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[whitespace] Ron Gonzales Farewell to Frank: Ronzo stands before the City Council and resigning redevelopment director Frank Taylor. 'If I'm elected,' he had told a friend, 'there's going to be one mayor.'

Christopher Gardner

He's no Jerry Brown, but SJ's 100-day-old mayor has shown a czar the door, raised the ax over pet programs and questioned things the bureaucracy thought were sacred

By Will Harper

JULY IS A HOLY TIME IN SAN JOSE city government. It is the month when politicians and bureaucrats block out weeks in their calendars for long-planned summer vacations.

So when the new mayor came in asking his colleagues to add a City Council meeting in this holy month of heat and retreat, there was puzzlement. True, his proposal was based on a reasonable premise: to handle sensitive post-budget land-use matters in a more organized fashion, instead of stuffing them into an encyclopedia-thick meeting agenda at the end of June, as had been tradition.

But reasonable or not, people had already made vacation plans.

The proposal went to the council's rules committee, which is comprised of committee heads appointed by the mayor himself. There was a problem. A councilmember had already scheduled a trip for July.

The committee ultimately decided to honor their colleague's vacation plans and nix the extra July meeting.

It was the first visible defeat for new Mayor Ron Gonzales, albeit a minor one. Still, it shows that the mayor still has much to learn about City Hall's culture--a culture which Gonzales, a former Hewlett-Packard executive, seems determined to change.

New Tone

UNLIKE HIS PREDECESSOR, Gonzales regularly shows up five to ten minutes early for every City Council meeting. His colleagues, most still functioning on Susan Hammer mean time, often straggle in a few minutes late.

His businesslike approach has many observers crediting the mayor with setting a new tone inside City Hall.

Sometimes that tone is cold and distant. When a group of homeless activists brought their protest to the mayor's sixth-floor lobby a few weeks back and demanded to talk to Gonzales, he hid out in his office and dispatched press secretary Leslee Hamilton to defuse the situation. And when airport-expansion opponents asked for a personal sit-down with the expansion-friendly new mayor, they were twice refused a face-to-face, something they won't likely forget.

Despite his seeming inaccessibility, Gonzales has made friends and solidified alliances by questioning the status quo.

A case in point: the storm sewer tax. A City Council aide recalls that in December, in Hammer's final month, the unpopular tax increase seemed inevitable. "We were swimming upstream on this one back then," the aide recalls.

But when Gonzales came in, he and vice mayor Frank Fiscalini demanded that city administrators show why the increase was necessary. Two weeks ago, Gonzales went out and told the Rotary Club that he didn't think the tax hike for homeowners was justified at all. There was much applause.

In a sense, Gonzales doesn't need to be so keen on steering the city on a new course. By all indications, he inherited a politician's dream: a happy and prosperous electorate.

"He's been given a Ferrari," notes South Bay political consultant Rich Robinson. "His job is to not wreck the car."

And as long as he's got the Ferrari, Gonzales seems happy to take it for a spin.

Ron Gonzales
Christopher Gardner

Power Surge

'IF I'M ELECTED," Gonzales told his friend Assessor Larry Stone during the campaign, "there's only going to be one mayor."

For nearly two decades, San Jose has had two mayors: the one elected by the people and another one the people didn't elect. Redevelopment director Frank Taylor ruled as lord and master of downtown for 20 years and directed the spending of more than $1 billion of taxpayer money.

After the election, insiders and pundits always thought it only a matter of time before Gonzales gave Taylor his walking papers.

But it wasn't quite like that. Instead of a public decapitation--the style currently favored by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown as he conducts a hostile takeover of his own government--Gonzales said nothing critical of the longtime redevelopment director.

But he quickly showed who was boss.

Among the mayor's first orders of business was a series of actions curtailing Taylor's trademark independence.

First, he took away Taylor's control of the meeting agendas, requiring authorization from the City Council rules committee. Then he forced Taylor to attend mayoral "one team" meetings with acting city manager Debra Figone, and switched the schedule around so City Council and agency board meetings would be held the same day.

Days after these decisions were made, just six weeks into the mayor's term, Taylor suddenly announced his retirement, neck intact, with only a faint footprint on his rump.

(In a gesture typical of San Jose's polite politics, Gonzales asked Taylor to serve as an informal adviser in the future. Frank said OK.)

Jerry Brown's public floggings of department heads may have gotten him more press attention, but in the end Gonzales toppled a department head of equal power, if not more.

"Even with the large shadow cast by Willie and Jerry up north," Robinson says, "[Gonzales] has established himself as a player. If people want something to happen in San Jose, they know the person to go to isn't Frank Taylor anymore, it's Ron Gonzales."

Quiet, Cautious

ASIDE FROM the bombshell of Taylor's retirement, the mayor's first 100 days have been relatively quiet. His accomplishments have been modest: He won unanimous support for his loan program to help teachers put a down payment on a home. He directed the Redevelopment Agency and his staff to find a way to save the historic Jose Theatre from demolition, another project that seemed a fait accompli under his predecessor. And history will likely give him credit for a billion-dollar industrial project by Cisco Systems that landed in his lap, although the details of the Coyote Valley development are still being worked out.

Most important, in terms of his public image, he hasn't made any major mistakes or gaffes. Then again, there hasn't been much for Gonzales to screw up. He tends to be methodical, a lover of meetings, and will make no decision before its time. One of his first acts in office, for example, was to delay the presentation of his four-year blueprint until the State of the City address later this month.

"I haven't seen much," says Tommy Fulcher, the executive director of Economic Social Opportunities and former Chamber of Commerce president who supported Gonzales' opponent, Pat Dando, in the election. "I haven't seen any new initiatives from him [the mayor]. But it might not be fair to expect much in 100 days."

When Gonzales did take a risk last month in his budget message, it went largely unnoticed.

In it, Gonzales indirectly criticized former Mayor Susan Hammer--who lent her considerable popularity to Gonzales to help get him elected--and her budget guru Bob Brownstein for using so-called one-time funds for ongoing pet programs and services.

Gonzales pointed out that using those one-time funds in such a way violated city spending policies. In the mayor's estimation, such glib spending practices were putting it $15.5 million in the red for the upcoming year.

In the process, the new mayor dangled dozens of community-funded groups in front of his colleagues--including Kids Voting, Joint Venture, City Year, the Guadalupe Park and Gardens Corp., and the Mexican-American Community Service Agency's youth center--as candidates for the chopping block.

Even if he had policy and economics on his side, Gonzales didn't necessarily have the immediate support of his colleagues. One of the mayor's closest allies, Manny Diaz, teamed up with Councilman John Diquisto (who stayed neutral in the mayor's race) to protect programs and projects they considered sacred ground.

"I don't envy you," Councilwoman Margie Matthews told Gonzales after he delivered his budget message, "because choosing among programs that we all care a lot about ... is going to be a tough task."

Translation: The mayor could well have a nasty and divisive fight on his hands come budget time in June.

Great Expectations

FOR NOW, THOUGH, the other shoe has yet to drop. "There's still an air of optimism," observes Scott Knies, executive director of the Downtown Association, which represents area businesses. "The honeymoon is still on and there's no indication there will be an abrupt end to it."

But Knies adds, "He's due to put a little meat on the bones."

By that, Knies means specific programs and projects. "The State of the City speech should reveal more about where his emphasis will be."

Last week three appointed advisory task forces--covering redevelopment, education and quality of life--gave the mayor reports on their recommendations. The mayor is expected to use those reports to outline his proposals in the State of the City speech on April 28.

Sources familiar with some of those recommendations expect the mayor to continue to rein in the Redevelopment Agency, turning some of its functions over to other departments. Possibilities include channeling the agency's permitting power to the city's Planning Department and putting the Housing Department in charge of publicly financed housing projects.

Though expectations are high for the speech, the real barometer will be seen in June, when the budget is passed and when the mayor's office hopes to have selected a new city manager and redevelopment director.

By then it will be more clear whether Gonzales can make the Ferrari perform without skidding off the road.

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From the April 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro.

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