Monday, June 25, 2007

BAREC Grows Legs

Far from being old news after last week's Council vote, the BAREC story has legs.

Save BAREC appears to be looking to hire the lawyer that represented the groups behind last year's binding arbitration ballot initiative. A blizzard of emails has been flying through cyberspace about the proposed ballot initiative and various lines of attack.

But even more interesting is the survey that's being taken in Santa Clara.

I got called at about 6:30 this evening by some outfit called Parker Consulting out of Tucson, AZ asking me if I would participate in a political survey. After a few general questions about how likely I was to vote in a special election (very, in case you were wondering) we got down to business.

Did I know about the City Council's unanimous vote to develop the former UC Agricultural station, BAREC. (My interviewer had a pleasant German accent and pronounced it to rhyme with the German city of Beyreuth.) I told him that not only did I, but I was a journalist and had written at length about the subject. Further, I suggested that this might disqualify me for purposes of the survey.

It seems no one had any objections. So we forged ahead.

It was a very sophisticated survey. No leading questions like If you knew that Mr. Smith molested children and murdered his mother would you vote for him?

The questions — the appetizer, so to speak — first asked me to rate which information was more or less likely to make me approve or disapprove the development.

Then we got to the main course, which was apparently to market test a variety of angles of persuasion.

First I was asked to rate the amount of trust I would put in the decisions of each Council Member. Then I was asked to rate how persuasive or unpersuasive I found statements made by both the opponents and proponents of the Santa Clara Gardens project.

I tried to be objective — really. But it's kind of hard to evaluate the persuasiveness of something you know to be utterly untrue. I guess you could say it's "extremely unpersuasive."

So who was behind this survey? My interviewer couldn't tell me that. He had his job to do and at this point the lady reporter was keeping him from meeting — or beating — his survey quota. So I didn't learn much.

But I do know a couple of things. Surveys like this don't spring full-blown from the forehead of God. It takes time and very expensive professionals to design them. And it takes even more money to deploy the crew making all those phone calls.

Who has this kind of money and sophisitication? Summerhill Homes comes to mind. Was Summerhill getting ready to fight a ballot initiative all along?

Save BAREC has been talking about a ballot initiative but they appear to be just mobillizing for it. Do they have some deep-pocketed allies that we haven't seen yet?

Stay tuned.

Postscript: BTW, the most persuasive statement in the survey was "Affordable senior housing is good, but why not affordable family housing? Why not indeed? Could it have something to do with the required number of bedrooms and parking spots (fewer) that lets everybody get credit for more affordable housing units on the same footprint?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Just the Facts

When someone says "we report - you decide" most of us are naturally suspicious that the speaker is anything but impartial. If I'm truly impartial, I don't have to tell you. It'll be evident.

In the 25 years I've lived here, I've always thought that the San Jose Mercury News was professional in its news coverage. Not, for example, the New York Post or Fox News. They didn't have to say so - it was evident. Or so I thought.

The Merc's headline last Wednesday about the BAREC vote last Tuesday was surprising given my prior understanding: "Santa Clara council approves housing project for its last farmland." That's not a news report. It's an editorial. They might as well have said, "Santa Clara council proves once again that it's in developer's pocket."

Now an editorial can construe the facts any way the writer wants. And we know that it's the opinion of the Merc's editorial board that Santa Clara Council Members are tools of development interests. But regardless, a news story should have the facts correct.

And the fact is, regardless of the merits of the decision, BAREC isn't and never was farmland. It was a place where among other types of research, insecticides were studied in the 1950s when a cornucopia of new synthetic pesticides were called modern miracles for fighting pests and weeds.

Funny, I didn't notice any such headlines about the new Kaiser Hospital development on another "last" piece of farmland on Lawrence Expressway. Could that be because Kaiser is a rich potential source of advertising?

Monday, June 18, 2007

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

You've doubtless heard it said that some people are their own worst enemies. It could be said with considerable justification about Save BAREC after the group's blundering performance last week.

First, a Save BAREC representative called the Weekly's office to complain about a perceived lack of coverage of the question that forms the core of Save BAREC's mission – the disposition of the 17 acre former UC Agricultural Station on Winchester Blvd.

In fact, the Weekly has covered the BAREC question, including regular reports on City Council discussions as well as an in-depth Q&A in April 2006. Nothing is substantially different than it was a year ago and you can find that report at

But the piece de resistance of what should be included in any activist's handbook as a sterling how-not-to-do-it example was the "legislative summit" called by Save BAREC late last week for Saturday morning.

I was notified about this on Thursday afternoon, via a much-forwarded email.

The (as I later found out) by-invitation-only meeting was set up with the Office of Human Relations as a "mediation." On the guest list were members of the San Jose City Council, San Jose City agencies, Santa Clara County and California state government, the entire Santa Clara City Council, and select residents of Santa Clara and San Jose.

The topic to be "mediated" was the upcoming vote on the Santa Clara Gardens development plan for the BAREC site on the agenda for the June 19 Santa Clara City Council meeting.

Because this was "mediation," if you weren't on the guest list, you couldn't come in. (This is the law).

The "lock-out" list included the press; not just the Weekly, but the Metro as well, a paper that has done some fine investigative reporting on BAREC over the years, including reporting on the "backroom" deal in 2000 that opened this pandora's box.

Also locked out was Lilyanne Brannon, an active longtime proponent of an open space disposition for BAREC.

Go figure.

Now, if you are not in government you may not smell the skunk in this setup, so let me spell it out for you.

California's Brown act requires that meetings of public bodies must be open to the public — a "meeting" being "any gathering of a majority of the members of a covered board to hear, discuss, or deliberate on matters within the agency's or board's jurisdiction." Further, the meeting must be posted with an agenda at least three days before and the media notified.

A few people on the guest list did smell the skunk: San Jose City Council Members Pete Constant and Pierluigi Oliverio, as well as Santa Clara Citizen's Advisory Commission member Brian Lowery. Constant and Oliverio refused to stay if the meeting was not open. Brian Lowery backed them up and spoke (I am told) forcefully to the point.

The group then agreed unanimously to open the meeting. Among the attendees, the Santa Clara City Council was conspicuously absent.

Why? Well, there was the little problem of state law that I mentioned before. Or were they dismissing a "mediation" that they had never signed up for? Maybe they never got the notice. Maybe they had schedule conflicts. Maybe all of the above.

Dominic Caserta was out of town, spending Father's Day with family.

Pat Kolstad didn't receive the email until Monday morning. "If they really need people there [at a meeting], they should call or write well in advance," he says. "I have meetings scheduled four and five months in advance."

Joe Kornder received the invitation but chose not to attend. "I make a practice of receiving all the information about items under [Council] consideration in an open forum."

None of them found the email invitation at all clear. When the meeting was described to them, they all brought up the Brown Act.

OK, so maybe Save BAREC doesn't have a good handle on process. But what about the stated purpose of the meeting, you may be asking? Isn't it a good idea to have all the stakeholders in one room to talk things out?

If so, it was a curious group of stakeholders. It looked like a mediation between Santa Clara City officials and…San Jose City officials. Of Saturday's attendees, about two thirds were from San Jose, including Save BAREC's president.

To even the least cynical observer (which I do not claim to be) that looks awfully like an attempt to use pressure from the City of San Jose as a club to influence development decisions in Santa Clara. It's strategy that has obvious potential for blowback when it comes to, say, North San Jose development or the Valley Fair expansion.

San Jose Council Members Constant and Oliverio appreciated this and pointed out that the City of San Jose has no jurisdiction to be interfering Santa Clara's development decisions.

And that, I'm afraid is what this all comes down to.

Now I'm not saying there aren't valid arguments to be made on both sides.

Open space is intrinsically valuable because, as Will Rogers famously said, "they're not making any more of it." Historically, agriculture has almost disappeared from the Santa Clara Valley although the community's roots are there. Further, traffic is already congested in that area. What will 165 more homes add to it?

On the other hand, housing is a critical issue in Santa Clara Country and 165 senior housing units would not only provide needed housing for the fastest growing segment of the population, they would also, potentially, put 165 single family homes on the market for growing families.

To boot, the Santa Clara Gardens proposal currently under consideration includes 2.5 acres of gardens and a one-acre park. That's a total of 3.5 acres of open space in a 17-acre area — about 25 percent.

If the City of San Jose wants more parks, it can dedicate its own land to them; for example, a park could have been developed on the Town and Country site instead of Santana Row.

So far, none of the groups that have gone on record for an open space disposition – not Save BAREC, not the Sierra Club, not the Preservation Action Council, not the San Jose Parks Commission, not the Silicon Valley Water District, not the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County, not the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems – have been ready to put their money where their mouths are and buy the land from the state at fair market price as required by law. And they've had seven years to do it.

In the meantime, however, Save BAREC would do well to heed the words of retired Senator John Vasconcellos, a virtuoso in the art of win-win politics.

"As you may recall," he wrote to then-governor Gray Davis in 2000 concerning the decision to revert the property to the State, "this decision was made singularly between your administration and the University of California, and slipped into the budget without any advance notification to either the public or us. This is an abominable process. We hope that you, your administration and the UC, will pledge never again to undertake such a surreptitious action."

Remember Gray Davis? There's a guy who learned about blowback the hard way.