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Island Talkback: Jeff Cambra on Consensus Building 101

Submitted by on 1, September 17, 2010 – 5:00 am25 Comments

By Jeff Cambra

While I had not planned on addressing specific comments from my September 3 announcement regarding the Alameda Business Alliance and the attempt to build a consensus regarding a new parcel tax, a number of thoughtful questions were raised.


“j cloren” asked about my credentials, if I had any major successes, and what I brought to the table. All very fair questions.

I have experience as a hearing officer, a small claims court pro tem judge, mediating hundreds of community disputes, and representing clients in numerous litigation mediations. My mediation and facilitation training consists of attendance at the following workshops, seminars, and certificated programs: 40 Hour Community Mediation Training, SEEDS Community Resolution Center, Berkeley; Ron Kelly, 40 hour Business Mediation Skills Training, Berkeley; Basic Facilitation Training, Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, San Mateo; Sara Fisk, Ph.D., Group Facilitation Skills, Community at Work, San Francisco.

As for what I bring to the table? A strong belief in the community mediation process as a way of resolving differences and enough optimism to think it might work here.

Anonymous Transparency?

People are naturally suspicious of anonymous groups and in reading the comments on my article, I see there are a number of people who want to know: Who is in the Alameda Business Alliance?

Communication and education are the keys to building consensus within any group and among various stakeholder groups. Listening, understanding, and considering other views can create new perspectives. Any impairment to the free communication between individual or group stakeholders can derail the consensus process.

In the context of the business community and a parcel tax, the 500-pound gorilla in the room is fear of retaliation through a rogue boycott. While it is clear that the school district and the organizers and supporters of any parcel tax campaign would never suggest or condone such a tactic, I have read the e-mails on parent networks and received by a business association which clearly indicate these authors would not support that business and would tell others not to do so if the business did not unconditionally support the parcel tax regardless of the financial impact on that business.

Caucusing (private, confidential discussions) is a technique mediators use to create safe environments where individuals can communicate their concerns, describe impacts, voice objections, and offer solutions to the mediator. Without caucusing, there can be no consensus building, because the various stakeholders never communicate their views to the other stakeholders. In the worst case scenario, stakeholders with similar interests send conflicting messages and solutions that actually harm other similarly situated groups.

So, how does a mediator balance the need for group confidentiality in order to further dialogue between stakeholders and address the legitimate public concern about knowing who is involved? To the extent possible and being mindful of a mediator’s duty of confidentiality, a mediator’s report can be generated that provides the substance of the discussions without disclosing the individual or group responsible.

Based on my experience, it is not the decision that is paramount, but rather the principles and rationale that guided the discussion which led to the decision. The six principles introduced in my earlier piece will be used as a foundation for discussions with the school district and other stakeholders. Another set of principles will be developed that will guide the discussion on what structure and tax rate would be acceptable to the group.

The new parcel tax structure principles can be released as part of a mediator’s report along with the highlights of any discussion that led to certain decisions. This way, the decision making process is transparent and confidentiality can be respected among the parties. Of course, the process works best when all the stakeholders are in the room.

To this end, if you or your association are part of a business stakeholder group, have an interest in the next parcel tax, and want to hear what other business interests are saying, I invite you to contact me through The Island. All contacts remain confidential.

Alameda Towne Centre

Finally, there seemed to be a lot of interest in Alameda Towne Centre, the number of parcels that make up the shopping area, and how much it pays in parcel tax. Towne Centre is on 15 parcels. One fact that seems to be absent from the discussion is the fact that Towne Centre is not one business. All of the tenants at Towne Centre are on triple-net leases, which means that whatever the parcel tax is, the charge is apportioned and passed on directly to the smaller as well as larger businesses within the center. In sharp contrast, there are several very large-parcel marinas that have only one business on the land, and they do not have the ability to distribute the tax among tenants.

Thank you all for your comments and views. I appreciate you contribution to the dialogue.

Got something to say? Then Talk Back. Send us your two cents at michele@theislandofalameda.com.


  • Alamama says:


    While I admire your effort to reach consensus within certain elements of the business community and have no problem with the members of ABA remaining confidential as you try to reach that consensus, I have two serious concerns about where you are headed.

    First, I am concerned that ABA is not engaging the other stakeholders and will come up with a “solution” that works for them but is not workable either financially for the District or politically for the voters. I can easily foresee a scenario where ABA comes up with a proposal that does not raise enough revenue for the District or is structured in a manner that most voters simply won’t find acceptable. For example, I have heard that some members of the business community (I obviously don’t know if they are ABA members) have been proposing a tax based on parcel square footage because they think that’s “fair” but they will oppose a tax based on building square footage. I suspect that many homeowners and some other business owners will disagree. (Compare, for instance, large expensive houses on small lots in Harbor Bay and Bayport with tiny less valuable houses on huge lots in other parts of Alameda.) Those voters would likely prefer a tax based on building square footage. If ABA comes up with a proposal that works for them, but can’t pass because it isn’t acceptable to most voters or won’t raise enough revenue for the District, then what you are doing is, at best, an exercise in futility, and is, at worst, an effort to legitimize what is really opposition to the next parcel tax.

    The solution, in my opinion, is to have the entire community come together to reach a consensus. While I think it’s fine for you to attempt to work with one segment of the community, I think the best forum for reaching consensus in the entire community is through the community input process planned by the District. I have heard rumors that ABA does not plan to engage in that process — which, if true, will make me question whether they are really acting in good faith. I hope that what I have heard is wrong, and I strongly encourage ABA to engage with the entire community, through the District’s process, to reach a resolution for our school funding crisis.

    Second, when ABA makes its proposal to the community, its members need to come clean and reveal who they are. If they are truly working to find a solution for our schools and our community, they have nothing to fear by telling the community who they are. On the contrary, I know my family and many others go out of their way to support businesses that support our schools, so if they have a proposal that they believe we can all support and that will provide an adequate funding solution for our schools, then they have no reason to fear reprisals. They should be proud to say they are supporting our schools. The only reason for maintaining anonymity after the proposal is presented would be if they knew they were going to oppose any “solution” but their own. If ABA wants the community to believe that ABA has a legitimate and good faith voice in this process, the community needs to know who they are. Otherwise, their voice will be diminished or they will be viewed as people who are just trying to legitimize opposition to any parcel tax.

    I sincerely hope that my skepticism and concerns are unfounded and that this process will lead to a positive solution for our schools and our community. If it does, I’ll be the first in line to patronize any business that’s affiliated with the ABA.

  • Michael Corbitt says:

    I did want to clarify that we actually have 15 ( not 14 ) tax parcels at Alameda Towne Centre.
    I’m not sure who is part of the Alameda Business Alliance ( we are not ) and that really doesn’t concern me.I have worked with Jeff on Bike Alameda projects and a couple of other community based events and he is a very honorable guy with nothing personally to gain here other than helping out the community where he lives.

    Mike Corbitt
    General Manager
    Alameda Towne Centre

  • Hey Mike,

    Thanks for clarifying on the parcels, that was actually my error (Jeff had 15 and I had seen 14 on the tax rolls earlier).

  • Suzanne Lindsey says:

    How does one join the Alameda Business Alliance? Invitation, open to all?

  • David Howard says:


    A while back, you talked about posting your detailed parcel data that included the Alameda Towne Centre properties. Did you ever do that? Did I miss it?

    About ABA. I have met with Jeff Cambra to discuss this, and I have discussed ABA with the Alamedans for Fair Taxation group at length. And I have seen their (AFT) detailed parcel tax database. Note that I have not seen a similar database from AUSD to support their contention that there is only 104 million sq ft of taxable land in Alameda.

    I think I can safely say the following:

    o Alamedans for Fair Taxation (AFT) is NOT a part of Jeff Cambra’s ABA.

    o AFT is prepared to support the schools with a tax that fairly treats all property owners. One of the most important things is the removal of a cap, which results in low tax-rates (measured by $/sq foot) for owners of larger properties. Removal of the split-roll – different tax rates for different classes of property – is another important issue.

    o AFT is leaning in the direction of a tax based on some dollar amount per square foot of parcel size, premised on the idea that parcel sizes roughly correlate to ability to pay. This makes for a progressive tax, and it amounts to a proxy for an ad valorem tax, which is prohibited by prop 13.

    o It looks that a tax could be structured to also tax business owners who lease space from from the City of Alameda, such as businesses in the City-owned Theater Complex, through the principle of “posessory interest.”

    This could very likely extend also to businesses leasing space at Alameda Point – another 40 to 50 million square feet of land mass. Everyone should pay their fair share.

    Currently, businesses that lease from the City don’t pay school parcel taxes, ergo, they are free to support the measures, because they don’t have to pay. Look up “private interests in public lands,” here: http://www.boe.ca.gov/proptaxes/pdf/pub29.pdf

    o Based on the AFT data that I have seen, it seems unlikely that a tax based on square footage of improvements would work. Because Alameda doesn’t have much vertical space (i.e. tall buildings), the per sq. ft. tax rate under a building improvements scheme would need to be un-supportably high to generate enough revenue for AUSD.

    o I’m hearing rumors that AUSD needs $19 million to $20 million per year to maintain the status quo. It’s unlikely that any tax, under any structure, generating $20 million per year would pass within the next year, given how high the tax amount would have to be, and the economic environment.

    The reality is that there are very likely structural changes in our school system coming over the next two years, even if a parcel tax passes in March. The District is likely to lose the Singleton campus out of not being able to pay the water bills the Navy wants to pass on to them. AUSD has physical plant (i.e. some 17 school campuses) that apparently needs $20 million per year in parcel taxes that are very likely not forthcoming.

    AFT has published some more on their current working-alternative here: http://www.facebook.com/notes.php?id=106123866085137&notes_tab=app_2347471856#!/note.php?note_id=154193894600556

    • Hey David,

      You’re correct, I have not yet posted that data. I am putting together a separate piece around that info and will post when that piece is up. In the meantime, anyone operating on a more aggressive time frame can get a lot of that same info from the county assessor’s office. They’ll sell you a CD listing every property address, APN and I think assessment in Alameda County (it’s in a pile of papers around here somewhere) for $20.

      And you’re right, I have also heard the $19 million figure. Which is like a quarter of the district’s budget. So are you feeling like the district should be asking for a bigger parcel tax, making more cuts, that some serious fundraising should be done, or some combination of those (or something else)?

  • David Howard says:

    I should add… “split roll” has different meanings

    1) different tax rates for different classes of property. e.g. 5 cents/sq foot for residential, and 10 cents/sq foot for commercial.

    2) different tax methods for different classes of property. e.g. $120/parcel for residential, and 15 cents/sq foot for commercial.

    #2 is more egregious, and the problem is doubly compounded when a cap is added, meaning that after a certain size parcel, the actual cents/sq foot goes down with each additional sq foot of parcel size. This amounts to a regressive tax break for the wealthy. (i.e. large property owners.)

  • David Howard says:

    My personal belief is that the district has long overdue cost reduction actions to take. Some of which they should have started already – e.g. temporary pay reductions for the administrative staff, and temporary pay cuts for the unionized employees. (They should have started negotiations on the latter last year in June, when they recognized they would need a new parcel tax.)

    The average teacher in AUSD makes $50 to $60/hour if you assume a 5 hour teaching day, and 2 hours of prep time. How many readers make $50 to $60/hour?

    I also don’t believe that the District can justify maintaining the 17 school campuses they have. Just looking at the elementary schools, the smallest elementary school, by capacity, not enrollment, is less than half the size of the largest school.

    If closing an elementary school can save $307,000/year uniformly, across all schools, than the smallest schools cost more on a per-seat basis, and are therefore more expensive to operate, and ripe for consolidation.

    It’s not fair that the District should ask parents in attendance zones with large schools to continue subsidizing the parents in attendance zones with smaller, more expensive schools.

    As you so astutely noted in your article about Tuesday’s meeting, Michele, enrollment is declining at Washington Elementary – a mid-size capacity school – because the District shifts classes to other schools with smaller capacity.

    The school campuses need to be evaluated on their capacity – seat counts – to hold kids, not on their current enrollment, which may or may not be representative of their capacity.

    I also believe the District should stop using out-of-district students – their parents don’t pay the parcel tax – to artificially inflate enrollment at the mid to large size schools in order to justify keeping the smallest, most expensive, schools open.

  • David Howard says:

    Michele – I checked with a source that did indeed buy the $20 CD from the County. I was told that it does not contain the parcel or building improvements sq ft for the lots.

    That bit of information is obviously critical in evaluating the potential of a parcel size sq/ft or improvements sq/ft tax to generate AUSD’s revenue target.

    Does your dataset that you plan to post include the size, in square feet, of the lots?

    One of Alameda Towne Centre’s 15 parcels is 1.7 million square feet. At the $9,500 cap, they pay an effective rate of 1/2 cent per square foot, and not the nominal rate of 15 cents per square foot. Do they deserve that break? Especially since they have so many revenue generating tenants to pass the tax on to?


  • David Howard says:

    According to the sales tax report to be presented to Alameda City Council next week:


    Alameda Towne Center is host to 9 of the top 25 producers of retail sales tax in Alameda. Here they are, from the City’s report:

    Safeway Fuel Center
    Sushi House
    TJ maxx
    Trader Joes
    Bed Bath & Beyond

    Alameda Towne Center generates over $1 million in retail sales tax each hear. (1Q 2010 figures annualized. Q4, the Christmas quarter is probably much higher than Q1, the annual figure is likely much higher.)

    The City’s share of sales tax revenue is about 1%. So over $1 million in sales tax to the City courtesy of ATC translates to over $100 million in annual sales at Alameda Towne Center. Clearly the money is there for them to afford to pay more in school parcel tax.

    Mike Corbitt has asserted that he and ATC have never asked the District for a favor in the way of a $9,500 tax cap. I believe him. Yet the District routinely provides one in every proposed parcel tax measure. Why is that?

    • David,

      So are you saying that a business like one of the locally-owned marinas in town, which is sitting on more than a million square feet, shouldn’t get the same “favor”? I think asserting that Towne Centre is getting a “favor” pushes some emotional buttons, but conveniently ignores some of the real impacts that taking an across-the-board approach could have. These are the Solomonic issues that I think the Parcel Tax Advisory Group faced, that I think the business alliance is attempting to face, that the school district will be asking the interested public to discuss in its upcoming parcel tax forums on Tuesday and in October.

  • j cloren says:


    The credential’s seem a little meager, were you first in any of your classes? Ever receive any prestigious awards?

    J Cloren

  • David Howard says:

    No, I did not say that. What made you think I was implying that?

    I’m saying that nobody should get any favors. Certainly, nobody is giving ME any preferential treatment when it comes to taxation.

    We have a progressive income tax structure in this country – if you earn more, you pay a higher tax rate.

    Food and basics don’t have sales tax applied – to do so would be regressive, because everyone, rich or poor, has to buy food, and taxing food sales would unduly place a burden on the poor, who spend a greater percentage of their income on food, and have less discretionary income.

    Alameda residents generally have this sort of progressive slant – the thinking goes that if you have greater ability to pay, you should.

    Larger parcel sizes have greater income earning capacity, therefore greater capacity to pay.

    Bridgeside Center, where Nob Hill Farms is located, generates about $46,000 per year in retail sales tax for the City, which translates to about $4.6 million in retail sales. Assuming that consists entirely of one parcel (I haven’t checked) – should they be capped too, despite their ability to pay.

    What, precisely and concisely, is the cogent argument to protect property owners with greater ability to pay from paying more?

    Aside from all of that, the cap allows gaming of the system. Anyone with 2 or more parcels is tempted to collapse those parcels into larger and larger parcels until they have big parcels that are capped-out. That’s not right either. (H have heard rumor of at least one example of that.)

  • David Howard says:

    pardon me. That $46,000/year for Bridgeside center was a quarterly figure, not an annual figure. Bridgeside genrates about $184,000 per year in retail sales tax for the City, or $18.4 million in annual sales.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    David Howard “assumes” that “The average teacher in AUSD makes $50 to $60/hour if you assume a 5 hour teaching day, and 2 hours of prep time. How many readers make $50 to $60/hour?”

    His claim is false and misleading on its face.

    Public school teachers start their work days 1-2 hours before their students arrive and finish working 2-4 hours after their last student leaves. And they usually work evenings and weekends to develop lesson plans, correct and grade tests, read essays, buy supplies (out of their own pockets because the school district no longer pays for them), attend meetings, and attend required continuing education classes (for which they are often not reimbursed).

    His erroneous claim of a $50-$60 hourly pay rate is grossly misleading, especially since he *must* know better. Why does he insult public and school teachers by spreading a lie like this?

  • Leland Traiman says:

    The City of Alameda Planning Department showed me that, excluding the businesses along Otis, Towne Centre is one parcel of 1,740,532 square feet. That parcel pays the maximum parcel tax of $9,500 which equals approximately 1/2 penny per square foot. Small businesses pay 15 cents per square foot, which is 30 times the rate of Towne Centre.

    • Leland,

      Just to clarify, Towne Centre may very well have a parcel of that size, but tax records show that the shopping center is comprised of more parcels than that. And I think you are exactly at the heart of the main issue businesses are facing when they discuss this as a single community – the rate of taxation based on the size of one’s property. Roughly one out of every eight commercial parcels in Alameda hits the cap. To your knowledge (and I know you designed Berkeley’s library tax), would the school district be allowed to pick and choose among those to tax each at different rates? Or would there be a way to set a cap that, in your estimation, would be more fair?

  • Michele Kuttner says:

    I make $50-$60 an hour?? I only have to work 5 hours? Who knew? Thanks Dave Howard! That makes me feel much better about the fact that my first paycheck of the school year was $100 less than my last one. I feel so much better! Gotta get back to my Saturday morning lesson planning, catching up on parent email communication and grading papers.

    • Hey Michele,

      Thanks for weighing in. Would you be willing to talk to folks a little bit more about what your schedule looks like, and why you saw your pay decrease (I didn’t know if it was the furlough days, if teachers are not getting their step-and-column raises this year or some combination of those). I think that would be helpful.

  • Mark Irons says:

    David Howard,

    You appear to have absolutely no idea what you are talking about with regard to the hours Alameda teachers, or teachers in general spend per day. The five hour figure is utterly preposterous and an insult next to the facts. There is far more to the job than time with students in the classroom. If you actual do have an idea of the hours spent by teachers, which I suspect is the case, then you are simply a liar. Walk the halls of Alameda High at 4:30 pm and see how many teachers are still with students. Walk the halls again at six and see that there are still teachers in their class rooms. What you can’t see is all the time teachers spend away from the classroom in preparation and correcting papers. I can have a civil discussion based on facts, but I have no respect for your arrogant opinions based in some make believe reality you conger to justify your personal credo, which appears to be some mutated libertarian philosophy about YOU come first in all issues. Just because teachers are public employees, does not mean there is justification to “temporarily” cut their salaries because the state has cut our funding off at the knees. By standards of “professional” salaries in general, teachers, who are certainly professional, are underpaid to begin with and putting the burden of the short fall on them is unfair.

  • David Howard says:

    Michele – you keep missing the point, as does the District, who cannot talk about a per parcel square foot tax without introducing a cap.

    The way to set a per parcel per square foot with a cap that is more fair…. is to NOT have a cap on it!

    As I have said – the District has NOT documented in detail how they arrive at 104 million square feet of taxable land in Alameda. So their proposed rate of 12 to 14 cents per square foot is probably still too high.

    I have seen the AFT detailed parcel database, and it looks like there is more on the order of 200 million to 250 million square feet of taxable land in Alameda.

    Businesses like Burgermeister, that rent City-owned property, and businesses that lease space from the Navy/City at Alameda Point, can be taxed via the principle of possessory interest, which increases the total of taxable area. The District has not even considered this. As it is now, those businesses are not taxed at all – and that’s unfair to businesses just around the corner that are taxed.

    At that square footage, the per-square foot tax rate, without a cap, would be well under 10 cents per square foot.

    As for teacher’s salaries, teachers work only 185 days of the year. 7 hours per day, times 185 = 1,295 According to the District, the average salary with benefits is $87,890. $87,890 / 1,295 = $67.87 / hour

    (The District says that elementary school teachers get 180 minutes or 3 hours of staffed prep time per week.)


    Anyone else working year-round, 52 weeks per year, 7 days a week, 2,080 hours per year at $67.87/hour would be earning $141,000/year (including benefits.)

    It’s interesting that the District didn’t include the District staff’s average salaries in their presentation.

    • David,

      Fair, enough, let’s talk about that, then. Can you tell us a little bit about how AFT arrived at a figure of 200 million to 250 million square feet of taxable land here in Alameda (and which number is closer – that’s a pretty big swing) and what, if any, sense you have as to why there is such a huge gulf between the district’s number and yours? I seem to recall there being an issue with condos being double-counted, which was apparently at least part of the discrepancy. In the meantime, I know I spoke with someone at the district about this recently (since the county doesn’t have a number and it was going to cost some serious cabbage to calculate it) and am trying to track down the notes. I’d really like to get some sort of answer on this.

      In the meantime, the median teacher salary for 2008-09 was $65,227 (though I think it may be a little less now with the furlough days, based on what Michele K said earlier). That figure is up on the district’s website:


      Scroll down to the Measure H report and download that, it’s on the last page.

    • David,

      To follow up – I just looked at the district’s PowerPoint for Tuesday’s parcel tax meet at Kofman Auditorium. Looks like they are considering building and lot per-square-foot charges – with and without a cap. The PowerPoint also lays out that salary data you were looking for, and answers some of the questions about parcel taxes that have been floating around the community these past few years. The presentation is here:


      More to come.

  • David Howard says:

    I have a detailed parcel file from aft. Do you have the same from ausd?

  • Michele Kuttner says:

    “Hey Michele,

    Thanks for weighing in. Would you be willing to talk to folks a little bit more about what your schedule looks like, and why you saw your pay decrease (I didn’t know if it was the furlough days, if teachers are not getting their step-and-column raises this year or some combination of those). I think that would be helpful.”

    Hi back, Michele-
    I teach at the elementary level which means we get 3 hours per week of teacher prep plus one hour of common prep mid-week to collaborate at grade level. I don’t get where David Howard got the notion that we work a 5 hour day plus 2 hours prep. Even if I did start work when the kids arrive at 8:20 and leave with them that would be about 6 1/2 hours minus our 40 minute lunch period. I’m a teacher, not a primary school student so my schedule looks more like this: I arrive around 7 a.m. and get some work done or meet with parents. The day continues on with a of couple bathroom breaks unless I have yard duty or it’s raining. I also get a 40 minute “duty free” lunch which I often choose to spend with students because I sponsor a school club, grading papers or in a meeting. The kids leave by 3 so, if I don’t have a staff meeting or parent conference, I can get my work done for the next day and hopefully a bit beyond. I’m trying to get better about staying so late this year so I’ve lately managed to get myself out of the parking lot by 5:00. The parking lot is far from empty when I go.

    The pay decrease was due to the 8 furlough days for all district employees. I did move up another year on the pay scale but even with that step and column increase my colleagues and I are bringing home $100-200 less per month.

    No complaints, just some facts. I absolutely adore my job.

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