In The News
2010 in review
Pipelines and planes, high-speed rail and HP scandal
The Daily News, 1/01/11
A plane falls on a neighborhood from the sky. A massive explosion from beneath the ground sends a fireball ripping through a community.
The deadly, violent February plane crash in East Palo Alto and September gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno topped local news in 2010, changing the fabric of those communities and devastating the lives of those who lost homes and loved ones.
But the Peninsula was a busy and newsworthy place all year long, with important murder trials, angry debates about high-speed rail, the ouster of a major tech CEO amid sexual harassment allegations, and an election where voters sent a big message about accountability.
As we begin 2011, here’s a look back at the top local stories for each month of 2010, as selected by Daily News staff:
JANUARY: Gunn High, Stanford rally against hate
No one in Palo Alto was rolling out the welcome mat when Westboro Baptist Church — the anti-gay, anti-Semitic, Topeka, Kan.-based religious organization known for picketing military funerals — announced they planned to visit town.
Gunn was still reeling from the loss of a recent graduate who killed himself on the Caltrain tracks the week before, following four suicides by teens connected with the school in 2009. The church said it would protest in front of Gunn High and the Taube Hillel House at Stanford University on Jan. 29, claiming the student deaths could be attributed to a lack of religious faith.
“The children have been so provoked to wrath that they are killing themselves by jumping out in front of these trains,” a church representative said.
Five church members showed up, carrying signs proclaiming “God hates America” and “Your doom is coming.” But students at the high school and university turned the protest on its head, overwhelming the group with hundreds of counter-protesters celebrating love and tolerance. However, the tires of the group’s vehicle were slashed at Stanford.
Ultimately, Gunn students said the event was cathartic. Then-principal Noreen Likins said it “turned into a great day. I think the community is closer together because of it.”
Also that month:
• Jan. 21: Bulos “Paul” Zumot, former Palo Alto hookah bar owner, pleads not guilty to charges he killed his girlfriend, 29year-old Palo Alto real
High School students sing “ This Little Light of Mine” during a lunchtime rally on Jan. 29. Students held the rally to counter a protest by five members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church across the street.
estate agent Jennifer Schipsi.
• Jan. 26: A report discloses that developer DMB Associates, which aims to build up to 12,000 homes on Redwood City salt flats, has a 70-year agreement to get drinking water for the project.
FEBRUARY: Plane crash in East Palo Alto kills three
A twin-engine Cessna came crashing through the dense fog over Beech Street in East Palo Alto shortly before 8 a.m. on Feb. 17.
First it hit a PG&E transmission tower, cutting power to all of Palo Alto. Then the plane broke apart. A wing smashed into a home and day care center. The fuselage lay in the middle of the street. The three men aboard — 56-yearold Doug Bourn, 42-year-old Brian Finn and 31-year-old Andrew Ingram, all coworkers at Tesla Motors in Menlo Park — were dead. Miraculously, no one on the ground was injured.
Without power for nearly the entire day, Palo Alto stood still. Cars slowly navigated intersections without traffic lights, merchants handed out free ice cream before it melted, and people with no work to do meandered around a quiet, surreal downtown.
Since then, investigators, the victims’ families and neighborhood residents have been left to sort through the crash’s messy aftermath. Recordings from before takeoff revealed that the pilot, Bourn, was warned there was no visibility on the runway and he was flying at his own risk. Ingram’s family filed a lawsuit in August against Bourn’s estate. And the Beech Street home and day care center that were damaged by a crash debris- ignited fire remain boarded up.
“My home is gone,” said Lisa Jones, whose Eppie’s Day Care was a staple of the neighborhood, earlier this month. “Not only my home, but my livelihood.”
Also that month:
Feb. 6: A Daily News investigation reveals discrepancies in the statistical assumptions that officials used to create rosy high-speed rail ridership forecasts.
Feb. 8: Alberto Alvarez, 26, is sentenced to death for murdering East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May in 2006.
MARCH: Guilty verdict in downtown Palo Alto murder
A jury didn’t buy murder defendant Otto Koloto’s testimony that he accidentally shot Philip Lacy in downtown Palo Alto in July 2008. On March 19, after two days of deliberation, jury members found 23-year-old Koloto guilty of robbing and murdering Lacy, 27.
During a week-long trial, Lacy’s friends testified they were sitting in a parked car on Bryant Street when Koloto walked up and asked for a cigarette. Koloto then pulled a handgun and robbed Lacy of a $5,000 gold chain, the friends said, shooting him when Lacy reached to take back the necklace.
Koloto testified that the shooting was an accident and that Lacy was trying to sell him cocaine. When he refused to buy, he said, Lacy threatened to beat him up and Koloto used the gun for self-defense. It went off when Lacy lunged at him, he said. Koloto also said he never meant to steal the necklace around Lacy’s neck.
“Otto’s story wasn’t believable, “ one juror said. “It just didn’t flow right.”
Koloto was sentenced in May to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Also that month:
• March 2: Menlo Park City Council votes to adopt strict smoking restrictions, prohibiting lighting up in most common areas of apartment and condominium complexes.
• March 2: Wells Fargo assumes ownership of 1,800 rental units in East Palo Alto formerly owned by Page Mill Properties, after no one bids at a foreclosure auction.
APRIL: High-speed rail on residents’ minds
It may seem a somewhat less urgent issue now that the California High Speed Rail Authority has opted to build the first section of the line in the Central Valley, but in April, the debate over the bullet train project dominated headlines here.
On April 8, rail authority officials released a planning report that showed putting tracks below ground would be extremely expensive — quintupling the price in some places. Officials said then that cities that want tracks tunneled would likely have to pay for it themselves.
Throughout the month, the rail authority faced a stream of criticism. On April 29 the state released a scathing audit that said the authority suffers from “weak oversight” and has only a “vague” and “optimistic” plan to pay for the project. In response to claims its ridership and revenue estimates were inflated, the authority announced April 7 the hiring of three expert groups to produce new estimates.
And on April 15, a Menlo Park resident sued the rail authority in the hopes of blocking construction of the project. The suit claimed the authority must have all its funding lined up to complete the $43 billion project before using voter-approved bond money.
Also that month:
• April 1: Caltrain officials announce their agency is broke and will likely have to cut half its service, including weekend, weeknight and midday trains.
• April 20: The city of Mountain View decides to take legal action against Buddy’s Cannabis Patient Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary that opened despite a city ban.
MAY: Redwood City allows Saltworks project to go forward
Hiring an environmental consultant may seem like a fairly straightforward thing for a city to do. But in the debate over the massive, controversial Saltworks project in Redwood City, nothing is simple.
On May 24, the Redwood City City Council voted unanimously to hire Hauge Brueck Associates to prepare a report on the environmental impacts of Cargill and DMB Associates’ proposal to build 1,200 homes, plus schools, offices and more, on salt evaporation ponds south of the Port of Redwood City. The contract was on the city council’s consent calendar, and the council members did not discuss it before voting. They said prior to the meeting that they simply wanted more data to make an informed decision about the project.
But project opponents criticized the council for putting the item on the consent calendar, where it wouldn’t be discussed as openly, and for limiting the amount of time speakers had. About 20 residents and local business owners came to the meeting to speak both for and against letting the project move forward.
“We’ve presented plenty of facts as to why this is just an outrageously poor development idea,” one opponent said.
Also that month:
• May 12: Local entrepreneur Eric Lochtefeld, CEOof University of Dreams, announces he is taking over operations of foreclosed Fox Theatre in Redwood City.
• May 26: 36-year-old Santa Clara resident Lionel Blanks is arrested in connection with the kidnapping, beating and rape of a woman the weekend before in Palo Alto.
JUNE: San Carlos contracts out police services
There is no longer such a thing as a San Carlos police officer.
On June 28, the San Carlos City Council voted 4-1 to start talks to disband its 85-year-old police department and outsource its police services to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.
The move was expected to save an estimated $2 million per year, helping the city fill a $3.5 million gap in its $28 million budget for the current fiscal year. As part of the agreement, all of the city’s police employees were offered new jobs at the sheriff’s office.
Council Member Matt Grocott, who cast the dissenting vote in June, said the city should instead look for a partnership with other cities, to retain more local control.
The move to the sheriff’s office was ultimately approved in September, and on Nov. 1, 33 San Carlos police officers were sworn in with the county.
The city is also now looking to outsource its fire services.
Also that month:
• June 8: San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon beats out venture capitalist Josh Becker and former Palo Alto mayor Yoriko Kishimoto to win the Democratic nomination for the 21st state Assembly District.
• June 9: David Lewis, a 54-yearold East Palo Alto community leader and founder of the nonprofit substance abuse treatment group Free At Last, is found shot to death at Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo.
JULY: Redwood City city council member gets scolding
Redwood City Council Member Rosanne Foust found herself in political hot water this summer over the controversial Saltworks development.
Foust is the CEO of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, a business group that held a vote early in 2010 to endorse the project. Menlo Park Council Member Andy Cohen filed a complaint against Foust with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, saying that position creates a conflict of interest and she should be required to recuse herself from the council’s Saltworks discussions.
Foust argued she didn’t participate in the development association’s vote on Saltworks, and the city attorney had told her she didn’t need to abstain from council decisions on the project.
In late July, the FPPC concluded Foust did have a conflict of interest in voting on the Saltworks project. It decided not to fine her because she was acting on the advice of a lawyer, but warned her against future decision-making.
Foust sent a letter to the Daily News saying she was “disappointed” in the FPPC’s ruling but would abstain from voting on the Saltworks project in the future.
“As an elected official, I have sworn myself to uphold the law, so I will accept the Commission’s ruling,” she said. “However, the FPPC’s letter contains factual errors and the ruling itself contradicts well documented opinions previously issued by the FPPC in rulings similar to mine.”
Also that month:
• July 15: Menlo Park firefighters sue the Menlo Park Fire Protection District in federal court, saying they deserve overtime pay for the time they spend picking up equipment before their shifts.
• July 19: Stanford officials announce that renowned biologist Stephen Schneider, an expert on climate change who advised seven presidents and shared a Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore, is dead at 65.
AUGUST: Sexual intrigue dethrones straight-laced HP CEO
Hewlett-Packard’s Mark Hurd was probably one of the last Silicon Valley CEOs anyone would have expected to be brought down by a B-movie actress and feminist attorney Gloria Allred.
The 53-year-old Hurd, hired five years before to rebuild the company after Carly Fiorina’s attempt at a controversial merger with Compaq, was known for budget cuts, not drama.
But on Aug. 6, Hurd was forced to resign, shocking Silicon Valley’s tech community, after an internal investigation found he showed a “profound lack of judgement” in connection with a female marketing contractor, according to the company’s general counsel. The woman, actress Jodie Fisher, had accused him of sexual harassment and leaking inside information about a pending acquisition. Her attorney, Allred, said Hurd and Fisher did not have a sexual relationship.
HP’s investigation found Hurd did not violate the company’s sexual harassment policy, but did submit false expense reports and violated HP’s standards of business conduct.
Hurdwasn’t out for long. He was quickly snatched up by former rival Oracle.
Also that month:
• Aug. 11: A group of Atherton residents sues the Sequoia Union High School District to prevent it from installing temporary stadium lights at Menlo-Atherton High School.
• Aug. 25: A pipeline ruptures, spilling 48,000 gallons of raw sewage into a lagoon, garages and along the street in Redwood Shores.
SEPTEMBER: Firestorm devastates San Bruno neighborhood
At first, it seemed unbelievable. Within seconds, an entire neighborhood was engulfed by a massive fireball. Residents ran from a wall of flame. Some said a plane had crashed. Confusion was rampant.
Though questions remain, the outlines of what occurred Sept. 9 in the Crestmoor Canyon community of San Bruno are now known. A PG&E natural gas pipeline, Line 132, exploded. Eight people died. Dozens were injured. Thirty-eight homes were destroyed.
Terrifying tales of escape were told over the following days. Gary McNamara said he was driving home with his 3-year-old daughter when he rounded a corner and found himself face to face with a fireball towering hundreds of feet in the air.
“It was so big,” he said, “it seemed like it was coming at me.”
Residents who lost loved ones and homes are still dealing with the blast’s impacts. A preliminary federal report in October determined that, just before the pipe blew, an electrical failure at a PG&E facility in Milpitas caused a surge in pressure. Families have filed lawsuits claiming the utility knew its pipeline was defective. Amid concerns from residents who say they’re fearful of moving back, PG&E has agreed to remove the pipeline.
“We want our neighborhood rebuilt,” San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said a month after the explosion, “and we want our people back.”
Also that month:
• Sept. 2: Three people — 91-year-old Robert Borrmann of Belmont, 47-yearold Adelina Urbina-Suarez of Daly City, and 73-year-old William Heinicke of San Francisco — are killed in a small plane crash in Redwood Shores.
• Sept. 29: A former housekeeper for Atherton resident Meg Whitman, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, alleges Whitman knew she was an illegal immigrant and fired her once she decided to run for governor.
OCTOBER: Redwood City finds site for new county jail
Who knew cities and counties could work together, even while looking out for themselves?
San Mateo County had been looking for years for a place to build a new, larger jail, and announced in 2009 that it wanted to construct it in downtown Redwood City, near the county government center.
The idea didn’t go over well, with city officials fearing it would spoil efforts to revitalize the downtown area and hundreds of residents signing petitions against it. So, city officials stepped in to find the county a different piece of property on the other side of Highway 101.
The city struck a deal to pay $15.9 million to buy a set of six parcels on Chemical Way, and on Oct. 11, the Redwood City City Council agreed to put down a $200,000 deposit for the purchase.
On Dec. 21, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted to assume the purchase options from Redwood City and buy the land.
“We’ve located the jail out of the downtown, and that is momentous, “ Redwood City Council Member Barbara Pierce said. “This is a real investment in our community and our downtown.”
Also that month:
• Oct. 4: Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton file a lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, claiming an environmental assessment of the project isn’t adequate.
• Oct. 18: Palo Alto Public Works Director Glenn Roberts suddenly retires following a “dispute” with the city. He gets $130,655 in severance pay.
NOVEMBER: Voters demand fiscal responsibility
Tea parties, a $160 million gubernatorial campaign and an undocumented housekeeper dominated election news this year. But on Nov. 2, voters showed they were paying attention to local issues, too, and they weren’t happy about them.
In Menlo Park, in particular, voters sent a message they wanted more accountability for taxpayer money, booting out an incumbent and overwhelmingly passing a pension reform measure. Measure L, which reduces pension benefits for most new city employees, passed with 72 percent voter approval. Incumbent Heyward Robinson, who opposed Measure L, was voted out of office, and Mayor Rich Cline barely held onto his seat with a third-place finish, trailing newcomers Peter Ohtaki and Kirsten Keith.
Some community members and officials said the election showed voters were tired of the city’s financial problems and weakness in negotiating with employee unions.
“This council that has been seated for four years — I’m not going to dodge it — is responsible for some of the out-of-control expenses,” said then-Council Member John Boyle, who did not seek re-election. “I’m willing to say, in hindsight, perhaps we should have made another decision. I think some of the incumbents have been less willing to say that.”
Also that month:
• Nov. 9: Despite community opposition, the Menlo Park City Council votes 3-2 to allow a BevMo store to move into the city.
• Nov. 19: Atherton residents and Sequoia Union High School District announce a settlement over stadium lights at Menlo-Atherton High School.
DECEMBER: Fergusson becomes mayor, but not for long
The Menlo Park City Council kept the drama going into December, with a double set of mayoral elections.
Council Member Kelly Fergusson served as the city’s mayor for three short days before she resigned amid accusations she had broken the state’s open government law.
Fergusson was appointed mayor Dec. 7 in a 3-2 vote, but Atherton resident Peter Carpenter quickly filed a formal “cure or correct” complaint alleging she had violated the Brown Act in campaigning for the post. Fergusson admitted she had asked two colleagues to back her for mayor and had an intermediary talk to another, which the city attorney said was an “apparent violation” of the act.
The Brown Act prohibits “serial meetings,” where elected officials communicate with colleagues to create “concurrence” on something that should be discussed at a public meeting.
“If there was a violation, it was not intentional,” Fergusson said in a statement. “I believed I was lobbying or stating my position to inform members of the council, and to gain their support.”
Fergusson announced her resignation Dec. 10 and said she would not stand as a candidate when the position was re-appointed.
Council Member Rich Cline, who had servedasmayortheprevious year, was picked when the council voted again on Dec. 14.
Also that month:
• Dec. 17: Palo Alto High School’s football team wins its first state title.
• Dec. 20: San Mateo police announce the arrest of Gregory Elarms, 58, of Pittsburg, on suspicion of killing East Palo Alto community leader David Lewis.