Aug 23 2011

Opinion: Undergrounding Committee Takes its Eye Off the Ball

A letter from Thomas Clark notes recommendations leave the City on the hook for cost overruns

The subcommittee has labored mightily at producing an autopsy of the  financially disastrous City involvement in undergrounding projects.  But so far as I can determine from reading over the glut of words it has produced, it has not focused on what really matters to me as a City resident and taxpayer.  I know the City completely screwed up on the past undergrounding projects.  I think the City must stop taking risks for the benefit of a few private residents, but the subcommittee instead has focused on how the Council might continue to engage in its risky behavior more safely in the future.  I am not interested in how to manage the risky behavior.  I want the risky behavior to stop.  I want to avoid more such autopsies in the future.

I want the Council to take action that assures that it will not put City tax dollars at risk by its voluntary action to approve a  project that is for the benefit of only a few private property owners, such as the decision to approve construction of  electrical undergrounding  projects. My concern is why the City Manager, the City Attorney and the Council members, without a single one of them publicly disclosing or objecting to the risks, allowed these undergrounding projects to be structured  to expose every resident and taxpayer to significant loss of tax funds, and what institutional controls will be put in place to prevent this from happening again. I am not complaining about taking risks for public benefits. We need public streets, public parks and other public amenities, and they come with unavoidable risks. None of us, however,  need to take any risks at our collective expense in order for a few private residents to enjoy underground electrical service .  I am proud to pay my taxes for public projects.  Unless and until I am reasonably satisfied that risks of exposing public assets for private benefit are reasonably eliminated, I will not vote for another City special tax, I will actively work against all such taxes and I will not vote for any Council candidate that does not include in the candidates platform a commitment to end this unnecessary, inappropriate and risky behavior.  In fact, I will gladly contribute funds to oppose future tax measures and to support candidates who commit to stop exposing our public funds for the benefit of private parties, and any one of such candidates is welcome to contact me to see how I can provide support.

Thomas D. Clark,



A past letter to the Editor of the Piedmont Post

I sadly read Bert Kurtin’s opinion piece in the April 7 [2010] edition about Alameda County Superior Court Judge True’s rulings on the City’s anti-SLAPP motion again the Kurtins.  I have no opinion one way or the other about the merits or wisdom of the Kurtin’s lawsuit against the City.  But I have a strong opinion that the City has received very bad business and legal representation across the board on utility undergrounding matters.  The waste of public funds continues to mount.  First, we learned that the general city taxpayers and not the special district residents solely benefited by one project must deal with $2 million plus cost overruns on one project.  Now we learn that the City either allowed, or directed, its special litigation lawyers to engage in a frivolous and bad faith response to the Kurtins’ lawsuit on a separate utility underground matter, which will cost the City hundreds of thousand of dollars in payments for both the City’s and the Kurtin’s legal costs.  All exposure to the risks of these liabilities and costs should have been firmly fixed on the property owners who received the special benefits of the utility undergrounding projects and not assumed by the City taxpayers as a whole.

I have supported every single special funding and tax increase measure on the City ballot since I bought my house in Piedmont in 1973, but I will never support another one, and I urge every other votes not to, until the City Council has taken credible steps to insure that it will receive competent legal advice to benefit the entire City, and not just a few property owners, and until credible and reliable steps are completed to avoid any further waste of millions in our public resources.  Professions of surprise and “never again” from various City councilmembers and staff  will not suffice. At a minimum, I think a Charter amendment is required that will prohibit council members and other City leaders from actions, such as approvals that involve the City in utility undergrounding projects, which benefit a very few residents but expose us all to extremely costly and wasteful results.

Thomas D. Clark,


(This statement expresses the personal opinions of the author. All statements made are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.)

3 Responses to “Opinion: Undergrounding Committee Takes its Eye Off the Ball”

  1. One issue which has not been set to rest regarding the undergrounding “scandal” is why the announcement of the second million dollar overrun was not announced until a few days AFTER the city council elections (in which two incumbents who had supported the project were re-elected) The invoices for these overruns had been received by the city well in advance of the election. This, as much as the general incompetence which caused the issue is of great concern to me.

  2. Susan is quite correct. The apparent evasion of the Charter and Democratic review process is very troubling.

    The Audit Committee used the limitations of the pending city litigation against Harris and Robert Gray engineering firms to do no examination of the internal workings of staff in this matter. Once the bedrock was found, the issues turn exclusively to staff, the inexplicable decisions staff made and why they kept going without public disclosure when the money was gone. The City is suing the engineering firms, not its own staff and probative questions could have been asked by the Audit Committee beyond Judge Kawaichi’s attempts. Yet we still know nothing of how and why the staff decisions were made.

    Mayor Barbieri and Vice-Mayor Chiang voted for the $2M giveaway, the $296,000 plunder of the public sewer fund and the ill-advised counter-lawsuit against the Kurtin’s. Now they have examined themselves and will be sitting on Council to “accept” the report.

  3. Ms. Schroeder: I agree with your “scandal” characterization however would like to correct a few points in your statement. The announcement of the second million dollar overrun occurred at the City Council meeting on Monday, February 6, the night before the election. The staff report for that evening simply alluded to an “update of the PHUUD project” with no reference to the need for an appropriation, let alone an additional million dollars. The second overrun was due to faulty review of PG&E plans and not bedrock costs. Either way, it is absolutely unacceptable public service to not have included such information in the staff report. The proximity to the election is disturbing. I and another council member voted against the second appropriation that evening. I previously voted against the PHUUD project when it came to Council but did vote in favor of the first million dollars.

    I hope you will submit comments to City Council when we take up the Audit Committee report.

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