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Ass-Mounted Officers to Replace Popular Horse Unit

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Budget Cuts Force Donkey Patrol in Downtown

Faced with the grim task of choosing between fiscal responsibility and horses, the San Jose City Council, rather than suspend the police department’s popular horse-mounted unit, made the tough decision to retire the horses and substitute them with more financially efficient donkeys.

“These jackasses couldn’t function properly even if you whacked ‘em with a 2 x 4,” said one downtown resident, “but I’m looking forward to seeing the donkeys downtown.”

Although not as impressive, quick or athletic as a horse, nor able to give the officer the vantage point that comes from sitting atop horseback, the burro does bring certain advantages over its taller, quicker, more beautiful cousin: it’s bowels move more infrequently.

“We have a problem with clubbers rooting themselves in piles of horse dung at closing time,” said officer Ross Mitchell. “It’s cold, they’re drunk, and it provides a warm, soft, steamy place to sleep. The donkeys will help keep them moving.”

Most of those we interviewed are very excited that the mounted unit will survive the budget ax.

“The average person has the impression that these are stupid animals,” said Councilman Forrest Williams, “but quite to the contrary, they are very intelligent beasts. I have talked with several that work in hi-tech jobs here in the valley.”

The compromise seems to be accepted across the board and the conventional thinking is that there is no better way to ring in the holiday season than by hitching your wagon to an ass.

County Supervisors Should Leave Restaurant Legislation to Congress

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Why is the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors getting mixed up in setting standards for national fast food chain restaurants to display calorie counts and nutritional data of their products? Supervisor Liz Kniss has proposed such legislation applicable only to restaurants with more than 15 outlets in the county. Her stated reasoning is that she wishes to fight the epidemic of obesity in the country, but I don’t see how this no-more-than-cosmetic move will do any such thing. For one thing, it leaves out the vast majority of restaurants in the county. The only result I can see is the high cost to the county’s taxpayers of policing something which has little value to the public.

I do believe that every commercial prepared-food outlet in this country should be required to provide basic nutritional information and calorie counts for every dish they sell—similar to the labeling found on supermarket food products—to those who want such information. That would include every restaurant, not just the fast food chains proposed by the county. This information could be printed on brochures, blackboards, menus or displayed lists. It doesn’t matter as long as the information is truthful and correct and easily available to the public. It is not difficult to write down a list of ingredients for a dish and calculate a calorific value, so the argument—recently used by the governor to veto a similar state bill—that these regulations will financially harm small businesses is certainly not true. It’s no more expensive than writing out a recipe or printing a menu.

However, the agency that should monitor this is not Santa Clara County but the FDA acting on legislation from Congress. Such legislation can only be effective if it is universally applied throughout the nation to all food outlets.

Unfortunately, none of this will do anything about obesity. Do you think that the overweight customers who habituate fast food chains are going to stop because they are able to access nutritional information at the cash register? How many of these same people will know what a calorie is or the maximum number of them that they should consume every day? It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than making nutritional information available on menus. It’s going to take education and self-discipline that will only come to those who are aware and really want to do something about it. What the county ought to be doing is discussing how they can educate people and help them make lifestyle changes that will benefit them and society as a whole. (Of course, the restaurant industry and the fast food company lobbyists will fight anything like this tooth and nail.)

Nevertheless, there are a growing number of citizen restaurant customers who are concerned about this issue and are endeavoring to monitor their food intake and make dietary changes that will have long-term health benefits for them and their families. Then there are the millions of Americans who have special dietary requirements or known food allergies, some potentially fatal. It makes sense to require restaurants to provide nutritional information to their customers. However, an expensive piecemeal effort from the county is the wrong approach and will have no real effect. This is a matter for the federal government which has the clout to apply such a requirement across the board for the benefit of all Americans.

Relearning Old Lessons

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The tumult and the shouting have died and “Little Saigon” is now a political battle, not an alternate name to an important area of small businesses. Or is it?  A recall is in the offing if cooler and more focused minds do not prevail. I hope they do. It would be bad for the city, District 7, and the Vietnamese community. While it is difficult to understand why Madison Nguyen was so blind-sided by the somewhat predictable events of the last few weeks (and the strong feelings behind them), the council supported her down the line.  One day we may see it more clearly.

As I watched the saga unfold, I was reminded of another traumatizing symbol of that war that figured in a wrenching event in the Vietnamese community: the visit of antiwar activist Tom Hayden to the San Jose City College graduation ceremony in 1987 as the commencement speaker. There are some things in common with both events. First, it showed the powerful emotions in the immigrant community involving their old homeland that they were forced to flee. Hayden had a following in the most “progressive” elements of San Jose’s Democratic establishment, a full-time staff, and a cadre of supporters here for his “Campaign for Economic Democracy.” Hayden was the devil incarnate to the Vietnamese community for his antiwar harangues and support—in their minds—for the Hanoi Government. Also, the fact that his wife was Jane Fonda exacerbated a very bad scene. Then reason prevailed. I spoke to the group that invited him then I called him and he agreed not to address the students. A tragic situation was avoided—almost.

On graduation night, I received a phone call from the police that Hayden had reneged on the agreement and was in the wings of the old Civic Auditorium before three thousand graduates and their families. Just as I arrived, Hayden was introduced, came center stage and pandemonium broke out. Students fled in tears, threatening shouts from adults were uttered and police moved into position. I had a front-row seat for all of this. I met Hayden as he came off stage and told him what an unmitigated ass he was, and how despicable his actions were, destroying a precious moment in these young, aspiring students’ lives to satisfy his own ego. I was angry and had been fooled. I learned again what I knew from my own and others’ immigrant traditions in America, and that is that words, names and symbols are very powerful, particularly when the wounds are new. Irish-Americans and Jewish Americans are two notable examples of how the power of past grievances and horrible sins can remain long after the crime and motivate new Americans, and well they should.

Nguyen was perhaps naïve; I was too. “Saigon” and “Hayden” are as powerful in recent-immigrant circles as “Holocaust” and “partition” were in past ones—and still are. History is something that is a powerful tool—for good and ill—and is underestimated at your own peril. San Jose is a beacon for immigrants. It always has been and I hope that will always be the case. Yet, although you can’t go home again, you can never forget the tug of that home. Here in San Jose, it is never too late to relearn old lessons.

The Single Gal and Living Downtown Redux

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Editor’s Note
Single Gal is on vacation this week so we are repeating one of her very first columns from exactly two years ago on a subject that we think is still worth blogging about.

So what comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Would more people want to live downtown if there were more to do?  Or will people wait to see what happens downtown before they invest their money into apartments and lofts? I believe that if there were masses of families, young people and baby-boomers living downtown, that the retail and entertainment would have to come to feed the demand. 

I have lived downtown for many years and I love it. I can walk to Zanotto’s to get groceries or Walgreen’s to fill a prescription.  I can walk to the Improv, O’Flaherty’s and P.F. Chang’s for a show, dinner or drinks, and afterwards I never have to worry about driving. It’s a neighborhood feeling when you walk into a bar or a restaurant.  And, there is always plenty of action right outside my front door.

What are perks to me, others might see as an inconvenience.  I have to park in a garage and walk a few blocks to my apartment; I have to deal with more noise on Friday and Saturday nights due to the bar crowd and cruising. And if I visit the Starbucks on San Pedro Square, I am a certain to be surrounded by a few homeless people.

But is this appealing to people that live in San Jose?  We seem to be programmed to prefer quiet homes on tree-lined streets, rather than lofts in the middle of the city. Maybe wooing San Joseans downtown is a hard sell.  Will empty nesters or young families trade in a home for a condo like they do in other cosmopolitan cities?  Maybe we should be focusing on young professionals who don’t care about peace and quiet. We will have trouble getting people to live downtown until we see them cashing in their garden for a balcony, their driveway for a parking garage, and their annoying neighbor for an occasional homeless person.

I am wondering if everyone who says, “We need more people living downtown,” would actually live downtown themselves.  Here’s to hoping there is a shift in our mindset and masses of people start to see the allure of living in our city’s core.  Or else we won’t ever get what we really want or need. 

Participation is Essential for a Budget that Represents Neighborhood Interests

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City Hall Diary

As we know, San Jose is made up of council districts and, as a result, many of us have come to identify with these boundaries and/or borders. I know I have. I was raised in Willow Glen. My parents live in the same home they bought over 30 years ago.  Most of my life experiences centered around my neighborhood; therefore, my view of the world was somewhat sheltered until I became an adult when I moved to downtown San Jose for 10 years and traveled to over 40 countries. 

I often refer to my travels as my best learning experience. My travels taught me that the people of the world have many more similarities than differences. Other countries may have different food, geography and languages, but the need for love, a safe place to live and some kind of economic vitality was present in everywhere I visited.

When I look at the council districts in San Jose I compare them to the countries that I went to.  Each district may have subtle differences based on geography, etc. However, for the most part, each district wants the city to provide the services it is expected to provide, such as street maintenance, slowing cars down on neighborhood streets, maintaining parks, code enforcement and public safety. I have chaired the Traffic Calming Meetings in which we had one meeting in each council district. Although the issue was traffic calming, many of the residents would speak to me afterwards about these other essential services.

I was a bit surprised to hear so many people in every district in San Jose sharing the same needs with me. In response, I encouraged them to attend and be part of the Mayors’ Community Budget Process which is open to everyone. It’s important for different groups to share their opinions regarding the finances of City Hall. 

For example, Bob Brownstein, former budget director for Mayor Susan Hammer, recently told me that if you add up all property taxes from residential and commercial properties that the city of San Jose receives, it only pays for 60 percent of the annual police budget. Did you catch that? The other 40 percent of the police budget and the money needed for the salaries for the other approximately 5,000 city employees comes from sales tax and utility tax, among others. It is important to have basic information like this to fully appreciate the magnitude of the city’s revenues and costs.

Help put the San Jose puzzle together and become part of the budget process. Put these dates in your BlackBerry:

Mayors Budget Shortfall Advisory Group Thursday Jan 10th from 6:00-9:00 PM at City Hall. For more information go to this link.

Mayors Community Budget for Neighborhood Priorities meeting Saturday January 19 from 9:00 AM 12:00 PM at City Hall.

Strong Neighborhood Initiative areas have top-ten lists for action items in their specific areas.

What should San Jose’s top ten be?

Middle East Peace Conference Follow-up to Include Coyote Valley Discussions

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Harmony in the South Bay Priority For Bush Administration

The United States and Russia have been working quietly on scheduling a follow-up to the Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference that ended Tuesday with an agenda rumored to include talks on a very complex and vexing problem to the world: Coyote Valley.

“There is no way we can declare a secure, democratic and free world with the specter of unrest in the Coyote Valley,” said President Bush, in an address to the United Nations on Wednesday. “We have evidence that certain ‘interests’ have the scientists and facilities to build nuclear weapons down there and are seeking the materials needed to do so. We must curtail their efforts.”

The violence and instability brought about because of the warring factions between jobs vs. housing in Coyote Valley have prompted the so-called “Quartet” comprised of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and Morgan Hill to focus their attention on the undeveloped expanse of farmland before any accord on social, political, economic and security issues in the Middle East can be solved.

“This region in south San Jose is of the utmost importance to the U.S.,” said Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. “Without a truce between Shia, Sunni, the Kurds, Arabs and Kerry Williams there will be no ‘peace in our time,’ or BART to San Jose,” she warned.

In a ceremonial gesture, the City of San Jose has agreed to send Forest Williams to Russia next month to help negotiate a settlement, replete with keys to the city, Shark tickets and a Tickle Me George Shultz doll, with the understanding that none of them need be returned.

End Developer-Controlled Environmental Impact Reports

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According to a very good and informative article by Vrinda Normand in the Metro last week, San Jose is the only city in Santa Clara County that allows developers to contract directly with consultants to write environmental impact reports for their proposed projects. The problem with this policy was made evident recently in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Coyote Valley Specific Plan.

The DEIR, researched and written by David J. Powers and Associates, who also made earlier studies paid for directly by the developers’ Coyote Housing Group, is so “flaw-ridden” that it generated over 1,000 pages of criticism from 28 public agencies and 55 organizations and individuals, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sierra Club and researchers from De Anza College.

However, it’s not so much what the DEIR says that is of major concern, but what it leaves out. The Metro article asks: do these critical omissions “represent oversight—or fraud?” There is a long list of problems cited by the report’s critics, including “factual errors, omission of impacts, inadequate analysis of impacts, inadequate scientific data, and faulty assumptions and conclusions.” The De Anza study showed that the DEIR understates the significance of the wildlife corridor in the area, and the Sierra Club chided Powers and Associates for lack of on-site data collection and pointed out that the researchers covered only 60 percent of the territory and made many observations without even getting out of their vehicles.

Fortunately, the city has now withdrawn the Powers and Associates plan and it will be rewritten by 2009 at a cost of up to $1 million to the developers. However, this is a sad state of affairs and the amount of time, effort and money that has been wasted is just crazy.

Environmental impact reports are supposed to be undertaken on behalf of the public and to serve the greater public good, not to serve the selfish needs of developers and certainly not pull the wool over the public’s eyes. They are necessary to making an informed decision as to whether or not development in a particular area should be allowed to proceed. They must be comprehensive and reveal every bit of data.

San Jose should immediately join its neighbors and Santa Clara County and ban developer-controlled environmental impact reports. Instead, the city should hand the jobs over to professional environmental research consultants with a proven record who report directly to the public’s representatives and whose first priority is serving the citizens. How about it, city council?

Good Riddance to “Safest City” Title

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It is now firmly established that we no longer enjoy the title of “Safest City in America.”  I am glad that it’s over because now we can continue the effort to make our city as secure in all its parts—each and every neighborhood—as any city can be in twenty-first century America. The title, awarded by some group in Washington D.C. (nobody can remember who; okay, who was it, wise guys?), now rests on the sun-kissed head of Honolulu. However, the real question is still the same: are people in San Jose safe in their homes and blissfully free of crime? The answer, as always, is a big “no.” But the struggle endures.

It is a fact that property crimes have been on the rise in our city for a number of years—notably burglaries and auto thefts. As awful as those are, the real crimes that haunt any citizen’s dreams are the random assaults, rapes, and murders. In our society, these are mostly committed by known associates, friends, relatives or spouses. It is the fear of terror striking from the darkness that terrifies us most of all, and some of that fear is present in our city now. 

Much of the increased violence, including the 31 homicides so far this year, is in the “friend” category or the more worrisome category of gang violence. We have seen a steady surge in this latter type of violence and an increase in the percentage of murders that are gang related. Of course, young men—boys often—are both the targets and the perpetrators of this horror. At one time our gang prevention was thought to be first rate. However, given the spike, there are many new questions of how adequate our police staffing is today. We have the same number of officers that we had in 1994. The brief interest that the Clinton Administration had in a national program to fund local cops was met with a cynical reduction of that same number here in San Jose. The net result was many fewer cops than a very good budget would yield. And so we go on.

In New York City, a massive reduction in random violence can lend some answers, as can the good work that our police department has done here for many years. Get to know your beat and meet real people one on one. Be aggressive toward gang violence, add programs in tough neighborhoods that give young men another road out and continue to try and deal with the outrageous fact of high school dropouts. Do not accept the “It’s Chinatown, Jake” bromide that some areas are just too difficult or too lost to help. There is strength and wisdom in the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in our city, and it is the duty of City Hall to find those people and programs to support without the aid of any meaningless, Babbitt-like slogans. Good riddance to the title and here’s hoping for a simple but important improvement to take its empty, worthless spot.

Single Gal and Another Hidden Jewel

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If you haven’t had the chance to visit the San Pedro Square Bistro and Wine Bar, you are missing out on one of the best restaurant experiences I have had in San Jose in a long time.  Because of it’s proximity to many downtown offices (it is on Almaden Ave., across the street from the CBRE building), I am sure it does a nice lunch business. However, it also has many different things going for it as a dinner spot. 

First of all, the ambiance is very inviting. With tons of lit candles, low lighting and less than ten tables indoors, it is intimate and comfortable. The menu is small and I think our group ordered just about every small plate they had on their menu, including mushroom crostini, mini-burgers, calamari and scallops over mashed potatoes. The food was absolutely 100 percent delicious. How many times are you completely satisfied with every single dish you order? Each dish was better than the last. 

To wash down the food, you can order wine by the bottle, the glass, or in flights.  I chose a flight called “Summer Love” with three different kinds of white wine, including a rosé, a white wine blend, and an Argentinean wine that is the only wine served with ice and lemon. It was fun to try something new for a change. It turned what could have been a regular meal into a sampling of great food and a wine tasting. 

Though I was full from trying all the small plates, a few people ordered entrees such as the filet mignon and the Cornish hen. One diner remarked that the hen was “unbelievable” and he couldn’t believe that they only charged $12 for the meal. (That is less than it costs an adult to go ice skating at our downtown ice rink!) He wasn’t complaining. He said he would pay twice that much; it was that good. To top it off, we ordered three deserts to share, the chocolate cake, the crème brulee and the vanilla gelato, which were all gobbled up quicker than late-night pizza at a college party.  None of us were dissatisfied customers. 

So is this meant to be an advertisement or a food review?  Not quite. It’s just so seldom that we see small business owners who put out a product like they do at the San Pedro Square Bistro and Wine Bar. This is the type of classy establishment that we want to succeed here in our city and if I have to give a plug for them, I am more than happy to do it. Go try the food and the wine, and see how dining in San Jose can be done right. Then tell a few friends. I promise that you won’t regret it.

What’s in a Name?

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History was made last Tuesday night at City Hall when over 1,000 people gathered there, packing the Council Chambers, the rotunda and all the community rooms. Approximately 200 people from the crowd spoke at the meeting. They were old and young, male and female, recent immigrants and those here for decades. The topic was the naming of a business district

As a son of immigrant Italian parents, I can appreciate the longing for names that recognize a culture from another country.  I am not immersed in Vietnamese-American politics nor have I experienced the fall of my homeland. However, one can empathize with the emotion and intellect that was displayed at the meeting. 

Freedom of speech was heard loud and clear. Speakers shared their feelings blatantly, which in some cases seemed like personal attacks rather than objective disagreements. It was personally difficult for me to hear members of the community speak so harshly of Madison Nguyen and Mayor Reed. However, my colleagues and I are elected officials and we are not better than anyone; therefore, it is important for freedom of speech to prevail, despite how harsh the comments may have been. Almost all the speakers that night were in favor of “Little Saigon.”

In June I voted in favor of RDA doing outreach to come up with a name and eventually place signs on Story Road. In general I like signs. In my travels to over 40 countries I have seen signage signify distinct areas of a city: Little Africa in Paris, Little Italy in New York, Little Istanbul in Berlin, etc. Signs bring distinction and importance to a geographic area and are testament to the hard work of ALL immigrant groups. Signs should be used in San Jose to support neighborhood business districts and our distinctive older neighborhoods.

San Jose is a celebration of diversity and the immigrant experience. We are a collection of peoples from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. It is not a surprise that many ethnicities would like to have a district named after their homeland. Signs are symbols that can bring distinction and a sense of belonging to a geographic area.

I drove to Story Road the weekend before the vote to look at the area and visualize the future signs that our city would pay for through RDA funds. Afterwards, I kept driving east from the proposed Vietnamese Business District through several Strong Neighborhood Intiative (SNI) neighborhoods east of 101 and saw that there was still a lot to do. (SNI neighborhoods are funded through RDA funds.)

So the question came to me: Do I vote on funding $100,000 for signs that divide people or spend that $100,000 to help initiatives in those same SNI neighborhoods? I would rather put that $100,000 to those SNI neighborhoods in East San Jose where the residents are united about a particular neighborhood improvement; therefore, I voted no.

Madison Nguyen is strong in character and conviction and was a brave soul last Tuesday night. She is an effective advocate for the residents of District 7 and I am proud to serve with her. Elected officials should not be judged on one vote but the totality of their deeds and actions. It is important to allow for flexibility in government and to understand that there will be votes where people will have differences of opinions.  Those differences should not be exploited but rather embraced and respected as essential ingredients of a true democratic process.