Blogging Bayport Alameda

March 15, 2017

Alternative facts

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:06 am

Last week’s City Council saw a Referral item to reform, very minimally, the Call for Review process.  The argument from City Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy-Ashcraft was that these reviews are very costly for the initial applicant.  If citizens were to appeal the matter they’d have to expend money to do so which would put “skin in the game” so to speak, but when a City Councilmember calls an item for review there is no cost which could leads to calls for review that seem arbitrary but for the fact that they’ve recently been almost all initiated by Mayor Trish Spencer.

The reformation was just to have two City Councilmembers agree to call something for review, which makes a lot of sense because when people are unhappy with a decision by the Planning Board or other boards and commissions they tend to complain to ALL the members of the City Council and not just to one individual.  Trish Spencer balked at the two person suggestion because she wouldn’t know who to approach on the City Council to partner with her.  Of course the idea is not necessarily for a City Councilmember to try to convince another City Councilmember that a call for review has merit but for the City Councilmember to judge independently based on the citizen complaints that a decision might be ripe for a call for review.

The funniest part was the “facts” laid out by Trish Spencer offering the suggestion that the number of calls for review in the last two years weren’t that many because of the number of Planning Board decisions that are made in a given year.  Of course that’s not really what it should be compared against, rather the comparison should be against how many calls for review have been made in previous years.  Plus, Trish Spencer’s personal research body, the Alameda Citizens Task Force, gave her the wrong number of calls for review for 2015.

Based on my research here are the number of calls for review in a given year since 1998.  As you can see no City Council has ever called for review as many decisions as City Councils that have been helmed by Trish Spencer.

  • 2017: 1 (so far, overturned)
  • 2016: 4 (1 overturned, 3 upheld)
  • 2015: 6 (1 overturned, 5 upheld)
  • 2014: 0
  • 2013: 0
  • 2012: 0
  • 2011: 0
  • 2010: 1 (upheld)
  • 2009: 1 (upheld)
  • 2008: 1 (upheld)
  • 2007: 1 (upheld)
  • 2006: 0
  • 2005: 0
  • 2004: 0
  • 2003: 1 (overturned)
  • 2002: 1 (upheld)
  • 2001: 3 (1 overturned, 2 upheld)
  • 2000: 3 (2 overturned, 1 upheld)
  • 1999: 0
  • 1998: 2 (1 overturned, 1 upheld)

As you can see 2015 and 2016 are the busiest calendar years for calls for review.  The next two are 2000, 2001 with three a piece.

The Council voted 3 – 2 to reform the call for review process by requiring two City Councilmembers initiate the call for review process.  Both Trish Spencer and Frank Matarrese voted against reforming the process.



  1. After watching what happened to the couple on St. Charles trying to convert their garage into an artist studio, I felt there should be some checks and balances in the Call for Review process to make sure the process does not get abused. Watching both the Planning Board hearing and the City Council hearing, and hearing the crack in the applicant’s voice when he said, “I’m emotional and I’m trying my best to be a good neighbor” – did it for me.

    I was glad to see City Council Member Marilyn Ezzy-Ashcraft’s referral to reform the Call for Review Process. She’s right, when there is no skin in the game for the person calling a project for review, it’s not fair to the initial applicant who has made
    a huge investment in time and money in the process.

    While the new process doesn’t stop the Call for Review process, it does force a council member to pause and reflect one more time and secure a partner on the council before calling a project for review — and that is good in my opinion.

    Thanks to Council Member Marilyn Ezzy-Ashcraft’s leadership on this issue!

    Comment by Karen Bey — March 15, 2017 @ 7:35 am

  2. so if a citizen can persuade a council member to do a call for review, that citizen is out no funds, however we as tax payers are out of the cost for referral. How about having staff keep track of the referral costs and who is responsible for them. At least we as citizens would have a better idea of who is spending our money. Its called transparency.

    Comment by John P.trumpisnotmypresident — March 15, 2017 @ 8:35 am

  3. I understand the frustration of a homeowner or small project owner whose approved and essentially non-controversial plans have been called for review by a single Councilmember. The proposed change would probably, in the end, not make a huge difference, and if the effect is to cut down on frivolous appeals, fine. Just remember, though, that when changing the rules, the shoe may go on the other foot at some point (– not just talking about Alameda). In our case, it might be a larger project, or just some aspect of a project, where right-thinking and good reason, however you define those, demand a second vote for review, but the deadline has passed to get it or there is not a second member eager to force his or herself and the entire Council to go on the record on a controversial issue. (We have, for example, criticized the different but comparable phenomena of abstaining or self-recusal.)

    As an aside, I’m struggling to understand why, if we are trying to make a statistical point (alternative or otherwise), the number of recently approved projects (potentially subject to a call for review) has no bearing on the question of whether the number of projects actually called for review has recently become excessive.

    I understand the skin the game point. I would be most concerned about it when it is done away with in order to relieve would-be appellants (especially those with means) from paying fees in cases that are essentially private disputes.

    Comment by MP — March 15, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    • Look at it this way as well. Some of the calls for review were done even when staff had already told the City Council that they had no jurisdiction over the matter (two cell phone tower calls) or were called because someone wanted to have the final approval on a significant project (Site A Development plan) or someone wanted to pad his/her resume before an election (Street names). These are unnecessary and would have been avoided had the requirement for two Councilmembers to sign on existed.

      As to whether there were less reviewable/appealable decision by the Planning Board in previous years, remember that the previous years encompass the Bayport project and all approvals around that, the affordable housing projects associated with the Bayport project, the redesign of Summerhouse, Alameda Landing and all associated use permits and operating hours, the Willie Stargell extension, Catullus’s initial design of FISC property that included ClifBar and the aftermath after ClifBar, all the redesign of South Shore Center including operating hours. So, no, the Planning Board was no less busy prior to 2015.

      Comment by Lauren Do — March 15, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

  4. We were in a recession until the last three years so people were not doing projects, therefore; I don’t think it is good to compare the number of calls for review year to year. What is more interesting is the number that were overturned which speaks to the fact that another board’s opinions made a difference in the outcome of projects.

    The Alameda Architectural Preservation Society (AAPS), an organization that frequently advocates for calls for review by its mission, recently experienced a case where “skin in the game” has caused a real problem. Due to an administrative error in the 1980s, some buildings were omitted from the city’s historic study list. When brought to the city’s attention, the staff insisted the organization pay $1000 to have this matter discussed by the Historic Advisory Board to pay for “staff time”. The time had already been spent in the 1980s, only a small amount of clerical time was required to add the collection of buildings to the list. It took over a year and the efforts of Frank Matarrese to get the city to determine that the HAB should be involved in not just this group of buildings, but other groups as well. Ultimately, AAPS did not have to pay the fee but it took a lot of everyone’s time and efforts to arrive at the conclusion. It took impending development and threatened demolition of historic buildings to bring this to a head.

    This is a time when not only transparency is an issue, but I see a growing trend to distance the people of Alameda from the council. Citizens of our city should be encouraged to speak and have their concerns heard and this should be a prioity for the council. This “reform” furthers the distance.

    Comment by Nancy Hird — March 15, 2017 @ 2:06 pm

    • 1. Recession ended Q2 2009.

      2. Re. speakers. Yes in principle, but the sample skews strongly to old and/or insane. The people who show are just not representative of the city as a whole.

      Comment by BC — March 15, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

    • Nancy, I disagree that Councilmember Ezzy Ashcraft’s suggested reform “furthers the distance” between the City Council and the people: if a Call for Review is to be successful it will need three (3) votes in any case. Many of our mayor’s capricious actions–including the use of Calls for Referral–have only wasted the staff ‘s and City Council’s time and energy without improving the quality of our governance or our community.

      Comment by Jon Spangler — March 16, 2017 @ 8:26 am

  5. B.C. , I agree with the last part of your #2. sentence. ” The people who show are just not representative of the city as a whole”. I don’t mean to be negative or positive, just a statement.

    Nancy Hird, can you elaborate a little further on (quote,” I see a growing trend to distance the people of Alameda from the council”.?

    Comment by John P.trumpisnotmypresident — March 15, 2017 @ 8:20 pm

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