Russo Versus the People 

Oakland's city attorney is going gangbusters to prevent citizens from voting on a major waterfront development.

Oakland voters must terrify John Russo. At least that's how he's acting in court, where the city attorney has teamed up with the city's largest housing developer to keep a citizen group's referendum off the ballot. Russo and the developer, Signature Properties, are methodically drowning the group in legal fees, which may force it to abandon its cause.

The Oak to Ninth Referendum Committee, which includes Helen Hutchison, president of the Oakland League of Women Voters, wants to let city voters decide whether Signature should be allowed to build 3,100 condos along the Oakland Estuary. The committee began circulating a petition after the city council greenlighted the plan on July 18.

Within three weeks, the development's opponents had collected 25,068 signatures — six thousand more than necessary. But ever since a private sit-down in late August with Signature's lawyers, Russo has done his best to kill the petition.

Russo first ordered the city clerk to invalidate the petition, claiming it was illegal because signature gatherers had attached a draft copy of the council's approval — not the final approval. Never mind that the city clerk's office had instructed the group to do so.

This compelled the citizens to file a lawsuit, which Russo and Signature tried to get thrown out. In December, though, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith ruled that Russo may have been wrong to toss the petition, and said he would have to prove his case.

Undeterred, Russo and company combed the state's archaic election code for other technicalities. Now they're claiming the citizen group broke the law because it didn't tell voters it was using both volunteer and paid signature gatherers. They also claim the gatherers misled voters when they told them the city was "giving away" the land, and that the project would make the waterfront "inaccessible."

Stuart Flashman, attorney for the committee, says it's ridiculous to require grassroots petitioners to be state election law experts. "The initiative and referendum process is a right for common citizens; it's not a right for lawyers," he told the court last week.

In addition, Flashman argues, petitioners are allowed to engage in hyperbole, just like politicians. Sure, Oakland isn't literally giving the land to Signature, but the Port of Oakland is selling the sixty-plus-acre property in a no-bid deal for $18 million — less than a third of its likely market value. And the densely packed condos will certainly hamper public access to the waterfront.

But the developer's high-priced lawyers need to be fed, so they've embarked on a wide-ranging campaign to depose every member of the citizens' committee and all of its signature gatherers. That means each individual has to pay legal fees, and take time off work to testify. Helen Hutchison's deposition lasted two days. "They're trying to force us to spend a bunch of money," Flashman said. "It's called a discovery war."

Flashman tried to halt it last week, but Judge Smith ruled against him. Sean Welch, a Mill Valley attorney for Signature, said he was surprised to hear that the depositions were such a burden. But he's not about to let up. "There are a large number of people on the committee," he explained.

Rachel Wagner, one of Russo's deputies, told the court that her and Russo's intentions were honorable. They were merely trying to protect the rights of voters to not be duped by unscrupulous petition gatherers, she said with a straight face.

When asked why Russo won't simply let voters choose, spokeswoman Erica Harrold said, "We're just trying to uphold state law. We can't pick and choose what laws we want to uphold." It's silly, she added, to suggest that the city attorney was afraid Oakland voters would reject the city's condo approval.

No, what's silly is that voters may never get a say in it.

Aim for the Bush, Kid

It's no secret that Berkeley has some of the most accommodating laws anywhere when it comes to the homeless. But there's a convincing argument to be made that the hardcore street people who shoot up, get drunk, scream at the world, and then piss all over the sidewalk are destroying Telegraph Avenue as a viable retail corridor. And just a few blocks away, the same thing is happening at one of the city's best parks for kids.

For years, parents from all over the East Bay have toted their children to Willard Park to run and play. But in the past few years, one area parents rely on — the restroom — is off limits.

That's because a group of homeless people has commandeered the area around it as an outhouse. They urinate all over the bathrooms, inside and out, and the stench is overwhelming. "If you have a kid that has to go to the bathroom — forget it," said Sabrina Kabella, a Berkeley mom and public school teacher. "It's just disgusting. I can't believe how bad it is. It's a nice park, but the city won't do anything about it."

Things have gotten so out of hand that even diehard homeless-rights advocates, such as City Councilman Kriss Worthington, are frustrated.

Worthington, who lives a couple of blocks away, said he has witnessed the problems firsthand. "I'm fiercely against cracking down on the homeless, but I'm also passionately against people screaming at all hours of the night," he said.

Worthington wants City Manager Philip Kamlarz to reinstate a city youth program in the now-vacant room next to the restrooms. "When we had staff on site, it wasn't perfect, but ... because the space was being used, it was clear that [the troublemakers] didn't really want to be there."

Kamlarz is scheduled to present a set of options for the park by late April. If Worthington's plan, or something similar, fails, the families may be the ones who move on, leaving Willard to follow in Telegraph's footsteps.

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