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July 19-25, 2006

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Cuppa Snow

Staff and visitors at San Jose's downtown City Hall will soon be bringing steaming lattes to City Council meetings. The city council voted 8-3 in a meeting late last month to approve a $300,000 subsidy to improve retail space, and a coffee vendor will be occupying part of that. That vendor happens to be Starbucks, and while there may be nothing wrong with having brand-name coffee, Fly has learned that the selection process may not have been entirely fair to independent coffee slingers. Surprised? Neither was Fly. One local coffeehouse owner in downtown San Jose who shall remain unnamed recounted a tour that he, along with other prospective vendors, took of the City Hall space. "It was obvious," he fumed to Fly, "that they only wanted Starbucks." He cited the costs associated with opening at City Hall (including rent and labor) as giving an edge to the national chain (some of the costs were later reduced just last month) and said that he was told by a city employee not to bother applying for the space, as the city had its heart set on Starbucks. Giving some credence to the independent owner's conspiracy theory is a June 22 memo presented to the City Council from Paul Krutko, the city's economic development director, that indicated there was no interest from other retail tenants about the availability of the space, despite its location in the heart of downtown. An attachment to the same memo also further indicates how the city would like to see the space used; it notes that the "type and quality [of vendors] preferred by the City" are companies "such as Starbucks or Prolific Oven." Nanci Klein, a retail expert at the city's office of economic development, contends that the city did not prefer Starbucks, despite the language in the memo, saying that the original proposal only indicated that the city would like to see a coffeehouse in the space. Starbucks was singled out, Klein says, because the retail spaces' master tenant, the developer Don Imwalle, had an "ongoing relationship" with Starbucks. "We would have been very interested in working with local coffee shops," Klein says. But she also says the space was too expensive for a local vendor to have success with. To which the indie San Jose coffeehouse owner says: "Yeah, right."

General Hostility

It turns out real-life hospital drama is far less glamorous than Hugh Laurie and George Clooney make it seem. But, then again, the sort of drawn-out contract negotiations that the SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West have been embroiled in with the Tennessee-based Hospital Corporation of America don't fit neatly into hour long medical dramas. They do, however, fit into the last four months, culminating in UHW's members voting last month to allow their negotiating team to call strikes against HCA-owned Good Samaritan and Regional Medical Center, if Northern California's last major for profit hospitals don't agree to the union's demands for the new contract. According to UHW, the main issue at hand is what the health-care workers see as a declining standard of patient care at their hospitals due to the fact that only HCA management, and not the health-care staff, decide what is an acceptable health-care-worker-to-patient ratio. "Something that is considered a normal business practice anywhere else, when transferred to health care, becomes abhorrent," said UHW vice president Dana Simon, describing what many in his union feel are dangerously low staffing levels. "It's not our proposal that management have no rights over staffing, but it's got to end the situation where workers have no say. ... Imagine the mind-blowing frustration waking up in the morning and knowing you're not going to make [patients] well." Instead, UHW wants to see a system more on a par with what Kaiser Permanente has done successfully since 1997, with union reps and managers working together on staffing decisions in every level of their hospitals' administrations. But according to HCA's Northern California representative Victoria Emmons, accusations of unsafe staffing levels have been blown way out of proportion. "Staffing levels are determined by the managers in each department," she said. "They determine based on what the patient volume is, and what the patient acuity is." The space between the two sides' positions could mean even more trouble in the future—despite Emmons' insistence that everything is fine, Simon believes the issue is so important to the hospitals' staff that, in the end, it will make or break the negotiations.

Stop Agreeing With Us on Our Property!

The CinéArts movie theater chain may trumpet its commitment to independent film and screen a corporate-bashing documentary like Who Killed the Electric Car? but managers at the swanky Santana Row location didn't appear so open-minded last weekend. A docile group from the Electric Vehicle Association tried to hand out literature supporting alternative-fuel cars in front of the theater, but managers told them to leave. A representative from CinéArts did not return Fly's phone call by presstime, but a security officer from the outdoor mall said the sidewalks in front of the theater are private property. The Raging Grannies disagree. The Bay Area group of eclectic, elderly activists jumped in defense of "their friends" at EVA and the right to demonstrate on property that they say is public. Costumed in flowered hats and feather boas, a dozen women descended on the Row, singing songs about electric cars and entertaining patio diners at nearby restaurants. This time, managers let them stay—maybe because they trailed a few television news cameras, muses Granny Ruth Robertson. She said the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto welcomed the electric car educators: "If anything, we were drawing attention to the movie." Go figure.

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