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In The News

Development proposal or political campaign?

By John Mays,

The Daily Journal, 1/27/10

Officials from DMB Saltworks dropped off a two-inch stack of printed e-mails at the Daily Journal office last week. Inside, representatives promised, was evidence of possible violations of the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law and collusion on the part of some members of the Menlo Park City Council in their effort to oppose the companies’ effort to develop half their 1,436 acres of salt ponds on the Redwood City Bayshore into housing, schools, parks and retail and transit facilities and the other half into permanent open space, public recreation and tidal marsh restoration. Reporters usually get giddy over leafing through stacks of juicy documents looking for nuggets of news.

As enticing as such stacks are, this stack was largely empty. Instead, it revealed a boring process that Councilman Andy Cohen and Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson went through to get a resolution crafted and shows they checked in with Stephen Knight, political director for Save the Bay, the nonprofit digging in its heels to stop the development and well, try to save the Bay. It also shows that Fergusson’s cell phone battery died as she was trying to get some comments to a reporter from another publication working on a story and that she has less than positive feelings for another person working on the process. Cohen also described in brainstorm fashion allowing for some development on El Camino Real in Menlo Park instead of the salt ponds.

The e-mails show a curvilinear line of thought and progress toward the resolution opposing the development and quite frankly, is a little “inside baseball” even for someone like me who usually loves the ins and outs of development.

My theory is that Cargill pulled the e-mails through the Freedom of Information Act as a way to place a shot across the bow for those who may oppose their plans to choose their words carefully and keep their books straight. However, they found little ammo for their quest to show nefarious intentions and dropped them off hoping a reporter could find something to wrap into a hit piece on the opposition — most notably Fergusson, Cohen and Save the Bay.

Anyone who thinks that Save the Bay doesn’t have a vested interest in this battle is fooling themselves. It is a well-organized group well-versed in the legalities of development — particularly when it comes to the Bay. As a reporter more than 10 years ago, I witnessed firsthand its ability to go toe-to-toe with those looking to develop the Bay when it fought Willie Brown and his city’s Planning Department quest to expand San Francisco International Airport’s runways. There should be no question that Save the Bay will be in constant contact with city officials and other interested parties across the area looking for leverage and support. It will do so every step of the way. Case in point is a recent e-mail campaign it embarked upon over at Oracle where Cargill is offering a $100 gas card or $100 transit pass for any employee there willing to put pen to paper and describe their long commutes. It is likely Cargill will use the stories during the public planning process to illustrate the need to develop more workforce housing on this side of the Bay. Save the Bay is asking its supporters to send e-mails to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and President Charles Phillips asking the company not to support any development on the Bay.

Allowing its employees to participate in a developer giveaway is not necessarily supporting the development, but highlighting the practice is a tactic — right or wrong — that Save the Bay is using. Is it more noble and upfront than scouring city official e-mails? Probably not. But it is proof that this battle for this piece of land is just beginning.

And it might be worthwhile if everyone stop treating this like a political campaign to paint the opposition in the most negative light as possible. It reminds me of the battle over Measure Q — the Marina Shores referendum that sought to stop progress toward the construction of 12-story towers on the Bayshore. There was more focus on who was stealing whose signs and little discussion of the merits of the proposal. You cannot impugn the reputation of a development proposal, it simply is what it is. Either you want it or you don’t. By engaging in subterfuge and ripping reputations, the argument for the development loses its focus. Is it right for this area? Or is it not?


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