News & Notes

The big bad wolf honors Little Red Riding Hood, while the first little pig sues number two in court.

Berkeley blues: Back in April, 7 Days saluted Berkeley civil servant Tim Stroshane for accepting the thankless position of advance planning manager and secretary to the Planning Commission. He had every reason to be wary: his predecessor, Andrew Thomas, had defected to the city of Alameda, and Thomas’ predecessor left the department for a long, restful leave of absence. But Stroshane stepped to the plate when his city needed him most.

Three months on the job was more than enough to make Stroshane nostalgic for his old sinecure. He’ll transfer back to the housing department sometime in the next couple of months, thus leaving planning in even worse shape than it was when he took the job. The advance planning department, which works on the city’s long-range development and infrastructure goals, is budgeted for two positions, but with Stroshane gone both will be empty. There is a chance the city could find a planner to fill his shoes before he leaves, but that is assuming that someone can be found to endure the low pay, long hours, and endless battles with development gadflies and city commissioners that is the Berkeley planner’s lot.

Development is the most fractious issue in Berkeley politics these days, beating out even Afghanistan and used coffee sleeves. A determined group of citizens, many of whom are associated with the Berkeley Party, which advocates slow- to no-growth, has pledged to stop a number of new projects, ranging from an old-folks’ home on Sacramento Avenue to Patrick Kennedy‘s big apartment complex at 2700 San Pablo Avenue. Berkeley Party members say that the city has grown enough — actually, it shrank by 104 citizens between 1990 and 2000 — and that further growth would imperil the quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods. Some also whisper that city planners have a natural affinity for developers, will employ any trick to silence dissidents, and routinely engage in nefarious chicanery to ram big projects through.

The controversy has broken out of the Planning Commission and into electoral politics, with voters set to decide on an initiative that would reduce the allowable heights for new buildings throughout the city. This is not good news for Stroshane’s soon-to-be ex-boss, Carol Barrett. Barrett was hired away from Austin, Texas last fall in the hope that she could broker a truce between the community and city staff. Her former colleagues say that she excelled at this when she was in Austin.

But Berkeley is a different kettle of fish, and Barrett must now deal with not only a reduced, unhappy staff and a relentless antidevelopment movement, but the knowledge that her office is becoming a marker to be played in the never-ending game of Berkeley politics. “We’ve certainly been aware that there have been a number of problems in the department for some months now,” says Mayor Shirley Dean. “I had great hopes that the current director would be able to address them.” Note the past tense.

Tickled pink: Every couple of years, East Bay politicians realize that Berkeley City Councilmember Maudelle Shirek is, you know, really old, and was working on progressive causes before they were even soiling their jammies. So it was again last week, when the Alameda Board of Supervisors conducted a ceremony honoring Shirek’s 91st birthday and paying tribute to a life of activism that began with defending the Scottsboro Boys. But the supes had a special treat in store for Shirek. No less than our very own president, George W. Bush, signed a proclamation thanking her for her work. “”Congratulations on your 91st birthday,” the president wrote. “Thank you for your community service and being a vital part of volunteerism in America. We wish you the best in future years.”

Exactly what community service could the president have had in mind? Could it be the four-hour dinner Shirek had with Fidel Castro two years ago? Or maybe it was the numerous goodwill tours she took to the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia? Or the antiapartheid work she performed throughout the ’80s, including cooperating with Chris Hani and the South African Communist Party? Or her marriage to Communist Party USA member Brownlee Shirek? Karl Rove must have been sleeping on the job, but Shirek’s friends are tickled, um, pink that the White House has chosen to honor “Red Maudelle.” As Shirek aide Mike Berkowitz put it, “We’re working on her replacing J.C. Watts.”

Seeing red: Six years ago, Metro Publishing of San Jose filed an application with the feds to trademark “Metro,” the name of the company’s flagship tabloid newsweekly. The feds rejected the application, however, because of its similarity to the similarly trademarked moniker, Metroextra. Metro’s lawyer countered that there would be no confusion between the two brand names because, according to court documents, the common term metro was “weak.” The barrister also pointed out that many other publications also used the word metro.

But that was then; this is a newspaper war now. Metro, which has enjoyed practically no competition from other tabloid weeklies in its seventeen years, is suing its fat-and-growing-fatter rival, The Wave, for infringing on its heretofore “weak” brand name. The Wave is owned by SurfMetro Media, which operates an entertainment Web site ( The tabloid, a shamelessly news-free infotainment rag, burst on the South Bay scene a year ago with splashy color-filled pages filled with club listings and spectacular ads. Lots of ’em. And The Wave keeps growing, in spite of a flaccid economy. It now prints a reported 130,000 papers and has recently invaded the SF and East Bay markets — something Metro strongman Dan Pulcrano has tried to do without much success. (To wit: the short-lived Metropolitan in SF and Oakland’s anorexic Urbanview.) By the by, for the sake of full disclosure, four Express editors or writers once worked for Pulcrano.

Last week Metro won the first round of its legal battle against The Wave when US District Court Judge Claudia Wilken imposed a preliminary injunction prohibiting SurfMetro from using the name SurfMetro. Wilken said Pulcrano had shown persuasive evidence that advertisers, club promoters, and readers have confused SurfMetro with Metro, assuming the former was part of the Metro publishing empire. “Stealing Metro’s trademark and using it to enter the market and gain distribution and readership just went too far. … So we sought the court’s help in stopping their behavior,” said Metro’s attorney, Duffy Carolan.

But the victory was short-lived. A few days later, Judge Lowell Jensen ordered a seven-day stay, allowing SurfMetro time to ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overrule Wilken’s injunction. And even if Metro is successful, the company must put up a $450,000 bond until the trial is settled to make the injunction enforceable.

Peter Brafford, president of SurfMetro, says he can’t see what all the fuss is about. For one thing, SurfMetro began in 1999 as a Web-design company; The Wave came later. And how’s this for irony: SurfMetro even ran ads in a few issues of Metro a couple of years ago. Of course, that was before The Wave hit the stands, Brafford says. Afterward, Metro canceled the account once its leaders realized they were sleeping with the enemy. And enemy is the operative word here. While The Wave has expanded, Brafford says Metro‘s page-count and ads are down. “They don’t want competition,” Brafford snipes. “This is the best way to try and get rid of us … to get us spending our money in the courts.”

Speaking of spending money, where are these young upstarts getting the dough to buy the expensive signs seen by captive commuters approaching the Bay Bridge? Brafford ain’t saying. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of money.”

Building green: You can huff, and you can puff, but you can’t blow down the five-story straw-and-bale building recently approved by Berkeley’s zoning commission. If the munchable structure passes City Council’s muster next month, Berkeley will be home to — get this — “The World’s Tallest Straw-Bale Building” (!), smashing the old record by three stories. Hooh-yeah. High fives for everyone.

Of course, someone’s got to play the Big Bad Wolf, and in this case, it’s the neighbors surrounding the proposed site at Benvenue and Dwight. Neighbors have growled loudly over the proposed “high rise,” which will house theological students and faculty members for the American Baptist Seminary of the West. But Jason Dunn, director of marketing for Integrated Structures Inc., maintains that the building will only appear “two stories high” to viewers on the street. The straw and bale will be stacked inside the walls, wedged between layers of treated concrete. The material is considered “eco-friendly,” Dunn says, for its cozy insulation in the winter and cooling in summer, not to mention its roll-with-the-earthquakes flexibility.

Most importantly, Dunn insists, designers have arranged for the unique building to play small to viewers on the outside, despite its potential record-breaking dimensions on the inside. “We want to appease the neighbors,” Dunn says, “and we also feel this is an ideal structure in an ideal location. It’s a good California structure.”

Sure. And if the Big Bad Wolf gets ya this time, try the bricks.

Acting yellow: Congratulations to San Francisco Chronicle science writer Keay Davidson, who recently broke a story that officials at Lawrence Berkeley Lab didn’t want you to know. You may recall the remarkable news in 1999 that lab researchers had discovered two brand-new elements, and the even more remarkable news when, two years later, the same researchers were forced to retract the discovery after their colleagues in Germany and Russia couldn’t duplicate the results (“Playing God,” October 17). At the time, lab officials promised to figure out what went wrong with the original experiment. But once they found out the terrible truth, they sat on the news, and it took Davidson’s intrepid work to break the story.

Officials have quietly accused Victor Ninov, one of the world’s most renowned nuclear physicists and a talent that LBL researchers wooed from Germany’s Institute of Heavy Ion Research, of falsifying the data. When Ninov claimed to have found evidence of elements 118 and 116, researchers realized that they had just stumbled upon a breathtaking new vista in the heavy elements. It was perhaps the most sensational discovery in thirty years.

Now, it’s perhaps the most sensational case of scientific fraud in decades. The lab has fired Ninov, and the embattled researcher has filed a grievance against his former employers. But what business does a public research institute, which gobbles up billions in government funds, have in trying to hide the truth behind a legitimate matter of scientific inquiry? “We have to maintain the confidentiality of the individual,” says lab spokesperson Ron Kolb. “Because it’s a personnel issue, we have to tread more lightly. This issue cannot be adjudicated in the press.”

But during his June 25 “State of the Lab” speech, laboratory director Charles Shank gave away virtually every detail of the scandal, only withholding Ninov’s name. Why didn’t the lab make the same announcement to the public? “We could say the same thing to the press, but the press would press us for more details,” Kolb says. “We did exactly this with Keay Davidson, and he got the name anyway. You can’t keep things from the press.”

So because a smart reporter could figure out the rest of the story, the lab’s obligated to hide the truth? We have a simpler explanation: Shame.

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