Thursday, February 22, 2007

Valentine's Eve at Woodfin Suites

By Jonathan Kaminsky
Thu, Feb 22, 2007 at 3:28 PM

Last month, the Express wrote about the firing of 21 possibly undocumented housekeepers in the wake of complaints about Woodfin Suites' compliance with Emeryville's living wage ordinance. An Alameda County judge ruled in early January that the workers be allowed to return to their jobs until the city investigates whether the firings were retaliatory. Now the hotel is locked in a legal battle with a city councilman and housekeeper supporter whom it accuses of threatening several hotel employees during a recent protest there.

On the evening of February 13, Emeryville City Councilman John Fricke, flanked by four union supporters, approached the reception desk of the Woodfin Suites Hotel with the intention of telling General Manager Hugh MacIntosh that firing the housekeepers remained a bad idea. According to sworn statements from three hotel employees, Fricke became irate after a receptionist informed him that he and his party, affiliated as they were with union protestors just outside the hotel, weren't supposed to come inside. Fricke raised his voice, the statements say, and menacingly asked the receptionist if she was sure she wanted to tell a councilman that he wasn't allowed in the building. In a letter to the city council, city manager, chief of police, and city attorney, MacIntosh says Fricke behaved in a "threatening and intimidating manner."

Hotel management eventually filed an application in Alameda County Superior Court seeking a restraining order to keep Fricke at least 500 feet from the Woodfin. On Wednesday, Judge Winifred Smith denied the request.

For his part, Fricke denies raising his voice, and says that upon learning that both MacIntosh and his deputy were gone for the day, he handed over a business card and calmly exited the building. "The declarations signed by the Woodfin employees are not true," he said. "It is troubling ... that it seems that the hotel management has convinced these employees to sign these declarations under penalty of perjury."

In an interesting turnabout, the hotel has asked the city to investigate the actions of Fricke, who has been a vocal proponent of the investigation into Woodfin's attempt to fire the 21 housekeepers. Here is a copy of MacIntosh's letter to the city:

    Dear Gentlepersons:

    This letter shall serve to inform you of a disturbing incident which took place on the evening of Tuesday February 13, 2007 in the main lobby of the Woodfin Suites Hotel, and which merits the immediate attention of the Emeryville city government. Specifically, on February 13, 2007, Councilmember Fricke acted in a threatening, harassing and wholly unprofessional manner toward several young employees of the Woodfin Suites Hotel.

    At approximately 6:30 p.m. that evening, Mr. Fricke entered the front lobby of the hotel and approached the front desk. He was accompanied by two Union representatives later identified as Wendall Chin of the Central Labor Council of Alameda County and Barry Luboviski of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, as well as at least one woman with a camera. The men claimed to be from the City Council and asked to speak with me regarding Measure C. The front desk agents on duty informed them I was not in the hotel at the time and asked how they could be of assistance. One of the men replied "we want to know why you're firing these people."

    At that point, one of our young front desk agents, Ms. Raquel Recio, asked Mr. Fricke and his companions whether they were part of the protest that was going on at the time outside the hotel, and politely informed the group they were not supposed to be inside the hotel.

    After Ms. Recio's polite statements, several witnesses report Mr. Fricke became extremely aggressive and threatening to both Ms. Recio and the front desk supervisor, Mr. Minh Ngo. Mr. Fricke improperly invoked his title and his public office in a threatening and intimidating manner, and began rapidly questioning Ms. Recio and Mr. Ngo regarding Measure C. Among other things, Mr. Fricke demanded to know whether he could quote them on certain matters, whether employees were going to be fired, whether the hotel would "pay back the money it owes for housekeeping," and whether the employees were aware people were going to get fired. He did not accept the employees' protestations that they were not management personnel, but continued to harass and intimidate them for several minutes.

    Mr. Fricke's alarming and completely unprovoked behavior caused a significant disturbance to hotel business and upset both guests and employees who witnessed his tirade. After several minutes of this harassing and entirely inappropriate questioning, during which one member of the group took unauthorized photographs of our employees, the group departed the hotel and our employees were able to promptly call the police. Needless to say, this type of behavior from a sitting Councilmember is extremely concerning. Mr. Fricke's behavior was deplorable and alarmed several of our employees to the point they felt the need for police involvement. Not only has Mr. Fricke obviously abandoned any appearance of judiciousness or impartiality as an elected representative in matters regarding Woodfin Suites Hotels and the implementation of Measure C, he has done so while invoking his position on the Council.

    In light of Mr. Fricke's recent behavior, I am genuinely concerned for the safety and well-being of our guests and employees. Accordingly, our hotel intends to seek an appropriate restraining order prohibiting Mr. Fricke from entering the hotel premises or further accosting Woodfin employees. In addition, please be advised Ms. Recio has indicated her intent to file a formal police report on this matter, and to seek a public apology for Mr. Fricke's behavior. We also request the City government undertake an appropriate investigation of Mr. Fricke's actions in this matter and take all necessary steps to ensure such an incident is not repeated.

    As you may know, there is a protest scheduled for Saturday, February 17, 2007, at the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville. During past protests, our hotel has experienced instances of noise violations, including the use of bullhorns. The noise generated by the protestors was sufficient to disrupt and annoy hotel guests. We reported these matters and were fortunate enough to be assisted by several courteous, professional and capable members of the City of Emeryville police force.

    However, we have been informed by the policy officers in the last week that the City would not issue citations for violations of the Emeryville Noise Ordinance No. 03-002 as a result of these protests, despite the extreme noise and its affect on our guests. This ordinance is intended to prohibit excessive and annoying noises, and specifically includes noises generated by loud gatherings, as well as amplifying devices such as bullhorns. In fact, the ordinance provides certain provisions regarding law enforcement response. Specifically, a law enforcement response applies when the noise violation is determined by a law enforcement officer to constitute a violation of the City Municipal Code, or otherwise threatens the public peace due to the size of the crowd, unruly behavior, or destruction of property.

    We anticipate possible unruly behavior, and prolonged noise of the type prohibited by the ordinance. Based on the behavior of Councilmember Fricke, we are very concerned about possible instances of physical violence and vandalism by the protesters at the demonstration scheduled for Saturday. While Woodfin will make every effort to provide for the comfort and security of our guests and employees, we also request the City direct appropriate efforts to enforce its noise ordinance and ensure the public safety.

    If you wish to discuss any of these matters in further detail, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you for your attention and anticipated cooperation.

    Very truly yours,

    Hugh MacIntosh

Whichever side you believe, one thing is clear: The case from which all this stems is unlikely to be resolved amicably. The city will report the findings of its investigation into the firings in April, after which the case will once again land in an Alameda County courtroom.

and Stephen Buel

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