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November 16-22, 2005

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Buses Busted

Valley Transportation Authority paraded its public image darlings, those three Zero-Emission buses that run on hydrogen fuel cells and spew only water, in a September Road Rally where they sparkled on display at San Jose State University and escorted a VIP load of city officials to the Doubletree Hotel. But behind the scenes, VTA employees must have been holding their breath because the ballyhooed buses, maintenance records show, aren't all they're cracked up to be. Agency spokeswoman Jayme Kunz first told Fly the buses were "running great" and "with no problems." But when asked about their reliability, she said that it was "too early to tell," since the demonstration program just launched in February and is scheduled to run until the summer of 2006. Kunz was hemming and hawing about letting Fly see repair records when, suddenly, maintenance manager Jim Wilhelm admitted, "The stats would probably look terrible because we've had a lot of shakedown issues in the first few months." Oops. Nearly three weeks later, VTA finally coughed up documents that paint a different picture than agency reps have fed to the public. From October to September, the three ZEBs broke down 20 times—even when each bus runs only six hours a day, roughly 14 days a month. That's at least four times more maintenance than needed for a conventional diesel fuel bus. Road calls were performed for dying coaches, malfunctioning jet pumps, water leaks, engine shutdowns, overheating and other setbacks. What's more, the clean fuel vehicles cost $3.5 million each (part of an $18.4 million project total) and require $3.35 per mile to run, nearly six times more than a diesel bus. The problem, one industry insider says, may be with Ballard, VTA's technology provider that promotes smoother-running buses (apparently in lieu of dependability). The East Bay's AC Transit, on the other hand, contracts with UTC for its hydrogen-powered buses, the first of which is operating at an encouraging 83 percent reliability rate. It may be worthwhile for VTA to explore other ZEB options instead of nursing another financial leech. Oh yeah, did we mention that the fuel-cell program is funded by the same 2000 sales tax increase that promised to bring BART to San Jose?

News Unfit to Print

The scandal over Silicon Valley's most notorious fake news may not be over. During the peak of the 2002 election season, when John McLemore and Patricia Mahan were running a tight race for Santa Clara mayor, former Santa Clara Planning Commissioner Christopher Stampolis sent out a mass mailer to thousands of city voters that he called the "Mission City News." This much you may already be aware of since the Merc reported in October that the Santa Clara County district attorney issued a civil action against Stampolis for failing to represent his "newspaper" as what the DA alleges it really was—a slate mailer that should have been filed as such. The Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee, in meeting minutes from December 2002, found Stampolis' paper little different from a "campaign hit piece" and concluded that his actions were a "source of embarrassment to the Democratic Party." Stampolis, in turn, was quoted upholding the validity of his publication, which made Fly wonder if he was just trying to be funny. The "Mission City News" reeked of biased coverage with several shoddily reported articles blasting mayoral candidate McLemore. "Say 'No' to abuse of power," read one full-page announcement, "Say 'No' to McLemore." The mailer was also crowded with ads paying tribute to Mahan (who, indeed, snatched the mayoral seat by a landslide) and the other members of her slate: Jamie Matthews, who was running for City Council (and won), and Kevin Moore, who was running for the West Valley/Mission governing board and became a Santa Clara City Council member in 2004. Mahan and Matthews paid $500 for their ads in the "Mission City News"; Moore put in at least $4,000. The three seemed to be just as confused as Stampolis when they told Fly they were dealing with a "community newspaper." Matthews pointed out that the DA's allegations haven't been proven yet, and Mahan added that "Mission City News" didn't look any different than the other local paper. Hmm, did she bother to read it?

High School Confidential

Last month, East Side Union High School District board members unanimously agreed that they want a policy governing on-campus military recruiters that is in compliance with the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Last week, they disagreed completely about what it should look like. As we reported in these pages last month, No Child Left Behind requires public high schools to provide student names, addresses and phone numbers to military recruiters, and the level of access the recruiters have gotten is driving some East Side parents and kids crazy. At the Nov. 10 meeting, the board members of California's largest high school district agreed that parents should be regularly informed about how to restrict military access to their children's contact information by "opting out." They disagreed about the draft's other proposals, which would bar recruiters from bringing hardware like guns, humvees and helicopters to schools. Military recruiters in the crowd found fault with language prohibiting them from serving as volunteer coaches unless they are parents of East Side students. ESUHSD chief of safety Ric Abeyta had based the contentious draft on input he received from administrators, students, East Side staff and San Jose Peace Center antiwar activists, who all turned out at the meeting. Now he's headed back to the drawing board. The district board asked him to reframe the policy as an expansion of East Side's current privacy and safety policy so that it addresses all recruiters who visit East Side campuses. Abeyta doesn't appear to be flustered by the controversy. "There's passion about this issue on both sides," he says. "Some want military recruiters restricted and others say they shouldn't be. It's a search for middle ground."

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