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November 22-28, 2006

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Finally, Some Sunshine

With little to show after 10 meetings, San Jose's Sunshine Reform Task Force seemed destined to crawl along at a glacial pace, so the group scheduled an all-day meeting for Nov. 18 to try and pick up the pace. Mayor-elect Chuck Reed appeared at the 9am Saturday session to express his hope that some work could be completed before he introduces his reform package at the Jan. 9 council meeting. Looks like he'll have something after all. The group took action on eight of the 18 sunshine proposals contained in the "Reed Reforms," a package that basically comprised his winning platform in the mayor's race. The SRTF agreed Saturday to approve, in concept, four of Reed's reforms (a sunshine ordinance; prohibitions on secret meeting by most city task forces, committees and commissions; release of appraisals for city real estate purchases upon deal finalization; and the recording of closed session meetings), and to refer another four back to council. The task force also endorsed a number of the "Sunshine Reforms" proposed in a March memo signed by Councilmembers Cindy Chavez, Judy Chirco, Linda Lezotte and Nancy Pyle in March. Among the foursome's ideas blessed by the task-forcers: creating a master calendar of all city meetings; requiring all city memos to have a staff contact and phone number; notifying city commissioners when matters they deliberated come before the city council; disclosing fraud hotline stats; requiring councilmembers to register conflicts of interests a day before a vote; posting the council policy manual online; and implementing more stringent procedures for $1 million-plus contracts. One Chavez-LeZotte idea rejected by the sunshiners would have allowed neighborhood association leaders to blab on for twice as long as the two minutes alloted to other groups, average citizens and assorted nut-jobs who address the council.

Petty Cash

We all knew money was tight, but Fly didn't think it would come to this. Retired San Jose police officer Ken Stewart was forced to take the city to small claims court to make good on a pecuniary promise city officials made him several years ago. On Nov. 1, he won reimbursement in Superior Court for petition fees he paid in July 2003: $1,914.25. It's no windfall, but Stewart's supporters said it was the least San Jose could do. The story began more than six years ago, when Stewart and his wife, Fredella, began to drum up support to rename San Jose's King Road in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Ken Stewart, 53, said the process initially met with support from many of the road's residents, the local post office and several City Council members. As the application process proceeded, however, racial tensions escalated between fans of the name change, many of whom were African American, and opponents, including Latino leaders who said that certain King Road intersections were important sites of the Chicano movement in the 1960s. The Stewarts pursued the project for several years and considered various ways to honor Dr. King before giving up their campaign, packing their bags and moving to Las Vegas. In October 2003, the couple agreed to withdraw their petition with the understanding that they would receive the petition fees back, recalls Craig Mann, who calls himself the "chief architect" of the discussions between the Stewarts and the city. Mann is on the Board of Trustees for the East Side Union High School District but, during the petition process, he was the chief of staff for former San Jose City Councilmember Terry Gregory. "Promises were made and the city didn't keep them. The way the city treated the Stewarts was poor," said Mann. "If they're chasing around good folks over $1,900, what else are they doing? It really should make people pause." It's not quite Ron Gonzales promising $11 million in city funds to a garbage company, but it's basically the same principle. From the city's perspective, Gregory, Mann and other city officials involved in the negotiation simply didn't have the authority to make promises about city money. City Attorney Richard Doyle said that only San Jose's finance director, city manager and the entire City Council have such power. In light of this, the Small Claims Court decision has no legal standing, Doyle said, so the city is considering whether or not to file an appeal. "We'll look at the decision and decide if it's something we want to commit more resources to," said Doyle. Looks like the defense isn't quite ready to rest.

Truth on Youth

In 2003, the Merc shocked readers with dozens of horror stories about Santa Clara County's Juvenile Hall counselors slamming boys into walls, smashing their faces on floors, and twisting and breaking their arms. There's nothing like sensational press coverage to light a fire under the butts of government officials: it set off a wave of investigations by the United States Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the district attorney, the local Juvenile Justice Commission and an independent consultant hired by the county. But while the flurry of attention spurred institutional improvements at the Hall, the findings of the investigations were underwhelming: the FBI and DA never pressed charges. The DOJ waited three years to release its report, which says that, "Overall, force appears to be used appropriately." The Juvenile Justice Commission conducted interviews with kids at the Hall and concluded, "Youth said they felt safe ... they never observed a counselor beating or attacking a youth." David Roush, a juvenile justice consultant hired by the county, wrote, "While we did not find evidence of systemic abuse, there were several areas of concern that have the potential to contribute to isolated incidents of excessive force." Juvenile Hall administrators have taken Roush's suggestions to boost staff training, revamp the youth grievance process and create an internal affairs unit—all while denying that any of the abuse allegations were credible. Members of the local probation and peace officers union, which represents the Hall staff, told Fly their reputation has been unfairly dragged through the mud. "Saying we're beating the kids is offensive to me," said Eric Parsons, a senior group counselor. Union leaders said the Merc won't admit that the meat of its exposé was never validated. We ran the union's complaint by county supe Blanca Alvarado, who oversaw the Hall reforms. She'd obviously heard it before. "They ought to get over it," she said. "They can't deny that some of the allegations were founded. The Hall is a whole different place than it was four years ago."

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