How the City Works

Alameda Museum    When City Hall opened in 1896, Alameda was 20 years away from adopting the council-manager form of government. In the meantime the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire damaged the building’s signature bell tower. Workers removed the top story of the tower in 1906 and the remainder in 1937.

The City of Alameda was formed in 1872 from the towns of Alameda, Encinal and Woodstock. For the first 44 years of its existence, Alameda was a general law city. This meant that Alameda did not have its own set of rules, rather state laws governed how the city ran. That changed in 1916, when Alameda became a Charter City. 

A document, known as the City Charter, allows Alameda voters to exercise a greater degree of local control than state law provides a general law city. The Legislature permits voters in a Charter City to organize their municipal affairs by enacting ordinances, in essence legislation, different than state law.

This is especially evident today as the state makes the voter-mandated changes that govern cannabis. The Legislature has passed the laws, but are waiting for Alameda and other cities to implement those laws with their own ordinances. 

Under its Charter, Alameda became, and remains to this day, a council-manager form of government. The City Council oversees the city’s policies. The Charter vests “all powers of the city in the City Council … “except the powers reserved to the people or delegated to other officers or boards by this Charter.” 

Under this arrangement, the City Council — Mayor Trish Spencer, Vice-Mayor Malia Vella and Councilmembers Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Frank Matarrese and Jim Oddie — serve at the pleasure of the voters. There was once an exception to this rule. Up until April 20, 1971, the City Council appointed the mayor. Since that date, Alameda mayors serve at the pleasure of the voters. 

The council-manager form of government limits Spencer’s responsibilities and authority. She presides at City Council meetings and acts as the ceremonial head of the city. Her vote at the Council carries weight equal to her fellow Councilmembers. Vella’s role as Vice-Mayor is a simple one: sit in for Spencer. “During the absence or disability of the Mayor, the Vice Mayor of the Council shall perform the official duties of the Mayor,” the Charter stipulates. 

Under Alameda’s Charter, two more officers serve at the pleasure of the voters: City Auditor Kevin Kearney and City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy. As City Auditor, Kearney is responsible for at least one annual audit of Alameda’s finances. His task is to “assure that the City’s financial transactions, accounts and records are maintained in accordance with the requirements of the City Charter, state and federal laws and generally accepted accounting principles.” The Charter prescribes that Kennedy, as City Treasurer, “shall annually recommend to Council an investment policy for the city’s money and monitor and report results of the city’s investment portfolio.

To keep city government flowing effectively and correctly, the authors of Alameda’s City Charter wrote checks and balances into the document. One of these requires that City Manager Jill Keimach, City Clerk Lara Weisiger and City Attorney Janet Kern serve at the pleasure of the City Council. 

As part of her duties as City Manager, Keimach administers and executes the city’s polices. With some exceptions spelled out in the Charter, she enforces ordinances; and appoints, disciplines and removes all officers and employees of the city, subject to Civil Service requirements.

Some of Weisiger’s tasks include organizing formal communications from the public, other agencies and city staff to present to the City Council. She also draws up the agenda for Council meetings. She does this in coordination with Keimach’s office. 

Weisiger also maintains the official city record, as well as contracts, agreements and official Council actions. Her office ensures the timely availability of these records to the Council, public, other agencies and staff.

A City Attorney, Kern has responsibilities that include prosecuting city ordinance violations. She represents city in the courts. Her office also prepares contracts and drafts city ordinances. 
Next week the Sun will look at the city’s departments, boards and commissions.