The Editor's Back Fence

Hiring and Firing Department Heads in Berkeley's City Government: A Legal Sidebar

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 16, 2012 - 11:07:00 AM

A legal point, often misunderstood, is that under Berkeley’s charter the city council can vote whether or not to accept the manager’s hiring recommendations, but after a department head is hired only the manager can fire him or her.

If the councilmembers, including the mayor, wanted to get rid of such an employee and the manager declined to do so, they’d have to fire the manager first. So the mayor and his fellow council members can’t just fire the embattled police chief, even if they want to.

Right now there’s another good current illustration of what this entails. The department head position of Director of Planning is vacant. It was mistakenly reported in a local news outlet that one Eric Angstadt of Oakland had the job, but the mayor and council took great pains at the Monday meeting to say that he had NOT been hired, that the council was just receiving the recommendation and the approval vote wouldn’t be until April 3.

But if you were in any doubt that Angstadt’s got the job nailed, two little slips of the often-loose Mayoral tongue offer further proof. On Monday Mayor Tom Bates let slip that he’d met Angstadt, though only for “a couple of minutes’. Then at the Tuesday special council meeting the mayor spoke approvingly of “our new planning director. ” And it’s not a done deal? 

No one who’s familiar with the revolving door which exists between planning jobs and the development industry should be surprised by this insider information. The erroneous story which reported Angstadt’s selection quoted one of the biggest Oakland developers and a prominent Hayward smart growth proponent as favoring Berkeley’s choice.  

And there are other clues to how the deal went down: Marc Rhoades, Berkeley’s former Director of Current Planning is now a would-be developer married to smart growth lobbyist Erin Rhoades. Marc and his business partner Ali Kashani once thought they were in on the ground floor in the nascent marijuana dispensary market, with pot-ready properties in Albany and elsewhere, especially because Rhoades had snagged an appointment to Berkeley’s marijuana commission. But now the federal government seems, temporarily at least, to have put the kibosh on the marijuana business—a big Berkeley outlet is reported to be closing or at least moving because of federal pressure, and others are on indefinite hold., 

So Rhoades seems to have taken a day job as Benicia’s “interim” planning director—a position which was formerly filled by none other than Eric Angstadt. Did Rhoades promote Angstadt’s appointment to his old department in Berkeley? How would we even know? 

Is your head spinning yet?  

Another wrinkle is that Interim City Manager Christine Daniel herself will be up for review in May, and if the council were to decide to let her go and look further, they’d have to pay her a year’s salary, about a quarter of a million dollars in round numbers.  

The moral in all this, if there is one, is that given the current problems with the head of Berkeley’s police department, the council really ought to take a harder look at who’s being hired to head the city’s planning department, because they’ll be stuck with him for a long time