SPECIAL REPORT: How the grant was lost

SPECIAL REPORT: How the grant was lost

Michele Ellson
100 Resilient Cities

Alameda lost a high-profile grant that was supposed to help the Island bounce back from a disaster. E-mails obtained by The Alamedan offer new information detailing how it happened.

It was early March, and city staffers were scrambling to prepare for a workshop at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Club where Mayor Marie Gilmore and the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley were to kick off an effort to prepare cities here and around the world to bounce back from a host of disasters.

Alameda was one of 33 cities from around the globe and four here in the Bay Area invited to join the inaugural class inducted into the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Network, an honor that would earn international attention. It also promised to deliver two years’ worth of funding for a brand-new chief resilience officer whose principal tasks would be to draft a plan to help the Island recover from everything from a catastrophic earthquake to an economic meltdown and to ensure the necessary resources were in place to carry it out.

But as City Hall hastened to assemble Gilmore’s talking points and arrange carpools to and from the two-day workshop – one of dozens taking place all over the world and a mandatory step for moving forward with the grant program – negotiations over the role of Alameda’s chief resilience officer, who would fill it, at what price and for how long were at an impasse, and the city was threatening to walk away.

“At this point, we need to know if you will fund the position that we propose. If yes, we'll be all-in next week,” Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen wrote in a March 11 e-mail to 100 Resilient Cities’ chief operating officer as the city negotiated its attendance at the workshop. “If not, 100RC will move on without Alameda.”

The e-mail was one of hundreds between city staffers and 100 Resilient Cities officials obtained by The Alamedan as part of a public records request aimed at gaining a better understanding of why the city and the nonprofit parted ways. Losing a grant after it’s been awarded is rare, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s status as one of the world’s largest nonprofit funders made the loss a painfully public one.

The e-mails showed city officials – chiefly, Nguyen and Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi – pushing foundation officials to quickly sign off on the city’s sole candidate for its chief resilience officer position and on the funding to cover his salary, and threatening to walk away when they balked.

“The CRO model proposed by Alameda raises concerns around salary; the long-term sustainability of resilience as a practice; and the placement of the CRO within the Fire Department with a dotted line to the Mayor,” 100 Resilient Cities’ chief operating officer, Andrew Salkin, wrote Nguyen on March 10.

In an interview, Nguyen minimized the impact that salary and other concerns expressed in e-mails had on the breakdown in negotiations, saying those issues were being addressed offline. He said both sides differed on what a chief resilience officer would do.

“We weren’t really looking for a flag waver or policy person who would stand next to the mayor. We saw him as more of a grassroots level organizer and conductor. That was how I looked at it,” D’Orazi said during the interview, which was conducted after the e-mails were released. The department had spearheaded the effort to win the grant.

“We shared that early with the Rockefeller people,” he added. “And they seemed to be fine with it.”

In a statement, a 100 Resilient Cities spokesman said the ideal candidate “can engage a broad section of city leaders as well as the public, private and civic sectors and develop a comprehensive resilience plan that takes into account both the shocks and stresses faced by a city.”

“A core tenet of the 100 Resilient Cities strategy is to engage in a deep partnership with member cities, and it became clear that after months of conversations and in-person meetings that the two entities could not reach a consensus on a number of issues including the function, vision and structure of a Chief Resilience Officer,” the spokesman, Maxwell Young, wrote.

City staffers were excited when they learned Alameda had been selected to receive the high-profile grant. Officials with the new Rockefeller initiative opted to pursue a regional approach to awarding the grants, e-mails show, as the four Bay Area cities they selected face many of the same issues; D’Orazi believes the decision was a key element in Alameda’s win.

But less than two months after the city issued the press release announcing its inclusion in the grant program, D’Orazi was questioning whether his department should continue to participate.

The city had begun the “unofficial process” of filling the chief resiliency officer role with Ricci Zombeck, a division chief who joined the Alameda Fire Department as a firefighter in 1983 and had served for seven years as its disaster preparedness coordinator. But backfilling his position was proving to be a problem.

Moving Zombeck into the new position for two years would require the department to temporarily fill his division chief’s chair and a captain’s position – for which the promotional list was set to expire on January 30, weeks earlier than the date the city’s human resources department originally gave, D’Orazi said in a January 22 e-mail to Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam.

City staffers were also struggling with how to classify the positions – classifications that could impact the department’s budget. And D’Orazi had his hands full with a second, pilot project that would require the department to find outside funding for three more positions.

“If we cannot resolve this to address the issues I’ve raised, I would be reluctant to recommend the fire department continue with this program,” he wrote.

City staffers also determined that putting Zombeck in the job would cost more money than they originally asked for. The city had estimated the cost of the position at $280,000 a year for two years, documents show. But a spreadsheet the city sent 100 Resilient Cities on February 6 showed an updated two-year estimate of $647,171, an amount that included about $56,000 in holiday, management and other special pay and more that $200,000 in pension and retiree medical benefits.

In contrast, San Francisco received an award of up to $440,000 for two years from the foundation to fund its chief resilience officer – the city’s former earthquake safety czar, Patrick Otellini, grant documents presented to a committee of that city’s Board of Supervisors in March show.

Six days after the updated paperwork was submitted, D’Orazi wrote the city’s primary network contact to let her know he planned to move forward with the chief resilience officer assignment immediately. “There are many reasons for doing so, most of which have to do with the need to fill open positions created by the CRO assignment,” he wrote.

But network officials demurred, saying the effort to put the new person in place shouldn’t impact the city’s day-to-day operations.

“100RC is not in any position to approve or disapprove city functions. We, however, have a point of view about our grant to the city which is a separate and additional position that does not yet exist in the city, and thus should not impede any current activities,” wrote Bryna Lipper, the vice president who oversees the relationships between the network and its cities.

Network officials had yet to approve a job description for Alameda’s chief resilience officer or to sign off on the city’s candidate to fill the role, two boxes that needed to be checked before Alameda’s could be officially named. And just as the city was sending out workshop invitations to staffers and select community members, a network official voiced fresh concerns about whether the city planned to institutionalize the chief resilience officer role.

In a staff report to the City Council, city staffers said the position was limited to the two-year term of the grant, though in the interview D’Orazi said city officials had told 100 Resilient Cities that Alameda hoped to maintain it long-term.

“Initially, we could only commit to that, that’s all we had the funding for,” Nguyen said, though he said 100 Resilient Cities staffers had intimated that additional funding might become available.

Nguyen offered to reduce the city’s funding request to $565,847 on March 4, and two days later, he sought confirmation that the network would fund the city’s chief resilience officer, “as it would not make sense for us to participate in the kick-off event without having our CRO in place.”

None of the cities that received the initial round of grants had a chief resilience officer when the workshop took place, on March 17-18; San Francisco’s was to officially start work on April 1, grant documents show, and Oakland is in the midst of a national search for theirs. But Nguyen, who noted that city staff had spent a lot of time preparing for the workshop – besides the mayor, several were set to speak there – pressed for an answer.

“Please let us know if Rockefeller will commit to funding Alameda's Chief Resilience Officer, or not, as outlined in our job description and budget. We need to make a decision about moving forward, or not,” he wrote on March 10.

As negotiations soured, the network offered to continue talks during the workshop, even offering to connect Gilmore with Rockefeller president Judith Rodin – an effort D’Orazi dismissed in an e-mail to Nguyen as a “negotiations ploy.”

“They described this position as a ‘Mayor minus one’, high level person within the organization. Those assignments come with a price tag,” D’Orazi wrote. “If they had limitations they should have spelled them out for us immediately. We have been up-front and provided them with all the information they requested and required.”

Nguyen agreed to move the position from the fire department into the city manager’s office, as the city had originally promised to do. But he insisted that a candidate with public safety experience was needed.

“We believe that a CRO who has extensive experience and knowledge of public safety and the local community is best suited to make this program successful while meeting the guidelines set forth in the grant application,” he wrote.

The city pulled out of the workshop, and Nguyen said termination of the grant – which he described as mutual – was a fait accompli before it took place. A 100 Resilient Cities spokesman said the grant was terminated on March 28, when network chief Michael Berkowitz wrote D’Orazi telling him it was dropping Alameda.

City officials announced the termination of the grant in a three-paragraph press release issued on April Fool’s Day, saying the city’s nascent resilience strategy was “incompatible” with the foundation’s vision.

Nguyen said the city was never able to get a straight answer from the network about what it wanted, though he also accused Rockefeller of hewing to an “East Coast” model of “mayor minus one” and of trying to impose an overly broad resilience model that couldn’t be tailored to cities’ specific needs (Young, the 100 Resilient Cities, spokesman denied that charge).

“This was pretty much an open ended grant, $100 million for 100 cities. There were no real guidelines,” he said.

Even without the grant money, Nguyen and D’Orazi said the city will continue to pursue a resilience strategy, and they’re hopeful they may work with the Rockefeller Foundation again some day.

“Everyone was pulling their hair out over this,” Nguyen said. “We didn’t want to have two years of a dysfunctional program. Because that would have cost us more than the money they would have given us.”

The fire department presented an update Tuesday to the City Council on its disaster preparedness program, which was restarted in January 2013 after being defunded for several years, and the city is planning a “Road to Resiliency” luncheon on May 20 where they hope to kick off the process of designing a strategy.

“We’re going to start putting a plan together for Alameda that makes sense,” D’Orazi said.


Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Sun, May 11, 2014

Alameda should have conducted a nationwide search. No offense to Chief Zombeck, but he really hasn't been in the driver seat for a major disaster. We haven't had one. Someone in the midwest who has had to content with tornados, massive flooding, blizzards, etc. would have had more practical experience. I get that they wanted to have someone who knows Alameda well, but that knowledge could have been gained by attaching officers like Zombeck as advisors to the CRO. I was all ready to feel sorry for the City screwing up Zombeck's sweet deal, until I remembered that he already enjoys a salary, benefits, and pension package that dwarfs anything Rockefeller was prepared to offer. Not a bad consolation prize!

Submitted by C. (not verified) on Sun, May 11, 2014

I completely agree with what Luczai wrote. Bringing someone in from the outside would have made sense. Missed opportunity. But, it makes sense there would have been push back when Alameda was asking for more money than San Francisco. Sounds like somebody was promising Zombeck a job and had blinders on to any other scenario. Thank you Alamedan for uncovering what transpired.

Submitted by Amanda S. (not verified) on Sun, May 11, 2014

A complete fail on the part of the city, there is exceptional talent available nationwide to have accomplished this important and necessary role. Reads like political gamesmanship at its highest levels, not to mention the cities endemic myopia, to the ultimate disadvantage of the city.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Sun, May 11, 2014

What the City lacks in resiliency it makes up in arrogance. They insisted on doing an internal hire at a very high salary that then created a crisis as to how to backfill the internal hire's position. They were completely tone deaf to the Rockefeller Foundation’s priorities. Instead of viewing resiliency broadly, they insisted on it being a matter for the fire department. They did not see the grant as something that they needed to earn; they viewed it as an entitlement and demanded a salary for the position that was higher than San Francisco's. The order from the Fire Chief that, "staff is to ignore their [Rockefeller Foundation] attempts to communicate with us until this issue is resolved” is out of touch with reality.

Alameda deserves better government than this.

Submitted by Ken Harrison (not verified) on Sun, May 11, 2014

On quick reading, this appears to me to be another example of the Mayor's, Council's, and City Manager's unwillingness to play the game in the best interests of the city, rather than the best interests of some of its city "servants."

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Sun, May 11, 2014

Great reporting, Michele. It's this kind of high-quality local reporting that reminds me why I donate a few bucks every month (conveniently on auto-pilot) to Michele's amazing effort. I urge everyone who loves Alameda and/or the first amendment to contribute to The Alamedan.

Submitted by Tom Schweich (not verified) on Mon, May 12, 2014

I was at the 100 Resilient Cities meeting on March 17-18. It was a little weird to be from Alameda, the city that was supposed to be there but wasn't. I happen to think that Alameda's intention of nominating an experienced firefighter with extensive emergency management and disaster preparedness credentials, and cross-organization coalition-building success, was a good idea for our city. Those credentials would have permitted our resiliency officer to hit the ground running. The cities recruiting a civilian outsider are looking at an extensive break-in period for their new resiliency officer. My other impression is that the smaller size of Alameda, relative to Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, enabled a more effective down-sized approach for us, in that "mayor minus one" was more easily informally achieved than in a larger city. This leaves me wondering whether the Rockefeller Foundation had its own blind spot, leading to a one-size-fits-all rigidity.

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Mon, May 12, 2014

Who is running our city? They seem to have their heads inside of some kind of Alameda hole; completely ignorant to anything but their cronies, their salaries, their perks, and the next rung of the political ladder. Can we please elect some people who take the job of being public servants seriously?

Submitted by BC (not verified) on Mon, May 12, 2014

I recommend to readers to look at the links in the article and read the string of e-mails, and especially the cost estimate spreadsheet. From a base salary of $163,599, they start adding special pay and crazy benefits. Like almost $70K employer contribution to PERS, and $22k to City Retiree Health/Dental Contribution. Wow!!! Now I understand why our city is going broke. I don't know if this is the standard arrangement for all firefighters, or all public union employees, but it sure sounds like the gravy train to me. No wonder our city employees are so difficult to deal with, with that kind of entitlement. And reading the emails of Alex Nguyen and Michael D'Orazi, they both come off as pushy and arrogant. Doesn't give me much confidence about the folks at the top of our city food chain.

Submitted by Doug Biggs (not verified) on Mon, May 12, 2014

Ahh, it is so easy to blame the city, and while you are at it throw in allegations of cronyism, etc. I participated in several discussion about the resiliency project, participated in a conference call with the program officer, city officials, and several other non-profits, and was prepared to give up 2 days(which I thought was a lot) to attend the kick-off in San Francisco.

I was excited by the initial discussions, and felt the participants had an excellent handle on how to engage a broad spectrum of the community in developing a resiliency model. The city already had relationships with a number of providers that other cities haven't even begun to think about.

Much is made(including by some of the stone throwers above) about Alameda being unique because we are an island City, but when we tried to take a unique approach to resiliency, the funder didn't get it. In my mind this is not good philanthropy. Claim you want to help local communities solve local problems with local innovation, and then impose their own view of the world. Nonprofits face this situation all to often, and really can't do anything about it without risking funding. I say kudos to the City for being willing to stand up to a bully.

Submitted by Chuck M (not verified) on Mon, May 12, 2014

I thought Alameda's mayor and councilmembers are volunteer elected positions. This chief resiliency officer would have to work for less than minimum wage in Alameda if they used the model of "mayor minus one." What happened to the $100M for 100 cities?

Submitted by David K (not verified) on Mon, May 12, 2014

After more reading of the attachments, (Kudos Michelle foe an excellent job), I think the Alameda problem displayed here is the much deeper, totally systemic problem that exists in almost all of Alameda's politics. Our fire chief believes he rules the roost of city hall's politics - hasn't he earned it by the mere fact his union gets the members of City Council elected with all their contributions, fliers, etc? Isn't that why they have such outrageous contracts, and new trucks and equipment, more chiefs and fire houses than house fires? Is it right that city council keeps having to strip park services, reduce the library hours, close the pools, or to rip off the public with AUSD property swindles in order to continue AFD outragios contracts? (Granted the AUSD BOE went along with the recent AUSD asset loss and are equally culpable for the treasonous acts.)
The arrogance of the deep-seated corruption is palpable.

Nowhere does the grant proposal define the causes for which cities need to learn how to be more resilient. Nowhere does it state it is for problems of earthquakes or fire. Or police and fire departments willing to watch for over an hour as an innocent man drowns in frigid waste-deep water because our $100,000 - $300,000/ yr professional safety responders haven't been trained for that situation!

It was suggested issues for the 100 rc’s to deliberate could be as widespread as economic downturns. Perhaps for Alameda, it should be studying how we can be resilient in such a way to overcome the political corruption we face, not just the economic problems the city faces due to the AFD contracts! How we can prevent corruption or deal with it when it does raise its sick ugly head? A few cases in point - 'How to prevent political contributions by anyone with a financial stake in that body of government?; (like public sector unions,developers, financial agencies, etc.); or the corruption of the BOE giving away millions, or 10's of millions from the asset column they should be protecting for our school district; or how the city's citizens should respond to such a treasonous act. The same can be said for Alameda's developer's department, planning board and city council, and city manager. When citizens make clear how opposed we are to dense development at Alameda point with a vast super-majority vote at the city ballot of over 85%, yet now members of PB & CC are still trying for exactly that, how should the citizens deal with such corruption so the population can heal, and once again feel they are in control of their city, with an honest and open democracy, and that their government is not an out of control entity acting against the wishes and interests of the citizens? What would the 100 RC strategy be for these issues?

...And did you notice that SF was using the funds a .25 FTE position, meaning the $220K would fund a 10/wk position? I guess when you look at the extra benefits and non-salary compensation those high level city jobs are expensive to fill (or they just become criminally inflated.) If you argue it is not criminal because there is no explicit law saying it can’t be done, then you my friend are part of the problem.

Submitted by DHL (not verified) on Mon, May 12, 2014

I say we dodged a bullet: Zombeck is NOT someone who should be a CRO. Hell, he should have been fired years ago. He is the one who lied about the crude oil spill in our estuary from a single-hull barge illegally lightering on our shores, with equipment that was so damaged that they could not control the fumes or the liquid. He told me that it was 'black oil' and perfectly safe. There is no such thing as black oil. He is the one that so badly misrepresented the facts that night to BAAQMD that BAAQMD did not come out to investigate until the next day. And when BAAQMD took measurements on the ship when it was NOT lightering, it was OFF THE CHARTS toxic. They slapped the largest fines they could on Harley Marine (owners of the ship) and shut it down. He should have been fired based on THE FACTS. The fact that he was not fired and now was Gilmore's (the fire union's) pick for the grant's CRO position, speaks volumes.

Submitted by Ron (not verified) on Tue, May 13, 2014

This is excellent reporting. Thank you. I've just sent in a donation in appreciation of your work on this article. Please keep these issues on the "front burner".

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, May 13, 2014

Thanks, Ron! We can't do this without readers like you!

Submitted by LAW (not verified) on Tue, May 13, 2014

Zombeck also presided over the FISC fire, an asbestos disaster. Zombeck is a disaster we don't need.

Submitted by EM Dude (not verified) on Sat, Oct 18, 2014

Alameda's arrogance and presumption alone sank this grant. First, the Fire Chief (D’Orazi) and his ilk are first response experts, not emergency managers. What Alameda needed and disregarded was a trained experienced, full-time Emergency Manager, someone who is already trained in preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery, someone could hit the ground running without all the first response and firefighter baggage. First, being a public safety official has nothing to do with resilience. What really happened here was that D’Orazi didn't put the City of Alameda first, he put his department first. When D’Orazi could not deliver a new FTE safety position and salary retirement package that comes with almost a $250,000 price tag built and supported one of his department members, he called foul. That is really what happened here.

Alameda could have hired a full-time (civilian) emergency manager that is trained in resilience, and the "term "resilience" is just a buzzword, not a function, it really means Continuity of Operations (COOP) and Business Continuity, something professional emergency managers already possess. This could have been easy, D’Orazi used his position to hustle the city into believing only a firefighter could do it, and that folks is a load of crap. Simply put, D’Orazi sunk this grant because of his involvement. D’Orazi should have never been allowed to oversee this from his fire department.

If this position was assigned to the City Manager (as intended), the City could be enjoying a civilian-based Chief Resilience Officer with a background in emergency management, not a full-time firefighter playing emergency manager on a part-time basis.