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April 5-11, 2006

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Eminent Disdain

San Jose's Redevelopment Agency has an insatiable appetite for citywide "improvements" that often involve booting small businesses and homeowners to make way for new high-density housing and strip malls. Nearly 25 percent of the city has been marked for redevelopment, quite a shift from 20 years ago when local governments were more likely to take over land for necessary public buildings and roads. In 2006, San Jose boasts the largest redevelopment agency in the state. So maybe it's no wonder the effort to get the People's Initiative to Limit Eminent Domain on the November ballot is based in San Jose. The measure aims to prevent redevelopment takeovers for anything other than public use. As for why eminent domain should be thusly limited, the measure's supporters point to cases like that of Diana and Brian Padilla, whose struggle to keep their livelihood started in 2001 with a letter from the city of San Jose. Their house and welding shop, located on an industrial block just outside of downtown San Jose, had been tagged for a residential high-rise by the Redevelopment Agency. "Don't worry, they can't do this," Diana told her husband. "This can't even be legal." But it was—once their land was declared "blighted." Even after realizing what they were up against, the Padillas resisted. They posted signs in their yard declaring "Not for Sale by Owner;" they circulated petitions and held rallies in front of City Hall. Somehow, it worked. The city backed off and relocated their high-rise plans. But to this day the Padillas recount their tale with a mix of relief and disbelief, not entirely secure that it won't happen again. They've kept the signs in their front yard and joined the movement for statewide redevelopment reform. Fly called San Jose's redevelopment director Harry Mavrogenes to see what he thought about this idea but we could not reach him by presstime.

Wringing In The New Media

If anyone needed a reminder of how powerful the Internet has become over the last few years, the Commonwealth Club of California provided it with its March 30 panel discussion on the future of newspapers in a digital world. And for an audience made up almost entirely of well mannered retirees and very pleased looking bloggers, they offered up a panel of distraught newspaper men (Jerry Ceppos from Knight Ridder, Dan Gillmor formerly of the Merc and Peter Appert, an information services analyst from Goldman Sachs) who all spent a little over an hour agreeing with Joan Walsh, editor in chief of Salon.com, about how after nearly 400 years, print news is supposedly on its last legs. It was an evening of dark humor and nervous laughter, and talk about the need for newspapers to find a way to adapt to the 21st-century media reality. No one questioned this fact but, more importantly, no one had any great ideas about it, either. Geez, no wonder Knight Ridder's throwing in the towel. With the Mercury News buyer Suppose-A-Thon the hottest gossip going in the biz right now, everyone had their mind on the money. "[There are] concerns about long-term profitability," Appert said."Other than that, everything looks great." As far as the panel was concerned, even a reputation for quality journalism (which they all agreed should be a paper's main goal) couldn't save you when the backbone of newspapers is classified advertising, which has been running steadily to places like eBay and Craigslist, leaving the daily newsrooms that needed to take production and distribution costs into account starved for cash. Walsh did her best to make productive comments and keep from gloating—since no one could fathom how to fix the income problem. Instead there was a simple consensus that the business model that newspapers have come to rely on needed to change to something that has "yet to be defined and we don't know what it is."

Strapped for Change

So the VTA has finally agreed to ensure that wheelchair-bound passengers are secured on its buses and railcars. But here's the catch, no pun intended: they're not going to do it until 2007. Critics say it's been too long a wait already, considering it was two Septembers ago that Maria Borja, a former court clerk who sustained life-long injuries after using VTA transportation, won a $2.1 million settlement against the VTA ("VTA Money Meter," The Fly, Jan. 19, 2005). At the time, the VTA was one of a smattering of transit agencies that employed a policy of "passenger choice" when it came to securing wheelchair-bound passengers. More than a year after that, last December, the VTA finally changed its policy to make it mandatory for wheelchairs to be secured. Borja's attorney, 2005's California Trial Lawyer of the Year Paul Caputo, deserves credit for pushing the VTA to change its polices; shortly after the Borja verdict, the VTA initiated a taskforce whose recommendations resulted in the changed policy. But now it's been put off another year, with VTA officials saying they need a year to train their drivers on how to secure wheelchair-bound passengers. "If you are telling somebody that you have to have a year to train somebody on how to secure a wheelchair, that doesn't sound like they're trying real hard to comply," a skeptical Ed Vasquez, a representative of Caputo, tells Fly. Caputo, meanwhile, is more forgiving. "It's long overdue," he says. "I want them to do it right. If they, in their determination and their wisdom, believe that it's gonna take a year, then that's fine, I suppose." However, Caputo, who is currently representing another wheelchair-bound passenger who was injured on VTA, pulls no punches when discussing the overall snail's pace of the VTA's decision-making process. "I don't point the blame on individual bus drivers—they are, for the most part, hard-working men and women—I blame the faceless, soulless, heartless institution for not training these people [already]. They're sacrificing safety for on-time performance." Some insiders are saying the whole "training" thing is a smokescreen anyway, and that the real reason the new policy is being held up until 2007 is because of concerns from the bus drivers' union, who were apparently unhappy that it would give drivers more responsibilities. But Jayme Kunz, a VTA rep, insists there are real issues with the new policy, including "how to work with sensitivity training and dealing with special-needs customers. We wanted to give this more time to take hold."


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