Letters for the week of July 1, 2015

Readers sound off on street art, pensions, and hospital funding.

“Oakland’s New International Icon,” Art, 6/17

A Terrific Addition

It’s an uplifting work that you can see from all over town. Zio Ziegler, thank you!

Matt Chambers, Oakland

“Austerity’s Champion,” Feature, 6/17

You Owe Borenstein An Apology

As the former executive editor of Bay Area News Group, I oversaw the work of both Dan Borenstein and the current editor of the Express, Robert Gammon. Borenstein’s standards as a journalist are impeccable. He’s fair, thorough, unbiased, and smart as a whip. He digs until he uncovers the truth. And his work on underfunded pension systems has been groundbreaking. This hit piece from the Express isn’t journalism at all — and Gammon, who knows better, should be ashamed. It throws labels at Borenstein hoping one sticks, and only quotes pro-labor sources who clearly have a stake in the game. The reporters clearly came at this story with an agenda, and the result is a work of fiction that wouldn’t see the light of day in any respectable publication in the country.

Gammon owes Borenstein an apology. And everyone else owes Borenstein their gratitude.

Kevin Keane, Alameda

The Tribune Owes
Oakland an Apology

If Dan Borenstein wants to write opinion columns stating that nothing is more important than the cost of public workers’ pensions — and this, by the way, with no context attached in terms of what really happened to public financing — he should do that. But for a major newspaper to see governing a city through that lens — that only lets down the very citizens it claims to inform. Oakland wouldn’t be seeing the economic boom that it is if the city had followed Borenstein’s approach.

I also find it amusing that the same columnists who make their living attacking others freak out if anyone so much as questions their point of view.

Pamela Drake, Oakland

The Issue Is

Even the most anti-public sector fiscal conservative would agree that the local government layoffs and pay cuts during the last recession prolonged the recession. Conservatives would say the overall nationwide standard of living will benefit in the long run. Progressives would say local governments should take the lead of providing the compensation and benefits every employee should be getting for both economic justice and macro-economic reasons.

The long-term macro national issues by themselves would make a worthwhile public discussion. Those should form a separate discussion from the local city budget discussions on prioritizing providing more services versus raising employee pay/current benefits versus retirement benefits. Local discussions have to be grounded in local pay scales, cost of living, and the local capacity/willingness to pay higher taxes. Combining long-term national effects with shorter-term local consequences makes the conclusions rhetorical.

To have that local budget discussion in Oakland, it would be helpful if the city published a recent “total” compensation survey, comparing the combined benefits/retirement/gross pay for various positions to what other cities and the federal and state governments pay. Because of job descriptions, it would be harder, but necessary to get similar numbers for the Oakland private sector. In 2010, the city did post online a nationwide, detailed compensation survey, but pulled it shortly after bloggers at ABetterOakland.com started to dig into the details. The city said the survey was misleading.

For you to state the obvious that say Oakland’s tax revenues and the stock market are rising doesn’t automatically support your conclusion that Oakland’s retirement obligations are manageable if we pay in, say, $20 million extra per year without stating your assumptions about long-term stock market returns, employee costs, life expectancies, other operating costs, and tax revenues. That will be deadly boring for many readers. You could start by reporting on the city’s five-year fiscal forecast instead of the two-year budget that gets all the media attention.

It’s a particularly crucial discussion to have now because of the demands for city employees to get raises, as well as needs for social services and affordable housing subsidies.

The fastest rising source of tax revenues is real estate transfer tax coming from both real growth and gentrification. It is also the most volatile revenue source and riskiest to use to fund ongoing compensation and services. That discussion should be part of the larger one of whether and how to raise tax revenue and for what uses, short-term versus long-term.

I don’t accept your declaration that we have a “dangerously under-funded fire department.” You talked way too much with fire union official [Zac] Unger, and not enough with other union leaders such as the SEIU. Of all the city union workers, the firefighters come closest to being “fat cats.” Why do you think the lines stretch around the block when OFD job interviews open up?

I have a different perspective on the firefighters Union. During the fall 2014 election season when I had an election interview with the firefighters board, I asked them whether they disagreed with me that the city had promised city workers benefits that they could never pay. The response was a candid “of course, that’s just arithmetic.” Then I asked why they wouldn’t prefer a candidate for city auditor that brought up the funding issues to the voters and city council sooner than later, when we were starting to see a burst of real estate transfer tax revenue to pay for those retirement promises. Their answer was a straightforward (and I’m paraphrasing here only a little): “because elected officials will do the wrong thing.”

They probably are the most financially savvy city union. Every year that they can delay the city from looking hard at benefits is one more year of vesting. That translates into millions of future retirement benefits and increases the risks we face next time we hit a recession and shifts tax revenues from services to retirement compensation.

A pity that the Oakland Tribune’s editorial writer is a one trick pony who so often seemed oblivious to the needs of all Oaklanders. Because of his approach, Oakland readers largely dismissed his often-valid fiscal analysis as the output of a right-winger channeling the old 1950s Knowland Tribune.

Leonard Raphael, Oakland

Borenstein Doesn’t Suffer Fools

Last election, I watched a couple of Borenstein’s endorsement interviews, which are posted on Bay Area News Group’s website. I’ve never met or spoken with Borenstein myself, but judging by his interview style, I have to say that he’s a man who does not suffer fools gladly. It’s definitely true that he cares about unfunded liabilities most of all, but it’s also clear that what he is looking for in candidates is knowledge of the actual problem. The interviews are brutal, and they are very brutal because he seems to know the financial situations and budgets of each city/district backwards and forwards and he asks questions that demand such knowledge. But this should not come as a surprise to any candidate. If you go to face him unprepared, you might as well not go (in that, Jim Prola has the right idea).

In the interviews I watched, which included both male and female candidates, I found Borenstein to be even-handed with his questions. He wasn’t harder or more patronizing to male or female candidates. But he seemed to have little patience for candidates who didn’t know their stuff.

Borenstein’s endorsements don’t fall on the regular right-wing, union-business spectrum. The candidates he endorses come from the far left, the far right, and everywhere in the middle; some are labor darlings, others hated by labor.

Here, in San Leandro, during our last election, Borenstein endorsed the two most liberal city council candidates in two of the races, and the most conservative ones in the other two. The latter was also endorsed by the police and fire unions. Clearly that was not a consideration for Borenstein. The liberal candidate who ran against Corina Lopez and got Borenstein’s endorsement ran on a platform of raising the minimum wage and imposing rent control in San Leandro, not what you’d call “conservative” issues.

That said, I do agree that Borenstein’s endorsements have little to no effect in many political races, though the same can be said of the Express’ endorsements. For better or for worse, what seems to matter is how many mailers you send and how big they are — a sad comment on our democracy.

Margarita Lacabe, San Leandro

The Pension Bill Is
Coming Due

Unfunded pension liabilities are a problem born of political expediency and unintended consequences. Taxpayers are not at the collective bargaining table (indeed, they’ve been asleep), and it’s very easy for termed-out pols to accede to retirement benefits that somebody else will have to figure out how to fund. Predictably, this has led to quite generous pension obligations that now eat up a big fraction of tax revenues.

If the journalism community is to be faulted, it is for their failure to have recognized this phenomenon as it was occurring, to wake up the populace to it. It’s not sexy — it’s eyes-glazingly technical and boring, but important, they and we all missed it. The bills for this inattention are coming due.

Tom Cushing, Alamo

“Council Should Kill Illegal Deal,” Seven Days, 6/17

Oakland Will be Sued

The question is whether or not there is the political will to do what is legal and right for the citizens of Oakland. To this point, the mayor and city council have failed. If they proceed to approve this backroom deal, the city will be sued.

The first thing a judge will check is whether or not the law was followed in regards to process for notice and disposition of public land. The second test is whether or not the city is in compliance with state planning law. The third is whether or not the city, by its action, is in compliance with its own General Plan (Housing Element). On all counts, the City of Oakland fails.

This is an easy call for City Attorney Barbara Parker. Her job is to keep the city out of court and avoid litigation the city has no chance of winning. She should be reminded that under Measure X [the strong mayor provision of the city charter], she works for the people of Oakland, not the city council or the mayor. Parker has not historically been strong in the land use area, but in this case, her opportunity to show leadership is right in front of her. She should not be swayed by opinions from the mayor’s executive branch, comprised of City of Emeryville ex-pats looking to cut developers a deal or local attorneys for hire (Zach Wasserman) who, for the right price, will argue both sides of any land use issue.

Gary Patton, former deputy director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Oakland, Hayward

“Oakland’s Dyke Central,” Culture Spy, 6/17

Love It

Great article! Loved the first season and can’t wait for what’s to come next! #noplacelikeOakland

Aima Paule, Oakland

“Elemental and Embodied,” Music, 6/17

Big Ups!

I want to thank Sam Lefebvre for sharing our story with your readers! Big ups!

Some quick clarifications. Mom (Sara Waters) is also a powerful and esteemed artist, and Cornish College was a deep art school experience. I recently found a cassette recording of my first string quartet rehearsal from 2000 and immediately began bawling. I was twenty when taking my first composition seminar taught by Jarrad Powell. That semester Jarrad invited a string quartet to collaborate with our class. The main goal of the class was to compose for string quartet in collaboration with the dance department’s choreography seminar student choreographers. I can be heard saying to the musicians “BPM is 120” and the score itself was Xeroxed from a notation notepad that had so many eraser marks that it more resembled a carbon paper copy.

Anyway, dedicated and engaged artists teach at Cornish. However, being involved in academic music programs for fifteen years plus, I noticed an uncomfortable aesthetic hierarchy favoring classical music over other traditions, and improvisation is still underrepresented as a powerful, expressive approach. The Mills and Cornish music programs attempt to tackle some of these concerns head-on by hiring innovators, programming radical works, and by accepting critters like me into their programs. We also need more diversity in the student body and professorships.

Zachary James Watkins of Black Spirituals, Oakland

“Oakland’s Most Radical Coffee Shop,” The Local Economy, 6/10

Unnecessary Racialization

I’m a coffee tourist who lives in Berkeley and follow the modern coffee trend like people who follow sports. I appreciate this coffee coverage and I look forward to trying this roaster’s beans.

However, I take issue with something in the article: “According to [Keba] Konte, there’s a deep irony in the fact that certain (mostly white) segments of the industry act as though they’re the first ones who ever knew exactly which farm their coffee beans came from, or roasted the beans in a certain way to maximize their flavor. The truth is that kind of approach has existed for a long time in Africa, where coffee was invented but few folks in the so-called ‘third wave’ coffee industry ever acknowledge it.”

This is a mischaracterization at best. To me it feels like unnecessary racialization. The so-called “third wave” of coffee — more than any other tradition in US coffee history — gives credit to the farmers and cooperatives that grow their beans. They name names on their products and show photos of the farmers on their websites. Most importantly, they pay them far more than Folgers or Starbucks ever did. These farmers are given recognition for the quality of their product. I’ve never gotten the sense that the roasters or baristas (whatever race they are) are ignoring the people of color at the coffee’s origin.

Also, it is common knowledge that coffee originated in Ethiopia and that Ethiopians drink tons of high quality local coffee and fully appreciate it — which is in contrast to, say, Colombia, where it is supposedly difficult to find a good cup of coffee because all the good beans are exported.

Perhaps these third-wavers are the first in commercial US coffee focusing on coffee origin. But I think it makes sense that they are responding to the first two waves of American coffee. I don’t think they are trying to take anything away from coffee traditions in other countries. I don’t think this has anything to do with international racism. Now, third-wave coffee and its tricky relationship with class/gentrification is a different story altogether.

Robert K. Williams, Berkeley

Konte Is an Inspiration

Amazing concept and man! Keba Konte is a unique and generous spirit, and his belief in others and their potential is truly inspirational.

Priscilla Borrelli, San Francisco

“Schaaf’s Priorities Are Out of Whack,” Seven Days, 6/10

Blaming Schaaf Is a Cop-Out

At some point, can we stop calling it protests and call it what it is: riots? Let’s go back to when these “protests” began and calculate the cost to the city. Dating back to January 2009, when the Oscar Grant protests began, Oakland has struggled to find a balance between free speech and peaceful protests and riots. As long as legit protesters allow rioters to hijack peaceful demonstrations, the issue won’t be heard.

Through my work [owner of the private security company, VMA Security Group], I have been on the front lines of all of the protests and as late as Friday, June 5, there were still protesters wearing masks, carrying spray paint, and antagonizing not only police, but anyone who spoke up. The media should, at some point, take an in-depth look at who the protesters really are instead of continuing to vilify the police and government agencies and officials.

I ask, what came first, the spending on OPD overtime or rioters destroying the notion of peaceful, constructive, and law-abiding protests? Blaming a mayor with less than six months on the job is a cop-out.

Vince Mackey, Oakland

“Hospital or Healthcare District?” News, 6/10

Finish the Job, ETHD

Eden Township Healthcare District (ETHD) is one of only a few public healthcare districts in the state that does not run a hospital or any direct healthcare services. The state has frowned on the existence of such districts with no clear healthcare mission or benefit. Additionally, ETHD’s annual administrative expenses far outstrip its meager grant-giving program. In terms of San Leandro Hospital, the district purchased the hospital in 2004 and subsequently allowed Sutter to purchase it, eventually leading to Sutter’s decision to close it in favor of its Castro Valley campus. In fact, ETHD has been responsible for the fate of the hospital for more than seventeen years when in 1998 it decided to forego independence and transfer operations to Eden Medical Center, a Sutter affiliate.

Based on its history of mistakes with Sutter, and its abject inability to keep the facility afloat, the district remains responsible to the community for its future. When the 2013 transfer deal was taking place, Dev Mahadevan and two board members met with the county and Alameda Health System on more than one occasion to discuss implementing the $17 million waiver of judgment won by Sutter. One meeting took place on April 8, 2013 when the county was given a chart by Eden showing that by June 2014, the Dublin properties would be worth approximately $74 million (for a net value of about $39 million). Real estate values have escalated since then. In June 2013, a majority of the district board voted in public session to facilitate the $17 million donation to the hospital.

The question the community needs to ask is not, how much more do you expect me to give, but, why do you exist if not to finish the job you started?

Wilma Chan, Alameda County Board of Supervisors, Alameda

ETHD Responds

The majority of healthcare districts (51.25 percent) in the state do not run hospitals. Supervisor Wilma Chan’s hometown district, the City of Alameda Healthcare District, turned over its hospital to be run by Alameda Health System (AHS) and has become the 41st of 80 healthcare districts in California not running a hospital. Running hospitals is no longer a single stand-alone proposition that works in California.

The lawsuit between Eden Healthcare District and Sutter Health was about whether Sutter Health could buy San Leandro Hospital under the 2008 agreement. Sutter exercised its right to purchase and the district said it would challenge the agreement, based on conflicts of interest that existed on the board of directors and the CEO of the District at that time. However, the courts (all the way to the California Supreme Court) decided that there were no conflicts and that the 2008 agreement was valid (Sutter Health won its argument). In April 2012, the district offered to “sell” the Hospital to Sutter Health, as agreed in arbitration. I say “sell” because the agreements allowed Sutter Health to deduct the losses of San Leandro Hospital during the lease against the book value of San Leandro Hospital. The result was losses in excess of the $17 million value of the property.

The district paid the City of San Leandro and the County of Alameda $115,000 in taxes to transfer the Hospital to Sutter Health, which then transferred the Hospital to Alameda Health System with additional monies in the amount of $16–$17 million in operating funds.

The district committed to Supervisor Chan and AHS that we would work collaboratively to find $20 million, if possible. Our financial consultants said that there was no way that the district could raise that money. This was conveyed to all parties and the district had met its commitment three months after it was made, in September 2013.

The district has never had and now has no objection to Sutter Health paying any funds it receives in our damages settlement to AHS for San Leandro Hospital. This has been communicated to all parties, but the district has no right to tell Sutter Health how to spend its money.

The damages claim results entirely from Sutter Health establishing the losses for San Leandro Hospital from March 2010 to April 2012, approximately. The district will have spent about $50 million to keep San Leandro Hospital open by the time the legal issues are settled (damages claim). I think that is enough for the district to spend, given that this represents about 50 percent of its assets on 22 percent of the district’s residents. No other agency or entity has given as much to keep San Leandro Hospital open.

Dev Mahadevan, CEO, Eden Healthcare District, Castro Valley

Miscellaneous Letter

Protesters Need to Find an Alternative

I’d like to share a thought about the restrictions Oakland has placed on nighttime protests. I fully support peaceful demonstrations. And I agree that what Mayor Libby Schaaf has done is a serious matter. But so are the violent attacks on businesses downtown that sometimes accompany such protests. I would love to see a pro-protest letter that acknowledges that violence and seeks to work with the police to figure out a way to prevent it. Until I see such an acknowledgement, it’s very hard for me to take seriously the letters of those opposed to Mayor Schaaf’s decision.

Greg Lieberknecht, Oakland


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