A civil debate on Google's impacts on city
Roundtable discussion tackles tough issues without raised voices
In an unusually intimate public event last week, Mountain View residents, a Google executive and community leaders sat down to discuss the topic of corporate responsibility.
Human relations commissioner Ken Rosenberg organized the roundtable discussion held at the Senior Center as the first of several "civility roundtable" discussions about local issues that show that "we can disagree but we don't have to be disagreeable."
The discussion was civil, but Google executive John Igoe's repeated comments about a growing sense of responsibility among corporate executives was met with numerous skeptical comments from downtown resident Jack Perkins, who called corporations "sociopathic" by nature.
Surrounded by an audience of 50 was Igoe, Google's director of real estate, Mountain View-Whisman school board member Steve Olsen, public affairs manager for Sutter Health Cynthia Greaves, owner of Meyer Appliance Rick Meyer, and Perkins, a self-employed businessman who made startling comments throughout the night, including, "I hate the Art and Wine Festival."
In a no-nonsense style, moderator Chris Block, CEO of the American Leadership Forum-Silicon Valley, said the group would not be sitting around talking "about things that don't matter" and said that some who came to engage the entire group as an audience member would be disappointed. Roundtable membersd did join the audience in smaller groups for discussion later in the evening.
Once the discussion got going, Igoe didn't have to be prodded to elaborate several times on what Olsen later called an "enlightened view" about corporate responsibility. As Google now owns or leases most of the high-end office complexes in the city, everyone listened.
The corporation "can be a citizen," Igoe said. "More and more they realize they have a responsibility to the community" and are "making contributions to the community."
Igoe eventually mentioned "wetland" restoration, presumably alluding to the wetlands that Google plans to build a 1.2-million-square-foot campus on at NASA Ames Research Center. "Enhancing the environment ... enhancing the wetlands ... is the responsibility of the company," Igoe said.
Igoe called such moves "strictly selfish" in order to attract good employees and a "win-win" for the company and the community.
Perkins was skeptical.
"It is all good business is what it boils down to," Perkins said. "Corporations are cold-blooded sociopathic entities."
Perkins said AMD and Hewlett Packard told people, "'We will not lay anybody off,' and look at them today. They were on the upswing when they were humanitarians. Even Google will have its day, that's how I see it."
"If we think a corporation has gotten a heart, I think we've gone a little too far," Perkins said.
Igoe said he agreed with Perkins that it was "good business" for a corporation to be responsible.
A company's value is in people, Igoe said. "They make a heck of an investment in people." Some companies "do give lip service" about their larger responsibilities. "Employees do care if you are walking the talk or not. They can hold you accountable," he said. Companies "do have a responsibility to be a good neighbor."
A changing city
Early on, the conversation turned to the changing character of the city and the impact that companies such as Google have had on it culturally.
"It's like an IQ-topia, that's the way it's going," said Perkins, who mentioned that he also recruits engineers as part of his job. He called Mountain View a very "placid place" that is not particularly exciting. The reason why so many want to live here, Perkins said, is because "they're here to get rich." They say 'I'm from India, I'm from China, I'm here to make millions of dollars.'" Because of that common motivation, the city is "not diverse," Perkins said.
Steve Olsen, a member of the Mountain View Whisman school board, disagreed with Perkins. "Most people I know are not here to make it rich," he said, and offered to give Perkins a tour of the Day Worker Center.
No one disagreed with comments from Meyer and Perkins that Mountain View is no longer "the other side of the tracks," as Perkins put it, from Palo Alto and Los Altos.
"Palo Alto doesn't look at Mountain view as their poor cousin anymore," Meyer said. "Los Altos thumbs their nose at anyone from Mountain View. That is still there a little bit."
According to Perkins, it could all change.
When Indian and Chinese expatriots "stop coming to this country and see prosperity in their own country, we are going to see a lot of empty apartments around here. It is not going to stay like this forever. I think things will change into something different."
Google's take on toxins
Google officially had no comment last week about whether it would support or stand in the way of efforts to clean up the trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination under its future office sites in the North Whisman Road area, but Igoe brought the issue up during the discussion.
Igoe didn't call out toxics specifically, instead calling it "the remains" of the development of microchip.
"How do you cope with that?" he said. "Mistakes were made. We didn't learn what the impacts would be, with the infusion into the groundwater, until it was too late. Now, people have to be held accountable."
"I'm not sure how huge of an impact that is," Perkins said of the toxics, of which give off vapors that can emanate from the ground. "It's a shame you can't drink your groundwater," but he added that residents have been drinking water piped in from elsewhere for years.
In response to a question from Block to assess the biggest threat to the city's future, Greaves said people could choose to avoid environmental threats, especially by not driving cars. Such changes would require "big, cultural shifts" and "sacrifices," she said.
She noted the disagreement among Peninsula cities over the state's high-speed rail project, which would reduce short plane trips. People oppose it because the value of residential property near the proposed high-speed rail corridor is too high and "there's already a lawsuit" to stop HSR in Palo Alto, she said.
Igoe also made comments in support of improving the Peninsula's train system to get cars off Highway 101, but said that Peninsula cities had to be unified in pushing for improvements. "The only hope for salvation in the future is a unified region," he said.
By the time the event was over, nothing was overheard that could be called uncivil. Some said that now they could "put a face to the online comments."
"It doesn't have to be confrontational if we can understand that everybody has an interest," said Robert Cox, a member of the Old Mountain View Neighborhood Association, in a small group discussion. Rosenberg is an active member of the association, which found itself embroiled in a dramatic neighborhood conflict over the Minton's Lumber redevelopment project last year.
In his wrap-up, Block said he was disheartened by the lack of civility during the city's prior discussions of the Day Worker Center. He encouraged everyone to continue to have the civility roundtable events, noting that it won't necessarily get easier, but that conversations "will get better."
Email Daniel DeBolt at firstname.lastname@example.org