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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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Tagami called the controversy surrounding Schaaf's decision to challenge the results of Measure AA, last November's failed parcel tax initiative to fund early education a "real embarrassment for the city." The measure fell short of gaining a two-thirds majority for passage, but Schaaf led an unsuccessful effort through the courts to argue that the measure only required a simple majority of support. "We want a different outcome, so we moved the goalposts," Tagami said, laying out the progression of what occurred next. "We're going to get sued. We lose the lawsuit. Instead they should have just put it back on the ballot and they'd win."

Piling on, he called a recent audit's finding that the administration used city services and facilities for the mayor's Oakland Promise education initiative further proof of impropriety. "Now the question is, 'Who believes they are above the law?' So no one wants to cast the Donald Trump-kind of behavior at any elected official, but I'm seeing a lot of that behavior coming out of City Hall right now. That somehow they don't think the rules apply to them."

Mayor Schaaf declined to respond to Tagami's criticisms.

Tagami said Oakland's lawsuit to stop the Alameda County Board of Supervisors from selling its interests in the Coliseum to the Oakland Athletics also felt eerily familiar. "You've seen, through media reports, what the A's having been going through with the city, and the literally arbitrary and capricious nature of the city attorney's office when it's related to how they have dealt with the A's and the county," he said. "And the mixed messages. They say they want the A's here, but at the same time they file lawsuits without communicating."

While there have been suggestions that Tagami is seeking a settlement with the city rather than moving forward in the courtroom, he said Oakland officials have thus far avoided making any attempt to negotiate with him. "I've had people in the community call me up and say, 'Phil, you know, we think you're a pretty reasonable guy. How come you're not sitting down with the city and working this out? Has the city ever come to the table?'' Tagami said. "And the answer is no, they haven't."

Despite Tagami winning his lawsuit against the city last year, staff has on several occasions asked him to present them with a new proposal. "You don't take the losing ticket and go to the winning window," he scoffed.

Tagami views the Sierra Club as main deterrent to Oakland officials sitting down with him and talking. He fully acknowledges the effectiveness of the environmental group's city council lobbying effort in paralyzing progress on the terminal. But he said the group's unwavering advocacy against his proposal has made the odds of reaching a settlement extremely remote.

"The Sierra Club will not give a hall pass to elected officials if they were to negotiate or engage in some way, in something that did not meet their criteria," he said. "As a former dues-paying member of the Sierra Club, I don't think the members are ill-intended. I think the strategy that they've used has been extremely effective in their campaign to basically stop the shipment of fossil fuel on the West Coast, no one can say they haven't been. Now you have to ask, 'Were they honest?'"

Tagami said Sierra Club officials gave him an ultimatum to withdraw the coal plan. If he did not, they said they would launch an extensive effort to lobby the city council.

"If a private businessperson went to the city council and threatened they would not get elected unless they got their outcome, that's some form of extortion," Tagami said. "For some reason, certain labor units and certain activist groups can bring that to bear and that's considered political pressure. I look at it and consider it unseemly."

The public perception of him in some quarters as a greedy traitor to the city and the environment bothers Tagami. "It would be disingenuous to say that it didn't trouble me when someone burns my name in effigy," he said. "I've been protested at my home, my office. Those protests haven't stopped our lawsuits one bit. They are protesting the wrong people. I don't own coal. I was obligated to build a bulk marine terminal, designed, entitled, and gone through all the steps. I've signed the lease and paid the city a lot of money."

Oakland lobbyist Greg McConnell, whose client is Insight Terminal Solutions, the Utah-based outfit that hopes to ship Utah coal through Tagami's terminal, said if the initial court ruling is upheld, the outcome will mean that his client can ship as much coal as it wishes to ship. In other words, it's winner-take-all.

However, McConnell confirmed that his client has proposed a compromise that proposes limiting coal shipments to five million metric tons per year over the next decade, followed by three million tons per year over the following 10 years.

Last month, the city's appeal of Judge Chhabria's ruling was heard in the Ninth District Court of Appeals. Nonetheless, several local public officials interviewed for this article expressed skepticism about the city's chances of winning its appeal. They predict the city is likely to be on the hook for damages to make Tagami financially whole. Some opponents of coal believe the legal fight will continue no matter the appeal's outcome — keeping most of the former Oakland Army Base fallow for years to come. But Tagami is undaunted.

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