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NA: Novatans’ loyalty to railroad authority questioned
Sunday 13 Apr 2008, 08:58
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad

Board members take verbal beating at Wednesday meeting of North Coast Railroad Authority

By Tim Omarzu
Managing Editor
Wednesday, April 9, 2008 6:34 PM PDT

Two Novatans appointed in October to the board of the state agency that’s trying to restore freight train service to the North Bay had their loyalty and motives questioned Wednesday afternoon at a heated public meeting at Petaluma’s community center.

Bernie Meyers and Tom MacDonald came under fire at the monthly meeting of the North Coast Railroad Authority, which is embroiled in a lawsuit with the city of Novato over the environmental documentation done for railroad track reconstruction, some of which is underway now.

At issue Wednesday was whether Meyers and MacDonald, who were appointed as Marin County’s representatives to the board, should be allowed to participate in closed-session meetings about the lawsuit.

After more than two hours of discussion and public comment, the board voted to ask the California Attorney General’s Office for its opinion on the matter — with Meyers and MacDonald casting the only dissenting votes.

But most of the roughly 40 people in the audience and the other board members present strongly suggested that Meyers’ and MacDonald’s involvement in closed-session meetings represented a conflict of interest — especially after a bombshell moment in which a copy of an October e-mail exchange between MacDonald and Novato City Manager Dan Keen was handed out at the meeting.

In it, MacDonald discussed a railroad authority meeting to approve a contract for repairs of railroad crossing signals.

“As I find out more I’ll keep you posted,” MacDonald promised in the e-mail, adding that he thought the railroad authority might be accelerating its repair schedule to beat the city’s attempt for a temporary restraining order.

Keen’s reply, which was cc’d to city attorney Jeff Walter, included the statements, “These signal contracts are potentially at the heart of our case. I’m talking with Jeff Walter later today and will begin discussions with him about arranging a briefing for you and Bernie.”

After the e-mail was circulated, audience member and freight rail supporter Barry Buckley, of Novato, called MacDonald a “collaborator” and urged him to resign.

Earlier in the meeting, MacDonald had said that he and Meyers had been singled out to sign what he described as a statement of loyalty to the railroad agency.

“That offends me to no end. One could even interpret it as a form of intimidation,” he said.

Once the e-mail exchange came to light, MacDonald said it was sent “a matter of days after I was appointed” and that “this was the end of the chain of comments.”

But Allan Hemphill, the chairman of the railroad authority board, added immediately afterward, “The document speaks for itself and we’ll let people draw their own conclusion.”

Other board members were harsher in statements prior to the e-mail coming to light.

“I think they both have a conflict of interest,” said David Colfax, of Mendocino County. “The fact of the matter is … this is a force on the board that serves a … concerted effortt keep this board from moving forward.”

Board member Bob Swanson said, “The Marin County reps have goals that are not conducive with ours — period.”

Eric Ziedrich, a railroad authority board member and Healdsburg city councilman, said that tenure of Meyers and MacDonald and their predecessors, Novatans Judy Arnold and Jim Leland, resulted in the board being “plagued with bad chemistry since last year.”

Meyers’ and MacDonald’s opponents on the board said that even the appearance of impropriety was reason enough for the Novatans to recuse themselves from closed-session discussions of the lawsuit.

Meyers appeared nonplussed by the criticism.

He faulted the railroad authority’s management for what he suggested was arbitrarily deciding not to post on its Web site something that Meyers had written. Meyers also cited a list of about a dozen problems that the railroad authority has, including, “We are head over heels in debt.”

In an interview following the meeting, Novato City Manager Dan Keen said there “is absolutely nothing inappropriate about that (e-mail).”

“I think the implication is there’s something that he’s revealing here that is illegal. That certainly doesn’t sound that way to me,” Keen said.

Keen said he’s never heard anything from a closed-door session of the railroad authority.

“Absolutely not. And they know that,” Keen said. “If a board member talked to me about something that they discussed in closed session and it wasn’t authorized to be discussed, that would be illegal.”

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