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Oregon St. Neighbors Win Appeal, Criticism

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday April 18, 2006

The Berkeley City Councilmember representing the district of embattled Oregon Street homeowner Lenora Moore has sharply criticized the neighbors who brought a lawsuit in Small Claims Court against the 75-year-old grandmother, saying that their action involved a “revenge motive.” 

“I can’t bring myself as an African-American and an elected official, with a knowledge of that community, to declare that Mrs. Moore is a public enemy who needs to be removed from her home,” Councilmember Max Anderson said in a telephone interview. 

Anderson’s comments came a few days after Superior Court Judge Wynne Carvill issued an order upholding judgments for six of Moore’s South Berkeley neighbors. 

Last year, 14 of those neighbors filed nuisance claims against Moore in Small Claims Court in Berkeley, charging that several of her children and grandchildren have been operating a drug dealing gang out of Moore’s home for more than a decade. 

Last January, Alameda County Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman awarded $5,000 apiece to those neighbors. Moore appealed the award of six of those neighbors who lived a block away from her house, saying that they had not proved that the drug dealing and other nuisances they had suffered had originated from Moore’s property. 

Moore has not been charged with drug dealing herself. But her neighbors argued in court that she did not do enough to prevent her offspring from dealing drugs from the property. Moore testified in the earlier Small Claims Court action that she tried to stop the drug dealing, but was powerless to prevent it. 

Several of the plaintiffs said out of court that they were not interested in the $5,000 award called for in their lawsuit, but that their goal was to remove the drug problem in the neighborhood by forcing Moore to move. 

But Moore’s representative in the appeal, Oakland attorney James Anthony, said that even if Moore and her husband leave their Oregon home, “I don’t know if it will get the plaintiffs what they say they want.” 

Anthony noted that testimony in the Superior Court proceedings last month revealed that two of Moore’s offspring accused of involvement in Oregon Street drug activities were not living at Moore’s house, but were living within a block of her residence. 

“I don’t think that forcing [Moore] to move will stop the activities on Oregon Street,” Anthony said. 

The attorney said that he only represented Moore for the Superior Court appeal, and did not know what steps she planned to take in response to the new ruling and the original Small Claims Court verdict against her. 

“But I hope that she will be able to go to the neighbors and work out some sort of settlement, perhaps one in which they will drop the demand for the damages in return for her moving out of the neighborhood,” Anthony said. 

In his ruling on the appeal late last week, Judge Carvill wrote that “for years the drug activity on Oregon Street between Sacramento Street and Martin Luther King Way has been controlled by people operating out of or associated with [the Moore house] … and people related to drug activity travel both ways on Oregon coming to and from [the Moore house].” 

Carvill continued, “People known to ‘hang out’ on the porch, in the driveway and on the sidewalk in front of [the Moore house] travel up and down Oregon, engage in drug transactions up and down Oregon, post look outs as far west as Sacramento and as far east as Grant … and generally treat the entire area of Oregon from Sacramento to MLKW as their ‘turf.’” 

The Judge noted that the six residents who lived a block away from the Moore house on Oregon Street “reasonably view the drive west on Oregon as their natural egress to Sacramento, are subjected to increased auto and foot traffic by users and dealers going between MLK and [the Moore house], have to endure syringes, condoms, baggies and other drug-related paraphernalia on their street and in their yards, and live in constant fear of the drug dealers and users associated with [the Moore house], who have a history of harassing residents who try to stand up to them. All of this and more is ‘specifically injurious’ to these plaintiffs, establishes the necessary nexus between them and the nuisance at [the Moore house], and is a more than adequate foundation for their monetary claims.” 

Carville added that “there is no dispute regarding the fact that [the Moore house] currently is a center of drug activity in the southwest neighborhood of Berkeley and has been for many years.” 

The judge concluded that he hoped Moore would “begin to address the underlying cause of her current predicament: drug trafficking associated with [her home]. She needs to either actively manage the property so as to eliminate the nuisance or sell it. If she does neither, she should not be surprised if she finds herself a defendant in additional lawsuits.” 

According to Councilmember Anderson, however, putting legal pressure on Moore won’t help clean up drug activity in South Berkeley. 

Anderson called Moore a scapegoat. 

“She’s not being charged with any crime herself, and she hasn’t committed any crime, as far as I know,” he said. “Making her and her invalid husband homeless is not going to solve the problem in that neighborhood. What we need to provide in that community is better educational resources and better law enforcement techniques. Certainly, in Berkeley, we can find some alternate solutions to putting a woman out of her house. This action just seems to be aimed at punishing her.” 

Meanwhile, the lead plaintiff in the case, Paul Rauber, said that neighbors had been seeking a face-to-face meeting with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates to help them with the situation. 

While Bates said by telephone that he had not received a request for a meeting with the Oregon Street neighbors, he said he would be “happy to meet with them.” 

Bates added that while the Moore property constituted “a real problem,” he believed that the court verdicts against Moore means that “the situation seems to be in hand” and the city doesn’t plan any independent action. 

“My hats are off to the neighbors,” he said. 

Bates said that Berkeley has been working on what he called “problem properties” in the city for several years. 

“We were one of the first cities in the area, after San Leandro, to pass an ordinance to take action against blighted properties, and it’s worked,” Bates said, adding that the city has had a Problem Property Task Force set up for the past three years that has forced 70 properties to be cleaned up, coordinating their efforts with inspections by the city’s Health and Fire Departments. 

In addition, Bates said that it was “reports by the police department over several years’ time” that allowed the Oregon Street neighbors to build their case against Moore in the Small Claims Court action and the Superior Court appeal. 

But Bates said he was happy to leave civil court action in the hands of Neighborhood Solutions, the Oakland-based group that advised the Oregon Street neighbors in their Small Claims Court lawsuits. Neighborhood Solutions is also advising several other Berkeley residents in similar Small Claims nuisance lawsuits. 

“I don’t think there’s a need for us,” to bring such civil court action, Bates said, adding that Neighborhood Solutions “has been terrific.”