The Oakland City Council deserves credit for nullifying the Landscaping and Lighting Assessment District vote last month. As reported here July 9, city officials had manipulated the vote by grossly overcounting "yes" votes from the Port of Oakland. In recent weeks, however, new information has surfaced that shows the campaign appears to have been far more pernicious than originally thought.
At a public meeting in May, Peralta Community College District Chancellor Elihu Harris said he received three separate calls from Mayor Ron Dellums, the mayor's chief of staff David Chai, and City Administrator Deborah Edgerly to convince the district to abstain or vote yes on the tax. A "no" vote from such a large landowner might have proved fatal to the measure, because the value of each vote was dependent on how much property the voter owned. That top city officials would have used public resources to openly lobby on behalf of a political campaign was troublesome enough. But according to Harris, the measure's backers went further than merely lobbying. He said they told him that even if the tax measure passed, Peralta wouldn't have to pay it — even though the law would appear to require otherwise. If what Harris said is true, what Dellums, Chai, and Edgerly did was way out of line.
Still, Harris was no whistleblower. He revealed what Dellums, Chai, and Edgerly allegedly said in order to convince the college district's Board of Trustees not to vote against the measure. At a May 20 public meeting, the Peralta board appeared ready to cast a "no" for fear that the tax could cost the district nearly $230,000 a year. But Harris told the board there was no reason to vote no, because city leaders had promised that the district wouldn't have to pay the tax. "There are no provisions for collection of the money, which is their point, that if we didn't pay it, they have no way of making us pay," Harris said, according to a videotape of the meeting on the district's web site.
The chancellor and former mayor further explained that, under state law, the city can't place a lien on publicly owned property such as the college district's land, like it can on private property. "There's no provisions against public entities that fail to pay," Harris said. And then he added even more damning evidence, saying that city leaders not only couldn't collect but didn't want to. "They've requested we not pay," he told the board. In the end, these arguments worked, and the Peralta board chose to abstain from the vote. The revelation about Harris' comments was first published last week by the local web site, ORPN.org, which is run by the grassroots group Oakland Residents for Peaceful Neighborhoods.
Paul Rose, a spokesman for Dellums and Chai, confirmed that both men called Harris to urge the district to vote yes or abstain, but denied that they said Peralta wouldn't have to pay the tax if the measure passed. Harris did not return a phone call seeking comment.
When told of what Harris said at the public hearing, Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who was influential in getting the tax nullified, said it troubled him. "It's inappropriate for elected officials, or in this case, the city administrator, to tell any public agency that they wouldn't have to pay a tax they're supposed to pay," he said.
So who's telling the truth? If it's Harris, then city leaders' actions were grossly unethical. It's beyond the pale that they would convince a public agency not to vote against a tax by promising that it wouldn't have to pay, while meanwhile telling private property owners in Oakland, including low-income folks barely getting by, that they would have to pay. It's inexcusable, and it makes you wonder if similar promises were made to other public agencies that own a lot of land.
The Disinformation Campaign
News organizations are supposed to seek the truth. So it's surprising when a newspaper engages in a campaign of misinformation and deliberate distortions. But that's precisely what happened — and appears to still be happening — at the East Bay's dominant dailies, the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune.
The disinformation campaign took place during the past year as top executives at the Times and the Tribune attempted unsuccessfully to stave off a union drive. The two papers, along with several other East Bay dailies, officially combined operations in August 2007, one year after MediaNews, the owner of the Tribune, bought the Times and several of its sister papers. The Tribune had been a union shop before the merger, but afterwards, MediaNews unilaterally stopped recognizing the Newspaper Guild.
Almost as soon as a new union drive started last fall, top managers at the Bay Area News Group began distorting the truth, sometimes spouting absolute falsehoods, about the Newspaper Guild and its historical role at the Trib and its sister papers, the Daily Review of Hayward, the Argus of Fremont, the Tri-Valley Herald, the Alameda Times-Star, and the San Mateo County Times. For instance:
Publisher John Armstrong strongly implied to reporters, photographers, and copy editors in an internal online forum that if the papers unionized, then workers could no longer negotiate raises on their own. "Any issues related to the employment that fall within the parameters of wages, hours, and terms and conditions of your employment must be negotiated with the Guild," Armstrong wrote in a May 2008 missive. "Otherwise, management could be charged with 'directly dealing with you' and attempting to bypass the union." This was a gross mischaracterization. Guild-represented workers at the Trib and the other union papers have routinely negotiated individual raises without union involvement for years, and the Guild has never objected to employees receiving higher pay at the newspapers. I know because I was a Guild leader at the Trib and the Daily Review from 1998 to 2004.
Armstrong and Kevin Keane, vice president for news with BANG-East Bay, along with other top managers, also repeatedly told employees that unionizing would be "divisive." But Keane failed to note that he had an excellent relationship with union leaders when he ran the Tribune and its sister papers.
In addition, Carl Hall, a longtime San Francisco Chronicle reporter who took a sabbatical to help lead the union drive, said that some top managers told employees that the Guild had refused at least one worker who tried to retrieve his or her signed union card from the union. "It was completely fabricated," Hall said. "As far as I know, no one ever asked to have a card back."
And finally, last month, Keane and Armstrong laid off Sara Steffens, a veteran reporter for the Times and co-chair of the union organizing drive. Last week, Marshall Anstandig, an attorney representing the newspapers, reiterated the organization's assertion that Steffens was not terminated because of her union leadership. But management has been hard-pressed to explain why it would lay off someone of Steffens' caliber. She's a prolific, multitalented writer who has won numerous journalism awards over the years and is widely viewed as one of the East Bay's marquee reporters. She also happens to be president of the East Bay Press Club (full disclosure: I'm on the club's board of directors). "I was shocked; I really didn't see that coming," Steffens said of her termination. "But now it's very clear to me that they didn't want me in the Walnut Creek newsroom." After the layoff announcement, the union rank and file voted Steffens to be their leader as she fights her termination.
Last month, the Guild filed three charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board. The Guild alleges that the company violated federal law by terminating employees in retaliation for their union activity. The Guild also alleged that the company unilaterally decided to stop offering merit-pay increases in retaliation for unionizing. And finally, the Guild alleged that the company has illegally required laid-off employees to waive their rights under federal labor law in order to obtain their severance pay. Steffens has refused to sign the waiver, so she has not received severance.
The company has denied any wrongdoing. According to Anstandig, the layoffs were not based on job performance or union activity. "If you look at the list, there are multitalented people on there," he said. The company, he said, eliminated positions that it felt it could do without. Steffens covered poverty, the homeless, and social services. Anstandig also said that the company did not want to lay off people in more vital positions and then move others into their jobs, a process often referred to as "bumping."
However, the newspapers appeared to have engaged in just this sort of bumping in order to get rid of another vocal union supporter. Geoff Lepper, who was the beat writer for the Golden State Warriors, was laid off last month and then was replaced in his job by another veteran reporter, Marcus Thompson II.
In the end, many top level managers appeared to take the union drive personally, as if unionizing amounted to a direct attack on them and represented a vote of no confidence in their leadership. That appears to have been particularly true of Keane. Lepper said that during a discussion in June about the union, Keane became agitated and said that he viewed unionizing as a personal affront. "His exact quote was: 'Voting for the union is like shooting me in the head,'" Lepper said.
I was surprised to hear about Keane's comments. When I worked under him at the Tribune, we had a terrific relationship. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him, he's a good news man, and I like him personally. When we were at the Trib together, there was never any divisiveness between us that I was aware of. The same was true with other union leaders. In fact, he had great relationships with them, including former Trib reporter, Sean Holstege, who was the head of our union. Keane often had drinks with us. In fact, he even attended the wedding of another prominent union member and good friend of mine, Ian Hoffman.
I called Keane to talk to him for this story, but he directed inquiries to Anstandig, who in turn said he would not comment on things that Keane allegedly said.
Assuming that Keane did make these statements, it's my guess that he was under tremendous pressure to stop the union. After all, it's no secret that Dean Singleton, who runs MediaNews and could fire Keane at any time, absolutely detests unions. Still, as a journalist, Keane and other members of the MediaNews management team had a basic duty to run an honest campaign, and not distort the truth or promulgate misinformation.
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