Monday, October 26, 2015

No Charges in Lake Merritt Drumming Incident, OPD Says Noise Complaint Was Not A Priority

by Sam Levin
Mon, Oct 26, 2015 at 6:17 PM

The high-profile case surrounding a white Oakland resident's noise complaints against Black and Latino drummers at Lake Merritt has not resulted in any criminal charges, according to the Oakland Police Department. In a lengthy statement sent out late last Friday, OPD spokesperson Johnna Watson said there has been a "great deal of misinformation" circulating about the incident, which has sparked widespread debates about gentrification and racial profiling in the city.

As I reported last month, a small group of drummers with the Oakland-based group SambaFunk! were drumming in the early evening on Sunday, September 27 when multiple OPD officers showed up in response to the complaints of a white man who apparently lived nearby. According to OPD, the caller alleged that three of the drummers had assaulted him. The drummers, led by Theo Williams, artistic director of SambaFunk!, have vehemently denied those accusations — and have alleged that the caller had assaulted Williams when he showed up to the park and grabbed Williams' wrists. 

After hours of taking statements from people on the scene, OPD officers issued citations for battery to two members of the drumming group and to the initial caller, according to OPD's latest press release. The police statement said officers on the scene did not issue any citations for a noise complaint and did not handcuff anyone. In an interview after the incident, Williams argued that he felt the police response was excessive and biased and that the cops had mistreated the drummers while generally taking the side of the white caller (who police have not named). According to Williams, roughly a dozen OPD officers ultimately responded to the call that night.

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Monday Must Reads: More Cracks Found in Bay Bridge Steel Rods; FEMA Urges Californians to Buy Flood Insurance Before El Niño Hits

by Robert Gammon
Mon, Oct 26, 2015 at 9:36 AM

Stories you shouldn’t miss:

1. An independent engineer has discovered more micro cracks in pivotal steel rods on the new Bay Bridge, thereby increasing concerns of catastrophic failure of the $6.4 billion span, the Chron reports. The engineer, who was hired by Bay Area transportation officials, reported finding the tiny cracks on steel rods in areas of the bridge outside of the main tower, which had been the main focus of concern. Caltrans now admits that it failed to inspect the large steel rods before they were installed on the bridge.

2. FEMA is urging Californians to buy flood insurance — even if they don’t live in normal flooding zones — before El Niño brings torrential rains this winter, the LA Times$ reports. Four years of drought and a series of wildfires in the state have greatly impaired the ability of land to absorb water, raising fears of devastating mudslides — like the one that swamped part of Southern California earlier this month. "It's almost like asphalt," said Roy Wright, of Federal Emergency Management Agency, referring to the parched and fire-scarred earth. "When rain hits, it just conveys straight down very quickly."

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Friday, October 23, 2015

FCC Votes to Slash Exorbitant Fees for Prison, Jail Phone Calls

by Sam Levin
Fri, Oct 23, 2015 at 4:42 PM

  • file image / illustration by roxanne pasibe
The Federal Communications Commission took a major step this week that will make it more affordable for prison and jail inmates across the country to call their loved ones. As we investigated in a February cover story, "Exploiting Inmates," phone companies and correctional facilities reap big profits by forcing inmates to pay exorbitant fees to speak with their families by phone. Telecommunications companies and detention centers financially benefit from phone charges and effectively have a monopoly over these services behind bars, which has resulted in steadily climbing fees in recent years.

According to the FCC, in some prisons one minute of phone time can cost as much as $14. Yesterday, the FCC, which has regulatory authority over these prices, voted for the first time to cap rates for local and in-state long-distance inmate calls and to slash its existing cap on interstate long-distance calls by up to 50 percent. 

As part of the new regulations, the FCC also added a number of restrictions to the add-on fees that inmate calling service providers have often charged — fees that have in some cases increased the cost of calls by as much as 40 percent. According to the FCC, the new rules entirely prohibit most add-on fees by closing certain loopholes while also strictly limiting the few fees that remain. Historically, these fees and surcharges have made it very challenging or altogether impossible for families to stay in touch with loved ones behind bars. The fees can rapidly deplete inmates' financial accounts, as we described with the story of Rita Figueroa, who served time in the West County Detention Facility in Richmond for an immigration charge.

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Friday Must Reads: Bay Wetlands Restoration Dramatically Boosts Bird Populations; Monster El Niño Brings Threat of East Bay Hills Mudslides

by Robert Gammon
Fri, Oct 23, 2015 at 9:54 AM

Stories you shouldn’t miss:

1. A sweeping effort to restore wetlands around San Francisco Bay during the past decade has resulted in a dramatic increase in shorebird populations, the Mercury News$ reports, citing a new US Geological Survey study. The number of shorebirds has doubled — from 100,000 to 200,000 — following a landmark 2003 deal to transform 15,000 acres of old salt ponds around the bay into wetlands. The federal and state governments have spent $93 million on the restoration effort, but will need to spend about $1 billion to finish the job, which scientists say should also help protect the Bay Area as sea levels rise due to climate change.

2. The monster El Niño weather pattern forming off the West Coast promises to not only bring torrential rains to the Bay Area this winter, but also the threat of mudslides in the bone dry Oakland and East Bay hills, the Chron$ reports, citing a California Geological Survey report. Areas in the state that have been devastated by wildfires this summer face a special threat from mudslides this winter. This year’s El Niño is expected to rival that of 1997-98, when mudslides and flooding ravaged California.

Hurricane Patricia's expected path. - NOAA
  • NOAA
  • Hurricane Patricia's expected path.
3. The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere is bearing down on southwestern Mexico today and threatening the lives of thousands of people, the AP reports (via SF Gate). Hurricane Patricia is a Godzilla-sized Category 5 storm with sustained wind speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour. The UN’s World Meteorological Organization is comparing Patricia’s strength with that of Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 dead or missing in the Philippines in 2013.

4. The virulent bacteria outbreak that struck the South Bay this week has spread to Alameda County and has sickened more than one hundred people in the region, the Chron reports. The outbreak of the highly contagious pathogen shigella began in a San Jose Mexican seafood restaurant and continues to spread.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Alameda Councilmember Proposes Temporary Moratorium on Rent Hikes, But Tenants Group Is Unimpressed

by Steven Tavares
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 5:38 PM

Tony Daysog.
  • Tony Daysog.
For more than a year, tenant activists in Alameda have routinely described horror stories of residents, including low-income people and seniors, being displaced by exorbitant rent increases of up to 50 percent. This week, Alameda Councilmember Tony Daysog unveiled a proposal to enact a 45-day moratorium on rent increases of more than 10 percent.

Daysog’s proposal is set to be reviewed early next month at a special meeting dedicated to the rent crisis. It's the first concrete proposal to ease the burden on renters, which account for just over half of the residents in Alameda.

In Daysog’s detailed six-page proposal, he stressed his initial goal is to stop excessively high rent increases and to “adopt legislation meant to begin to cool the rental market down immediately upon adoption.” Daysog is also recommending an additional ordinance to stop mass evictions at a single building. His plan would require landlords to pay two times the fair market rate to the evictees plus $1,000. A relocation fee, Daysog believes, will serve as a deterrent for landlords to rapidly increase rents.

The moratorium proposal, however, doesn’t go nearly far enough, according to members of the quickly growing renters advocacy group, the Alameda Renters Coalition. “Ten percent a year is apparently okay in his book,” said Catherine Paulding, a five-year renter in Alameda who is also the coalition’s lead organizer. “You can guarantee everybody is going to get a 10 percent increase. They would be getting permission from the city council.”

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Oakland Planning Commission Turns Down Proposal for a Giant Wooden Deck on the Waterfront

by Sam Levin
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 2:06 PM

  • Signature Development Group
The Oakland Planning Commission last night declined to approve plans for a proposed giant wooden deck along the Oakland Estuary after activists raised concerns that the project's lackluster design could doom it to failure. The wooden deck project at Embarcadero Street near 9th Avenue is part of Brooklyn Basin, the massive mixed-use housing and retail development now underway along the Oakland waterfront, just southeast of Jack London Square. As part of the 64-acre project of Signature Development Group — which is on track to include 3,100 units of housing and 200,000 square feet of commercial and retail space — the developer has proposed to build the giant deck as part of a series of parks along the waterfront, which is currently underutilized and in some places cut off from public access. 

The wooden deck, which would roughly be the size of two football fields, is known as Shoreline Park, and it's the first of five proposed adjacent parks in the Brooklyn Basin plan. Shoreline Park will be located on the site of the historic Ninth Avenue Terminal building, which will be mostly demolished as part of the development. Over the last month, park advocates have criticized Signature's proposal for failing to include inviting features or significant greenery. 

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Oakland Planning Commission Tables Secondary Units Plan and Hits Pause on Controversial New Rules

by Darwin BondGraham
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 11:15 AM

Potential new development under the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan by 2035. - CITY OF OAKLAND
  • City of Oakland
  • Potential new development under the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan by 2035.
Late last night, the Oakland planning commission voted to delay dozens of major changes to the city’s planning code that would have dramatically rewritten zoning rules in the downtown, Lake Merritt, Broadway-Valdez, and Coliseum areas, and streamline approval for giant real estate projects throughout the city while reducing opportunities for the public to provide input.

Other proposals before the commission included easing rules on secondary units, and amending the city’s transitional and supportive housing regulations to comply with state laws. But the packet of proposed changes, numbering 42 different amendments to the planning code, stuffed in a 617 page PDF file released only last week, was simply too big and controversial to approve. The commission instead asked planning staffers to return to a future commission meeting with non-substantive and less controversial changes as separate items so that there can more robust debate on the more substantive proposals.

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Thursday Must Reads: Bay Area Regulators Ban Wood-Burning Stoves; UC Vows to Admit More California Students

by Robert Gammon
Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 9:22 AM

Stories you shouldn’t miss:

1. Bay Area regulators have banned all wood-burning heating devices — including wood-burning stoves — in new homes in an attempt to reduce air pollution in the region, the CoCo Times$ reports. The move by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which takes effect in November 2016, is the first of its kind in the nation. The district previously banned all fireplaces in new home construction. The district had proposed to also require home sellers to replace fireplaces with cleaner heating devices, but instead agreed to a watered-down plan that requires sellers to issue health warnings about the dangers of wood burning.

Janet Napolitano.
  • Janet Napolitano.
2. UC President Janet Napolitano is vowing to boost enrollment of California students next year at all UC campuses, including its most impacted schools, Cal and UCLA, the LA Times$ reports. Napolitano plans to provide full details of her proposal next month. The UC system has come under increasing criticism for denying access to California residents in favor of out-of-state and international students who pay much higher tuition. The legislature has offered a $25 million funding bonus if the UC system increases its enrollment of in-state students by 5,000 next year.

3. The Oakland City Council adopted a watered-down plan to help tenants fight unlawful evictions in the city, the Chron reports. The original plan called for spending $1 million on beefed up enforcement on landlord scofflaws, but the council rejected that proposal and instead approved paying $340,000 to nonprofits to help educate tenants about the protections they have — but only if the city’s administration can find the money to do it.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

California Prisons Implement Policy Allowing Transgender Inmates to Access Surgeries

by Sam Levin
Wed, Oct 21, 2015 at 2:08 PM

  • Transgender Law Center / photo of Quine courtesy of SFINX Publishing, The Women of San Quentin
  • Michelle Norsworthy (l) and Shiloh Quine.
In a move that advocates said is a major victory for transgender rights, California has implemented a policy enabling transgender prison inmates to access sex reassignment surgeries behind bars. The policy, which went into effect yesterday, is the first of its kind in the nation and comes on the heels of two legal battles led by the Transgender Law Center, an Oakland-based organization. The new rule establishes a process by which trans inmates can request surgery and sets specific criteria for prison officials to use when determining whether to grant the requests. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) — like jail and prison systems across the country — houses inmates in facilities that correspond to the gender assigned to them at birth. That means that unless they have completed reassignment surgery, trans women are forced to live in men's prisons and vice versa. Denied access to facilities that match their gender, trans inmates face a wide range of harassment, violence, abuse, and discrimination behind bars, according to prison reform advocates and LGBT rights groups. One report found that in California, 59 percent of trans inmates said they were sexually assaulted compared to 4 percent of the general population.

And according to data CDCR sent me last month, there are currently 363 trans women living in men's prisons in California and 22 trans men in women's prisons. Those numbers refer to inmates who are undergoing hormone therapy for "gender dysphoria," the medical term CDCR uses to describe trans inmates. 

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Wednesday Must Reads: Federal Housing Officials Say Rents Going Down in Oakland; Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus Seeks Job in Tucson

by Robert Gammon
Wed, Oct 21, 2015 at 10:11 AM

Stories you shouldn’t miss:

1. Federal officials have decided to reduce housing aid to low-income residents in Oakland because they claim that rent prices have declined in the city — even though real estate experts say the opposite is true and that rents have been skyrocketing, the Chron reports. It’s not clear how officials from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development came to the conclusion that rent prices are going down, but affordable housing activists contend that HUD is just seeking to slash aid to poor people. The median rent price in Oakland is now $2,650 a month, according to Zillow, nearly 40 percent higher than it was two years ago, and yet HUD claims that rents have dropped slightly in the city. HUD’s move promises to force the displacement of more low-income people from Oakland.

Chris Magnus.
  • Chris Magnus.
2. Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, widely regarded as the most progressive chief in the Bay Area, is a finalist to become Tucson’s new police chief, the Chron reports. It’s not clear why Magnus is seeking to leave Richmond, which has experienced a dramatic drop in crime since he took over the police department in 2006. Magnus gained notoriety last year when he participated in a Black Lives Matter protest — a move that angered rank-and-file cops in Richmond.

3. The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reaffirm the city’s sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants, the Chron reports. The board's vote effectively affirmed that Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi did nothing wrong earlier this year when he released Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the Mexican national who later killed Kathryn Steinle of Pleasanton. Mirkarimi correctly released Lopez-Sanchez — and did not inform federal immigration officials about it — under San Francisco’s sanctuary law because Lopez-Sanchez had not been convicted of a violent felony during the past seven years.

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