Category: City Auditor’s Report

Brooks Victorious, Kernighan Humiliated

Multiracial outpouring of community support for Brooks

 By Tasion Kwamilele

Council President Pat Kernighan’s motion to censure Desley Brooks died for the lack of a second.

Brook’s resolution to drop the motion to censure her and begin work on a policy governing council ethics in the future passed

Desley Brooks

Desley Brooks

by a 6-0 vote, with Kernighan and Lynette McElhaney abstaining.

McElhaney was loudly booed for abstaining.

Based on a recent report by the Alameda County Grand Jury, Brooks was accused of violating the City Charter for interfering with city staff to ensure the building of the Rainbow Teen Center at 58th and International Boulevard.

“I received numerous emails (asking) why we’re not saying this was wrongful behavior,” said Kernighan.

Audience members shouted in protest suggesting the motion to censure Brooks was a ”witch hunt” and that the council needed to “do the right thing.”

Others complained that those favoring censure were “putting the cart before the horse,” trying to pass a censure motion before the council had developed a policy for censure.

Nearly all of the 74 public speakers who signed up to speak at the meeting supported Brooks and opposed censure.

Brooks argued that the charges against her utilized documents that did not have any connection with her, and she gave examples of other councilmembers, such as  Libby Schaff,  who violated  the City Charter by directing the actions of staff.

“Facts you’re sharing with the public are not true,” Brooks told Kernighan, addressing Kernighan’s explanation of the censure.

“You have a pattern of misstating things to fit your argument,” Brooks said to Kernighan.

Brooks also said the meeting was being improperly held because the council does not have a censure policy in place.  Councilmember Larry Reid called the motion a racially motivated attack.

“…On this council that I am a part of racism is alive and well,” Reid said. “This action you’re taking today is a dog and pony show.”

“How can we trust you when you’re attacking your colleagues?” asked Jean Johnson-Fields, a native and resident of Oakland, speaking to the council.

Carol Williams Curtis, an Oakland resident who lives in Brooks’ district, said her son was killed in Brookfield Village in 2005. But another murder had not happened at that particular site because of the work Brooks does in the community.

“The stench of death is too high [and] that’s the act that needs to be censured,” Curtis said. Let’s not make Desley the scapegoat.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 26, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

 

 

Rainbow Teen Center, a “Hidden Jewel,” Was Built in 45 Days

By Post Staff

The East Oakland Rainbow Teen Center is located in a beautifully renovated site that was built in 45 days at a cost to the public of only $157,000 and offers professional level training to young people who live in an area that has a reputation as one of most neglected and violent parts of the city.

The center at the corner of 58th Avenue and International Boulevard is a unique accomplishment for the City of Oakland.

Rainbow Teen Center

Rainbow Teen Center

The center’s program, which only has sufficient funding to be open part time, hires instructors, who are accomplished in their fields, to train young people in state-of-the-art skills in the areas of digital audio production, digital video production, culinary arts and urban agriculture.

Open for almost three years, the center offers students more than training in marketable skills. Instructors get to know the young people, jointly eat dinner with them daily at the end of class and keep in touch with them after they leave the program.

“You grow the food, you harvest it and then you prepare it and eat it together,” said Timothy Quick, instructor and coordinator of the urban agriculture program, whose expertise is especially in mini-gardens and trellises.

He works with young people to plant and maintain the garden beds outside the center. Usually, young gardeners who enter the program are mostly interested in growing flowers or fruit, he said.

Claytoven Richardson, who grew up in Sobrante Park in East Oakland, is co-director of the center and part of the music

Claytoven Richardson, co-director of Rainbow Teen Center

Claytoven Richardson, co-director of Rainbow Teen Center

production program. An award-wining producer, he says he is excited to see young people learn the skills and then find work in the field.

“This is really incredible for me,” said Richardson, “to see them take it and use it and then begin a career with what they learn. This is an exciting opportunity to do something positive for these kids and this community.”

Andrea President, the other co-director of the program and guitar instructor, is also enthusiastic over Rainbow’s accomplishments in a short time.

“This is a hidden jewel,” she said.  “It looks beautiful on the outside, and on the inside it is even prettier. People are surprised to see it on International Boulevard.

“It has a homey feel. I tell the kids who participate here that this is your home away from home.”

Elizabeth Bagot, a senior at Coliseum Prep Academy, an Oakland public school, spoke to the Post while on the way to a field trip with the program to Tilden Park in Berkeley.

Bagot, who is studying digital video production, said the Rainbow center is special to her because it gives her the tools to make her “vision a reality.”

“It has been very helpful,” she said.  “You can’t work in an actual video environment anywhere else, where you can go out into the streets (to shoot video) and then edit your own films. You learn all the parts that go into making a film.”

Andrea President, co-director at teen center

Andrea President, co-director at teen center

The teachers are good, she said, “because they support you in what you’re trying to do.”

Building the Rainbow Center in 45 days at the cost of only $157,000 was the brainchild of District 6 City Councilmember Desley Brooks. She worked with the nonprofit Rebuilding Oakland Together, which provided volunteers, and the nationally known builder, Pulte Homes.

In comparison, all other council members were allocated $500,00 to build teen centers, except Larry Reid, who was building a sports center.

Besides Brooks, the only council member to build a teen center was Nancy Nadel, whose project took three years at the cost of over $3 million.  That center still has not opened, though Lynette McElhaney has secured some funds for it in the new city budget.

While many allegations have been raised about Councilmember Brooks’ involvement in the building of the center, she says she worked on the project with city staff and successive City Administrators.

She said the city’s personnel department hired all the employees.

Contrary to press reports, instructors at the center said that nobody at the site worked directly with young people until after fulfilling legally required fingerprints and background checks.

The reason there were no competitive bids, Brooks said, was because city staff originally had told Pulte that it was eligible for a grant. It was only after Pulte completed the work and submitted its invoices that staff said they could not pay the company.

Ultimately, staff figured out a way to make the payment, which was approved by the full council.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 19, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

 

Councilmembers, City Auditor Speak on Censure Motion

By Post Staff

City Councilmembers are reacting to the turmoil generated in the community after Council President Pat Kernighan placed a motion to censure Councilmember Desley Brooks on the agenda of a special council meeting for next Thursday.

Larry Reid

Larry Reid

A source at City Hall said the vote to reprimand Brooks would break down 5-3, the same as the vote on the new city budget. Supporting that budget were Libby Schaaf, Pat Kernighan, Lynette McElhaney, Dan Kalb and Rebecca Kaplan.

Opposed were Desley Brooks, Larry Reid and Noel Gallo.

However, Kaplan has said she will not support the motion, and reports are that Gallo also will not back it.  As of press time, McElhaney has not said how she will vote.

If the vote divides 4-4, the mayor will be called on to break the tie.

City Auditor Courtney Ruby sent out an email blast Wednesday to mobilize residents to attend the meeting next Thursday.

Her performance audit issued earlier this year report focusing on alleged interference with staff by Brooks and Reid set off the current furor that led to the recent Grand Jury Report and Kernighan’s censure motion.

“My audits may raise issues that are difficult to face. However, you elected me and other city leaders to do just that. Please

City Council President Pat Kernighan

City Council President Pat Kernighan

continue to hold us accountable to the promise we made when we took our oath of office,” said Ruby in the email.

Reid reiterated his opposition to the motion, saying, “It makes no sense. There is no policy in place to censure a council member. It’s going to be a dog and pony show.”

In addition, he said, the district attorney did not press charges against Brooks, and every member of the council is guilty of what the Grand Jury report is calling interference.

“The entire council could be censured, if any kind of action is going to take place,” he said.

“It puts the three new councilmembers in a bad position, voting for something they were not here to (witness).”

While not indicating how she would vote, McElhany said,  “People are making this out to be more than what it is.  A censure vote is a symbolic gesture that acknowledges disapproval.  It has no direct effect on the validity of the councilmember’s service nor is there any particular legal consequence. It is too bad that we have to talk about this now rather than focus on the city’s needs, but we must respond to the Grand Jury report.  These actions took place a long time ago.  It is time for the city to move forward.”

Kernighan said that controversy and inaction swirling around Brooks since the city auditor’s report has “been a drag on the reputation of the Oakland City Council,” according to Oakland Local.

“I am painfully aware that this is going to be a difficult conversation,” Kernighan was reported to have said during a rules committee meeting. “I think it is important that we just deal with this issue that has been dogging us for awhile, and I would like to dispense with it one way or another regardless of how it turns out before we go on break.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 19, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

 

Council Members Favoring Censure Are a “Bunch of Hypocrites,” Says de la Fuente

By Post Staff

Former Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente is saying council members who support censuring Desley Brooks are “a bunch of hypocrites.”

In an interview with the Post this week, de la Fuente weighed in on the public uproar over the pending motion to censure Councilmember Desley Brooks.

Igancio de la Fuente

Igancio de la Fuente

De la Fuente said he knew of an instance when Council President Kernighan had called city staff specifically to instruct them to stop issuing citations in the hills to drivers who park on the wrong side of the street.

“All of us have done something when it comes to pushing to solve our constituents needs,” he said. “All councilmembers get calls from their constituents demanding actions on their needs and problems and concerns.”

Frequently, council decisions would not be carried out without councilmembers working directly with staff, he said.

“I remember when Jane Brunner, Pat Kernighan and I would get calls and complaints, and we would try to move things along to solve problems and bottlenecks in the bureaucracy.

“All city councilmembers have shepherded projects – we all have pushed staff to get things done.”

Instead of backing a motion to censure, the City Council should focus on writing a policy that would give them something concrete by which to measure their actions, he said.

“Let’s not be a bunch of hypocrites,” he said.

In related news, the Post has learned that the Grand Jury is in possession of an email dated Feb. 5 from Libby Schaaf on police staffing that documents the council member’s attempt to direct city Budget Director Donna Hom.

“I’ve asked Donna Hom to develop an Excel tool that would allow us to easily cost-out various scenarios,” in order to “figure out how to get Oakland to 1,000 cops,” Schaaf wrote in the email.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 19, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

Accusations Against Brooks Are a “Witch Hunt,” Say Community Members

By Ken A. Epstein

Community members are responding angrily as news has began to spread that City Council President Pat Kernighan has called a special City Council meeting to reprimand District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks for violating the City Charter for interfering with staff.

Ron Muhammad

Ron Muhammad

The meeting will be held Thursday, July 25 in the Council Chambers at 6:30 p.m. Though the motion to censure Brooks carries no formal penalties, it could potentially impact next year’s District 6 council race.

“I think this is a political witch hunt – it has bigger political implications in terms of the mayoral election and future political races – because it is much to do about nothing,” said Ron Muhammad, West Oakland community activist.

He said the council should not be considering censure because “there’s not a process in place to judge her, but propaganda has created the momentum.”

The move to censure Brooks originally started out because she was able to build a teen center in District 6 utilizing significant support of volunteers and donations before former Councilmember Nancy Nadel could complete one in West Oakland, and Nadel resented Brooks for “leapfrogging the process,” he said.

Brooks’ center was built for $157,000 and in “45 days as opposed to three years” for Nadel’s West Oakland project at a cost of over $3 million, said Muhammad.

In addition, the East Oakland center has state-of-art programs serving young people, while the West Oakland center has until now lacked funds to open its doors.

Underscoring concern over staff’s lack of accountability to the community, Rev. Daniel Buford of Allen Temple Baptist Church argues that responsible council members must make staff accountable to the public.

Rev. Daniel Buford

Rev. Daniel Buford

“Far from keeping council people from talking to city staff, I think they need to be meddled with, they need to be monitored and they need to be censured for encumbering the city in million-dollar schemes that are bilking taxpayers,” Buford said.

“It was the city staff that years ago encumbered the city for millions of dollars to Goldman Sachs,” he said. “ It is that same city staff that is now dragging their feet in resolving the issue,” and is attempting to keep the city from debarring that organization from future dealings with Oakland.

In addition, he said, it was staff that agreed to a contract with Neptune Society to build a crematorium in East Oakland that would burn and pollute the air with the dust of 3,000 corpses a year.

“Once again, staff has gotten the city into something without proper citizen review or environmental quality review,” he said.

While the main charge against Brooks is that she violated the City Charter by interfering with staff, the bigger issue in city government is that  “staff interferes and sabotages the decisions of the council,” said Rashidah Grinage, executive director of PUEBLO, which, along with other organizations, has worked for years for police accountability to local residents.

Staff does not carry out city decisions and are even guilty of saying, “they have done things that they have not done,” Grinage said. “This is the far more serious problem about city accountability to its residents.”

As an example, she cited the failure of city staff, including the City Administrator, to properly oversee the Oakland Workforce Investment Board, which has led to failure to fund non-profit job programs in a timely way and to the return of $600,000 in on-job-training funds to the state.

She said the City Administrator also failed to adequately oversee small businesses located at the site of the Oakland Army Base development project. As a result, the city has had to scramble at the last minute to find temporary locations for these local companies, trying to keep them from closing down and laying off hundreds of workers.

“It was entirely foreseeable that they would have to get out of where they were,” Grinage said.

Further, Grinage said that actions of city staff and the City Administrator have cost city $10-$15 million in court fees, lawsuits and consultants for failing for over 10 years to reform the Oakland Police Department as required by the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, overseen by federal Judge Thelton Henderson.

Grinage is currently contending with City Administrator Deanna Santana for stalling the implementation of the transfer of intake of complaints against police from Internal Affairs to an independent review board.

Rashidah Grinage

Rashidah Grinage

“She’s supposed to have it done by Oct. 15,” Grinage said. “But it’s already been delayed two years.”

Kitty Kelly Epstein, an Oakland educator and former staffer for the previous mayor, also opposed the motion to reprimand Brooks.

“Censure is a political weapon.  It isn’t any prettier in Oakland than it is in the U.S. Congress,” she said.  “ Desley Brooks is the only council member who has actually succeeded in getting a teen center operating in her district.

“Instead of considering a censure of her, maybe the president of the council would want to figure out how to get city administration to work in such a way that the other badly needed teen centers are actually built and operating.

“And while she’s at it, Ms. Kernighan could look at how to get some other city policies carried out – like jobs for the residents of East and West Oakland and a reformed police department.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 19, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

Brooks Faces Censure for Building East Oakland Teen Center

By Ken A. Epstein

Based on a recommendation of the Alameda County Grand Jury, the Oakland City Council is considering a motion to censure Councilmember Desley Brooks for building a teen center that serves East Oakland neighborhoods that face levels of unemployment, poverty and violence that are among the worst in the country.

Council President Pat Kernighan placed the motion, which amounts to a formal reprimand, on the City Council’s agenda after the Grand Jury recently issued its Final Report for 2012-2013, finding that Brooks  “inappropriately made administrative decisions throughout the process” of building the teen center between 2007 and 2011.

Putting pressure on council members, the Grand Jury also cited the council’s “inability to self-police,” calling on the council to censure Councilmember Brooks.

2013 Alameda County Grand Jury

2013 Alameda County Grand Jury

Before looking at the Grand Jury’s findings, it is important to recognize what a grand jury report is and is not.

The civil grand jury is a “watch-dog” panel that once a year issues a final report, which details its investigations and makes “recommendations to local and county government agencies.”

The jury does not make criminal findings and does not bring charges. What it does is make recommendations.

Further, the report does not allege that Brooks gained personally in any way in the building of the teen center. She did not enrich herself or her friends, she did not hire friends or relatives.  And she did not make sweetheart deals with contractors.

What the report says is that she “circumvented” city contracting, purchasing and hiring rule to ensure that the project was completed.

Brooks was able to have the teen center built at the corner of 58th Avenue and International Boulevard at a time when “other parks and recreation programs were being cut and projects with higher priorities went unfunded,” the grand jury said in its report entitled “Misgoverning the City of Oakland.”

In other words, it could be said that the Grand Jury is blaming her for successfully representing her constituents to build a teen center when other councilmembers failed or had no interest in doing so.

In fact, the city had allocated $500,000 to each councilmember to build a teen center in their district, except councilmember Reid, who was having a different project built

But none of the councilmembers except Brooks built and opened a teen center. While Councilmember Nancy Nadel built one in West Oakland, it sat empty for years due to lack of

Desley Brooks

Desley Brooks

funding.  Recently Councilmember Lynette McElhaney has secured new funding to open the West Oakland center in the coming year.

How was Brooks able to accomplish such a feat? She is after all only one of eight members of the council and has no direct authority or hire or write checks on the city’s account.

She built the center, the Grand Jury report said, “often with full knowledge and complicity of city staff.”  Brooks said that she completed the project working with three successive City Administrators.

Though the report almost exclusively focuses on Brooks, does it allege she was the only member who worked to  “influence administrative decisions?” Not at all.

“The Grand Jury learned that some council members would often put pressure on city staff to get their own issues prioritized above other city matters.”

The report even partially acknowledged the reality of the City of Oakland, where city staff has regularly been accused by community members of mismanaging funds and ignoring and thwarting the decisions of the City Council.

There has existed a “culture of interference” in Oakland government, the report said, in part due to “the fact that large government bureaucracies operate using polices and procedures that can cause change or improvements to occur slowly.”

While citing interference by former Ignacio de la Fuente in the building of the Fruitvale Transit Village, it says the conduct “may appear to be insignificant and even well-meaning in many circumstances.”

“The Grand Jury heard testimony that the Fruitvale Transit Village (near Fruitvale BART)… may never have been completed without the pressure exerted by a former member of the City Council

“The interference included causing a public library to be uprooted from its established neighborhood location, and relocated to a second floor space to serve as an anchor tenant and revenue stream for the project.”

What the Grand Jury report and certain councilmembers are calling interference is common practice on the council and what members must do if they wish to represent the residents of Oakland, according to de la Fuente in an interview with the Post.

“All of us have done something when it comes to pushing to solve our constituents needs,” he said. “All councilmembers get calls from their constituents demanding actions on their needs and problems and concerns.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 19, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

 

 

Auditor’s Political Move to Lobby Council’s Help

By Ken A. Epstein

City Auditor Courtney Ruby has sent out an email “Call to Action” asking Oakland residents to defend her audit that accuses two city council members of interfering with staff in awarding a $6 million Army Base development contract.

Ruby’s email was sent on April 26, after the council’s Rules Committee placed an item on the May 21 City Council agenda to

Courtney Ruby

Courtney Ruby

consider hiring an outside auditor to examine Ruby’s March 21 Non-Interference in Administrative Affairs Performance Audit.
The item will be discussed at the May 21 council meeting.

Under a headline –“Call to Action: Is Integrity in Government Important to You?” – the email asks residents to “Make sure your councilmember knows how you feel about the recently released…audit report, which found two councilmembers and one aide violated the City Charter….

“Email your councilmember and/or attend the City Council meeting on May 21 where we will be presenting our report to the City Council.”

In response to Ruby’s call to action, District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo said he has received about 20 emails supporting the city auditor, adding that he is not happy with the direction the discussion has taken.

Rashidah Grinage

Rashidah Grinage

“It’s a shame all this is taking place,” he said. “It’s very divisive. It keeps us from discussing the issues.”

Longtime community activist Rashidah Grinage faulted Ruby for politicizing her audit findings. “It’s inappropriate. An auditor should not be political. It should not be a political position,” she said.

Grinage said she has heard Ruby may have political ambitions. “It’s rumored that she may run for mayor or has some interest in that,” said Grinage. “I don’t think this judgment is the kind of judgment we want in a mayor.

“I think she’s going to have to wear the consequences of this. Something that she thought was going to somehow give her some mileage has backfired.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 10, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

Unfair Treatment of Turner Group Construction “Only the Tip of the Iceberg”

By Ken A. Epstein

The City of Oakland’s failure to offer Turner Group Construction an honest shot at winning the Oakland Army Base demolition contact is “only the tip of the iceberg,” and explains, at least in part, the city’s continued dismal record of employing small, local contractors and African American construction workers on its projects, according to Councilmember Desley Brooks.

Desley Brooks

Desley Brooks

“What does (Turner Group’s experience) say about how Oakland’s flawed process?  Here is a company that in seven years has gotten less than $50,000 in contacts with the City of Oakland.  They spoke up, but there are a lot of firms that are afraid to speak up because they think they will get penalized,” Brooks said.

The obstacles small contractors face can be traced back to the staff and their overly cozy relationship wit the big contactors, she said.  “In this instance that staff was going right along with sole sourcing contracts even though they knew it was in violation of the rules. And would have done it were it not for a Turner Group Construction or me and Larry (Reid) asking: Why are you sole sourcing this?’”

“Our staff is letting (the big contractors) dictate what is happening on our projects,” Brooks said.  Most of the rest of the City Council is “ eager to let them do what they’ve always done. And that’s why the economics are the way that are in the city.”
Joe Debro, president of Bay Area Black Builders, agrees that the unfair procedures are connected to city staff and their ties to big contacts.

“No matter what the council policy is, the staff does what it wants to do,” Debro said.  “This has been going on for the last 30 years or so. The politicians pass what are fair laws, but they don’t have any way to enforce them.”

Joe Debro

Joe Debro

The staff has all the information and controls the process, he said. Frequently, Debro said,  “They come in at the last minute (at City Council meetings), needing something passed that night, or they are going to lose the money next week. But they’ve known that for six months. “

Unfortunately, the influence of developer Phil Tagami and other large contactors on the process is the normal operating procedure, she said. “I’ve been saying consistently since I’ve come on the council. We have to make sure the playing field really is level, not just lip service.”

There will never be significant hiring of Oakland workers on projects as long as the city relies on big out-of-town contactors. Local hiring cannot be separated from ensuring that contracts go to small, local construction firms, she said.

According to Brooks, one way to improve opportunities for small firms would be to create self-insurance, bonding and an owner controlled insurance program (OCIP), all of which would reduce the amount of capital that companies must  take out of circulation for long periods of time to guarantee their job performance.

An important reform was putting all the Army Base project hires and where they live on the web, a policy that Brooks advocated.
Another significant reform has been the city’s prompt payment policy.  “If the city actually implemented that policy, which I wrote, small contractors wouldn’t have to carry the city while they wait to get paid,” said Brooks.

In examining the city’s record of offering contracts to small companies, it is important “to follow the dollars,” not just the numbers of companies, according to Brooks.

In one $14 million deal, the developer hired contractors for $10 million, and a “good percentage went to African American contractors,” she said. ”But it was only for a total of $160,000 out of $10 million worth of contracts.

“It’s not just the percentages of participation – let’s look at the distribution of the dollars and wealth.”

Courtesy of Oakland Post, April 18, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

 

Small Local Contractor Asks: Where is Oakland’s Level Playing Field

From the point of view of Turner Group Construction –a local, small African-American owned firm – the company has experienced nothing but headaches since it has tried to work for the City of Oakland. The company has found out first-hand why many small contractors consider the city’s  “level playing field “ to be anything but.

Most recently, the company demanded a retraction from City Auditor Courtney Ruby’s March Performance Audit that focused on

Len Turner

Len Turner

allegations that two City Council members unethically attempted to direct business to the Turner Group.

According to the firm’s retraction demand, the report, which mentioned Turner Group 26 times, “implies that Turner engaged in

unethical conduct, when in fact Turner was simply reacting, ethically and legally, to the highly unusual decision of city staff to improperly sole source contracts to a politically influential, out-of-town company.”

Ruby took only three days to dismiss the complaint. “We decline your request to alter the report,” she said in her April 12 reply.
“Please be advised that at no point…(did the report) conclude that Turner Group Construction engaged in unethical conduct. The ethics of Turner’s conduct was outside the scope of the audit.”

The twists and turns experienced by Turner Group in Oakland  were the opposite of an open and transparent process. First, Turner Group was part of a consortium that was recommended to be part of the Army Base Project.  Then the recommended award was withdrawn after contractor Phil Tagami complained, though he was not a party to the bidding process and had not yet received the Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) on the project.

Next, city staff tried to give a sole source, no bid contact to do the Army base work to Top Grade Construction, part of the Tagami team.  The size of the award more than doubled.

At that point, Top Grade offered Turner Group what it considered a menial “pass through” contract, a small slice of the deal to buy the firm’s silence. Turner Group refused the deal.

Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid opposed the staff-approved no bid contract, saying it violated the city’s requirements for open bidding.

Ultimately on June 19, 2012 the City Council gave the award to the Downrite Corporation, the lowest bidder.
The final insult – from Turner Group’s point of view – was to have its reputation maligned by the City Auditor, who did not even seek to interview them in her report.

Going back to  the beginning, the sun seemed to be shining on Turner Group Construction in August 2009 when the city conducted open bidding to award the Oakland Army Base demolition and remediation (Building 6) project, which was worth at least $2 million but would later go as high as $6 million between two contracts.

PARC Services was the lowest bidder. PARC was made up of a consortium of contactors that included Turner Group and other local contractors.
“The preliminary staff recommendation is to select PARC Services for the job,” according to an Oct. 9 email written by John Monetta, the city’s real estate manager.

Though small, Turner Group is well known and respected for its work in Oakland. The company has a reputation for going out its way to create opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.

Turner Group’s successful projects and their contract dollar amount include Alameda County, ($6 million),  Oakland Unified School District ($17 million), Kaiser Hospital ($4 million) and San Francisco Boys and Girls Club ($3.5 million).

Phil Tagami

Phil Tagami

But almost immediately, the deal began to go south.  Phil Tagami, who was negotiating at that time to become master developer of the Army Base project, told staff to withdraw the offer to PARC Services.

“(We) must insist that the bid solicitation be rejected and the process significantly revised with our direct involvement before being re-started,” Tagami wrote in an Oct. 15, 2009 email to Walter Cohen, then director to Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency.

Tagami wanted the contact to go a company that was part of what he called his team, Top Grade Construction, a large firm based in Livermore.

Without a word, city staff withdrew the award recommendation. A year and a half passed with no action on the demolition contact.
When the contact reappeared, staff was tying to hand the job to Top Grade, without sending the contact out to public bid.
At the same time, the amount of money on the table was increased. The staff in June 2011 wanted to give Top Grade two sole source contracts, one for $1,676,750 and another for $2 million, an open-ended contract that could rise as high as $4 million.

At this point, it looked like the award to Top Grade was clear sailing, The obstacles, however, were Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid, who were demanding that staff follow the city’s open bidding rules.

Apparently certain the company had the contacts in the bag, Top Grade CEO and President Bill Gates in June 2011 sent emails to Turner Group, offering what he called a “mentoring program.”

The offer: Turner Group would “manage $362,240” on the project and receive $15,000 to install fencing and straw on the Army Base site and $31,567” in management fees,” according to an email sent by Gates to Len Turner, president of Turner Group on June 16, 2011.

The contactors who would do the bulk of the work would be companies picked by To Grade and paid with joint checks provided by Top Grade.

Len Turner rejected this offer, viewing it as a “pass through” deal, designed to buy his company’s silence and acceptance of Top Grade’s sole source agreement.

Turner did not look at the deal as a legitimate offer to manage a project but as a bit of “handyman work” putting up fence and installing straw.

“From our viewpoint, our portion is 10 percent to be a silent partner,” Turner wrote in an Aug. 22, 2011 email.
“We don’t interview our subs and/or help negotiate pricing. The subs are being passed over to Turner Group with joint checks being provided by Top Grade.”

“Turner group is being handicapped, and this is not the type of partnership Turner Group is looking for Turner Group has a lot to offer, and if this is the final offer, we respectfully decline the offer,” Turner wrote to Gates.

Ken Houston, senior vice president of Turner Group, was not impressed with what he considered Gate’s empty words about “future job opportunities at the Oakland Army Base…(for) training local minorities.”

This deal was promoted with city staff’s knowledge. According to Gates, copies of his emails to Turner Group were submitted to city staffers.

When Gate’s sole source contract failed to be approved by the City Council, staff ultimately conducted an open bidding process, which was won by Downrite Corporation, an Oakland-based firm, a victory for City Council members who had fought for the open process.

Few members of the public would have known the story behind this contract  if it had not been for the City Auditor’s March 21 report, which dragged the facts of this case into the spotlight.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, April 18, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)

NAACP Alleges Bias; African American Chamber Says Audit “Maligns” Contractor

By Ken A. Epstein

The Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce is saying that City Auditor Courtney Ruby’s recent report  “maligns” the reputation of Turner Group Construction, a local contracting firm that Ruby accused two city council members of trying to favor.

Wil Hardee

Wil Hardee

In a separate letter, the Oakland branch of the NAACP accused the auditor of producing a biased report that is a “character assassination” of the two council members, Larry Reid and Desley Brooks.

In an April 1 letter to Ruby, the African American Chamber says the auditor’s report claims “ that the actions of two council  members ‘appear’ to have favored the Turner Group” and also alleges that the company has “conducted itself unethically or committed some illegalities regarding the Oakland Army Base” development project.

“Without any clear and convincing evidence of wrongdoing by the Turner Group, the report unfairly implies that they have been less than legal in their city contracting activities. To be sure, such implication of wronging maligns their reputation,” according to the letter signed by Wil Hardee, president and CEO of the African American Chamber.

“Such implication … negatively impacts not only their ability to do business with Oakland but also other entities as well,” the letter said.

The letters also says“ Fairness dictates that some formal repudiation of this unfair implication is warranted.”

Turner Group is a member of the African American Chamber.

The Oakland Branch of the NAACP also sent a letter to Ruby dated April 5 and signed by George Holland, branch president.

“The bell has been rung, and the damage has been done,” said the NAACP letter. “The audit was extremely biased…(and) you concluded that these two council members violated the law.

“They were found guilty by you, and you even suggest the punishment,” Holland wrote in the letter. “Simply stated, it is a racist attack and a character assassination,” the letter said, which requested a meeting with Ruby to express the NAACP’s concerns.

George Holland

George Holland

Meanwhile, the Sutton Law Firm on behalf of Turner Construction has demanded a retraction of statements concerning the firm made in the audit. “We believe that your office’s work on the audit report falls short of Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGA Standards), as the report contains statements which are incomplete, inaccurate and biased,” the attorney’s 14-page letter said.

“The audit report implies that Turner engaged in unethical conduct , when in fact Turner was simply reacting, ethically and legally, to the highly unusual decision of city staff to improperly sole source contracts to a politically influential, out-of-town company,” the letter said.

“We insist that you confirm whether you will make the initially  requested retractions and corrections by no later than Monday, April 15,” according to the letter on behalf of Turner Group.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, April 11, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)