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Letter: Is the Saltworks EIR Process Really “Transparent and Fair”?

Redwood City Neighbors United demand that the city oversee the consultants, not the developer, DMB Pacific Ventures.

By Dan Ponti and Ramona Ambrozic, Redwood City residents and co-chairs of Redwood City Neighbors United

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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.

That’s right.

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 council@redwoodcity.org. Together we can help ensure the fair and transparent process that we have been promised.

--Dan Ponti and Ramona Ambrozic

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Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 14, 2012 at 02:39 PM
Dan, I'm not sure what you're upset about. The entire process is open. There were three separate public meetings, as well as documentation well before, to make a decision on what consultants would be used. The opposition to the project brought absolutely no alternatives, merely stating they did not want ANY consultants brought in because they did not want the process to go forward. End of discussion. The consultants that were chosen are not sequestered in a secret bunker, you can find their contact information on the city website. You can call them up, schedule a meeting, get together for coffee, invited them to dinner... whatever you want. I have on occasion contacted them with a concern and they have been very open to hearing what I have to say and show me the progress of their work. It's not a secret process. In fact, during the scoping meetings there was one particular meeting where all the consultants were present and set up displays regarding what their initial findings were. Members of the opposition (I believe you were one of them) were trumpeting the news that preliminary studies showed traffic would be severely affected by the development. It's not a secret. My problem with the tone of your opinion piece is that it seems to believe you and your friends have had no opportunity to speak into the process. That is completely wrong. Let me assure you that even though you are really late to the party, your input is most welcome. I'm glad to see you here.
Barb Valley March 14, 2012 at 03:31 PM
You are Certainly entitled to your opinion Dan, but you seem to be under the impression that meetings have been held in the City Hall basement out of the puic's eye. Not the case, my friend. Several puic meetings have been held including choosing the consultants. Opponents to the plan were in attendance calling for an end to the process. This has been their mantra for the past four years. If you question the veracity of the constants involved in the process you can find their contact info on the City's website.
Roger Brina March 14, 2012 at 10:51 PM
Not surprising that Lou and Barb, instead of addressing the actual issue Dan and Ramona bring up here, talk about something else completely to obscure the discussion. In particular, Dan and Ramona specifically praise the city's outreach efforts in this piece, so Lou's comments about consultants not being in a "Secret bunker" is blatant obfuscation, while Barb's claim that this piece is making out like "meetings have been held in the City Hall basement" is patently false. What this piece is pointing out and what the comments above me are deliberately not addressing is the very open, blatant and "transparent" conflict of interest involved when you have all but two of the 17 major sections that make up the Saltworks Environmental Impact Report (EIR) written by DMB-selected staff. These consultants should be neutral third-party entities and not hand-selected by anyone who has a stake in the EIR's outcome. By not having the procedures in place like other cities do for avoiding this sort of perception of bias, the Redwood City council gives themselves a convenient way to avoid ownership or responsibility for the EIR and does their community a disservice. There is absolutely nothing transparent and fair about a process that allows corporate interests with a stake in the matter to influence the analysis, whether or not these consultants are kept in a secret basement bunker.
Roger Brina March 14, 2012 at 10:59 PM
And while we're talking transparency, let's talk about how Lou, as one of the most active contributors and commenters on this news website, also runs a PR website called "Sustainable Redwood City" which is sponsored by the Peter and Paula Uccelli Foundation. As the Bay Citizen reported two years ago, Ms. Uccelli is a huge supporter of the Saltworks development and a political donor whose charitable work (like her Foundation) has been funded by DMB. http://www.baycitizen.org/real-estate/story/showdown-salt-flats/
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 14, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Roger, The Uccelli foundation gave us an unsolicited $500 donation over a year ago. that is the last form of donation we have received from anyone. The rest of the organization is run out of my pocket. So your veiled accusation is pretty ridiculous.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 14, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Roger, you're the one obfuscating. There were hearings and public disclosures regarding what consultants would be chosen. Anyone who wanted to could recommend third party consultants. DMB offered several options and the city looked into others. What were chosen were the result of an open process. Conspiracy theories are not constructive.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 14, 2012 at 11:41 PM
What we need, at this point is for people to stop obfuscating, as you point out, and get involved. Make your input to the consultants as I suggested. Bring documentation if you have it. Make wild-eyed claims and set your hair on fire if that's how you want to do it. Just quit complaining and come ready to work.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 14, 2012 at 11:57 PM
But thanks for the shout out about the site. It's at http://www.sustainablerc.org. it's open to any organization or individual that wants to make a reasoned, non-insulting comment or announce Redwood City related events. You'll find all the latest information from Save the Bay on the blog, unedited, as well as content from the Patch, my personal blog, The Saltworks and sustainable San Mateo County. Any other organization is free to participate. Several invitations have been sent to Redwood City Neighbors United and Occupy Redwood City to participate, but they have not returned calls or emails. Kinda like they never came forward during the the process when input was requested.
Roger Brina March 15, 2012 at 07:13 PM
Actually, I think it's quite clear that there is nothing veiled about my statement. If we're talking transparency matters and the associations people working on and promoting the Saltworks development have with DMB, I think it makes sense for people to know that a charitable foundation largely funded by DMB gave you an unsolicited donation and that you prominently list that DMB-funded org. as a sponsor.
Roger Brina March 15, 2012 at 07:19 PM
So as someone who is a part of Occupy Redwood City I e-mailed their communications team last night and I can tell you that your claim is a flat-out lie. They've received no invitations from you or your group to participate in any website or process. Saying that we haven't returned your calls or e-mails is particularly hilarious when ORWC hasn't given you any e-mail address or phone number by which you can reach us. Finally, there's nothing "unreasonable" or "insulting" about pointing your associations out in the context of transparency, unless that's what you think of your own attempts to do the same with Save the Bay by pointing out their ties to Sims Metal (former) and the America's Cup in your recent piece: http://redwoodcity.patch.com/blog_posts/what-do-the-actions-of-saltworks-opponents-show-us
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 15, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Where do you get your information about the Uccelli Foundation? It's been around a lot longer than DMB has been in town and Paula, who doesn't need a job, makes the decisions about donations.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 15, 2012 at 08:15 PM
No, it isn't a lie. There was a gentleman in an news story about ORC as being injured when a Chase bank employee closed a door on his arm. I looked him up through social media and sent him an invitation to pass on to the organization. I don't know who specifically is involved "officially" on ORC or, specifically, who is on the communications team. However I have sent invitations at least twice by email, once through the RCNU site and left at least one voicemail for that group. Similar invitations have been made to the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club and Save the Bay. Since Save the bay has an RSS feed, I was able to include it in our site. But there is little reason to debate this since it clearly states on the site that all groups are invited to send content. If ORC or RCNU wants space, all they have to do is ask.
Roger Brina April 11, 2012 at 12:26 AM
Lou, That gentleman who was injured in March is part of our Occupy group's media team and he has stated in no uncertain terms that he received no such invitation from you, through social media or otherwise. As for the invitations you may have sent to RCNU, they have nothing to do with ORWC and we would have no knowledge of them anyway.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive April 11, 2012 at 03:19 PM
It's possible the email address I had to dig up for him was not actually his. The answering machine for the phone number had a generic message, so it may not have been his number either. Regardless, though, Occupy Redwood City is invited to provide content on the SRC website. Since I can't seem to find a way to send you any other information, consider this a formal invitation.

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