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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Center Of Community Life Outreach Cancelled, $95 Million Vote In November

'Living Room Conversations' Silenced

A major community educational outreach effort for the controversial school building project known as the 'Emeryville Center of Community Life' has been quietly retracted by ECCL leaders the Tattler has learned. In it's place, a community telephone survey has been conducted, not meant to educate but to gauge the feasibility of a $95 million school bond initiative proposed to be placed before Emeryville voters in November.

In March, City Hall announced a roll-out of a massive campaign of ECCL educational outreach, they called 'Living Room Conversations', trumpeted through the city's website and by mail. Citizens were encouraged to sign up to host their neighbors in 'conversation' about ECCL in their living rooms. The conversation leaders were then supposed to report what their neighbors had said to the ECCL leaders; the City/Schools Committee, who would presumably change aspects of ECCL to reflect the wishes of the residents. Council members Jennifer West and Ruth Atkin deemed these conversation meetings as "absolutely necessary" to get 'community buy-in' for the ECCL project and it's then $125 million price tag.

Emeryville residents that signed up to host the Living Room Conversations were subsequently left in the lurch when the City/Schools Committee abruptly changed course and canceled the planned community outreach but didn't bother to inform those residents that had signed up.

School Board member and City/Schools Committee member Cheryl Webb expressed regret, "We should have gotten back to the people who signed up for the Living Room Conversations at the time expected". Council member Jennifer West expressed she was "disappointed" with the cancellations, "I had looked forward to hear from the public and incorporate their ideas" she lamented.

Ms Webb however defended the decision to cancel the Living Room Conversation meetings citing bad scheduling. She insisted that the survey needed to happen first, stating that the telephone survey requires an "accurate baseline" of resident opinion that might have been tainted by inaccurate information possibly taken up by neighbors at the conversation meetings. She added "We wanted to have objective opinions (given by residents) with the telephone survey".

$95 Million To Go Before Voters
Planning Commission Chairman, ECCL Finance Committee member and longtime schools supporter Art Hoff questioned the lack of transparency with the ECCL decision makers and consultants. He stated he and his colleagues on the committee were not given the full results of the telephone resident survey when they were asked to approve the $95 million November bond initiative at their June 3rd Finance Committee meeting, "They gave us only a brief synopsis of the survey, and they wouldn't even let me take it home to study it" he stated.

Mr Hoff, a retired real estate developer and major individual financial supporter of Emeryville's schools, cast the sole vote against forwarding of the $95 million dollar initiative said he couldn't vote for it in "good conscience" owing to the lack of transparency. He noted that forwarding the $95 million November vote was contingent on a series of steps that were promised but missing when it came time for the Finance Committee to give their thumbs up. He stated that the City/Schools Committee had earlier voted to spend $1.8 million dollars to move the Center Of Community Life forward by hiring consultants to investigate and make presentations on ways to reduce the price tag on the $125 million ECCL, to meet with the public (living room conversations), make alternative plans (like retaining the recently remodeled Anna Yates Elementary School) and lastly to conduct a community survey to find out the feasibility of voters passing the November bond initiative. "We approved the $1.8 million for consultants to do all that but they only did the survey part" he said. He questioned what happened to the other work that was supposed to be conducted by the consultants. His three colleagues on the ECCL finance committee overrode Mr Hoff and voted YES to the $95 million bond and moved it forward to the City/Schools Committee for their vote later this summer. If passed then, Emeryville voters will be the final judges of the prudence of the bond debt on the November ballot.

Mr Hoff expressed chagrin that the high price for the Center of Community Life, originally slated at $125 million, had not been reduced enough, "They're asking for a $95 million bond plus the $25 million already earmarked for this project from the city's Capital Improvement fund and that totals $120 million". Mr Hoff stated that consultants had earlier expressed that the $125 million project could be reduced by 25%.

School Board member Cheryl Webb defended the meager cost reduction by pointing out that the project has been recently bolstered by a proposed new ECCL library open to all residents, added after the consultant claims of 25% reductions were made. She noted that Oakland has been raising the rate for Emeryville to sign on to their library program. "They keep raising the rates" she said. She added that it becomes fiscally imprudent at some point to continue to pay Oakland like Emeryville has been. "Library services are core to a community and will help bump up enrollment at the Emeryville schools" she said.

Ms Webb also stated the entire ECCL project has been well vetted with the greater community, "We've been doing lots of community outreach already" and that the cancelled Living Room Conversations might not be permanent. "I expect there will be a time in the future for the Living Room Conversations but at this point we look forward to hearing the results of the community survey which asked Emeryville voters of their priorities on a variety of School District facilities and program issues" she said. Of the community outreach she added "It's not the right timing for it".

The School Board will hear a presentation of the community survey at their June 15 meeting and the City/Schools Committee will also hear of the survey results at their June 17 meeting. Soon after, at a to-be-announced time, the committee will vote whether to place the $95 million bond initiative on the November ballot for Emeryville voters.

Emeryville resident Art Hoff helped lead the drive for and was the single largest individual monetary doner to, the successful Emeryville schools Parcel Tax campaigns. He also gave a large financial gift to help save the high school girls softball team, bringing it back from insolvency.

The Superintendent of the Schools, John Sugiyama could not be reached for comment and School Board member Josh Simon refused to comment for this story.

The Center Of Community Life Finance Committee is comprised of Art Hoff, Nora Davis, John Gooding and Josh Simon. The City/Schools Committee is comprised of all the council members and all the school board members.


  1. I really doubt this will pass with the voters. The lack of transparency with this thing will end it for voters I think. That and the $125 to $129 million "reduction" effort.

  2. The commenter above didn't get the figures correct. The reduction of the Center of Community Life so far has been from $125 million to $120 million.

  3. I signed up to host one of those things. I wondered what happened to it. I can't believe they didn't let people know it was cancelled. It seems like a pretty simple thing to do. Who's in charge of this thing?