News & Notes 

Coming soon to Alameda: Robocop; Pittsburg, the next Bhopal?; Still time to get a used car before Xmas; Who'll pay for the Riders?

Calling all cars, and you: A number of Alameda residents received an unusual phone call last Wednesday from Sgt. Joe Dwyer of the island's finest. An 89-year-old woman, he explained, had been purse-snatched in broad daylight the previous evening by two young men who made off with the purse and broke her shoulder in the process. "I'm asking for your assistance in solving this brutal attack," he told neighboring residents. "Please look in your outside garbage cans and on your property for a brown leather purse or identification that doesn't belong to your household."

Dwyer, of course, didn't make the calls himself. In what would appear to be a local twist on the recently deployed Amber Alert system -- the statewide highway notification program already credited with solving kidnappings and other major crimes -- the Alameda fuzz recently implemented a system that lets them call anyone and everyone in their city with a taped message.

"It's a personal computer that has access to all phone numbers in Alameda," says Sgt. Michael Abreu, who used it a few months ago to alert five thousand Alamedans to a string of home burglaries. "You can pull up the map and draw a line around an area, and then call a phone number associated with the program and record an alert, and the computer makes these calls."

Abreu believes the system was put into place about six months ago, though he's not aware that it's helped solve any crimes yet. Then again, some of the messages are meant merely to keep people informed. "We didn't get the specific tip that caught the burglar," he says of his own alert.

In this age of John Ashcroft, billion-dollar junk-fax lawsuits, and antitelemarketing legislation, one might expect unsolicited voicemails from the police to rub at least some residents the wrong way. But if island folks are griping, it's certainly not to the men in blue. Abreu says he got fifteen to twenty calls from people who wanted more information or didn't realize his burglary dispatch was simply informational. "I didn't get any negative calls," he says.

Bhopal, revisited: The folks over at Dow Chemical in Pittsburg have seen plenty of action lately. On August 15, thirty or so activists armed with banners and brooms blocked the entrance to the East Bay facility to demand that Dow clean up its environmental act globally and locally (hence the brooms). Bearing a skull-festooned banner reading "Dow shalt assume liability," the broom-toters were part of a multicity protest calling on Dow to assume economic responsibility for a 1984 Union Carbide toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands and left more than a hundred thousand people with ongoing health problems. (Dow purchased Union Carbide last year.) "Dow cannot simply swallow the profits of Union Carbide and spit out the liabilities," said Srividhya Venkataraman, who was protesting on behalf of a group called Friends of Bhopal.

Locally, the activists were upset about Dow's proposed expansion, which will enable the company to triple production of the pesticide Vikane at its Pittsburg plant. Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Pesticide Action Network of North America recently sued the city of Pittsburg for approving the Dow project in June without first conducting an Environmental Impact Report. CBE staff attorney Will Rostov calls the city's action "an egregious violation of the law as defined by the California Environmental Quality Act."

Randy Jerome, the city's director of planning and building, says Pittsburg viewed the project as "fairly minor, more of an upgrade or replacement than an expansion" and therefore determined that an EIR was unnecessary. Rostov, however, counters that not only is Vikane a "restricted-use pesticide" because of acute inhalation hazards, but that a threefold increase in its production would triple the community's potential exposure to hydrofluoric acid (an ingredient) and hydrochloric acid (a by-product) -- both of which are hazardous. Plant supervisor John Sampson (who could not discuss the pending suit for "legal reasons") took a diplomatic tack with the demonstrators; he invited a five-person delegation, including famed tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill and East Bay writer Susan Griffin, inside the plant while the remaining two dozen activists chanted, sang, and read testimony from Bhopal survivors outside the plant's doors. Nadia Khastagir of Corp Watch India, who got to spend two hours sharing her concerns with Sampson, felt the protesters made progress: "If we got through to one person's heart it's at least a step in the right direction," she says.

Burning Bridges: The Grinch has come to Alamo early this year, at least for Dale Bridges. CoCo County planners recently denied the used-car salesman's latest permit request to sell Christmas trees on his lot during ho-ho-ho season, as he has done since 1996. For the past three years, however, Bridges has been clashing with his Danville Boulevard neighbors and fellow business owners, who have complained to the county about the seasonal logjam of cars streaming in and out of Bridges' half-acre lot. The trouble escalated after a tree-topped motorist backed into the chiropractor's office next door and wiped out the electric meter. Such fender-bending confusion led inspectors to clamp down the following year and forced the salesman into his own annual logjam of planning and zoning hearings and Board of Supes meetings, each attended by the peeved neighbors. By Bridges' count, his latest appearance at the county office was his seventeenth since January 1. "I can't believe this is going on in America," he sighs.

Earlier this year the Alamo Improvement Association, a group of business owners and upright citizens, tried to resolve the dispute by recommending twenty conditions that would keep everyone in good holiday cheer. Example: "The Santa Claus display figure shall be placed at ground level and shall be located as shown in the Plan. This location is about five feet further back than shown in the submitted site plan, in order to avoid obstructing the back-out area for parking stall number 5." We'll spare you the other nineteen.

Bridges agreed to "the Plan" (which some residents call "the Alamo Accord") and happily quoted his advertising catchphrase: "Let's do business!"

But two weeks ago county planner Ruben Hernandez decided the detailed plan was too time-consuming to enforce. Hernandez also said Bridges' lot is "obviously inappropriately too small" to sell a thousand trees. Bridges says he donates many of the uprooted decoration-holders to charity, and barely breaks even on the deal. "For such a small request," Hernandez told 7 Days, "this has turned out to be a bigger issue than it should be."

It's about to get bigger. Bridges has appealed the ruling and is ready to continue his sleigh ride through county government, even if Christmas comes and goes without permit approval. "If we're the most highly regulated Christmas tree lot in America, so be it," Bridges says. "But we're not giving up."

Passing the bucks: Last week US Magistrate James Larson quietly attempted a last-ditch effort to hammer out a deal in the class action filed one-and-a-half years ago by civil rights lawyers John Burris and Jim Chanin against the city of Oakland for the alleged transgressions of four former cops known as the Riders. Before bringing the parties into his private chambers on the morning of August 19, Larson told the attending parties, "I think you've got one last good shot at settlement here."

The funny thing is that neither of the lawyers -- who represent 117 plaintiffs -- was even present for the beginning of this powwow. Larson, you see, was not facilitating talks between the city and the plaintiffs' attorneys, but between the city and its insurance carriers.

It's not just the city of Oakland that's potentially on the hook for big bucks. Under the city's liability policy with Kemper Insurance, taxpayers may have to cover what amounts to a $2 million deductible; Kemper, meanwhile, will cover up to an additional $10 million. But with lawyers involved, things are never quite that simple. There have been "discussions," to use the euphemism of choice, about what the policy covers, sources say. Complicating matters further is the fact that Sable, the city's previous insurance carrier, which covered Oakland during the Riders' reign, is now bankrupt. The California Insurance Guarantee Association, created by the state legislature to pay the claims of insolvent insurance carriers, is bankrolling Sable's stake in the case.

As for who will cover what and for how much, Chief Assistant City Attorney Randolph Hall said he's not at liberty to disclose details, but did say a deal has been worked out between the parties as to "who's going to pay what percentage."

Larson has invited everyone back to his court on September 20 for one final shot at a settlement. Kemper, for its part, refused to renew the city's liability policy in July.

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