City Council Downsizes Sweeney Park in Closed Meeting

City Council Downsizes Sweeney Park in Closed Meeting

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Mayor Ashcraft published an article in the Alameda Sun on April 15 assuring us that “nothing nefarious” was going on with regard to negotiations between the City and the Union Pacific Railroad for the expansion of Jean Sweeney Park by acquiring 2.8 acres of railroad land. The credibility of that assurance is called into question by the Sept. 7 announcement of the City Clerk of the settlement of the case on terms that reduced the City’s acquisition to only a little over half an acre plus an access easement over the remaining railroad land.

The Mayor’s remarks were in reaction to a presentation by Councilmembers Spencer and Daysog at a March 30 Council meeting citing development plans disclosed by the our Rec and Park Director indicating that a significant downsizing of the expansion was in the works and asserting that it was inappropriate for downsizing of the expansion be presented closed meetings which evidently had been occurring.

Mayor Ashcraft and Council-members Vella and Knox White rejected the idea of having these discussions in an open meeting, but Mr. Knox White gave the assurance that Council should, “make a commitment to the public that when there are items that we can talk about and decisions that are going to be made — because we do not make decisions in closed session; we do give direction — and then we come out and we hear from the public about those decisions before we vote on them publicly.”

The announcement of Sept. 7 was a clear rejection of that commitment by Mayor Ashcraft, Ms. Vella, and Mr. Knox White himself. The settlement agreement was approved with only their three votes, Ms. Spencer and Mr. Daysog dissenting. It not only downsized the expansion by over 75% but obligates the City to promptly consider any future application by the railroad to up zone any part of the retained acreage for housing and to support the railroad’s desire to have the Alameda Housing Authority extend streets in a residential development which borders the railroad property to the south and would provide access thereto.

Although the City’s original offer to purchase the original 2.8 acres was $1.1 million dollars, it is paying the railroad the same amount for just .55 acres plus giving the railroad the perks described above, which, if achieved, will significantly increase the value of the remaining property to the railroad. At first glance this may strike the reader as a very one-sided deal in favor of the railroad. Unfortunately, City Council has gone out of its way to assure that you never get more than that first glance. The September 7 final settlement was approved in a closed meeting.

The closed meeting was based upon the “litigation” provision of our open meeting laws which allows this process only if resolution in an open session would “prejudice” the city’s position in the litigation. Certainly, the negotiation of a settlement needs to be done in a closed session. However, the sixty page plus settlement agreement, complete with legal descriptions and surveys was signed by the City Attorney on Sept. 9 and by the railroad on Sept. 10. Can there be any doubt that the Sept. 7 was not about presenting terms for negotiation, but confirmation of a settlement already achieved?

A complaint has been filed with the Alameda Open Government Commission by all four members of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Fund (which provides funding, planning and volunteer services to the park) seeking the reconsideration of this settlement at an open Council meeting. The hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1 and will be available to hear your comments on Zoom, If the OGC rules in their favor, the decision is advisory only, so Council can reject it. Even if Council presents the matter at an open meeting it is unlikely to change the outcome, but it will give both Council and the public the opportunity to expose the reasoning behind this decision to the sunshine.

You, the reader, must decide if you are going to sit idly by and allow Council do disrespect your right to know, or whether you are going to rise up and send a message that their actions will have adverse political consequences.

To rub salt in the wound you will see a referral item (10-F) from Ms. Spencer and Mr. Daysog in the Oct. 5 agenda requesting that the fence supposedly separating the park from the UP property be moved to the south to account for the fact that the current fencing includes several acres of park land on the railroad side of the fence, evidently placed there knowingly by the City, not to denote the property line, but to protect the public from land that had not yet been safely cleared. Amazingly the city has no plans to move the fence, necessitating the referral to prevent a de facto downsizing of the park by yet another several acres.

Alameda Citizens Task Force (ACT) paid to place this article in The Sun to inform Alamedans about what John Knox White, Mayor Ashcraft, and Malia Vella clearly don’t want you to know about.