Fact Check: Assembly District 18 campaign claims

Fact Check: Assembly District 18 campaign claims

Michele Ellson

A reader e-mailed us the other day to request that we check into claims the three Democratic candidates for the Assembly District 18 seat have made on campaign mailers hitting mailboxes over these last several weeks. So just in time for Tuesday’s election, we deconstruct some claims made by candidates Rob Bonta, Abel Guillen and Joel Young.

CLAIMS: Alameda Vice Mayor Rob Bonta says he “worked with the Obama Administration to acquire the Alameda Point property" and "helped deliver to the East Bay an economic development project that will create up to 9,000 good jobs." He also "helped secure $84 million in local education funding.”

Bonta supplied ample evidence that he played a strong role in getting Alameda’s Measure A parcel tax passed, a tax that is expected to generate $84 million over its seven year life. But while he and the rest of Alameda’s City Council directed efforts to acquire the Point from the Navy, Bonta conceded that it was City Manager John Russo who dialed up his contacts in the Obama Administration in an effort to seal the land transfer deal.

Brad Hayward, who helped lead the Measure A campaign, said Bonta was “a very active proponent of Measure A” and that he “walked Alameda neighborhoods to talk with individual voters about Measure A, provided assistance in our fundraising efforts, helped build support among community leaders, and communicated with his constituents in a variety of ways about the importance of Measure A to Alameda's future.”

In addition to speaking out publicly in favor of the measure Bonta asked constituents in several e-mail blasts to walk precincts for the measure. Perforce’s Chris Seiwald, who offered the largest individual donation the campaign received, confirmed Bonta contacted him to obtain that donation, and Bonta donated $400 to the campaign, campaign finance records showed.

A pair of local union leaders confirmed that Bonta, Mayor Marie Gilmore and Councilwoman Lena Tam got several labor groups involved with the campaign, offering both volunteer support and thousands of dollars in donations, campaign finance records showed.

On October 5, 2011, the City Council unanimously signed off on a deal inked a few days earlier in which the Navy will hand off much of Alameda Point to the city by the end of 2012, free of charge. Bonta said that the council “set the policy, directed negotiations and approved the deal” – but confirmed that council members weren’t at the negotiating table, a job typically reserved for city staff.

As to the claim he “worked with the Obama Administration” to get the deal done? Bonta said it was Russo, with the council’s direction, who reached out to his Obama Administration contacts as part of the negotiating process. “That is one of the reasons we hired Mr. Russo: because of his extensive contacts at the local, state, and federal levels,” Bonta said.

The jobs figure has been cited in numerous Point planning documents over the years, though it may be early to say any project there is a done deal: The council recently voted down a proposed development strategy, though a revised version of the strategy requested by Bonta is due to come back to the council on June 6.

CLAIMS: Peralta Community College District Trustee Abel Guillen "eliminated perks for elected officials and reduced the influence of special interests on public decision-making," "created financial reforms and accountability measures to protect education funding at colleges,” and "secured $20 million for new job and career training programs."

Peralta’s leadership has indeed made a host of reforms over the past several years, meeting minutes and other documents show – but only after the community college district was threatened with the loss of its colleges’ accreditation, which would have threatened students’ ability to transfer Peralta course credits to other schools.

The changes also followed a pair of Alameda County Grand Jury reports that blasted the board for lax financial oversight and a series of news articles that exposed a no-bid contract then-Chancellor Elihu Harris gave to a business partner and spending by Harris and some board trustees that included expensive hotel rooms and personal items bought on district credit cards.

An aide to Guillen, a public school finance advisor who told a reporter he ran for the Peralta board in 2006 to reform the district’s financial management, said that when he first got onto the board, he “voted against the budget quite a few times because he said it was not clear where the line items were going.” She said a lot of Guillen’s efforts to fix the district’s financial management and accountability problems occurred in 2009 and 2010.

“He definitely hasn’t exaggerated what he has helped with, what he has taken leadership on,” the aide, Winnie Anderson, said.

Shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday, Guillen sent a reporter a list of what he said were examples of financial reforms and accountability measures he spearheaded. The reporter asked for documentation backing his claims, but that has not yet been provided, and pair of trustees a reporter contacted at Anderson’s suggestion did not return calls seeking information backing Guillen’s claims.

A few hours later, Guillen wrote to say he couldn’t provide the additional documents due to time constraints in the runup to Tuesday’s election, and he said he would have the district’s public information officer help research a reporter’s questions.

“The grants are accumulated over a series of years. Due to time constraints and we are in the last days of the election, but I will be happy to send it to you after,” Guillen wrote. “I am also going to ask Jeff our public information officer to help research this more for you.”

Guillen listed reforms and accountability measures that included outside auditors, who he said were brought in review Peralta’s books; reduced travel expenses and the elimination of district trustees’ credit cards; and more scrutiny and greater disclosure of travel, vendor payments and other expenses. A reporter was able to confirm some of the changes took place but not others through a review of 2009 and 2010 meeting minutes; in many cases, it wasn’t clear what role Guillen played in making changes happen beyond offering a motion or vote.

Guillen did not explain, and the minutes and other documents examined by a reporter did appear to not show, how he “reduced the influence of special interests on public decision-making," though he did offer a list of grants he “supported the acquisition of” to fund training programs.

In a 2009 newspaper article detailing lavish spending by Harris and some board members on the public’s dime, Guillen, who wasn’t named as having done either in the story, told reporters that he wasn’t aware of some of Harris’s expenses.

"It's probably something we should look into," he was quoted as saying. "As a board, we have a fiduciary responsibility to look out for the taxpayers."

The board didn’t renew Harris’s contract and he left, in June 2010; minutes show Guillen thanked Harris for his “advice and wisdom.” Just as Harris left, the accrediting agency that oversees community colleges placed Peralta on probation over concerns about the district’s finances, and the district was the subject of a grand jury report that blasted the board for what they said was weak financial oversight. The state chancellor for community colleges also placed Peralta on financial watch, one of the grand jury reports said.

The board didn’t approve the district’s 2010 budget until April 2010, two months before a 2011 budget was due, and trustees later learned that the district had enrolled the equivalent of 3,000 more full-time students than they had state funding to pay for, resulting in $12 million in unfunded costs. And it was grappling with a 2005 decision to invest its retiree benefit bond funds in exotic financial products which a later grand jury report said escalated the district’s $134 million in benefit liabilities to $750 million.

Board members – notably Cy Gulassa and Bill Withrow, meeting minutes showed – worked to fix the board’s policies while interim Chancellor Wise Allen, district staff and consultants repaired the district’s books. Guillen, who was board president in 2010, spearheaded efforts to find a new chancellor, though none of the finalists chosen in that process was hired. Budget reports the district is legally required to file also started showing up on its board agendas, as did additional details on the district’s spending.

The district has since regained its accreditation and its board put a parcel tax proposal on Tuesday’s ballot – though Guillen voted against that, saying he thought the district should wait for a November vote, minutes showed.

CLAIM: AC Transit Director at Large Joel Young says he "stopped them from building buses in Belgium. He brought those jobs back to Alameda County."

The claim refers to a 2009 Buy American resolution aimed at ending AC Transit’s bus purchases from Van Hool, a Belgian company, and the AC Transit Board’s recent decision to award a bus-building contract to Gillig in Hayward. Young voted for both and has been cited by some as having advocated for the Gillig contract, while others say Young didn’t lead efforts to make the change.

The claim appears to be a reference to a March 23 New York Times article about the Gillig deal – an article Young’s campaign manager, Mark Goodwin, forwarded to a reporter. But the article lists AC Transit Director Elsa Ortiz as the person who pushed for the contract; Young isn’t in the story.

A trio of sources who spoke with us for this story downplayed Young’s involvement in the bus deal and passage of the Buy America resolution, saying it was Ortiz who led the charge for both.

“He definitely wouldn’t have fought it. But he wasn’t a leader on it,” AC Transit watcher and onetime board candidate Joyce Roy said.

But others said that Young did help lead efforts to ink the Gillig deal. Doug Bloch of the local Teamsters Union – which the Times article also cites as a driving force behind the contract – said that while Ortiz initiated efforts to bring AC Transit’s bus building back to the U.S., Young “played a leading role” in getting the Gillig deal done. At the March 14 meeting where the deal was approved, Bloch thanked Ortiz, Young and director Mark Williams for their efforts on it, meeting minutes show.

“On this issue, he was effective,” Bloch said.

Comments

Submitted by Mark Goodwin on Fri, Jun 1, 2012

Thanks Michele for the story. I would like to add that increasing contracting opportunities for local businesses has been a priority for Mr. Young throughout his tenure at AC Transit. In addition to his work on the Gillig contract, he ran a workshop for business owners explaining contracting opportunities and how to contract with the agency. He also led an effort to revise AC Transit's procurement policies to encourage sourcing from small, local businesses. Interested voters can find AC Transit's procurement policies via this link. The items are 350 and 351.

http://www.actransit.org/about-us/board-of-directors/board-policies/

Mr. Young believes that revising California's procurement policies to increase local sourcing is the most cost-neutral way to stimulate economic growth in the State. If you'd like to know more about Mr. Young's legislative proposals, please contact me at 510-338-7735.

I would further comment that I'm not sure how Ms. Roy or the other anonymous sources cited here arrived at their conclusion, other than hearsay. Board contracts are discussed in closed session.

Thanks again for the story.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Fri, Jun 1, 2012

Thank you for this excellent investigative report. It helped me to decide how I will vote on Tuesday.

Submitted by Bill 2-Wheel Smith on Sun, Jun 3, 2012

Thank you for checking the facts on candidates claims. I was encouraged that you found most of the claims had a solid basis, and that all had some basis even if they could not be fully verified. Accurate and constructive fliers is a big change from the City-wide elections in 2010.

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