Stephen Cassidy was elected mayor of San Leandro in Nov. 2010 on an agenda of balancing the City’s budget. I worked on his campaign, but I have since become disillusioned by many of his positions, in particular those to limit transparency at City Hall and to push development deals harmful to San Leandrans.

Jun 082011

When Mayor Stephen Cassidy announced last March that the city would not be hiring a search firm to look for a new City Manager, I was not the only one to speculate that the Mayor had someone in mind for the job.   Generally these types of low-intensity searches are only conducted when a viable internal candidate has already been identified, but none of the likely candidates in San Leandro had expressed any interest in the job.  The manner in which the “search” was conducted  – in secrecy, with no community input to speak of and with the search committee keeping completely mum about the candidates – further strengthened these suspicions.  Add to this the rumors that a well-known local business lobbyist with ties to Cassidy had been approaching City Council members praising the virtues of the City Manager of a nearby town, and it’s not hard to add 2 and 2 together.  Cassidy had his man for the job – and he seemed willing to railroad the City Council into accepting him.

Cassidy’s candidate did not look bad on paper – he had ties to San Leandro and had done a reasonably OK job of managing the prosperous, predominantly white city he’d been in charge of for six years.  He had come into some recent troubles, over the issue of employee pension contributions no less, but Cassidy would probably see that as a plus.  In any case, for reasons unknown, he withdrew his application before it could be considered by the full Council.

The City Council was left to interview 4 or 5 other candidates.   By all accounts they were a diverse group, though not necessarily a competent one.  The low key search, and the likely presumption among potential candidates that the results were predetermined, had not encouraged top-CM candidates to submit their applications.   Cassidy still had a favorite among this group – the young city manager of a nearby city with a population one-fourth the size of San Leandro’s and a median household income twice as high as our own.  Managing a city with a population less than 6% Latino and 1% black, it’s no wonder that he fumbled the “diversity” question and left several City Council members unimpressed.  But Cassidy wanted him and fought for him until finally accepting last night that he would not get his way.

So the City Council is back to square one: needing to find a City Manager.  This time they are ready to do it right: hire a search firm, which will make a broad, hopefully nation-wide search, and recruit candidates with experience running cities with diverse populations and changing economic structures.  San Leandro has much to offer to the right candidate: we are a pleasant town, with a wonderful weather, relatively low-crime and a cohesive, if diverse, population.  Our problems: fixing our schools, establishing a long-term balanced budget and enhancing the standard of living of residents, are tough but not insurmountable.  This is the sort of town where someone with a modicum of competence and inspiration can make a name for herself.  We just need to find the right person, it looks like we’re finally looking.

May 232011

The San Leandro Police Department has had a checkered history.  Until the 1980s, the Police Department was instrumental in keeping San Leandro white by following and harassing black people who came to town.  While the Department diversified in the 90s, it’s still overwhelmingly white and male.  In recent years, it’s been the object of sexual harassment lawsuits both by female officers and private citizens.  While we haven’t had any widespread scandals, there have been grumblings here are and there about police misconduct and racism.  The shooting of an unarmed woman late last year and the mauling of a dog by an SLPD  dog – and the complete lack of accountability by the officers involved, also raise concerns about the professionalism of the Police Department.

Personally, my experiences with the SLPD have mostly been positive.  Officers have been professional and somewhat helpful in the few personal encounters I’ve had with them.  However, I am concerned about the pettiness of the Police Union and its members.  They’ve been boycotting the Zocalo Coffeehouse for more than a year because its owner, Tim Holmes, was the campaign manager for Stephen Cassidy’s successful Mayoral run.  Cassidy advocated for Officers to pay their own share of pension contributions.   The Police’s pettiness turned dangerous when they did not show up to direct traffic at the 2010 annual Safe Streets, Safe Treats Halloween event, organized by Holmes and other businesses in the Dutton/Bancroft area.   That meant that hundreds of children were left to cross two very busy streets without any help.  The Police had helped with traffic every year since the event was started, and had said they would be there last year as well.   It’s one thing to be mad at a business owner, but to put the lives of hundreds of children at risk because of your personal grudge is unconscionable.   I’ve recently experienced the Police Union’s lack of professionalism myself. When I publicly questioned the excuse given by Police officers as to why most of them do not live in town, Mike Sobek, the head of the union, “suggested” I move out of town.

But my limited experiences, or the few accounts of such experiences found online, paint a very partial picture.  I’d like to hear from all readers about their experiences, whether bad or good, professional or unprofessional – as well as their suggestions as to what could be done to improve the SLPD.  So, if you have something to say, post it as a comment.  You can do so anonymously if you like.

May 132011

4/17 Update: As I feared, the City Council has voted to get rid of full minutes. One more step towards hiding what they say and do.

If Mayor Cassidy has his way, as of next Monday the San Leandro City Council will be making it much harder for the public to find out what they’ve been up to.  The City Council is planning to vote to eliminate regular minutes of all public meetings and  replace them with “Action Minutes”. While regular minutes include a summary of what was said and done in City Council and other public meetings, Action Minutes only record the actions taken by the City Council.   Council members (and the public) will no longer have to fear being held accountable for their words: nobody will know about them.

Cassidy argues that there is no need for full minutes of Council meetings because these are now recorded and the audio is made available online.  However, audio is non-searchable.  Unless you know precisely when someone said what, you might end up having to listen to hours and hours of city council meetings looking for the particular statement/position you are interested in hearing.  The audio of the meetings made available by the city is of very low quality, so using current technology it can’t be automatically transcribed.  Cassidy also argues that staff spend an inordinate amount of time composing the minutes of public meetings.  I am sure that is true, but I daresay they will spend just as much time going back and listening to old meeting recordings when the City Council itself needs to refer to old issues.  Why is it that they voted for Red Light Cameras back in 2011?  What other alternatives were provided?  The only way to find out will be for a staff member to listen to hours of audio.  In addition, as important as saving staff time is, it’s even more important to keep local government actions transparent and the public informed.

I think what’s really behind this move to get rid of full minutes is the same thing behind the move to delete City government e-mails: a desire by City Council members and staff to not be held accountable for their words and actions.  They want to be able to flip-flop and say and do inappropriate things with impunity.

If you care about maintaining transparency in local government, please write to the City Council and ask them to vote NO on switching to Action Minutes. You can e-mail them all together by pressing here.

May 072011

Hires premier anti-RLUIPA advocate to argue for its unconstitutionality

I was sad, if not surprised, to read that the San Leandro City Council voted 5-2 (with Mayor Cassidy & Councilwoman Cutter in the minority) to appeal the 9th circuit Faith Fellowship decision to the US Supreme Court.   That’s exactly what I predicted Meyers Nave, the City’s law firm, would push the City Council to do.  I was tickled, however, to read that they’ve engaged Cardozo Law Professor Marci A. Hamilton to represent them on this appeal.  Hamilton is not only the country’s most prominent critic of RLUIPA,  and of government accommodation of religion in general, but she’s a woman with a mission:  get the Supreme Court to declare RLUIPA unconstitutional.   San Leandro may just help her accomplish that goal.

The Faith Fellowship case has so far involved rather technical matters: what is the proper standard for “substantial burden” under RLUIPA.  Circuits courts have come to different conclusions as to what this entails, which allows the Supreme Court to take on the case.  However, the US Supreme Court has so far denied all cert petitions on RLUIPA land issues, most recently in January.  This is not surprising, finding a “substantial burden” test that would make the law both meaningful without being abusive in all circumstances is quite difficult, courts have gone back and forth on definitions as new situations arise.  The Supreme Court may find it prudent to wait until the dust is a bit more settled at the circuit court  level before it intervenes.

But I don’t believe that Professor Hamilton has any plans to appeal this case, other than nominally, on the proper definition of “substantial burden”.  Hamilton, indeed, has repeatedly said that RLUIPA allows religious institutions to do anything they want.  She’s suggested the statute be subtitled “A Bill to Permit Religious Landowners to Do Whatever They Want in Residential Neighborhoods and to Subsidize Lawyers for Religious Landowners with an Attorney’s Fee Provision”.   A narrow “substantial burden” definition would not fit neatly with her description of RLUIPA as a “circus“.

Hamilton, I suspect, will use this opportunity to lounge a full front attack on the constitutionality of RLUIPA, most likely on federalist grounds (i.e. that the federal government doesn’t have the right to tell municipalities how to regulate land use).  She’s well suited for the task.  In 1997 she represented the City of Boerne in the landmark Supreme Court case that overturned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act vis a vis state and local governments.  While Congress created RLUIPA mindful of the Boerne case, and every single circuit court that has looked at the constitutionality question has upheld it, Hamilton is hopeful that the more conservative members of the court will side with her.  My guess is that if the Supreme Court does take this case it will do so to tackle the constitutional question.  The fact that Hamilton will be the one arguing the case, may indeed make it more likely that they’ll take it.  The odds are still quite slim, however.

If the Supreme Court does take the case, Hamilton won’t just be facing the able lawyers from the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI).  The US Justice Department will most likely intervene to defend the constitutionality of the law.

Even if the Supreme Court finds that the “strict scrutiny” provisions of RLUIPA are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court (or lower courts, if the Supreme Court remands the case) will still have to consider the question of whether the City of San Leandro violated Faith Fellowship’s constitutional rights to freedom expression and religious exercise and its constitutional and statutory right to equal protection of the laws.  The latter claims come about because San Leandro allows “commercial entertainment” uses in the industrial area but not “assembly” uses.  The 9th circuit didn’t address this issue, but left it open for future litigation.

Personally, I continue to believe that appealing this case to the Supreme Court is a costly mistake.  If the Supreme Court takes the case, it’s very unlikely that it will rule for the city on all grounds without remanding any to a lower court.  If it does remand the case, that would mean further litigation and much more money spent on attorneys’ fees.  We are a poor city that has had to cut libraries, recreational activities and most social services – we can’t afford to be handing money to lawyers for no good reason.

The prudent thing for San Leandro to do is to work to settle this case, preferably in the next 6 months before the Supreme Court either rejects it or takes it on.

Update 5/8/11

I e-mailed Prof. Hamilton and asked her why she took the case.  Here is her answer:

“I took this case, because it meets the typical criteria that interest the Supreme Court: the relevant issues have been percolating for a significant period of time, the courts are split on the proper interpretation of the key terms, and the issues were directly addressed by the appellate court.  It is time for the Court to take up one or more RLUIPA land use issues.

 Also–the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation in this case is an extreme interpretation that unfairly favors religious land owners and, therefore, is a good case to take up to the Supreme Court.”

Marci Hamilton on the Daily Show

Marci A. Hamilton on Flaws of Religious Land Use Law

Apr 242011

New San Leandro City ManagerSan Leandro is about to appoint a new City Manager to lead the city, hopefully effectively and for many years to come.  An ad hoc committee composed by Mayor Stephen Cassidy and Council members Reed and Souza narrowed the field of applicants from 30 to five.  The Council won’t disclose their identities – ostensibly to protect the applicants’ current  jobs – though hopefully demographic information on them will be forthcoming.  Cassidy has not heeded my suggestion that he appoint a citizens ad hoc committee to give input on who among these candidates would work best for the city, but he is soliciting the community’s opinion albeit in a very limited manner.

For one, he set up an online questionnaire asking very general questions as to what San Leandrans want in a city manager. Cassidy has not explained how the information from these questionnaires will be put to use, however.

Cassidy will also be holding a Town Hall meeting (Sat., April 30, 9-11 a.m. Lecture Hall at Main Library) for citizen’s to provide their input on this issue.  For that input to be useful, however, it is essential that the citizens attending be asked real questions concerning the particular characteristics of the five final candidates.  For example, it would be of little use of citizens to tell the Mayor that they want a Latino or Asian city manager, if none of the five final candidates are of such ethnic origin.  Similarly, if none of the candidates live or are willing to live in San Leandro, it won’t help the Mayor at this point to hear how important this issue is to the community.   It is thus essential that Cassidy and his fellow Council members take a careful look at the characteristics of these five candidates and then ask the community specific questions about what qualities about them they would find more compelling.  Would we rather have someone with more experience or with a commitment to stay in San Leandro for longer?  Do we want someone who has worked in City government all his life, or would we prefer her to have business or non-profit experience?  Do we want someone who is known for their financial skills – given our dismal budget situation – or someone with superior management skills?  Only people with access to the candidates will know what the right questions to ask are.

The five candidates won’t be interviewed by the City Council until after the Town Hall meeting, so this is also a good opportunity for Cassidy to solicit community input about what sort of questions we want Cassidy to put to the candidates – and what types of answers would make us happiest.  I will personally not be able to be at this Town Hall – it conflicts with the California Democrats Convention – but I hope that many people will attend, that the discussion will be relevant and useful and that the City Council will take the input it generates seriously.