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December 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From Anarchists to Zero Waste From Anarchists to Zero Waste (December 28, 2005)

Palo Alto's year in review, from 'A' to 'Z'

by Bill D'Agostino, Jocelyn Dong and Alexandria Rocha

To quote a song from the musical "Rent," "How do you measure a year?"

You could measure Palo Alto's 2005 in the number of parking tickets the Palo Alto Police Department handed out (50,321, as of Nov. 30). Or in the amount of money donated by residents and city employees to support the adopted city of hurricane-struck Kenner, La. (more than $13,000, at least count).

We prefer to measure the year in the people, moments, controversies and debates that made Palo Alto a lively place for journalists to work in 2005. Here is the year in news and images, from "A" to "Z."
A IS FOR Anarchists

"Palo Alto is a place where all the youth suffer from a lot of horrible boredom," one young anarchist explained in May. His solution -- cause mayhem and hope to upturn capitalistic society. For two nights this year, young anarchists took over the streets of downtown. In May, they blasted music, kicked over news racks, jumped on cars, and broke a window of a downtown business. In June, they returned to Palo Alto and the Police Department turned up in heavy force. That time, the anarchists acted more calmly. By showing they could be both organized and peaceful, the anarchists got the community wondering if the police department had overreacted, rather than if boredom is a sufficient grounds for a political movement.

This past July found Palo Alto's airport community waiting to exhale: The future of the 100-acre aviation facility on Embarcadero Road was up for the City Council's deliberation. Would the city assure the airport's operation for the next 20 years, a guarantee that would win $1.8 million in crucial federal grants? At issue were the airport's profitability and the county's willingness to run the city-owned enterprise past 2017, when its contract would expire. The council gave its endorsement, but the county confirmed in September it would pull out in 12 years. Far from feeling deflated, airport fans said the news wouldn't leave them grounded but rather open the door to a new operator for the million-dollar facility.
Auto mall

Sales of automobiles are a vital revenue source for the City of Palo Alto. So vital the city is considering building its own auto mall on a large public property that's visible from U.S. Highway 101. Problem is, the land is also near the city's environmentally sensitive wetlands. Stay tuned. A study of the idea is ongoing and will return to the council next year.
B IS FOR Budget woes

Officials in Palo Alto's City Hall will tell you this was the year the recession began to hurt. The city faced down a projected $5.2 million deficit by laying off workers, cutting a few services and, primarily, increasing fees. By the end of the year, the fiscal news was more optimistic, and thanks to the cuts and fees the city is now projecting balanced budgets for the next few years.
Bad idea

New Palo Alto High School teacher David Rapaport learned his own lesson after announcing in August he planned to use his social studies class as a campaign committee in his run for the City Council. His idea was slammed as unethical and possibly illegal. Even worse, he hadn't consulted his new boss, Principal Scott Laurence. The plan was swiftly canned.
C IS FOR Color of Palo Alto

Samuel Yates spent 2005 on a mission -- to photograph every parcel in Palo Alto for his unusual public art project, the Color of Palo Alto. Based in a solar-powered garage located outside City Hall, Yates traverses the city on a red scooter, shooting properties alphabetically by street -- starting with Abel Avenue and ending on Ynigo Way. The artist expects to complete the photography on Dec. 31 and then begin computing the color. In addition to contributing to the art project, the photographs will also be used by city public safety officers when they respond to a distress call.

This was the year playground bullies became tech-savvy. Adolescents looking to tyrannize used e-mails and cell phone text messaging to name call, start rumors and sexually harass each other. Experts say students are attracted to cyberbullying because it easily flies under the radar of parents and teachers and can be done anonymously without fear of retaliation. In Palo Alto, the phenomenon came to a head when a Gunn High School senior obtained a restraining order against a classmate who sent her thousands of instant messages.
Dennis Harman

When longtime city employee Dennis Harman -- who suffers from multiple disabilities -- was threatened with being laid off this summer, his co-workers took action. They collected signatures and spoke at City Council meetings. The workers succeeded; the City Council took Harman's position off the list of layoffs. At the end of the year, Harman was still working for the city, collecting trash at the Baylands and helping in innumerable other ways.
Downtown Streets Team

For downtown businesses owners, the two problems had long seemed intertwined -- panhandlers scared away shoppers and the streets were dirty. This year, the solution seemed related as well and downtown businesses began a program to hire the homeless to clean the streets, killing two proverbial birds with one stone. The workers can now be seen in their yellow jackets, dustbin in hand, cleaning the streets while working to get off of them.

It finally hatched. Made from recycled circuit boards, Digital DNA -- affectionately known as "The Egg" -- stands 7 feet tall in Lytton Plaza. Its journey from idea to plaza, though, was treacherous. A neighbor of the artist threw out pieces of an early version. The city debated putting a fountain in the plaza instead. And a first copy was destroyed in a warehouse fire last year. When the completed artwork finally debuted in the plaza in May, visitors mostly lavished praise on the object. However, the egg's journey may not be over. In December, the Public Art Commission, which sponsored the work, said The Egg was subject to vandalism and might have to move.
Environmental Services Center

In a battle that pitted parkland against composting, parkland won. The Environmental Services Center -- a garbage and recycling center proposed for the Palo Alto Baylands -- was killed by the City Council in February. By a 5-4 vote, the council put an end to six years of planning that would have placed an innovative processing plant at the site of the city's landfill when it closes in 2011. As a result, the land at the end of Embarcadero Road will revert to parkland, as has been planned for four decades. Proponents of the facility believed the center would keep city as a leader in reducing, reusing and recycling waste. But opponents wanted the parkland promise to be fulfilled.
Fake trees

They call it "magnolia-esque": A 40-foot would-be tree that's actually a cell-phone tower in disguise. In April, Barron Park residents -- concerned over potential unsightliness and radiation from the tower-cum -tree -- petitioned the City Council not to let it be planted in their neighborhood. The plan found a majority of fake-tree lovers on the council, however. The pole, which is currently being installed, won't be Palo Alto's first bit of false foliage -- a handful of other cell towers modeled after evergreen or redwood trees are sprinkled throughout the city, including Fire Station No. 2 on Hanover Street. It will, however, be the city's first broadleaf-style cell-phone tree.
Fiber to the home

This year, the City of Mountain View announced Google was planning to make the entire city a wireless hot spot, blanketing it with free Internet access. Palo Alto city leaders, meanwhile, spent much of the year studying whether it should move ahead with an already long-studied project to provide Internet access and cable television through fiber-optic cables. Facing concerns that the city couldn't do such a project alone, the City Council voted in July to see if there were private companies interested in partnering with the city. The project has stalled in recent months, and will return to the council in January. Meanwhile, the city unplugged a 70-home trial in December, angering those who had been the most fervent supporters of the technology.
Gardening fee

It's probably the cheapest land in Palo Alto: community gardeners have long paid 15 percent per square foot per year to get exclusive rights to plant fruits, vegetables and flowers on plots that range from 100 square feet to 1,262 square feet. But in July, the council -- hoping to recoup more of the city's costs -- upped that fee to 50 cents. Gardeners, who had no advance notice of the increase, protested and got the city to reconsider the fee, which is now recommended to go to only 32 cents per square foot per year.
High-density housing

How much should Palo Alto grow? Should there be granny units behind every single-family home? Large condo complexes near California Avenue? Or should housing be curtailed to limit growth? University South Neighborhood Group president Elaine Meyer stoked the city's ongoing debate by compiling statistics showing that Palo Alto's population of 58,600 could grow by another 8,650 residents in coming years. The numbers were questioned while the city continued to face pressure to grow, mostly from environmentalists and the League of Women Voters who'd rather seen more housing here than traffic on the freeways.
Homer Tunnel

After delays and debates, Palo Alto's Homer Tunnel finally opened in May. Burrowing under the train tracks, the bike and pedestrian tunnel connects downtown to the area near the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. In addition to numerous construction delays, the tunnel was beset by a controversy because it forces riders heading downtown to ride on hectic Alma Street. City officials insisted the tunnel was a success, citing the fact that it was funded using state grants and private funds, and argued it would encourage biking and walking to the city's downtown.
Intelligent Design

This year's school board election was for the most part devoid of controversial issues. That is until the Weekly asked the four candidates -- Claude Ezran, Barbara Mitchell, Steve Mullen and Dana Tom -- if intelligent design (the theory that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved on its own) should be taught in local public schools. While Ezran took a firm stand against ID and Mullen skirted the topic by saying the schools already have enough programs, Mitchell and Tom both stated the theory may have a place -- if it is taught in the right context, such as during discussions about current events or controversial subjects facing the nation. But, some voters missed their "if." After reiterating their stance, Mitchell and Tom were both elected.
Jewish campus

The Campus for Jewish Life is probably the largest up-and-coming development project in the city. On 8.5 acres, it'll contain 176 senior residences, a Jewish community center, preschool facilities for 240 children, after-school K-eighth grade program, a gym with two full-sized basketball courts; three swimming pools, a cultural center with seating for 400 and adjacent condominiums. This year, it received two large, multi-million dollars donations and began making its way through the city's permit approval process.

When Kepler's Books and Magazine unexpectedly closed on Aug. 31, only a few months after celebrating its 50th anniversary, it sent shockwaves throughout the area. "It's like a relative in the family dying," said Roy Borrone, the owner of Cafe Borrone's. But the community rallied, both literally and figuratively, and managed to reopen the bookstore for the holidays.
Library wars

You would think since the Palo Alto City Council rejected Library Director Paula Simpson's proposal to close branch libraries last year, she'd be out of the limelight for a while. Think again. This year, Simpson again faced heavy criticism for proposing that the city move library offices from the Main Library to the less-used Downtown Library. At one meeting where she discussed the plan, Simpson faced such harsh words that at one point she said those who disagreed with her could complain to the city manager, "and maybe I'll get fired and that won't be all bad." Meanwhile, the city is now polling its residents to find out what they think the future of its library system should be.
Mayfield soccer fields

Get your soccer balls ready. After years of negotiations, debate and consideration, the Palo Alto City Council voted in May to approve a deal with Stanford University for soccer fields on the corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real. The soccer fields are now under construction, and will be ready early next year. Under the agreement, Stanford will lease the 6 acres to the city for $1 per year for 51 years and will build two soccer fields and 250 units of nearby housing. Stanford received development rights to rebuild 300,000 square feet of business space elsewhere in the park. Neighbors complained about the deal, especially about its environmental analysis. Los Altos Hills residents also complained, since that same analysis showed the need for new traffic lights in their town due to the deal.
Measure A

Second time was the charm this year for the Palo Alto school district. After voters defeated an attempt to renew and raise a parcel tax in 2004, district supporters came out in vast numbers to get the job done in June. They ran dozens of phone banks, repeatedly walked the precincts, and most importantly explained, explained, explained why the district needed the money. In the end, 74 percent of Palo Alto's voters approved a $493 annual parcel tax with a term of six years. It will generate about $9 million a year to pay for teacher salaries and the district's small-class program.
Night lights

Palo Alto High School left its rival to the south in the dust this year when it comes to donations for athletic facilities. While Paly enjoyed its second football season of night games, thanks to a hefty parent donation that paid for stadium-quality lights, Gunn High School parents couldn't raise enough money for lights by this season. Paly is also about to unveil a new pool. A loophole in the district's fundraising policy allows the high schools' alumni to give donations to their alma maters for specific purposes, which in this case has left one campus out in the cold. Former Board of Education President John Barton called for a revamping of the policy, but so far none of the current members have addressed the issue.

This summer, the Palo Alto school district kicked out its food service provider of 14 years, Sodexho USA, and opted for a company that promised healthier options. District officials say Chartwells is so far living up to its promise, offering fresh salads, fruits and vegetables and striping the campuses of fatty snacks. School food has come under fire in recent years as parents and nutritionists start to hold lunch programs more accountable for the nation's child obesity epidemic.
Opening Foothills Park to non-residents

For four decades, Palo Alto's Foothills Park has remained off-limits to non-residents, unless accompanied by a guest. This year, city officials -- some saying the exclusion is perceived as racist -- wanted to change that policy. Resident Sanford Forte rebuked the accusation of racism at the City Council meeting where it was discussed: "I didn't know that denying access to this park to the trophy wives of Atherton was racism." In the end, a split council rejected the idea, noting that the city had offered other cities the opportunity to purchase the property 40 years ago, but that those cities said no.
Officers on trial

Palo Alto officers Michael Kan and Craig Lee went to court this year for allegedly unlawfully beating and pepper-sprayed a 59-year-old man in July 2003. After hearing testimony from numerous police officers in the department, who came to different conclusions, a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The officers then pled guilty to an infraction and the district attorney decided not to retry the case.
Oversight of police

The Kan and Lee trial led to the City Council to look for a way to better oversee the police department. But despite nearly a year of discussions, the council came to no definitive conclusion by year's end. The conversation began in February when the council voted to make the city's Human Relations Commission the city's official police review board. But commission members complained they lacked the time and expertise for the task. City Manager Frank Benest then proposed forming two new committees: one of city staff to review internal investigations and another of outside experts to review new police policies. But the City Council found that proposal lacking and voted in December to study hiring an outside police auditor. Top officials will explore the legal and financial questions relating to hiring an outside auditor for a one-year trial and submit a written report to the council early next year.
Police headquarters

In any other community, the City of Palo Alto's inadequate police headquarters -- it's too small for subject interviews to be conducted appropriately or evidence to be stored properly, among numerous other faults -- would probably produce an outcry for the city to move fast on the issue. Not here. Instead, in Palo Alto there is outcry that the city is moving too fast, and building too large a facility to address those needs. In response, the council formed a blue-ribbon task force that will spend months examining the issue. The city's proposal even became an issue in the recent council race, with one nonconformist candidate, Danielle Martell, posting a cartoon on her Web site that mocked the proposed building by displaying it in the form of a penis and asking whether the city needs a "Penal Enlargement."
Power and perks of the city manager

Last year, City Manager Frank Benest received heartfelt compassion from the community as he faced the death of his wife and his own bout with cancer. This year, the compassion was gone and the gloves came off. Benest's job performance became a central theme during the City Council election; some contenders claimed the current council had given Benest too much power by not being strong enough. At the same time, the council also approved new provisions to Benest's contract that drew fire, including one that will allow him to live in the home he owns jointly with the city after he retires. All the outcry over seemingly routine matters might cause some to wonder whether Benest would want to live here after what he faced.
Performance-enhancing drugs

While steroid scandals plagued Major League Baseball and other professional sports, another side of the story that is possibly more frightening emerged -- teen athletes using steroids and performance enhancing drugs to gain an edge. In Palo Alto, many on the front lines -- including high school coaches and students -- say they know teenage athletes are using performance enhancing drugs, which include vitamins, amino acids, creatine monohydrate and caffeine. Action has been taken to curb the problem. The state Senate passed a bill this year that would require all high school athletes to sign pledges starting in 2007 to not use steroids or supplements. Senate Bill 37 would also require all coaches to undergo specific training on how to educate about substance abuse.

Shhhh. In Palo Alto, we like it quiet. This year, the City Council approved a provision banning gas-powered leaf blowers from residential areas. Although council members said they voted for it partially due to the environmental harm such blowers cause, the real passion for the issue came from those who have to listen to the noisy nuisances during the day.

Early this year, it became painstakingly clear how precious the local high school robotics teams are. Many students see the clubs as tickets to top-tier engineering schools, and in turn, top-paying field jobs. Gunn High School's award-winning team dissolved in February when two team members obtained restraining orders against two other teammates and school administration shut the program down to avoid any more trouble. Details behind the restraining orders were cloudy, but some team parents said it was all a massive power play by one student's parent who wanted control of the team. This year, the program is up and running -- albeit the students involved had to sign behavioral contracts.
Restraining orders

For the first time in the Palo Alto school district's history, so officials say, classmates filed and obtained restraining orders against each other. The result was a color-coded campus and teachers on high alert to stop any potential contact between the teenagers. Fortunately for the district, the students were seniors and only had a few months left.
Storm drains

The second time was also a charm for the City of Palo Alto. In 2000, property owners voted strongly against a proposal to raise the monthly fee needed to provide upkeep for the city's storm drain system, which carries rainwater from the roads to the creeks. The issue was back before property owners this year, and -- thanks to a better-crafted proposal and a group of residents pushing for the measure -- it passed by nearly the same margin it lost in 2000. Voters later rewarded Larry Klein, the leader of the group, a seat on the City Council.
Shrinking summer

Parents were disgruntled this year when summer break was cut short to accommodate a school year with more days off -- including a controversial ski week in February -- than ever before. While supporters say more breaks help students relieve stress, opponents attest the time off just makes it harder for students, many who do homework over vacations anyway, to get in a learning groove. This year, the first week of school was immediately followed by a four-day weekend -- it was the first time students received two days off for Labor Day, rather than the traditional one.
Silkworm larva

When Public Art Commission Chair Gerald Brett arranged for Hong Kong artist Kang Hong Seok to travel to Palo Alto to create an artwork made from laminated pages of Korean phone books and silkworm larva, Brett got tangled up in his own web. Brett had enlisted Korean company Samsung to pay for the artist's trip, but the company's check had to be returned. City officials accused Brett of not playing by the rules, but the flap flabbergasted him. Eventually, Seok got paid and his striking artwork was displayed in City Hall. However, Brett had considered bringing in artists from other countries, but decided against it after the hoopla. "I'm not going to allow this to happen again and it's a shame," he said then.
Teen drinking

Underage and binge drinking took center stage this year as colleges across the country banned tailgate parties at sports events and required students to take online tests about alcohol abuse. Palo Alto community members joined the crackdown, hosting forums and beefing up law enforcement and educational efforts. Probably most importantly, they acknowledged that teen drinking is a problem. Some provocative ways to battle the problem emerged from all the talking heads. One, in particular, suggested parents look at how their own drinking habits are rubbing off on the kids.
Team teaching

Fearing a massive overhaul in curricula and structure, concerned parents came out of the woodwork this year after learning of the Palo Alto school district's plans to extend a controversial teaching method at its three middle schools. The method is called "teaming" or "team teaching," and it's when a set group of four or five teachers share a common pool of students. Although the district has been using teaming for more than a decade, a special meeting to update board members on the program's progress caused an uproar among parents who didn't know it was used. The district is moving forward with fully teaming all three middle schools.
Utilities Department scandal

For years, the City of Palo Alto's Utilities Department had a nearly unvarnished reputation. This year, that image was sullied by scandal. An investigation into the Utilities Department, which the Weekly brought to light in January, began last fall when city employees were accused of using city equipment and charging the city overtime for non-city work. Later, the probe expanded to include additional allegations, including sexual harassment, physical intimidation and lack of managerial oversight. Six of the 19 disciplined employees were fired or left instead of being terminated. City officials refused to reveal the names or positions of any of the 19 employees. Documents summarizing the investigation have not been released to the public. The city argued that the documents are private because they deal with personnel matters. On Sept. 21, the Weekly sued the city to obtain them. Two weeks later, Utilities Director John Ulrich announced his sudden retirement.

Last year, Norman Carroll was living on the streets of Palo Alto. But through an innovative program called Housing First, Carroll and others were placed in hotels around the area this year. That move gave Carroll the stability he needed to run for the City Council, where he impressed locals with his articulate views of the issues even as he failed to win many votes. Carroll also led a campaign to get locals to stop calling those who live on the streets "homeless;" instead he wants them referred to as "un-housed." "Palo Alto is my home; I just didn't have a house," he told the Weekly in January. "I know people who are housed but they are homeless because they'd rather be someplace else."
V IS FOR Video cameras

The trial against two Palo Alto police officers also led the Police Department to purchase new video cameras for its patrol cars and motorcycles. While many who want more oversight of police valued that move, others questioned whether the department's policy -- which give officers some flexibility in when such cameras should be turned on -- was strong enough.

The Paly Voice, an electronic newspaper at Palo Alto High School, won a prestigious Webby Award on Tuesday. The Voice ( ) won in the student category, and was the "people's choice" winner in the same category. The Paly Voice beat out student efforts from Arizona State University, Columbia College in Chicago, and Staffordshire University as the other finalists. Webbies have been given out for the last nine years by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences in New York City. It gives awards in more than 60 categories for best Web pages on the Internet.

X-rated careers

Dozens of students at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School got more than they bargained for at career day this year. Presenter Bill Fried, a Foster City consultant, told three classes of students that they can earn a good living as exotic dancers and strippers. During his presentation, called "The Secret to a Happy Life," Fried gave the kids a list of potential careers, including horse racing, stamp collecting, medicine and astronomy. Also on the list were exotic dancing and striping. When one girl queried, "Exotic dancing?" Fried told her, "Sure, that's a potential occupation. I certainly don't recommend that to you now, but maybe some people in here could find themselves doing it later in life." And when she asked how someone becomes an exotic dancer, he replied, "Well, you study dancing and then you probably go practice it in clubs." In another class, some giggling boys wanted to know how much money a stripper can make. Fried told them it depends on your bust size.

Youth stress

Moving forward with their mission to battle teen stress, Palo Alto parents and educators held various events this year to combat the problem. Many of the programs pushed a new definition of "success" -- rather than meaning admission into a top-tier school, educators want students to feel successful when they're happy. At a March event, Molly Galloway, co-chair of Stanford University's Stressed Out Students committee, told parents to stop asking "Did you win?", and to start asking "Did you have fun?" Last month, students in the Palo Alto Youth Council held their second annual Stress Reduction Fair where teens played with animals, learned how to meditate and did yoga.
Zero waste

While residents, city staff and environmentalists were fractiously debating the merits of single-stream recycling and a proposed Environmental Services Center on the Baylands late last year and the beginning of this year, zero waste slipped into the city on little cat feet. Adopted in November 2004, the far-reaching concept proposed to reduce Palo Alto's flow of garbage going to the landfills from well over 150,000 tons a year to almost nothing by 2021. How? Everything will have to be reused, recycled, composted, or not used in the first place. A blue-ribbon taskforce proceeded to hammer out a strategy, which the council adopted in October. An operational plan is expected by next summer. Departing Mayor Jim Burch called zero waste "the best decision" of his six years on the council.
ZIP code

Palo Altans living in ZIP code 94303 have long faced a dilemma: They share that postal code with East Palo Alto and sometimes pay higher insurance rates as a result than other Palo Alto neighbors living just blocks away. This year, the residents took action, organizing and contacting government representatives. So far, the work has produced no tangible results, but they're still at it.

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