SJ Mayor May Get Booted

Council will consider whether to strip Ron Gonzales of political
appointments after criminal inquiry; could impact BART future
Morgan Hill – The political fallout over a criminal inquiry into a backroom garbage deal struck by San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales could have a profound impact on the future of BART in the South Bay and development in Coyote Valley.

Next month, the San Jose City Council will consider whether to strip the mayor of some or all of his political appointments. Gonzales could be booted from the board of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority or lose his job as co-chairman of the Coyote Valley Specific Plan Task Force.

Without the mayor’s boosterism, observers say, Coyote Valley planning could slow, and his presence and damaged credibility could hurt both projects, particularly what will be a tough campaign to pass a new sales tax measure to pay for BART.

And though Gonzales has made Coyote Valley and BART two of his highest priorities for the end of his term, he may not get to work on either project through their most critical stages.

“I think it’s highly likely that he’ll be stripped of some of his responsibilities, and Coyote Valley and the VTA have come up as serious possibilities,” San Jose Councilman David Cortese said. “We simply can’t put him out there anymore as the face of San Jose. He does more harm than good.”

Last week, the San Jose council voted to censure the mayor for making a private deal with Norcal Waste Systems that added more than $11 million to the city’s garbage rates.

The council voted 9-2, with Cortese and another vocal critic of the mayor, Chuck Reed, opposed, to end an investigation into the deal. But this week, Santa Clara County District Attorney George Kennedy announced he was opening a criminal probe into the pact, reviving a scandal that will likely cloud the mayor’s last year in office.

“I think the D.A.’s investigation makes it clear that the truth is going to come out here pretty soon,” Reed said. “It’s more difficult to lead when you don’t have the moral authority.”

Both BART and Coyote Valley have reached critical stages. In 2006, the Coyote Valley Specific Plan will be sent to the San Jose City Council at least four times and the council may be asked to approve a plan, inspired by the mayor, to begin building houses in the area immediately.

San Jose planners will complete an environmental impact report for the project that is expected to draw intense criticism from politicians and school district officials in Morgan Hill, property owners in the greenbelt between Morgan Hill and San Jose, and environmentalists.

The mayor’s design on housing could have a major influence on the Morgan Hill Unified School District, which includes Coyote Valley. Peter Mandel, the vice-president of the school board, said Gonzales’ departure wouldn’t have much impact on day to day planning with San Jose city staff but could alter the pace of growth in Coyote dramatically.

“There are substantive decisions the task force and the council must make that the mayor having less involvement would affect because he has been one of the prime advocates for development,” Mandel said.

The mayor’s supporters and critics agree that his leadership will be crucial to keeping the proposed development of 25,000 homes, 50,000 jobs and 80,000 residents on track and that the process could falter if he’s replaced, especially by a council member such as Cortese or Linda J. Lezotte, who have shown little interest in pressing Coyote Valley development.

“It would be a big loss for the city and the project,” said Kerry Williams, president of the Coyote Housing Group, a consortium of developers with substantial financial interests in Coyote Valley.

Councilman Forrest Williams, who represents the Coyote Valley area, said the project would suffer without the mayor, but is far enough along to survive without him. He intends to vote against removing the mayor from any of his posts.

“All the visions and directions have been laid out for us. We just have to have the will to pursue it and I definitely have the desire to make sure it all comes together,” Williams said. “I was glad to see us not take any action that night because when you do something out of haste, you live to regret it.”

Brian Schmidt, of the Committee for Green Foothills, welcomed the possibility of Gonzales’ ouster from the Coyote Valley task force, but agreed with Williams that the process is too far along, and supported too strongly by developers, for it to matter much.

“It would be good but it’s not enough given there are people on the task force who stand to gain financially if Coyote Valley is developed the way they want,” Schmidt said.

But when it comes to the very sensitive issue of BART and the need to persuade voters outside of San Jose to vote for a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for the $4.7-billion project, the mayor could be a major liability.

In February, the VTA board will try again to reach consensus on the projects a new sales tax would pay for. At the moment, none of the areas in the county that would not be served by BART are supporting the financial plan and the mayor has not been able to bridge the divide.

“He has almost no rapport with other cities at this point,” Cortese said, “and he’s certainly a tainted figure in his role as an emissary or advocate in Sacramento or Washington D.C. He has been more zealous than anyone in his support for BART, but you lose more than you gain with him.”

Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy, an outspoken critic of Coyote Valley development plans and member of the VTA board, said that he and his fellow council members began crafting relationships with other San Jose politicians long ago, but must double their efforts in the event Gonzales is marginalized.

“I think it is important in this time of uncertainty of the mayor’s situation that we continue to build relationships,” Kennedy said.

The San Jose City Council meets again Jan. 10. It takes a simple majority vote to remove the mayor from a committee. Supervisor Don Gage said he expects the mayor will retain all of his posts. And if Gonzales is ousted, Gage said, it won’t make any difference in the city’s relationship with South County.

“They’re not going to do anything to him,” Gage said. “And even if they do they’ll just replace him with someone who just follows through with all the same things they want.”

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