The tech billionaires who hid behind anonymity and nondisclosure agreements for six years as they bought 62,000 acres of land in Northern California to build some sort of utopian city have learned a lesson about the importance of trust.
The lesson came Monday night when the Rio Vista City Council in Solano County considered a request for a conflict of interest waiver filed by the law firm that represented the community for more than a decade.
Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann and Girard also wanted to represent the land-grabbing billionaire corporation that recently changed its name from the more sober Flannery Associates to the ridiculously sunny California Forever.
In a covering letter, the law firm said that California Forever had asked it to “regulate and document the availability of an adequate long-term water supply for one or more potential future mixed-use community development projects to be proposed in Solano County.” The letter assured the city that the company would protect “confidential information of California Forever and confidential information of Rio Vista” through an “ethical review.”
That promise didn’t last with a number of residents, who said during the meeting’s public comment session that California Forever — which is backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, Reid Hoffman and Marc Andreessen, among others — had already shown a lack of ethics.
“Flannery is acting unethically. I think the way they behaved shows and reminds us that the end does not justify the means,” said 22-year-old Aiden Mayhood, whose family has farmed in the area for seven generations.
Jeanne McCormack, whose family has farmed in the Montezuma Hills area adjacent to the city since 1896, summed up in a single word what seems to be the prevailing opinion about this young company that is so arrogant that it is itself Called “California Forever”.
“Difficult,” she told the city council.
McCormack and her husband, Al Medvitz, had previously transferred development rights to their land to the conservation nonprofit Solano Land Trust, freeing them from any pressure to sell. But she has a deep emotional connection not only to the land on which she and her husband work, but also to her fellow farmers. They had depended on each other for a long time, and she was horrified to see one family in particular torn apart by California Forever’s seemingly deliberate attempt to turn those who want to sell against those who refuse.
“These are not people who do business like us,” she said. “No empathy. No respect.”
Medvitz also addressed the council, saying: “Now I want to make it clear. Ethics is different than legality. Things can be legal but unethical.”
Before the meeting, he told The Daily Beast that California Forever had launched a “major PR attack” with media interviews and an online portrayal of an idyllic, “walkable” town. He noted that at the same time, the company continued to use the New York-based multinational law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to advance a $550 million lawsuit against some of the county’s most respected farmers, in which they were accused alleges that the reluctance to sell was an illegal conspiracy to get more money out of the company. Medvitz knows the farmers and says the lawsuit is an attempt to harass them. McCormack spoke of a farmer who had hoped to pass on his farm pass to his grandson, but now wonders whether he will ultimately be forced to sell it.
One question raised by several speakers at Monday’s meeting was why CaliforniaForever didn’t simply use the same large law firm, but instead sought to retain the local law firm used by the city. Medvitz suggested an answer.
“Flannery is now trying to not only get involved in local politics, but also [also] in the management of the city – city resources,” he told The Daily Beast.
A speaker at the meeting noted that the letter from the city’s attorney’s office requesting the waiver contained some new information about California Forever. It states that an attached map shows approximately 50,000 acres of property as of a few weeks ago, but that the company has actually “acquired and is under contract to acquire approximately 62,000 acres in Solano County.”
That meant the company, which did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment, continued to gobble up even more land in a way that makes talk of an ethical curtain seem ridiculous. Each of a dozen speakers who made public statements Monday spoke against the waiver. And the city council voted unanimously 5-0 to reject it.
The power of mega-money had been defeated, at least for now, by simple decency.