SPECIAL REPORT: How the grant was lost
SPECIAL REPORT: How the grant was lost
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.