Letters for the Week of April 3, 2013

Readers sound off on tech money, Bill Aboudi, and CEQA.

“The Bacon-Wrapped Economy,” Feature, 3/20

Hats Off

Hats off to Ellen Cushing for her amazingly perceptive article on our Silicon Valley nouveaux riches and their desperately myopic view of the world they, and we, both live in.

Unless the “Old Money” society has left ample resources to their heirs, along with that much-needed sense of “noblesse oblige” that has characterized past generations and made possible the kinds of cultural treasures that make our lives so rich, we have little to look forward to from this crew of navel gazers.

Tom Flynn, Piedmont

The Express, Brought to You By … ?

Thank you for your important critical leading article. Halfway through, however, I got frustrated reading two full columns of what seemed like new money’s sponsored list of placement trendy products. What happened here? I hope you’re not succumbing to the new marketing cultural trends invading all corners of life, philanthropy, film, and now, alternative journalism, too. It really undercut what was otherwise an excellent piece and an invitation for more in-depth studies of this new phenomenon.

Maria Elena Diaz, Berkeley

Appalled

Thanks for the essay on the young rich. I’m appalled at what gets spent on the San Francisco Opera and similar high culture, and now I’m appalled at what the young libertarians are tossing their money at.

Good writing, storytelling, and insights.

Gene Coyle, Berkeley

What’s Wrong With Results?

I find the comments on results-oriented charitable giving versus donating to “institutions” baffling. Is it really better to donate based on warm fuzzy feelings rather than to what works?

Kenneth Lu, San Francisco

Congratulations!

If you liked this article, congratulations: You’re old!

Billy Tetrud, Palo Alto

Old Money, New Money: What’s the Difference?

In response to Ellen Cushing’s article, whereas the subject matter of what is being done with new wealth within the tech industry is compelling, there is a shocking gap in the writer’s logic. The article claims that there will be a lack of meaningful philanthropy by young tech employees. This presupposes that all wealthy people in the US up until the rise of the tech industry donated their money to meaningful, culturally rich, and socially conscious causes. This is ridiculous. The rich do what they want, and they are not the cultural standard-bearers. Perhaps a few wealthy Americans have funded the arts, or issues in the developing world, but this is vastly different from claiming that a vanguard has always upheld social values in the past, whereas now — gasp — the money is being squandered.

Money has always been squandered by the rich; this is no different. And one last note: What shining cultural practices are being let go of? I see people in their pajamas in the streets of the Bay Area, know that many people spend most of their free time tapping away on Facebook (and ten other sites), and know barely anyone who reads actual books or owns a dictionary anymore, and this includes college graduates.

Nova Reeves, Oakland

The Hackerspace Angle

Well done! Loved it. Well researched and written. One side note to consider is the emergence of hackerspaces, where some techies play after work to make stuff they really care about. I’m fairly new to the scene myself, but the gestalt feels like what I presume the civil rights movement felt like — we’re hacking for the common good. Kind folks, reverence for wisdom, elderhood, creativity, communal values, etc. Healthy overlap with the Burner crowd.

Brandon Peele, Berkeley

A Bacon-Wrapped Bombshell

This is a bombshell piece of journalism. I hope it gets picked up by the Times, or something similar, because it tells a narrative that Americans need to be keenly aware of.

Brady Welch, Brooklyn, New York

“Can Popuphood Revitalize KONO?,” News, 3/20

Don’t Knock KONO

As someone who lives in KONO, I really don’t define my neighborhood as a place of empty storefronts, crime, and homelessness. As with other neighborhoods in Oakland, I believe the success of many businesses here has been hurt by the economic environment, which has also impacted the residents that live and work here. I’m glad that this article does cover the fact that more than just retail is needed. We need businesses and organizations that will provide jobs to our community. We need products and services that benefit our bodies and minds. That is what I am hoping the future of “urban revitalization” will bring.

Adrienne Filley, Oakland

RIP, BRT

It’s a shame that AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit line (BRT) is no longer planned to run up Telegraph. That project was set to be a major street-renewal project, and I had high hopes for it to generate a “sense of place” for Telegraph, in Koreatown (as well as Temescal, Berkeley, etc).

Jim Trenkle, Oakland

“How an Environmental Law is Harming the
Environment,” Feature, 3/13

Hugely Hypocritical

It seems to me that the city is already “developed”; this project would simply make that development more sustainable and provide much-needed housing in Berkeley.

If I were a resident of this neighborhood I would support a project like this because it would mean less traffic congestion.

I think it is disingenuous to assume that these developers are only out for more profit — I’m sure there are many whose hearts are in the right place, and the support of smart-growth proponents seems to indicate that this is the case here. This assumption seems to be based on the idea that “green” is more expensive, which is not always the case. It’s a rather cynical view of environmentalism and I would imagine some of these activists really hate environmental laws.

I would also suppose that many of these activists live in single-family homes with two cars in the driveway and commute to work.

Blocking development that would change this paradigm by using environmental law is hugely hypocritical and short-sighted in my opinion, not to mention a huge waste of time, energy, and money that could be spent on real environmental problems.

Jennifer Podvin, Oakland

Can’t Make This Up

You can’t make it up. The promoters of “smart growth,” who claim to be the environmentalists, are now calling for the undoing of the California Environmental Quality Act through their reliable mouthpiece, Robert Gammon at the Express. How much more evidence does one need of the corporate takeover or the “neo” environmental movement? Funny how a lot of banker-, developer-enriching ideas are taking hold since they told us about global warming.

Mr. Gammon seems to consider it unseemly and selfish to fight for your “quality of life” in your own backyard. But that is how environments are protected — by local people who will be affected by the actions of those with the big bucks. It’s called grassroots activism. Gammon suggests that only “bona fide” environmental groups should be allowed to sue to block development. Does that mean only the new style, mainstream, oil-company-sponsored groups with paid CEOs?

This whole smart growth initiative has not percolated from below.

Wake up Berkeley sleepyheads. The money that gets diverted to redevelopment agencies and bond brokers is sucked from the city. We citizens of Berkeley are taking the risk for this insanity and will be left holding the bag.

“Reforming” CEQA is “the Lord’s work” says Jerry Brown, according to your article. If he refers to the “Lords” of the landed gentry, yes, they always know how to work the system, don’t they?

Vivian Warkentin, Berkeley

CEQA and Self-Interest

Great analysis. NIMBYs and other obstructionists who masquerade as environmentalists need to be exposed. It’s often true that litigation over CEQA issues has little to do with the ostensible environmental issues — it’s all about self-interest, often by wealthy elitists. The CEQA issues often focus on the impact of a project only in micro terms, and ignore the wider impacts, including the impact of not doing the project. For every green housing unit not built in Berkeley, one does go up elsewhere, but that impact isn’t addressed in CEQA per se.

Not to mention there’s a large industry of lawyers, consultants, etc. that make a lot of money out of the status quo, and hence are very resistant to change.

CEQA and the federal act, NEPA, were passed at a time when our democratic institutions needed a framework to force them to consider environmental consequences of their actions. Do you seriously think they’d ignore them now? Some environmental reviews DO turn up issues heretofore unseen, but much of the litgation is over procedural BS, and the substance (the point, really) is ignored. A democratic body is free to do what they want as long as they comply with the process.

Take a look at the recent news about Walmart in Antioch. The California Supreme Court let stand an appellate court ruling that overturned Judge Barry Goode’s ruling that the city had erred in approving that bigger Walmart without more CEQA work; some of the legal stuff has to do with the sensible point that if a project is part of a larger planning process then you don’t have to parse it down to the micro level when a conforming change is planned.

But the larger point is that in all that litigation it’s mostly procedural stuff addressed by the courts. Walmart’s legal team is equal to wearing down the opponents, and there is nothing in CEQA that is gonna change the city’s mind. While there are many, many reasons to dislike Walmart and what’s happening, this process just ignores those issues. All that money and time are better spent by opponents in addressing the real substance of their objections to Walmart, and not using CEQA as a collection of procedural gotchas to play a game of attrition.

Robert Gendreau, Oakland

“City Contractor Faces Labor and Environmental Charges,” Full Disclosure, 3/6

About Aboudi

Robert Gammon’s highly critical article about local business owner Bill Aboudi betrays the author’s usual investigative practice. Gammon relies on old documents and strongly biased sources for the bulk of his piece. Phrases like “strong evidence suggests” actually demand some strong evidence to support the accusations if the story is intended as something other than a “hit” piece. And why would the Express want to do a hit piece about a popular local business person in the economically deprived community of West Oakland? Loose references to “court documents” are insufficient basis on which to attack a man’s character.

Had Gammon made a couple of phone calls to verify the information supplied by Teamster representative Doug Block, he would have had not only a stronger story, but a truer one.

Regarding the class-action suit for wage and hour violations, the court documents Gammon refers to are the original complaint from several years ago. Those documents do not reflect the arguments, evidence, or deliberations of the court in subsequent years. Nor do they reflect that the “class” in this case was only two workers, that even those ex-employees were reluctant to participate in the case, or that it strongly appears that state law falls on the side of Aboudi as their former employer. What will never come out in court is that the complaint was crafted by Teamster field organizers who sought out Aboudi’s former employees in an effort to put pressure on the employer; a very vocal advocate for the local independent trucking community. The one truth in that story is that all parties are eager for the final decision.

Gammon also fails to point out that the Teamsters have waged a campaign against Aboudi for more than four years in an apparent attempt to silence his support for immigrant independent truckers who haul freight at the Port of Oakland. Aboudi’s only crime in that struggle is to want a fair deal for owner/operators who drive in and out of the port terminals and choose not to be employees of someone else. The Teamsters’ only solution to the plight of these low-income contractors is to outlaw their way of life.

On the issue of stormwater violations, it would have been interesting if Gammon had researched the link between the lawyers for River Watch and those representing the Teamsters — both groups have offices in the same building. Gammon also failed to note that Aboudi has corrected the stormwater problems to the degree possible given the decrepit infrastructure on the old Oakland Army Base. According to Brent Bucknam, whose engineering firm worked with OMSS on the stormwater management plan, “Bill never actually installed the wetland (the firm designed), but put in the berms and a fully conforming sand filter and oil water separator.”

The man-made wetland was a pilot project to use natural processes to clean runoff water. The combination of legal fees and the city’s November eviction notices to the base tenants ended work on that innovative project.

Gammon allows Aboudi one quote in his own defense, that being that he didn’t know about the stormwater regulations. But the writer fails to acknowledge that Aboudi’s landlord, the City of Oakland, was also caught offguard by the new Clean Water Act regulations that went into effect in 2010. Oakland real estate representative John Monetta said in a recent public meeting, “We made an expensive mistake when we allowed OMSS (Aboudi’s business) to begin offering oil change and truck repair services.”

The city was named as a co-defendant in the River Watch lawsuit. Those additional services put the OMSS operation in a different environmental permitting category. The fact is, the only thing Aboudi has not done in response to the water pollution revelations is to hand over a cash settlement to the Santa Rosa lawyer who uses stormwater suits as a source of revenue.

Historical evidence strongly suggests that a union and an environmental lawyer have worked hard to squeeze a local business for their own purposes. Now that sounds like an interesting story. Would the Express like to cover it?

Brian Beveridge, Oakland

Robert Gammon Responds

Mr. Beveridge grossly misstates and mischaracterizes the contents of the story. The story does not refer to court documents “from several years ago.” The “strong evidence” that I referred to concerning Mr. Aboudi violating several labor and environmental laws exists in recent records on file in Alameda County Superior Court and in US District Court, along with an interview of Mr. Aboudi himself.

In terms of the labor law violations, the story quotes the judge in the case — Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman — from his most recent ruling made on October 12, 2012. The judge stated that he found that there was “substantial and persuasive evidence” that Aboudi’s employees “were routinely and consistently precluded from taking meal periods and rest breaks.” The judge also said there was “persuasive” evidence in the case that Aboudi “consistently failed to pay for all hours worked.” The judge based his conclusions on evidence presented in court to him prior to his ruling and not “from several years ago,” as Mr. Beveridge appears to be contending.

In addition, the story goes on to quote from court documents filed after the judge’s October 12, 2012 ruling that showed that Mr. Aboudi owed 73 employees a total of $964,557.08 in back wages. The wage totals in those documents, filed on behalf of the employees, were calculated based on a formula that Judge Freedman ordered to be used. And he included that order in his October 12, 2012 ruling.

As for the environmental law violations, public records show conclusively that Mr. Aboudi’s truck parking operation at the former Army Base allowed polluted stormwater runoff to flow freely into San Francisco Bay for several years. Even Mr. Aboudi admitted to me in an interview that he had failed to apply for and obtain the proper environmental permits until 2010 — four years after he began operations there.

The story also quotes Mr. Aboudi as alleging that the Teamsters and others had conspired against him. But as Doug Bloch of the Teamsters noted, Mr. Aboudi would not have so many legal problems (and likely no news stories written about those legal problems) if he had simply abided by the law.

Corrections

Our March 27 Taste story, “From Web to Table,” misspelled the name Amanda Yee’s last name.

In another March 27 Taste story, “Staycation for the Foodie,” we mischaracterized the nature of Sarah Henry’s involvement with Edible Excursions. She’s still an active guide. 

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