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December 30, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 30, 2005

A bad year for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll A bad year for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll (December 30, 2005)

The Voice counts down the top 10 stories of 2005

A sex shop did not open next to Baskin Robbins, a pot club plan did not get approved by the city council and, by and large, people did not go to see concerts at Shoreline Amphitheatre, at least not as many as in past years.

So what did happen in 2005? Mountain View welcomed a number of new leaders and said goodbye to several others. Maurice Ghysels took over the reins as superintendent of the Mountain View-Whisman Elementary School District, and Ted Justus assumed the top job at Los Altos. Rich Fischer, a nine-year veteran at the local high school district, having overseen the opening of a new Alta Vista campus and laying the groundwork for Freestyle High, announced his retirement.

Outgoing council member Rosemary Stasek moved to Afghanistan, while her colleague, two-time Mayor Mary Lou Zoglin, passed away in March. Laura Macias and Tom Means replaced them on the city council, while State Assembly member Sally Lieber continued her rise to prominence in the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, around the city, construction projects in the planning stages for years moved closer to reality. A new senior center, a senior day health center, two reservoir projects, Camino Medical Group's new clinic, a new pro shop at the golf course and a second downtown parking garage all either broke ground or reached completion.

But it took more than a ribbon-cutting to make our top 10 list. The biggest stories of 2005 put Mountain View on the map, attracting attention from the public and, in some cases, from media outlets across the country.

1. Slater Elementary gets the axe

A 24-hour vigil and protest march were ultimately not enough to save Slater Elementary School after the new board of Mountain View-Whisman Elementary School District, facing a budget crunch and declining enrollment, assigned a task force to recommend a school to close.

Not surprisingly, Slater families leapt to the defense of their school, leading interim Superintendent Eleanor Yick to reject the task force's recommendation and nominate Castro for the chopping block instead. That pitted two low-income parts of town against each other, and gave rise to Mesa De La Comunidad, which held a vigil the night before the school board decision in an effort to create a modicum of harmony.

In the end, the board went with the original recommendation, but took so long to make a decision that it had to delay the closure for a year because it could not find a tenant to lease the site. The board spent the time trying to untangle messy enrollment issues resulting from the closure. Slater students, on the other hand, marked the days at their soon-to-be-former school with bittersweet celebrations.


2. City turns up heat on Clear Channel

The bitter lawsuit between the city and its largest tenant entered the public eye for good in April, after the city released a letter to the Voice demanding an audit of Shoreline Amphitheatre. Clear Channel fired back with six public records requests and demanded depositions of every official who had spoken to the press.

The city's response came in late August, and it was a bombshell. The results of the audit claimed the company owed more than $3.6 million in unpaid rents and other penalties. The auditors described accounting tactics that concealed more than $20 million in revenue as either negligent or fraudulent. Those tactics included renting the amphitheater out to Clear Channel-owned radio stations, keeping off-the-books barter agreements with sponsors, underreporting ticket and food sales, and charging all concertgoers a parking fee regardless of how they arrived at the show.

Clear Channel accused the city of trying to squeeze money out of a law-abiding tenant. But a judge refused to intervene when the city threatened to evict the company if it didn't pay up and turn over remaining documents. The company has posted a bond pending the outcome of the trial, scheduled to begin in February.


3. Google grows roots in Mountain View

A year after raising tens of millions of dollars with the most-hyped initial public offering in years, Google continued to make national headlines, only this time it was for the company's efforts at the local level.

In October, the company announced plans to build a million-square-foot campus at NASA-Ames Research Park, after searching for potential sites throughout Silicon Valley and elsewhere. City officials rejoiced that Mountain View's most famous company was keeping its headquarters here. But the company was dogged by accusations that it was building on federal land in order to escape paying property taxes. (County Assessor Larry Stone later determined that the company would pay taxes on all but about 30 percent of the development, located within a "federal enclave.")

A month after announcing its expansion, Google, in conjunction with the city, unveiled a plan for what it believed would the first free citywide wireless network in the country. Google representatives said the project, which is already in the beta phase, is designed as a test bed for the company to adapt its search functions and advertising services to wireless devices.


4. Leaders turn against BART project

Greg Perry's yearlong transformation from political pariah to the voice of BART-to-San-Jose opposition indicates the trouble backers may have should they get another sales tax increase on the ballot.

Last January, Perry was in line to be elected vice mayor, when fellow city council member Mike Kasperzak criticized his behavior on a Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) advisory board. Kasperzak said that his concern wasn't just that Perry took unpopular stances and stuck to them. It was that he misrepresented the council's position by speaking out against BART-to-San-Jose.

Perry's outspokenness cost him the vice mayor position, made him a target of the powerful Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, and later resulted in his removal from a Commonwealth Club panel discussion on the $4.7 billion project.

But now, as the year comes to a close, Perry prepares to take a seat on the VTA board of directors, recently appointed by his fellow council members in a 6-1 vote. As a decision nears on the agency's spending plan, leaders from cities throughout North County are continuing to join Perry in opposing the project, which they say will endanger all other transportation funding in the county.


5. Child care center plans move forward

The city council's decision to pursue a loan for a child care center in Rengstorff Park was one of the biggest surprises of 2004. But the most intense opposition didn't surface until this year.

Council members narrowly voted to appropriate money for the building in June, despite complaints from small operators that the city would be subsidizing an already well-heeled competitor. An updated study by city staff showed that Mountain View's existing centers still were several hundred spaces short of providing child care for every family in the city that needs it.

But just before the construction contract was signed, park neighbors began appearing at council meetings and writing letters objecting to the project's location. Mayor Matt Neely, the project's main supporter, authorized a workshop for city staff to hear from neighbors and later asked his colleagues to approve a study session in early 2006 exploring potential alternative locations, all still within the park.


6. Katz suit bedevils school, hospital districts

Saratoga attorney Aaron Katz has been dogged in his suit against bond measures by El Camino Hospital and the Mountain View-Whisman school district, claiming that, as an absentee landlord who owns property here, he should have a right to vote on parcel-tax measures in local elections.

If Katz were to win, he would stand to be reimbursed about $375 from the elementary school district. The district, meanwhile, would have to go back to the voters and ask them to approve the tax a second time. Despite minor victories along the way, the districts have been unable to defeat the suits for good, keeping the hospital district from issuing bonds and the elementary school district from spending the money already collected.

One hospital official estimated the cost of the delay at $4.3 million. School district officials have set aside thousands of dollars to defend themselves in the case.


7. Industrial land vs. housing development

Neighbors tried everything short of holding their breath, but they couldn't derail plans to build thousands of new residential units on vacant industrial land. Tempted by the huge profits to be made building for-sale housing, developers gobbled up land across the city, from HP's former offices at the Mayfield Mall to an old tech campus in South Whisman to an abandoned lot on Evelyn Avenue. Altogether, an estimated 2,700 new units are now in the pipeline.

Toll Brothers' proposal to build 630 units on the 25-acre Mayfield Mall site drew the most attention. But neighbors who thought they had scored a victory against the project in last November's city council election increasingly stayed away from public meetings, after it became apparent that a majority of the council continued to back the concept.

Council members said they wanted to bring balance to the city's jobs-to-housing ratio, but worried about limiting any future economic expansion. Critics assailed the process from both sides, saying that the council was changing the face of the city, but would fail to achieve its ultimate goal of slowing down rising housing prices.


8. El Camino discloses salaries

For months, El Camino Hospital officials insisted that they did not have to release information about the contract of CEO Lee Domanico, even after the Voice filed a lawsuit claiming the elected board's contract was a public record. Domanico himself tried to head off calls for more disclosure -- which also came from disgruntled doctors -- by divulging, at a board meeting, his base salary.

But the Voice continued the legal action, eventually uncovering a total compensation package that included not just the $441,000 base salary, but also a $159,000 bonus, a car allowance, a country club membership, lifetime health benefits and a forgivable low-interest home loan.

Doctors who had pushed for the contract's release said its details confirmed that Domanico was grossly overpaid compared to the rest of the hospital staff. Board members and others leapt to his defense, crediting him with turning around the hospital's financial situation since coming aboard five years ago. Domanico announced in December that he would be leaving for a new job in Oregon this January.


9. Guard finally called up for Katrina relief

The airmen of the National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing had trained for two years to assist in exactly the kind of rescue operations New Orleans desperately needed in early September, after Hurricane Katrina struck and the levees protecting the city gave way.

But at first the Moffett-based squad, which had just sent 200 men and women to assist with military operations in Afghanistan and Djibouti, spent days just watching scenes of the Southeastern devastation on television. Once there, 12 parajumpers from the 129th searched house-by-house throughout the flooded city from small inflatable boats. The 212 rescues they completed in three days before returning home set a record for the unit.

Similarly, three Mountain View firefighters -- John Miguel, Jeff Dinger and Tom Kopecky, all members of a FEMA quick-response team based in Menlo Park -- found themselves sitting and waiting for four days a staging area in Houston. The team ultimately did reach New Orleans and spent several weeks there, and in December they received plaques from the city in recognition of their efforts.

Amidst an outpouring of contributions and volunteerism from private individuals in the community, city council members rejected a call by San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales for each city in the county to contribute 50 cents per person to the American Red Cross. Ultimately, they settled for relaxing a low-income housing requirement in order to allow potential hurricane refugees to stay longer than previously allowed.


10. Hangar One forever in limbo

At Moffett Field, the year began with good news, when the Navy announced it would pay to clean up a polluted wetlands site so that NASA could restore it. But there has been no such simple solution for what to do about the source of that pollution: local icon Hangar One.

The Navy spent months fighting officials from the Environmental Protection Agency over whether it was responsible for the interior of the building, which is laden with polluting PCBs and heavy metals. At another point, the long-term existence of the hangar appeared to rest on the outcome of NASA's shot-in-the-dark plea for a solar company to cover the huge structure in photovoltaic panels. None stepped forward, but Navy lawyers provided a glimmer of hope by saying the Navy could conceivably pay to restore the landmark using funds dedicated to the Moffett cleanup.

Public pressure from hundreds of locals convinced the Navy to consider 13 different clean-up options, rather than the original two of demolition or re-siding. In late fall, Navy officials announced they were delaying their recommendation on the Hangar's fate in order to give regulatory agencies like the EPA a chance to review it carefully.


Honorable mentions

* New superintendents at local elementary school districts * Council rejects medical marijuana facility * Karen Meredith emerges as peace-movement star * Rich Fischer announces retirement * Free soccer tourney draws hundreds * New Alta Vista campus opens * Pollution scuttles private housing deal * Convictions in Condon, Vickers and Dein murder cases * Fernandez murder case goes cold

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