News

2007: The year in review

From fortune to fizzle, serendipity to setbacks

For those who put stock in the propitious power of numbers, 2007 looked to be lucky. And for good reason.

By the end of 2006, the tension-plagued Palo Alto Unified School District was anticipating hiring a new superintendent and hopefully getting a fresh start. Environmental initiatives, championed by both city officials and the school district, continued to gain momentum, as the mayor's Green Ribbon Task Force presented its work to the City Council at year's end.

And the completion of several development projects -- including the Stanford Stadium, the Opportunity Center and the Stanford-Palo Alto Community Playing Fields -- had boosted public confidence and morale.

But luck, as it has been observed, is fickle. The school district did get a new superintendent in 2007 -- Kevin Skelly, who by most accounts has re-energized schools -- but the Board of Education's flip-flop handling of a proposed Mandarin immersion program drew sharp criticism and left a deeply divided community.

And at the city level, a seasoned council that for the most part worked well together nonetheless faced questions over its oversight of City Manager Frank Benest, especially as charges of staff misconduct surfaced throughout the year. By December, Benest had announced his retirement, as had a raft of other top city administrators.

To capture what has been a lucky year for some in the community -- and for others unlucky -- the Weekly decided to revisit seven of the top stories of 2007.

City Hall gets a shake-up

When 2007 opened, the City of Palo Alto was making progress on issues such as emergency preparation, planning for library improvements and a new public-safety building, combating greenhouse-gas emissions and excess waste and supporting staff development.

It had brought in new Utilities Director Valerie Fong to provide leadership to the scandal-plagued department.

Financially, the city had stiffened requirements for employee-retirement benefits, dropped the most expensive health plan and began setting aside money for retirees' medical expenses, which promises to be substantial.

In March, however, word leaked out of City Hall that Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison, the city's hands-on manager, had been placed on a three-week unpaid leave. Public-records requests exposed years of Harrison's harassment of employees, retaliation, favoritism and other bizarre or bad behavior.

Then in June, devoted meter reader Brandon Porter was fired after testifying on a co-worker's behalf in an internal harassment investigation. The employees' union called that fishy, but Fong and other city leaders denied all wrongdoing -- leaving Porter jobless.

Another top city official was also embroiled in a mid-year investigation, after three women filed complaints of harassment, hostile work environment and age discrimination, one of which has not been resolved. The official was found innocent of all unlawful activity, city attorneys have said.

By fall, several City Council members indicated they'd lost confidence in City Manager Frank Benest and in October convened an unusual two-evening performance evaluation. Benest's announced retirement came in December, with Benest stating that he is leaving in June of his own volition. The city plans to hire an executive search firm and turn to the community to help define the desired candidate.

In addition, longtime city staff member Richard James, director of community services, announced that he, too, will step down next year. A dune-buggy accident had left him with a broken back in October.

Palo Alto is also losing its stalwart Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats, who is retiring but plans to return as a consultant on the Stanford Medical Center and Shopping Center expansion projects. Colleague Lalo Perez is being promoted to that position.

Fire, fire here and there

Palo Alto's foothills slipped through another summer without burning up, but the community didn't make it through the year unsinged.

On the evening of July 1, the Walgreens building on University Avenue at Bryant Street burst into flames, destroying the 100-plus-year-old structure, which housed Walgreens, Subway sandwiches and vacant offices on the second floor.

The fire left a gaping hole in the heart of downtown. Building manager Jim Baer said the property owner plans to rebuild.

In October, East Palo Alto resident Donald Ray Williams, 45, who has a history of mental illness, was charged with the arson in federal court. Williams had been arrested in August following a series of grass fires in Portola Valley, but he was later released because prosecutors lacked the evidence to charge him with arson.

Williams lived at home with his parents and told investigators he had stopped taking his medicine because he didn't like how it made him feel.

Just days before the Walgreens fire, juveniles playing with matches set a blaze that engrossed 170 acres of Stanford University grassland along Junipero Serra Boulevard. The fire left The Dish closed for weeks. And then on July 5, an additional 20 acres of Stanford grassland burned.

Also in 2007, a house fire killed a retired Palo Alto Unified School District employee, Barbara Costello. The fire started in the yard or at the back of the south Palo Alto house, which had a lot of debris, around midday on June 5.

The spate of fires convinced the City Council to fully staff Foothills Park's Station 8, which had been eyed for savings. Foothills residents mobilized to fight the proposed cuts, convincing the council to pay overtime for three firefighters to spend 12 hours a day at the station during the summer.

A long-term, non-overtime solution, is needed, the council said.

Crime up, crime down

2007 will be remembered as the year a Gunn High School student was kidnapped and assaulted outside her apartment complex by a troubled Paly grad arrested just days later.

The brazen crime shocked and saddened Palo Altans and caused many high schoolers to ride rather than walk to school, at least for a while.

The community was also dismayed by the tale of a fratricide on July 16, when James Dalton, 52, allegedly stabbed his brother, John, 53, with a kitchen knife.

Behind the headline-grabbing crimes are mixed trends, Police Chief Lynne Johnson said.

Auto and residential burglaries have dropped nearly 50 percent since 2006, while robberies have climbed from 29 through most of 2006, to 40 so far this year, she said.

And drug arrests are skyrocketing, up from 326 in 2006 to 527 so far in 2007, Johnson said. The biggest drug is methamphetamine, followed by heroin, cocaine and marijuana, she said.

2007 started off poorly for East Palo Alto. Shootings shook the community throughout December, igniting street tensions and worries that violence would escalate.

The conflict took down 13-year-old Moises Jimenez and Tomas Hernandez, 18, on Jan. 21. They were killed while standing in the carport of a small apartment complex.

Hundreds of community members called for peace in a Feb. 3 march and rally. The march coincided with the beginning of an intense partnership between community members and the Police Department called Project Safe neighborhood, which prohibited officers' leave and brought in regional, state and federal resources.

In October, Police Chief Ron Davis called the crackdown a success, although just hours after the press conference another man was shot in East Palo Alto.

Toward the end of the year, the number of shootings again escalated.

Tasers introduced -- without community shock

Throughout 2007, national headlines and YouTube videos chronicled numerous cases of seeming abuse involving Tasers, an electric stun gun that shoots two prongs up to 25 feet, deploying a shock that leaves its victim writhing on the ground.

But when Palo Alto police began carrying Tasers this fall, the weapon's arrival failed to inflame the passions of the larger community, instead infuriating only a small but vocal group of activists.

Perhaps the community's acceptance stems from the process -- a five-month task force inquiry -- or the policy. Officers are strongly discouraged from using the weapons, for example, on a pregnant woman, someone standing on the edge of a rooftop, or anyone, such as a protester, passively resisting arrest.

The policy urges officers to zap suspects for the shortest amount of time possible. The department's Tasers also record audio and video.

Police Chief Lynne Johnson had done her homework since her last attempt to purchase Tasers in 2004, an effort that sparked a heated backlash. This time, the acquisition was debated first for five months by a 12-member group of attorneys, law-enforcement experts, medical professionals, a rabbi, human-rights leaders and a mediator.

The group ploughed through hundreds of pages of reports and listened to experts on both sides of the issue, including a controversial presentation by Dr. Jeffrey Ho, whose research is financed by manufacturer Taser International.

The task force concluded that Tasers, although unpleasant, are preferable in most situations to batons, chemical sprays, dogs or hands-on combat, the other alternatives available to officers.

In May, the issue split the City Council 5-4.

Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin and Johnson worked together to create a usable policy they believe will prevent the type of abuse seen in other communities.

And so far it has, Johnson said in late December.

Tasers have been used infrequently without causing problems, Johnson said. And just by threatening to use them, officers have been able to subdue suspects, she said.

"That's just what we wanted."

Elections bring newbies into office

With no incumbents, the 2007 race for City Council pitted politically connected novices against those who lacked community credentials. And, not surprisingly, those with the endorsements of Palo Alto's "who's who" took the four open slots, with a slight upset in fourth place, as former school board member Greg Schmid displaced the dapper Dan Dykwel, a businessman and schools volunteer.

The election's top vote-getter, Sid Espinosa, a 35-year-old philanthropy executive at Hewlett-Packard, tapped into Palo Altans' desire for fresh, yet tested, leaders who genuinely love the city. The witty Espinosa attracted unprecedented support with his platform promoting infrastructure, economic development and environmental initiatives.

In second was Pat Burt, a two-term planning commissioner with a near encyclopedic knowledge of local land use who called for more public participation, infrastructure investment and efforts to boost city revenues.

Gunn High School grad Yiaway Yeh, 29, took third. Earnest and committed, Yeh credits Palo Alto with his love of community and said he wants to give back and encourage intergenerational links. He also plans to reach out to the city's growing Asian population.

With the failure of the race's only woman, Stella Marinos -- a nurse and political neophyte -- to gain a seat, the election leaves only one woman, current Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, on the council in 2008.

Voters in the school-board elections voiced a desire for experience, opting for incumbent Camille Townsend, long-time PTA volunteer Melissa Baten Caswell and district teacher and consultant Barbara Klausner.

Yet the race was also marked by extremes. Klausner dominated the vote count with 30 percent of ballots, nearly 10 percent more than Baten Caswell.

And Townsend just barely re-won her seat, squeezing into third place with a mere 182 more votes than Wynn Hausser.

School board gets immersed in Mandarin debacle

Sprawling into this year from last, the debate about whether to start a Mandarin-immersion language program in schools ballooned into one of the year's most divisive issues.

Among other concerns, opponents accused the limited-enrollment program of flying in the face of equal public education.

But proponents argued the district should prepare children to live in a global world. They also pointed out that the district already runs plenty such limited programs, also called choice programs.

At least, that's how it started. But over the course of 20 board meetings and other community forums, the debate devolved into a tangle of anger and hurt feelings -- even accusations of racism.

The board finally voted not to start such a program early in the year -- but reversed its decision in May after proponents took steps to launch a charter school, which would have required more district funding than an immersion program.

This year Superintendent Kevin Skelly has called on the community to move on from the mud-slinging and focus on future issues.

And while bitterness lingers in the community, the language program is slated to open at Ohlone Elementary School next August.

Skelly brings goodwill to troubled district

Last year left the school district reeling from complaints from middle managers about distrust and disrespect.

But things have changed.

With the arrival of new Superintendent Kevin Skelly in June, a new era of goodwill and cooperation has begun, school officials said.

"I do definitely feel a different mood ... that dark cloud has lifted," school-board President Dana Tom said. "We're able to focus on the important work with fewer distractions."

Friendly and frank, Skelly has earned a reputation for being a good listener unafraid to share his own opinions -- and for being a bit of a goofball.

He ended a summer staff meeting by suggesting everyone go bowling, then greeted the group in a blow-up costume of a sumo wrestler and asked them to wiggle into other silly duds.

"He must have had 40, no, probably 50 costumes, and they were all his!" Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy said.

But he has a serious side. He's met with low-income students from East Palo Alto to hear their concerns. And he's pressed district task forces to come up with reasonable, rather than pie-in-the-sky recommendations in an expedient fashion.

The year has exceeded his expectations in all directions, he told the Weekly recently.

It has been more challenging than expected -- but people have also been even more welcoming, he said.

  • 2007 Looking back

  • 7 unforgettable people

  • 7 things we can't believe happened

  • 7 issues left unresolved

  • Comments

    Posted by Ms. Simons, a resident of Palo Verde
    on Dec 27, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    "2007 will be remembered as the year a Gunn High School student was kidnapped and assaulted outside her apartment complex by a troubled Paly grad arrested just days later" 2007 The Year in Review

    Instead let 2007 be remembered as the year that Palo Alto affirmed that the safety of each and everyone of our citizens is what really matters. Let us continue to give our support to those who have suffered, extend our most heartfelt good wishes, and any services we can offer. Let us respect their privacy and right to dignity as they move forward in their lives. Best wishes for the new year.


    Posted by City Employee, a resident of another community
    on Dec 31, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Editor,

    I like your current 3 left margin photos. David Burpee and James Dalton make appropriate company for Emily Harrison.

    Was this intentional or a Freudian slip? Either way works for me!


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