Chickening Out 

CoCo County wins cockfight with Rodeo sentinel-chicken guy; A litigious landlord loses; and how eating organic can kill you.

Neighbors of a scientific researcher in Rodeo can finally stop clucking about the noise and stink coming from his flock of "sentinel" chickens. Contra Costa County building inspectors say Brian Tibbot has gotten rid of his fowl-smelling birds, which he told inspectors he kept as an early warning system for West Nile virus. The county had threatened to fine Tibbot $4,300 if he didn't get the birds off his property.

In an e-mail to Feeder, Tibbot said he considered taking his case to court, but figured that would be too costly and time-consuming. He'd already been fighting the county for more than a year, insisting that he should be able to keep the chickens in the name of public safety. "The county wants to give the impression that I was a regular homeowner with backyard chickens, even though they were well aware I had them for my [West Nile virus] program," noted Tibbot, a former researcher for the US Department of Agriculture who says he now works as a substitute teacher.

Public health officials use so-called sentinel chickens to alert them to the presence of pathogens such as West Nile. The chickens' blood is tested periodically for the presence of antibodies that would indicate exposure to the virus. The Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District maintains four sentinel flocks, district spokeswoman Deborah Bass says, but the district has no cooperative arrangement with Tibbot.

County zoning officials, meanwhile, say it didn't matter why Tibbot kept the chickens. Even if the birds were to protect the neighborhood from West Nile (some neighbors had their doubts), county regulations forbid chickens in that residential area.

Homeowners in the unincorporated Viewpointe neighborhood began squawking to county officials about the stench in October 2003. According to one, Tibbot and his wife kept thirty chickens and fourteen turkeys in their backyard and garage. "The neighbors were very upset because of the odor ... from the feces," says Paul Collins, a property manager for the 1,100-home planned community.

Shari Brown and her husband, Bob, were trying to sell their home last year while Tibbot and the county were engaged in their zoning cockfight. Brown didn't express concern that odors from the nearby oil refinery would scare away potential buyers, but she did fear the smelly chickens might. The roosters also woke the recent retiree at five every morning, which she didn't appreciate. The fowl, Brown also recalls, attracted pests such as huge horseflies, rodents and, in turn, buzzards and hawks that would swoop down looking for a snack. For a couple of months, the Tibbots rented two goats to eat the weeds in their yard. "It was disgusting," says Brown, who sold her home in November for less than she wanted because she was eager to get away. "I figured the neighborhood was going to the birds."

Can Landlords from Hell Go to Heaven? In recent years, Bay Area tenant-rights advocates have deemed landlord Richard E. Thomas public enemy number one -- or at least in their top ten most vilified rental owners. Thomas, according to his critics, owns hundreds of rental units throughout the East Bay. He is facing a class-action suit by former tenants who allege he has systematically stiffed them on their rental deposits. Tenant groups have estimated he owes former renters more than $35,000.

More menacing in the eyes of his detractors is Thomas' alleged penchant for suing or countersuing tenants who complain. Two years ago, he filed a restraining order against John Quintero, who had tried to protest his eviction from a Thomas rental property in Hayward by joining a picket organized by the Campaign for Renters' Rights in front of the landlord's home and the First Presbyterian Church of Castro Valley, a church Thomas attends. Picketers handed out leaflets to parishioners at the congregation that said Thomas, a church deacon, was a multimillionaire who harassed and ripped off his tenants. Quintero, a fortysomething Christian, also wrote a letter to Thomas' pastor asking him to intervene. The pastor demurred, but First Amendment lawyer Mark Goldowitz stepped to the plate and argued that the restraining order petition was a so-called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) designed to stifle free speech.

Earlier this month, the state court of appeals ruled in Quintero's favor, stating once and for all that civil-harassment restraining orders may be challenged with an anti-SLAPP motion. While ostensibly a victory for Quintero, the ruling did little to help him personally. He says his eviction totally screwed up his credit record, and he has been couch-surfing for the past two years. He also doubts that the appellate decision will change how Thomas does business. "He's just a bad guy," Quintero says.

One final ironic note: Thomas is now trying to persuade the state appeals court to throw out the aforementioned class-action suit. His grounds? Court records indicate Thomas is trying to use the anti-SLAPP law -- the same one Quintero successfully employed against him -- to argue that his ex-tenants are trying to interfere with his right to file lawsuits.

Hippies: Terrorist Priority? Reporters are just like children: Tell us we can't have something, and all of a sudden we'll want it desperately. This was the case recently when Feeder asked for the state Department of Health Services' titillatingly titled annual report, "Organic Processed Product Registration Program Report," which included a listing of all 744 California companies registered with the department to sell organic products. The trouble started when Patrick Kennelly, chief of the agency's food safety inspection unit, said the report wouldn't include the companies' addresses. Kennelly's explanation for the omissions: To keep the information out of the hands of the terrorists. No joke.

In the post-9/11 world, health officials have understandably been devising ways to avert contamination of the country's food supply. And it's nice to know the government wants to protect health-food lovers. But this didn't pass the smell test: To get many of the addresses, a person could simply Google them. "A lot of them you could, absolutely," Kennelly acknowledged. "But instead of providing a nice, concise easy list for somebody, we're just saying, get what you can. ... We figure we shouldn't be making it easier for some terrorist group to get the information."

By censoring the list, the DHS also is helping keep addresses of firms specializing in pet food, cosmetics and, yes, organic sex-lube out of the hands of terrorists. Let the horny animal-loving hippie infidel beware.

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