Opinionator

Op-Ed: Fact checking the PR spin — Measure A1

By Ruth Malone

Ruth Malone is Co-Chair of Friends of Knowland Park, one of five environmental groups signing the ballot argument against Measure A1. She is a former member of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and a grassroots activist who has lived in Oakland for almost 30 years.

Nik Dehejia’s editorial (Nov. 1) personally attacks Delia Taylor of the California Native Plant Society, calling her a liar. Mr. Dehejia uses classic PR spin techniques to divert attention, but fails to rebut a single point in Ms. Taylor’s thoughtful piece (also Nov. 1).

The fact is that, contrary to Mr. Dehejia’s assertions, the measure’s language indeed allows funds to be used for the zoo’s controversial expansion project. Ms. Taylor’s article cited the relevant sections. It is the “Definitions” section that is crucial;  it clearly defines “construction,” “expansion,” and “capital facilities” as within the scope of projects for which funds may be expended. In addition, the Expenditure Plan indicates that the zoo may delete, add, “expand”, supplement, or substitute other projects. Every word in a measure such as this is chosen deliberately, and only the wording of the measure itself—not Mr. Dehejia’s spin—is legally binding. There is no language whatsoever prohibiting use of the funds to pay for the expansion project or for other future expansions.

Mr. Dehejia also alludes to PETA’s 2010 acknowledgment of improved conditions for captive elephants as though this constituted an endorsement of the zoo, Measure A1, or the expansion. In fact, PETA told us they were contacting their lawyers about the zoo’s unauthorized use of their name on pro-A1 campaign literature. PETA has not endorsed Measure A1, and never endorses zoos.

Mr. Dehejia writes: “The tax of $1/month cannot be changed by the Zoo, the City of Oakland, or even the Board of Supervisors. Only you, the voters, can elect to change it.” But this is false and misleading. The measure actually states, in confusing legalese (Section 2.30.070) that the voters can only amend the measure to extend or increase the tax, and it expressly says that “The Board of Supervisors may enact other amendments, including but not limited to amendments necessary to assist the Oakland Zoo in obtaining long-term financing for services and projects.”

The Oakland Tribune, recommending a NO vote on Measure A1, reported—as Ms. Taylor accurately described—that the zoo was unable to produce long range financial projections justifying this tax. This is consistent with our experience challenging the expansion project: we have never been provided with financial documents that show where the funds for the expansion are coming from, and documents from a public records act request indicate that less than one month after this misguided expansion project was approved by the Oakland City Council, the zoo was out polling for this parcel tax.

We recently posted a fact-checking document on our website (www.saveknowland.org ) where you can evaluate for yourself who is telling the truth to voters—the volunteers from many environmental and community groups who care about good government and public parkland, or well-paid PR spinners like Mr. Dehejia and other zoo staff currently engaging in nasty personal attacks on the opposition.

We do agree with Mr. Dehejia on one thing: voters should not just take his word for how to vote. After trying to work with zoo executives on a better plan for many years, we have come to realize that they will say anything to get what they want. But voters don’t have to give it to them. Vote no on Measure A1.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles of 500 to 800 words. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Visit Voter’s Edge Berkeley, Berkeleyside’s non-partisan voting guide to the ten measures on the Berkeley ballot. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to November 6.

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  • juniper666

    A tax on the public for a private venture is not what this county needs. Especially one that can’t be revoked for  25 years.  We are in desperate need of addressing so many more critical issues, and so many citizens are already struggling to pay property tax and rent. 

    I’ve noticed the support for A1 comes from people either A) in line to make money from it or B) people who don’t even live in the area. Often both. A San Francisco paper may be pro A1, but all of the Oakland papers are against it. Follow the money. This burden should not be shouldered by the tax payers. 

  • The Sharkey

    My family loves the Oakland Zoo, but Measure A1 is a mess.
    Any business that is having so much trouble making ends meet that they need to enact a special parcel tax should not be planning a major expansion at the same time that they are reaching into the pockets of homeowners.

  • Fernando Perez

    I’m sort of an animal freak and used to donate to the San Diego Zoo, so in general I think I’m the kind of person who would be naturally inclined to vote yes on something like A1.  But this measure is so ill-conceived that I can’t in good conscience support it: it basically ask us to pay (via taxes) so the zoo can fence off what is today open space, destroy it, and then charge us again to access it in the future (since it would be a visitor center/restaurant behind a fence). 

    But that space is already ours!!! We can go hiking/biking/running there TODAY, for FREE!

    So in a day when the city of Oakland is shutting down libraries, firing teachers, cops and firefighters, why exactly should I pay a tax that would go towards privatizing something that was already ours to enjoy in the first place?

    This thing doesn’t make any sense at all, other than seen through the eyes of developing a ridge that’s prime real estate to put a restaurant on top of it.  That does make a lot of sense for those who will benefit from managing that money, sure.  But what should it be on the backs of the taxpayers, and using land that’s already ours?

    This notion of using public funds to privatize public land and then have a private entity keep the profits is completely crazy!

  • Elisebernstein

     

    As a recent transplant from Massachusetts and a member of the Oakland
    Zoo, I’m impressed by the clarity of the arguments by Ruth Malone in advocating
    Vote NO on Measure 1.

    As I’ve been reading the arguments posted by the Zoo and the
    NO on Measure 1 folks, I’m struck by the weakness of the Zoo arguments. Simply
    repeating that the opposition is lying does not advance the discussion. We can
    all clarify the issue by reading the fine print in the Measure itself.

     I enjoy bringing my 3
    year old grandson to the Zoo, but we also enjoy the public open spaces like
    Joaquin Miller trails and Tilden Park, and I favor protecting Oakland open space. I will vote to save Knowland Park and will vote No on Measure 1.

     

    Elise Bernstein

    3801 Keller
    Avenue

    Oakland CA 94605

  • Karen A.

    Wow. After listening to what the Zoo rep says, one clear point in this article by Malone especially rings (scary) true:  “Every word in a measure such as this is chosen deliberately, and only the wording of the measure itself—not Mr. Dehejia’s spin—is legally binding.” That’s the bottom line for me.  If the Zoo says Measure A1 is not about expansion, then why does the Zoo’s carefully (vaguely) worded ballot measure carry that expansion language, open for broad interpretation in the coming 25 years? If it’s “just about animal care and children’s education programs, then why didn’t the Zoo leave all the other language OUT? Promises from the Zoo that they won’t use A1 funds for their planned expansion are hollow…and can evaporate the day following the election. The Zoo is allowed to change its mind any time, according to the measure. And nothing will legally stand except the measure itself, including the part that permits the Zoo to add, delete or substitute projects as their needs/priorities change over the next 25 years. 

    One thing that irritates me about the Zoo’s campaign promotion is they continually say the $12 residential parcel tax is just “$1 a month” for taxpayers…they fail to mention that it’s much more than that for my aunt and uncle who own a struggling small business—their parcel tax (and that of all business property owners in Alameda county) will be $72 a year for the next 25 years. That’s buried in the measure itself and not included in the little box summary on the ballot that people read to cast their vote….

    I’m voting No on A1 because I love animals (particularly the uncaged local wildlife that have no voice). 

  • Alina

    I need a “love” button for all the comments here.

  • Laura Baker

    Not everyone knows why the California Native Plant Society, whom Mr. Dehejia so vehemently castigates, opposes the expansion into Knowland Park.  It’s certainly not for financial gain. Quite the contrary, CNPS–itself a private non-profit–is not seeking to tax the public to protect the park (or add to its coffers).  Instead we seek to protect the park as a treasure that the public can now freely access.  We oppose Measure A1 because it puts money into the hands of the the zoo operator which repeatedly states that it’s going to expand into Knowland Park no matter what.  Meaning regardless of whether you or I or anyone likes it or thinks it’s a good idea, the zoo execs have taken the attitude that they believe themselves entitled to take public land and “re-purpose” it.  Knowland Park was given to the people of Oakland under a legal deed of transfer from the State of California under the provision that it always remain a public park.  Always means always.  To expand into the park is a violation of that public trust.  And the EBZS has patently refused to protect any portion of the park from future expansion. So, while we’re asking ourselves whether we wish to be taxed by the County to pay for the zoo, we should be reminding ourselves that neither the zoo nor Knowland Park belongs to the East Bay Zoological Society.  They are both public property and belong to you and me.  The real question we should be asking ourselves is whether we want this deal with our land.  As the landowners, do we the people want to accept a financially and environmentally destructive project that we never had a chance to vote on that is being put forth by a private organization that denies that Knowland Park has resources worth protecting? CNPS and other environmental organizations have  dared to say that this is not a deal that we should accept under any circumstances.  We’ve taken the trouble to point out, as both Ms. Taylor and Dr. Malone  have so carefully detailed, that Measure A1 can fund that deal.  For all the reasons enumerated above, we recommend voting No on A1.

  • Nik

    Ms. Baker says “we never had a chance to vote” on the California Trail project. As a reminder: The California Trail project was approved by Oakland City Council as part of an Oakland Zoo Master Plan in 1998 following an environmental review. It was re-approved in 2011 after a second environmental document was prepared and public debate took place for a project that was smaller in size and more enviornmentally-friendly than the first. It was challenged in court by CNPS and the Friends of Knowland Park. That challenge is now done and the courts upheld the project approval. Furthermore, the voters of Oakland approved capital financing to support the California Trail project in 2002. The facts show that the public has had many years to review and discuss the California Trail. We all followed the democratic and public process, and even the legal process. Is that not sufficient?

    Measure A1 articulates language that allows the Oakland Zoo to fix existing nighthouses (eg. lions), renovate the tiger exhibit now that we received 4 tigers from back-yard breeders, expand the chimp exhibit, and fix many other back-logged projects at the Zoo. We care for animals and their habitats locally, nationally, and internationally and inspire thousands of children to make a difference.

    At the end of the day, Measure A1 does not have anything to do with the California Trail expansion. We have said it publiclly and we have said it in writing to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

    We all work for an institution we believe in deeply and for what it provides to the community. The voters now have to decide what type of institution they want, as the California Trail project will ultimately move forward regardless of the passage of Measure A1.

  • Ruth Malone

    On behalf of Friends of Knowland Park and its predecessor community groups, I want to respond to the revisionist history Mr. Dehejia has offered in his comments. The City Council approved the exapansion project in 1998, all right, but it was a very different project, and certainly was not less environmentally impactful. My group’s predecessors, who objected to the expansion at that time, finally signed off after volunteering their time for months to arrive at a Memorandum of Understanding that was signed by zoo CEO Joel Parrott. Their understanding was that they were agreeing to a design that still sited exhibits almost entirely on the zoo side of the ridgeline and their understanding was that it would be based on the 1996 Master Plan, which included a 7500 square foot, “low profile” visitor center to be sited on already-disturbed ground. This expansion plan was approved with a low-level Mitigated Negative Declaration document.
     
    Fast forward. In about 2006, the zoo decided it was not satisfied with the previous plan, and shortly thereafter began convening what they called “community meetings” which involved telling the community what they had decided to do instead: build a 34,000 square foot three story structure virtually atop an area of rare plant and native wildlife habitat, reached by an aerial gondola ride with 60-foot towers. Community members objected strenuously, but their concerns were ignored or minimized.
     
    The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, having pointed out repeatedly to zoo management that the siting of this building on a community of rare native chaparral would destroy it, and that Knowland Park had been identified as a Priority Protection Area because of the wide variety of native plants, grasslands and wildlife there, partnered with Friends of Knowland Park and sued to force the city to prepare a full environmental impact report, which would have meant giving full consideration of alternatives to the plan. The lawsuit failed, partially because the previous 1998 approval of a much different plan raised the judicial standard we had to meet. The zoo and city had the nerve to say in court that community groups “should have sued back in 1998.” But the point is that they didn’t sue then because they thought they had an agreement. Little did they realize it was not worth the paper it was written on.
     
    One of the reasons the public is just now waking up to the potential loss of one of its most environmentally rich parcels of parkland is that for years, the city refused to list Knowland Park on its website. We repeatedly inquired about this over a period of years, and kept being put off until after I blogged about it on our website. Now it is finally listed, but the website gives the zoo’s address and provides no information whatsoever about the park itself, how to get there, trail maps, wildlife and plants.
     
    At the end of the day, what matters legally is what the words of the measure say. They say the funds can be used for expansion. That is the only thing that is legally binding. Mr. Dehejia’s reassurances, taken in the context of the now-infamous Memorandum of Understanding, sound oddly familiar to those who have endured the sordid political history of this expansion project.

  • Ruth Malone

    Sorry, correction to this previous post: I meant to say that The City Council approved the exapansion project in 1998, all right, but it was a very different project, and the current project approved in 2011 certainly was not less environmentally impactful.

  • KnowlandParkNeighbor

    I’m voting YES on Measure A1 – I love kids, animals, and you all sound like a bunch of bitter people.

  • Karen A.

    Howdy, Neighbor,

    I’m glad you’re exercising your right to vote—as we all should do. And I’m glad we have ”love of kids and animals” in common to show each other that our hearts are in the right place. 

    But I don’t know how you get “bitter people” from this.

    Yes, I’m disappointed…in the notion that the Zoo as a ”steward” of Knowland Park is bent on plowing over prime sections to expand the Zoo, rather than on preserving the wildland park. 

    I’m distressed…at the prospect of local wildlife losing critical habitat that should not be taken away from them—especially not to build a restaurant and gift shop. 

    I’m concerned…that the Zoo as a nonprofit is not the right administrative body to receive and manage incoming A1 tax dollars for the next 25 years, given they have no legal requirement to open their books to the public.

    I’m unconvinced…that an “oversight committee” for spending A1 tax dollars will have any teeth when that committee is only required to meet once a year to review an audit report of funds already spent? Not my idea of close oversight or having any control over spending.

    But “bitter”? No. Life is too short to be bitter. On the contrary, I feel optimistic—and certainly some joy—to witness the increasing number of people who say they recognize the value of preserving Knowland Park for future generations and who tell me they are voting No on A1. 

  • Peggy

    Ha ha – I’m with Alina, “I need a “love” button for all the comments here.”  Definitely NO on A-1.  Letting a  private non-profit affix us with a 25-year irrevocable parcel tax with no public accountability sounds ridiculous – and it is.

  • Tony Sweet

    As a citizen and voter in Oakland, I think that it is highly inappropriate for a private entity to tax the people of the county. The Zoo should clean up its own fiscal house and not ask for a bail out by the public. The Zoo should not expand and decimate the Open Space of Knowland Park if it cannot afford to do so on its own. Why decimate natural, local wildlife only to place captured, non-native animals???

  • Tony Sweet

    Please vote No, on A1.

  • Joe Black

    Was there a full environmental impact report done? Seems like building on a threatened species habitat should require a full environmental impact report. Also if I’m not mistaken the building approved in 1998 was a 7,500 sq ft building which sounds like it would have a lot less impact than a 34,000 sq ft building. It doesn’t seem like the zoo cares much for the animals that currently live in Knowland park. Nik you say you “care for animals and their habitats locally”  if you cared you wouldn’t be planning on fencing the animals of Knowland park out of their habitat and plopping a restaurant, office, museum, gift shop on top of their home. Sounds like the zoo cares more about filling its wallet than it cares for native Californian wildlife. 
     Why doesn’t the zoo open up it’s books to the public? Show us you have enough money for this expansion and show us that that money certainly can not be used for caring for your animals. Seems like it’s high time that the public should get a peek and see what our tax dollars are really doing.

  • Helloworld

    Definitely share the sentiments echoed by the comments. Thank you to the Friends of the Knowland Park coalition to making the issue more transparent, being willing to provide pointers to documentation and willing to validate what they say. I’ve never been to the Zoo, never been to Knowland park – been to many of the remaining open spaces in the region but not to Knowland Park. So, without additional information – it was hard to translate the import of the measure. The one thing fairly easy to observe is that there is inconsistency between what the Zoo claims (in various places) with what is stated in the measure (as well as what their actions have lined up with). The onus for making themselves more transparent falls on the Zoo and till they can do that, my vote is also a No on the measure. 

  • Vikram

    For what its worth, if http://votersedge.org/alameda-county/ballot-measures/2012/november is to be believed, the Zoo has raised/spent over half a million on trying to this campaign. From the world view of one single voter, I cannot see everything that the Zoo has been trying to do – to convince voters, but judging by the nature of the flyers  being sent out – hardly educative and trying to appeal to the emotional bias (cf glossy flyer Leonard the Lion) – it seems indicative that the Zoo would like me as a voter to sign an open check in their name !! If indeed, the Zoo did believe in what they say, would it not have been worthwhile making the issue more transparent as well as educating voters regarding the role of the Zoo, the nature of the issue. I could hardly find anything of relevance on the itsyourzoo.org website !! Other than simply refuting what the Friends of the Knowland Park claim, there is absolutely nothing that I can see which serves to educate me as a voter. Needless to say, the credibility of what the Zoo officials state has fallen in my eyes. 

  • Ira

    Dear Neighbor
    Didn’t your kids ask you why the people in charge of Zoo did bring poor Leonard to the place where is no food?

  • Peggy

    Hi there  KnowlandParkNeighbor –  I love kids, animals – I even love the Oakland Zoo where I was a member for at least 10 years.  I also  like clean, transparent public policy and paying taxes to the government – not to a private nonprofit who violates election law, see: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/oakland-zoo-operators-violate-election-laws/Content?oid=3372071. I also like my taxes – particularly a locked-in 25 year parcel tax –  to come with a fair share of public oversight, which A-1 does not. Bitter? I don’t think so. I  still love the zoo. I just like to vote in elections with eyes that are as clear and open as possible. 

  • A1 SUPPORTER!

    The Oakland Zoo is a true gem in the Bay Area.  All of you A1 opponents should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves for the dirty campaign you have run – all to protect your property views and to avoid having increased traffic in your neighborhood.  I agree with the earlier commenter – what a bitter bunch of people.  The Zoo does amazing work – providing rescued animals with needed homes, donating to worthy conservation causes locally and globally, and educating Bay Area youth about the wonders of the natural world.  A1 would permit the zoo to do EVEN MORE for Oakland.  Their track record of outstanding accomplishments speaks for itself and also speaks to why we should each be more than happy to pay a small parcel tax for the wonderful benefits the zoo brings us.

  • http://twitter.com/KnowlandPark Save Knowland Park

    No one denies that the zoo does good work. But there is nothing “dirty” about pointing out the facts about this measure. Anyone who can read can clearly see the words “expansion” and “capital facilities” in the Definitions paragraph, and anyone who has been paying attention understands the zoo’s plans include expansion into Knowland Park. Comments like the one from A1 Supporter! sound as though their religious belief has been challenged. There’s no point trying to argue when it’s about a belief that is upheld even against the facts–Flat Earth Society folks won’t be swayed– but it’s certainly not dirty to point the facts out to our fellow voters and to say that we disagree about the wisdom and environmental impact of the zoo’s expansion plans. The words in the measure are there, plain to see. Pointing them out so voters can understand what is at stake is, in our view, part of being engaged citizens, and we’re proud to be participating in the democratic process. To claim is this is about “property views” is to trivialize the real concerns that many fellow citizens have about protecting what is left of important natural resources. We don’t have a million dollars to spend to promote our position as the zoo does, so we simply have to hope that old-fashioned people-to-people campaigning will help the public figure this one out. We hope they will vote no–it’s completely possible to love the zoo and yet feel this measure is not one to support.

  • Karen

    “Dirty campaign”, “to protect your property views”, “bitter bunch of people”?  Name calling and false accusations are poor substitutes for supporting your position.  I live in south Berkeley, but I’ve spent some time walking the trails in Knowland Park, checking out the birds and the great array of California native plants that grow there.  It’s a place of peace and natural beauty for all to enjoy—including you.  I’ve tried to educate myself about Measure A1 and the zoo’s Knowland Park expansion plans, and it makes no sense to me.  Why plan a massive development complex on acres of open space habitat when expansion could be located on already compromised land down the hill near current zoo facilities (and the new veterinarian hospital)?  Why plan a $72 million expansion project when there is apparently not enough money to care for and house the animals there now.  Measure A1 is written to provide a blank check for zoo executives for anything they want, and according to zoo CEO Dr. Parrott, the goal is to expand in Knowland Park to turn this zoo into one of the largest in California.  It may look good on Dr. Parrott’s resume, but it certainly isn’t good for the animals and plants in Knowland Park that depend on open space habitat for their survival.  Zoo management is supposed to be the steward of this public park, not a real estate developer.  That leaves us, just people who appreciate what we have there and recognize that it is irreplaceable.