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Sunnyvale Subterfuge

Not long after the November 2003 election, anonymous letters began circulating around Sunnyvale, generally tainting members of the City Council with embarrassing allegations that are difficult, if not impossible, to prove. It the tipster can be believed, councilmembers like to appear drunk in public, abuse staff members and constituents, marry gay people, use political leverage to win awards, suppress information to the media and generally work behind the scenes to promote their corrupt and vile agendas. "The egos, arrogance, disrespect, lying, meanspiritedness, vindictiveness, attempt to destroy reputations, the fear factor, the reign of terror and the threats and accusations by several members of this council has got to go," concluded one of the anonymous messages sent to us two weeks ago. Granted, a lot of the anonymous tips we get turn out to be bunk, but this was juicy stuff. There was one in particular that raised a lot of eyebrows when we started looking into it—Mayor DEAN CHU was rumored to have used his position to help a neighbor avoid code-enforcement charges. Now, keep in mind there are approximately 2,500 code-enforcement cases in the city each year, making it damn tough to identify who Chu might have helped, and with what. Chu himself denies the allegation and is backed by two councilmembers as well as an administrative aide in charge of Sunnyvale code enforcement. In the course of researching the allegation, however, we landed something even wilder: four members of the council were prepared to reveal the mystery tipster. They say it's either former Councilmember TIM RISCH or someone close to him. Their evidence is circumstantial: as many as 20,000 mail-outs—with self-stick labels and no return address—have been sent at one time, some targeting political enclaves like Republican voters. In other words, it appears the mystery mailer is someone sophisticated at targeting political information and someone willing to pay thousands of dollars for the ax they want to grind. Risch fits both those categories. In 2003, he became the only Sunnyvale incumbent to fail to win re-election in a quarter-century, spending $23,500 of his own money in the process. Last fall, Risch, a Republican, announced that he is again running for the Sunnyvale council, lending his campaign $12,000 so far. He denies that he has distributed anonymous mailers, because he's focusing on his campaign, "not sending unsigned anonymous letters around the city." His wife, however, might be another story. In early April, the city received a Mercury News article, printed from the Internet, that discussed a city of San Jose whistle-blower hot line. The message typed across the top was "We need this in Sunnyvale—especially with this City Council." Next to the message, in the "my account" section, was the name YOLANDA, which just happens to be the name of Risch's wife. That might not be definitive proof. But in the world of mystery mailers, it might be as close as we get.

Ethics Last!

A year ago, in a noble if somewhat naive attempt to promote civility and accountability in public discourse, Milpitas councilmembers enacted a code they gushed might "launch an ethics revolution" throughout California. The code focused on six broad categories—honesty, respect, fairness, teamwork, stewardship and accountability—packaged under the slogan Ethics First!, which provided platitudes disguised as behavioral guidelines for candidates and officials. (Under "stewardship," for example, officials were urged to vow, "I foster, protect and conserve the community's financial, environmental and cultural resources.") To arbitrate disputes, which can get particularly nasty during election cycles, the council decided to appoint a three-member panel of supposedly neutral experts. The Milpitas City Council had been warned by a consultant—Santa Clara University communications professor THOMAS SHANKS—that an ethics panel might be a bad idea. But the council wanted a panel, so a panel it got. Two weeks ago, April 19, the council realized its mistake and voted to disband the group after only a year in existence, making Mayor JOSE ESTEVES, a strong supporter of the panel, silly with comparisons. "An ethics code without an ethics panel," the mayor said, with a nod to his feminine side, "is almost like having a very beautiful butterfly without the wings or a caterpillar without legs or a person who is comatose or incapacitated. What are they used for? Almost nothing." What convinced the council to reverse itself? Mainly, the American political system got in the way. For one thing, candidates began using the three-member panel as a weapon against opponents, which is what happened to two preceding ethics panels, one run by the county and one independent, the Campaign Ethics Foundation. The other problem was the panel itself. It had no subpoena power, and its discipline had no teeth. Respondents were tried in absentia—Councilmember ARMANDO GOMEZ, who was reprimanded for saying "piss" at a council meeting, was even admonished for failing to show up to defend himself. (He violated the accountability category.) Others participants were permitted to introduce irrelevant, unsubstantiated testimony. Former Councilmember TRISH DIXON, defending herself in the second-to-last panel meeting, cried twice while testifying and blamed political consultant VIC AJLOUNY for beginning the cycle of negative campaigning dating back to 1996 when PETE McHUGH was on the Milpitas council. McHugh, now a county supe, fired back in a letter to council, saying he didn't appreciate the illegal connotations inferred by Dixon. Councilmember BOB LIVENGOOD, who voted the panel into existence, called the panel a "depository of half-truths, innuendo, gossip-mongering, character assassination, unsubstantiated claims and a dose of guilt by association." The next city that thinks it needs to clean up its political system should remember the irony of American politics. The electorate says that it is turned off by negative campaigning when in reality we've come to expect it because it serves an important function. It allows voters to see how candidates respond under pressure to direct assaults on their reputations. Which means for the foreseeable future, Milpitas will have an ethics code without an ethics panel, and many butterflies, caterpillars and comatose people without wings, legs and usefulness.


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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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