Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 24, 2010

2010: A year of crises, cutbacks, crime and caring

Well-being of young persons topped a troubling list of issues, but hope grew by year's end

by Gennady Sheyner, Chris Kenrick, Sue Dremann and Jocelyn Dong

For Palo Alto, 2010 was a year to retrench.

Silicon Valley's economic engine continued sputtering, and the City of Palo Alto faced a looming $7.3 million budget deficit with difficult choices to make as to which city services to cut back — or eliminate altogether.

A shaken community started 2010 in the grip of a cluster of suicides among its young people. Anxious parents, teachers and community members scrambled to stem what they feared would be a continuing tragedy.

But hope seeped into the year as city and school officials and community members responded to the crises.

The City Council adopted a severely curtailed budget mid-year that council members praised for its long-term fiscal responsibility.

Residents, nonprofits and faith groups worked diligently to improve life in the community, kicking off 2010 with the re-planting of trees on California Avenue, holding emergency-preparedness events to ready neighborhoods for The Big One and consistently advocating for programs and activities that would boost the well-being of young persons.

The trendiest of businesses relocated to Palo Alto or expanded their local profiles, including Tesla, Groupon, Skype, BlingNation, HP and, of course, Facebook.

The city's two public high schools each got new principals, who endeavored to set a fresh tone for their students in the fall.

And the city's efforts to overhaul its aging library system launched smoothly with the renovations of the Downtown Branch and Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and the re-opening of a refurbished College Terrace Library.

Entering 2011, Palo Alto faces ongoing challenges, including a recent wave of armed robberies and burglaries and a city staff that is trying to accomplish more with fewer workers.

To capture the tenor of 2010, the Weekly has selected a range of top news events of the year. Though 2010 had many highlights, the Weekly sought to identify those with the greatest impact on Palo Alto or which were most illustrative of life this past year.

Readers are invited to share their own take on the top news of 2010 on Town Square, the online discussion forum, on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Here, then, is the Weekly's Top 10 of 2010.

Most Stunning Tragedy: plane crash and power outage

On a densely foggy morning Feb. 17, a twin-engine Cessna 310R took off from the Palo Alto Airport and slammed into an electrical tower in the baylands, instantly cutting off power to nearly all of Palo Alto and crashing into an East Palo Alto neighborhood.

The plane ripped into two homes on Beech Street in a residential East Palo Alto neighborhood, skidded down the street in a ball of flames and exploded. All three people on board were killed, but miraculously no one on the ground was injured.

In its wake, the crash changed many lives and raised questions that are still ongoing.

The cause is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. A final report is expected by the end of this month or in early 2011, according to a board spokesman.

Detailed memories of the tragedy linger, and not just in the minds of those most greatly impacted, such as Lisa Jones, whose Eppie's Day Care was struck by the plane. Tesla Motors of Palo Alto mourned the deaths of three employees: pilot Douglas Bourn and passengers Brian Finn and Andrew Ingram.

Audio recordings made prior to takeoff captured an air-traffic controller twice telling Bourn there was no visibility on the runway due to the fog and that he was not cleared for takeoff but would be flying at his own risk. A recording from the East Palo Alto Police Department's Shot Spotter gunshot-detection system told what happened next: It captured the impact and sounds of residents screaming in the street.

"There was fire everywhere," eyewitness Benita Brown said at the time.

The accident caused a major power outage from Menlo Park to Mountain View and took out the three powerlines that supply Palo Alto. City officials activated the city's Emergency Operations Center, while city businesses were brought to a halt. Hundreds of workers relocated to Menlo Park and Mountain View restaurants for food or Internet access.

The disaster ignited smoldering resentment regarding the Palo Alto Airport among East Palo Altans and Palo Altans alike.

Palo Altans debated the hazards and merits of having the airport so close to a heavily populated area. East Palo Altans complained — and still complain — about planes that habitually roar over their community during takeoffs.

If there has been a silver lining, the accident prompted city officials to explore ways to add an alternate electrical supply line from the west, to lessen the city's vulnerability to future power failures. It has yet to come to fruition, however.

The fate of Palo Alto Airport remains up in the air, although the Palo Alto City Council agreed Dec. 6 the city should take control of the airport from Santa Clara County even before the county's lease expires in 2017.

The city will contribute $300,000 into a new Airport Enterprise Fund to pay for legal fees and consultants for the transition. Still unclear is whether the city will operate the airport on its own or hire a third party. City administrators have said they will make a recommendation by the middle of 2011, following additional studies.

The Beech Street neighborhood is largely repaired, although residents report lingering fears as a result of the crash. Eppie's Day Care is still boarded up.

Least Surprising Turn of Events: high-speed rail

It took less than two years for California's proposed high-speed rail project to morph, in the Palo Alto City Council's mind, from a badly needed cure for the state's traffic woes to a $45 billion "boondoggle" that will reduce property values and divide the community with walls or aerial highways.

The discussion, which dominated council meetings throughout the year, took on a note of urgency in the fall, when Councilman Larry Klein described the city's relationship with the California High-Speed Rail Authority as a "bare-knuckles political fight" and a "David-and-Goliath struggle." Just two years earlier Klein had joined the rest of the council in passing a resolution in support of the rail project when it was up for a statewide vote on a $9.95 billion down payment. The city's request for underground train tunnels appeared to be going nowhere fast and auditors from various state agencies were raising red flags about the authority's revenue plans and ridership projections.

In September, the frustrated council passed a resolution of "no confidence" in the voter-approved project and called for state and federal officials to cut off funding. Few were surprised when the council decided later that month to join its neighbors in Atherton and Menlo Park in filing a lawsuit against the authority, challenging its study of the project's environmental impact.

By the end of the year, the city's high-speed rail activities slowed down as the Federal Railroad Administration and the rail authority decided to begin the project in the Central Valley — all but ensuring that it will be years before Peninsula residents get the 120-mph trains. Rod Diridon, who sits on the authority's board of directors, attributed this decision to Peninsula's opposition to the project and Central Valley's cooperation. David may not have defeated Goliath, but he at least bought some time.

Priority of the Year: student 'connectedness'

How resilient are the youth of Palo Alto?

Following five devastating student suicides over a nine-month period ending in January, school and community leaders spent much of 2010 searching for ways to bolster the emotional health of local teens.

The discussion centered on "student connectedness," the research-based idea that teen connections with adults at home and school go hand-in-hand with well-being.

A group of parents from St. Mark's Episcopal Church lobbied the school board to adopt ongoing "connectedness" programs that would ensure no student could opt out or fall through the cracks. In September, the board listed "student connectedness" among its top priorities for this academic year.

To boost connections and other indicators of mental health, community leaders settled on an approach called "Developmental Assets" — a list of 41 youth behaviors, such as "school engagement" and "positive family communication" — that researchers believe form the foundation of teen well-being. In the latter part of 2010, the Developmental Assets system was adopted across the community, by grassroots organizations as well as by the school district and City Council.

A wealth of data on how Palo Alto students measure up on the "assets" will be available when the results of a detailed poll, which students took in October, come out in early 2011.

By February, Palo Alto's scores on "thriving indicators," "risk behaviors," "assets" and "deficits" will be compared to those of 50,000 other students in Santa Clara County and others around the country.

"The big question we get from our community is, 'How are we building assets in our students?'" said Amy Drolette, coordinator of student services for the school district.

"The Developmental Assets survey will give us a snapshot of that."

School and community groups this year also undertook dozens of other efforts to boost youth mental and emotional health — some pre-existing and others in direct response to the suicides.

They include a wide variety of character-education programs in each of Palo Alto's elementary schools as well as renewed efforts by the PTA, the Palo Alto Youth Council and faith organizations to pay attention to teen concerns.

Most Inflammatory Budget Battle: fire union vs. city

For Palo Alto firefighters, the most heated battle of the year wasn't against a foothills blaze or a burning building but a City Council and administration looking for budget savings. As the council wrestled with a $7.3 million structural (that is, long-lasting) deficit in the city's budget in the first half of 2010, every labor group except for the firefighters union agreed to reductions in benefits, salary freezes or deferred raises.

In a year of citywide belt-tightening, the Fire Department's expenditures continued rising, prompting the council to commission new studies to evaluate department staffing and consider efficiencies. The council flirted with the idea of abolishing a "binding arbitration" provision in the City Charter — a provision that requires the council to go to mediation if it cannot reach agreement with public-safety employees. The council dropped the idea (for now) only after the police union opposed the idea.

With labor negotiations deteriorating, firefighters roared back with a ballot measure, Measure R, which if approved would freeze staffing levels in the department and force the city to hold an election to reduce staff or close a fire station.

Measure R went down in flames on Nov. 2, with more than 75 percent of voters opposed. But the tension between Palo Alto officials and firefighters continued to build as 2010 came to a close. In early December, a preliminary report from city consultants identified a "leadership malaise," poor training and nearly nonexistent planning in the Fire Department. It recommended consolidation of fire stations and better public education. The consultants, from the firms TriData and ICMA, plan to present their final findings and recommendations in February.

Meanwhile, the city and firefighters remain stuck in contract talks. These discussions, as well as the general debate over staffing levels, are expected to spill over well into 2011.

Obfuscation of the Year: PG&E and City of Palo Alto Utilities

City of Palo Alto Utilities and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. engaged in a confusing game of "hide the pipeline" in September, following the Sept. 9 San Bruno gas explosion and fire that killed seven people.

Trying to quell fears that Palo Alto's gas lines could be unsafe, both agencies refused to provide information to the public about where the pipelines run or what condition they were in, initially citing "security" issues or "Homeland Security" instructions.

PG&E initially said it did not have any pipelines in Palo Alto. Palo Alto Utilities refused to comment on PG&E's network, citing terrorism risks and the courtesy between the two utilities agencies not to provide information about each other's systems — including showing maps within the city's possession.

PG&E would not disclose the diameter or age of its transmission lines and repeatedly failed to return e-mails and phone calls requesting information about maintenance and service to its lines through Palo Alto.

But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's online federal mapping website revealed that Line 132, the 54-year-old pipeline involved in the San Bruno explosion and fire, runs along Page Mill Road and Oregon Expressway in Palo Alto, eventually following Middlefield Road into Mountain View. Two other PG&E lines also run through Palo Alto.

City utilities officials claimed the maps were not accurate but at first refused to provide correct information.

On Sept. 20, City Manager James Keene sent a letter to PG&E demanding by Sept. 23 a current map with precise locations of all PG&E high-pressure gas lines and other natural-gas facilities in Palo Alto, updated information on the condition of the city's PG&E natural-gas facilities, where any unsafe lines have been identified in the city, the pipeline maintenance schedule and other pertinent information.

PG&E officials met with the city, and workers inspected the pipelines and valves. PG&E announced a modernization plan on Oct. 12 that includes replacing manual shut-off valves with automatic shut-offs over 1,000 miles of pipelines and adopting "best practices."

But new, disconcerting information continues to undermine PG&E's credibility.

A federal probe released Dec. 14 into the cause of the San Bruno explosion found that the blown pipeline had several seams, including one that ran down the length of the pipe. PG&E was not even aware of the lateral seam, the report found.

Grassroots Idea With Greatest Impact: kindergarten-readiness bill

Teacher power lives.

That was the lesson in this year's "kindergarten readiness" bill, signed into law Sept. 30 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The law — which will change the kindergarten start date for future generations of California children — got its start in the classrooms of two Palo Alto teachers, Diana Argenti of Walter Hays Elementary School and Natalie Bivas of Palo Verde Elementary School.

With recently ramped-up academic demands in kindergarten, the veteran educators had noticed a growing number of kids — particularly those with later birthdays — falling behind.

They gathered signatures from nearly 300 fellow teachers and petitioned state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to do something about it.

While sympathetic, Simitian, a teacher's son who's been in the state Legislature for a decade, had witnessed the failure of numerous previous attempts to require that children turn 5 by Sept. 1 of the year they begin kindergarten.

California remained one of the last states holding out for a Dec. 2 cutoff, effectively allowing about 100,000 4-year-olds into kindergarten each year.

But Simitian agreed to carry forward Argenti's and Bivas's request, sensing this year could represent a "tipping point" on the issue, with both educational and financial arguments aligning for the change. With a bit of horse trading — including guarantees that the money saved would be put back into education in the form of transitional kindergarten for kids with fall birthdays — the bill made it to Schwarzenegger's desk.

Bivas said she felt as nervous as an "expectant father" on the night they were waiting to see whether Schwarzenegger would sign the bill.

"Teachers often feel powerless to create change," Argenti added. "But the observations of teachers can provide tremendous insight.

"Teachers need the opportunity to speak, and leaders need the ability to listen with open minds."

Stink of the Year: landfill & zero waste

"Zero Waste is equaling zero dollars," Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Scharff proclaimed at a July meeting, referring to the city's highly publicized campaign to divert local waste from landfills.

The council had just learned that the city's ultra-green Zero Waste campaign was sapping the city's finances and forcing the city to throw away millions of dollars on a garbage quota it never delivers. The Zero Waste campaign worked too well. Local business embraced composting and drastically reduced trash loads. Residents ditched their traditional garbage cans and switched to the smaller and cheaper mini-cans — resulting in a 44 percent drop in landfill-bound garbage between 2007 and 2009.

But as Kermit the Frog once observed: It's not easy being green. Nor is it cheap. The cost of the city's new hyper-green waste-management program drained the city's Refuse Fund, which fell an astounding $8.1 million short of revenue projections in one year, surprising the council. Because most customers don't have to pay fees for recycling or composting (unlike good, old-fashioned trash), the city has to completely subsidize these services. The financial hole also threatened the city's ability to meet its legal obligation to keep $6 million in the Refuse Fund for impending closure of the landfill in the Baylands, perhaps by 2012.

A frustrated council voted to raise garbage rates in the fall, restrict hours at the local landfill, reduce outreach for Zero Waste and repeal its recently imposed ban on commercial waste at the landfill.

Acknowledging that the current rate system doesn't work, Public Works staff is also now working with consultants to revamp the city's refuse-rate structure and possibly start charging residents for recycling — currently free, but as city officials like to remind residents, it is not costless. Changes are expected to debut in 2011 and could very well raise a stink among customers whose reward for green-waste practices (besides environmental benefits) will be another round of rising rates.

Project of the Year: Palo Alto libraries

In a year filled with financial headaches and widespread concerns about Palo Alto's decaying infrastructure, the city's massive library-renovation project gleamed like a holy grail of good news on both fronts. With 2010 coming to a close, the project, for which city voters approved a $76 million bond in November 2008, is steaming ahead on schedule and under budget.

The project set sail in April, when the Downtown Library closed its doors. When doors reopen in the summer of 2011, the small branch will be equipped with a new program room, technology space and a larger collection.

The large and well-used Mitchell Park branch was demolished in September and will re-emerge in the summer of 2012 with a large program room, an expanded collection, a small café and LEED Gold certification. The construction project — by far the biggest and most expensive in the Measure N package — was expected to cost the city about $49 million. In a rare bit of positive financial news, the bids for the Mitchell Park project came in about $8 million below budget.

Expansion of the Main Library will commence once the Mitchell Park branch reopens.

In addition to progressing with the three bond-funded projects, the city also completed its eagerly awaited rehabilitation of the College Terrace Library, which reopened in November with a new roof, wider aisles, a host of electrical and mechanical upgrades and better accessibility for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The City Council lauded the progress of all the library projects at a recent meeting with the Library Advisory Commission. Mayor Pat Burt told the commission, "We're at a transformation period in libraries and you get to be at the center of the transformation. ... The one constant you'll have is change."

Councilman Greg Schmid said he expects the good news to continue. "We're going to have new library branches all over town opening up in the next two years, each one more exciting than the last," he said.

Campout of the Year: Quakeville

Quakeville, a neighborhood trial-run campout at Juana Briones Park on Sept. 11, became the year's disaster-prep symbol for emergency preparedness, one of five goals the Palo Alto City Council set for 2010.

The event was the brainchild of Lydia Kou, the Barron Park Association's emergency-prep coordinator. It was supported by the city and the Palo Alto Neighborhoods group.

Nearly 60 Barron Park, Leland Manor and Green Acres neighborhood residents turned out for the overnight dress rehearsal for a major earthquake and neighborhood evacuation.

The all-volunteer group Palo Alto Neighborhood Disaster Activities (PANDA) handled logistics and staged a surprise "missing person" search.

"There's no way the city has enough emergency personnel to even come close to taking care of the entire community in the event of disaster," Mayor Pat Burt told the campers.

Though the event at times took on the feeling of a social gathering, the dry run did raise consciousness about several realities residents would face: among them, toilets, soap and pets.

"Acting out an event like this made me realize how little I have together. I don't have what I need to survive, let alone help my neighbors," lifelong Palo Alto resident Marie Mandoli said.

Quakeville kicked off a series of citywide disaster-preparedness events during September and October, and Burt and the Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Council declared September "Emergency Preparedness Month" citywide.

This year, the city also saw the purchase and delivery of a $300,000 mobile-command unit to serve as an emergency-operations and dispatch center. It also re-energized the Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Council, which coordinates regionally with hospitals, schools, businesses, neighborhood groups and adjacent cities on disaster response and coordination.

In August, Palo Alto merged its telephone and e-mail notification system, designed to alert residents and businesses during emergencies, with Santa Clara County's, saving the city an estimated $125,000 a year.

The merger fills the gaps in the city's system by calling unlisted numbers and coordinating notification in border areas between cities, city technical services officials said.

The city also increased its support of citizen groups — a stated goal of its disaster plan — with a $20,000 grant to Palo Alto Neighborhood's block-preparedness coordinator program, which trains residents in basic radio communications and coordination with PANDA and first responders.

Freshest Start: new leadership for Gunn, Paly

Leadership changes brought new personalities to both of Palo Alto's public high school campuses at the start of the fall semester.

Gunn High School's new principal, former history teacher Katya Villalobos, "brings a fresh energy to the school and is very caring about our students' well-being," Gunn parent and PTSA President Grace Yu said.

At Palo Alto High School, new Principal Phil Winston presided over a major change in the academic schedule aimed at boosting student engagement by having classes meet fewer times per week for longer periods.

Villalobos, though born in El Salvador and educated at an all-girls Catholic high school, was steeped in the ways of Palo Alto, having worked at Gunn or Paly almost continuously since arriving as a student teacher in 1995.

She was well known to students at both high schools for her outsized passion for history and enthusiasm for the high school years.

"I love teenagers — they're just awesome," Villalobos said shortly after she was named principal.

"I know some people are scared off by them, but they keep me honest for sure, energized and on my toes."

Winston, a former special-education teacher who grew up in Milpitas, came to Palo Alto as a teacher at JLS Middle School but became dean of students at Gunn after just one year.

"I'm a great listener, a good problem solver, and I enjoy shared decision-making. And I do a good job of keeping things student-centered" he told the Weekly.

Winston and Villalobos took over in July, following the departures of Noreen Likins at Gunn and Jacquie McEvoy at Paly. Likins had been principal of Gunn for six years and, before that assistant principal for six years. McEvoy had been principal of Paly for three at-times-rocky years. She told students and faculty she was leaving with a "bittersweet heart."

Talk about it

What significant city events or trends do you think most greatly affected the city in 2010? Share your Top 10 list on Town Square, the online discussion forum, on Palo Alto Online.

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