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October 11-17, 2006

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Train Tragedy: Just Plain Senseless

You might think 40 years would have been enough time for Mountain View to fix the traffic-choked junction where a northbound Caltrain train killed a pedestrian last week. You'd be wrong. Improvements for the intersection, where Rengstorff Avenue crosses both Central Expressway and Caltrain tracks, have been on the city's "to do" list since the 1960s, said Mountain View City Councilmember Matt Pear. But the project never made it to the top of the list and now a Mountain View resident, 69-year-old Consuelo Coronel, is dead. Rengstorff is a major gateway for Mountain View so, when Caltrain zips through, traffic stacks up on both sides of the tracks. Yet proposals for a grade separation, to shift the train tracks above or below car and pedestrian traffic, have come and gone before the City Council. The biggest obstacle, said Mountain View Vice Mayor Greg Perry, is cash. To its credit, the city spent its own money studying how to move the tracks and add ramps to smooth traffic. But Mountain View's Assistant City Manager Nadine Levin couldn't quite remember when the city carried out that study. The price for improvements to the busy crossing starts at around $40 million. It's a project Mountain View can't tackle alone, city administrators said, and the council has failed to convince county, state or federal agencies to cough up the cash needed for the job. Pear singled out Santa Clara County's transportation Goliath, Valley Transit Authority, as particularly sluggish. "There's a lengthy list of priorities and projects and it's all about placement," said Pear. The grade separation "had a tendency to be put down low on the list." Still, it's not as though Mountain View hasn't had any transportation money in its coffers. "We spent $14 million bringing light rail to downtown," said Perry. "That money might have been better spent bringing a grade separation." Perry didn't know whether last week's death would bring more urgency to the intersection project. "Politically, I would hope so. I would hope it would make it a higher priority."

Mismanaged Millions

Fly's been getting complaints about what's becoming the most controversial funding pot in the valley, the city of San Jose's Healthy Neighborhoods Venture Fund (HNVF). The HNVF distributes Tobacco Settlement money to city agencies and charities providing health services. Seventy-one groups received HNVF grants for 2006-2007. Over half of the $8,478,161 pot was allocated to city agencies: The Children's Health Initiative and Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services' (PRNS) senior services and Homework Centers. The remaining amount was divvied up among 68 nonprofits. What's rubbing insiders the wrong way is that grants to new groups have been capped at $25,000. Slim pickings for anyone who's looking to meet previously unserviced community needs, and from what we can tell looking over the paperwork, there needs to be a lot more written guidance to applicants about how the HNVF works. But Patricia Gardner, executive director of the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits (SVCN), told Fly that there are bigger issues at the HNVF than the new applicant cap. The council is calling for major administrative changes at the HNVF. Check out this list of grievances: some grantees don't receive payments promptly, and must take out loans; reports aren't processed on time; contracts aren't signed on time, and the HNVF has added costly contract requirements that weren't on its original requests for funding. Two of the largest grants go to programs administered by PRNS, the HNVF's own department. That's right, it's actually possible for this department to apply for a grant, evaluate itself and then rate applications submitted by outsiders. Gardner says that if PRNS programs and nonprofits are applying for the same money, an outside evaluator should be involved. OK, so it's broke, but how to fix it? The SVCN is calling for a taskforce of nonprofits, PRNS staff and HNVF Advisory Committee members to work on future funding issues, reporting requirements, timeliness of payment and rating methodologies. By the way, it's not just new groups that are upset. Most returning applicants were dissatisfied about receiving less than last year. "The problem is that the pot is getting smaller," says Gardner. "There are more good agencies and more good programs than there is money, so each year it gets harder for HNVF to prioritize." And here's some dark irony for you: because people are smoking less, there is less Tobacco Settlement money available for the HNVF. PRNS staff member Sharon Barbaccia told Fly that fewer funds means agonizing each year about how to assess needs, rate applicants and divide the pot fairly. Hard-working Advisory Committee members spend hundreds of hours studying applications and staff reports, attending hearings and reading tons of public comment. So perhaps Fly shouldn't be quite so harsh; after all, the HNVF's staff and Advisory Committee are like most of the valley's workforce: struggling to figure out how to do more with less.

Please Remove Thumb From Nose

A federal judge has reprimanded Santa Clara County for "thumbing its nose at the court," as San Jose attorney James Zahradka put it, when it closed the jail law libraries in 2003. In May, Metro wrote about the obstacles inmates face when trying to go "pro per" with a contract legal service that the county now provides in place of books—its way of meeting the constitutional minimum. With the Public Interest Law Firm (PILF), Zahradka represented pro per inmates who argued the county violated a 1973 court order requiring it maintain law libraries in the jails. Last fall, federal judge Ronald Whyte decided the county's efforts were satisfactory and terminated the 30-year-old court order—but he conceded several of PILF's points. For one, the county should have gotten the court's permission before it closed the law libraries. Whyte also found that Department of Correction officials violated another part of the court order that requires that inmates receive due process during disciplinary hearings. Records from one year showed that inmates received proper documentation for their disciplinary hearings only 70 percent to 80 percent of the time. The county has since offered to further train its DOC staff on due process. The slap on the wrist: Whyte said the county has to pay part of PILF's legal fees. Zahradka said his firm has not yet figured out the asking amount, and Metro's calls to county counsel were not returned by presstime.

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