By Dan Ponti and Ramona Ambrozic, Redwood City residents and co-chairs of Redwood City Neighbors United
In 2009, when Cargill and development partner DMB Associates submitted their Saltworks Project proposal to develop on the Redwood City salt ponds, the City declared, “We are committed to conducting a transparent and fair process and want to engage the community in a manner that allows for open dialogue and a thorough review that will shape the proposed project and its alternatives."
City officials have made similar statements promising a fair and transparent environmental review process numerous times over the last 18 months.
To their credit, Redwood City has conducted an excellent public outreach program. Efforts such as the focused , an extended public scoping comment period, and the City's website on the Saltworks Project are all to be commended.
But what about the “transparent and fair” part of the City’s commitment? We believe this means that no interested party be given the opportunity to influence the content and conclusions of the project's environmental impact study before it is completed. It also means that consultants retained to provide technical analysis on project impacts should not be placed in a position where they may feel obligated to favor one conclusion over another.
So, we are surprised and disappointed to learn that technical reports for all but two of the 17 major sections that make up the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) are being written by consultants selected, hired, and directly overseen by the developer, DMB.
These consultants, who are now responsible for a significant part of the work behind the Saltworks EIR, work for Cargill/DMB, not the City. And they submit their reports to DMB before DMB gives them to the City for review and incorporation into the EIR. At minimum, this creates the appearance of a conflict of interest that will result in studies that may be perceived by the public as biased. At worst, it affords Cargill/DMB the clear opportunity to control the content and conclusions of reports before anyone, including the City, gets to see them.
Why might a developer want to control the content of an EIR? It’s all about money. An EIR influenced to minimize environmental impacts would make the project easier to approve, and save the developer countless dollars in mitigation costs. Do we know if any undue influence is occurring? No – and that’s the point. We can never know. Whatever conversations go on between DMB and their consultants occur in private.
Is all of this legal? Unfortunately, yes – cities have discretion over how they conduct their environmental reviews. But is it the right route for our city to be taking for a development as large and controversial as Saltworks? Is it consistent with the promises made to the community of a “transparent and fair” process?
Many nearby cities recognize the inherent problem with allowing developers to select and directly oversee the consultants performing work for EIRs. Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and others have put procedures in place to avoid the perception of bias in the EIR. These cities oversee the work for all of the consultants, and then the developer pays the cost. Consultants work for the city as neutral parties, generating studies and reports that can truly be viewed as independent and fair because they are placed directly in the city's hands when completed.
Redwood City must do the same - and take ultimate responsibility for the content and credibility of every section of the Saltworks Project EIR.
Redwood City Neighbors United (RCNU) recently sent a letter to our City Council urging the City to do exactly this. You can view our letter to the City Council at http://www.rcnu.org/assets/files/RCNU_Council_Letter_EIR.pdf.
Right now is an excellent time to make this change because DMB recently asked the City to suspend all work on the EIR. When the Saltworks Project review again moves forward, the process can be put on the right track under these new transparent procedures.
Will the City make these important changes? They will if residents demand a truly independent and credible EIR that the City and other agencies can rely upon for making an informed decision. Please join with RCNU and ask the City Council to stop letting Cargill/DMB hire and oversee their own consultants for the City's Saltworks EIR. Comments can be sent directly to email@example.com. Together we can help ensure the fair and transparent process that we have been promised.
--Dan Ponti and Ramona Ambrozic
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