A Minnesota company that is the exclusive US distributor of Belgian buses is the primary financier of two East Bay ballot measure campaigns involving AC Transit. Public records show that ABC Companies of Faribault, Minnesota, the distributor of Van Hool buses of Belgium, is the main financial supporter of the campaign for Measure VV, a parcel tax in Alameda and Contra Costa counties that would benefit AC Transit. ABC Companies also is the primary backer of the campaign against Measure KK, a Berkeley measure that could kill AC Transit's controversial Bus Rapid Transit plan.
Both Van Hool and ABC Companies stand to profit if Measure VV passes, because it would allow the financially troubled transit district to buy more buses. AC Transit has come under intense criticism over the past year for its exclusive deal to buy Van Hool buses, which records and interviews show are dangerous for drivers and riders with mobility problems. In addition, the financially strapped public agency plans to use Van Hool buses for its Bus Rapid Transit system.
Van Hool, which is based outside Antwerp, Belgium, has not made a financial contribution to the pro-Measure VV or the anti-Measure KK campaigns because it is illegal under federal law for foreign companies to attempt to influence US elections. Officials from ABC Companies in Minnesota did not return a phone call seeking comment to explain why they're financing two campaigns nearly 2,000 miles from home. But for some, the reason appears to be simple. "They're spending a quarter of a million dollars in the hopes of getting themselves a lot more," said Robert Lauriston, a Measure KK supporter.
Records show that ABC Companies has pumped $250,000 into the "yes" on Measure VV campaign, known as the "Committee to Safeguard AC Transit." In turn, that same committee donated $20,000 to the "no" on Measure KK campaign, which is known as the "Coalition for Effective Government." In addition, Cummins West, a San Leandro-based exclusive supplier of Cummins diesel engines which are used in the Van Hool buses, donated $40,000 to the pro-Measure VV campaign. Through October 18, the last official reporting date, the pro-Measure VV campaign had raised a total of $322,316 and spent $297,702. The anti-Measure KK campaign had raised a total of $40,998 and spent $23,680.
In recent weeks, both the pro-VV and anti-KK campaigns have papered the East Bay with glossy mailers. In addition, the pro-VV campaign has shelled out a significant amount of funds on television advertising, running primetime spots on CNN and MSNBC, especially during MSNBC's hit shows Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show. Both Olbermann and Maddow are left-leaning commentators with strong followings in the liberal Bay Area.
Typically, East Bay ballot measure campaigns raise money from citizens and groups throughout the area. But records show that the pro-VV and the anti-KK campaigns are being financed by several AC Transit contractors, in addition to ABC Companies and Cummins West, and by members of the agency's executive team. For example, AC Transit's Washington DC lobbyists, Van Scoyoc Associates and Simon and Company have donated $3,000 and $500, respectively. In addition, the agency's Sacramento lobbyist Lynn Suter contributed $1,000.
AC Transit's top executives, meanwhile, have donated a total of $2,800 to the pro-VV campaign. They include General Manager Rick Fernandez ($250), General Counsel Kenneth Scheidig ($200), Assistant General Manager Mary King ($250), Deputy General Manager Jim Gleich ($500), Deputy General Manager Nancy Skowbo ($250), Chief Technology Officer Blake Pelletier ($250), Chief Maintenance Officer Joe DeProspero ($250), Chief Transportation Officer Kathleen Kelly ($500), and Chief Human Resources Officer Kurt De Stiger ($250). Gleich, who is heading up the Bus Rapid Transit system plan, also is listed in campaign finance records as one of the principal officers of the pro-VV campaign. He also has donated $250 to the anti-KK campaign. In addition, Fernandez, Scheidig, DeProspero, and Pelletier have all taken expensive junkets to Europe during the past seven years in connection with the Van Hool deal. Finally, AFSCME Local 3916, the union that represents AC Transit managers and white-collar employees, donated $3,916 to the pro-VV campaign and $5,000 to the anti-KK campaign.
Measure VV would double the parcel tax on homeowners in Alameda and Contra Costa counties from $48 to $96 annually. It's expected to raise about $15 million a year for AC Transit. If it fails, transit agency officials have indicated that they plan to raise fares and cut service. The agency has lurched from one financial crisis to another over the past decade, repeatedly raising fares and slashing service at a time when it has vigorously pursued the Van Hool bus deal.
Measure KK, meanwhile, would give Berkeley voters the final say over whether Bus Rapid Transit will come to that city. Currently, the Berkeley City Council gets to make the decision of whether the two center lanes of Telegraph Avenue and Shattuck avenues should be turned into bus-only lanes with center-of-the-street platforms. If Measure KK passes, some supporters say it could kill BRT because AC Transit would lose the federal funding needed to implement the plan.
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