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Rob Bonta and the Making of a Recall Election

If Rob Bonta wins the 18th Assembly District seat in the Nov. 6 election, the effort to recall him from the Alameda City Council will be moot. If not, a recall election could cost the city $200,000 to $400,000.

Perhaps you've seen them around town during the past week or so — a group of Alameda residents collecting signatures on a petition to recall Alameda City Council member and Vice Mayor Rob Bonta.

Even if they collect the required 8,374 signatures (20 percent of the city's registered voters), their efforts could be moot. Bonta was the top vote-getter in the , with over 36 percent of the vote. He faces second-place candidate Abe Guillen in the Nov. 6 general election. If Bonta wins, he would need to resign from the city council — and in that case, no recall election would be held, according to City Clerk Lara Weisiger.

So why the recall attempt?

"There's no guarantee Bonta will get to the Assembly. Some polls show Guillen ahead," said David Howard, who is spearheading the recall effort, in an email. "Also, furor over his actions came to a boiling point on July 17th when he voted to just ignore Measure A and approve over 2,400 new housing units in Alameda, on the main island aside from Alameda Point."

Bonta was part of the majority when city council voted 4-1 to approve zoning rules that would allow new multi-family housing to be built in Alameda, as part of the Housing Element of the city's General Plan. Councilman Doug deHaan cast the single "no" vote.

Who's behind the recall? Howard, perhaps best know for his Action Alameda News website, has been the public face of the effort.

"I am facilitating on behalf of the many people who called for a recall," Howard said. "As such, I end up as de facto spokesperson. I do prefer to think of myself as a 'facilitator' of what other people are asking for, rather than a "leader" — people want a recall, but don't necessarily understand how to navigate the process, or how to do it. I responded to those demands to facilitate it to get rolling."

Thirty-five people in addition to Howard signed the "notice of intention to circulate recall petition," including Leland Blandon Traiman, a candidate for the City of Alameda Health Care District (Alameda Hospital) board in the Nov. 6 election.

 Why Recall Rob Bonta?

The recall proponents cite other reasons beyond Bonta's vote on the housing issue. Noel Folsom said via email, "Why did Bonta vote to dismiss the former interim city manager when he'd been on the council less that three months?

"And maybe a final question: Has he ever thought that he was selling short those who worked to get him elected or who voted for him by running for another office when he's only about halfway through his current term on the council?"

The "notice of intention" lists the following grounds for the proposed recall:

  • BONTA took office December 2010, after firefighters, corporate developers and their affliates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking his opposition, using fake names and distorting the facts.
  • BONTA represents those corporate developers andspecial interests that funded his election campaign, NOT Alameda.
  • BONTA voted to override MEASURE A. This contradicted his campaign statements before the League of Women Voters. Alameda is an island and our transportation access is dependent upon neighboring Oakland. Measure A, approved by voters three times, limits housing density inresponse to this constraint.
  • BONTA supported giving away the GOLF COURSE to developers.
  • BONTA forced voters to gather more than 10,000 signatures to preserve open space.
  • BONTA abuses the public trust to reward SPECIAL INTERESTS.
  • BONTA supported a flawed sales tax measure designed to reward his campaign donors.
  • BONTA gave firefighters raises AND shortened their work week. A firefighter can cost taxpayers over $220,000 in their first year alone.
  • BONTA announced he was running for higher offce just six months into his first term. Instead of staying to work on Alameda's finances and our multi-millon dollar unfunded public safety pension obligations.
  • BONTA is just looking for the quickest way out of town.

Bonta's Response

In a phone interview Friday morning, Bonta characterized the recall as "a cynical effort to undermine my Assembly campaign." The recall proponents, he said, are "a miniscule group that doesn't move Alameda forward."

Bonta said his intention when he ran for city council was to fulfill his four-year term and then seek re-election to the council for another four years.

"In the middle of my public service, it became absoutely clear that the state was not a helpful partner to Alameda," he said. Massive state cuts and obstacles to school funding, redevelopment and other issues persuaded him that Alameda needed representation at the state level, he said.

Bonta filed the following answer to the notice of intent with the city clerk's office:

"I am proud of my work as Councilman to protect Alameda's quality of life.

"While state law requires increased multi-unit housing, I helped keep Measure A completely intact in the city charter without changing a single word.

"After reviewing all of the options to save our golf course, I seconded the motion to kill the land swap proposal at the Chuck Corica Golf Complex and I support protecting all 45 holes.

"I supported passing a local measure to raise additional funds for police and fire protection, libraries, parks and other services. This is because these funds would stay local and could not be taken by the state. It is why I supported a similar measure for schools that passed last year.

"I worked with firefighters to reform their pension and retirement health care costs. Alameda firefighters have had no raises for seven years and continue to work 56 hours per week. We've made the tough decisions to balance the budget without layoffs or cuts to public safety services.

"This recall petition saddens me. It is based on completely false information and distracts from what is good about our town and people, the progress we are making and the bright days ahead."

What Happens Next?

A recall is a slow process, and its steps are spelled out in precise detail in the state Elections Code, said Alameda City Clerk Lara Weisiger.

It took a little over one month for the recall proponents to gain official approval for their petition, including a 10-day period for Bonta to file his written response and some days for the proponents to make minor changes to conform to the state code. 

The petition was approved Sept. 5, and the proponents have 120 days from that date to collect the necessary signatures, Weisiger said.

The next step is a period of 30 working days for the city clerk's office to check a random sample of signatures to see if they are registered Alameda voters. If registered voters are below a certain percentage of the total signatures, the city clerk may need to check all signatures — another 30 working days. Finally, if enough signatures are approved, the matter goes to the city council, which sets a date for the recall election.

A recall doesn't come cheap. If the city is able to consolidate the recall with another election, or conduct a mail-in ballot election only, the bill will come to about $200,000, Weisiger said. If it's a stand-alone election with traditional polling places, the cost would double, to about $400,000, she said.

However, if Bonta wins the 18th Assembly District seat, no recall election will be held, Weisiger said.

"You can't recall a council member who isn't on the city council," she said.

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Ann W. September 16, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Jon, I agree too...I hope the lesson was learned as well. There certainly was enough public outcry about the sudden change on Park Street. Even if all the legalities were in place which I am sure they were, and public hearings took place 5 years ago, obviously preparing the community again in advance I think would have done much to mitigate ill will between the public and the city.
William Smith September 19, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Anonymous Johnson, I whole heartedly agree with your statement that "David Howard and Doug DeHaan might be a little shrill, but their frustrations are not misplaced." The City and public agencies frequently and deliberately obscure controversial parts of public business until they are prepared to make a decision. Two recent examples are the new multi-family zoning and the axing by the VA of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, which you will be hearing more about soon. Although John Russo and EVERY member of the City council have greatly increased our ability to participate in City meetings by publishing agendas 10 days in advance, there is obviously much more that could be done to make our government more transparent. I would encourage those of you who agree with Anonymous J. and myself that our City government needs to continue to open up to join me in supporting Janet Sullwold for City Council. She can articulate the concerns of those who are frustrated with our current government, and I expect her to be able to negotiate changes to address those concerns. Although Alameda citizens may occassionally disagree on some issues, like housing, we can all agree that the ultimate decisions are ours, and even if we empower representatives to make those decsions for us, they simply MUST actively seek our opinions and facilitate processes to let us be heard. Support Jane Sullwold for City Council and continue opening up our government.
Paul Beusterien October 08, 2012 at 04:49 PM
While I support the measure, I get depressed seeing the many Measure D signs on our lawns. It reminds me that we're avoiding a more fundamental issue - We Alameda citizens do not trust the City Council. While it is possible to spend thousands of citizen-hours at meetings, signing petitions and voting to overturn their most egregious actions, this does not scale for the many other decisions we expect the city council to make. How about getting a city council that we can trust to represent our interests instead?
Jon Spangler October 08, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Paul B, There is no reason to fundamentally mistrust our elected city council. They are exercising their responsibilities well--including their decisions on the golf course, which went against staff recommendations and supported citizen input at several points. Studying the Cowan proposal--which they were required to do by law--took a while but their decision buried the idea once and for all. The mistrust is sometimes fanned by some members of the community for their own personal motives, which I fail to understand, but it is unwarranted. I have been attending city council meetings regularly since 1998 and our current elected officials are doing a better job than their predecessors at managing our affairs. In fact, the swap first surfaced under now-disgraced former Interim City Manager Gallant, who had a terrible effect on city affairs and set the stage for Raymond Zack's death, among other things. Now that she is gone Alameda is in much better shape, But IF the city council had approved the Cowan swap for the Mif Albright (a long-shot if there ever was one), the existing language in the Alameda City Charter would have provided sufficient grounds to reverse it in court: 1) the proposal included cash that made the deal no longer a swap, and 2) the properties were clearly nothing like equivalent in value, either recreationally or economically. In short, our system works much better than you think it does.
Paul Beusterien October 10, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Jon, Thanks for the response. It's good to hear the perspective of someone who's been so actively engaged with the council. I've only been to a few meetings and get most of my news from the Sun and Journal. However, it's really hard to see reasonable explanations for some of the things that have happened in the last few years: 1) Putting a tax increase on the ballot at the last minute - making it hard for opposition voices to be heard - having extra cost by making it a single issue election. How is this not sneaky? 2) Even if pulling the trees followed the letter of the law, why do an expensive project of questionable value when major city needs are being neglected? - ostensibly the reason for Number #1. 3) If the land swap was so obviously going to fail, why let it drag out so long as so much citizenry pain and expense? 4) Leaking confidential emails - if not corrupt, seems at least grossly incompetent.

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