Taxing the Sun 

El Cerrito's utility tax will apply to solar-power users; plus, a Richmond candidate's hidden baggage, and a Richmond publisher's hidden agenda.

What in the name of Mother Nature are El Cerrito leaders thinking? City bureaucrats have finally done it this time -- they've found a way to tax sunlight. That's right: Measure K, the 8 percent utility users' tax, will apply to people who get their electricity from solar power, says City Attorney Janet Coleson.

City Finance Director Mary Dodge says that while solar users were theoretically covered under the old ordinances, taxing them was impractical because there weren't reliable meter readings to go on. Under the measure's broad definition, the sun apparently qualifies as a taxable power supplier. Homes with solar power will have to self-report their electricity usage to the city so they can be taxed, Coleson says.

There is some precedent for attempts to tax sun power. Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission considered charging solar users "exit fees," but backed off under pressure from environmentalists who argued the fee would dissuade people from switching to solar. A similar argument is now being made by local solar-power vendors like Eric Nyman of Berkeley's Sun Light & Power, who says El Cerrito should be encouraging solar power, not penalizing it. "It's shortsighted to say the least," he says.

In fairness, the tax probably won't affect a lot of people. (Nyman says his company has outfitted fewer than a dozen properties in El Cerrito with solar energy systems.) Maybe that's why city councilmembers didn't discuss whether the tax would apply to solar power before putting the measure on the ballot. That, and perhaps the fact that in the thirteen years the tax has already been on the books, it never has been applied to solar power. El Cerrito is asking its voters to authorize the tax following a court ruling that required it to do so. The tax generates $2.2 million a year for the city, or about 12 percent of the general fund.

Even Donald Maynor, the consultant who wrote the updated ordinance for the city last year, says he didn't intend the tax to be applied to solar power, and solar power is never explicitly mentioned. Maynor is considered the state's preeminent expert on utility users' taxes, and has helped fifty cities around the state write or rewrite their ordinances. None of those cities, he says, have ever interpreted theirs to apply to solar power. Only one -- Berkeley, of course -- specifically exempted "renewable resources" like solar power from the tax, he says. Maynor, however, says the measure was drafted broadly to account for new technologies. "You can probably tax batteries if you want to use the literal language," he says.

So how did the city get the idea? The culprit might very well be one of the measure's most staunch opponents, Brit Johnson, who says he deduced that solar would be covered after reading the full text of the ballot measure. Then, of course, he made a big issue of it, forcing city officials to have to say if he (the husband of Councilgal Gina Brusatori) was right or not. And so Johnson concedes that maybe, just maybe, he might have given city taxers an idea. "I guess I get the booby prize," he says.

Feeder's Homework

Who the hell is Kathy "Storm" Scharff, and why is she accusing Richmond's former city manager of getting his job because he was sleeping with a councilmember? That's what a lot of Richmond politicos are wondering this week as they digest the series of incendiary campaign mailers that arrived in mailboxes earlier this month and were paid for by the police and firefighters' unions.

The front of the piece featuring Scharff, a council candidate who is backed by the public safety unions, reads: "Out of Economic Chaos a new leader." But that's not the juicy part. Inside is a quote purportedly made by Scharff about ex-Richmond City Manager Isiah Turner, who abruptly quit last year shortly before it was revealed that the city had a $35 million deficit. She says it's a blueprint for disaster when the city council hires its top executive "because he is your friend ... hometown boy ... politician ... romantic relationship ... best man at your wedding."

Turner was indeed a hometown boy who grew up in Richmond. As for the best man thing, that refers to Turner's pal, Councilman Gary Bell. (Bell says Turner wasn't best man, just a groomsman. Turner also was named city manager a year before Bell was elected to the council.) But as for the "romantic relationship" comment, well, that left even other councilmembers scratching their heads. Yes, there have been rumors, but to say something so scandalous during a campaign based on rumor seems, well, irresponsible.

Feeder wanted to ask Scharff if she stood by the quote, or if it was even accurate. After all, it appeared in a brochure her own campaign didn't produce. Scharff, however, didn't return messages, so it was off to Point Richmond, where she was scheduled to appear with several other candidates. Spotting her frosted blonde mane down the street, Feeder asked, "Are you Kathy?" She smiled widely and said, "Yes." The smile quickly disappeared once Feeder identified himself. Thinking fast, he blurted, "Who was the 'romantic relationship' you were referring to in that mailer?" With audible irritation, Scharff said: "You'll have to do your homework. The quote stands." Then she disappeared into the Hotel Mac.

Feeder decided to do some homework alright but on Ms. Scharff, not the "romantic relationship." The 56-year-old candidate seems at first glance to be something of a blank slate. She showed up in town about five years ago after spending nearly two decades working in Fresno's city government, a fact detailed in the same brochure in which she accused Turner of screwing the council in more ways than one. What the brochure doesn't say -- and what even some of her supporters don't know -- is that she ran unsuccessfully for Fresno City Council in 1993. Back then she was known as Kathy Lowry (her hubby is named Scharff) and ran on a "tough on taxes, tough on crime" platform and got thousands of dollars in donations from developers, according to the Fresno Bee. She was defeated by a long-haired 26-year-old dude who had voted only once in his life.

Lowry evidently had political baggage from when a 1987 grand jury investigated her role in the disappearance of certain phone records when she was an aide to ex-Mayor Dale Doig. "The grand jury report concluded that someone had illegally removed the missing telephone messages from a City Hall closet," the Bee reported in an April 6, 1993 story. "Lowry and Doig claimed their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify in January 1987. The phone message books were originally sought by the Bee in connection with stories about Doig's political contacts." An earlier Bee story identified one of those contacts as a cocaine dealer.

That concludes this week's homework assignment. Does Feeder get an A, Kathy?

Kevin Shelley: A Swell Guy

It's been a deservedly rough couple of months for Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. If you haven't been following the stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, they can be summed up like this: Corrupt asshole boss uses public money to advance his political ambitions. Allegedly. Here are a couple of recent sample headlines from the Chron: "US to probe how Shelley spent funds" and "Shelley took check in his office, donor says. It's a misdemeanor ..."

The real crime during the whole saga journalistically speaking, that is may have been committed last week by the Richmond Globe. Under the headline, "Kevin Shelley, California's 28th Secretary of State," the Globe fluffed twenty column inches to tell readers what a great guy Kev-O really is and about his myriad lifetime accomplishments. "Kevin is passionate about his work, and equally passionate about his family," the un-bylined story gushed.

The Globe, which also has editions in Berkeley and Oakland, is the new black-owned newspaper in the East Bay. In its short existence, it hasn't distinguished itself as an "informative and credible publication," as its masthead boasts. The paper reads more like a chamber of commerce newsletter with "news stories" sounding suspiciously like press releases. To wit: the Globe's series of front-page stories on the benefits of Indian casinos (publisher Vern Whitmore is a gaming proponent). And, come to think of it, its Shelley puff piece definitely read like something the secretary of state wrote himself.

So Feeder decided to check out Shelley's bio on his state Web site. And guess what? The Globe ran his propaganda verbatim.

It's unclear whether the Globe printed the bio out of a desperate need to fill space or if Whitmore, a politically active businessman, ran it to serve his own agenda, whatever that may be outside of getting a casino in the East Bay. Thank goodness for independently owned media outlets like the Globe that don't reflect the corporate business agenda -- just the agenda of the guy with the office down the hallway.

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