Editorial: Democracy Thrives in the Sunshine

Becky O’Malley
Tuesday June 15, 2004

Last November, the Daily Planet got a phoned-in tip that six members of the Richmond City Council had taken part in a meeting, “over wine and cheese,” with people the caller identified as “Las Vegas types,” with the subject matter being the possibility of turning Point Molate over to casino gambling interests with Native American connections. The tipster, who identified himself as a rank-and-file environmentalist, said he’d heard a guy talking about the meeting in a bar, and that he loved Point Molate’s natural and historical splendors and was outraged at the idea of putting a casino there.  

We assigned a reporter to the story, who made inquiries in the Richmond area. Nothing. She asked politically savvy people, who said that six councilmembers at an off-site meeting would be a violation of the Brown Act, so it couldn’t have happened. She talked to business people, who said that Chevron, the nearest neighbor, wouldn’t allow it, because it would threaten the security of their refinery. She asked environmental activists, who said that the property was too important for anyone to get away with a major development there. So we dropped it. For the record, we’ve never confirmed that the particular meeting our caller described took place, with or without a Brown Act violation. 

However. In May, Richard Brenneman, who has many years of experience as an investigative reporter, started work on a story about an 18-story apartment complex planned for the old Stauffer plant site in Richmond. In the course of working on it, he picked up some of the same casino rumors that we’d heard in November, and he followed up on them. They included names this time, in particular the name of Jim Levine, of the Levine-Fricke firm. As we say in the trade, BINGO. Levine, reluctantly, confirmed that the casino plan was in the works, and asked the Planet to hold the story in return for an exclusive in July. Dick relayed the request to me, knowing full well what I’d say. No. Of course not. The public’s right to know, and all that good stuff.  

Instead, we rushed the story into print, confident that it was only a matter of time before other media beat us to it. In our haste, we made a couple of editing errors, for which we apologize to Dick, who got the story right. Editors, not reporters, write captions at deadline time. The front page photo was not shot from the casino site as the caption said, but from a ridge overlooking the bay. Also, the size of the historic winery was understated by a factor of 10 because of a typographical error. 

(I do wonder if some of our big-time competitors might have fallen for the Levine deal, since rumors have been flying for months without a word in print. Channel 2 News picked up the story on Friday night, after our weekend issue came out, though of course without credit to the Planet.) 

Today’s paper contains letters from outraged insiders who were hoping to get their story straight before the public heard it. Don Gosney, an official of one of the big construction unions, Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 342, kindly points out errors major and trivial in our information about the casino proposal, hoping to discredit the story (see Page Fourteen). Clearly, he must be in a position to know a lot about the actual plans. Another letter writer is annoyed that information seems to have leaked from a private meeting staged for the benefit of local environmental honchos. 

Here’s the thing: It’s the public’s right to know. What’s been happening, clearly, is the old Community Leader dodge. The developer comes into town, picks out key people, and makes them feel special, so that when the plan finally gets into the public realm the deals have already gone down. Construction unions of course benefit from massive construction projects, and they are within their rights advocating for them—in public. Some environmental benefits have come from tradeoffs with developers, but big mistakes have been made by self-styled environmental leaders who aren’t experienced at negotiating with sophisticated developers.  

Coincidentally, today’s paper also contains a letter (at right) from an eagle-eyed reader who noticed that someone has been throwing copies of the paper in a trash can again, this time at the corner of Derby and College. She thought, mistakenly, that our carriers were responsible, when in fact they dutifully remove old copies from the distribution boxes and bring them back to our office to be recycled. Another reader actually saw a respectable looking grey-haired man with a beard taking fresh papers from our box and putting them in a trash can on South Shattuck—presumably a form of censorship of the content. This seems to happen regularly, with the location of the trashing related to what stories are in the issue.  

Readers sometimes suggest that we shouldn’t cover sensitive issues at all. A letter in today’s paper, for example, submitted at the start of our 30-day cooling off period for letters regarding the Israel-Palestine struggle (mistakenly describing it as “a moratorium on all references to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the paper”) suggests that we should self-censure all news of the controversy for at least six months (see Page Fourteen. 

If there’s any reason for this paper’s existence, it’s to support the proposition that democracy just works better if everyone knows what’s happening. What’s been going on in Richmond is what’s sometimes described sarcastically as “mushroom planning: where everything is done in the dark, packaged in the dark and then sold as a final product.” We at the Planet think that public policy is best made in the sunshine, with many eyes on the decision-making process. 


—Becky O’Malley