The tech billionaires who hid behind anonymity and nondisclosure agreements for six years while buying 62,000 acres in northern California to build some kind of utopian city have received a lesson in the importance of trust.
The lesson came on Monday evening as the Rio Vista City Council in Solano County considered an application for a conflict of interest waiver submitted by the law firm that represented the municipality for more than a decade.
Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann, and Girard was seeking to also represent the land-grabbing billionaires’ concern, which recently changed its name from the staidly generic Flannery Associates to the laughably sunny California Forever.
In an accompanying letter, the law firm said California Forever asked it to “arrange 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 firm would protect “confidential California Forever information and confidential Rio Vista information” with an “ethical screen.”
That promise did not fly with a succession of local residents, who said during the public comment session of the meeting that California Forever—which is backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, Reid Hoffman, and Marc Andreessen, among others —had already demonstrated a lack of ethics.
“Flannery acts unethically. I believe the way they have conducted themselves shows and reminds us that the ends don’t 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 adjoining the city since 1896, summed up with a single word what appears to be the prevailing view of this newcomer company so arrogant as to call itself California Forever.
“Tricky,” she told the city council.
McCormack and her husband, Al Medvitz, had previously consigned development rights for their land to the non-profit conservation organization Solano Land Trust, so they have been spared any pressure to sell. But she has a deep emotional connection not just to the land she and her husband work, but to her fellow farmers. They have long depended on each other, and she has been horrified to see one family in particular shattered by what seemed to be a deliberate effort by California Forever to turn those who want to sell against those who refuse.
“These are not people who deal in business the way we do,” 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.”
He told The Daily Beast before the meeting that California Forever has been mounting “a big PR assault” with media interviews and an online rendering of an idyllic “walkable” city. He noted that the company was at the same time continuing to use the New York-headquartered multinational law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to press ahead with a $550 million lawsuit against some of the county’s most respected farmers, charging that their reluctance to sell was an illegal conspiracy to squeeze more money out of the company. Medvitz knows the farmers and says the suit is an effort to bully them. McCormack spoke of one farmer who had hoped to pass his farm on to his grandson but now wonders if he will end up being forced to sell it.
One question posed by several speakers at Monday’s meeting was why California Forever was not just using the same big-shot law firm but is instead trying to retain the local one used by the city. Medvitz suggested an answer.
“Flannery is now trying to insinuate itself not just into local politics, but [also] in the administration of the city—city resources,” he told The Daily Beast.
One speaker at the meeting noted that the letter from the city’s law firm seeking the waiver offered a bit of new information regarding California Forever. It says that an enclosed map shows holdings of approximately 50,000 acres as of a few weeks ago, but 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, has continued to gobble up even more land in a way that makes talk of an ethical curtain seem ludicrous. Every one of a dozen speakers who offered public comment on Monday spoke against the waiver. And the city council was in unanimous agreement, voting 5-0 to reject it.
The power of mega money had been defeated by simple decency, at least for now.