PINOLE -- The City Council took a beating from angry residents this week over its handling of a lease with Verizon Wireless to build a cellphone tower in Pinole Valley Park.
During a five-hour special workshop Wednesday, more than a dozen public speakers accused the council and city staff of keeping them in the dark during the three years or so that a deal was in the making. The officials sat mostly stone-faced as resident Julie Maier, saying she was "angry and disappointed," chastised them for not nixing the idea of a cellphone tower in the park from the get-go, when it came up at a finance subcommittee meeting in 2010.
Maier then took the council to task for flip-flopping earlier this year by first voting down, then reconsidering, and finally approving a lease with Verizon for a 1,000-square-foot parcel along Adobe Road in the eastern section of the park for up to 25 years, starting at $2,200 a month.
"The citizens spoke, but it didn't matter," Maier said, striking a theme that pervaded the meeting. Several residents chided the council for caving to Verizon's "bullying." Others questioned officials' priorities.
"I see the council has stood up for corporations ... rather than thinking about the impact on residents and community members," resident Amy Thompson said.
On June 18, the council rejected the lease 4-1, with Roy Swearingen casting the only vote in favor. Two weeks later, when Verizon threatened to sue the city, asserting it already had a valid lease, the council voted 4-1 to reconsider; Phil Green dissented. Then on July 16, the council approved the lease on a 3-2 vote, with Green and Mayor Debbie Long voting no.
City Manager Belinda Espinosa had signed a lease with Verizon in December, saying she believed she had received council authorization in closed session on Feb. 21, 2012, and that the council had to ratify a lease for it to be valid. In January, Espinosa filed a memorandum with the Contra Costa County Recorder acknowledging the lease, which was still unratified.
Long has said the council did not authorize Espinosa to sign a lease, just to "look at deal points." Councilman Peter Murray, who was mayor in February 2012, said the staff had been told to go forward with negotiations and that the subsequent signing was understandable, and that a lease would not be valid until ratified.
There was no announcement related to the Verizon lease issue out of the Feb. 21, 2012, closed session. City Attorney Ben Reyes said Wednesday there was no violation of the Brown Act because "negotiations were not final and thus reporting was not required."
Residents' opposition to a cellphone tower has been based largely on fear of possible health effects of electromagnetic waves as well as fire danger and aesthetic concerns. Their hopes got a boost recently after resident Sal Spataro said he talked to state officials and learned the city had received numerous grants of state and federal money for Pinole Valley Park since the 1970s that precluded commercial uses.
"That is now a red flag," Espinosa said Wednesday. Long told Spataro, "You may have opened a Pandora's box."
Pinole officials are investigating.
A Native American rights activist, Michael Raccoon Eyes Kinney, pointing to a 1970s archaeological map that shows two areas of historic interest near the proposed cell tower site, questioned whether it was ever studied for the possible presence of cultural resources. Planning Manager Winston Rhodes said he doubts there are any, given topography and the proximity of Pinole Creek.
The creek, however, runs through or near the areas of historic interest.
At the close of the meeting, council members and Espinosa apologized for the fiasco, pledging to review procedures and do a better job of keeping residents informed.