Dec 9 2017

Piedmont Post Newspaper Wants to Locate Its Office in City Owned Building Raising Issues of Conflicts of Interest

“Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”  Mark Twain

On Monday, December 11 at 6ish p.m. in City Hall and broadcast live, the Piedmont Planning Commission will consider an application for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application for The Piedmont Post to relocate their offices to the City owned property at  801 Magnolia Avenue.

According to the application, the hours of operation of the office in the residential neighborhood will extend to midnight on several nights weekly and the workday will last as long as 12 hours, adding a considerable amount of activity on already busy Magnolia Avenue considering the coming and going of Middle School, high schools, Piedmont Adult School, the Recreation Center, the Aquatic Center as well as the many special events.

An independent free press should not be a creature of the government it is meant to cover, that would make it a government public relations entity.  If subsidized office space is offered to one commercial news business, it should be available to all news organizations as is the dedicated White House shared press workspace.

If the Post wanted to rent office space on Grand Avenue in Piedmont or in the Wells Fargo Building, there would be no conflict of interest and no citizen objections. The Post has never operated in commercial space in Piedmont, although its business address is a home in Piedmont on Oakland Avenue.

The City provides the building at 801 Magnolia Avenue on a subsidized basis at $1/year lease for the public benefit as an Arts Center.

The Council has the ultimate responsibility to determine what is appropriate for the use of public, taxpayer-supported property.  The Piedmont Center for the Arts was approved by the Council and pays $1 per year for their space at 801 Magnolia Avenue across from Piedmont High School.

According to information pertaining to the development of a space for The Piedmont Post, it appears there was no public advertisement of the space availability in the Piedmont Center and no other media entity was offered the subsidized office space.

The Piedmont Post started in the building at 801 Magnolia Avenue approximately 20 years ago when the building was owned and operated as the First Church of Christ Scientist.  A newspaper business in the church was not legally allowed by the City and the Post was forced to move out of the building.

Subsequently, the Church dissolved and the City of Piedmont purchased the 801 Magnolia property for just under $700,000.  The building was seldom used for years except for city storage.  A plan for an aquatics facility at the site delayed changes to the building.

Founders of the Art Center, Gray Cathrall (Editor, Publisher, and Owner of The Piedmont Post), Nancy Lehrkind (Current Vice President for the Piedmont Center for the Arts), and others saw potential in using the property as the location of cultural activities and the arts.  Beginning in 2011 the City of Piedmont granted a lease of part of the building, now the Piedmont Center for the Arts, for $1 per year for 10 years on the basis it would be exclusively used for non-profit purposes and the building would be improved – painting, heating, roofing, etc.  The City, however, has maintained the grounds and landscaping.

In the six plus years of the 10 year lease, the Arts Center has become a shining star of culture, music, drama, and graphic arts.  Interest and participation in the Arts Center has spread far beyond Piedmont borders.

In the summer of 2016, the Arts Center applied for and was granted by the City Council a change in the terms of their lease allowing the Center to engage in uses allowed in it’s zone, the Public Zone.  This lease change was evidently unnoticed by most Piedmonters.

Then in 2016, the Council approved significant changes to the zoning laws of Piedmont including allowing for-profit businesses on City property under a conditional use permit process.  The change of use without voter approval as prescribed in the City Charter, again drew little public notice and the Council changed the zoning without voter approval.

The justification for the zoning change from nonprofit to for-profit uses in the public zone was focused on allowing the Aquatic Facility to sell goggles, food, or beverages.   However, that would not have violated the zoning as it stood as long as the sales were by the Facility for the financial benefit of the Facility.  Now, the actual result allows a commercial business to profit financially with the taxpayer subsidy.

The Conditional Use Permit is on the Monday, December 11 Planning Commission agenda.  The Commission will make a recommendation  to the City Council.

It was long rumored that the goal of the Post was to move back into the 801 Magnolia building. Although the Post owner, Cathrall has been announced as termed out from the Arts Center Board, his newspaper, The Post, continues to foster and advertise the activities at the Center. Nancy Lehrkind, also a founder and Vice President of the Center Board, continues on the Board and has signed the CUP application documents.

Conflicts of interest are inherent in the leasing of public space to a single, local media outlet.

Having an office in the center of Piedmont in a public building leased for $1 a year would be beneficial to all media outlets.

There are a number of news media outlets covering Piedmont: The Piedmonter, The Piedmont Post, The Piedmont Civic Association, Piedmont Patch, East Bay News, Piedmont Portal, and others.

Piedmont residents, as with any group of people, have differing points of view on numerous subjects.  Coverage by the various media outlets often reveals these differences.

The Piedmont Post has long been viewed as the Piedmont City Administration news outlet. 

If the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application for The Piedmont Post to relocate their offices in the City owned property at  801 Magnolia Avenue (Piedmont Center for the Arts) is approved, the relationship between City Hall and The Post will become even closer and raise new questions.  The Post and the City will have a financial relationship based on a lease and a Conditional Use Permit to use City property for a newspaper business.

Residents have raised issues in the past regarding City buildings not being appropriate for political activities nor for allowing businesses with potential conflicts of interests.

The Piedmont Post is an independently owned private newspaper supported by donors, advertisers, official City notices, and subscribers.  The for-profit business entity is currently located in Oakland on Boulevard Way. The Post, contrary to City laws, uses a Piedmont residential address on Oakland Avenue as the business address.

There is no information available as to a business license in Oakland, Piedmont, or a Piedmont Home Occupation Permit as a business location on Oakland Avenue.  There are no published documents available indicating the financial status of the newspaper. The application states a gross income of $380,000 per year.

The application indicates a need for more Art Center income to support the activities of the Center, however no documentation or audit has been publicly released to show the financial status of the Art Center.

The Commission meeting is scheduled for Monday, December 11 starting at 5 p.m. in City Hall’s Council Chambers. The Planning Commission’s Conditional Use Permit consideration will follow a number of other applications on the agenda and will likely be considered after the Commission breaks for a half hour dinner around 6:30 p.m.

Those interested can attempt to attend or observe the meeting on Monday, December 11, at 5:oo p.m.  The meeting will be broadcast live on Channel 27 and from the City website under videos.

Comments may be made to the Planning Commission:

Staff Liaison: Planning Director Kevin Jackson – – (W) 420-3050
Council Liaison: Jennifer Cavenaugh – (510) 428-1442
Commissioner Eric Behrens  
Commissioner Aradhana Jajodia  
Commissioner Jonathan Levine  
Commissioner Susan Ode  
Commissioner Tom Ramsey  
Commissioner Clark Thiel (Alternate)

Commenters should send their correspondence to the Commission and Council via

8 Responses to “Piedmont Post Newspaper Wants to Locate Its Office in City Owned Building Raising Issues of Conflicts of Interest”

  1. This proposed CUP makes no sense and doesn’t look good to the citizens of Piedmont. Why would we want to subsidize a for profit “news” paper? Why wasn’t the space advertised at fair market value to a person who has normal business hours and is willing to pay rent to the city? gayle sells

  2. In my opinion, allowing the Piedmont Post, a commercial enterprise, to sub-let the City owned property at 801 Magnolia from the so-called nonprofit Arts Center, represents a clear conflict of interest. The Planning Commission must deny this proposal.
    George Childs
    Lower Grand Ave.

  3. Today’s posting confuses me.
    It runs under the main news tab. But is it news or the editorial opinion of PCA? It seems to be a cut and paste of some other content and more the latter.
    Without expressing my opinion of support or opposition for the permit, based on your historic precedence of quality journalism you should clarify whose arguments we are reading.
    Twitter has been full of anonymous hit pieces but we deserve better.

  4. Reads like news reporting to me with some pointed questions perhaps but that is what good journalism does. It’s approprate to raise conflict of interest as the paper’s tenantcy is dependent on PCA occupying the space, which I think expires before the requested CUP. My only critique of the piece is that it neglected to mention public criticism of the paper’s reporting practises by School Board members. Piedmont has few opportunities to bring businesses into town and many residents may not be aware of the paper’s history covering PUSD.

  5. At the 12/12 Planning Commission meeting, the City Planning Director prefaced this issue by indicating that the Planning Commissioners’ role was simply to determine whether this CUP complied with the Arts Centers’ leasing terms. It did. Whether the 2016 leasing terms were created to welcome the Piedmont Post or not is another issue.
    Following the unanimous vote, the chair indicated that the question of accepting the Post into the space would now move to the City Council’s 12/18 meeting. What are the criteria for the City Council to approve this decision?

  6. That’s a pretty narrow interpretation of Chapter 17 which says the application shall be compatible with the General Plan (17.68.040). I don’t think the code addresses sub-leases but my guess is that the Commission was advised by City Attorney on this, which as we saw with cell,towers, adopts the narrowest of interpretations.

    The General Plan calls for more pedestrian-based services and community-gathering opportunities in the civic center area so I think the Commission should have considered that in its deliberations. But if told by staff that it can only do one thing, it would not have proceeded independently.

    As to welcoming the Post with the 2016 lease terms, when proposing Chapter 17 revisions to allow private enterprise into the public zone, the staff cites “snack shacks and newspapers” as hypotheticals. I’d say that sent a signal.

    As to Jane’s question, Council can invoke the General Plan and bring services into the Civic Center that the community asked for. Make a clear finding as to whether a newspaper is one. And I think it can bring its conscience to the discussion – has the Post acted as a newspaper in good faith to the community. And finally is it a competent newspaper – has its reporting been accurate and balanced?

  7. The Post is a tale of two newspapers. The Post’s Art, Culture, Sports and Life Events are generally appropriate for Piedmont. However, for critical Civic issues including taxes, bonds and School Board coverage, the Post’s heavily editorialized and biased articles are in reality partisan public media pieces in support of City Hall. The Post’s City Editor stated at her retirement party, an event on public property thrown by the city: “I consider many members of the city staff and the city’s elected and appointed officials to be colleagues.” (June 29, 2016 Piedmont Post front page.)

    Many in Piedmont are aware of the lack of basic media ethics by the Post; few speak out. Were it not for this website, the Piedmont Civic Association, many in Piedmont would have no counterpoint to the Post’s misinformation.

  8. Just watched the Planning Commission meeting. The Planning Commission gave scant review of the CUP application, quickly moving to adopt the findings. One of those finding is
    “The proposed use is compatible with the general plan and conforms to local zoning”. The zoning part is easy. As this is a threshold application for Piedmont, a discussion of how a private business and this one in particular is compatible with the general plan would have been appropriate but not one Commissioner cited the plan in their comments. Not entirely their fault as the staff report did not cite specific provisions of the plan that the application met. The 2008 General Plan in a broad sense adopted policies and guidelines to add activity to the center of town to provide more community gathering opportunities and walkable services. The Planning Department and Commission should have cited the Plan in their deliberations but did not. That’s a real disservice given this controversial application.

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