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CC Me: 'Palo Alto Weekly' Chief Bill Johnson wants to read the council's emails.

Public Eye

Sleepless in Palo Alto

Local officeholders and support staff could be leaning pretty heavily on the delete keys this week after the news that two newspapers are suing the city of Palo Alto, demanding the release of hitherto private emails between councilmembers and city staff. The Palo Alto Weekly and the San Jose Mercury News insist that the city produce, as a matter of public record, all emails connected to a special closed-session meeting in late October at which the performance of City Attorney Ariel Calonne was apparently discussed (personnel issues are always handled in private). Some say the real reason for the October meeting, which has erupted into a bitter feud, was to discuss a complaint that Calonne emailed to councilmembers regarding lightning rod Councilmember Nancy Lytle after she publicly contradicted him during a council meeting. The newspapers also want records of any actions taken at the closed-door meeting to be disclosed. (The councilmembers maintain that no tapes, records, logs or minutes of the meeting exist.) Though the two suits seek the same end, the papers filed by the Weekly swipe at the City Council, pointedly accusing the members of being "dysfunctional," violating open-meeting laws and making improper requests via email that are not shared with others. That position puts the Weekly squarely on the side of Councilmember Jack Morton, who tried to get criminal charges brought against Councilmembers Lytle, Hillary Freeman and Yoriko Kishimoto but failed when the district attorney reported finding no evidence of a crime. "This suit has nothing to do with political viewpoints or alliances," assures Weekly publisher Bill Johnson, who has authored a barrage of scathing editorials sympathetic to Morton. He also says he's not trying to embarrass anyone by dragging out their private email moments: "This is a question of law. Either we're right, or the city's right." Johnson thinks that the city will cough up the requested emails rather than go to court (the initial hearing on the Weekly's suit is set for March 13), because it's "pretty vulnerable" under a recently amended state law that says that emails on official matters are part of the public record. But there are important exceptions, pipes up Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel. "The law here is not that clear, which is why it's kind of unfortunate that it's going to litigation," she says. "You never want to risk bad law." Santa Clara County is at this moment devising a clearer policy on email communications, she notes. Meanwhile, San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle says his city (which Eyewatchers may recall has been stung when copies of emails between too-chummy staff get out, i.e., the case of Mayor Ron Gonzales and a young aide named Guiselle Nunez) has an informal policy as to retention of emails. "They have to be treated like any other document or hard-copy memo," he says, acknowledging, "People need to be careful; they get really sloppy with email." Even if Palo Alto gives in or gets beaten in court, the papers may still walk away empty-handed, as it appears the emails in question, or at least some of them, have already been zapped, according to the city. "Frankly, I don't believe them," charges Palo Alto Weekly attorney Judy Alexander, who used to represent the Merc. "Palo Alto has the opportunity to be the model for transparent government," she adds. Attorney James Chadwick, who represents the Merc in its suit (the hearing is scheduled for Feb. 18), adds, "Nobody knows more about what City Councilmembers are really doing than city staff, and when city staff members have a complaint about the conduct of a councilmember, it's an important issue in any context. ... It's something the public absolutely needs to know about."

One Plus Skew

Speaking of the public's need to know, the San Jose Mercury News' death reporting on the Middle East is skewed, skewed, skewed, according to a new study spearheaded by San Francisco resident and former Sausalito newspaper editor Alison Weir. Weir's new three-person nonprofit group, If Americans Knew, sent out a press release on Jan. 24 to spread the word about the Merc's reportage. "A six-month study to be released on Monday, Jan. 27, has found that the San Jose Mercury News covered 73 percent of Israeli deaths in front-page headlines but only 5 percent of Palestinian deaths," the release announced. It went on to note that 383 Palestinians and 192 Israelis were killed between last April and September. But the Merc reported on 140 Israeli deaths and only 20 Palestinian deaths. Weir says her group derived its figures from B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, Palestinian opposition groups and representatives of the Israeli government and the Palestine Authority."We used very conservative numbers because we didn't want to make the newspaper look worse than it already did," Weir notes. Weir, who says she formed her media research group after a visit to the Palestinian territories in February and March 2001, hopes to study the fairness of Israeli-Palestinian death reporting in up to 20 mainstream papers across the country. She says she'd planned to examine the San Francisco Chronicle first but started with the San Jose daily instead after hearing complaints about its coverage from a reader (who didn't want his name published). Weir met with Merc brass on Jan. 23 to discuss her findings. Executive director David Yarnold, who met with Weir, didn't return Eye's call. But Weir says the Mercsters told her the deaths are apples and oranges since Palestinians die in small numbers every day while larger groups of Israelis tend to die at once, drawing more attention. Eye did reach editorial writer John Fensterwald, who also went to the meeting and apparently doesn't get to enjoy a call-screening assistant as Yarnold does. Fensterwald says that as an editorial writer, he's not really involved in responding to Weir's group's charges that the Merc distorts information. But if you ask him, Weir's findings are off. "All I'm saying is, from that you can't draw an inference that the paper is biased." Weir's group intends to do another study of the Merc's Middle East reporting, and Weir says she hopes the paper changes its tune.

Relay Race

San Jose's local NAACP head, Rick Callender, is pretty darn proud of his contribution to the Milpitas Unified School Board's decision last week not to appoint losing council candidate Paul Hay. Callender, La Raza Roundtable chair Victor Garza and La Raza Lawyers Association state president Chris Arreola sent letters to school board members criticizing Hay's affiliation with Milpitas wacky web crier Ed Riffle, who, in the name of free speech, lets writers post stupid opinions like "Trent Lott was right" and "Strom Thurmond would have been a great president" on his site. Callender wrote to board Prez Marsha Grilli that "with the diversity of the Milpitas school system, the community needs a trustee who is willing to support conversations and ideas about how to improve race relations rather than a trustee that has shown that he is already willing to give a silent OK, with a wink and nod, to intolerant racists." Riffle responded to the use of his name to measure evil with a note posted on his site on Jan. 23. "Some people are baffled by my being branded a "racist" by Rick Callender of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chapter of the NAACP and by the La Raza Roundtable since I have no racist views and have never published racist views on this website." But the damage was done. One day earlier, the board appointed Barbara Santos instead of Riffle's pal Hay. But according to board member William Foulk, they picked Santos because she's worked for the district for decades and is the most qualified for the job. "I really don't think the letter made a difference," he says. He notes, board members were pressured to vote more than one way. "They all had supporters," he says. "I'm really ambivalent as to whether it's good or bad to have people call and lobby." Callender, who calls Riffle "David Duke with tech savvy," is clearer. "I think it absolutely made a difference," he says.

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From the January 30-February 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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