Cargill e-mails: Red flag, or red herring?


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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Like this comment
Posted by Kick em out
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 26, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Are our "illustrious" council members and former council members nuts? Why should Menlo Park suffer higher density housing, higher traffic and more pollution along El Camino in our town to appease Collacchi's fear of Redwood City development. I say any MP council member who pushes or this plan should be ousted from MP council. They're supposed to be looking out for our city!

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Posted by Housing credit for Redwood City?
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 27, 2010 at 10:22 am

Come on, think about it. Collacchi's scheme is nothing more than a shell game. Who do you think was behind the death of housing in the Derry Project and the Cadillac site project? This council majority can't approve any housing developments in their own jurisdiction to address MP's housing needs much less approve housing "along El Camino Real" for Redwood City.

It's called, "throw it up against the wall and see if anyone salutes or at minimum cause a delay while the mess on the floor gets cleaned up."

Ideas are cheap; action actually costs and creates change. Our council majority is anti housing and that's a fact.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon in Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 27, 2010 at 10:26 am

I think it is pathetic that the MP City Council has done what they have done. Save The Bay and the City Council should have action taken against them. I live in Menlo Park and think the Redwood City project is a great idea. Nobody ever asked me my opinion for the Council before attacking Redwood City.

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Posted by Wow.
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

The hypocrisy of the "residentialists" - Cohen, Ferguson, Robinson, Collacchi, etc., and all the accusations they threw at Duboc, Winkler etc. for not having a council that was "transparent" etc. is astounding! That's all we heard in the last election that brought in this new group! Now we have back room deals against Cargill, we have Ferguson and Cohen weighing in and having secret meetings about Bohannon's project. What the heck is going on??? Seriously. Say all you want about Lee Duboc, at least she's up front and honest and is public with EVERYTHING.
This is becoming a joke!

Like this comment
Posted by red hot
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Red herring. Collecting information and discussing various possibilities is a far cry from making a deal, much less a backroom deal. I have not seen anything from this council that makes me think there is any subterfuge, unlike the prior council, with their private meetings that violated the Brown Act and their pre-meeting agreements.

I suspect that most of you who commented above (assuming that more than one person posted the above comments) are looking at this from a political angle, trying to figure out how to get your candidate -- if you can scare one up -- on the council this November. You don't care about what's best for this city or about what Cargill does to the bay. Instead, you're just looking for material that you can use to attack the council. Pretty sad.

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Posted by Ol' Homeboy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Seems to me, the development of Redwood City Baylands is a bad idea no matter who suggests it. Any grade schooler knows, that filling in any part of our precious bay ecosystem will continue to cause drastic negatives to our bay area ecology.
There is a moral issue here, but it certainly isn't the job of Cohen, Ferguson, Robinson, Collacchi, etc., to use it as a barter chip. Besides, when these council nimrods begin their negotiating/power-play tactics, we all end up losing. Perhaps this is a job for the Peninsula Open Space Trust, who represent us all and save what is important for every living thing to enjoy — human and non-human.

Like this comment
Posted by WOW.
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 27, 2010 at 4:17 pm

I think it's pretty sad "red hot" that you continue to accuse past council people of violating the Brown Act when you have absolutely NO evidence to support that. The information that I cited above is public knowledge, you and your band NEVER cite facts. If the Brown Act was violated, get the evidence and take some people to court, until then how about citing some facts that matter?

By the way, I too think the development of Redwood City Baylands is not a very good idea, it should remain untouched. Kind of an odd stance from someone that supported Duboc and Winkler, and the VERY small parcel of land they proposed to be used for athletic fields. I still think their proposal was one we all should have had an honest debate about, and perhaps we would still have had the same outcome, but the day your crew started passing around fliers with open oil barrels and dead birds...............that's where we lost all civility and common sense.

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Posted by red hot
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 27, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I don't have a "crew" or a "band." You must be confusing me with another rock star. I am a long-time resident who has served on a commission and gone to a few dozen council meetings and been involved in other community efforts. Why do you need to categorize people who arguments you don't like? This may blow your mind, but I supported Lee when she ran for council. There are many shades of gray in this town; it's not a black and white universe.

Measure J was so problematic that it went down to stunning defeat; somehow Boyle managed to get elected anyway. I don't want to rehash those arguments here -- that would be pointless -- suffice to say that many of us were well informed about all the benefits and drawbacks of developing that site for athletic use. The voters averted a nightmare with an 80-20 vote against.

Some of you seem to forget that Menlo Park residents tend to be pretty well educated and not that dumb. Half-baked propaganda and pretty pictures don't fly in this city. People will search until they have all the facts. And I suspect most residents can see right through this feeble Cargill effort to frame our council members.

Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2010 at 5:52 pm usual, reasonable, and not sounding like you are playing footsies with anyone.

As for the "feeble Cargill effort to frame to frame our council members"............well, that is really being loyal to this entire area where there has never been any kind of malfeance.

I believe you, thousands wouldn't.

Like this comment
Posted by R. GORDON
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2010 at 5:53 pm

"to frame to frame"

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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