Letters for the Week of October 31, 2012 

Readers sound off on the Oakland Zoo, sex trafficking, Richmond's soda tax, and more.

"Oakland Zoo Operators Violate Election Laws," Election 2012, 10/24

The Blind Voter

If I vote for a new tax, I need to be confident it's really needed — all these different taxes really do add up for individuals like me, and for small businesses. If the zoo has reported year-end "surplus funds" in recent years, to the tune of millions of dollars, and it is not required to open its books to show us how it is spending money it already gets from the City of Oakland and other public sources, how can I tell if it really needs the money for "humane animal care"? I feel blind on this one. All I know is I've gotten my third full-color, glossy campaign mailer from the zoo, and there are so many full-color, double-sided lion signs everywhere, and all that is not cheap. I can't help but conclude the zoo has more money in its wallet than it's leading me to believe.

Karen Asbelle, Oakland

Disgusted

As a longtime resident of Oakland's "flatlands," I am disgusted with the zoo's board of directors. They say they have to tax residents in order to give the animals proper care — in other words they can't afford it now — but they can spend $800,000 on this campaign.

And they have already gotten commitments for tens of millions for their expansion. Why didn't they raise the money for animal care instead? As for the tax: Somebody explain to me why it's fair that a homeowner should pay the same tax as the owner of a multi-unit apartment or why a small business should pay the same as a multimillion-dollar corporation.

John Reimann, Oakland

Follow the Money — If You Can

Congratulations on your journalistic courage in recommending a "no" vote on A1. Among the many reasons for opposing this measure is the fact that it's almost impossible to follow the money. Should A1 pass, funds will be spent by the zoo operator, the East Bay Zoological Society, any way it sees fit, since the provisions of the measure are riddled with loopholes and the society does not have to abide by open government protections for the public.

Special tax districts such as BART, EBMUD, the East Bay Regional Park District, etc. must have publicly elected boards of directors and abide by the Brown Act and the California Public Records acts. As a private nonprofit corporation, the society has a privately selected board, and does not have to abide by either of the aforementioned open government acts that allow the public to "follow the money."

And those interested in following the money spent in the campaign won't have an easy time of it. The colored mailer that the Express mentions appeared without a disclaimer which is the way that the public can track campaign expenditures through the Fair Political Practices Commission. Without a disclaimer, there's no way of knowing how much an "informational" mailer with strong campaign overtones costs or, more importantly, who is paying for it.

On Thursday night at a Piedmont League of Women Voters forum in response to a question of how much the society was spending on its campaign, Zoo Director Joel Parrott responded "One million dollars." Beyond the obvious contradiction of asking the public to pay for "needed repairs" to its animal enclosures while bankrolling a mega-spending campaign is the more obvious question of who is funding this campaign. Huge chunks of money are being dropped into it without the public being able to "pierce the veil," as the Fair Political Practices Commission likes to say.

The question remains that if Measure A1 can generate $110 million plus of public money to fund any zoo expansion project (and all legal analysis shows it can be), what special interests might benefit from those development projects? And, are those special interests tied to the campaign funding? The only way of finding out is to follow the money — something that, in this case, is exceedingly hard to do.

Laura Baker, Berkeley

A1's Accountability Problem

I was very indecisive about A1. Although it does allow for expansion, interviews say that the expansion is already funded and the zoo plans to go ahead with it regardless.

Although it is a private organization, it includes accountability measures and a sunset clause if money is misused. At the end of the day I was left with two significant issues that can't be contested: One is that it disproportionately taxes businesses over individuals, apparently to make its cost more palatable. The other is that it requires the zoo to process exemptions from low-income elderly people, and it has no legal obligations with regard to correct management of private financial information.

If this was a uniform tax and a publicly managed zoo, the situation would be different.

I am also concerned that they are entertaining such an expensive expansion if they truly need additional funding to care for their existing exhibits.

Derrick Coetzee, Berkeley

Oversight Is Overdue

The zoo and East Bay Zoological Society have long resisted detailed fiscal oversight, and even though open books and periodic financial reports are mandated by the management contract the society has with the City of Oakland, the city does not enforce it, and the zoo does not volunteer the information. Such strict oversight is long overdue.

Thomas DeBoni, Fort Myers, Florida

A1 Is About Expansion

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