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Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 27, 2006

The good, the bad and the messy

The year had its ups and downs, but Palo Alto came out of 2006 with some accomplishments to be proud of

by Alexandria Rocha, Becky Trout, Jocelyn Dong, Molly Tanenbaum and Sue Dremann

First, the good news: Palo Alto and surrounding communities saw some truly stellar moments in 2006. Through collaboration, hard work and lots of money, some long-held visions came to fruition this year, from the rebuilding of the Stanford Stadium to the opening of the Opportunity Center for the homeless.

But there were also the hard times. The year started with the fatal shooting of East Palo Alto Police Officer Richard May; mid-summer, two fatal accidents took the lives of a Palo Alto high-school student, two members of the Tongan royal family and their driver; and in the fall, both the city's school district and arguably the most well-known Palo Alto high-tech company, HP, were wracked with ethics scandals and charges of misbehavior.

And then there were the unresolved issues, which no doubt will substantially shape the year to come. Debates over an immersion-language program for elementary-school students and plans for blighted neighborhood shopping centers, among other issues, will continue to unfold, raising deep questions about private rights versus public good and the nature of the world in which we choose to live.

Here, then, is the good, the bad and the messy of 2006.

THE GOOD

Stanford Stadium

Constructed in just one off-season by crews working late into the night, the new Stanford football stadium greeted 50,000 football fans on Sept. 16. The snazzy stadium, which replaced its 85-year-old predecessor, gives fans more leg room, a closer view of the action, more concession stands and extra bathrooms. Despite reducing 35,000 seats, the Stanford Stadium met with initial crowd approval. It didn't do much to help the football team itself, though. The Cardinal dropped its stadium-christening home opener to Navy 37-9 and then proceeded to straggle through a 1-11 season. But at least the new stadium stood out like a jewel.

Opportunity Center

The five-story, $24-million building off El Camino Real, colored a cheery melon, opened its doors to the less fortunate Sept. 8, capping nearly 20 years of searching and 10 years of concerted effort and cooperation. Offering 89 low-cost apartments and a slew of drop-in services for singles and families including food, clothing, counseling, medical care, laundry and showers, the center provides the first permanent homeless center in Palo Alto.

Its creation is a collaborative effort between the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, InnVision the Way Home, and then the Community Working Group, led by Dr. Don Barr. "I know people in the homeless community who go all the way to Santa Cruz for a service like taking a shower," said drop-in client Ron Bullard.

Stanford-Palo Alto Community Playing Fields

The brand-spanking-new athletic fields at El Camino Real and Page Mill Road were an instant hit with kids' soccer camps and adult leagues. Made from fake grass, or turf, they're playable rain or shine. They opened in August as the result of the long discussed Mayfield Deal between Stanford University and the City of Palo Alto, which added the much-needed playing fields to Palo Alto. The other side of the deal includes future housing on California Avenue and 300,000 square feet of commercial development in the Stanford Research Park. Palo Alto pays $1 a year to Stanford for 51 years for the fields.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation

On Jan. 1, it'll be official. Two large community foundations — Peninsula Community Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley — will become one entity: Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The boards of each foundation decided upon the merger in July and finalized it this month. The new foundation will be one of the largest in the country, with $1.5 billion in assets and 1,400 philanthropic funds. It already has a new CEO, Emmett Carson, who comes to the Bay Area from his post as head of the Minneapolis Foundation.

"That kind of organization should be able to make a greater social impact than each organization separately," said Peter Hero, who will leave his post as CEO of CFSV on Jan. 1 to become Carson's senior advisor. The big foundation is looking for new headquarters, possibly in Palo Alto or East Palo Alto.

East Palo Alto Today

East Palo Alto residents finally got a voice when a new newspaper, East Palo Alto Today, hit the streets in late January. The paper covers local people, news and events, with an emphasis on avoiding stereotyping that many in the community claim prevails in the mainstream media. Since its inception nearly a year ago, the paper has added an online Web site, a journalism-mentoring program for local youth, and partnered with the East Palo Alto Center for Community Media and Palo Alto's MidPeninsula Community Media Center.

The paper was started on a shoestring budget by Palo Alto resident and former print and television journalist Henrietta Burroughs.

THE BAD

HP ethics scandal

A crackdown on leaks to the media spun out of control in 2006, leaving Hewlett-Packard Company's stellar reputation tarnished and the technology giant tied to spying plots and privacy invasions. The drama began when former board chairwoman Patricia Dunn launched an investigation to figure out how secret board information made it into the press. The probe became public due to a clash between Dunn and director Tom Perkins — a friend of the source of the leaks, fellow director George "Jay" Keyworth. The ensuing scandal made pretexting — the acquisition of information, in this case personal data, via false pretenses — a household word. And most recently, HP forked over $14.5 million to the California Attorney General's office to settle civil claims that the company unlawfully accessed telephone records. Dunn, who resigned from the board following the debacle, and four others still face felony criminal charges.

Death of Officer Richard May

Hundreds of East Palo Alto residents and police officers from all over the state publicly mourned the murder of East Palo Alto Police Officer Richard May on Jan. 13 during a funeral procession. Schoolchildren from nearby Costano Elementary School and Cesar Chavez Academy lined the streets, holding signs declaring their love for May, an officer who worked with young people in the community. May was shot and killed Jan. 7 while following a man who had been in a fight.

May's death triggered a deep disappointment on the part of residents and police, who had been making headway in the crackdown on crime in the city.

Alberto Alvarez, 23, a local resident, was arrested in May's death. He is currently on trial and may face the death penalty.

School-district leadership troubles

On Sept. 6, the Palo Alto school district's management team — consisting of about 50 principals, assistant principals, office coordinators and school psychologists — sent a document to Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, accusing her and her three-member senior cabinet of treating team members unfairly.

The members cited issues of mistrust, preferential treatment and compensation and benefits. They threatened to form a union or association if working conditions did not improve.

The school board, although criticized for a slow response, decided in November to find an outside consultant to investigate the allegations, with an expected hire date in January.

Since the troubles rocked the district, Callan and one of her top staff, business chief Jerry Matranga, have announced concurrent retirements at the end of this school year. Neither, however, has said their retirements are related to the allegations.

Palo Alto crime wave

Everything was not copacetic in Palo Alto this year. Multiple crime waves kept residents on edge. A spike in home burglaries that began in late January, with break-ins occurring mainly in unlocked homes and cars, continued during the summer and into November.

Police initially focused on unlicensed magazine-subscription solicitors, arresting a 19-year-old man associated with an itinerant group. But other prowlers arrested came from all over the Bay Area, including Hayward and San Jose, police said. Cops suspected a methamphetamine-addiction epidemic was fueling the crimes.

Increasingly violent armed robberies also shocked the city. Armed assailants struck a woman at a Midtown ATM in mid-May; a car-jacking prompted police to cordon off a swath of south Palo Alto in June; a car-wash employee was stabbed during a robbery on Sept. 6; Palo Alto Bowl Manager Harvey King was shot and critically wounded during an armed robbery on Nov. 18; and Benchmark Diamonds on University Avenue was robbed at gunpoint the day after Thanksgiving. On Dec. 18, three armed robbers struck the S O S convenience store on Emerson Street.

Meanwhile, children reported being approached by suspicious persons outside of Terman and Addison Elementary Schools, and three women were attacked while walking in Crescent Park one evening in August.

A recently released city auditor's survey of residents showed a sizeable drop in the number of people who felt safe from violent and property crimes this year.

Fatal car crashes

The makeshift roadside memorials that quickly popped up testified to the outpouring of grief caused by two fatal car crashes just six hours apart on July 5 and 6. One took the lives of Prince Tu'ipelehake, 54, and Princess Kaimana Tu'ipelehake, 46, of the small island nation of Tonga and their driver, Vinisia Hefa of East Palo Alto. They were killed at about 9 p.m. July 5, when their 1998 Ford Explorer was hit on U.S. Highway 101 in Menlo Park, allegedly by a Redwood City teenager who had been racing. The collision caused the Explorer to roll over several times.

The second accident occurred just five hours later, when Gunn High School student Garth Li crashed his BMW while going southbound on I-280 in Woodside in the wee hours of the morning. A coroner's report identified alcohol in Li's system at the time of his death. Both accidents struck a deep chord in the community, sending friends here and across the globe reeling.

Conviction of Bill Giordano

In November, Bill Giordano, a former Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School teacher and coach, was sentenced to four years in prison for sexually abusing a student in the early 1990s. Giordano pleaded no contest to 10 counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a girl when she was 14 to 17 years old.

While Giordano's arrest in August 2005 shocked many community members, it also spurred a flurry of rumors about who knew and kept mum. According to court documents, Giordano and the victim, now 29, had a somewhat open relationship. After he requested her as his classroom aide, the two would openly leave campus together and drive to his Menlo Park home where he molested her.

The victim is currently suing the Palo Alto Unified School District for allegedly not investigating a tip that she was being abused by Giordano. The case is ongoing.

THE MESSY

School-attendance boundaries

The contentious issue of which schools children should be sent to got off the ground this year, as the Palo Alto school district began reviewing its attendance boundaries in an attempt to fix significantly unbalanced elementary-school populations. But many parents and students are emotionally connected to their schools, and breaking those ties has become an invitation to argument.

While school officials have assured parents that children will be grandfathered into their current campuses, dozens of parents are still upset by proposals that move the enrollment areas around. Residents of the Southgate neighborhood in north Palo Alto have been the most vocal, as one proposal moves their children from the Walter Hays Elementary School attendance area to Escondido Elementary School's. Southgate parents crammed into a school board meeting this month, waved picket signs and heckled to oppose the idea.

With other proposals on the plate, the temperature is sure to rise in the board room.

The Board of Education is planning to take action Feb. 6.

Dog attacks

Dog lovers and other residents were pitted against each other in a vociferous debate after a small white Maltese dog named Yogloo was attacked and killed by a pit bull on Aug. 26. The woman who was walking the three pit bulls had allegedly warned Yogloo's owner as they passed by, but the attack couldn't be thwarted.

Then, the euthanizing on Dec. 12 of another dog that attacked a 5-year-old boy on Dec. 2 sparked outrage by some residents, and applause by others. The 40-pound dog, which was off-leash, bit Barron Park Elementary School kindergartener Sean Martin in the neck as he played at Hoover Elementary School. The attack fractured Martin's vertebrae and inflicted gashes and bruises. Both attacks prompted significant debate about the responsibilities of dog owners — and parents — on the Weekly's Town Square online forum.

Tasers

Proposals to purchase electronic stun guns for the Palo Alto Police Department, and heated protests of the idea, reignited this December. The department had laid low on the request following controversy generated two years ago. This time around, an official task force will be set up, composed of members of the community, department, civil-rights and law-enforcement groups, and others. It will be charged with studying the merits of purchasing the weapons, which shoot prongs up to 25 feet that shock the target for up to five seconds. Updated Tasers now come with video and audio recording abilities that deploy when fired. The task force will wrap up its work by the end of March.

Hidden Villa

Financial troubles weighed down the popular 1,600-acre Los Altos Hills farm and environmental-education center this year, leading to decisions that embroiled it in controversy. In May, the nonprofit's leaders announced the beloved 12-day overnight summer camp wouldn't return in 2007. An outcry ensued from devoted adherents and alumni, who praise it as a multicultural, often-life-changing experience. Board and staff members, however, said the money just wasn't available. A fundraising campaign, generating $125,000, and a pledge for a stronger emphasis on education revived the camp, and at its Nov. 30 meeting, the board voted to offer seven sessions in 2007, spokeswoman Anna Alioto said.

Mandarin immersion

After years of lobbying for a Mandarin-language immersion program in Palo Alto schools, Palo Altans for Chinese Education nearly accomplished its goal this year. The district produced a report this month stating it would be financially and operationally feasible to implement a Mandarin-immersion program in fall 2007. It would just need an appropriate location.

However, a heated debate about whether a new lottery-based "choice" program is right for the Palo Alto school district has polarized the community.

Supporters say Palo Alto children would benefit from learning Mandarin at a young age and emerge from school better equipped to compete in a global economy. Opponents say a new choice program, which would draw students from all over the district, would displace other children from their neighborhood schools.

The two camps have also become color coded: Supporters have attended school-board meetings in bright red, while opponents come clad in all shades of green.

The school board is expected to make a decision on the issue Jan. 30.

Newspaper buyouts

Consolidation and circulation slips continued to change the landscape of the newspaper world this year. Denver-based MediaNews Group, Inc. purchased the San Jose Mercury News in April, along with the Palo Alto Daily News, its four sister papers and most other papers in the Bay Area. CEO Dean Singleton, known for clamping down on new purchases with layoffs, announced more than 27 layoffs at the Mercury News in December. More could follow next summer.

An antitrust lawsuit has been filed, and U.S. District Judge Susan Illston last week barred Media News and the San Francisco Chronicle's parent Hearst Corp. from combining, for now, local distribution operations and national advertising sales. The judge's order is to remain in effect at least until a trial on the lawsuit, currently set to begin April 30.

Neighborhood shopping centers

Last year, Albertson's pulled out of Alma Plaza. This August, the shrinking grocery chain left Edgewood Plaza. Both centers are currently in limbo, poised for redevelopment. Developer John McNellis is preparing plans for the 4-acre Alma Plaza to include 39 single-family homes, a small park and a mixed-use building with 14 apartments, a 20,000-square-foot market and a couple of other small shops.

The 4.5-acre Edgewood Plaza is a different story. Even as historic-preservation-oriented neighbors hope the Joseph Eichler-developed shopping center can be restored to former glory, the new part-owner, Sand Hill Property Co., plans to build housing, a grocery store and small shops.

Meanwhile, Sand Hill also hiked up operating fees for the remaining tenants — including a liquor store, a wig shop, a dollar store and a hair salon, among others — and switched them to month-to-month leases.

"We are losing money every month. We aren't making money. Why would (they) do this? It doesn't make any sense," a baffled Thuy Kim, one of the liquor store's owners, said.

Charleston/Arastradero Corridor

Traffic calming on the Charleston/Arastradero Corridor — with Phase 1 up and running since the beginning of the school year — has received mixed reviews from commuters, parents and neighbors in its initial months.

"It takes me twice as long to get places. Especially bad are traffic jams during the rush hour," Leo Volpe said. The $1.1 million trial slims the road from four lanes to two to ease traffic congestion, improve bicycle-lane access and pedestrian safety, and encourage people to use alternative transportation.

"I have definitely noticed less speeding — a definite indication of traffic calming, which was the main purpose of the project," Betty Lum, who lives off Arastradero Road, said. The city will initiate Phase 2, the Arastradero portion between El Camino Real and Miranda Avenue, next summer.

A. Peter Evans

As if East Palo Alto doesn't have enough problems, Councilman A. Peter Evans grabbed headlines this year when the city's assistant city manager alleged this summer that Evans was harassing staff, making racial comments and creating a hostile working environment. And then, M.L. Gordon said Evans retaliated against his complaint by recommending Gordon's position be eliminated. An outside investigator conducted a probe into the matter and decided, yes, Evans had been out of line. Evans defended his behavior in a 14-page response and called the investigation against him a "plot." The City Council closed the year by skipping over Evans for the spot of mayor, signaling a formal censure would be coming in the new year.

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