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Too Hot to Hold: Yet another SJ fire chief abandons post after short stint.

Public Eye

Where's the Fire?

SJ Fire Chief Manuel Alarcon is outta there, he told his troops privately on Jan. 13, less than three years after taking the frequently vacated hot seat at the head of the valley's largest fire department. Internal rumblings are that Alarcon--the first Latino fire chief and a Nam vet in his mid-'50s who worked his way up the department ranks--was being squeezed out because someone has to take the fall for letting the Santana Row fire burn up Moorpark neighborhood homes in August. But the official word from the city manager's office is that Alarcon is just ready to retire after 26 years of putting out fires, both inside and outside the department headquarters. "He's been talking about retiring ever since I met him," city spokesman Tom Manheim assures Eye. The outgoing chief himself, in a sometimes harsh media spotlight during recent months, did not return Eye's calls by presstime. ... Alarcon was first appointed to the post in March 2000 by City Manager Del Borgsdorf, one year after Robert Dorman retired and left Bruce Staples in his place as acting chief. In fact, the city's fire department has seen a string of chiefs--and acting chiefs-- breeze through in the last couple of decades, including Raymond Brooks, Robert Osby and Donald Kelley. The new acting chief will be current No. 2 guy Dale Foster, according to Manheim. So what's the city going to do to keep the next guy around for more than Alarcon's couple of years? "Any time you do a recruitment you obviously want to find the best person for the job and someone who can commit to the job," Manheim says. But, he adds, "a specific time commitment isn't written into a contract." Alarcon's retirement is effective Jan. 26.

Too Sexy for His State

A little hinting at a future run for governorship and Mayor Ron Gonzales is still getting kicked in the kisser, editorial-style, over his 21/2-year-old extramarital indiscretion with former aide Guisselle Nuñez, news which, faithful readers will recall, was broken in this space in 2000. Gonzales' media handler David Vossbrink couldn't be reached by presstime to respond to recent jabs in the Sacramento Bee about the San Jose mayor's reputation getting in the way of any planned move up the state ladder. After mentioning that the SJ kingpin had dropped hints about seeking higher office, the capital-based Bee added: "Gonzales didn't discuss how his nascent campaign would deal with the sex scandal that gripped San Jose and ended his 22-year marriage." Still, the mayor has started a political action committee and he spoke up at one swearing-in ceremony in Sacramento about coveting Gray Davis' position. Rumormongers are also wondering if he'll go for state treasurer or lieutenant governor seats.

Protest Local

A quirky, fundamentalist Muslim sect attacks New York, and so the American president wants to bomb Iraq for making nuclear weapons that U.S. inspectors can't find. OK, that's not making sense. In fact, George W. Bush's wacky trigger finger confuses many people around the country who are planning another round of peace rallies on Jan. 18 in places like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Perhaps discontent among the normally complacent masses is growing. Now the protest bug has even hit San Jose, a town not known for its political activism. "I read a lot of news, and I just can't connect the dots," says Richard Ajluni. Ajluni, a 43-year-old downtown San Jose resident, sits on the city's Arts Commission, and that's usually as political as he gets. But now he's revved up. "It's just starting to get under my skin," he says. "Nobody seems to be behind the war." Seeing a void of local political organizing, Ajluni started rallying his neighborhood troops in an effort to bring the protest home. So, for those who don't want to or can't get to San Francisco on Sat., Jan. 18, Ajluni invites all to head to St. James Park at 10:30am to speak out against impending war in Iraq. The schedule includes a walk beginning at noon and heading to the Plaza de Cesar Chavez by 1pm.

Budget Choppers

For chrissakes! It's starting to seem like Santa Clara County has its own little flamboyant Willie Brown in Sheriff Laurie Smith (minus the pimpin' outfits). Smith, who got her department to buy its first helicopter and use her initials and birthdate on the vanity plate, took it for a spin recently ... to Sacramento for Guv. Gray Davis' swearing-in bash. (Not your usual official sheriff business.) And this in the face of county budget cuts forcing the Sheriff's Department to hack off an estimated 23 percent of its workforce. But the county's fiscal irony continues as its spin machine hypes its fiscal planning prowess. While headlines feature the downward spiraling of the state and county budgets and the upward spiraling of their hefty deficits, the county sent out a press release on Jan. 8 announcing the imminent exit of its executive Richard Wittenberg, trumpeting the money-saving job he's done as county leader for the last eight of his 37 years in public service. "Richard is the finest administrator in the state," gushed outgoing Supervisor and board chairman Don Gage in the release. The best thing he did, as far as one can tell from the two-page tribute, was "expanding the county's reserves from $12 million to $96 million and developing fiscal strategies that led the county to obtain the highest bond ratings issued to any California county," which helped Santa Clara County deal with the recession. But Wittenberg--who has graced the pages of Eye for, among other accomplishments, raking in the second-largest amount of dough of any county exec in the state--did more than pinch pennies, some insiders suggest. "Richard, while he was sort of low-key about it, he wasn't afraid to terminate deadwood. He did it very professionally and without fanfare," recounts County Taxman Larry Stone. "The quality of the executive team has improved significantly since he's been there. Of all the things he's done, that stands out as the biggest." Stone adds, "One of the problems with the press release is that it gives Richard credit for things he did collaboratively." Boosting the county reserves, for example, wasn't really all Wittenberg's baby. "Nobody does it alone," explains Assemblyman Joe Simitian, who served on the county board from 1996 to 2000 and, together with Gage, was a main architect of the reserve-boost effort. "I was the chair of the board Finance and Government Operations Committee my first two years. I put a lot of my time and effort into the fiscal strength of the county," Simitian says. Not one to hog the glory, he stresses Wittenberg's help with filling the county piggy bank. "We worked as partners along with other members of the board," Simitian says of his outgoing fiscal buddy. "To call him frugal is to understate the case." Too bad he won't be around to show off his spendthriftiness in the coming year, which promises to be like an X Games for the fiscally minded.

Kniss and Make Up

County Supe Liz Kniss had to do some fast explaining last week to ticked-off Italian-Americans who don't think Christopher Columbus should be relegated to the status of a Hallmark holiday. It seems that the whole brouhaha erupted after Kniss' board colleague Blanca Alvarado came up with the idea to honor late farmworkers' union leader Cesar Chavez by proclaiming April 1, 2002, a holiday. But in order to create a new holiday, with time off for county employees and everything, cash must be spent. (It costs an estimated $650,000 or more to make a new holiday.) So Kniss suggested a penny-pinching idea to honor Chavez Day by tacking it on to the existing Columbus Day, a holiday swap pioneered in Los Angeles. "What we said was, what ways are there for us to celebrate Cesar Chavez?" Kniss told Eye last week, indicating that she was just trying to be creative and never meant anything against Columbus Day or the people who value the Italian-born man's sailing of the ocean blue in 1492. "I've certainly heard from enough Italians to know that they want to keep Columbus Day." She also noted that her birthday is the day before Columbus Day. So for her, it's like two holidays in a row, which is super. But that's not the message conveyed in a perhaps culturally insensitive Mercury News bit published on Dec. 22 that quoted her as saying, "On this particular coast, it doesn't seem to have great relevance." Kniss kissed up to the offended by making a special appearance at the Florence, Italy, Sister County Commission meeting at the county building on Jan. 8. One anonymous Italian-American who attended the meeting said Kniss' clarification of her position was well received. In fact, Eye's source, who asked not be named, said Italian-Americans were less offended by Kniss' quote than by a comment column writers Mike Zapler, Kate Folmar, Rodney Foo and Ann Marimow made. "We promise not to tell the guys at Bada Bing," the columnists concluded, a poorly received joke about televised Italian stereotypes. According to Eye's source, Kniss jokingly referred to Internal Affairs as "the trash column." We, on the other hand, refer to it as a Public Eye knockoff. That said, she didn't deny having suggesting the holiday exchange. And, in fact, the Palo Alto City Council bounced around the idea of renaming Columbus Day "Indigenous People Day" in 1993 when Kniss was a Palo Alto councilmember. She told Eye she doesn't remember supporting that idea. "I think it was good of her to go down there and explain her position," said Phil Barone, president of the Italian-American Heritage Foundation, a 1,000-member San Jose-based group that claims to run the West Coast's largest and oldest Italian Cultural Center.

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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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