Friday, May 13, 2016

Oakland Police Accountability Ballot Measure Faces Possible Death By Delay Tactics

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, May 13, 2016 at 4:52 PM

At Thursday's rules commitee meeting Noel Gallo spoke in favor of a police commission ballot measure he and Dan Kalb have drafted.
  • At Thursday's rules commitee meeting Noel Gallo spoke in favor of a police commission ballot measure he and Dan Kalb have drafted.
A proposed ballot measure that would establish a powerful police oversight commission in Oakland was dealt a potentially terminal setback yesterday by several Oakland city councilmembers.

The move to delay a key hearing for the ballot measure comes amid a sexual misconduct scandal that has rocked the Oakland police department and called into question the integrity of OPD's internal affairs investigations and system for police officer discipline.

At Thursday's rules committee meeting, Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Noel Gallo introduced a ballot measure that would establish establish a police commission and do away with binding arbitration, a process that a federal court-appointed investigator recently criticized because it has allowed police officers to overturn discipline.

Kalb and Gallo hoped that their item would be scheduled for the May 24 meeting of the Oakland public safety committee. Both said the May 24 hearing is crucial because the city administration will need to meet and confer with Oakland’s employee unions about their police commission measure, a process that could take weeks or longer. And then the measure will have to be vetted by several city offices and finally go to the full council for a vote.

The last date the council can vote to place an item on the November ballot is July 25, according to the City Clerk's office.

But rather than scheduling Kalb and Gallo’s item for May 24, the other members of the rules committee delayed its hearing until June 14.

Kalb said during the meeting that the delay could kill any hopes that the police-commission measure would make it onto the November ballot.

"This is ready to be heard in [the public safety] committee this month," Kalb said to his colleagues during yesterday’s meeting. "Making it go to the middle of June is nothing more than saying forget the ballot this year."

Kalb and Gallo’s police-commission proposal was delayed because Councilmember Abel Guillen, with co-sponsors Anne Campbell Washington and Larry Reid, introduced a similar item during the rules committee meeting. Guillen’s proposal would also establish a police commission, as well as a creating an independent office of police oversight. But unlike Kalb and Gallo's proposed ballot measure, the trio's proposal has not actually been reviewed by the Oakland City Attorney.

In fact, their proposal has not even been drafted.

Richard Raya, a spokesperson for Guillen, said his proposal currently only consists of a single sentence: the title of the measure:

"Adopt an ordinance establishing the office of independent police oversight and monitoring, creating the position of independent police monitor and replacing the citizens police review board with a police commission."

Guillen, Reid, and Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney all voted in favor of delaying the Kalb-Gallo measure. Kalb voted no.

Immediately following the vote Kalb, visibly upset, stated: "I’m opposed because this sets a bad precedent on the council by allowing someone to delay something they’re opposed to."

But Gibson McElhaney denied there is an effort to delay the Kalb-Gallo measure and reprimanded Kalb. "This allegation that your colleagues are attempting to delay is out of order," Council president and chair of the rules committee Gibson McElhaney said.

But numerous Oakland activists, who have been working for years to establish a police commission, said that the maneuver by Guillen appears to be an effort to prevent police reforms from ending up on the ballot.

"Scheduling is everything, and this was a slick parliamentary move," said Len Raphael, an Oakland resident and proponent of establishing a police commission. "If you can keep something off the agenda, you’ve beaten it down, because you know there’s deadline at the other end."

Guillen denied allegations. "There are no procedural tactics aimed at keeping this matter off the ballot," he wrote in an email to the Express. "We shouldn’t be rushed into adopting weaker approaches when we can take a little more time to get it right. This is a nuanced issue, and we can't let the calendar drive our decision-making."

He also said that he is deeply concerned about the proposal to eliminate arbitration. Other unions expressed worries during the rules committee meeting yesterday.

"Our feeling is there would be a cascade effect," said Zac Unger, an Oakland Firefighter and vice president of the firefighter’s union. "Once you eliminate arbitration for one union, it would spread to eliminate binding arbitration for all contracts for all unions, so we can’t even let this get started."

Campbell Washington wrote in an email that the goal of her joint effort with Guillen and Reid is to be proactive and sustain police oversight reforms that have been implement over the past decade. She says she has been meeting with "key stakeholders" over the past year. "Our Ordinance language incorporates the feedback we've received from community advocates, leaders of the faith community, police oversight experts, and leadership from local educational institutions," she wrote .

But Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, said the Guillen-Washington-Reid proposal is a mystery to her. "Nobody knew this was coming, and nobody know’s what’s in it," said Grinage.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oakland Police Underage Sex Scandal Involves Cop Who Possibly Killed His Wife

by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston
Thu, May 12, 2016 at 8:34 PM

Deceased Oakland Police Officer Brendan O'Brien outside Oracle Arena.
  • Deceased Oakland Police Officer Brendan O'Brien outside Oracle Arena.
On Monday, the Oakland Police Department placed three of its officers on leave while investigating them for alleged sexual relations with an underage girl, the daughter of an Oakland Police Department dispatcher.

But the Express has learned that the investigation also involves a potential homicide, one committed by a Oakland cop, according to interviews and records.

Sources inside the department say that the allegations of sexual misconduct stem from the suicide of Oakland Police Officer Brendan O’Brien in September of last year.

O’Brien’s wife, Irma Huerta Lopez, died June 16, 2014. Her death was ruled a suicide, but was briefly classified by homicide detectives as a potential criminal investigation.

Her family believes that O’Brien shot her. “He killed her," Paulina Huerta, Irma’s sister, said in an interview today. Huerta said the police ignored her family. "Nobody’s listening."

Huerta Lopez’s coroner’s report — which was released for the first time earlier today after the Express requested it — called her death suspicious. The coroner’s report on O’Brien’s suicide also noted that his wife’s death the year before was suspicious. And Alameda County sheriff’s department investigator Solomon Unubun wrote that “O’Brien’s wife committed suicide in the same apartment on 6/16/14 and her family thought her death was suspicious.”

Police sources say various OPD officers failed to report the allegations of sexual misconduct, and OPD internal-affairs investigators may have failed to thoroughly look into both the sex crime allegations and also the suspicious death of Huerta Lopez. An investigation of sexual misconduct was opened only after O’Brien’s death.

According to several sources inside the police department, the sexual misconduct was ongoing in 2014, involving several police officers and a possibly underage girl named Celeste Guap. O’Brien reportedly had a relationship with Guap. Guap was previously identified in television news reports that aired Thursday.

It’s unclear when OPD officers and supervisors first learned of the sexual misconduct, but an internal affairs investigation was not opened into the sex crime allegations until after September 25, 2015, the date that O’Brien shot and killed himself in his apartment.

Police sources say O’Brien, a 30-year-old who joined OPD in 2013, left a suicide note that included information about the alleged sex crimes. On Tuesday, Guap wrote on her Facebook profile timeline that “the only officer I messed with underage is sadly gone now, so I don’t know why this is still being brought up.”

Celeste Guap's Tuesday Facebook post. - FACEBOOK.
  • Facebook.
  • Celeste Guap's Tuesday Facebook post.

O’Brien was previously investigated by homicide detectives after his wife was found dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment. At the time, O’Brien was living in a four-unit building on Greenridge Drive in the Oakland hills, a property owned by Oakland police veteran Eric Karsseboom. Other cops lived in the building.

According to a coroner’s report, Huerta Lopez died of a gunshot wound to the head. Two bullets had been fired from the gun, and one lodged in the wall in the apartment. The gun — O’Brien’s off-duty Glock 45 caliber pistol — and two casings were found near her feet. An Oakland police detective told a sheriff’s department investigator that an upstairs neighbor heard a loud thud around the time she was shot.

“Why were there two shots if she killed herself?” asked her sister Huerta, who did not know O’Brien was dead until informed by Express reporters today.

A sheriff’s department detective covered Huerta Lopez’s hands with paper bags and ordered an OPD crime scene technician to gather evidence to test for gunshot residue, which would indicate she fired the pistol that killed her. It’s unclear if OPD conducted the gunshot residue test.

Huerta Lopez’s coroner’s report, however, noted that there was no visible gunshot residue on her hands. There is no mention of whether O’Brien’s hands were ever swabbed or tested for traces of gunshot residue in the report.

According to Huerta Lopez’s coroner’s report, O’Brien and his wife had been shopping earlier in the evening. They returned home, but got into an argument. O’Brien told responding officers that he had last seen his wife alive fifteen minutes prior to going to a local gas station near the residence, and that, when he returned to his apartment at 10:52 p.m., he “found his wife unresponsive on the bed” with a gunshot wound to the head.

Oakland police officers who arrived at O’Brien’s apartment initially treated Huerta Lopez’s death as suspicious. They took him to a police station, where he was interviewed for a potential criminal investigation.

Huerta Lopez’s autopsy report stated that the gunshot wound that killed her was in the right side of her head, and that “the basic direction [of the shot] is towards the left of the body, down towards the feet at a 5-degree angle and toward the back of the body at a 10-degree angle.”

Huerta Lopez’s sister told the Express she believes that O’Brien killed her sister, and that members of the Oakland police department did not conduct a thorough investigation into her sister’s death.

According to Huerta, O’Brien and her sister met online and dated very briefly. They broke up, got back together in January 2014, and then married. But the marriage was rocky, with frequent arguments, Huerta said.

The sister explained that OPD never released Huerta Lopez’s property, including her cell phone that she was carrying the night she died at O’Brien’s apartment.

She also said the Sheriff-Coroner never provided her family with a copy of her sister’s autopsy report, despite requests. According to Huerta, OPD officers showed her family a surveillance photograph of O’Brien at a gas station on the night of Huerta Lopez's death, which the officers said proved O’Brien was not present when she allegedly shot herself. Huerta said the police officers’ appeared to be downplaying the possibility of a homicide.

Although Huerta Lopez’s death was investigated by Sergeants Caesar Basa and Randy Brandwood, O’Brien was cleared of suspicion after her death was ruled a suicide. He was allowed to return to his duties patrolling a high-crime beat in deep East Oakland. On December 2, 2014, a sheriff’s detective reviewed OPD’s case file and determined that Huerta Lopez’s death was a suicide.

According to sources who viewed his suicide note, O’Brien claimed he had been struggling with post-traumatic-stress disorder from his time as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Reserve Corps, as well as the strain of being under suspicion from OPD, Huerta Lopez’s family and his own relatives. He wrote that he had been drinking heavily, both off-duty and while in uniform and on patrol.

These sex allegations, and the possibly botched internal-affairs and criminal investigations, only became public after US District Judge Thelton Henderson issued an unprecedented order on March 23. The judge cited “irregularities” and “violations” of procedures by Oakland police detectives in charge of the sexual-misconduct inquiry, and he called into question the department’s commitment to accountability and reform.

Henderson directed court-appointed independent monitor Robert Warshaw to take over the sexual-misconduct case from OPD to ensure it was properly conducted.

Henderson’s order did not detail the alleged sexual misconduct. A KRON 4 story that aired on Monday unearthed those allegations.

“There is no question that there are credibility issues with the internal-affairs investigations here,” said Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris about Henderson’s court order. “To the extent these allegations are true this could impact the length of the NSA.”

Following a string of officer suicides three years ago, there was pressure for OPD to increase mental health services, including counseling and mental health therapy, for officers. It is unclear what sort of assistance or outreach was made to O’Brien after the death of his wife.

The Oakland Police Department did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

Clarification: this story has been updated to note that the Express did not disclose the identity of Celeste Guap. Guap was first identified in television news reports that aired Thursday.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

FBI Hid Surveillance Devices Around Alameda County Courthouse

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, May 11, 2016 at 9:20 AM

The Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • The Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland.
Federal agents planted hidden microphones and conducted secret video surveillance at Alameda County’s Rene C. Davidson Courthouse for ten months, despite having no court warrant. The surveillance operation was part of an investigation into alleged bid rigging at foreclosed property auctions where thousands of houses and apartment buildings were sold by banks. But defense attorneys for some of the individuals accused say the FBI's surveillance tactics violated their clients' constitutional rights, and everyone else whose conversations might have been captured on tape.

More …

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Los Angeles Times Dishes Real Talk on Proposed City of Oakland Coal Terminal, Calls Review Process 'Absurd'

by Nick Miller
Tue, May 10, 2016 at 10:21 AM

A Union Pacific train laden with coal passing through the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the Bay Area in August 2015. - TOM ANDERSON
  • Tom Anderson
  • A Union Pacific train laden with coal passing through the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the Bay Area in August 2015.

The Los Angeles Times' Editorial Board chimed in yesterday on the city of Oakland's proposed coal port. And LAT kept it real:
This is a project that would harm the local environment — and the global environment as well. If we need to wean the world from coal, why would Oakland build a dock to export it?
The Times urged Oakland's leaders to order a supplemental environmental impact report. Oakland isn't doing a supplemental EIR, however, but the city is paying a consultant to look at the coal plan and note any health and safety impacts.

There are concerns about the consultant group poised lead the health and safety study, Environmental Science Associates. Critics say ESA has too cozy a relationship with fossil-fuel companies, and that ESA will not take in to consideration the environmental impacts of the coal terminal, as the Express' Darwin BondGraham has reported.

The Times board was borderline incredulous that details regarding coal transport weren't included in the city's original EIR. LAT reported that "coal could end up being shipped via open-top rail cars, a practice that, without mitigation (such as spraying the load with a chemical sealant), can spread more than 600 pounds of coal dust per rail car over the course of a 400-mile trip." And the editorial called omission of this information from the original EIR "absurd."

As local and outside pressure mounts to kill the project, the City of Oakland held a public hearing last night night, where council members announced they would likely vote next month on whether to ban coal exports from the proposed project

A few council members, including Councilman Noel Gallo, said they were ready to vote "no" now.

Watch for more reporting on the contentious coal project by BondGraham in upcoming Express issues.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Town Business: Not Even Halfway to Housing Goal; Crude Oil; and Data Disaster Preparedness

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, May 9, 2016 at 9:22 AM

Prosperity Place, an affordable housing development that broke ground in 2015 in downtown Oakland. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Prosperity Place, an affordable housing development that broke ground in 2015 in downtown Oakland.
Housing Goal: The state has asked Oakland to build at least 14,765 housing units between now and 2023. That amounts to 1,845 new housing units a year. It's all part of a regional assessment to determine how much housing the Bay Area needs to build in order to keep up with growth.
But in 2015 Oakland didn't come close to meeting its goal.
Measured by the number of building permits issued, Oakland started 771 new housing units, or 41 percent of its goal. Most of this was market-rate housing.
In terms of affordable housing, Oakland failed. To keep up with the state's minimum goal, Oakland should be building 560 housing units each year that are affordable to people who are extremely-low to low-income. But the total number of affordable housing units built in Oakland last year was 128, a mere 22 percent of the goal.
At Tuesday's community and economic development committee the council will hear a full presentation on Oakland's housing numbers, and consider other ways to stimulate housing construction.

An oil train in Oakland. - DARWIN BONDGRAHA
  • Darwin BondGraha
  • An oil train in Oakland.
Crude Oil: Oakland's coal controversy has raised another specter; whether developer Phil Tagami could build a liquid fossil fuel export terminal on the waterfront and run trains carrying crude oil, fuels, or other petroleum-based commodities through the city at much higher frequencies than already occurs.
In June of 2014 the Oakland City Council actually passed a resolution opposing the transport of oil and other fossil fuels through the city, but this occurred after the city already signed a development agreement with Tagami's company allowing him to build the Oakland Bulk Oversized Terminal (OBOT) at the old Oakland Army Base.
On Monday night, the city council will hold a special hearing to collect evidence and hear testimony regarding the health and safety impacts of transporting oil and other fossil fuels through Oakland. The information gathered will be incorporated into the report that Environmental Science Associates is writing for Oakland, which is intended to inform a council decision later this year about whether or not to ban fossil fuels at the OBOT marine terminal.
Some interesting information that will be presented at the hearing: how much crude oil and other liquid fossil fuel products already travel through Oakland? Where is this oil currently headed?

Data Disaster: Oakland's data, all the information that makes the city work – from tax records to police dispatch systems to building permits – is at risk. According to a city staff report, the data centers that Oakland relies on to store data, communicate, and process financial transactions "are located in various City buildings and are rapidly aging, and face increasing vulnerabilities such as power and environmental failures and/or data security breaches, which would compromise the operational and financial health of the City."
In fact, there have been twelve recent incidents where equipment failures took down mission critical IT infrastructure. They included a "primary and backup power failure" in June of last year that took down police and fire dispatch capabilities, and an incident in October that took down the city's email system.
City staff are proposing a $3 million contract to fix this. Actually, $3 million is the down payment for "Phase I" of a two phase project to migrate Oakland's data centers to a single location.

Correction: the original version of this blog post stated that the city council's informational hearing on fuel oils would be held on Tuesday night. The correct night is Monday, May 9.

Friday, May 6, 2016

This Weekend's Top Six Events

May 6, 7 & 8

by Sarah Burke
Fri, May 6, 2016 at 9:54 AM

Six things you can do this weekend that aren't eating a racist taco bowl:

Meat Market.
  • Meat Market.
Meat Market
Oakland band Meat Market writes infectious, hooky pop punk, and the band recently released its latest album, Dig Deep — a long-anticipated follow-hop to its 2012 self-titled album. The new record is rife with punchy, fast-paced major chord riffs and happy-go-lucky rhythms. The group has a goofy, self-effacing sense of humor that gives them an underdog appeal, and Dig Deep — the title of which is an allusion to the introspective nature of its tracks — contains lyrics that the socially awkward introverts among us will surely relate to: Into this hole I will go/Find comfort in what you know, as the hook of “Hole” goes. To celebrate Dig Deep, Meat Market has a show at Crate in Downtown Oakland with garage-pop band Younger Lovers — the project of Oakland queer punk auteur, author, and dancer Brontez Purnell. Fellow punk band Yi and screamo band Lofter join them on the bill, along with DJ Doggie Chow.— Nastia Voynovskaya
Fri., May 6, 8 p.m. $5.

More …

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Nextdoor Lead Silences Police Complaints

by Sydney Johnson
Thu, May 5, 2016 at 5:43 PM

  • File Photo/ Bert Johnson
The Oakland Police Department was criticized this week after issuing an announcement on Monday that claimed there is an increased likelihood of drunk driving during Cinco de Mayo.

On Facebook, for example, Oakland Latinos United posted a response stating, "Oakland Police has posted on their Twitter account [they're] going to put out Extra Patrols for you drunk Mexicans on Cinco de Mayo. How does it feel. As a Mexican Chicano I wonder if OPD will be posting DUI PSAs for every ethnic & culturally based holiday?"

Others pointed out that OPD hasn't issued similar advisories warning Oakland residents about drunk driving for holidays like St. Patrick's Day.

More …

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Proposed Hotel in Oakland's Chinatown Gains Approval Despite Minimum Wage Violations

by Darwin BondGraham
Thu, May 5, 2016 at 9:25 AM

Hotel employees stand behind Sima Patel as she addresses the planning commission. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Hotel employees stand behind Sima Patel as she addresses the planning commission.
Last night, the Oakland planning commission green-lighted construction of a new hotel in Oakland's Chinatown, denying an appeal made against the project by the union Unite HERE 2850.

The union argued that variances granted by city staff for the building's height, and absence of a loading dock, were contrary to the city's planning code. But the core issue really boiled down to whether the project would create living-wage jobs, and the hotel developer's track record of following labor laws.

Taylor Hudson of Unite HERE 2850 told the planning commission that, while the hotel development might appear to be a question limited only to land-use issues, it was in fact a decision bearing on the question of inequality, and whether Oakland will implement policies that provide good jobs. Hudson said the planning code requires city staff to take into account the impact a project may have on public services, including affordable housing. He said, that based on the wages paid by the Patels at two existing East Bay hotels they own, the proposed hotel would likely generate low-wage jobs with no health benefits, further fueling Oakland's housing crisis and demand for already thin-stretched social services for the working poor.

But the Patels told the commissioners their project will generate $1 million in hotel taxes once it's completed, and that the average visitor will end up spending money and generating more jobs in Oakland.

"We hope to break ground and complete the project as quickly as we can. The business and leisure travel market in Oakland is booming and we want to help fill the needs for rooms and jobs in this community," said Dhruv Patel in a statement released following the commission's vote.

The Patel's also disputed reports that they have mistreated some of their workers and stolen wages.

"We've treated our people well. Some of our employees are here tonight," said Sima Patel at the meeting. Then, she waived her arms and about a dozen of her company's current employees stood up. A few of the Patel's employees spoke later in the meeting to say they were paid well and fairly treated.

But some of the Patel's ex-employees have accused them of wage theft among other labor law violations, and last February the city conducted an investigation of the Holiday Inn Express near the Oakland Airport, which is owned by the Patels, and confirmed that the hotel had violated Oakland's minimum-wage ordinance.

Nevertheless, planning department staff defended their initial approval of the project last night. Pete Vollman of the planning department told the council that the variances granted to the Patels for a tall parapet wall exceeding height limits, and the absence of a loading dock, were minor and not inconsistent with past practice. As to the core issue of labor, Vollman added that the city did consider the number of new jobs the hotel would create, but he said that planning staff can't consider anything as detailed as the level of wages paid.

"We don't feel getting into the individual breakdown of what the wage is gets to the requirements [of the city's planning code]," Vollman told the commissioners.

  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Greg McConnell.
Greg McConnell, a lobbyist with the Jobs and Housing Coalition said the union's appeal was really a power play in an effort to try to unionize the Patel's hotels. "We want everyone to clearly recognize the motivation for this appeal is not some technical violation. It's whether the developers would agree to submit to card check neutrality so 2850 can organize this hotel," said McConnell. "Everyone in the room knows it."

Previously, however, both Unite HERE 2850 and Dan Cohen, a spokesman for the Patels, have said that the union is not attempting to organize the hotels owned by the Patel family. Rather, the union said their objections to the proposed hotel are based on fears that the hotel will drive down wages for hotel workers at other locations. The union said the decision to approve the hotel without taking the jobs question seriously sets a bad precedent whereby the city does not account the record of a company proposing to open a new business, and even rewards those who break the law.

At the end of the night, only one planning commissioner objected to the project. Commissioner Jahaziel Bonilla said the variances granted for the parapet and loading berth were bad decisions.

But commissioners Chris Patillo, Amanda Monchamp and Adhi Nagraj, and Jim Moore all said they agreed with staff's architectural variances and they were eager to approve a hotel project.

"It's unfortunate that development in Chinatown has been stagnant way too long," said Commissioner Patillo. "Chinatown needs to change, grow and evolve."

Monchamp said in favor of the project that hotels will generate other higher wage jobs in Oakland in sectors like tech, but was unwilling to consider the actual quality of jobs the hotel would directly create. "As to the issue of how much of a wage this hotel owner will bring, we can't consider how much will be paid," she said about the workers who will clean and maintain the hotel.

Nagraj acknowledged that the city recently investigated the Patel's for violating city labor laws at one of their existing hotels, but still he voted to approve the project. "That stuff certainly is troublesome," said Nagraj, before adding "I'm comfortable passing this."

The commission's approval was final with no further appeals available to the union.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Oakland Official Handling Coal Controversy Personally Invested in Fossil Fuels

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, May 2, 2016 at 5:23 PM

  • Illustration by Hiedie Sioteco.
A high level Oakland official advocating that the city council hire a consultant to help them decide whether or not to reject plans for a coal export terminal is personally invested in fossil fuel companies. Anti-coal activists say the investments are inappropriate, and they’re worried the official could be steering the consulting contract to a company that will rubber stamp fossil fuel activities in Oakland.

The consultant, Environmental Science Associates (ESA), often works in cooperation with fossil-fuel companies and local governments to draft environmental-impact statements for projects. Anti-coal activists say, however, that ESA has no experience in the field of public health, which they claim is the most relevant area of expertise. But they’ve been unable to convince the city to hire a different expert.

Part of the reason is Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio. Cappio picked ESA for the job and wrote in a report to the city council that ESA is the only company with the necessary expertise to quickly get it done. Cappio rejected a proposal submitted by Human Impact Partners, a public health consulting firm based in Oakland, to study the health effects of coal. Cappio also expanded the proposed contract with ESA to include analysis of other fossil fuels in addition to coal, despite protests from environmental groups that this could open a backdoor for oil companies to expand operations in Oakland. The city council will vote on the contract with ESA at their meeting tomorrow night.

"We find it very troubling to learn that Claudia Cappio, who has been running the show for the city since last September, has investments that can benefit from shipping coal in Oakland," said Michael Kaufman of the No Coal in Oakland coalition. "Cappio should never have been allowed to take charge of the city’s process and choose ESA — an organization with no public health expertise — for a no-bid contract to review the most important public health question to face the city in recent years."

According to city records, Cappio's investments include a utility company that has an active business relationship with Bowie Resource Partners, the coal company that has been trying since at least 2014 to gain access to Oakland’s waterfront to export millions of tons of coal to foreign markets. Cappio also owns stakes in a railroad that would benefit if Oakland allows coal exports through the city. She also owns stock in an oil and gas pipeline company that recently tried to turn part of the Port of Oakland into a fossil fuel terminal.

Claudia Cappio.
  • Claudia Cappio.
Cappio was hired by the city last year, and among other responsibilities, she is helping the council navigate the controversial proposal by developer Phil Tagami and former Port of Oakland Executive Director Jerry Bridges to ship coal through Oakland on trains and export it from the Oakland Bulk Oversized Terminal (OBOT), which Tagami's company CCIG is building at the former Army Base.

A clause in the city’s contract with CCIG permits the city to block activities that could have negative health and safety impacts. Anti-coal activists say this empowers the city to block the coal plan. But Cappio and other city officials have said that it is first necessary to hire an expert to help the council make this decision so that it is legally defensible.

When Cappio was hired by the city last year, CCIG issued a newsletter written by Tagami praising her. "Cappio is a welcome arrival for the Oakland Global project," Tagami wrote. "The hiring of Claudia Cappio was lauded by Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and local builders who believe that Cappio's experience and know-how will serve Oakland well as development gains momentum." Tagami’s profile of Cappio directly followed an equally glowing profile of Bridges, the CEO of Terminal Logistics Solutions (TLS), which is in contract with CCIG to operate the OBOT coal terminal. In March, Bowie Resource Partners CEO John Siegel disclosed that his company owns a "vested interest" in TLS.

Pacificorp's Huntington Power Plant purchases coal from Bowie Resource Partners.
  • Pacificorp's Huntington Power Plant purchases coal from Bowie Resource Partners.
In a required disclosure form Cappio filed with the city last month, she listed owning at least $100,000 of stock in Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company run by Warren Buffet. One of Berkshire's largest subsidiaries is Pacificorp, a utility that does direct business with Bowie Resource Partners. Pacificorp owns ten coal-fired power plants in the western US, including a power station in Utah that purchases 2.8 million tons of coal from Bowie each year. Last June, Bowie and Pacificorp struck a deal in which Pacificorp will purchase coal for this power plant until the year 2029 from Bowie. As part of the deal, Pacificorp also sold 50 million tons of Utah coal reserves to Bowie. Pacificorp made $1.02 billion in profit last year for its parent company Berkshire.

Berkshire also owns the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF). BNSF had $4.6 billion in revenues last year from shipping coal, about 22 percent of the company's total, and at least one mine owned by Bowie is served by BNSF. BNSF could also end up delivering fossil fuels to the OBOT terminal if ESA finds no significant health and safety impacts, and the council doesn’t block the coal plan.

Beyond coal, Cappio also owns stock worth at least $10,000 in Kinder Morgan, an oil and gas pipeline company. She also owns shares worth at least $10,000 in the Vanguard Energy Fund which has stakes in dozens of oil and gas companies.

Like Bowie, Kinder Morgan has also sought to build fossil fuel export facilities on Oakland's waterfront. In 2014 Kinder Morgan teamed up with Tagami's CCIG in an effort to convince the Port of Oakland to turn the Howard Terminal into a fossil fuel hub. The port commission rejected the plan because CCIG provided insufficient information, and because of "environmental concerns." Vying for the same real estate was Bowie Resource Partners, but the Port also rejected Bowie's bid.

Altogether Cappio's investments in companies with links to the coal, oil and gas industries total at least $120,000, part of her personal investment portfolio worth a total value ranging somewhere between $818,000 and $8.9 million. (State transparency laws don’t require reporting exact dollar values.)

But Cappio is confident her personal investments don't run afoul of any rules, or impact her work for the city council.

"I have reviewed my investments and at this time I do not have any financial interest that would require me to declare a potential conflict of interest under the [Fair Political Practices Commission] Conflict of Interest regulations," Cappio wrote in an email to the Express.

But the No Coal in Oakland coalition said Cappio's investments in fossil fuel companies show that she doesn't take the health and safety threats of coal, oil and gas seriously enough. And they're worried that the contract with ESA is therefore meant to justify the coal export proposal rather than bolster the city's case to block coal.

Anti-coal activists have pointed to ESA's role in helping Valero with a controversial oil-by-rail project as an example of how ESA "helps" fossil fuel companies. In 2014 ESA wrote an environmental impact study for Valero's proposal to expand its operations in the City of Benicia. Although the study noted that approving the project would result in approximately 100 train cars of crude oil passing through Sacramento on their way to Benicia each day on a busy commuter corridor, and within a quarter-mile of 27 schools, ESA found no significant risks. The Sacramento Bee reported that the ESA study "minimizes risk from oil trains."

"Cappio has presented ESA as the only organization capable of reviewing the evidence, but she didn’t even talk to local public health experts with national reputations who want to do this work," said Kaufman. "We can’t trust the city’s evaluation process with Cappio and her handpicked consultant in charge."

Not all environmental groups share the same concerns about the ESA study, however. The local chapter of the Sierra Club said they couldn’t comment on any possible conflicts regarding ESA or city staff, but that time is running out for Oakland to take action, and a delay could do more harm than good.

"The people of Oakland have been waiting for over a year for the city council to protect their health and safety by banning coal exports," said Brittany King of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. "The current timeline makes it possible for the council to meet all their deadlines and vote on an ordinance to ban coal before the summer recess. If we delay even further, this process could get pushed past the election, denying voters the opportunity to know where their councilmembers stand on this crucial issue."

Town Business: Coal Conflicts; Local Green Energy; Soda Pop Tax

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, May 2, 2016 at 9:41 AM

A Union Pacific train laden with coal passing through the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the Bay Area in August 2015. - TOM ANDERSON
  • Tom Anderson
  • A Union Pacific train laden with coal passing through the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the Bay Area in August 2015.
Coal Conflicts: Oakland officials want to hire an outside consulting firm to  help determine whether or not there will be significant health and safety impacts from a proposal to ship millions of tons of coal through the city. If the consultant finds negative health and safety impacts from fugitive coal dust, or other risks, then the council might block developer Phil Tagami and former Port of Oakland Executive Director Jerry Bridges from turning a marine terminal they are building at the old Oakland Army Base into the largest coal export facility on the West Coast.
The city administrator's office has selected Environmental Science Associates (ESA) to conduct the study, and is recommending that the council hire ESA under a no-bid contract.
But anti-coal activists are actually opposed to the city hiring ESA. The activists claim that ESA doesn't have expertise in the fields necessary to understand the health impacts of coal. Furthermore, anti-coal activists also say ESA has a conflict of interest, and will likely rubber stamp the coal export scheme. Coal opponents claim that ESA normally works with fossil fuel companies to help them gain approval for projects like oil shipments via rail and pipeline.
City officials say, however, that only ESA has the kind of expertise needed to wade through thousands of pages of documents and other records to figure out just what might happen if the coal scheme becomes a reality.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf already hit pause on the contract with ESA back in February, after anti-coal activists told her the contract's scope of work was too limited. This time, however, Schaaf supports the contract with ESA.
But there's another potential conflict of interest that could impact the decision to hire ESA. The Express will elaborate in a news story later today. Stay tuned.

Local Green Energy: Years ago, Oakland studied whether it was feasible for the the city to set up a public energy authority that could purchase electricity on the open market, and also use ratepayer funds to upgrade Oakland's energy infrastructure – or even to build new power-generating assets like rooftop solar. The final report for that effort said it was too tall an order for Oakland to accomplish. Facing more pressing issues like the foreclosure crisis, budget cuts, and the loss of redevelopment, Oakland backed off.
But all the while, the local green energy concept has been incubating. And recently Alameda County officials revived the proposal, and have drawn in numerous cities, including Oakland, to discuss what a local green energy authority might look like.
On Tuesday night, the council will hear a report updating them on the progress that Alameda County has made towards launching a local, renewable-focused energy program that would include Oakland.

Soda Pop Tax: The council is expected to vote this week to put a sugar-sweetened beverage tax on the November ballot. The tax, one cent per fluid ounce of drink, could raise as much as $10 to $12 million annually, all of which would be spent on health programs to try to get Oaklanders to drink less corn syrup-infused junk.
Soda pop industry giants ("Big Soda" companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and their lobbying group the American Beverage Association) recently hired “one of the preeminent political law, government law, and lobbying firms in the country” to help them defeat Oakland's sugar-sweetened tax. Last week, Big Soda filed paperwork with the Oakland City Clerk's office to establish a political action committee that they'll soon be pouring money into. So we can expect to see ads saturating billboards, bus stops, BART stations, and the airwaves — probably a few million dollars worth, given the size of the market and the profits at stake — decrying what Big Soda is already trying to define as a "grocery tax" that will hit consumers hard.
And perhaps there's a kernel of truth in Big Soda's claim: the sugar-sweetened beverage tax will probably be passed on to the consumer, so it's a regressive way of taxing children and the poor to fund health and education programs.

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