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Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Anti-spam poster boy Charles Booher faces federal charges.

Year in Review

WE HAD HOPED to report that all of our officials had spent public money frugally, operated transparently, guarded the environment, remained unsullied by financial conflicts and kept public interest first and foremost in their minds. But that will have to wait until another year.

In 2003, the electeds were only too happy to assist our news team in its mission of promoting public accountability and fiscal responsibility.

Too often the media is chided for reporting only "bad news." So we bring you this good report: a number of the stories we brought to light actually seem to have made a difference. Without the role played by watchdog media in keeping the powerful in check, more money would be wasted, more secret deals would be cut and special interests would have even greater sway over public policy at the average citizen's expense.

Coe Slow

Santa Clara Valley water officials considered building a 30-acre reservoir in Henry Coe State Park, a wilderness preserve a half-hour drive southeast of San Jose ("Damfoolery," May 15). Water officials claimed that the reservoir would consume only a small portion of the 86,000-acre park. Environmentalists feared that the man-made lake would destroy a pristine section of Pacheco Creek--and that water officials intended to eventually build a much larger body of water. A week after Metro's story broke, park advocates won a reprieve: water officials voted unanimously against flooding the Pacheco.

Creditgate

Metro exposed a pattern of financial mismanagement and cronyism under former East Side Union High School District Superintendent Joe Coto, but that didn't stop the area's business and party hacks from lining up behind Coto's state Assembly bid. Instead, Coto critic Craig Mann, a school board trustee who racked up close to 30 grand in sloppily documented credit card charges during his years of school board service, fell on his sword and resigned as a City Council staff chief after disclosures that he used his school board credit card to attend political conventions and buy a DVD-equipped PC. ("Ouch! to Lunch," Sept. 4). Board president J. Manuel Herrera, to whom Coto had also supplied a credit card, apologized for his bad record keeping and returned his plastic, as did Patricia Martinez-Roach, another trustee who had junketed to Costa Rica on a teacher-recruiting mission. In addition to Creditgate, which auditors and the district attorney are now looking into, eyebrows were raised when Metro reported that Coto received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from contractors to whom the school district had awarded fat six-figure construction contracts around the time Coto was gearing up for his Sacramento run ("Juice for Joe," Aug. 14).

Brother of All Spams

When testicular cancer survivor Charles Booher was arrested for emailing death threats to penis-enlargement pill spammers, the marketing firm owner whom he had threatened to castrate with crude gardening tools claimed the Sunnyvale computer geek had misplaced his spam rage. Newspapers around the world slavishly repeated the mistaken identity claim in dozens of languages.

In an interview with Metro, DM Contact Management's Douglas Mackay reiterated that his Victoria, B.C., firm sends no spam and, other than a client-vendor relationship, has no financial connection to the Bahamas-based "Leading Edge Marketing," a firm that stained the Internet with a huge plague of big-shlong emails. A simple check with British Columbia's corporate registry, however, blasted holes in Mackay's denials. Official records show that supplement seller Leading Edge is registered to one Geoffrey Mackay, Douglas Mackay's brother.

Ron and Hide

Ron Gonzales has always been an outgoing guy ("The Quiet Mayor," Sept. 18). When he first entered office in January 1999, he boasted that he was the first San Jose mayor to visit every city council in Santa Clara County. But after his personal indiscretions were aired in public, Gonzales turned mute, brushing off interview requests even from respectable big-media journalists. Gonzales' PR flaks defend the practice by saying Gonzales doesn't want to talk about frivolous subjects. Fair enough. But who better to defend Gonzales' promise to make San Jose the best-managed city in the world than the man who uttered those very words?

Doubling Down

City officials were discovered in July to be backsliding on a promise to voters to sell or lease the current City Hall once a new civic building is constructed next year ("City Hall Invasion," July 24). Voters agreed in 1996 to fund the new building provided the cost was offset by the "consolidation of city facilities and services." City officials argued they were consolidating but that the city workforce had grown significantly since voters signed off on the City Hall measure.

Toxic Rain

An October probe into San Jose's control over toxins at a major residential development site found alarming room for improvement ("Breathing Uneasy," Oct. 9). Since condos built on south San Jose's Communications Hill sit atop asbestos-producing serpentine rock, the city has a multivolume agreement with developer KB Home to be careful when disturbing the ground. So residents worried when they saw ground debris from the hilltop development wafting toward their condo complex. A lab test conducted at Metro's request found no traces of cancer-causing asbestos in a debris sample taken from the site. Nevertheless, the developer's apparent failure to follow the letter of the dust-abatement rules and the city's nonchalance about that compliance level raised a red flag. "People need to be spot checked every once in a while," South Bay Superfund Site guardian Erik Yunker commented at the time. "Somebody should be enforcing those requirements."

Popping Bonuses

Faced with cutbacks in city services and the threat of laying off city workers, you might expect City Manager Del Borgsdorf to do the responsible thing and hold firm on executive salaries ("Public Consumption," Jan. 30; "That's Why I Get the Big Bucks," Feb. 6). Get real. Instead, he dished out more than $328,000 to 37 high-level administrators, saying the executives earned the bonuses. Rank-and-file employees were naturally tweaked about their bosses' bonuses. During a February meeting to clear the air, workers asked Borgsdorf if he'd take a pay cut. His answer: Get real.

Shick Kick

San Jose's Redevelopment Agency began to disintegrate as its tax increment revenues collapsed, criticism mounted and deals failed to materialize. Additionally, the agency was forced to call off efforts to work its mojo on San Jose's East Side when a judge rebuffed an eminent-domain grab of the Latin-flavored Tropicana shopping center at King and Story roads.

Metro published Michael Malone's essay "Let's Get It Right This Time," a scathing criticism of San Jose's "succession of Soviet-style five-year plans." Real cities, he wrote, "exhibit a complexity that cannot be captured by ... even the wildest imaginings of a professional urban planner. Great cities are about random juxtapositions, about unexpected discoveries." The editor's note to the Sept. 18 piece predicted RDA exec Susan Shick's imminent departure. On Oct. 14, a city press release announced her retirement, along with comments from Mayor Gonzales praising her handful of accomplishments.

King of All Medians

On Oct. 9, Metro "Underbelly" columnist Eric Carlson caught wind of what he called "a foul plan to change the name of King Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Road." The unpublicized proposal might have slid past the San Jose City Council without much fuss, but a Metro news article the following week drew attention to the issue, over which residents in the King Road area were divided and about which they had been poorly informed. After the NAACP, in the interest of community harmony, failed to back the proposal, the renaming proponents, a couple of ex-San Joseans who live in Las Vegas, withdrew their plan and began shopping for an expressway or other thoroughfare with which to appropriately honor the great civil rights leader.

Blue Sweep

Despite much community criticism, the San Jose Police Department has held firm to its policy of emptying nightclubs at closing time with a large-scale uniformed presence. A proposal allowing clubs to stop serving alcohol and remain open past 2am, pushed by downtown advocates, has yet to gain traction. If nightclubs remain open, serving coffee and soft drinks until a few hours after last call, the logic runs, patrons would trickle out on their own instead of having to be prodded along like cattle.

Police responded they would have to work longer hours to monitor the parking lots when the patrons finally decided to leave. In a June Metro interview, Chief Bill Lansdowne estimated the cost to be an extra $2.4 million, but no firm data exists to support that figure. "It's a myth what the bar owners are telling us--coffee doesn't do it. You need open air, bright lights; if you're still in a bar, then it's just a continuation of the dating game," said Lansdowne, now San Diego's police chief.

Mad County Disease

County officials were a bit more clever than San Jose administrators when it came to justifying hefty executive pay increases this year ("County's Bounty," Feb. 13). Faced with a $174 million budget deficit, county supervisors approved in February more than $657,000 in bonus money for 171 county administrators. The reason? Unions had successfully negotiated a 6 percent pay increase for county workers the year before.

The principle of rewarding executives for the simple act of paying their labor force better is known as "compaction." To make matters worse, county brass has shrouded managerial compensation behind a gauze of secrecy, refusing to disclose bonuses and actual pay figures. Requests from Metro's reporters and open-government attorneys were met with foot-dragging, legal arguments, incomplete responses or misleading and inaccurate figures, ensuring that citizens of Santa Clara County are still in the dark about how their tax dollars are really being spent.

Touch-a Touch-a Touch-Screen

In January, Santa Clara County Supervisors doled out $17 million for 5,500 new touch-screen voting machines ("Is It Safe Yet?," June 5). Then the bad news arrived. In the event of a contested election, there was no way to verify whom voters voted for. Supervisors backtracked somewhat, approving a backup paper system for 15 of 300 precincts in the November election. If that wasn't controversial enough, the voting machines were also tainted with charges of influence peddling. Former county Registrar Kathryn Ferguson works for Sequoia Voting Systems, which won the contract to supply the machines. Meanwhile, county Supervisor Liz Kniss aggressively lobbied for Hewlett-Packard to land the contract even though the company wasn't involved in the initial bidding process ("Kniss Takes Stock," March 6). Millionaire Kniss is married to an ex-HP exec; she and her husband owned millions of dollars worth of stock before cashing in several years ago.

Rude Warriors

2003 witnessed a few major steps in perhaps the state's most intriguing free speech battle ("InterNot Free Speech," March 27). The First Amendment warriors are Michelangelo Delfino and Mary Day, two filthy-mouthed ex-Varian employees sued by the Palo Alto-based company for posting more than 20,000 inflammatory messages on the web. Conversely, free-speech advocacy groups dislike the two because of their rude behavior.

Delfino and Day gleefully give the finger right back. The two might not have much support in their corner, but they do have a heat-seeking missile of an attorney willing to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The saga that begun five years ago doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon. And even though everyone's sick of reading about these two, the issues surrounding free-speech rights in Cyberia are too important to ignore.

Jaws of Justice

It was no surprise to learn this year that the county's popular sheriff, Laurie Smith, would get the opportunity to work with her pal Arnold Schwarzenegger if she wanted to go stateside. The eyebrow raiser was just how ready to fill Smith's boots her underlings are (Public Eye, "Shooting Stars," Nov. 6).

Deputy Sheriffs' Association president Jose Salcido led the parade of eager beavers. "I'm not just thinking about it," Salcido told Metro in November. "My intentions are to apply." Salcido could get bitten, however, by reports that he went to bat for allowing a dangerous canine named Scooby to live in a residential neighborhood. The police pooch made the news by clamping onto a black lab and failing to let go ("Master Biter," Dec. 4). What's worse was that Scooby's partner, Deputy Sheriff Julie Wilbanks, was by his side throughout the bloody ordeal. Metro obtained an internal document revealing that Wilbanks, supposedly trained to handle her partner, was instead "crying and screaming at Scooby to get off Jake," the victim, to no avail.

The Trouble With Larry

On June 10, the family of 73-year-old Ralph Santos reported their "Pops" missing hours after he failed to pick up one of his grandkids from school ("Chief Concerns," July 17). Acting Hollister Police Chief Larry Todd failed to take the report seriously, assigning a rookie detective to the case. Big mistake. Santos was found dead June 19 in a mustard field on the edge of town. An entire week later, Hollister cops finally issued a stolen-vehicle report, leading Stockton cops to arrest two farmworkers.

The Santos affair wasn't the first missing-persons case Chief Todd bungled. In July 2001, a 42-year-old Los Gatos woman named Jeanine Harms was reported missing after a night out on the town ("Whatever Happened to Jeanine Harms?" March 20). Todd was Los Gatos' chief of police at the time. His department failed to label Harms' disappearance a homicide until months after she was discovered missing. Todd was also reluctant to allow assistance from the San Jose Police Department. Unlike Santos' case, police have made no arrests in connection with Harms' disappearance.


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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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