Contra Costa County begins counting Richmond anti-rent control petition signatures

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by Lynda Carson

Richmond – According to Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, on Oct. 5, Contra Costa County began counting signatures from the petition that blocked renter protections in Richmond from taking effect on Sept. 4, 2015. Those protections include rent control and evictions only on the showing of just cause.

“(T)o petition the government for a redress of grievances” is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But when it’s the rich who are aggrieved, a petition can pervert this right that lies at the heart of democracy. Many Richmond residents say they signed the California Apartment Association’s anti-rent control petition when signature gatherers misrepresented it as pro-rent control. – Photo: Dustin Michelson
“(T)o petition the government for a redress of grievances” is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But when it’s the rich who are aggrieved, a petition can pervert this right that lies at the heart of democracy. Many Richmond residents say they signed the California Apartment Association’s anti-rent control petition when signature gatherers misrepresented it as pro-rent control. – Photo: Dustin Michelson

When the petition was turned in Sept. 3, the California Apartment Association (CAA) announced that they were behind it. Now people in Richmond are anxiously waiting to find out if enough valid signatures were turned in.

Reportedly, Paul Olson of Olson and Associates, hired to find people to collect signatures for the petition, paid them $12.50 or more per signature. It appears Olson was paid by CAA, but my calls and emails to Olson asking for confirmation have not been returned.

In a statement on Oct. 6, Eileen Ray of Discovery Petition Management Co. in Sacramento stated that Paul Olson contacted Alex Arsenault of Somerville, Mass., to manage the petition drive for CAA. Arsenault set up an office in Richmond from March to September 2015 and hired two people to manage it. The office was used to manage several petition drives, including the anti-rent control petition of the CAA.

Apparently, Arsenault did not have a permit and he says he is not licensed either in Massachusetts or in California as a petition management company. Also, I could not track down an employee identification number for him.

He claims to be only a consultant, the sole proprietor of his signature gathering and petition management operations. He claims that he is not operating a business, even though he sets up similar operations to collect signatures for petitions in different parts of the country.

Contra Costa County began counting signatures from the petition that blocked renter protections in Richmond from taking effect on Sept. 4, 2015. Those protections include rent control and evictions only on the showing of just cause.

Arsenault also claims that Paul Olson paid him to run his operation in Richmond through Eileen Ray of Discovery Petition Management Co. in Sacramento.

A search of records with the Secretary of State does not turn up any records for Discovery Petition Management Co., which is run by Eileen Ray out of a three story house in Sacramento.

Ray claims that Olson hired Arsenault, even though Arsenault claims that Olson paid him through her to manage the petition drive in Richmond. Ray also claims that Olson hired Chris Brentlinger of Bay Area Petitions to collect signatures for the CAA’s anti-rent control petition in Richmond. Records show no listing for Bay Area Petitions in the state of California. Calls and emails sent to Brentlinger have not been returned.

Ray also stated that Olson is extremely angry at Therence James, a signature gatherer. James, an independent contractor collecting signatures for Arsenault, testified before the Richmond City Council that he was instructed to lie to people about the petition to trick them into signing it.

Ray stated: “If you are following up on a tip from Therence James or complaints he made to the Richmond City Council, I would suggest you find out more about him and the situation. Therence claims he was told by Alex to approach the public saying the rent control petition was in favor of rent control.

“That quite simply is not true and Alex has written proof that Therence was instructed to follow the talking points and signed a document stating that he would not misrepresent the petition. It is standard procedure to have circulators sign acknowledging the fact that they received and read a copy of the talking points.

“I believe Alex has a copy of the document that Therence signed stating very clearly that the petition was a referendum against the rent control ordinance passed by the City Council and that he promised to only approach voters saying exactly that. Since there is a document proving that Therence promised not to lie about the petition and since he stood up in front of the Richmond City Council and stated exactly the opposite, he has put himself in a position to deal with legal action.”

When the petition was turned in Sept. 3, the California Apartment Association (CAA) announced that they were behind it. Now people in Richmond are anxiously waiting to find out if enough valid signatures were turned in.

Numerous complaints have been made by Richmond residents claiming that they were told that the petition they were signing was in support of rent control and that they were tricked into signing it.

In what appeared to be an effort to assassinate his character, Eileen Ray stated that Therence James must have been self-medicating when he said he was told to lie about the petition. Then she added: “There probably were a lot of people who did not understand the petition, and there may have been a number of people who lied about the petition. Who knows what people are really saying out there when collecting signatures.”

Numerous complaints have been made by Richmond residents claiming that they were told that the petition they were signing was in support of rent control and that they were tricked into signing it.

“I want to be very clear about this,” Ray continued. “It is never in the best interests of any petition management company to have circulators misrepresenting the issues. And we try very hard to prevent that.

“We do have a tendency to give people who are willing to work a chance, and often it kicks back on us. In this case, it seems to be affecting people who weren’t even involved in the rent control petition or even in Richmond signatures drives.”

Alex Arsenault verified that Therence James worked with his office in Richmond but stated that he had problems with the quality of his work, which was below industry standards. Arsenault also said that around 20 people in total were involved with the petition blocking renter protections in Richmond. Eileen Ray stated that Arsenault hired around 30 to 40 people for the anti-rent control petition.

To summarize, Eileen Ray says Paul Olson was the principal involved in the petition to block rent control in Richmond and that Olson contacted her and Chris Brentlinger to get them involved in the petition drive. Eileen says she brought in Alex Arsenault.

“I want to be very clear about this,” Ray continued. “It is never in the best interests of any petition management company to have circulators misrepresenting the issues. And we try very hard to prevent that.”

Ray claims to be a subcontractor working for four major petition management companies in California. She says she pays around $6 per signature on petition drives. Arsenault says he started paying signature gatherers $6 per signature in Richmond, then raised it to $8. Eventually, he paid people as much as $12.50 per signature with money from Paul Olson that was paid through Ray.

David Spero was concerned about people blaming Pacific Petitions Inc., which is dissolved, for the mess that occurred with the Richmond anti-rent control petition – many people having claimed that signature gatherers lied to them to trick them into signing it.

According to Spero: “The consultant, whose name I don’t know, hired by the California Apartment Association hired Olson and Associates to coordinate the petition drive. They contracted with several petition companies to help them.

“Among those was Discovery Petition out of Sacramento and Bay Area Petitions out of Santa Cruz. Bay Area Petitions was who I turned my business over to more than five years ago. The owner of Discovery is Eileen Ray. The owner of Bay Area Petitions is Chris Brentlinger.”

“Discovery had two or three other petitions in Richmond – I think by some developer,” Spero continued. “They collected probably about 90 percent of the signatures on the anti-rent control effort.

“They brought in Alex Arsenault from Massachusetts to run their drive and I believe he brought in some folks from Massachusetts in addition to many other folks from outside the Bay Area. So when reporters ask them who they work for, they are not going to say, ‘I work for Alex from Mass.’ They are going to say something different – like conveniently a company that is no longer in existence.

“I wish I had been more ‘with it’ and had gone up to Richmond and gotten witnesses, and then I could have sued and gotten money and would have gladly split it with housing rights folks. On the Bay Area Petitions front, a couple of things:

“Chris Brentlinger is a lefty, but, unlike me, he believes in carrying every petition out there, even ones he strongly disagrees with, feeling that the petitioners can sort it out. And just about all of his petitioners didn’t work on it, because they live in the Bay Area and have some political feelings.

“Since taking over the business, Chris has occasionally hired me to help him out when I am in California. So occasionally, I have handled a few petitioner turn-ins. Due to work and stress load, Chris hired me to take a couple of turn-ins of petitioners’ signatures in September.

“There were four statewide petitions out: prescription drug prices, minimum wage and revenue bonds and also condoms on sex workers. Two of the petitioners handed in the Richmond petition with the statewides.”

People who need and fought for renter protections in Richmond are still holding on to hope that the petition will be challenged somehow or that there will not be enough valid signatures collected for the petition of the California Apartment Association to permanently block Richmond’s hard won renter protections.

Lynda Carson may be reached at tenantsrule@yahoo.com.

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