Albany Races Feature Old Foes 

Will the city's balance of power remain with the incumbents?

In Albany, two out of the five city council seats are up for grabs, and the names on the ballot may give voters a sense of déjà vu: They're the same four candidates who also ran in 2006. Two are now incumbents, Mayor Joanne Wile and Councilwoman Marge Atkinson, and two are again seeking office, Caryl O'Keefe and Francesco Papalia.

The candidates come to the table with diverse experience. Wile spent her career as a public health administrator, Atkinson taught in the Albany Unified School District, O'Keefe was an economist, and Papalia — the only candidate who hasn't yet retired — is a real estate agent. And though O'Keefe and Papalia lost in 2006, they've been visible and vocal in city politics ever since.

Albany has managed to weather the recession without layoffs, furloughs, and major service cuts. As members of council through the economic crisis, Atkinson and Wile take pride in four years of balanced budgets. "You find a way to deal with it," Atkinson said. But in the coming year, the City of Albany must address a projected $300,000 budget deficit.

Wile, who was appointed mayor by her peers on the council, said she would help close the gap with grants and collaborative partnerships. She has already taken initiative — helping place interns from UC Berkeley and AmeriCorps in city departments, and working on three grant applications. O'Keefe said she would raise revenues by increasing the commercial tax base instead of raising rates on residents. Papalia said the same, stressing the importance of two commercial projects on the horizon: renovation of the Safeway on Solano Avenue and construction of a Whole Foods and senior housing on San Pablo Avenue. These major projects have been significantly delayed, Papalia said, because when one of only two Planning Department staff members left, the position went unfilled. As a cost-saving measure, a hiring freeze went into effect in the fall of 2008.

The fate of the 190-acre waterfront was a divisive issue in 2006. In April of this year, private consultants completed a report on how residents envision the contested area. The resulting report, "Voices to Vision," was completed with participation from more than 1,000 Albany residents but not Golden Gate Fields, which sits on 102 acres of privately owned land. Atkinson and Wile consider the project an accomplishment. They got elected on the promise that they'd make sure there was no mall on the waterfront and residents generally said they wanted minimal development. Wile stressed the transparency of the study, and Atkinson said the results mean that "We have an idea of what we will accept" should another development opportunity arise.

Papalia said it was the wrong time to spend $600,000 on the report, and called the study one of the "giant boondoggles of the last four years." O'Keefe said the money could have been better spent. Without money to develop the public land on the waterfront, O'Keefe said, "I think it's likely to stay in the sad shape it's in now." There's a distinct us versus them divide between the incumbents and challengers. Four years ago, Wile and Atkinson shared a campaign platform and materials, and this year they'll again share some expenses. In office, they've often agreed on issues before the council. O'Keefe expressed concern over the "bloc voting of Atkinson, Wile, and [Robert] Lieber," and Papalia criticized the same three, calling them "a slate movement in running our city."

The question of health insurance coverage for city council members is another issue that divides the incumbents from the challengers. Councilmembers currently have the option choosing more costly Blue Shield insurance over the Kaiser coverage available to city employees. It was an agenda item at city council meetings in July and again in September. But the city's Social and Economic Justice Commission recommended that city council members cap their coverage and receive the same plan available to the staff. Last month, Atkinson, Lieber, and Wile voted to take no action on the issue, meaning that Blue Shield coverage will remain an option for them.

"It's a created issue for people who run against us," Atkinson said, adding that there are many facets to the issue. O'Keefe disagreed. "I have a very different viewpoint on what it means to be an elected official," she said. In her opinion, an elected official should never take more than the city staff gets. In 2006, O'Keefe lost to Wile by less than 300 votes.

Wile and Atkinson pride themselves on increasing communication between the city and the school district during their time in office. Wile is on the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Clean and Green Task Force, Alameda County's Stopwaste Committee, and the University Village Planning Subcommittee. Atkinson helped start Transition Albany, a community group dedicated to helping Albany residents find ways to lower their carbon footprint. Atkinson also is chair of the Disaster Policy Advisory Group.

O'Keefe serves on the Charter Review Committee, and has been on the Campaign Finance Reform Committee, Sustainability Committee, and Library Board. Papalia is a member of the Waterfront Committee, which is working to address the area's growing dog population and number of homeless encampments. In October, he will present a plan to renovate a seating area above the beach known as the Cove using funds from a grant for park improvements.

For such a small town, the 2006 city council race had a lot of controversy. Wile apologized publicly for taking some of Papalia's campaign materials and replacing them with her own, and a lawsuit against O'Keefe and others alleged violations of election laws. A judge ruled that the case was a nuisance lawsuit, and O'Keefe and her co-defendants were eventually awarded attorney's fees.

The stakes and the economy have changed since then. With the waterfront off the table, there's no endorsement from the Sierra Club or other backers. Wile is asking her supporters for modest $25 to $50 contributions. Both of the incumbents said they plan to spend less on their campaigns. "I think it's back to what I'd call a normal election," said Atkinson.

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