Emeryville City Council held interviews to fill two vacant Planning Commission seats at the March 16th meeting. Six candidates were vying for the open positions.
On the surface, the process yielded two reasonably qualified candidates with experience on the Housing Committee. But insiders familiar with the backstory of the candidates and personal history with the councilmembers observed something completely different. In the end, the primary criterion for whom was appointed appeared to not be thought diversity, experience or background … but compliance. In fact, one commission selection was not even present for the interviews due to a family emergency.
“It was a clear case of political collusion and control by a single over-bearing presence, Councilman, John Bauters,” candidate Eugene Tssui expressed afterward.
Tssui, the subject of a documentary film and once profiled as “The most interesting man in the East Bay” by The East Bay Express has been an Emeryville resident for over 25 years and whose experience and breadth of work is arguably unparalleled.
Why Tssui was apparently targeted by Bauters and the rest of council is speculative but likely stemmed from his criticisms of the since withdrawn Onni 54-story tower project that was championed by Bauters. Tssui expressed environmental concerns of the impact of the project likely drawing his ire.
Fellow Candidate Targeted for Online Comments
Tssui wasn’t the only qualified candidate dismissed by our council. Fellow candidate Donn Lee Merriam was subjected to personal antagonism by Bauters and grilled over some contrarian views he expressed on our facebook page regarding 2018’s Measure C $50MM Housing Bond.
Merriam, a licensed architect and former EUSD school board member, played a pivotal role overseeing the construction of the Emeryville Center of Community Life.
“Quoting you from your social media posts and credit to one of my colleagues who does this work for me,” Bauters led off the questioning. Bauters did not specify which colleague did his bidding for him but all signs pointed toward Christian Patz, a self-described “internet troll” with a history of keeping political score. Patz and Merriam had previous tensions while both served on the Emery School Board. Patz sat notably silently during the grilling.
“It definitely felt as if the council had their minds made up going in,” Merriam acknowledged after the interview when we reached out. “Choosing a candidate (and ultimate selectee) that did not attend in person but having their answers read aloud without taking follow up questions by the council; wouldn’t it be fair to the other candidates to be offered the same or have them apply for a future vacancy on the commission?”
Another candidate, Charlotte Danielsson, personally observed the bias and lack of ethics applied and was compelled to submit the below guest post decrying the “ageism and systemic racism” she witnessed. “As an attorney for over 22 years, the ethical violations were clear to me,” Danielsson noted when she reached out and expressed interest in penning the below guest piece.
The entire candidate interview can be watched above [12:46].
A Personal Apology to Dr. Eugene Tssui on behalf of Emeryville Residents
After days of complete shock over the bias and ethical violations I witnessed at an Emeryville City Council meeting on March 16th, I felt compelled to write an apology email to Dr. Eugene Tssui, a renowned Asian-American architect with over 30 years experience, for the treatment he received by the Emeryville City Council during his application for the Planning Commission. As a fellow Planning Commission applicant, I had no say over what happened but I felt like someone…anyone…needed to say the simple words of “I’m sorry that you were not treated fairly and not given the respect you deserved.”
Ethics rules for public officials require merit-based decision making
Dr. Eugene Tssui has 32 years of experience and holds multiple advanced degrees in Architecture and City & Regional Planning, including two masters and a PhD from UC Berkeley. He is the author of 7 international books on architecture, city planning, ecology, biomimicry and ecological behavior change and has served as professor and instructor at 5 different universities including UC Berkeley. During his time as a visiting research scholar at Harvard, he researched and developed biomimicry principles for developing construction materials that mimic the characteristics of zoological and botanical organisms.
Before climate change, green building, conservation, using recycled materials were even words that existed in our vocabulary, Dr. Tssui was championing these concepts in urban planning and architecture. The two candidates the City Council chose over Dr. Tssui? One is a mortgage broker who has lived in Emeryville for less than two years; the other, a lobbyist for Caltrans.
Current Planning Commissioner C. Tito Young commented, “Dr. Tssui is what I would call a true ‘Renaissance Man.’ This is not a title, this is not a job description, and cannot be learned or taught. It is the ability to problem solve using multiple backgrounds, professional or otherwise, to obtain a solution. It is more than a being purely sensitive because it entails a multidimensional level of observance. In my lifetime, I have only met a handful of persons that may fall in that category. They have the ability to realize the scope as a whole and not a scope as a part. They are not swayed by popular belief or by any similar gains. They simply want to make the built environment better, more interesting, and challenging to the social norm for people of many walks of life.”
“Dr. Tssui is what I would call a true ‘Renaissance Man.’ ”
— Current Planning Commissioner C. Tito Young
Ethics rules for public officials require fair process and public officials also have a duty of impartiality
With the exception of Councilmember Scott Donahue, the remaining Councilmembers appeared to violate these ethical rules on Mach 16th. “Are you familiar with the City of Emeryville’s Proposed Housing Expenditure Plan for Measure C?” asked Councilmember John Bauters of all the applicants. Of course, no one but the two candidates selected who had spent time on the Housing Committee recently were likely to know the answer to that because it wasn’t one of the five questions interviewees were given in advance of the interview. It also wasn’t even under the Planning Commission documents that your A+ type applicants would have reviewed prior to the interview; in fact, it was something that the Housing Committee (not the Planning Commission) had worked on recently. True, the City Council had voted on it at a meeting a few weeks prior to the March 16th interview for Planning Commissioner but the minutes of that meeting were not published until March 17th…the day after the Planning Commission interview.
Knowledge of Measure C’s Housing Expenditure Plan became the pivotal deciding factor for all of the Councilmembers with the exception of Councilmember Donahue. This could lead any reasonable observer to wonder if this was not just a violation of fair process but also a violation of impartiality…or even a sign that the two chosen applicants had been preselected. “It baffles me that the city would not jump at the chance to have a pre-eminently qualified architect to be on the planning commission, one that is in the forefront of conservation and sustainability. The decision was not in the best interest of Emeryville, and I believe something was not right with the process.” Joe Lutz, former Emeryville Planning Commissioner for over 12 years and 45+ year resident of Watergate.
The Planning Commission handles a wide variety of issues of which affordable housing is only one element. Per the city’s municipal code, the planning commission’s duties include residential, commercial, and industrial districts, traffic and parking conditions, boulevards, street openings and widenings, public parks, playgrounds, and other recreational areas, flood control, subdivisions.
Measure C was passed in July 2018 and numerous City Council planning commission selection meetings have been held since then. Interestingly, knowledge of Measure C was not a deciding factor in those appointments…in fact, it was never even brought up as a question. Note, also that appointment as a Planning Commissioner does not require any prior experience on another committee per the municipal code nor per prior practice of the City Council. “All of the candidates seemed reasonably qualified, however, in light of the mandate of the Planning Commission I was surprised that the Council chose not to select Eugene for one of the two Commission positions given his extraordinary qualifications. It’s a shame not to take advantage of this long-time Emeryville resident’s experience and commitment to city planning,” stated Steve Shane, Vice Chairperson of the City of Emeryville’s Commission on Aging.
During the decision portion of the meeting, there wasn’t even a pretense of impartiality. As Mayor, Dianne Martinez was responsible for leading the discussion and laying out the impartial criteria for decision making—a task she delegated to Councilmember John Bauters. Councilmember Bauters started off the discussion by stating that knowledge of Measure C was the deciding factor for the Planning Commission appointments. He then proceeded to personally vouch for one of the applicants chosen because of his interactions with him. Councilmember Ally Medina then followed suit by herself endorsing that applicant as well. Both Councilmembers then shared personal details about both applicants not in the record and actually used those details as additional criteria for their selection.
Of the first chosen applicant, Councilmember Bauters stated “he would be a phenomenal addition…with his young family here in Emeryville I just think he offers a really excellent perspective.” Councilmember Medina stated she was very impressed by the second chosen applicant who failed to attend due to a family emergency and stated “in an emergency situation she took the time to fill up the answers to our questions so she could still be considered tonight and I think that speaks to a level of commitment and quite frankly this committee requires a great deal of commitment.” Mayor Martinez, complicit in her silence during the inappropriate comments, ultimately took the path of least resistance by whole-heartedly agreeing with Bauters and Medina.
“Using housing as the deciding factor for Planning Commission appointments, that is just beyond dumb. It’s such a narrow criteria, it makes me question whether those City Councilmembers are smart enough to be directing the city.”
– Celeste Burrows (BPAC/Commission on Aging member)
What’s the cost of the bias to the community?
Narrow vision hurts Emeryville
“Housing already has its own committee. Using housing as the deciding factor for Planning Commission appointments, that is just beyond dumb. It’s such a narrow criteria, it makes me question whether those City Councilmembers are smart enough to be directing the city,” Celeste Burrows a 14 year member of Emeryville’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee, 2 year member of the Council on Aging, and a resident of Emeryville for 27 years.
State law requires that each city submit a general plan (i.e. blueprint for meeting the community’s long-term vision for the future) and provide annual updates on the progress of the city towards that plan. The 9 elements of the General Plan are Land Use, Circulation, Housing, Safety, Noise, Conservation, Open Space, Urban Design and Sustainability and the General Plan is broken down into 79 specific actions that are to be completed in a 20 year period starting in 2009. Note, affordable housing is a subsection of the general housing element. In the General Plan Annual Progress Report for 2020 (report date 2/18/2021) that the Emeryville city staff submitted to the Emeryville Planning Commission, it was noted that out of the 79 actions required in the General Plan, only 16 have actually been completed, 59 had some progress made on them in 2020, and 4 had no progress. 11 years into a 20 year plan, only completed 20% of the required actions have been completed!
Although Dr. Tssui and I had never met, or even spoken, before that City Council meeting, we both applied for the Planning Commission with the same thought…that it’s ridiculous that Emeryville is falling behind when it could so easily achieve its General Plan goals well in advance of its anticipated timeline if it stopped trying to reinvent the wheel!
We both held decades of experience and connections from different parts of the world that had already successfully accomplished all of the things that Emeryville’s General Plan was attempting to do in short timeframes. My 22 years as a California attorney helping US tech companies and companies from throughout the world establish here along with my nonprofit work bridging innovation between Europe and Silicon Valley has given me unique knowledge of and connections in cities such as (1) Copenhagen, Denmark—a city that has already successfully built a giant network of bike paths and lanes and even an extensive Cycle Super Highway that joins over 25 municipalities and the Capital. That city has accomplished these goals to the point that 9 out of 10 people there now own a bike and 40% of all commutes are via bike and only 29% of households now own a car; (2) Stockholm, Sweden—a city that has the highest number of eco hotels in the world and it is one of the only cities in the world that recycles all of its household waste; (3) Oslo, Norway—the city that has the most electric cars per capita in the world and has a car-free city center; (4) Estonia—a country that has been named “the most advanced digital society in the world” because it has efficient, secure and transparent ecosystem where 99% of governmental services are online.
Dr. Tssui’s architectural and city planning expertise and network extends to China. He has taught architecture and city planning at four of China’s greatest universities and has designed two towns and cities in China. Dr. Tssui commented that “China has proven itself in its seriousness, know-how, and be on-time and on-budget mentality, to create infrastructure, buildings, and landscapes. In only two generations, China has gone from a back-water, agrarian society with no economic ranking, to the most powerful economic engine in the world. It has moved from absolute poverty to the middle class, and has cornered the market on 5G electronics, pharmaceuticals, and bought the entire continent of Africa.” Dr. Tssui continued enthusiastically saying “China is a country that finished a 57 story skyscraper in 19 days and rebuilt a 4-way, 8-lane, uni-directional, freeway intersection in downtown Beijing in 18 hours! Imagine what even just a fragment of that know-how could do for Emeryville!”
Lack of Geographical Representation Leading to 20% of Emeryville being voiceless; enforcing ageism and systemic racism
Per the city’s municipal code, the City Council “shall attempt to appoint Planning Commissioners in such a manner that the various geographic districts of the City are represented by a Commissioner.” The two applicants chosen were from districts already represented on the Planning Commission. “Watergate represents a sizable portion of city residents, it remains unrepresented on the planning commission, and has so for years,” commented Joe Lutz. Both Dr. Tssui and I are residents of Watergate on the Peninsula, a community that represents roughly 1/5 of the city’s population and continues to be voiceless in planning matters because it has no representation on the Planning Commission.
“Eugene, you would be perfect for our Commission on Aging…you should apply for that.”
– Emeryville Councilmember John Bauters
Watergate was built in the 1970s and many of its original residents still reside there. When Dr. Tssui talked with Councilmember Bauters after the City Council meeting about the Planning Commission decision, Councilmember Bauters told him “Eugene, you would be perfect for our Commission on Aging…you should apply for that.” Surely, someone in their 60s is still capable of using their professional expertise to benefit the city in their area of expertise and not only regarding issues of aging! In addition to that, nearly 30% of the population of Emeryville is Asian but our city committees and commissions don’t reflect that and the addition of Dr. Tssui would have been an important step toward balancing out the representation within the city.
In the current climate of increased anti-Asian hate that affects so many the actions of the City Council seem especially egregious. A city council that considers itself progressive should at a minimum understand that electing insiders has the effect of bolstering systemic racism, ageism, and discouraging wider civic involvement by the community. Emeryville’s current City Council has very much benefitted from the low civic involvement of the city. Councilmembers Bauters, Medina, and Patz just received new four year terms without an election because no one came forward to challenge them so the formality of an election was avoided altogether. In a city of over 12,000 people, Mayor Martinez holds her office because of a mere 1471 votes.
Dr. Tssui says his goal for Emeryville is “to initiate and reinforce a higher degree of development and constructable conceptual design for the City, to create a dynamic and proactive program of ecological behavioral change, and to introduce design concepts that support a zero to minimum footprint on the planet, restore the natural environment, minimize energy use, create disaster-free architecture, help to unify the City’s east, west, north and south sides, and give a new future thinking character and excitement to the City” and he states adamantly that he “will not give up.”
As for me, I don’t give up either. I’m organizing a free virtual conference through FutureCitiesToday.com on June 10th where Dr. Tssui, along with other innovators and leaders from around the world, will show us how we can combat climate change through innovative architecture; how we can build a people-focused work environment and wellness based city with a focus on sustainability, pedestrian focused city, bike highways, carless city centers…now, not 10 years from now; how we can prepare our energy systems for our “new normal“ of extreme weather events (avoiding Texas winter storm outage and California rolling blackouts); and how innovative startups from around the world already have the solutions for our local issues.
Register for the event and you will be emailed the link a few days prior.