Almanac

News - January 27, 2010

Do Cargill accusations of 'backroom deal' hold water?

by Sean Howell

Should local residents be concerned about claims by food processing giant Cargill/DMB that a Menlo Park official was involved in "backroom dealings" surrounding Cargill's proposal to build a mini-city on the Bay? Or is Cargill merely trying to tar project opponents and avoid scrutiny of the project, as some local activists suggest?

Over the weekend, Cargill spokesman Pete Hillan provided The Almanac with a 2-inch-thick stack of e-mail correspondence between Councilman Andy Cohen, Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, and Stephen Knight, political director of the environmental group Save the Bay. The e-mails were obtained and given to Cargill by an unidentified Redwood City resident through a public records act request, Mr. Hillan said. The resident who filed the request is not affiliated with Cargill, to the best of his knowledge, Mr. Hillan said.

Mostly, the e-mails show the council members discussing the project and working out the details of a draft resolution opposing any development on the Cargill site.

Mr. Hillan focused his attention on one e-mail in particular that Mr. Cohen sent to Mr. Knight on June 9, 2009. That e-mail reads:

"just met with paul Collacchi and talked about a regional approach to housing cooperating with Redwood City to provide some higher density in our El Camino Real visioning process along El Camino in exchange for Cargill project going away — you'd have to work this out in greater detail with paul, but it's consistent with my earlier stand."

"He's suggesting something of value to Redwood City in exchange for Cargill going away," Mr. Hillan said. "This is evidence of a backroom deal that was not done in a public way."

Mr. Cohen said he was simply mentioning an idea. He said he didn't try to construct any kind of deal with fellow council members or with Redwood City, which has jurisdiction over the Cargill property.

"I did not, certainly, speak for anyone other than myself, and there was never a dialogue about it with Kelly (Fergusson) that I recall," he said. "I think they've not really produced anything — I'm certainly not intimidated. I was always willing to be open and transparent about my thinking on this, and I continue to feel that way."

Brielle Johnck, a Menlo Park resident who had urged Mr. Cohen and Ms. Fergusson to bring the resolution to the council, accused Cargill of running interference.

"Cargill wants to distract Peninsula residents who are concerned about paving the Bay, and it also wants to give the impression that council members from cities who will be adversely impacted by Cargill's massive development are conducting secret campaigns against the project," Ms. Johnck wrote in an e-mail to The Almanac. "Cargill is running scared. The Peninsula cities are waking up and realizing that a new city of nearly 25,000 residents will be a disaster for the region."

Mr. Collacchi, a Menlo Park council member from 1996 through 2004, described the policy he discussed with Mr. Cohen as one he has advocated for years. Through a complicated arrangement, nearby cities would agree to allow for denser development in exchange for keeping the Bay undeveloped, with some of the proceeds going to Cargill. That would "give Menlo Park a more constructive way to participate than simply opposing," Mr. Collacchi said. "Cargill political operatives seized upon the words 'going away' to misrepresent and impugn" the good intentions of Mr. Cohen and Mr. Knight.

Menlo Park Councilman John Boyle, who in October voted against placing the resolution on Menlo Park's agenda, said he wouldn't want to rush to the conclusion that Mr. Cohen had done something wrong.

"I don't have a strong opinion, but I do hope that at some point, (his idea) gets discussed in a public meeting," Mr. Boyle said. "I welcome any creative ideas on how to address (the project), and that's great if people have out-of-the-box thoughts."

Mr. Hillan, the Cargill spokesman, criticized Save the Bay's involvement in drafting the resolution, saying the group should lobby Redwood City directly. Mr. Cohen, Ms. Fergusson and Mr. Knight want to "give us a real fair trial before they hang us," he said, arguing that the city of Menlo Park should restrict its comments on the project to those solicited through the state's environmental review process.

"There are rules in place as to how it will be reviewed, it's a very public process," Mr. Hillan said. "Why would you try and stop something before the public has an opportunity to vet it?"

"I think that they are getting desperate," Mr. Knight said, adding that you don't need an environmental impact report to know what the project would do to the Bay. "Cargill is getting desperate, and there is nothing out of the ordinary or secret about the fact that Save the Bay, for 50 years, has been working with cities around the San Francisco Bay Area to protect the Bay from exactly this sort of thing. ... The era of filling the Bay is over."

Menlo Park has delayed its vote on the resolution until after Redwood City holds a study session on Cargill's proposal, scheduled for early February.

"I think it's really important, as a neighboring city, to give them a chance to discuss this in a public session" before Menlo Park takes up the resolution, Mayor Rich Cline said.

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