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Phil Tagami is Not Backing Down

As Oakland appeals a court ruling in favor of the coal terminal developer, he critiques the city's political culture.

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"The record is riddled with inaccuracies, major evidentiary gaps, erroneous assumptions, and faulty analyses, to the point that no reliable conclusion about health or safety dangers could be drawn from it," he wrote. One target of the judge's disdain was an environmental study commissioned for the city that disregarded any potential mitigations for transporting coal, such as covering railcars. "The city was not required to compile a perfect evidentiary record; far from it," Chhabria wrote. "But the gaps and errors in this record are so numerous and serious that they render it virtually useless."

Tagami feels vindicated by the victory, although he knows the battle is far from over.

"His finding of fact, as well as what the law says, is pretty clear," Tagami said. "The city abridged the agreement." Oakland officials simply did not want to acknowledge that they always understood that the terminal might end up shipping coal, he said.

For more than a decade, Tagami noted, the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal project has been amassing funding and approvals — first and foremost a $242 million state grant. Hundreds of permits have been approved, extensive public meetings have been held, and its environmental impact statement has been examined by the city council and the port. "During that tolling period no one filed a lawsuit," Tagami said. "This is a vested right. I don't have the right to build condos, or an amusement park, or a shopping center. I have an obligation to build a multi-commodity bulk terminal."

"We never hid what types of commodities would come through the port," he said, pulling out a pie chart from 2013 showing that roughly one-third of the stream of commodities proposed to flow through the terminal would be some form of coal.

"The argument crowed in the newspapers and by elected officials was 'Phil Tagami lied,'" he recalled with still-obvious annoyance.

His critics, however, contend that he did lie. Tagami's statements in a newsletter for the Oakland Army Base project in 2014 assuring that coal would not be shipped through the bulk terminal have been highlighted by environmentalists as proof of his dishonesty. Tagami acknowledges those statements today, but said he was not then aware of his tenants' intentions.

"I'm not here as a proponent of coal, but as a practical matter, I'm saying this a multi-commodity facility; it was never planned for just one commodity," he said. "Question now: Is the city saying, 'Okay, you can have a Target store, but you can't sell anything made in China?" he said. "So you can have a bulk commodity terminal, but you can't ship coal? Then you would stop and say, 'Well, look at the market. That's almost half the market. In essence, there's no way to underwrite that asset."

Tagami calls it obstruction for the city to refuse to issue permits as required under its lease agreement since it precluded the terminal's tenant, Insight Terminal Solutions, from closing its latest round of funding. "Their funding is there," Tagami said. "They just can't close, and you would argue that is obstruction and that's a breach. There are a number of other acts that have occurred, which constitutes a lack of cooperation and the city not engaging in good faith and fair-dealing."


As a younger man, Tagami contem­plated a host of professions, including athletics, the priesthood, and music. He once was a roadie, but there was little glory in the job. Had his life turned out differently, a life in public office could have been a possibility.

As Tagami gained a reputation in real estate, he also began to amass an impressive resume in Oakland city government, which included stints on the Oakland Planning Commission, the Mayor's Economic Emergency Task Force, and the Oakland Environmental Affairs Commission. He later served four years as a commissioner of the Port of Oakland. The spate of civic activity, along with a growing real estate empire, often gave way to whispers he could be eyeing higher office in Oakland. Tagami said he seriously pondered that career path. Rumors that he is interested in running for mayor are periodically whispered every few years.

His affinity for public service hasn't dissipated despite his long-running dispute with city leaders. Last year, he applied for a seat on the Oakland Police Commission, but failed to make the cut. The Oakland Police Department needs reform and little will change without it becoming more introspective about its problems, he said.

"You have to inspect what you expect," he said. "OPD needs daylight. How do address the problem? Where some people might feel irritated by the exchange, it has to occur. It's part of the process."

Although Tagami was once known as being BFF to Mayor Jerry Brown — a friendship that led some critics to contend that his power and access to public money was derived from that relationship — his frustration with Oakland City Hall is clearly evident today. Tagami believes Oakland city government suffers from an institutional abhorrence of accountability. He is also quite disappointed with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, whom he has known since high school.

"I think she is well-intended," he said. "I think like a lot of people who are in elected office, I think they can get into a bubble and listen to certain advisors because they are focused on a political trajectory and higher political office and not really balance what is real, pragmatic, or practical."

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