Saturday, January 31, 2015

UPDATE: Suspect in San Francisco Development Fund Embezzlement is (now no longer?) Missing


A senior official at the Association of Bay Area Governments is under scrutiny for allegedly orchestrating the theft of $1.3 million in bond money that was meant for public parks and street improvements in the South of Market neighborhood. 
The office of San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and law enforcement officials have zeroed in on Clarke Howatt, ABAG’s public finance director and a 20-year veteran of the agency, multiple sources confirm. 
Howatt, who was scheduled to attend a conference in New York this week, has not returned phone calls or e-mails, said ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport. Howatt was slated to return to work Thursday, but did not.

“He has been out of communication,” Rapport said.


New Update:

Howatt, who was scheduled to be in New York at a conference this week, has hired a defense attorney, Mary McNamara. She could not be reached for comment. His daughter, reached by telephone Friday, would not comment on Howatt or where he might be. 
Paul said Howatt wrote in his resignation letter that “I will make every attempt to get the funds restored” and “I’ll try my best to get the money replaced as soon as I can.” 

Friday, January 30, 2015

也许是要建运河,水必须先流 (perhaps for the canal to be built, the water must flow first)

(Tico Times)
(水到渠成: shuǐ dào qú chéng: literally, where water flows, a canal is formed; fig. when conditions are right, success will follow naturally.)
Work has formally begun on the controversial $50-billion Nicaragua Canal, which will be 172 miles when complete. This canal will actually serve as an alternative to the Panama Canal, and will be three times longer. 
It’s being built by the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND Group), which is headed by Chinese telecom billionaire Wang Jing. 
Most observers, especially here in the United States, think the new canal is a fool’s project, and that it isn’t really needed. Indeed, the project has already been beset by problems. 
But why would the Chinese waste so much money and time on such a massive engineering project if there is no advantage? The answer can be found if you examine China’s energy needs. 
The Chinese will have to hurdle some major barriers before they’re able to complete this project. 
First of all, there are environmental concerns. Nicaragua’s Grand Interoceanic Canal will have no choice but to run through the once-pristine waters of Lake Nicaragua. It also will pass through several protected nature reserve areas. 
HKND Group is considering six different routes through the country. But every proposed route has been met with protests from locals about the negative effects it’ll have. They’ve already eliminated using the natural waterway that is the San Juan River, a key part of the country’s national identity. 
Despite the protests, the company seems to have solidified a route, although the exact path could change still.
(Wall St Daily)

Such talk aside, the canal, and the upgrades to Nicaragua’s other economic and transportation infrastructure likely to accompany construction, will intimately link the futures of impoverished Nicaragua and powerhouse China. And like Panama before it, Nicaragua could find itself transformed from a relatively quiet Central American backwater into a geopolitical linchpin in the Western Hemisphere. 
But while Panama’s century-old gamble paid off, Nicaragua is an entirely different case, despite the apparent similarities. There is a big difference in the geopolitical and economic impact of opening the region’s first trans-isthmus canal—and opening its second. 
Which begs another question: Does Nicaragua, or the world, really even need this canal? Many think no. First, the gradual opening of shipping lanes in a warming Arctic over the next several decades may potentially slash distances and times needed to connect key Atlantic and Pacific ports via a northern sea route and eventually erode the strategic and economic importance of a second Central American canal. Second, the Panama Canal is already undergoing a $5 billion widening and infrastructure upgrade to accommodate larger ships. Panama isn’t afraid of Nicaraguan competition. 
Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan people stand to pay perhaps the heaviest price in the decades ahead, and their opposition has been loud. In 2013, as HKND’s little-known CEO wined and dined a Nicaraguan delegation in Beijing, Ortega’s government faced heated anti-canal protests in the streets of Managua. 
Protesters blasted the Ortega government’s lack of transparency in the canal negotiations, refusal to discuss long-term environmental impacts and hesitance to talk about compensation for Nicaraguans whose communities lie in or around the canal’s proposed path. Charges that Ortega has sold his country’s future to China have packed an emotional wallop in a country where foreign powers have meddled for centuries.
(World Politics Review)

A Nicaraguan delegation representing nearly 40 civil society organizations and political parties traveled to San José, Costa Rica, this week during the annual meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to generate regional support against the construction of a massive interoceanic canal there. 
The group of environmentalists and human rights organizers plan to present an open letter to the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry for CELAC leaders that decries a lack of transparency in the project and threats to indigenous land rights and Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca. 
“This should be a great concern not only for Nicaragua but for the whole Central American region,” Suyen Barahona, national director for the Sandinista Renovation Movement, told The Tico Times. 
Luisa Molina, director of Coordinadora Civil, a human rights organization, said that Costa Ricans would also be affected by the environmental consequences of the Great Nicaragua Canal on Lake Cocibolca and the two countries’ shared watershed. 
On a local level, Molina said the canal would displace tens of thousands of people either from their land or their traditional way of life, from indigenous landholders to artisanal fishermen. 
“We want development for Nicaragua but we want the people’s voice to be heard because they were never heard, either in a referendum or a plebiscite,” Octavio Ortega, national coordinator for the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty of Nicaragua, told The Tico Times.
(Tico Times)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New designs offer hope for affordable housing in sky-high Melbourne


Across the globe, says architect Jeremy McLeod, there is a fantastic culture of living in apartments. 
In Melbourne though, Mr McLeod said, people generally choose an apartment only if they can't afford a house – because good apartments are so rare, or so expensive.
Mr McLeod's firm Breathe Architecture designed The Commons, the "deep green" apartments that swept state and national architecture awards last year.

Now, in a uniquely Melbourne model that they hope could revolutionise the local development industry, Mr McLeod has teamed with six prominent architects, and investors. 
They want to construct a Brunswick complex to challenge the way the city builds apartments - and then repeat it elsewhere in Melbourne. The group of investors includes architects such as Six Degrees, Andrew Maynard and Clare Cousins, and has raised $2.7 million to kickstart The Nightingale, a 20-apartment development across the road from The Commons. 
Like The Commons, it sits along the Upfield train line and won't have any car parking. The money saved on parking and other features it won't have - air conditioning and second bathrooms, for instance - will go back into energy saving and other tricks to save on construction and ongoing costs.

Also cut to lower costs were real estate agents, marketing agents and display suites. "We don't need to sell someone a dream about what it is they're buying into," Mr McLeod said.

Demand for a successor to The Commons has been so strong that, on Wednesday, a ballot was started to help select buyers of the new apartments, to sell for between $400,000 and $645,000. 
The project doesn't have approval from Moreland Council, which will consider two objections and 64 letters of support next month.

(The Age) 

Ho-Hum. Vancouver still second-least affordable city

Vancouver has become “decoupled” from the historic relationship between incomes and housing prices, Demographia said.

According to Demographia, the least affordable cities in that group of countries, in descending order are: Hong Kong, Vancouver, Sydney, San Francisco and San Jose. Sixth place was Tweed Head in Australia, where the average home price is 9.1 times more expensive than the median annual income.

Chart source: Demographia

Demographia said the least affordable cities share one thing in common.
“Without exception, these markets have severe land use restrictions that have been associated with higher land prices and in consequence higher house prices.”

In addition to Vancouver, the three least affordable metropolitan markets in Canada were all in British Columbia: Victoria, Kelowna and the Fraser Valley.
Canada also had one city in Demographia’s most affordable listing: Moncton, New Brunswick, where the average home price is 2.2 times higher than the median annual income.

(Business Vancouver)

San Francisco: "$1 Million in Housing Bond Funds are Missing"

Last month, while performing a routine accounting of the South of Market Community Stabilization Fund, staff members from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development noticed the money was missing. The agency contacted the Association of Bay Area Governments, which acted as trustee for the fund along with Union Bank, and learned that the money had been given to Rincon Developers LLC, which is controlled by develper Urban West, as a reimbursement for traffic improvements the developer had made.
ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport said the developer was entitled to the money. He said the $925,666 was about 5 percent of the money raised by selling bonds under a special Mello-Roos tax district set up to pay for public improvements in the neighborhood. 
“These bonds were set up in accordance with IRS rules — there is a contract for how the money is spent,” Rapport said. “(The developer) wasn’t so much getting money back as being reimbursed for cash that they had laid out.”

Projects under review
But a Jan. 21 memo from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development argues that the money from the fund can only be approved by city public finance officials, who knew nothing of the transaction. The memo said the committee in charge of spending the stabilization money was actively studying projects to spend the $925,666 on, including a crosswalk and traffic light on Folsom Street and the renovation of South Park. 
“Why was Urban West provided a preferential disbursements of funds given the ongoing discussions at the CAC (community advisory committee) to find alternative projects?” the memo stated. 
Olson Lee, executive director of the mayor’s housing office, said the “city is looking at all options to recover the funds.”


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thai Junta defends Yingluck ruling while U.S. warns on fairness

Daniel Russel, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said while the U.S. doesn't take sides in Thai politics, his country's relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the coup. He said he would leave it to the Thai people to determine the "legitimacy of their political and their legal processes."

'Perception of Fairness'

"The perception of fairness is also extremely important," he said Monday in a speech in Bangkok. "When an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities - the same authorities who conducted the coup - and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions of a country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven."

Monday, January 26, 2015

3大失態: Hostage crisis may be Abe's "Triple Fiasco"

“Abe completely clueless.” – Nikkan Gendai; video screenshot courtesy of YouTube user Railgunmani.

“Japanese Prime Minister Abe committed a triple fiasco” when responding to the crisis, claimed a widely read article by tabloid daily Nikkan Gendai. 
What did Abe do wrong, according to Nikkan Gendai? 
1) Abe dispatched a notably pro-Israel Japanese lawmaker to Jordan to deal with the crisis. 
Strike 1, according to Nikkan Gendai‘s analysis, was Prime Minister Abe's decision to send Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy Minister of Foreign affairs, to Jordan to coordinate Japan's response to the crisis. 
Nakayama has long been seen as being close to Israel, something problematic when dealing ISIS, which as a nominally Islamic organization, according to Nikkan Gendai, naturally holds antipathy towards Israel. 
And sending someone known to be aligned with Israel to coordinate with Arab countries to release the hostages was a misstep as well, Nikkan Gendai asserts.

2) Abe delivered his response to ISIS's demands standing in front of an Israeli flag.
According to Nikkan Gendai's analysis, Strike 2 was Abe's decision to “resolutely condemn” ISIS's ransom demands as “despicable acts of terrorism” while standing in front of an Israeli flag in Jerusalem.
Unfortunately for Prime Minister Abe, ISIS released its video of the hostages and its ransom demands during his state visit to Israel. Presumably, the emergency media briefing was held in the very same space where hours earlier Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had held a joint press conference promising greater collaboration between the two countries. 
But that was no excuse for Abe to respond to ISIS in front of an Israeli flag, which Nikkan Gendai calls “clueless”, guaranteeing little support for Japan from the rest of the Arab world. 
3) By immediately stating Japan would never pay a ransom, Abe effectively delivered a death sentence to the two men. 
On January 21, the day ISIS released its ransom demands, Masahiko Komura, a senior member of Japan's governing party, stated that Japan would never pay. This effectively signed the death sentence for the two hostages, says Nikkan Gendai. 
The Nikkan Gendai article's term “triple fiasco” (3大失態) is a reference to the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in March 2011 that devastated Japan. By the end of Friday January 23, the term 3大失態 had already generated dozens of online discussions on the Japanese internet.
(Global Voices)

"Non-Military" no longer a valid qualifier when discussing aid

As this brief survey of Abe’s six-day trip reveals, Japan continues to rely on economic aid to advance its global interests. By focusing on humanitarian issues, Japan sought to minimize its participation in any military conflict. However, the distinction between military and non-military is not appreciated by the radicalized IS. In their online video, the militant said, “You [the Japanese government] proudly donated another $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of Muslims.” The message equated Japan’s humanitarian support with the air strikes saying, Japan “has willingly volunteered to take part in this crusade.” Yet Japanese officials have, rightly, denied such a connection again and again. Ken Okaniwa, deputy press secretary for the Foreign Ministry, stated, “Japan will not bow to terrorism and will continue to contribute to the war against terrorism. Japan’s assistance for countering the Islamic State is basically to provide food, medical care, and education. It is absolutely nonmilitary assistance.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihde Suga followed up on this, saying, “Japan’s assistance is not at all for killing Muslims.” 
Abe would have enjoyed a successful and highly-publicized week of Middle East diplomacy, relying on tried-and-true economic methods, had it not been for the hostage crisis. Whether Japan will experience a moment of soul-searching, similar to what followed the 2013 Algerian hostage crisis, or will continue to plod along the same path of economic diplomacy even as evidence mounts that it is no longer enough will depend on what lessons Abe and the Japanese public takeaway from this traumatic experience. IS was trying to push Japan out of the Middle East by inciting a public blowback against Japanese involvement. However, based on public statements since then, the attempt seems unlikely to succeed.

Lost in Translation: Official Intentions

As previously reported in The Daily Beast, the crisis could possibly have been averted last year if the Japanese government had not detained freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, who was scheduled to travel to Syria last October to mediate Haruna Yukawa’s trial and secure his release. 
Nikkan Gendai, a daily newspaper in Japan, quotes a former Japanese diplomat’s critique of the way the administration has handled negotiations so far. 
“The Abe Administration’s sense of diplomacy and lack of negotiation ability was made clear in this hostage crisis,” Amaki Naoto, a former diplomat, told Nikkan Gendai
“I was shocked by how Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga indicated his awareness that the ‘deadline is at 2:50 PM on the 23rd’ even though they were in the middle of negotiating [the hostages’ release]. It would at least be better if they had taken a firm attitude that “the deadline is when the conclusion is made” but it’s unprecedented that the side whose hostages were taken would set their own deadline. Why show the other side, the cards you’re holding? It’s out of the question.” 
In that same article, Nikkan Gendai also suggest ISIS’s decision to kill Yukawa and Goto unless the $200 million ransom was paid could have been sparked by Abe’s Jan. 17 speech in Cairo. In that speech, Abe pledged $200 million in non-military humanitarian aid to countries and refugees in the Middle East, but the paper reports the government didn’t hire a competent English translator and no Arabic translation was even attempted.

Fate of Japanese Hostage May be in Jordan's Hands

“Now the focus has moved to negotiations between Japan and Jordan. I don’t think Mr. Goto will be released” unless Jordan releases al-Rishawi, said Buntaro Kuroi, a military journalist familiar with Middle Eastern affairs. 
“The Islamic State (group) is serious. If she is not released, Mr. Goto will face a very tough situation,” Kuroi said. 
Fumikazu Nishitani, a freelance journalist who represents a nongovernmental group helping children in Iraq, argued that Jordan will encounter “very high” political hurdles if it decides to release al-Rishawi in exchange for Goto. 
Al-Rishawi took part in a failed attack on a wedding party at the Amman Radisson Hotel in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in 2005. She survived the attack when her explosive belt failed to go off. She and three male bombers attacked three hotels, reportedly killing 57 people. 
At the time, Nishitani was in Amman to cover the suicide bombings as a journalist.
Those attacks outraged the Jordanians, so releasing the woman for a Japanese hostage will present a very tough decision for the Jordanian government, Nishitani said.
Jordan is desperately trying to save a young Jordanian Air Force pilot also being held by the Islamic Stage group, and releasing al-Rishawi in exchange was considered one potential option. 
Releasing the woman for the sake of Mr. Goto alone would be “unacceptable” for Jordan, Nishitani pointed out.

(Japan Times)