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John Russo’s SunCal Connection

Oakland City Attorney John Russo is rumored to be in the running for the job of Alameda City Manager. As Oakland City Attorney, he’s had extensive dealings with SunCal and Lehman Brothers regarding the stalled Oak Knoll Naval Hospital redevelopment project.

In 2009, residents living near the Oak Knoll project site filed a $115 million claim against Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. over what they described as an “extreme and imminent” fire danger represented by the dilapidated buildings at the former naval hospital.

Donald Mitchell, President of the Sequoyah Hills/Oak Knoll Neighborhood Association notified John Russo by letter of the claim, and pushed the City of Oakland to act to force Lehman Brothers and SunCal to abate the fire hazards at the site. It wasn’t until Mitchell got the Alameda County District Attorney’s office involved, asking it to prosecute the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Trustee watching over Lehman’s bankruptcy case, that the trustee released money to complete demolition of the buildings, and cut back vegetation.

Now, Don Mitchell is again petitioning Russo and the City of Oakland regarding alleged safety hazards at Oak Knoll over plans to bring down the main hospital building; nearby residents are concerned there may be asbestos within the concrete of the building that might be released into the air during demolition.

In an e-mail to Action Alameda News, Mitchell wrote, “It was fairly common when Oak Knoll hospital was built for the feds and Department of Defense to incorporate up to 5% in walls and up to 10% for roof membranes by WEIGHT in asbestos as part of the concrete as it helped, considerably, the concrete to flow smoothly. This was especially helpful for concrete roofs as the installers needed to be able to easily work the concrete and get the appropriate slope to ensure water run-off, etc.” Mitchell wants a survey conducted of the hospital to determine whether or not there is asbestos within the concrete.

In a February 17th letter to Russo, Mitchell wrote,

It is the community’s understanding – though we have received no official notification – that the hospital will be imploded with the use of explosives within the next few days.

Residents have tried repeatedly, through requests for public records, to ensure that the city of Oakland has lawfully required Lehman Brothers to test the hospital (not just the interior, but most critically the concrete floors/walls/roof which will be exploded and turned to airborne dust) for the presence of asbestos before imploding the building and exposing the neighborhood to a significant health hazard.

Two requests for public records for just the current demolition permits, and results for asbestos testing of concrete from the hospital (if even completed), have resulted in dozens of pages of documents being provided by the city. However the city has provided mostly useless copies of old building permits dating back ten years or more, having nothing to do with the request or current demolition, and a suggestion that the city is not concerned with asbestos contamination of the surrounding community.

California Rule 902, governing the demolition of commercial structures, makes clear that an asbestos survey is REQUIRED before demolition of the hospital at Oak Knoll can take place. If demolition of the hospital is illegally completed the crushed or broken asbestos contained within will present a significant health hazard to nearby residents. Additionally the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) gives California, and Oakland, authorization to enforce strict measures designed to protect residents from illegal exposure to asbestos.

In a follow-up e-mail to Oakland Deputy City Attorney Susan Mosk, Mitchell wrote:

I have indeed shared the (considerably incomplete) public records provided by your office as they relate to the current demolition at Oak Knoll. I have been though, quite frankly, embarrassed to share with the community the LACK of public records provided by, or facilitated through, your office after multiple requests. I have yet to be provided with the public records to which I am entitled by law or an explanation as to why they apparently aren’t available. TWICE I have requested a copy of: CURRENT city of Oakland demolition permits allowing SunCal/Oak Knoll LLC to engage in the demolition of buildings currently underway at Oak Knoll; a copy of Oakland’s “Conditions of Approval” which always accompanies any permit allowing for demolition; and a copy of the legally required test results identifying the presence, if any, of asbestos in the hospital’s concrete component or, in lieu of, an admission by the city of Oakland that the city, for some reason, didn’t require these critical, legally required tests prior to authorizing demolition of the hospital thereby subjecting nearby homeowners to substantial and illegal health risks. In both cases my request for public records resulted in a wait of weeks, rather than the typically required 5 days, for very simple public records and now the community is at risk of exposure to asbestos with still no answers.

Ralph Borrmann, a Public Information Office with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District told Action Alameda News, “A survey would consist of more than one hundred bore holes being drilled in the concrete. If the samples show more than 1% asbestos in the concrete, demolition of the building would not be allowed, and the building would become a regulated entity. They wouldn’t be able to implode the building with explosives nor could they recycle the concrete.” Mr. Borrmann advises the neighbors to “go to the owner and ask for a survey to be done.”

Determining who the “owner” of Oak Knoll is, since the project went into bankruptcy, has been problematic in the past, as SunCal has deflected all inquiries to the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the bankrupt Lehman Brothers entities. However, in an e-mail to Don Mitchell, Mosk wrote, “Please remember that SunCal is NOT Lehman. SunCal is the owner of the property and SunCal is charged with correct clean-up of the property. Lehman is not involved in the clean up in any way—it only provided the money.”

As Action Alameda News put this story to press, it wasn’t clear that any entity had committed to performing the asbestos survey that the Oak Knoll neighbors are insisting on.

Reviewing campaign filing statements for the 2010 Alameda municipal election, Action Alameda News identified a $1,000 contribution from “Neighbors for Russo” to Marie Gilmore’s mayoral campaign, and $500 contribution to Lena Tam’s campaign from the same source. “Neighbors for Russo” was the campaign committee supporting John Russo’s bid for Oakland City Attorney.

10 comments to John Russo’s SunCal Connection

  • Betty

    I knew SunCal wasn’t out of Alameda. For those of you who thought SunCal was gone….think again. We have a very corrupt goverment in Alameda. City Hall is a mess, most of the state is just laughing at us, Alameda is an embarassment.
    So March 21st is the soonest RECALL papers can be filed.

  • Barb

    I have been acquainted with John Russo as an attorney for at least 3 decades. He practiced real estate law and was chair of the Barristers (young lawyers) of the ACBA. He is one of the most ambitious persons one would ever meet. He cannot get along with Mayor Jean Quan so needs a new job at the public trough.

    He held a debate against the 2nd Amendment to the Bill of Rights (Right to Bear Arms). The NRA representative clearly out thought, out spoke, out manuevered John and won the debate. He is a bleeding heart liberal, and will work well with the Council in bringing back SUNCAL, with density exemptions for low income housing and no thought to traffic. He does not live in Alameda and will not give a crap about the quality of life he leaves when he moves on to his next trough

    What am I thinking? Brant is the same. This is a shameful slection from which to chose. Alameda is really screwed.

  • Vania

    If John Russo was a real estate lawyer, as Barb indicates, then he should understand the importance of all of the steps Don Mitchell outlines, in terms of demolition of an asbestos filled building.

    It’s really hard to understand why a “bleeding heart liberal” as a City Attorney would not:

    (1) insist that his client comply with the California Public Records Act, in terms of having the City Clerk send Mitchell a letter saying the documentation of asbestos testing in the city’s files simply doesn’t exist, and

    (2) do what it takes to make sure that Oakland’s residents are not exposed to airborne asbestos during the demolition of the old high rise hospital structure.

    The people of Oakland should be heaping praise on Don Mitchell, who has a construction background, for protecting them when the Oakland city employees fail to do so. Apparently Mr. Russo’s office is also helping City management hide another fiasco, where Oakland firefighters trained in asbestos filled old wooden buildings at Oak Knoll, since torn down, without being told about the asbestos and without wearing the appropriate equipment.

    City Managers are supposed to be supremely sophisticated managers, negotiators and deal makers. One certainly needs to ask what Mr. Russo would be doing, as Alameda City Manager, if a bankrupt entity was planning on blowing up an asbestos building in Alameda’s midst.

    As to the people of Alameda, I can only say that some lawyers are work horses and some are show horses. Being a lawyer is time consuming, difficult, detail filled work, which the show horses in the trade can’t or won’t do.

  • Barb

    Oh Vania, some are neither. I certainly wouldn’t expect Russo to take Best of Breed.

  • “One certainly needs to ask what Mr. Russo would be doing, as Alameda City Manager, if a bankrupt entity was planning on blowing up an asbestos building in Alameda’s midst.”

    Absolutely right. We’ve already had an asbestos-filled building burn down (the FISC fire), exposing us all to airborne, friable asbestos. The firefighters acted like they were at a wienie-roast, letting the fire burn for 19 hours (!) and wearing no protective gear. It’s as though the assumption of asbestos in old buildings – and it was used for everything – has vanished. Is it some kind of generational alzheimers? Mirchell is right-on about this, and we have every right to be alarmed about Russo. If you doubt, find a copy of the documentary about the mining of asbestos in Libby, Montana.

    Gotta say, I’m not even remotely surprised about Russo and the other candidate. The Sun-Cal 3 are going to sell us out in the most complete and irreversible way possible. They are soulless and smart. Will be kinda fun to watch JKW, Do and the other lackeys spin it as a positive. Will be even more fun to watch the people of Alameda revolt and toss out the scammers.

  • Anonymous

    What a lousy group to select from, if Russo and Brandt (2 more useless attorneys) are in the top 3. Shakespeare was right: “he first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
    William Shakespeare, King Henry VI Part 2.

  • Anonymous

    Does that include Barb?

  • smart voter

    Barb is a useful and good person in the community.

  • Anonymous

    Oakland insiders tell me he is lazy and lets his deputies do his work. If he brings this talent to Alameda it will show real fast.
    He’s being heavily criticized by civil right groups over his
    gang injunction in Oakland. Go to http//

  • […] What does John Russo have to offer?  A lengthy political career. Contributions to the majority voting bloc of Alameda City Council. Friends in high places. A history of helping SunCal, despite the hazards to the public. […]

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