7 Days  

Housing commissioner versus housing developer; Pete Stark versus the Pentagon spin machine; and skateboarders versus the elements.

Bad blood is the key: The world of Berkeley NIMBYs got even more petty two weeks ago -- at least according to an e-mail making the rounds at City Hall. On June 5, Kevin Zwick, project manager for the nonprofit housing developer Affordable Housing Associates, sent a long letter to the mayor, the city council, and the city manager in which he accused Housing Advisory Commissioner Marie Bowman of trespassing, harassing one of his employees, and lying to state officials in order to sabotage his organization's finances. Longtime readers will recall that Bowman lives near a proposed agency project to provide senior citizens with cheap housing (the bastards!), something she's been trying to kill for years. And if Zwick's allegations are true, she may be exploiting her seat on the HAC to hassle housing developers in new and creative ways.

"This morning, Marie Bowman was caught trespassing on one of our properties in West Oakland," Zwick wrote. According to the e-mail, Bowman snuck into AHA's live-work lofts on Adeline Street and was roaming the halls when resident manager Candy Hester asked who she was and just what the hell she was doing. "Ms. Bowman waited by the front or side door until someone exited, snuck into the building, and upon finding the resident manager, began harassing her with questions until she had to be asked to leave," he wrote. "She identified herself as a Berkeley Housing Commissioner and [said] that she needed to receive information on Adeline Lofts for a meeting this evening. ... Ms. Bowman continued to ask questions in a harassing manner to our resident manager about usage of the building, makeup and profiles of the tenants, parking issues, etc."

When we contacted Hester, she claimed Bowman told her that, as a city official, she can inspect AHA's premises without asking permission or even notifying the property owner -- even though the building in question lies outside Berkeley city limits. "She said, 'Sometimes we don't gotta call, we can just come by,'" Hester says.

And according to Zwick's letter, this wasn't the first time that week Bowman had hassled AHA officials. A few days earlier, she had flown to Los Angeles for a state hearing, where she tried to sabotage AHA's application for a $2 million housing-development loan. "Ms. Bowman," Zwick wrote, "made several misleading statements to the board as a Berkeley housing commissioner about the city of Berkeley's housing needs, demand for affordable housing and, most egregiously, told the board that AHA has been known to and [been] caught lying on applications in the past, an outright lie. It was amazing to have to sit there and listen to Ms. Bowman willfully make slanderous comments attacking AHA's integrity and calling us dishonest. ... It is now time for the city of Berkeley, especially its city council, to take responsibility for Ms. Bowman, and to hold her accountable for once."

Zwick ended his list of charges with a claim that the Council of Neighborhood Associations, which Bowman leads, anonymously slandered his boss, Ali Kashani, with accusations of corruption and embezzlement. In its March 2003 edition, the CNA newsletter had printed a June 28, 2002 letter to then-Mayor Shirley Dean, in which a "concerned Berkeley citizen" suggests that Kashani is misappropriating public money to beef up his private company, AHA Construction Services. "Mr. Kashani would use the nonprofit AHA's account at various construction supply stores like Home Depot to purchase materials for his private adventures," the letter reads. CNA editors did not indicate that they called Kashani to ask for a response.

Bowman directed us to a letter by her attorney, Arthur Friedman, in which he demands that Zwick retract his "slanderous statements." He insists that Bowman called the resident manager, identified herself, and asked to be let in, a claim Hester denies. But Friedman barely addressed the other accusations. The rest of the letter consists of the usual lawyerly huffing and puffing: "Letters like yours that are designed to smear, intimidate, and even punish those who dare to oppose AHA's projects must not be tolerated, and will not be tolerated by Ms. Bowman."

Berkeley City Councilmember Betty Olds, who appointed Bowman to the HAC, says that Bowman and Zwick have long hated one another, and that she has no intention of removing Bowman. Which means we can look forward to more fireworks as the feud escalates. -- Chris Thompson

There he goes again: Last week, Fremont's Pete Stark added his name to those of two other members of Congress calling for an investigation into the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch after a May BBC report claimed that her supposedly daring retrieval from an Iraqi hospital was stage-managed to garner American support for the war. The controversial report, filed by BBC correspondent John Kampfner, questioned early claims that Lynch had been shot, stabbed, and slapped around while in the hospital after her Army maintenance team was ambushed outside of Nasiriyah. The BBC piece went on to feature Dr. Harith al-Houssona, who treated Lynch at Nasiriyah General Hospital, saying that she had no stab or bullet wounds, only a broken arm and thigh and a dislocated ankle -- wounds consistent with a road traffic accident. The doctor claimed she'd been given the best treatment available at the time, including transfusions of blood donated by hospital staff.

Kampfner accused the military of staging the rescue like a Hollywood action movie, which was filmed and then edited into a five-minute videotape by the Pentagon, which refused to release an uncut version to the BBC. In his report, witnesses claim that US troops shot blanks at the frightened hospital staff and even handcuffed a patient to his bed frame. Kampfner quoted hospital staff who questioned why the American troops staged such a flashy entry when, they claimed, US troops were aware there was no Iraqi military presence at the hospital. In the BBC report, al-Houssona even claimed he'd arranged for Lynch to be returned by ambulance earlier, but that the vehicle had been turned back at an American checkpoint. (The Pentagon says no blanks were fired, undue force was not used, and nearby US troops had been fired upon, although the rescue team had not. However, other news organizations, such as the Associated Press, have corroborated much of the BBC report, further claiming that the US soldiers turned down an offer of the hospital's skeleton key in favor of kicking down doors.)

For Stark, the allegations are just the latest in a series of events that have him questioning the Bush administration's honesty. In recent months, Stark has emerged as one of the harshest critics of the war in Iraq, even outflanking his own colleague Barbara Lee. "If these allegations are true," he wrote in a letter to the Defense Department, "the US military put Private Lynch's life at greater risk in order to produce a made-for-TV event to boost public support for the war." Case in point: only days after Lynch's rescue, NBC announced it would be making a television movie about her.

Wonder who they'll get to play Stark? -- Kara Platoni

Skating, breathing resumes: Last week, the city of Berkeley reopened its chromium 6-plagued skate park at Fifth and Harrison streets, sounding a very tentative all clear for riders.

Delicately nicknamed "the Cancerous Skate Park" by the local zine Youth Outlook, the site's environmental woes go back a few years, when excavators carving out the bowls first discovered the carcinogen in the groundwater ("Field of Bad Dreams," Cityside, April 4, 2002). After designers drafted new plans to block the tainted water from seeping into the park (or so they thought), the skate spot opened last September to rave reviews: Riders enjoyed the perfect transitions and marble-smooth surface. But three months later, puddles of contaminated water appeared, and the city shut it down.

Despite the closure, many skaters simply hopped the fence and took their rides, and their chances. "I was feeling a little dodgy about the chemicals," admits twenty-year-old Bryan Derballa, a local skater who said he wasn't clear which chemicals had been found at the site, "but my desire to skateboard overcame my rationale."

Even though the carcinogen hasn't shown up in recent tests, the park still suffers from the same design flaws that led to the leaks, and heavy rains could bring the culprit back to the surface. According to a finely worded press release from the Parks and Recreation Department, "The city has cleaned and tested the skate park to assure that chromium 6 contaminated water infiltration occurring last winter will not affect the use of the facility during dry weather."

In other words, when it rains on Fifth Street, head for the hills. -- Justin Berton

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