April 3, 2013

The A’s opened up the new baseball season at the Coliseum this week, but if you really want to see how hardball is played in Oakland, you should check out the oversight of Phil Tagami’s development of the City of Oakland portion of the old Army Base. Even though ground won’t be broken until the fall, it’s already becoming something of a show, with a couple of those who have spoken out against Mr. Tagami suddenly coming under fierce attack from unexpected sources coming out of the bushes, almost like the raptors did in the original Jurassic Park movie. It might be just a coincidence, or might not. You’ll have to be the judge.

Most of the action is being played out right now in Oakland City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee, which I’ve been covering for The Oakland Post and reporters Steve Tavares and Joshua Cain and Jennifer Inez Ward have been tag-teaming for Oakland Local.

To understand what’s currently at issue, you have to keep in mind that when the old Army Base originally closed up it was split into two portions, one going to the City of Oakland, the other to the Port of Oakland. The City is in the process of developing its portion through Phil Tagami and Mr. Tagami’s California Capital & Investment Group (CC&IG) , while for the time being, the Port is holding off on the development of its portion.

Since around the first of the year, the Council CEDA Committee has been monitoring the eviction of existing business tenants in the Oakland portion of the old Army Base. Some of the businesses, like the Oakland Film Center, are looking for new accommodations in other portions of the city. But other Army Base business tenants, such as Pacific Coast Container (PCC) Logistics and Oakland Maritime Support Services are currently doing business with the Port of Oakland that requires them to be on or immediately adjacent to port property. The plan has been, therefore, to move them temporarily over to the unused Port portion of the old Army Base while the Oakland portion is being developed. After that, if they continue to do business with the Port, they can be moved back to the City of Oakland portion.

That’s the plan, anyway.

But the temporary relocation has run into a number of setbacks and snags as city and port officials and representatives of the businesses have tried to work out both eviction and transition logistics, all of which came to their first head in February when OMSS president Bill Aboudi made the charge at the Council CEDA Committee that there was a “conflict of interest” in allowing Phil Tagami to handle both the development of the old Army Base as well as being the agent for the City of Oakland in evicting the existing tenants.

It’s a complicated issue, but basically it involves the fact that OMSS has a pending separate tentative arrangement—not yet a full contract—to develop 15 acres of the Army Base for the city, which would almost certainly revert to Mr. Tagami if the OMSS eviction from the Oakland portion of the base—which Mr. Tagami is handling, remember—is screwed up enough that it leaves OMSS without a new location to go to and forces them out of the port-support business.

To my knowledge, Mr. Tagami has never publicly answered that charge. But two weeks after Mr. Aboudi made that public charge and complaint at CEDA he found himself under attack when a representative of the Oakland Teamsters union suddenly came before CEDA to rehash an old complaint against Mr. Aboudi and OMSS, a complaint that was immediately picked up by our good friend, Bob Gammon, in the East Bay Express. (“City Contractor Faces Labor And Environmental Charges” March 6, 2013)

Maybe the old Teamster charges against Mr. Aboudi and OMSS are valid, maybe not. But the timing sure seems, um, interesting, that they came out immediately after Mr. Aboudi made his public complaint against Mr. Tagami.

Meanwhile, the Oakland City Councilmember who has been most critical of Mr. Tagami’s handling of the early phases of the Army Base Development has been District 7’s Larry Reid, with Mr. Reid telling fellow Committee members last January, for example, that “going forward, you guys ought not to expect a vote from me regarding [Tagami’s California Capital & Investment Group] on the Oakland Army Base.”

Two months later, Mr. Reid was even more blunt in criticizing Mr. Tagami’s work, declaring in mid-March CEDA meeting that “there are other folks who could have done this project other than [CC&IG]. That’s why the Port is having their issues with CC&IG and why they allowed their [Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with CC&IG] to terminate and why they’re going out into the market to look for someone else. [The City of Oakland] could have done the same thing”

And just as it was in the case of Mr. Aboudi of OMSS, it was Mr. Reid thereafter finding himself under attack from another source after publicly criticizing Mr. Tagami. Late last month, Mr. Reid was one of two Oakland City Councilmembers criticized in an Oakland City Auditor’s audit for allegedly, and possibly illegally, interfering with city staff in their duties.

The object of that interference? The City Auditor’s audit alleges that Mr. Reid and fellow Councilmember Desley Brooks tried to steer staff to award a $2 million city contract to a particular company, Turner Group Construction, “by coercing or influence staff regarding the contract.”

Whether or not Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks were guilty of that irregularity may or may not be played out in the future, but the nature of the contract they allegedly interfered with is of particular interest. According to the audit, “under the standard contracting process for construction contracts exceeding $50,000, the [City] Administration should have conducted a competitive bid process. However, Redevelopment staff incorrectly began working with Top Grade Construction for a sole source contract…who was a contractor of the master developer of the [Oakland Army Base] project.” (“City Of Oakland Office Of The City Auditor Non-Interference In Administrative Affairs Performance Audit”)

It doesn’t take much understanding of contracts or construction to follow the thread, but I’ll try to make it as simple as possible. Top Grade Construction had contracted with the Army Base developer—Phil Tagami—to do some Army Base development work, after which Oakland city staff members tried to push through a city contract with Top Grade without going through the proper city procedures (according to the City Auditor), after which Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks intervened—improperly according to the Auditor—to get the improper Army Base contract out of the hands of Mr. Tagami’s preferred contractors, Top Grade Construction, after which the City Auditor took out after Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks, but not originally improperly-handled contract to Mr. Tagami’s friends, Top Grade.

Predictably, my local media friends focused on the audit criticisms of Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks, but largely ignored the finding that the original Top Grade contract was improperly handled by city staff.

Bottom line?

The Teamsters and The East Bay Express may be absolutely correct in their charges against Mr. Aboudi and OMSS. The City Auditor may be just as correct in the charges made against Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks.

But it seems like something of a coincidence, doesn’t it, that these charges only rose to the surface immediately after Mr. Aboudi, Mr. Reid, and Ms. Brooks went after Mr. Tagami. There’s no crying in baseball, so they say. Maybe there are no coincidences in politics, either. But that remains to be seen. Keep watching.