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December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006

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Ron Gonzales

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Trash Talk: Yes, we ran this picture of Mayor Gonzales as Oscar the Grouch before. But we really, really love it.

Tempest in a Trash Can

The mayor's bizarre year in scandal


By Michael S. Gant

IN THE WORDS of America's greatest Ivy League romance novelist, Erich Segal, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales managed to rewrite the epigram—substituting "governing" for "love"—and keep it afloat for most of 2005 ... until the garbageman finally cameth.

Fans of the headline "Embroiled in Scandal" will remember that in 2004, Kubla Ron, intent on decreeing his personal 18-story Xanadu at 200 E. Santa Clara St., narrowly averted a complete meltdown as aggrieved citizens grumbled about cost overruns (how does $214 million turn into $388 million? Keep your eye on the magician's sleeve), and Cisco Systems employees enjoyed a too-cozy relationship with the bidding process for the new City Hall's computer systems.

At the time, Gonzales, sounding a lot like Capt. Renault in Casablanca—"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"—fumed that "a key staff person, someone that we relied on for expertise ... lied to us."

According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gonzales declared, "In the end, a fair, open, competitive process is the most important product of anything we do here." He went on to observe, "There is certainly a dark shadow over our organization."

In 2005, it turned out that the dark shadow was cast not by the Ban Roll-On Deodorant Memorial Dome at City Hall, but by the mayor himself. In one of those architectural ironies that come along all too infrequently, the new Ron Simeon, designed by the world-class firm (large empty tracts of stifling, heat-reflecting concrete don't come cheap) of Richard Meier & Partners was touted as expressing the essential "transparency" to which city government aspires.

Unfortunately, transparency is not what happened behind closed doors as Gonzales and his policy and budget director, Joe Guerra, confronted a scathing Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report this June that they had secretly negotiated a deal with Norcal Waste Systems of San Jose in 2000, cleverly neglecting to inform the City Council that it included a $11 million-plus pay increase for labor costs.

The Grand Jury provided a lengthy narrative, complete with timeline, about "half-truths, concealments, misrepresentations and deceptions." The report contained such exciting good-government terms as "duped," "secret deal," "backroom discussions" and "reluctant parties."

In defense of his commander-in-chief, Guerra told the Grand Jury that he doesn't provide the mayor with such nettlesome time wasters as documents, because the mayor "does not want the 'minutiae.'"

Taking a page from Terrell Owens' "Apology, I Got Yer Apology Right Here" playbook, the mayor immediately went on the offensive in an official release dated June 14, asserting that he should have been praised, not pilloried, for heading off a garbage strike. The mayor even played the offal card: "We've successfully prevented a garbage strike that could have resulted in piles of rotting garbage in front of homes, behind businesses and on streets."

Recalling Bill Clinton's "Winning Through Parsing" strategy, Gonzales initially denied "lying" about his Norcal meeting in a Grand Jury meeting, somehow drawing a nano-fine distinction between meeting with Norcal and participating in "negotiating sessions" with Norcal.

Finally, charging full-speed ahead, the mayor lashed out at the Grand Jury for doing its job, claiming that "my belief in the objectivity of the Grand Jury has been gravely undermined by this sensationalized report" and calling the report "tabloid journalism."

The next day, another hot-off-the-fax press release, in which Gonzales called for an independent investigation of the whole sordid affair, came complete with the subhead: "I have nothing to hide"—which, in most political lexicons, translates directly to "I damn well do have something to hide."

The tempest in a trash can refused to go away, however, and when special investigator Chris Scott Graham, after expending a great deal of the city's money, came back in early December with pretty much the same conclusions as the much-maligned citizens of the Grand Jury, the mayor finally ran up the white flag—sort of.

"I would like to apologize to the people of San Jose," the mayor began in the official release of Dec. 7 (like Pearl Harbor, a day that will live in infamy, locally at least). "I am sorry ... ," it continued.

So far, so good. But as is so often the case with caged apologies these days, the mayor couldn't resist putting a positive spin on a negative deed: "... that I have disappointed my City Council colleagues and the people of San Jose with the method I used to achieve good results for our community."

Calling about the gods of hindsight, the mayor admitted that maybe he should have been a wee bit more forthcoming in the pursuit of his "efforts to do the right thing for the people of San Jose."

At a contentious City Council meeting on Dec. 13, Gonzales proved unable to let go of the notion that even the worst transgressions can be sugarcoated with good intentions. According to the Mercury News' Dec. 14 account, the mayor told the council and the public that he was a "get-it-done kind of mayor" and "I clearly fell victim to that part of my personality on this issue."

Unmoved by the mayor's measured mea culpa, the council voted to censure Gonzales—whatever the hell that means. Something like "Go stand in the corner for a few meetings while we do damage control" or words to that effect.

Unfortunately, the council exposed its own invertebrate status by failing to authorize a continued investigation of what really went wrong and why. In perhaps his most Machiavellian maneuver, the mayor, now ensconced in his legacy high-rise, had engineered the whole dustup to break so close to the end of his term that it wouldn't be worth the money and time to pursue resignation or impeachment.

(Although a terse press release dated Dec. 19 from Santa Clara County District Attorney George Kennedy indicated that he plans to work with the civil Grand Jury "to look further into this matter." And in a related "rat's leaving the ship" development City Manager Del Borgsdorf announced his resignation on Dec. 21.)

That banging sound you hear outside your window at 5am is a happy trash collector beating the drums for his generous benefactor.


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