City Manager

Feb 062014
Emergency Services Director Renee Domingo speaking to the City Council

Emergency Services Director Renee Domingo speaking to the City Council

City employees in Oakland and San Leandro appear to live and work by the motto “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”  While most city councils rubber stamp whatever proposals city staff puts before them – an easier task than actually reading and analyzing long and boring reports -, some proposals are so clearly contrary to the public benefit that they are not politically tenable for council members to knowingly pass.  In those situations, staff – most assuredly with the blessing of the City Manager/Administrator – may give the Council an “edited” version of the facts behind it.   Whether the purpose is to deceive council members or provide them with plausible deniability can be discerned by how the member react once the true facts are uncovered.

Oakland city staff’s quest to build the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), a facility that would centralize the feeds from hundreds of cameras and license plate readers throughout the City, is a perfect example of how this works.  Internal e-mails obtained through the California Public Records Act make it clear that the actual purpose of the DAC is to track and subvert the activities of political protesters and labor activists in the city and port of Oakland. However, in public meetings, both staff and Councilmembers have only referred to the alleged crime-fighting uses of the DAC.   Finally, at the last meeting of the Council’s  Public Safety Committee,  Emergency Services Director Renee Domingo, who has spearheaded Oakland’s DAC project, was forced to admit that there is no data showing that existing DACs in other cities have helped to either reduce or solve crimes.

While there might be some room for argument about whether misleading the Council as to the purpose for the DAC is actually “lying”, it is absolutely clear that Ms Domingo deceived the Council about Science Applications International (SAIC)the company that was hired to build the DAC.    SAIC is a large military contractor which, among other things, works in the development, building and deployment of nuclear weapons.  Under Oakland’s 1988 anti-nuclear ordinance, the City cannot award contracts to any company that is involved with nuclear weapons.   Internal e-mails show that Domingo was aware that this was a problem in February 2013, but she didn’t mention anything about it to the City Council and the Council indeed went on and hired SAIC to build the first phrase of the project.  According to Domingo, she first heard about SAIC’s non-compliance in August,when activists brought it up – but that’s contradicted by the e-mails alluded to above.

Domingo is now proposing that the Council contract with called Schneider Electric to build phase II of the DAC. A simple google search of “Schneider Electric” and “nuclear weapons” leads to marketing materials from the company where it describes one of its main applications a being “nuclear weapons handling systems.”  It’s still unknown whether Domingo failed to do her due diligence or just hoped that activists wouldn’t find out.

No member of the Oakland City Council has held staff accountable for deceiving  them and for having the City knowingly enter into a contract that violated the City’s own laws.  Councilmember Dan Kalb campaigned on “restoring trust in City Hall“, and yet he has meekly accepted staff’s unethical behavior seemingly without a second thought.   While Kalb is not for re-election, his colleague Libby Schaaf, who has also failed to question staff over their duplicity, is running for Mayor of Oakland.  Her “no need for accountability” attitude is echoed by incumbent Mayor Jean Quan.

Things are no better in San Leandro.  Chief of Police Sandra Spagnoli routinely gives the City Council information that she knows to be false.  She has lied about things as easy to verify as the number of license plate scanners the Department has and the effects of realignment in the City.  But she also gave the Council false information about marijuana, the number of complaints they get about chickens and the dangers of overpollination.  A few months ago, the City had to settle a lawsuit brought by men after the Chief issued a press release falsely accusing them of attempting to engage in public homosexual sex.

Not only does the Chief routinely lie to the City Council, but she has also broken the law.  In 2012, the Chief was caught using Police Department staff and resources to get citizens to lobby the City Council against a proposed marijuana dispensary.  That violates both the San Leandro Municipal Code and the California Government Code.  Though City Council members are well aware of the Chief’s unlawful attempt to manipulate the democratic process, they have not called her on it.  This year, both Mayor Stephen Cassidy and Councilmember Pauline Cutter are running for re-election.

The Chief is not the only “truth impaired” member of staff in San Leandro.  When City staff decided to change the Zoning Code as a tactic in a pending lawsuit, city they explained the change as being a “routine update of the code” and only acknowledged the actual motive behind it after citizens like me brought it up repeatedly at public meetings.  After the acknowledgement, Mayor Stephen Cassidy made some noise about being more open with the community in the future, but did not take staff to task for their repeated attempts at deception.

It’s difficult to know what we can do to restore ethics and accountability in City Hall – both in San Leandro and in Oakland.  Electing the right people has to be part of the solution, but candidates with integrity are few and far between.   My strategy – exposing bad behavior at City Hall -, has seldom been an impetus for change.  Is local democracy just broken and, if so, can it be fixed?

Nov 122013

This letter was published by the San Leandro Times on Nov. 7, 2013


Chief of Police Sandra Spagnoli is out of control. Endangering the lives of children by canceling the crossing guards at the Safe Streets Halloween event is only her latest stunt. Previous examples include using department resources to unlawfully lobby the City Council, falsely arresting people for sex crimes and eliminating Internal Affairs.

The Chief also has the habit of providing the City Council with false information, what City Manager Chris Zapata labels “mis-speaking.”  The Chief, for example, told the Council that the SLPD needed to search the backyards of chicken owners’ homes without a warrant because they get an average of one complaint a week about chickens.  A public records search showed just a single complaint filed in the last two years.

The Chief also “mis-spoke” about the number of license plate scanners the Department has (5, not 3), the dangers of over-pollination (none outside strawberry greenhouses), the effects of medical marijuana dispensaries on crime (none) and the effectiveness of surveillance cameras in reducing and solving crimes (very low to none). Just last week, she blamed the increase in crime in San Leandro to prisoners being released early due to realignment; trouble is, law enforcement data shows there have been no such early releases.

“Mis-speaking” to the City Council and lobbying during work hours show a lack of respect for the Mayor and Council members and for the democratic process itself. It’s up to City Manager Zapata to hold her accountable and assure she behaves legally and ethically in her job. The fact that he has failed to do so suggests he lacks the leadership skills necessary for his own position.

The City Council should keep this in mind as they evaluate Zapata’s performance in the upcoming months.

Margarita LacabeSan Leandro

Update: On this week San Leandro Times, POA President Isaac Benabou not-quite-responds to my letter by praising his boss, Chief Sandra Spagnoli, and accusing me of “misleading” readers.  Alas, he does not substantiate his allegation and the only factual assertion he makes in disagreement with my letter, that surveillance cameras “greatly assist” in preventing and solving crimes is wrong.  I call on Mr. Benabou to explain his allegations or otherwise apologize.  Here is his letter: 


This is a reply to last week’s letter to the editor “Accuses Police Chief of Being ‘Out of Control’,” Letters, Nov. 7.”

I am writing this letter to the editor as the voice for the San Leandro Police Officer’s Association. This is my first correspondence to the San Leandro Times as the POA President.

Each week I make a point to read every letter sent to the editor with specific interest in articles that pertain to the Police Department. From time to time there are misleading letters written and published and often by the same author.

In last week’s letter to the editor, the writer expressed her disapproval our of City’s Police Chief and City Manager. There are more to her dislikes for these officials than were mentioned in her letter and my professionalism acts as a barrier to my emotions.

There comes a time when enough is enough! As a 20-year employee of this agency, I’ve never seen so many positive changes and improvements than I have seen in the past three years. A Professional Standards Unit, Chief’s Advisory Board and the creation and implementation of United for Safety is just the beginning.

We have embraced technology by joining facebook, twitter, Nixel, and creating an easy-to-use SLPD Smartphone application, all in an attempt to be more transparent with the community. Yes, technology includes surveillance cameras and license plate readers which both greatly assist in solving and preventing crime.

These are just a few programs implemented over the past three years, all accomplished under the current Police Administration led by Chief Sandra Spagnoli.

So, to the fair and impartial readers out there, please take with a grain of salt the comments and accusations expressed in last week’s letter and know that every hard working member of my organization is committed to the safety and service of the citizens of San Leandro.

— Isaac BenabouPresident




Feb 062012

It’s worse than I thought, but is it intentional or just careless?

Just ask public officials, perhaps over a few beers, how they feel about the pesky public looking over their shoulder as they try to “get things done.”   They hate it.  Public oversight means they have to worry about following the law, hiding any corrupt deals and being held accountable for their actions.

As the corruption facilitated by secrecy has dire consequences for society at large (just think of the City of Bell), the California legislature long ago passed the Brown Act to guarantee the public notice and access to government meetings, and the California Public Records Act to grant access to government documents.  Local governments have been trying to skirt them ever since.

I have noted before actual and threatened violations of these laws by the San Leandro City Council.  Recently, I’ve become aware of a number of recurring and and very serious violations that allow the City Council to deliberate secretly.  I’ve given the City the benefit of the doubt – perhaps nobody at City Hall is actually aware of the law or perhaps they’ve just been careless – and I’ve written to City officials* requesting that they cease these violations.  How (and whether) they respond, and more importantly whether they actually comply with my request to obey the law, will be very indicative of the trustworthiness and ethics of our City Officials and our City Attorney.

The following are the Brown Act violations that I’ve discovered in the last few days

The City Council Appears to Have Deliberated Secretly on the Sale of the former Albertson’s Property

The City Council agenda for Feb. 6th, 2012 lists “Conference with Real Property Negotiators”  as one of its closed session items.  It says that they are currently negotiating the “price and terms of payment” with Innisfree Ventures II, David Irmer’s development firm.  This implies that the City Council has already agreed to sell the former Albertson’s property to Irmer, or at least has discussed it; you don’t negotiate a price for a property you are not ready to sell.   The Brown Act requires that any discussion on the sale of the property as well as any instruction to the City Manager (or anyone else) to initiate negotiations for the sale of the property, must be done in open session, after being properly agendized.  A search of the agendas, minutes and other public records in the online Public Records Database maintained by the city, did not produce any records of such discussions or decisions.  It would appear that these discussions were made informally or in closed session, in violation of the law.

The City Council Mislabels Public City Council Meetings as “Closed Sessions”

The City Council publishes agendas both for its open and closed sessions.  Closed sessions usually start at 6PM and open sessions at 7PM.  Agendas for closed sessions are labeled “Closed Session” while those for open sessions are labeled  “Regular Meeting”  or “Joint Meeting with Redevelopment Agency.”   I was just informed by the City Clerk, however, that a portion of the meeting labeled closed session is actually an open session, in which the City Council can transact all sorts of business, including making required announcements.  But as the meeting is not labeled “open session,” or “regular meeting”  or anything other than “closed session,” the public has no reason to know that this is a meeting they are free to attend.  The results are that practically nobody is likely to go to these meetings, and thus nobody witnesses what was said or not said there.

The City Council Fails to Include All Required Items in the “Open/Closed Session”  Agendas

The Brown Act provides that “[n]o action or discussion shall be undertaken on any item not appearing on the posted agenda.”  However, it would appear that actions and discussions not appearing in the agenda are actually carried out in what the City considers to be the “open” part of closed sessions (hereby described as “open/closed sessions”).  This came to my attention on Friday, when I e-mailed the City Council et al. to alert them to the fact that while the Brown Act allows the City Council to meet in closed session with property negotiators, as it was itemized in the agenda for the Feb. 6th meeting, the negotiators’  identities must first be announced in open session.  The City Clerk responded by saying that there would be an open session prior to the closed session in question, thus suggesting that the announcement would be made at that point.  However, the agenda for that open/closed session only included two items: Roll Call and Public Comments.  This is, indeed, the case with all the closed session agendas that I’ve seen.  So it would appear that the City Council conducts business during these open/closed sessions that is not disclosed in the agenda

The City Council Fails to Keep Minutes of the “Open/Closed Session” Meetings.

California law requires the City Clerk to “keep a correct record of [City Council] proceedings”, and indeed, minutes and/or recordings** are produced and posted online for regular open session meetings.  This does not appear to be the case, however, with respect to open/closed meetings.  For example, there are no minutes for the Dec. 13th, 2010 open/closed session, even though a number of people (including myself) attended and made public comments at that meeting.

So basically we have a situation in which the City Council seems to 1) be holding public meetings without alerting the public about it, 2) not including all items to be discussed in the agenda and 3) not keeping minutes of those meetings – all in violation of state law.

There is yet another serious way in which the City violates the Brown Act:

The City Council Fails to Disclose the Subject of Anticipated Litigation

The Brown Act allows the City Council to meet in closed session to discuss exposures to litigation against the City.  However, the law also provides that the closed session agenda must describe the “facts and circumstances” which have exposed the City to litigation, except when such facts are not known to the potential plaintiff.  A quick look through a sample of City Council agendas from 1998 on suggests that those facts and circumstances are never disclosed, even in cases where it’s very clear that the potential plaintiff is quite aware of what those facts are (e.g. the murder of Gwendolyn Killings and the disagreement with Dan Dillman about the use of the Bal Theatre).

The disclosure of this information is very important for the public as it allows San Leandrans to keep a closer tab on how the City is fulfilling its legal obligations towards the community.  A plethora of circumstances that make litigation against the Police Department likely, suggests that there are serious troubles with that institution.  The City Attorney’s judgement that the City may be sued for employment discrimination or Brown Act violations, will shine some light into what’s going on at City Hall.  Litigation is also very expensive, so it behooves the public to keep a close eye on what the City is doing to bring about lawsuits against it.

I find this pattern of violations of Open Meeting laws to be very disturbing.    I can only hope that they will be addressed immediately by our City Officials.  I will keep you posted of any response I receive.


* I sent my initial e-mail to Mayor Stephen Cassidy, City Council Members Michael Gregory, Ursula Reed, Diana Souza, Joyce Starosciak, Pauline Cutter and Jim Prola, City Attorney Jayne Williams, Community Relations Representative Kathy Ornelas and City Clerk Marian Handa.  Handa responded to that message, also copying City Manager Chris Zapata and Assistant City Manager Lianne Marshall.

** Minutes and/or audio from meetings from January 2011 on can be found at

Jan 312012

The new City Manager, Chris Zapata, started work yesterday (1/30/12). He will be at the City Council meeting on Feb. 6th, and will be introduced to the community at the “Coffee with the Mayor” on Feb. 10th t 8:00 am, both at the City Council chambers in City Hall.

Usually, when a new City Manager joins the City, the Council holds a reception for him at City Hall. So far they have not announced one.

Sep 072011

The San Leandro City Council is meeting tonight in closed session to discuss the appointment of a new City Manager.  At its July 5th meeting, the Council hired Teri Black & Company to conduct a broad search for a City Manager.  The search, which should start some time this month, will be open until October 16th.  According to the agenda for tonight’s meeting, the City Council will update the public on this search.

It’s not clear why the City Council is meeting in closed session before the public meeting.  Under the law, all meetings of the City Council must be public.  There are a few exceptions, one of which includes discussion on the appointment, discipline or dismissal of a public employee, but this section refers to specific persons.  This means that either the City Council is meeting to discuss the appointment of a specific person to this position, or that it will be violating the Brown Act.

Assuming that it’s the former, I can only speculate as to whom they will be considering.  As Black’s search has not started, it doesn’t seem likely that they will meet to discuss any new applicants for the position.  It’s possible that they’ll be discussing the past applicants – one, in particular, had impressed several members of the City Council, but he decided to take a job elsewhere.  It’s also possible that an internal applicant has suddenly appeared.  Neither the current interim City Manager, Lianne Marshall, or the Deputy City Manager, Jacqui Diaz, applied for the job back when it was opened in April.  However, it is possible that since then one of them has changed her mind.  Even if this is the case, I would hope that the City Council would continue the search (the firm has been hired and has put work on it, so we’ll have to pay them anyway) so as to assure that we get the best City Manager possible.

If, however, they are meeting in closed session to discuss something other than a specific individual that could be appointed to the City Manager position, this will be a  violation of the Brown Act and a sign of the City Council’s contempt for both the law and the citizenry, and they should be called on it.