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February 22-28, 2006

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Coyote Valley Connection?

Lobbyists have long figured in national campaign scandals, and now mayoral candidates Dave Cortese and Michael Mulcahy contend they've made a mess at San Jose City Hall as well. Election-year politics being what they are, however, Fly is sure you didn't miss the not-so-subtle jab at vice mayor and fellow mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez, who has received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions, including the highest amount from lobbyists. Indeed, she has been noticeably absent from this anti-lobbyist pile-on. "I receive money from over 528 donors," she told us. "I've never had a conflict, and I don't see myself having one." Fly isn't sure she should be so sure. Kerry Williams, who represents housing developers who own property in Coyote Valley, contributed $500 and raised funds for Chavez's campaign. That particular agricultural expanse in south San Jose is protected by "triggers" that prevent housing development until 5,000 jobs are created in the region (so as not to create another suburb that clogs traffic). Before he was removed from the Coyote Valley task force, Mayor Ron Gonzales had tried to speed things up by suggesting that "market forces" replace these triggers. Obviously, this was music to the ears of developers: the same ones who have benefited Chavez's campaign through Williams. Here's the catch: when Gonzales was being stripped of his committee positions, it was Chavez who spoke up for him. She suggested he at least remain on one task force so the city can "move forward." That task force: Coyote Valley. Championing jobless suburban sprawl—the antithesis of concentrating jobs and housing in transit-served areas—is of course ironic for downtown's council representative. Mayoral ambitions may explain the interest by the urban core's advocate in premature development of the city's urban fringe. Converting large tracts of land into housing creates jobs for union members and lucrative payoffs for developers, two groups that have shown a willingness to bankroll expensive local campaigns.

Costly Legacy

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales is understandably trying to leave a legacy beyond the Cisco and Norcal scandals as he limps out of office. At his recent state of the city address, he reminded citizens of the city's strides in affordable housing, neighborhood improvements, downtown high-rises and renovations like the California Theatre. He even highlighted these efforts in a neat little brochure titled "A Decade of Investment." What he didn't mention is that the city's massive debt load has increased during his administration to fund projects like the new City Hall and big retail centers at Story Road. And city officials managed to lobby through a state extension of the Redevelopment Agency's sunset, ensuring that the municipal debt will be around for at least another generation. As of fiscal year 2003/04, the city's hole was $3.5 billion (yeah, billion) deep, which means it has the second-largest redevelopment debt in the state behind Oakland ($4.5 billion). Los Angeles, a city with almost four times as many people as San Jose, had a debt of $1.5 billion. Shishir Mathur, a professor at San Jose State University (one of the agency's partners), pointed out that San Jose has the largest redevelopment agency in California, which means it gets the most property tax revenues every year. Twenty-five percent of the city is designated as a redevelopment zone (in which the city plans to build improvements), and property taxes from these areas feed the agency over $225 million a year. David Baum, chief financial officer with San Jose's agency, said they have a plan to pay off the debt over the next 30 years. But Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby says that strategy doesn't cut it. "San Jose is a huge abuser of redevelopment," he says. "They're essentially hijacking revenues from schools, hospitals and police." San Francisco's redevelopment agency also gets a lot of money from property taxes ($120 million, the third highest in the state) but its debt this year was only $470 million (less than a seventh of San Jose's). S.F. agency representative Mario Menchini explained: "We try to live within our tax base and not overextend ourselves."

Photo Realism

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it's worth more than a thousand dollars in legal fees to fight copyright battles. The Merc didn't realize this two years ago when Tennessee photographer Chris Harris asked it to pay a "very reasonable" amount for a photo it had printed without his permission. Now it looks like the daily may be forking over far more since a federal judge last month allowed Harris' lawsuit to go forward. The unusual decision could result in an unprecedented victory for photographers nationwide. In 2003, the Merc printed a photo of Southern author Walker Percy, which Harris had taken, alongside a book review. Instead of using an image of the book cover or a promotional photo provided by the publisher, a Merc editor decided to scan Harris' photo from inside the book and remove its copyright label. The photographer had a contract with the author to prevent the reproduction of his photo, so when he saw it in the Merc's pages, he called the editor to ask for an amount which he won't specify but says was so small it wouldn't even cover the photocopying costs the newspaper's attorneys have probably incurred over two years of digging their heels in court. The daily contends it acted legally according to the "fair use" doctrine, which allows a portion of a copyrighted work to be used for some purposes, usually noncommercial or educational. But the vague law leaves a lot up to interpretation. "The problem with fair use is that it's a gray area," explained Santa Clara University professor Tyler Ochoa. Harris didn't think the matter was so fuzzy. "It can be cleared up with a phone call," he said. "It's piracy. That's exactly what this is." The federal judge has ruled that fair use doesn't apply in this case. "I have no idea what they're gonna do now," Harris said.


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