[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]



There is a whole cast of little guys and little gals who have been fighting City Hall for years, if not decades. Who are these political gadflies and what is their trip, anyway?

By Will Harper

THE HOUR IS APPROACHING 3 O'CLOCK on Jan. 18, 2000, and the regular Tuesday afternoon session of the San Jose City Council is winding down. Mayor Ron Gonzales, a former Hewlett-Packard manager who prides himself on running meetings with Swiss-watch precision, disposes of the action item in less than 15 seconds.

But before he can gavel the meeting adjourned, there is one final order of business. Gonzales looks down at the orange speaker-request card he's holding. "Cathy Brandhorst," he says flatly. "You have two minutes to address the council."

A woman seated in the middle of the council chambers gets out of her seat and walks toward the podium. She is wearing black sneakers, black pants and a black shirt. She has long, straight gray hair, which is pulled back into a pony tail fastened by a smart black-and-white bow. Everyone in the chamber has seen her many, many times before.

"My name is Cathy Brandhorst," she begins slowly. "I came today because"--she pauses to gather herself--"I guess it's a difficult situation. I was a kidnapped child. And I was kidnapped by Priscilla Presley."

The council has not heard this one before from Brandhorst, who has been coming here to speak during the so-called "oral communications" segment of the council's meetings for years. Some council members listen, blinking.

"She had kidnapped me when I was a small baby," she continues. "It all began--I was also an entertainer. I was very small when I started entertaining. ... I became a very popular singer and a dancer at the same time. I continued to be an entertainer until I was approximately 14 years old. I was also a very abused child."

Brandhorst holds up a National Enquirer she has brought with her for the council to see. By now, most council members are either suppressing laughter or talking to a colleague, not paying attention to Brandhorst.

"They keep putting my baby picture in [the tabloid]," she says, pointing to photos of murdered beauty-contest princess JonBenet Ramsey. "I am this missing person and I can prove it. This child has cords around her neck; I also have the same cord marks around my neck."

She now abruptly segues into her finale: "As I continue to say, you people are all from Mexico. You continue to murder children, you kidnap children. ... It doesn't make any difference who you murder, who you destroy. ... We all deserve a way to stay alive without being murdered."

And with that, Mayor Gonzales interrupts Brandhorst and informs her that her two minutes of addressing the council, her God-given right ensured by state law, have expired. Without protest, Brandhorst steps away from the podium, picks up her things and heads out the door.

There is always next week.

BRANDHORST IS JUST ONE of a select group of citizens who habitually attend council meetings and other local government proceedings. Sometimes known as "public comment" or "citizens forum," this is the mandatory segment of the agenda where members of the public are given the opportunity to address the council about practically anything that is on their minds.

And public officials must--in theory, anyway--listen.

One guy in San Jose has been coming for nearly 30 years to complain about, among other things, police helicopters harassing him in his home and the poor quality of his garbage service. In Cupertino, a retired electronics technician wears a cape and grouses about parking tickets in another jurisdiction. And in Palo Alto, an 81-year-old boater comes to council meetings every week--as he has for more than a decade--to complain about the council's decision to close the yacht harbor in 1986. Other times, he spontaneously bursts into song.

These self-styled reformers like to think of themselves as government watchdogs. A former Metro writer called them "pathological citizens." The government bureaucrats they pester call them "gadflies."

Sometimes, elected officials admit, the gadflies actually make excellent points, and often the ones that no one else has even considered. The problem, they say, is not necessarily with the message, but the monomaniacal messenger.

"With gadflies," explains Santa Cruz City Councilman Mike Rotkin, "people are so fed up with them that even if they have a good idea it won't matter because no one is paying attention to them." He adds that if a new face came and made the same point, he and his fellow councilors might actually listen and take action.

"I always felt sorry for the people who came and felt so compelled to speak," recalls Susanne Wilson, who spent nearly two decades in local government on the San Jose

City Council and then the Board of Supervisors. "But I knew that nothing they said would change our perspective."

Even the gadflies realize that they are like the proverbial tree falling in the middle of the forest. "I have a feeling they [council members], you may say, are immune," acknowledges William J. Garbett, who has been known to address more than a dozen agenda items at one San Jose City Council meeting. "They pretend like I'm not there."

Sometimes, elected officials contemplate ways to shut them up.

In the middle of her first term, Mayor Susan Hammer invoked an obscure, unused speaker limitation rule that said, "any person who, with great regularity, speaks on several issues on an agenda, shall be recognized only once." Hammer's press secretary, Kevin Pursglove, says that around the office the repeat-speaker policy was known as "the Garbett rule." (The council has since stopped enforcing this, in the interest of democracy.)

In 1998, the Palo Alto City Council debated whether it should split the oral communications part of the meeting into two periods. The first period, at the beginning of the 7pm meetings, would be reserved for members of the public who have not spoken to the council within the same calendar month. The regular speakers would have to wait until the end of the meeting to talk. The council ultimately scrapped the idea, which critics viewed as undemocratic.

And in a democracy every individual, no matter how goofy, has the inalienable right to speak his or her mind. Bureaucrats suspect this is what attracts gadflies to city council meetings and the like: These are the only places they can go and rant without being escorted out of the building by security.

'For some of them, it may be a form of therapy," theorizes Chris Galios, bodyguard for Mayor Gonzales. "They have nothing else to do and here they can have their moment in the sun, say what they want to say, and there's nothing anybody can do about it."

Ed Power has become such a regular fixture at Palo Alto City Council meetings--usually sporting a short-sleeve guayabera shirt--that he actually informs city officials of his vacation plans so they know why he won't be in attendance at future meetings.

Ed Power
Occupation: Retired toolmaker
Obsession: Closing of Palo Alto Yacht Harbor in 1986
Claim to Fame: Ran for council one year with slogan "Vote for Harry's friend." Harry was Power's dog.

FOR 14 YEARS, ED POWER'S 21-foot sailboat, the Tiger, has been gathering dust in his driveway. The 81-year-old retired toolmaker says he leaves the boat there as a reminder of what used to be.

"If there were a marina in Palo Alto," says Power, a Palo Alto resident since 1950, "my boat would be in the harbor now."

Power used to dock his boat--along with 100 or so other boat-owners--at the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor. That was before the City Council closed the harbor in 1986 and eventually evicted berth holders.

The Tiger was the last boat to leave the harbor's docks.

Voters had previously rejected two ballot initiatives that would have kept the harbor open. In the end, environmentalists, who wanted to halt the harbor's dredging so it could return to its "natural" state, prevailed.

Since the closing of the harbor more than a decade ago, Power has been a compulsive speaker at weekly Monday night Palo Alto City Council meetings. His sole topic for discussion every time: the "dishonest' and "unethical" role of city officials and local media in closing the harbor.

He also has run for council six times in the past 13 years, spending little or no money toward his election. (On one ballot he listed his qualifications tersely as "adequate for the job.") He usually comes in last or close to it. His standard campaign platform: restoring honesty in local government and, yes, the "immoral" closing of the yacht harbor.

Power has become such a regular fixture at council meetings--usually sporting a short-sleeve Guayabera shirt--that he actually informs city officials of his vacation plans so they know why he won't be in attendance at future meetings. He always reads a prepared written speech that lasts three minutes, the maximum time allotted for public speakers in Palo Alto.

According to Councilman Gary Fazzino, Power once compared the eviction of yachters from the harbor to the Holocaust. Another time, Fazzino recalls, Power compared the City Council to a dog that licks its private parts. Councilwoman Liz Kniss has even left the chambers during Power's more vitriolic moments.

But most of the time, Kniss admits, she simply tunes out when Power speaks. "It's really difficult to keep my attention riveted on what Ed is saying," Kniss says. "My mind will wander. He's really a one-note Johnny."

Power knows that his captive audience doesn't pay him much attention, which is why he occasionally will burst into song at the podium now (usually oldies like "When You Were Young," he says). "My talking to the council was doing nothing," he explains, "so I thought I'd entertain the audience."

Even if the council doesn't listen, Power vows to keep coming to meetings. "I have the time," he says, "and nobody else would do it."

Despite rumors in Sunnyvale that Frances Rowe might skip town, the deposed former mayor replies: 'I'm going to be like the proverbial cockroach. I'll just keep coming back.'

Frances Rowe
Occupation: Former council member and mayor of Sunnyvale (1991-95)
Obsession: The conspiracy to oust her from elected office
Claim to fame: First Sunnyvale council member (if not the first in the whole state) to be banned from City Hall while still in office

UNLIKE MOST GADFLIES, Frances Rowe actually got elected to public office once. But not again.

The year of her electoral triumph was 1991, just two years after she burst onto the local political scene, leading the successful fight to keep Specialty Garbage and Refuse Service Inc. as the city's garbage contractor.

"She's one of the most energetic precinct walkers I've ever met," concedes former Mayor Larry Stone, who backed Rowe's opponents in 1991. Ever since, he says, "She's just off her rocker."

Soon after she was appointed mayor in 1993, city employees started grumbling about the Alabama native's fiery temper and constant meddling.

Human resources director David Nieto once complained that Rowe threatened him--"I get very angry with people who don't do what I say," Rowe allegedly warned Nieto--when he wouldn't change the salary resolution for her nemesis, City Attorney Valerie Armento. Now-retired Deputy City Clerk Carol Butler recalls that Rowe would call her at home and request changes to meeting minutes.

Her elected colleagues eventually removed Rowe as mayor for "councilmanic interference, conduct unbecoming and poor performance." When complaints from staff persisted about Rowe's purportedly abusive behavior--a confidential report surfaced suggesting Rowe sexually harassed Armento because of the city attorney's gender or perceived sexual orientation--the council banned her from City Hall in 1995, shortly before the election. Attorney Pat Vorreiter trounced Rowe at the polls, 73 percent to 27 percent.

After losing, Rowe became obsessed with the idea that she had been done in by a conspiracy. In her quest to expose the conspiracy, she became an unlikely ally of the Mercury News in its lawsuit to force the city to release documents detailing an investigation into Rowe's sometimes embarrassing antics while in office.

"No one really understood her rationale," says former Sunnyvale public information officer Dave Vossbrink, now the press secretary for San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales.

Rowe also would occasionally air some of her latest pet peeves and theories in ad space she bought in the Merc, which illustrates another significant difference between Rowe and other gadflies: money. She's got it.

According to campaign finance records, Rowe deposited at least $40,000 of her own money into her failed attempt to win a seat back on the City Council last year. When asked how she can afford her political indulgences, Rowe replied, "You'll have to ask Mr. Rowe; he financed it." Her husband, Clive, is a software engineer.

During the 1999 campaign, Rowe sent the media a letter warning, "I do not intend to tolerate or ignore any lies, character defamation, libel, slander, or other scurrilous attacks. ... If my opponent should engage in such tactics, I assure you that I have the resources and time for litigating the matter in court."

Four years earlier, during her doomed re-election bid in 1995, Rowe actually laundered her own money to her campaign, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

In order to make it look like she had more supporters, Rowe listed fake campaign contributors, when in reality she had donated her own money to the campaign. The FPPC fined her $28,000.

Despite her recent setbacks, the 68-year-old snoop still keeps tabs on what's happening down at City Hall. After police arrested and booked Councilman Jim Roberts for assault and public drunkenness in December, Rowe sent Roberts a letter: "What lies do you plan to tell this time to try and weasel your way out of this mess?"

Roberts, by the by, was one of the councilmates who voted to oust Rowe as mayor in 1994.

Sunnyvaleans recently began whispering that Rowe is moving out of town, but ol' Fran says that's not the case. "I'm going to be like the proverbial cockroach," she vows. "I'll just keep coming back."

Cathy Brandhorst addresses the council regularly, generally on matters not on the council agenda. The minutes for one meeting note Cathy Brandhorst spoke on mental health issues.

Cathy S. Brandhorst
Occupation: Unknown
Obsessions: Lasers, Mexicans with AIDS, homicidal city officials
Claim to fame: Arrested in 1995 for trespassing on the National Guard Armory parking lot--she was sleeping in her 1968 red Ford Torino--by Officer Johnny Venzon, the infamous San Jose cop who later attracted headlines for robbing crime victims to support his gambling habit.

BY THE FALL OF 1999, a few months had gone by without anyone accusing them of tagging public buildings or kidnapping children, and San Jose City Council members began to notice something--or, to be more precise, someone--missing.

Then in October a reporter from the Reno Journal-Review called mayoral bodyguard Chris Galios and asked him about this odd woman who had recently started attending meetings of the Sparks City Council and saying all kinds of crazy things. (According to one Sparks city official, Brandhorst accused the mayor of murder.) The woman's name was Cathy Brandhorst, a longtime regular at San Jose council meetings. "I'm very aware of her," Galios deadpanned.

It seemed that the Sparks City Council, unnerved by the newcomer's bewildering public remarks, briefly considered banning her from meetings. After her first appearance in Sparks, police detained her for a psychiatric evaluation but later released her.

The San Jose Council, by contrast, generally viewed Brandhorst as a harmless nut, who politely--she never exceeded her allotted time at the mic--slandered them and didn't like Mexicans (her maiden name, county records show, was Dias).

"We are being forced into the mental health systems," Brandhorst began one of her xenophobic diatribes at a March 30, 1999, council meeting, "for shots and immunizations for flus and etcetera, when we are not sick.

"The only people who are sick and dying with AIDS," she continued in her nasal, high-pitched voice, "is coming from Mexico. I have already evaluated these mental health systems and I am finding out that 90 percent [of people with AIDS] are coming in from Mexico. ... And they have found only one from the United States born dying with AIDS because he was sexually assaulted by a woman who was born and raised in Mexico."

The minutes for the meeting note in understated fashion, "Cathy Brandhorst spoke on mental health issues."

Not all council members see Brandhorst as totally harmless. Mexican-American Councilwoman Cindy Chavez recalls one time after a meeting Brandhorst approached her and said, "You know, I could get a gun."

But for the most part, the folks at City Hall feel sorry for Brandhorst. Councilman John Diquisto says that he slipped her a $20 bill once when she looked physically ill. "I feel very sympathetic toward her," Diquisto says.

But Diquisto and other officials weren't exactly thrilled when Brandhorst returned to San Jose in January from her Nevada tour. At the end of an emotional ceremony in which council members said goodbye to retiring City Attorney Joan Gallo, Brandhorst spoiled the bittersweet moment by shouting, "Murderer!"

San Jose political cowboy Bill Chew credits his subsistence to a frugal lifestyle enabled, in part, by his cheap, manual mode of transportation--roller skates

Bill Chew
Occupation: Public-access talk-show host, producer
Obsession: Physical fitness, televising council meetings
Claim to fame: Traveling around San Jose on roller skates, wearing a big white cowboy hat and waving at passersby.

DO NOT DOUBT THAT Bill Chew is "fit" for public office. One time when a voter bumped into Chew on the street and asked him why she should support him, he replied, 'Can any of the other candidates do this?' " and proceeded to drop to the sidewalk and do push-ups.

Back in early 1997, when newly elected Supervisor Pete McHugh was looking for a chief of staff, applicant Chew--a pole-vaulter in his school days--promised to get the whole staff in tip-top shape. As proof of his own credentials, Chew brandished a photo of himself in the nude (posed in such a way that his genitalia were hidden), showing off his toned physique. McHugh and his two advisers sat in stunned silence.

"Well, the point of a job interview is to make an impression," chuckles Rich Robinson, one of McHugh's advisers at the interview, "and Bill definitely made an impression." But, alas, not the right impression. Chew didn't get the job.

Actually, how the 49-year-old Chew makes a living is a topic of great debate around San Jose City Hall. He doesn't have a regular job, which explains why he can always attend weekly 1:30pm council meetings on Tuesdays.

His primary means of income apparently are occasional sponsorships of his cable-access talk show, NeighborNET. The show--which features Chew interviewing politicos and other local personalities--is in hiatus while he makes his latest bid for the District 6 (Willow Glen) council seat. He says he also acts as a caretaker to his ill ex-wife, who divorced him last year after nearly 10 years of marriage.

Chew credits his subsistence to a frugal lifestyle, in part enabled by his cheap, manual mode of transportation--roller skates.

Chew says that he used to drive a BMW when he worked in product development for his father's Milpitas pipe company, Centaur Manufacturing. Then in 1984 he traded in his Beamer for a pair of roller skates, which transformed his life.

"I have zero debt," Chew says. "I have no car payments, no insurance payments, no overhead."

When Chew first skated inside City Hall it inspired his first mayoral roll for office. "I saw a place where I could make a difference," says Chew, who has now rolled up three consecutive defeats in ill-fated attempts to become mayor.

Getting into politics seemed like a natural move for Chew. After all, he graduated from Long Beach State University with a degree in poli sci in 1974. Chew boasts, "I've been a political scientist ever since." Just not a paid one.

Cupertino's Floyd Meyer once fought a traffic ticket and won a not-guilty verdict, but he insisted on a full jury trial, as guaranteed by his rights under the constitution.

Floyd Meyer
Occupation: Retired electronics technician
Obsession: Parking tickets
Claim to fame: Caped civic crusader

CUPERTINO resident Floyd Meyer, dressed in his constitutional cape and looking for "an honest judge" with his homemade Diogenes lamp--a pole with a spotlight attached--doesn't get around to as many council meetings as he used to.

Meyer, 72, a retired electronics technician, has been going to council meetings since the mid-'60s, when he moved to the area after 20 years in the Navy. At Cupertino council meetings, plus occasional San Jose council and county supervisors meetings, Meyer shows up early to give updates on his battles with bureaucrats.

These days, Meyer gives updates on his battles with the Sheriff's Department and the city of San Jose, which stem from a traffic citation and a parking ticket, respectively. He's also trying to get the county to raise the $5-per-day pay rate for jurors. Even though councils don't take action on his requests (which are outside of their jurisdiction), and his requests to meet with judges go unanswered, Meyer remains undeterred.

In one case, Meyer fought a traffic ticket and won a not-guilty verdict, but he still insisted on a full jury trial, as guaranteed by his rights under the constitution. He was told he couldn't appeal unless he lost.

"Our national scene is screwed up, so we should get our local scene squared away first," Meyer says.

Cupertino council members have occasionally had to struggle with Meyer about staying within his allotted three-minute time limit at the podium, but they say he's not really threatening and is generally polite.

"Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what he wants," says Cupertino City Manager Don Brown, who says some of the topics Meyer brings up don't apply to the city--or even the United States. "We all treat him fine and he's courteous to us."

And even though Meyer is the founder and sole member of his own unarmed, non-violent Cal Militia, Meyer says he's not anti-government at all, just concerned about some of the things government does. And as for the authorities, Meyer has high praise for today's Sheriff's Department. So why is he so concerned? The former senior chief petty officer blames his concern on his strictly structured upbringing in the Navy, starting at age 17.

"All I want is the protection of the Constitution of the United States," Meyer says. "And that's all I should want from people who are sworn to uphold it."

Regina Gross ran for Milpitas mayor and other public offices six times between 1982 and 1994. At one candidate forum she demanded a babysitter for her daughter, a ride to the debate and a special chair that didn't recline.

Regina Gross Patterson (1948-1997)
Occupation: Deceased
Obsession: Being elected mayor of Milpitas
Claim to fame: Changed her last name to Mayor in 1990, allowing her to run as "Mayor for mayor."

REGINA GROSS SPENT her adult life trying to follow in the footsteps of her renowned father, Ben, Milpitas' first and only African American mayor.

But Ben Gross's daughter was not destined to carry on the family's proud political tradition.

She ran for Milpitas mayor and other public offices six times between 1982 and 1994. Gross--who became Regina Patterson after marrying and then briefly changed her name to Regina Mayor--always lost by healthy margins.

"Even some of the people who knew her best," recalls Bob McGuire, the city's parks director for 16 years, who first met Regina when she was in grade school, "would say, 'Well, Regina's all right, but I sure as hell am not going to vote for her.' "

Patterson didn't do much to help her chances at winning an election. She refused to talk to the press--except for one year, says Chamber of Commerce director Frank de Schmidt, when she sent out handwritten notices offering to do interviews with media organizations for a fee.

De Schmidt, who would moderate candidate forums at City Hall, also recalls that Patterson once made a number of demands before she would participate in a chamber-sponsored debate. Among those demands: a babysitter for her daughter, a ride to the debate and a special chair that didn't recline.

Patterson died in 1997 at the age of 48 because of a pulmonary embolism. Her death certificate cites morbid obesity and schizophrenia as contributing factors to her early demise.

John Messina's website reflects the views of someone who likes guns, hates taxes and distrusts organized religion and disorganized government.

John Messina
Occupation: Freelance graphic designer
Obsessions: Gun rights, free speech, fighting tax hikes
Claim to fame: San Jose's pioneer cyber gadfly

IN 1992, JOHN MESSINA started posting San Jose City Council agendas on an electronic bulletin board service. "I wanted people to get the information," explains Messina, 53.

As time went on, Messina began adding little tidbits of information and news in addition to the council agendas. Finally, in May 1998, Messina ditched his antiquated BBS and launched sanjoseadvisor.com on the World Wide Web, a multimedia mish-mash of stories and opinions on local politics.

The colorful site visually looks better than the Drudge Report, but Messina obviously could use a proofreader (the banner says, "Welcom [sic] to the San Jose Advisor"). The content obviously reflects the views of someone who likes guns, hates taxes and distrusts organized religion and disorganized government. It features headlines on misconduct by San Jose cops, redevelopment abuse, county government's threats to topple gun-owner rights and links to the American Atheist.

Messina says that it is perfectly consistent for him to support the right to bear arms and the need to keep church and state separated because he is a "constitutionalist."

Messina doesn't constrain his activism to cyberspace. Like other gadflies, Messina--who became active in local politics in 1992 when he campaigned against a tax to build a ballpark for the Giants--is a regular at City Council meetings. The self-taught computer buff does, however, draft his missives to City Hall and newspaper editors on his Pentium-powered IBM clone. He always "signs" his letters with a cursive computer font.

Merline Rasmusson, 74, splits her time between the Blackberry Farm Golf Course in Cupertino and the Campbell City Council chambers

Merline Rasmussen
Occupation: Retired control operator with AllState Insurance Co.
Hangout: Campbell City Council meetings

SHE DOESN'T SKATE on wheels, she will never run for city government, and she's not one bit insane. Merline Rasmusson is as straight as they come, and that's fine by her.

"I'm just a small-town girl from Pocatello, Idaho," says the Campbell resident.

She lived an all-American life back then, helping tend her father's jewelry store--the oldest in Idaho--by doing the books. She attended Pocatello High School and attended Idaho State College, but didn't finish. Rasmusson married in 1942, moved from Stockton to Sacramento, settled in Campbell. Retired for nine years, Rasmusson, 74, splits her time between the Blackberry Farm Golf Course in Cupertino and the Campbell City Council chambers, where she keeps abreast of all the town news. She's an invaluable resource, a regular town crier to the community at Paseo de Palomas Mobile Home Park, located off Union Avenue.

"Did you hear about the 51 units being built along Harrison Avenue, Merline?" asks her neighbor Joe Valverde, who's sweeping the leaves off of the sidewalk that fronts the area commonly known as the common greens.

"Oh, I already know about it," she says matter-of-factly. "You'd know if you went to City Council meetings."

Rasmusson got involved shortly after the city purchased the decrepit Winchester Drive-In site, which will now include a research and development area and a city park called Edith Morley. The site is situated next door to the mobile home park, which naturally had all residents up in arms during the development stages.

"The only way to know what's going on is to go find out, be informed," Rasmusson says. "You can read the paper--it doesn't mean the same thing. Sorry about that."

Ted Scarlett ran for supervisor in 1998. During the campaign, Scarlett told the 'Gilroy Dispatch' that he offered a 'leaner, quicker' alternative to the portly Don Gage. 'If you can't manage your body, how can you manage a county?'

Ted Scarlett
Occupation: Amateur pilot
Obsession: Mismanagement at Reid-Hillview Airport
Hangouts: Meetings of county airport commission or Board of Supervisors

SANTA CLARA COUNTY officials privately concede that 38-year-old amateur pilot Ted Scarlett has some valid gripes about hangar mismanagement at Reid- Hillview Airport. In fact, a new management audit by the Harvey Rose Accountancy Corp. substantiated many of Scarlett's complaints, auditor Roger Mialocq acknowledges.

What bugs most county hacks about Scarlett is not the substance of what he says, but his confrontational and abrasive style.

An airport operations worker named Matt Smith reported an Oct. 5, 1996, incident in which Scarlett got angry over the $295 fee required to get on the hangar waiting list. Smith told his supervisor, Earle Wigham, that he tried to explain to Scarlett that he didn't make the fee policy and was just an employee. In a memo to Wigham, Smith said, "Mr. Scarlett then stated that 'he was sure my mother was proud of me for being a fucking civil servant.' As my mother had passed away less than a year prior to this incident, this comment struck a chord with me."

Smith reported another run-in with Scarlett in which the pilot allegedly tried to pick a fistfight. Smith eventually filed a grievance against the county for not adequately insulating him from Scarlett.

Airport workers weren't the only ones who didn't care for Scarlett. Twenty-five business owners and pilots at the airport signed a November 1997 petition, which they sent to the Board of Supervisors asking for an investigation of Scarlett's antics.

"It appears [Scarlett] has some kind of persecution complex," the owner of John F. Pyle Aviation told the airport commission. "The fact that he flies an airplane with his mental state worries many pilots that share the same airspace with him."

Scarlett became so obsessed with the idea that other pilots and airport officials were out to get him, he even accused Jerry Bennett, the county's airport director, of trying to run him off the road in his car (police never charged Bennett with any wrongdoing).

Ultimately, the county evicted Scarlett and his 1950 V-Tail Index plane last year from his hangar because of all the complaints about his disturbing behavior. During the proceedings, Scarlett huffed, "It's a retaliatory eviction based on my complaining about the inappropriate behavior of management at the airport."

Scarlett ran for supervisor in 1998 against Don Gage, who won handily. During the campaign, Scarlett told the Gilroy Dispatch that he offered a "leaner, quicker" alternative to the portly Gage. "If you can't manage your body, how can you manage a county?"

Scarlett told the Dispatch, "I think Don comes in the morning looking tired." Scarlett later backpedaled when he found out Gage suffers from diabetes.

Bill Garbett has appealed his property tax assessment each year since 1996. One year Garbett said that his three-bedroom house (not including land) was only worth one dollar because of police helicopters persistently flying overhead at low altitudes.

William J. Garbett
Occupation: Retired electronics technician
Obsession: His lack of garbage service, harassment by police helicopters, government waste
Claim to fame: San Jose's most enduring gadfly. Once parodied in a San Jose Stage Co. production as Hannibal Lechter, the cannibal doctor from Silence of the Lambs.

HE CLAIMS TO REPRESENT a network of 600 concerned citizens around the Bay Area known as THE PUBLIC, even though he arrives at City Hall alone and leaves alone. He is merely "the frontman," as he likes to say, the one who speaks on behalf of these unseen others at meetings of the San Jose City Council and occasionally the county Board of Supervisors, the California Energy Commission or the Public Utilities Commission.

He often will address more than 10 agenda items at one council meeting, the minutes recording over and over for historical posterity, "William J. Garbett spoke against the proposed action."

At one meeting last year he represented his comrades in their brave opposition to the city's proposal to buy two four-wheel-drive trucks for the municipal water division at a cost of $53,071. Despite his objections, the City Council unanimously voted to buy the two pickups.

Well, at least democracy has been served in the process. THE PUBLIC has spoken.

THE PUBLIC--not to be confused with "the public"--is Garbett's organization, the one he refers to when he strolls up to the microphone and utters in a hushed but hurried tone, "William Garbett speaking on behalf of THE PUBLIC." No one in San Jose City Hall seems to recall anyone but Garbett speaking on behalf of THE PUBLIC in the three decades he has been attending council meetings.

He refuses to disclose what the acronym, THE PUBLIC, stands for.

Despite being a regular sight in his blue jeans and military buzzcut, Garbett is a mystery to the city officials he pesters. Veteran politicos like Bob Brownstein, ex-Mayor Susan Hammer's budget director for eight years, don't even know what Garbett did for a living before becoming a full-time government watchdog. "But it's not like I was actively trying to find out what he did," Brownstein concedes.

Among the few things that can be said with any certainty about Garbett is that he was born in Iowa 61 years ago, is the father of two grown daughters and owns a home in Blossom Valley with his wife.

He says he is a metrologist, someone who studies weights and measures, who retired 15 years ago.

Court records show that Garbett worked at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. between January 1982 and July 1983. Before that he spent 11 months at Metro-Lab Inc., where he repaired and calibrated electronic and mechanical measuring equipment.

During a 1981 court dispute over unemployment benefits, Garbett's former supervisor at Metro-Lab, Jerry Trammell, described him as "probably the best technician in the Bay Area." The trouble with Garbett, Trammell told an administrative law judge, was this: "Whenever he would go out and get some equipment that he needed to do a repair job," Trammell groused, "he was always gone three to four hours. ... The technicians we have in there now have never been gone more than 30 minutes on the same types of repairs."

Garbett boasts that he has degrees in business administration and psychology from San Jose State, but a university spokeswoman says the alumni database shows no record of his graduation.

Garbett listed his BS degree in business on his 1998 ballot statement when he ran unsuccessfully for county tax assessor against incumbent Larry Stone. He might not have been the most qualified candidate, but Garbett did have firsthand experience dealing with the assessor's office.

According to department spokesman David Ginsborg, Garbett has appealed his property tax assessment each year since 1996. At least one year, Ginsborg says, Garbett said that his three-bedroom house (not including land) was only worth one dollar. He apparently argued that his home was rendered worthless, in part, because of police helicopters persistently flying overhead at low altitudes.

Garbett told Metro that the helicopters would hover so closely to his house that his roof eventually collapsed. The noise scared his chickens so much that they stopped laying eggs, he told the Mercury News in 1992.

This year Garbett is challenging District 10 (Almaden Valley) council incumbent Pat Dando, whom he says would do nothing to restore his garbage service. He says that the city won't retrieve his trash because he doesn't use the city's plastic garbage cans. Garbett says he became allergic to plastic after being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. At one point, the trash in his yard grew six feet high and 60 feet long, he recalls.

Carl Mosher, head of the department of environmental services, says the city has tried to accommodate Garbett, allowing him the special privilege of using paper trash bags. Nonetheless, Garbett continues to gripe. "Personally, I don't think he wants a solution," Mosher says.

Since becoming a council candidate in December, Garbett says with a conspiratorial air, he has noticed more police speed-checks in his neighborhood. He might be a little sensitive to the specter of a traffic stop because of his 1995 arrest.

A police officer pulled him over in front of his home for going 40 mph in a 35 mph zone and making two turns without using his turn signal, records show. According to the police report, Garbett refused to show his driver's license and hit the officer in the chest with his palm when the cop tried to take him into custody. When he was finally detained in the patrol car, the report says, "The suspect became belligerent and offensive. The suspect also began to ramble that Mayor Hammer and the police are out to get him."

Prosecutors charged Garbett with misdemeanor counts of obstructing justice and battery on a police officer.

Garbett served as his own attorney during the trial and did an admirable job for an amateur lawyer. The jury deadlocked 6-6 on the battery charge but entered a guilty verdict on the obstructing-justice charge. At the sentencing hearing, however, the judge dismissed the guilty verdict at the request of the district attorney.

Garbett wasn't so fortunate when he actually did have assistance from real lawyers six years earlier. A jury convicted him of misdemeanor counts of driving recklessly and assault with a deadly weapon after nearly hitting a Caltrans worker on the side of the road the year before. He was sentenced to 90 days in county jail.

Garbett blamed his arrest and conviction on his keen interest in an environmental impact report of the unbuilt San Jose Arena. "This case was initiated," the defendant told the court, "by an action that occurred on a traffic stop within an hour of my purchasing [the Arena] environmental impact report."

During jury selection for the reckless-driving trial, Deputy Public Defender Thomas Spielbauer, Garbett's attorney at the time, questioned Garbett's sanity and ability to stand trial when his client mysteriously disappeared.

Transcripts show that the sympathetic judge opined, "There is no question that, in a laymen's terms, he's 'nuts.' "

Garbett keeps a sense of humor about local government, despite its glaring abuses of power. A year ago, he proposed a ballot initiative that would change San Jose's name to "Faeces," a fancy spelling for the word "feces." He is confident that such a ballot measure would pass. He envisions a PR campaign using the Quetzalcoatl statue--often said to resemble a pile of poop--as its centerpiece, the new official landmark of the city of Faeces, CA 95113.

Jeff Kearns and Genevieve Roja also contributed to this report.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.