Agency Brass Fights Candidate 

AC Transit staff members appear to have collaborated with an agency board member to combat his opponent in November's election.

Even though the historic presidential election will dominate politics this fall, plenty of East Bay contests promise to generate excitement during the next two months. There's the Berkeley mayor's race between incumbent Tom Bates and ex-Mayor Shirley Dean. AC Transit board member Rebecca Kaplan is squaring off against Oakland school board member Kerry Hamill in an Oakland City Council race. And voters will be deciding on numerous ballot measures throughout the region. But one down-ballot contest not expected to garner much attention is already producing some unexpected sparks.

It's the race between AC Transit board President H.E. Christian "Chris" Peeples and Oakland transit activist Joyce Roy, and it's a contest with a plenty at stake. The winner could determine the fate of AC Transit's controversial multimillion-dollar deal with a Belgian bus manufacturer (see "The Buses from Hell," 1/23/08) and its much-debated Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would turn the center of some of the East Bay's busiest thoroughfares into bus-only lanes. Roy wants to end the transit agency's exclusive contract with Van Hool bus company of Antwerp and scale back the BRT proposal significantly. Peeples, by contrast, is a staunch supporter of both.

There also is no love lost between the two candidates, nor is there between Roy and AC Transit staffers who vigorously defend the Van Hool bus deal. The battle lines became particularly clear last month, when a longtime supporter of Peeples, William Rowen of Alameda, filed a lawsuit against Roy over her written ballot statement that is to appear in Alameda and Contra Costa county voter pamphlets for the November election. In the lawsuit, Rowen complained that parts of Roy's statement were false or misleading, and asked a judge to strike the offending passages.

But the case would have never gotten off the ground were it not for Peeples. Rowen's Oakland-based attorney David Stein admitted that the AC Transit board president helped obtain a pivotal series of sworn statements from agency staff that Rowen used to make his case against Roy. In addition, Peeples helped get a sworn statement from a Van Hool employee from Belgium. In the end, the sworn statements tipped the scales for Rowen and Peeples and against Roy, who is running a grassroots campaign and defended herself in court.

Peeples did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. But his involvement and that of several AC Transit staffers in the legal case raises questions as to whether the public agency involved itself inappropriately in a political campaign. At the very least, Roy was at a steep disadvantage. As an outsider, she did not have quick access to AC Transit staff or documents that could have helped her case.

Transit agency spokesman Clarence Johnson said that despite the agency's staffers' involvement in the lawsuit, AC Transit itself did nothing improper. But when asked whether agency employees had worked on the lawsuit, and thus, essentially on behalf of Peeples, while on duty, he said he "wouldn't be in a position to know," and then referred calls to Peeples.

Roy said in an interview that she believes AC Transit staffers went after her because she poses a threat to the Van Hool deal. "It seems like they're terrified," she said. Indeed, her election could be the final nail in the coffin to the six-year-old bus contract. The deal has already lost considerable support on the agency's seven-member board of directors. A majority of the board voted in June to oppose another proposed purchase of Van Hools.

On the other hand, if voters reelect Peeples, it could send a signal to board members that they can reinstate their support for the Van Hools without worry. After all, Peeples strongly backed the recent proposed bus buy, which also was pushed by the some of the same staffers that helped in the lawsuit against Roy.

Public documents show that some of those same staffers also have personally benefited from the Belgian-bus contract by taking trips to Europe on the taxpayers' dime. They include Charles Kalb, the agency's procurement and materials director. According to public records, Kalb has flown to Belgium at least seven times since 2001, costing taxpayers a total of $17,642. They also include Jaimie Levin, the agency's director of marketing and communications. Levin has taken at least five publicly funded trips to Europe since 2001, totaling $14,981.

In the end, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled against Roy and ordered her to edit her ballot statement. Roesch disclosed during the hearing that he was "acquainted" with Peeples, but he said they were not "close personal" friends and that it would not affect his decision. However, the judge then proceeded to agree entirely with Rowen's contention that Roy had made several assertions in her ballot statement that were either false or misleading, which is impermissible under state election law.

Public records, however, show that some of Roy's claims were defensible. But she couldn't effectively make her case, because, unlike Rowen, she had no sworn testimony to support her arguments. For example, Roy said in her ballot statement that by purchasing several hundred buses from a Belgian company rather than an American manufacturer, AC Transit was "sending jobs overseas." But Roesch ruled that this assertion had to be deleted because she had no proof that any American jobs had been lost because of AC Transit's buying practices.

Roy also asserted in her ballot statement that the Van Hool contract was a "no-bid" deal. Roy noted in court that the AC Transit board had extended the Belgian-bus deal last year for another five years without putting it out to bid. But Kalb said in his sworn statement that AC Transit did have a bid process before the original contract was signed in early 2002. Roesch, again, ruled against Roy. However, as the Express previously reported, agency staffers tailored their original bid specifications to the Belgium company, knowing that no other American bus manufacturers could match them at the time.

Still, it's clear that Roy engaged in some hyperbole, overstating her case against the Van Hools. In her ballot statement, she said the buses were "untested," when she should have said they had not been tested at the independent US testing facility like American-made buses are. She also asserted that the Van Hools "cost more than American buses," when she should have said they cost more than some American buses. Similarly she asserted that the buses were "hated by most drivers," when she should have said they were hated by many drivers.

And finally, Roy criticized the agency's hydrogen fuel program as being "very expensive and ineffective," adding that the agency had chosen to purchase eight more hydrogen-powered buses from Van Hool for "$3 million each." And while it's true that the agency's first shipment of such buses cost $3.16 million a piece, the more recent purchase, according to Levin's sworn statement, are scheduled to cost $2.275 million per bus.

In the end, Roy clearly went too far in some of her assertions. But it also is apparent that she might have prevailed on others if she had been able to gather sworn statements as Peeples did. However, she was hampered by the fast turnaround time of the case — she didn't see the lawsuit until August 23, had to come up with her official response on August 27, and then had to argue her points just two days later. The case moved quickly because the voter pamphlets had to be printed and mailed to voters, plenty of time before the election.

The lawsuit also distracted Roy's attention from Peeples' own ballot statement, which appears to contain some misleading and false assertions of its own. For example, Peeples says in the statement that since he had been on the AC Transit board, "diesel particulate matter emissions have been reduced by 93 percent." That assertion makes it seem as if he was responsible, while failing to mention the far more significant influence of tougher state emissions standards.

In addition, he also says that "access for disabled passengers has been improved" during his tenure. However, that statement appears to be contradicted by the agency's own records, which show that that the elevated seats on the Van Hool buses are dangerous for people with mobility problems, as this newspaper previously reported.

Of course, Peeples has a history of not disclosing the entire truth. State records show that he lost his law license in 2002 for practicing law while he was suspended by the California State Bar. His suspension was due to his failure to pay his annual bar dues. Then, while on suspension, he made at least ten court appearances and acted as if he was a lawyer in good standing at a time when state law prohibited him from practicing law, records show. His license remains suspended to this day.

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