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Columns
12.31.08

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The Year in FLY

Stop the Merc, I Want to Get Off

The way the top jobs at the Mercury News keep getting shuffled around, it's beginning to look like a game of musical chairs set to speed-metal. Friday's edition announced the hire of the paper's fourth editor-in-chief in five years. The new new guy, David J. Butler, arrives from Miami, replacing Carol Leigh Hutton, who was hired last May to replace Susan Goldberg, who replaced David Yarnold in 2003. The newspaper has seen four publishers come and go over that same period. Seems like it's time for MediaNews to consider returning the newspaper to its original name: the San Jose Visitor. —Jan. 9


Vision Thing

While zooming above San Jose in a zero-emission hovercraft made possible by Mayor Chuck Reeds Green Vision plan, Fly was thinking that—wait, what? Oh yeah, we didn't get a hovercraft! In fact, we haven't gotten much news about Green Vision since it rocked city politics in October with an ambitious if somewhat abstract plan for green revolution in South Bay government. But not to worry, we'll be seeing green again soon. Over the holidays, Reed met with all factions of Silicon Valley's solar industry. Collin O'Mara, clean-tech policy strategist in the city's Office of Economic Development, says December's Solar Summit was designed to pinpoint what's holding back the industry. The verdict, at least in part: red tape. —Jan. 9


Swimsuit Issues

We all know that statistics lie, especially when they don't back up your position. San Jose City Councilman Pete Constant certainly wasn't too happy with the data presented at a recent council committee hearing that showed that the city's libraries are relatively free of sexual misconduct and lewd behavior. This only weakened his argument that San Jose needs Internet filters to block porn sites in the city's libraries. The city's chief librarian, Jane Light, said that over the last two years there have only been three reported arrests for any incidents of sexual nature at the various libraries. She pointed out, in not so many words, that men have been roping the pony to library materials since long before the Internet existed—although the sexiest examples she could think of were Sports Illustratedand art books, which just seems so 1981. — Jan. 30


Escape From Mountain View

Mountain View politics hasn't been the same since two of its best-known gadflies, Don Letcherand Jim Lohse, dropped off the radar. They rocked the city's establishment in 2006, but what happened to them? Well, Letcher is still in business, and we got a rather paranoid phone call from him last week. He's still angry that he can't register to vote as a resident of Mountain View and missed out on the recent local election. Now Letcher is convinced the city is sending police officers to keep an eye on him at public meetings, where he's famous for stirring up public comment sessions with his gruff contrarianism. Letcher also believes city officials are after Lohse for federal election fraud. Lohse had planned on running for Mountain View City Council by citing City Hall and the local hospital as his voting addresses. But he never made it onto the ballot and shortly after the 2006 election moved out of town. Fly didn't even know how to reach him until recently, when he called us from somewhere in Nevada—we're not supposed to say exactly where. —Feb. 6


Political Dynasty

Sensational publicity was a good thing for Alan Wong's Dynasty Seafood Restaurant. The upscale joint in east San Jose serves expensive Chinese food and got famous in 2004 for its pricey "Crystal Crab" enjoyed by ousted San Jose Councilmember Terry Gregory. Even though Gregory lost his job for, among other things, placing takeout orders at Dynasty and forgetting to bring his wallet, the place seems to be thriving. It opened a second location in Cupertino, which seats 1,000 diners, just before the Gregory scandal hit the press. The San Jose Dynasty on Story Road still hosts important political functions and community events. And it's gotten a new lease on political life as a popular spot for Mayor Chuck Reed, including the lunar new year celebration. Reed's spokeswomanMichelle McGurk doesn't sweat the connection. "It's really not that big a deal," she says. But the fiscally tight Reed is certainly aware of the significance. He made sure to let us know that he stays far away from the Crystal Crab room whenever he goes to Dynasty. —Feb. 13


Political Hack

Even though he's facing a three-year jail term if he's convicted of hacking into email accounts at City Hall, political whiz kid Eric Hernandez was out of jail within hours, in time for the sunny weekend. Law enforcement officials offered few details over the holiday weekend, leading to furious speculation over whether the 19-year-old Hernandez acted on his own to embarrass Mayor Chuck Reed and Councilman Sam Liccardo, or whether he was part of a larger political initiative. What is known is that material from his alleged hacking expeditions appeared on a website politically aligned with the South Bay Labor Council. The blog site immediately went into damage control, suggesting but not specifically stating that its anonymous editors had no knowledge of any criminal acts that may have produced the leak and empathizing, Hernandez appears to have been politically active in the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Cindy Chavez, in addition to working on her staff as an intern. —Feb. 20


The Best Defense

Accused City Hall hacker Eric Hernandez showed up for his arraignment on Friday, represented by one of the valley's most expensive criminal attorneys. Attorney Benjamin Williams appeared and dropped the bombshell that Hernandez had retained his boss, superstar lawyer Steve Manchester, to handle the case. "He's the best guy to hire if I was accused of first degree murder," one of our legal experts opined. "He handles the biggest guys who are in the deepest shit." Another member of the bar offered similar praise for Manchester's acumen. "His shit's better than Alan's these days"—a reference to Alan Ruby, the lawyer who handles Barry Bonds and got Ron Gonzales' bribery charges waxed. (We doubt either of these testimonials will wind up on Manchester's website.) No clues about how the teenage intern from one of San Jose's poorest neighborhoods got Manchester's business card or is paying the defense costs. Let's just say our calls to South Bay Labor Council executive Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins went unreturned. —March 5


Cold Calling

San Jose Mercury News employees already know the drill—just stay home and wait by the phone. It took about two hours on Friday for Merc executives to call employees and inform them they no longer had a job. Between buy-outs and layoffs, the Merc lost a total of 50 positions in this round of cuts, half of which came out of the newsroom. Newsroom layoffs include City Hall vet Barry Witt, reporters Erik Olvera and Connie Skipitares and 49ers beat writer Dennis Georgatos. It's a harsh blow for a newsroom that has already been hit three times over the last year with layoffs. —March 12


He'll Drink to That

Maybe San Jose's City Council can survive accusations of scandal, threats of recall and weekly protests at City Hall. But there's no chance they could overcome being known as the council that let a Vietnamese man starve himself to death on the steps of City Hall. Mayor Chuck Reed was savvy enough to see that, and Reed put an end to Ly Tong's month-long hunger strike last week when he agreed to give the Vietnamese community what they want. The mayor quickly struck a deal with Tong, agreeing to ask the council to allow for a "Little Saigon" sign to hang over the Vietnamese retail area along Story Road. —March 19


Rail Against the Machine

Instead of spending spring break in Cancun or Key West this week, a group of college kids from across the Bay Area will be going wild in the streets of California, traveling the state to campaign for high-speed rail. They even claimed to be excited about it. Think of them as Rod Diridon Sr. 's nerd army. They started Monday morning in San Francisco, swinging through San Jose, a future bullet train stop. At City Hall—where they sported T-shirts and stickers reading "I'd rather be riding light rail"—they joined with Mayor Reed and other elected officials. Some students brought their bikes along, but mostly they are driving cars, just to make their point, which is—oh yeah, that they would rather be riding light rail. —March 26


One Hand Slapping

Watergate started as a simple burglary when a night watchman spotted a taped doorjamb at the Watergate apartment complex. The discovery led to a trail of dirty tricks that tracked to the Nixon White House. Was Eric Hernandez 's break-in to email accounts at City Hall the tape on the door, linked to a Nixonian effort to dredge dirt about the personal lives of politicians, journalists and business leaders critical of South Bay Labor Council's political initiatives and post it to the web? The public will never know, thanks to a rushed settlement by the Santa Clara County district attorney's office, which under DA Dolores Carr, has shown little interest in prosecuting political cases. —April 2


Look at Me, I'm Tough

Nora Campos wants to be seen as the councilmember who's tough on gangs, and lately she's kicked her posturing into overdrive. She was the lone dissenter on a vote to spend 50 grand to pay for a media attention. The District 5 council rep made a point to say that the city shouldn't be spending money on PR campaigns when there is a fast-growing gang problem in San Jose. Campos has only become this outspoken about gang problems in the last few months, after she was removed from the mayor's gang prevention task force earlier this year, mostly because the mayor said she was not showing up at enough meetings. —April 23


Look at Me, I'm Singing!

Or maybe what San Jose needs is a feel-good theme song to help put the city on the map. That's what San Jose City Councilman Forrest Williams thinks, anyway. At last week's council discussion, where the group was considering ways to promote the city's best features to help draw business and visitors, Williams suggested the city write a song that will make San Jose well known across the globe, and even said he would consider taking it to the arts commission as a proposal. —April 23


I Love a StaffIn Uniform

Everybody's crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed staff. At least that's how Pete Constant sees it; in fact, the District 1 councilman had his very own Pete Constant uniform made for his staff last month. He had jackets, dress shirts, polo shirts and even lapel pins made with a Pete Constant District 1 logo that he designed. It's not required attire, but staffers are encouraged to attend community events and other District 1 festivities donning the Pete Constant clothing line. The new district dress has made Constant's staff the brunt of endless jokes on the 18th floor at City Hall. And yet, Constant says a handful of constituents have asked about buying their own Pete Constant jacket or shirt. —April 30


Beer Run

There are two issues guaranteed to get College Republicans frothing: taxes and beer. So District 24 Assemblyman Jim Beall shouldn't have been surprised to see college Republicans from around the Bay Area descending on San Jose last Friday to protest his proposed increase in the state beer tax. Beall, a member of the Assembly Select Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, wants a 30-cent tax increase on every can or bottle of suds sold in the state. The money would create a trust fund to help pay for alcohol-related health care and other booze-related causes. To the GOP Jr., though, this is nothing short of social injustice. The protest came to a head when students poured into the streets in front of Beall's downtown San Jose office. Their ringleader, UCSF student Leigh Wolf, said, "I don't understand why you want to tax the one thing we enjoy. I enjoy beer. And you're making it almost impossible to enjoy it the way we like to enjoy it." "Well, good," said Beall. Later, Wolf invited the other protesters to go drinking with him at Gordon Biersch. —April 30


Google Eyed

With the "distraction" (Jerry Yang's words, not ours) of the Microsoft-Yahoo! dance behind us, Silicon Valley can get back to normal. And normal, for us, is wondering what the Next Big Deal will be. Some tea leaves can be read in a study of Google Inc.'s domain name portfolio, recently posted to the web by the fine folks at Pingdom.com. A few potential acquisition targets can be plucked from the list: googletimewarner.com, ebay-google.com and googlewarnerbros.com. Anyone with too much time on their hands can download and scroll the list for a window into the search giant's web strategies. In some cases, like googlemercury.com, it's hard to tell whether Google's webmasters entertained designs on the newspaper or the planet, though it could be both. And there are some early days registrations that the company was probably a little embarrassed about, like besteurotits.com, that it moved out of its public portfolio. —May 7


I Don't Hear the Train A-Comin'

South County narrowly missed earning itself a Darwin Award when a Gilroy teenager survived being hit by a northbound Union Pacific freight train. The 19-year-old, who had been sitting on a railroad tie near Leavesly Road while listening to his earphones, apparently didn't hear the locomotive approaching him on the tracks. Though the train's conductor used repeated horn signals, the teen was struck in the torso by the train's cowcatcher as it passed. Miraculously, police reported that the teenager sustained only non-life-threatening injuries from the accident. —May 14


World's Worst Spoke Cards

Did last Thursday's Bike to Work Day in San Jose prove that no good deed goes unpunished? One biker in San Jose got pulled over by the police while riding along Santa Clara Street. The bicyclist was outraged at receiving multiple citations from the SJPD officer, including tickets for riding without a headlight, no rear reflector, changing lanes without signaling and running a red light. Turns out Bike to Work Day is not the free pass participants might imagine. "Cyclists are no different than people driving cars," said San Jose Sgt. Mike Sullivan. Participants in Drive All Crazy On The Sidewalk Day, take note. —May 21


Just Like Starting Over

We knew the job market was tough, but this is ridiculous. When San Jose Councilmember Forrest Williams' term is up this year, he plans to reinvent himself—as an intern. Specifically, as an intern for county Supervisor Don Gage. Williams' internship could pay off better than most: he plans to run for Gage's seat in 2010. "I want to know all the things I don't know," Williams said. "I want be in him and be in his shadow and see what it is he does." Sounds more like a stalker than an intern, but not to worry. Although Gage is a Republican and Williams is a Democrat, the two are good friends. —June 25


Sketchy Politics

The thought of Internet filter champion Pete Constant with a ball-gag in his mouth, being whipped by a dominatrix, might be a fantasy for free-speech advocates. Fantasy turned to reality Monday night as actress Krista Kelly strapped on bondage gear and flagellated the conservative councilman in front of San Jose's political elite at San Jose Stage's annual Monday Night Live production. Kelly, a District 6 resident, seemed to enjoy whipping Pete a little too much. "Even Sally Lieber can't save you now," she screamed. "They took a fire engine away from us," she explained afterward. "He voted against us." The annual production, now 15 years running, has gotten bawdier and racier over the years (straight arrow Mayor Chuck Reed didn't last the whole show). Other highlights: Obama-lookalike software engineer C.J. Blankenship's one-handed pushups on a spread-legged Hillary impersonator. —July 2


The Italian Job

It seemed like the grassroots effort to name a San Jose neighborhood Little Italy was cruising along with the grace of a Ferrari on a Formula One track. But in case anyone was getting ready to start belting out "Funiculý, FuniculÓ" prematurely, the lessons of Little Saigon should have been a warning: Members of an ethnic group don't always sing to the same sheet music. The horse-head in the bed in this case was an Aug. 26 email grenade lobbed by one of the godfathers of the local Italian-American community to a mailing list of about 75 people, most of whose last names end in a vowel. The loosely linked coalition was developing momentum to convert a decrepit stretch of North 13th Street, near Japantown, into a stretch of Italian restaurants, cannoli bakeries and spumoni joints. Then Frank Fiscalini, the former vice mayor, weighed in with the view that "there are other locations in the city that have a significant Italian history." Specifically, Fiscalini suggested that "the River St./St. John area ... was a major enclave for Italians during the early history of our city." Then, sprinkling some leprechaun dust into the mix, Fiscalini suggested, "Furthermore, I would think the developers of San Pedro Square would welcome a Little Italy development in the area." Given the emotional nature of ethnic wars, city officials may hesitate before biting into this meatball. But as Fly sees it, city officials should relax a little on this one. We just can't imagine Italians going on a hunger strike. —Sept. 24


Mean Streets

San Jose police welcomed the nightclub WET to town by closing the SoFA district, four blocks of it, from Reed to San Carlos streets between Market and Second. The well-attended opening, possibly a downtown record-setter for a new club, drew lines nearly a block long, including many clubbers who couldn't make it past the velvet rope to the sold-out venue. Wet features a live shark aquarium and falling water features in the old deco-era Studio movie theater, which previously housed Polly Esther's, Cabana and Glo. The large sucking sound echoing through the empty street was from precious tax dollars being spent to supervise a crowd that turned out to be well behaved, as club security handled patrons capably. Nonetheless, at least a dozen cruisers stacked up on three sides of the intersection. Clumps of police stood on two corners. Officers in commando outfits adopted aggressive, wide stances in the middle of First Street, with thumbs in their belts and hands on their service revolvers. A PD videographer filmed patrons on the sidewalk outside the club. This was all much ado about nothing. We repeat, nothing happened. Calls to the SJPD press office and downtown entertainment zone supervisor Brian Kneis. —Oct. 24


Double Take

San Jose Councilwoman Nora Campos made a brief appearance at City Hall recently when she parachuted into the middle of a council committee hearing, asking the group to vote a second time on a plan to extend living wages to all airport workers. The vote had already gone her way, mind you, but why shouldn't city government drop everything to make her feel included? Campos, who has been out on maternity leave, was watching the council meeting at home with her newborn when she decided to call a baby sitter and drive over to City Hall. About 20 minutes after the group had closed the issue with a 2-1 vote to bring the living wage proposal to the full council later this month, Campos came marching into the meeting and requested they do it once more, with feeling. As she took her seat, Councilman Sam Liccardo, the lone dissenter on the living wage plan, left the room. While he was outside making a brief phone call, the committee went ahead and quickly revoted with Campos supporting proposal. —Oct. 22


Tzu Me

One might figure our mellow Mayor Chuck Reedto be a devotee of the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, rather than Sun Tzu (no relation), author of The Art of War. But Reed seems to be following that book's most famous piece of advice: "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." The word around the 18th floor in City Hall is that San Jose Councilwoman Nora Camposis on the short list to be the next vice mayor, now that Dave Cortese is termed out of office. Campos is the Chuckster's biggest political foe. She has hinted at running against him in the next mayoral election. And—let's face it—Chuck and Nora don't exactly have the same agendas. Remember when Reed booted Campos from his gang prevention task force last year, saying she was a no-show for meetings? That had to be embarrassing, especially given that she'd been positioning herself as the anti-gang warrior-woman of east San Jose. Since then, Campos has taken to combative, no-quarter-given political posturing when it comes to the mayor. —Nov. 11


U-Turn of Phrase

In a video that was circulated among City Hall insiders last week, District 8 Council Candidate Pat Waite can be seen addressing a rally in favor of the recall effort against District 7 CouncilmemberMadison Nguyen. Word of the appearance set off a storm of controversy, and Waite immediately began to backtrack. He sent an email to Nguyen in which he performed a verbal tap-dance to explain that the "rumor" of his support for the recall was untrue. On the video, Waite says, "I look forward to working with you on the recall." Waite insisted that was not an indication of support. Nor this: "What you've proven to me is that our democratic process works, and that we can make it listen to us. Because it was not listening to you and you stood up and said, 'No, I will not tolerate this,' and 5,181 signatures later, we're all here, and you're going to get your recall election, and that's fantastic."—Nov. 5


The Mumbai Merc

The idea sounded so weird, it was as if someone had snuck a clip from The Onion into Fly's Sunday New York Times. But there it was: NYT columnist Maureen Dowd, writing about the work of local newspaper reporters being outsourced to India. It seems that Southern California publisher James Macpherson has hired reporters in Bangalore to write about everything from the Pasadena Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony to city politics. He calls it "glocal" journalism. It gets better (or worse): big-time newspaper publisher Dean Singleton, owner of our very own San Jose Mercury News (and every other Bay Area newspaper but the Chron) has endorsed the idea. Singleton pointed out that most of the pre-production work at his newspapers has already been outsourced to India, and suggested that he might task one news desk to handle all of his 50-plus papers. "In today's world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, it doesn't matter." Singleton is typically unapologetic: "Too many whining editors, reporters and newspaper unions continue to bark at the dark, thinking their barks will make the night go away ... and the staffing in newsrooms will suddenly begin to grow again." Meanwhile, the man the N.Y. Times once labeled "the industry's leading skinflint" suffers through the hard times in one of his half-dozen homes, which include several Colorado ranches, a summer place on Cape Cod and a primary residence in Denver boasting 11 bathrooms and an elevator. —Dec. 10


Rogue in the Ranks

About 10 men were arrested at club closing time at South First and San Salvador streets in the SoFA district early Sunday morning when several fights spilled into the street. Police standing by quickly grabbed and handcuffed the suspected combatants to maintain order and assure a smooth, safe exit for patrons. Two officers, including entertainment zone head Sgt. Brian Kneis, videotaped patrons as they shuffled to their cars, a couple of whom paused to vomit on local businesses. After most of the clubgoers left the area, a Metro journalist snapped two iPhone photos of one handcuffed arrestee in the middle of South First Street surrounded by six officers and being held face-down on the pavement. An officer on the scene decided that was a little too much of the First Amendment for him and ordered the iPhotographer out of shooting distance. The iPhotographer held up SJPD press credentials and snapped one more photo. The officer cited the photojournalist for California Vehicle Code Section 21956 (b), which is intended to keep pedestrians from wandering out into unsafe traffic. (Traffic was not a problem since the street was closed at the time, since the suspect was lying next to the road striping in the center of First Street.) Club management later confirmed that two one-on-one fights occurred outside a club, one of which was brought under control by club security, the other by SJPD. And the good police work that the San Jose Police Department does in maintaining public safety, evident in the speed with which incidents on Sunday morning were prevented from spiraling out of control, is being tarnished by the occasional butthead who thinks citing a journalist or downtown patron on a technical violation is a proper exercise of his constitutional powers. —Dec. 17


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