (Interstate) 880 is backed up, Alameda gets backed up,” she said.
A second forum featuring school board candidates is set to take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at Maya Lin School, 825 Taylor Avenue.