By Matier & Ross
January 14, 2018
The cost of keeping coal out of Oakland is burning through the city’s bank account.
City Attorney Barbara Parker has spent nearly $1.4 million for outside attorneys to defend the city in a breach-of-contract lawsuit brought by developer Phil Tagami, who was prevented by the city from carrying out plans to move millions of tons of coal a year through a shipping terminal he wants to develop on the old Oakland Army Base.
And the bills just keep on coming — the case hasn’t even gone to trial yet.
Records provided by Parker’s office show that payments have been made to four law firms, with the bulk — $1.2 million — going to Burke, Williams & Sorensen. Its lead attorney, Kevin Siegel, is himself a former Oakland deputy city attorney.
“When we are up against high-priced law firms spending on the other side, we can’t just use second-tier lawyers for our side,” said Councilman Dan Kalb, who is among those battling to keep coal processing out of Oakland. “Not that we are using the most expensive we can get, but they are very good lawyers and not necessarily cheap.”
The fight dates back to 2013, when Tagami — a friend of and longtime fundraiser for Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Oakland mayor — won the city’s blessing to build a $250 million bulk cargo terminal on the old Army base.
Despite his assurances that he had no plans to handle coal, Tagami secured a deal in 2015 to move up to 10 million tons of it annually through the terminal. The coal would be shipped by rail from Utah, loaded onto ships and sent off to Asia, making Oakland the top coal exporter on the West Coast.
That brought howls from City Hall and environmental and social justice groups opposed both to Oakland having anything to do with coal, a big source of greenhouse gas emissions, and to the parade of coal trains that would add to air pollution in West Oakland.
“It’s sad he has gone against his word,” Kalb said. “He told me in 2013 that climate change was the primary issue of the day, and he would never let coal come through his facility.”
Tagami refused to back down, saying the agreement he struck with the city did not include a prohibition on coal. So the City Council voted in July 2016 to outlaw any coal handling or storage within city limits.
Tagami sued, claiming breach of contract and city interference with interstate commerce.
Besides Burke, Williams & Sorensen, Oakland has retained the law firms Holland & Knight ($110,760); Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell ($46,496); and Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger ($5,730).
We’ll see how they’re doing starting Tuesday, when the trial is scheduled to begin in federal court in San Francisco.