Base Politics

Alameda gives megacontract to developers who hired mayor's pals; while back in Oakland, a new mayor's transparency knows no bounds.

It pays to woo the friends and campaign donors of Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson. Just ask powerhouse developers Catellus Development Group and Lennar Urban, which earlier this month each won a slice of what could be one of the most lucrative deals in East Bay history. Catellus has Johnson’s former campaign manager on the payroll, while Lennar partnered up with a man who helped put the mayor in office — twice.

The city of Alameda has been trying to redevelop Alameda Point, its premier piece of waterfront property, for what seems like an eternity. Actually, it’s been twelve years since the Navy closed its 700-acre base there in 1995.

Until last fall, it looked as if Alameda Point, with its sweeping bay views, would become a giant new bedroom community, featuring 1,700 houses. But the would-be developers, Shea Homes and Centex Homes, backed out of the deal when the Bay Area’s housing market went flat.

When the city put the old base back on the market, five developers responded with bids. Two later dropped out, leaving three finalists. They were Catellus, a former division of the Santa Fe Railroad Company and the state’s largest private property owner; Lennar, one the nation’s largest homebuilders; and SunCal, an up-and-coming Irvine company that is redeveloping Oak Knoll — Oakland’s former Navy hospital.

When the City Council met on April 4 to choose one of the three, there was no clear frontrunner — at least that had been publicly identified. But during the three-hour-plus meeting, Councilmembers Doug DeHaan and Lena Tam threw their support behind SunCal. DeHaan, whom Johnson defeated last November in her reelection bid, explained that SunCal was the better choice because the privately held company is insulated from the whims of Wall Street. “SunCal doesn’t have to answer to stockholders,” he told Full Disclosure. This, he believes, would make the company less likely to abandon the deal later.

Johnson and Councilman Frank Matarrese, one of the mayor’s closest political allies, backed Catellus. At the meeting, Johnson noted that the company was already developing the nearby former Navy installation known as Alameda Landing. “If we have one developer on Alameda Landing … and a different developer on Alameda Point, there could be some conflict there,” she told the audience.

Certain City Hall insiders, however, figured Johnson would choose Catellus, not necessarily based on its merits, but because she and the company had a mutual friend. Catellus had hired as a consultant Barbara Price, who ran Johnson’s political campaign when she first took the mayor’s office in 2002.

Price did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Arthur Hodges, a spokesman for ProLogis, the parent company of Catellus, denied that it hired Price and her firm, PK Consultants Inc., to win Johnson’s vote. “They were hired,” he said, “for their knowledge of the community and their expertise in government relations.”

During the meeting, however, it looked like Councilwoman Marie Gilmore might derail Catellus’ plans. Gilmore, who often sides with the mayor, refused to endorse any single developer. Instead, she proposed a partnership between Catellus and Lennar. She said she favored a mixed-use development and noted that Catellus is a commercial builder while Lennar’s expertise is erecting homes.

At first, Johnson seemed to dismiss Gilmore’s suggestion out of hand, calling it a “wild idea.” “We need to select a developer,” she said, adding that the winner could collaborate with one of the other bidders later if it desired. But with Gilmore refusing to back either SunCal or Catellus on its own, neither company had the necessary three votes from the five-member council. Johnson then suddenly changed her mind, and seconded Gilmore’s proposal that Catellus team up with Lennar — which up to that point had not received a single vote. Following a ten-minute break, the two industry giants agreed to become partners.

That may not sound like normal behavior from rival megadevelopers fighting for a deal worth well over a billion clams. But conveniently, Matarrese backed the plan too, giving this “wild idea” three votes without any prior consideration — in public, at least.

Catellus spokesman Hodges refused to comment on whether the company had discussed partnering with Lennar in advance of the council meeting as a way to win at least a share of Alameda Point. And Johnson did not return phone calls questioning her apparent sudden change of heart. Could it be that she also had a reason to back Lennar, and the “wild idea” wasn’t so wild after all?

Records show that Johnson owes a debt of gratitude to one of Lennar’s team members, Pacific States Environmental Contractors, an East Bay demolition company owned by megadonor Ed DeSilva. The road-building magnate also was instrumental in getting Johnson elected in both 2002 and 2006.

In late October 2002, DeSilva donated $15,000 to a political action committee, Californians for Neighborhood Preservation, which papered Alameda with glossy mailers endorsing Johnson’s candidacy. Then, during her reelection bid, DeSilva contributed $75,000 to Let’s Rebuild California, a committee ostensibly set up to support last year’s statewide bond measures. But the group also produced three slick mailers that supported Johnson.

Breaking Promises, Keeping Secrets

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums has trouble keeping his word. During last year’s mayoral campaign, he repeatedly vowed to restore “transparency” to city government. He has done anything but.

The most recent example involves his task forces, which have already met in secret over the past six months to hash out his mayoral agenda. Dellums now wants most, if not all, of the 41 citizen groups to continue meeting secretly as they create blueprints to implement their recommendations.

While this may foster some inspired ideas for fixing Oakland’s myriad problems, it is the antithesis of transparency. The continued insistence on secrecy raises questions about whether Dellums is establishing a quasi-shadow government, made up of mysterious people whose names and affiliations are kept tightly under wraps, and who operate without any published agenda. “They should make everything public,” says Ralph Kanz, an Oakland good-government advocate and a former member of the city’s Public Ethics Commission. “I’ve never even seen a list of the names of all the 41 task forces.”

The mayor’s office also has yet to release most of the names and affiliations of the eight hundred task force members who met during the first six months. Spokeswoman Karen Stevenson said that gathering the information has been time-consuming and that it likely won’t be released until mid-May when the office finally reports on the first-round results.

So far, the mayor has disclosed names and recommendations from twelve task forces, but has only released members’ affiliations for the housing task force. Stevenson acknowledged that affiliations are vital to judging a group’s ideological balance.

Dellums has circumvented open government laws using a loophole in the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. The subsection in question allows the task forces to meet in secret for up to one year. Stevenson indicated that the mayor believes that clock started ticking when he took office on January 1, even though the groups had convened a few months earlier. Given this, the task forces could meet secretly until the year’s end — and possibly throughout the mayor’s four-year term. Apparently all hizzoner has to do is disband them, rename them, and then restart them for another year.

Trina Barton, a mayor’s aide and one of the task force coordinators, said the meetings must be private so people can speak candidly and not be afraid of having their names and ideas printed “out of context” in the newspaper the next day. “We want to protect people’s ability to think creatively — out of the box, a free flow of ideas,” she said.

A legitimate goal. Then again, city councils, planning commissions, and countless other public bodies meet openly every week all across this country, and they don’t seem to have a problem attracting and promoting a free flow of ideas.

Except for Alameda, of course.

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