Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
BOARD YOUTH: Mickey Maher kick-flips down the flight of three stairs at Hollywood Video in Los Gatos while friends watch.
The district attorney's office takes on charges of improper conduct in the bitter Los Gatos skate debate
By Erin Sherbert
IT IS certainly one of the more unusual allegations the Santa Clara district attorney has investigated.
But an allegation is an allegation, even if it's one that is made against the Los Gatos town clerk. There's no doubt the clerk violated the state election code when she illegally released personal information of voters who had signed a petition favoring Measure D, the controversial skatepark proposal which failed at the polls on Feb 5.
But whether she released that information knowingly and intentionally has yet to be determined. The DA's government integrity unit is wrapping up its month-long investigation, looking at what exactly happened in Los Gatos.
A core group of Los Gatos residents believe the town was just playing dirty by releasing that voter information, which was later used to contact voters and harangue them.
It's no secret that the majority of the Los Gatos Town Council was against Measure D; three of the councilmembers signed off on the rebuttal to the ballot measure, arguing that not only is $1 million too much to spend on a skatepark, but it's not right to obligate the community's money for just one recreational project.
And the fact that the controversial measure failed miserably at the polls (by more than two-thirds of the vote) further fueled the anger of the small group of Los Gatos skatepark supporters who made the accusations.
"I have never seen an accusation like this before," said Stephen Lowney, deputy district attorney with Santa Clara County. "This is unusual."
On the surface, it's a petty crime; a misdemeanor that results in a fine or maybe time in county jail. As of presstime, the DA's office had not yet concluded its investigation and Lowney would not say whether he believes the clerk intentionally released that information. Generally, the district attorney looks at how that information was released and whether there were any cover-ups to determine if a violation occurred.
Even if the DA decides the clerk did nothing wrong, members of the Los Gatos Skate Park Committee say they will consider going over the district attorney's head and asking the California secretary of state to look into this matter.
"We want to make sure they are on notice never to do that to people again," said Steve Leonardis, a Los Gatos resident, and vocal member of the Skate Park Committee. "Bottom line is this: we need to be promised a fair election process, it's about fair due process."
There was no covering it up. The Los Gatos town attorney was quick to admit that the clerk violated a state election code, which says election petition signatures cannot be used for any purpose other than verification.
But he claims it was a simple mistake. In effort to be open-government friendly, the clerk got caught between a public records request and what the town calls "an obscure election code." After all, there are plenty of election-related documents that are considered open to the public, such as voter registration lists.
"We are under a great deal of pressure from a number of sources not only be responsive to the request of public records act but to do so in a manner that is considered good customer service," Los Gatos Attorney Orry Korb said in a December interview. "The clerk administration concluded erroneously, but not intentionally, that these were public records."
Typically, public records requests go through the attorney's office only when the clerk is in doubt of something. In this case, the clerk released the information assuming the petitions were public records. Korb noted that despite the fact that clerks do have annual training in public records, it has been more than a decade since the town has had a public request of this kind. In other words, the clerk didn't have experience with these kind of public records requests in the past.
"Nobody knew this was not appropriate," said Los Gatos Vice Mayor Mike Wasserman, who has been a vocal opponent of Measure D. "It's a nonissue."
But it's a big issue to the members of the Los Gatos Skate Park Committee, who in October brought to the town clerk in a sealed box the verified signatures needed to get Measure D on the February ballot. At that time, the clerk gave them a document to sign that acknowledged the signatures couldn't be used for any other purpose but verification.
Within the next month, an opponent of Measure D put in a records request to get those signed petitions. The clerk handed them over. Not too long after that, voters whose names were on that petition started receiving "intimidating" phone calls, according to Leonardis. Letter-writing wars began in local newspapers, and it wasn't long before an attempt to get a skatepark in Los Gatos had evolved into a politically charged campaign that's even pitted councilmembers against each other.
"The question is, was it inadvertent? Well, it was submitted in a lockbox," said Los Gatos Councilman Steve Glickman, the lone supporter on the Town Council of Measure D. "So you have to ask the clerk under those circumstances how that misunderstanding occurred."
Down on D
The Los Gatos Town Council has been resolute since day one about not putting up the nearly $1 million needed to build the skatepark.
The council believed it had already done enough: allocated the land on Miles Way and donated $125,000 for the project.
Instead, they told proponents of the skatepark to do what other recreation groups have done: raise the money themselves That's when the Los Gatos Skate Park Committee formed, with a core group of 10 community members working to collect the money to build the park. They got some money, but not quite enough. So they went back to the council and asked it to bridge the gap—an estimated $400,000.
Again, the council said "no."
So the committee circulated a petition across town, asking registered voters to support a ballot measure that would essentially require the town to pay up to $1 million to build the skatepark and $50,000 annually to operate it.
They got the signatures, and Measure D was placed on the Feb. 5 ballot. That's when the "Down on D" campaign was created, with strong support form majority of the Town Council (the mayor had recused herself because she lives too close to the proposed site). Those council members even authored the rebuttal of Measure D, calling it too expensive and saying it would take away money from police and fire.
The only councilmember who was a vocal proponent of Measure D was Glickman, who was elected to the council in 2000, touting his "let's build a skatepark" platform.
Glickman said this whole effort against Measure D was just another example how Los Gatos is becoming a kid-unfriendly place to live. There's no recreation department, no soccer fields and now no skatepark.
"There are little recreational activities," Glickman said. "Now the mayor is committed to building a dog park, which tells you about the priorities here."
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