Monday, April 18, 2016

Town Business: 'Overly-Aggressive' Police Raid, Bank Fraud, Gun Laws and More

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 10:06 AM

A California-legal rifle with a bullet button (located between the trigger and magazine).
  • A California-legal rifle with a bullet button (located between the trigger and magazine).
This week the Oakland City Council has an agenda packed with lawsuit settlements, gun policy legislation, and several key affordable housing items.

'Overly-Aggressive' Police Raid: In April 2013 Oakland and San Leandro cops raided an E. 22nd Street Oakland apartment in search of a suspect wanted as part of an investigation of a gang that had been “plaguing an Oakland housing complex,” according to the Oakland City Attorney. But a lawsuit filed in federal court last April alleged that after the police had searched a downstairs apartment and taken their suspect into custody, they proceeded to force a family living in a different apartment upstairs onto the street. The police ordered Monique Miles and her four children, her grown daughter Chelsea Miles, and her mother Pamela Miles to wait for approximately two hours on the sidewalk half a block away while officers “ransacked” their apartment, the lawsuit claimed. The Miles family maintained they had no connection with the suspect taken into custody by OPD.

Attorneys for the Miles family wrote that, “[w]hen the family went back inside their apartment, they found it a complete shambles, throughout. Closet doors were broken and broken off, and the contents pulled out and spread on the floor. Cabinets and bureau drawers were emptied onto the floor, shelves were cleared, furniture was turned over; and many items of property were ruined.”

According to the lawsuit, the search was conducted by San Leandro and Oakland cops.

The Miles family's attorneys called the raid “unlawful and over-broad,” and said that it resulted in a “flagrant violation of their [clients'] basic rights.” The lawsuit specifically alleged Fourth Amendment violations – unreasonable search and seizure.

Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker disputed the allegations and initially sought a dismissal on the grounds that OPD and SLPD officers were searching for an armed and dangerous suspect. According to court records, Parker maintained that OPD and San Leandro cops had merely been conducting a “safety check” of the Miles apartment, and that at no time did the officers do any damage to the Miles family's property.

In January the City of San Leandro settled with the Miles family. Now the the City of Oakland is agreeing to pay the Miles' family $22,000 to withdraw their lawsuit.

Bank Fraud: Starting in about 1992, two dozen of world's largest banks, insurance companies, and securities brokers began running a massive scam operation to steal public funds from local governments across the United States. The scam targeted a little-known corner of the financial universe called “municipal derivatives.” When cities like Oakland issue bonds, they usually can't spend all of the money immediately, so the city then invests these dollars to ensure that they don't lose value over time while the projects the money is intended to benefit (new roads, sewers, buildings, etc.) are being built.

Financial companies are supposed to compete for the business of taking these public funds and investing them. But what the banks did was organize a conspiracy to rig bidding on municipal derivative contracts, thereby reducing the amount of money the cities would earn on the investments. The extra money went instead to banker profits. This went on for years, and untold millions were stolen.

In 2008 Oakland was one of the plaintiff cities to bring a lawsuit against the banks alleging a conspiracy to violate US antitrust laws. Over the past several years a lot of the banks at the center of this conspiracy have been settling with Oakland. The latest is National Westminster Bank, PLC, a British financial company. “NatWest” will pay Oakland $20,000 to drop claims against it.

In 2013 Wells Fargo paid Oakland $200,000 to drop claims. In 2014 GE Capital paid Oakland $281,750 to drop the lawsuit. Insurance giant AIG paid $325,000 to Oakland also in 2014. Last year JP Morgan Chase paid $200,000 and the French bank Societe Generale paid $263,089.

None of the banks have admitted wrongdoing, and no one was criminally prosecuted.

Gun Laws: The city council is set to pass five resolutions Tuesday night supporting five bills in the state legislature that would further regulate firearms.

One of the bills would close the so-called bullet-button loophole. Bullet buttons are mechanisms that detach magazines from rifles. Current law requires that magazines on certain types of rifles be fixed to the gun and not quickly removable, otherwise the gun is classified as an assault weapons and falls under the state's ban. Gun makers responded to this law by putting bullet buttons on assault rifles so that a shooter has to use a tool or a hard object, like a bullet, and not a person's finger, to eject the magazine. Rifles with bullet buttons are classified as a simple rifles, not assault weapons, and can be legally owned.

Still, many gun owners hate the bullet button rule and have responded to the requirement by devising all kinds of tools that make removing a magazine simple and fast. Proponents of the assault weapons ban say this has undermined the ban on assault weapons, so now the legislature hopes to completely revise the law so that rifles which have bullet buttons on them are considered assault weapons and therefore banned.

Affordable Housing Income Thresholds: The plan to redefine income limits for an affordable housing program, so that more middle-income households can purchase homes in Oakland, is on the council's consent calendar for Tuesday night.

As I've previously reported, the change would allow renter households that earn up to 120 percent of the median area income to receive mortgage subsidies to purchase homes in Oakland. City staff say the change is important because an increasing number of middle class families can no longer afford to live in Oakland.

But affordable housing policy experts say the proposal is flawed because it will divert resources away from low-income Oakland renters who are in much greater danger of being displaced.

Impact Fees: The council will also vote to adopt impact fees on Tuesday night. I've written extensively about impact fees, perhaps the most controversial housing policy – notwithstanding the E. 12th Street land deal – that the city has dealt with over the past year.

The final version of Oakland's impact fee scheme is as follows:
There will be three geographic zones. Each zone will have different fee levels applied to different types of new housing, and each zone will see its fees phased in over different time periods. Zone 1 includes downtown Oakland, neighborhoods around Lake Merritt, and the Oakland hills — all areas where rents and home prices are highest. This zone will have the highest fees that phase in the fastest, starting with a fee of $5,500 per new apartment unit on September 1, 2016 and ramping up to $22,000 per unit by 2020.

By contrast, Zone 3, which includes much of East Oakland, will have no impact fee on any type of new housing until 2019 when a $3,000 per-unit fee kicks in for multifamily projects. Most of West Oakland will be encompassed by Zone 2, with fees falling between Zone 1 and 3.

Developers would also have the option of not paying impact fees if they include a small number of affordable housing units on-site.

Compared to other cities in the East Bay, Oakland's impact fees are lower and phase in over a much longer period of time. And other cities don't appear to have used Oakland's zoning scheme of applying different fees to different parts of the city. But if readers are aware of some examples, please let me know.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Attorney General Harris: Benicia Has Power to Reject Oil Facility

by Jean Tepperman
Fri, Apr 15, 2016 at 10:03 AM

Kamala Harris
  • Kamala Harris
In a strongly-worded letter sent Thursday to City of Benicia officials, California Deputy Attorney General Scott J. Lichtig wrote that Valero, the City of Benicia's planning staff, and an outside attorney advising the city have all incorrectly interpreted the law, and that Benicia has the duty to regulate land use, and must weigh in on a proposal to expand a controversial Valero oil facility.

As the Express reported earlier this week, Valero's original proposal was presented in 2013 as a simple plan to build a couple of rail spurs from the main railroad line to its refinery, and the city announced its intention to approve the plan without doing an environmental impact review. A torrent of opposition greeted this announcement, however. As a result, the city was forced to conduct three environmental impact reviews and hold public hearings. Then, last February, Benicia's planning commission unanimously reversed approval for the project. Now the oil facility is pending a final decision by the city council.

But Valero and Bradley Hogin, a contract attorney advising the city, have claimed that the federal government's authority over railroads means that local governments are not allowed to make regulations that affect rail traffic — even indirectly. And when they're deciding on a local project, cities are not allowed to consider the impact of anything that happens on a rail line. The legal doctrine Hogin is referring to is called federal preemption. Assuming the city is preempted from blocking it’s oil-by-rail project, Valero has asked the Benicia City Council to delay consideration of the project while it seeks an opinion from the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads.

The Attorney General’s letter sent yesterday included a simple response to this interpretation of the law: "we disagree."

The letter from Harris’s office not only disagreed with Valero and Hogin’s legal opinions, but also stated that to the contrary, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) actually requires the city to consider indirect impacts of the project.

"A failure to include all of a project's potential environmental impacts . . . or to disregard that information in making a decision like the one regarding Valero’s [project], not only would defeat the purpose of CEQA, but would be an abuse of discretion," Lichtig wrote.

Harris’ letter explained at some length that federal authority over railroads applies only to railroads. The Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads, "preempts state or local regulation only if the activity at issue is performed by a rail carrier," the letter said.

Because Valero is proposing to build the project on its own land — rail spurs and related equipment to connect its refinery to the main railroad line — the Surface Transportation Board has no jurisdiction, Harris concluded.

The attorney general’s letter "clearly shows that Valero’s request for a delay was a distraction, designed to delay the inevitable vote to deny this project," commented Andres Soto of Benicians for a Safe and Healthly Community.

The city council is planning to reconsider the Valero project on April 18 and 19. Opponents expect the letter to strengthen their case that the council should immediately vote to deny project approval, rather than wait on the federal Surface Transportation Board to weigh in, as Valero has requested.

"This letter has immense implications for similar oil-train fights in San Luis Obispo and around the country, where the issue of federal preemption has been at the forefront of local permitting battles," wrote Ethan Buckner of, another organization that is opposing the Valero crude-by-rail project.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Oakland Bus Stop Battle Continues, Outcome Unclear

by Sydney Johnson
Wed, Apr 13, 2016 at 9:29 AM

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan wants to reinstate the bus stop at 30th and Broadway in Oakland. - SYDNEY JOHNSON
  • Sydney Johnson
  • Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan wants to reinstate the bus stop at 30th and Broadway in Oakland.
Oakland city officials declared on Tuesday that the widely used bus stop at Broadway and 30th Street will be reintroduced after its controversial removal last October. But no firm date was set for reestablishing the stop, and Summit Bank, which got the stop removed last year, remains adamantly opposed to it being in front of their bank branch, in spite of the fact that AC Transit and Oakland transportation officials say this location is the safest and most efficient.

Oakland's transportation manager Wladimir Wlassowsky said during the public works committee meeting yesterday that his department is in favor of AC Transit's plan, which recommends relocating the bus stop in front of Summit Bank because it would position the stop on the far-side corner of the intersection which is safer for motorists and pedestrians. Summit Bank executives and public relations specialists and security consultants working for the bank expressed fears that bus riders loitering outside the bank's entrance would cause or attract crime, however. Bank executives also said they want to preserve street parking for customers in front of the bank.

But the decision to eliminate the bus stop ran counter to Oakland's stated environmental and transit policies.

"Broadway, and the area around this stop, have been designated as priority areas for transit-oriented development, and the stop removal goes against our policy goals and is hurting people, including seniors and people with disabilities, who are left to schlep extra blocks to another stop, sometimes carrying groceries," said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who is also the Chair of the Oakland Public Works Committee.

Sam Singer.
  • Sam Singer.
Kaplan's initiative to reinstate the stop in front of Summit Bank isn't coming without pushback. Summit Bank recently hired public relations consultant Sam Singer to handle the bus stop controversy. Singer and Summit Bank announced in a press release on Monday that Summit Bank is circulating a petition against locating the stop in front of the bank branch. The petition calls the plan "ill-conceived."

Steven Nelson, President and COO of Summit Bank, said in the press release that the bus stop would present "serious safety and security concerns for [Summit Bank] employees, customers, the disabled, and the community."

David Travers.
  • David Travers.
David Travers, the president of Guardian Security Agency which is working with Summit Bank, told the committee that having people loiter in front of the bank would provide cover for bank robbers or muggers. "It's very difficult to differentiate between someone with evil intent, and someone who's just there to wait for a bus," Travers said.

Singer said that Summit Bank wants the bus stop located in front of the nearby Sprouts market, and Singer portrayed Sprouts as the villain who eliminated the bus stop in the first place. But Sprouts had agreed previously to pay for the bus stop's relocation in order to avoid having it placed in front of their busy street entrance, and city and AC Transit planners agreed that moving the bust stop across 30th Street to the curb in front of Summit made the most sense from a safety and efficiency standpoint.

Advocates in favor of the stop in front of Summit Bank said that Summit Bank's vague security concerns don’t justify the removal of the bus stop. "If security is an issue, there shouldn’t be a bus stop in front of City Hall, restaurants, or anything else," one bus rider told the committee.

"I think it would be pretty easy to do a study of all the banks with a bus stop in front of it and how many had been robbed by bus riders," said Joyce Roy, an 81 year-old Oakland resident who said she used to frequent the stop for medical appointments.

For residents like Michelle Rousey, who has a disability, deciding which corner the bus stop will be located on is less concerning than the fact that no timeline has been set for it’s reinstatement. "People with disabilities and seniors didn’t have a choice with this," Rousey said. "I’ve been riding the bus since I was in a manual wheelchair in the early 90s. The buses have changed a lot, but when you take the stop out, we have to roll further and walk further."

"They say they are working on it, but that could take up to a year," Rousey continued. "For me, that’s too long for something that shouldn’t have bee removed in the first place."

Monday, April 11, 2016

Town Business: Bus Stop Scandal, 'Rigged' City Contract, Affordable Housing for Six-Figure Incomes, and More Body Cameras

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 9:33 AM

  • Paul Sullivan.
Bus stop: Last April, Summit Bank pressured the City of Oakland to remove a frequently-used AC Transit bus stop located on Broadway at 30th Street in front of its Oakland branch office. Bank executives complained to the city that the bus stop caused people to loiter in front of the branch. The bank's leaders told city officials that they feared bus riders would be a source of crime, and that they also wanted to maintain street parking in front of their branch. City officials, including Director of Planning Rachel Flynn and Mayor Libby Schaaf — who received $4,600 in campaign contributions from Summit Bank executives in 2014 — had the bus stop removed even though AC Transit vigorously opposed the decision. Transit advocates complained that this was an example of the city caving to pressure from a politically-connected business and that the city's decision is bad for bus riders, and it runs counter to Oakland's stated environmental and transit policies.

Pressure has been growing to reinstate the bus stop, however. And this week, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan's effort to reverse the decision is coming to the public works committee for a hearing.

“Rigged” city contract: At Tuesday's finance committee meeting the Revenue Management Bureau — the city office that collects most of Oakland's business, hotel, utility taxes, and parking fees, about $156 million last year — is asking for permission to purchase a $1.2 million tax software system to handle the billing and collection of these revenues. The Revenue Management Bureau (RMB) has already selected HDL Software as the winning bidder for the contract.

But there's controversy. Oakland's current provider of tax software, Progressive Solutions, Inc. (PSI) is calling the decision to award the contract to HDL a “rigged” process. According to Progressive Solutions, Oakland's former Revenue and Tax Administrator David McPherson hatched a plan with HDL while he ran Oakland's RMB to break the existing contract with PSI and hand it over to HDL. After breaking off ties with Progressive Solutions last year, and getting the ball rolling on a new contract, McPherson retired from the city. He was immediately hired by HDL, which was already preparing to bid for the Oakland contract. According to HDL's web site, McPherson currently heads up the company's medical marijuana tax program.

According to a protest letter sent by Progressive Solutions President Glenn Vodhanel to the City of Oakland on April 3, his company may seek a court injunction to prevent Oakland from awarding the contract to HDL. Vodhanel wrote in his letter:

We are alleging that the procurement process was corrupt because it appears that the decision to award this contract to Hdl was predetermined, even before the subject RFQ was issued. The bidding process was started by a Mr. David McPherson, the now former head of the City’s Revenue Administration department. Mr. McPherson, after being accused of violating city law, left the City and is now working for Hdl … We believe, and intend to prove as part of our lawsuit against the City, that PSI was terminated and Hdl is being “selected” for corrupt reasons. We believe that PSI’s unexpected termination under mysterious circumstances and this sudden need for new software is a ruse to provide a “kickback” or some other benefit to person, or persons, involved in the selection process.

Affordable Housing for Six Figure Incomes: Oakland city staff are proposing to redefine income limits for an affording housing program so that Oakland can spend millions to subsidize home ownership opportunities for middle class families who have also been priced out of Oakland's housing market.

The First-Time Homebuyer Mortgage Assistance Program currently provides financial assistance to households that earn up to 100 percent of the area median income ($84,150 for a family of three) to obtain a mortgage and purchase a home in Oakland. The city wants to change the program so that households that earn up to 150 percent of the area median income ($126,230 for a family of three) can take advantage of the program.

City officials have said that the change is consistent with a past practice of periodically increasing the program' income limit because the price of housing tends to rise faster than incomes, and as a result even the middle class are being priced out of Oakland now.

But housing activists slammed this proposal last month when it was first unveiled because it would siphon off affordable housing dollars from programs that benefit low-income Oakland residents in order to assist middle class homebuyers, many of whom may not currently reside in Oakland.

“The city has an obligation to affirmatively further fair housing,” said David Zisser, an attorney with the nonprofit legal aid group Public Advocates, during the public comment period at the March meeting. “This moves us in the opposite direction by shifting resources away from low-income to moderate-income residents.”

Oakland police officers began to wear body cameras in 2010. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM/FILE PHOTO
  • Darwin BondGraham/File photo
  • Oakland police officers began to wear body cameras in 2010.
More Body Cameras: The Oakland Police Department is buying still more body cameras for its cops, and the staff report for this latest purchase proposal also reveals that OPD plans to reopen is master contract for body cameras this summer.

OPD wants to buy fifty more body cameras from Vievu for $63,500. The fifty new cameras will be used to outfit the fifty new police officers OPD expects to add to the existing force of 737 sworn officers in July when the latest police academy graduates.

In December, the Express reported that lobbyists with Taser International had been seeking meetings with city council members and police officials in hopes of poaching Vievu's contract. At the time, OPD officials told the Express that there were no plans to reopen the contract, and that the department was happy with Vievu's technology. But according to Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent's report to the public safety committee this week, “OPD has begun the competitive bidding process and will be issuing a [request for proposals] by July 1, 2016 to replace and modernize the entire fleet of BWCs and related software and equipment.”

This multi-million dollar contract is sure to result in a heated competition between Vievu and Taser, and perhaps other companies that are hoping to enter the lucrative police body camera market.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No New Bus Service Planned for Hayward Courthouse, Despite Controversial Move

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 1:36 PM

Hayward Hall of Justice. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Hayward Hall of Justice.
According to records obtained by the Express through a Public Records Act request, there is no plan to establish a new shuttle service, or extend existing bus services to connect the Hayward BART station with the Hayward Hall of Justice — despite the fact that the Alameda County Superior Court has proceeded with a controversial plan to consolidate court operations by closing its self-help center located in Oakland's Rene C. Davidson Courthouse, just blocks from BART's Lake Merritt Station, and re-locating hearings for all eviction lawsuits to Hayward.

The court's consolidation plan, which went into effect on April 4, has drawn criticism from Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker, the City of Berkeley's Rent Board, and numerous legal advocates who say it disproportionately harms low-income people by making the court geographically inaccessible.

See also: Tenant Advocates Decry Court Move.

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Alameda County Stalls on Proposed Fracking Ban

by Jean Tepperman
Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 11:41 AM

The Alameda County Planning Commission heard a proposal to ban “high intensity oil and gas operations” — which would include hydraulic fracturing, or so-called “fracking” methods — at its April 3 meeting, but hours before the meeting began, the commission received a letter from the oil company E&B Natural Resources stating that the ordinance, as written, would interfere with their current operations, and suggesting "edits" to fix the problem. The commission therefore took no action, tabling the proposal until May 2.

Most of Alameda County's existing and plugged oil and gas wells are clustered east of Livermore. - CALIFORNIA DIVISION OF OIL, GAS AND GEOTHERMAL RESOURCES
  • California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources
  • Most of Alameda County's existing and plugged oil and gas wells are clustered east of Livermore.

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Monday, April 4, 2016

Berkeley Progressives Say Mayor Bates’ Housing Plan is a “Blueprint for Gentrification”

by Sydney Johnson
Mon, Apr 4, 2016 at 10:31 AM

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates recently released a list of thirteen recommendations to spur housing development to address Berkeley's staggering affordable housing crisis. Some residents, however, see several components of mayor’s plan as an invitation for further displacement in Berkeley, where, according to a recent city staff report, the median rent jumped 12 percent in the last year alone.

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Town Business: Housing Emergency; Biff's Demolition; “Love Life”; Pop Tax

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Apr 4, 2016 at 10:28 AM

Artist's rendering of what a renovated Biff's Coffee Shop could look like.
  • Artist's rendering of what a renovated Biff's Coffee Shop could look like.
In response to rapidly rising rents and roughly 1,000 eviction notices each month, the Oakland City Council will vote this week on an emergency ordinance that would impose a moratorium on certain types of rent increases and no-fault evictions. The council is also expected to approve demolition of the old Biff's Coffee Shop building to make way for 255 apartments and retail shops. Finally, City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney wants Oakland's official city motto to be “Love Life.”

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