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GILROY
– The man who squelched school district plans to earn $900 a
month by allowing cellular antennas atop two flagpoles outside of
Luigi Aprea Elementary School isn’t new to costing the Gilroy
Unified School District money.
GILROY – The man who squelched school district plans to earn $900 a month by allowing cellular antennas atop two flagpoles outside of Luigi Aprea Elementary School isn’t new to costing the Gilroy Unified School District money.

In 1989, anti-cellular tower activist Christopher Cote cheated the district out of several thousands of dollars, when on two separate occasions his former company failed to provide busses for class trips despite being paid, according to court records. In February, Cote paid the Gilroy Unified School District nearly $8,000, settling the lawsuit filed by the school district 13 years ago.

“To talk about Mr. Cote as an activist and world crusader does not give the community an accurate picture of who it is dealing with,” said Joseph Thompson, a Gilroy attorney who litigated for five clients in the lawsuit during the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Thompson said Cote paid his clients more than $30,000 in damages, interest and legal fees in February.

Cote, who is in South Africa on humanitarian business, firmly denied any grudge toward the school district and asserted that his efforts to ban cellular transmission equipment near homes, schools and drinking water supplies should be treated distinctly.

“Some people may wish to link the issues for their own means. But I only became involved in dealing with the district on the radiation issue when I learned that the towers that everyone had been told were flagpoles, were in fact not,” Cote wrote in an e-mail to The Dispatch.

“It’s a non-issue issue as far as I’m concerned. All I’m trying to do is stop some radiation from being transmitted in Gilroy,” Cote said in an interview subsequent to the e-mail. “I find it interesting this story comes out after I started this campaign. Radiation is harmful to children, and I hope this story doesn’t divert attention away from that.”

Cote owed GUSD money after his now-defunct transportation service company, Cote Distribution Systems Inc., twice did not show up for district functions in 1988. In one instance, busses did not arrive to take Brownell students on a trip to the state capitol. Another time, Cote’s company failed to pick up Gilroy High School students going to Disneyland.

Cote’s past legal issues do not end with the GUSD lawsuit. Within the GUSD lawsuit, documents note that Cote was named in 10 civil suits, 13 small claims cases and five criminal cases.

Because the criminal cases took place more than a decade ago, the county court system could not provide case files by deadline. In at least some of the criminal cases, Cote pled no contest, Deputy District Attorney for Santa Clara County Steve Gibbons recalled. The cases involved bus safety violations, check fraud and taking money without providing services.

Cote declined to elaborate on the past cases.

“The reality is when people are younger, they make errors in judgment and have to redeem themselves and seek forgiveness. There are not many people in this community who haven’t made errors in their life,” Cote said.

Superintendent Edwin Diaz said he was vaguely aware that the district had past conflicts with Cote, but said that did not impact his decision to stop work at Luigi Aprea.

“I would have handled this the same way regardless of who approached us,” Diaz said. “The major issue was with our internal process of entering a formal (lease) agreement without going to the (school) board. Because the correct process was not followed, it resulted in a lack of communication with parents who had concerns and that could potentially destroy the public’s trust.”

Cote now operates the Hollings Cartaway Hunger Relief Foundation. Among other humanitarian efforts, Cote’s group helps rural communities in Africa learn how to better sustain agriculture and prevent disease.

Cote came on to the public scene this fall when he led an effort to ban a 75-foot wireless communication tower that was to be erected in the northwest Gilroy neighborhood. A permit for the tower was ultimately denied, but Cote is still pushing for a city ordinance that would ban transmission towers from being placed within 2,500 feet of any residence, school or city drinking water supply.

Two weeks ago, Cote led a group of parents concerned over the potential health risks posed by two 50-foot poles with space for cellular antennas on top. Cingular Wireless erected the poles, which would be used to fly the American and California flags, immediately in front of Luigi Aprea school. Many parents were unaware that the flagpoles would double as cellular towers.

Cote, who has a nephew at Luigi Aprea and resides nearby the site, met with parents, Superintendent Diaz and Luigi Aprea Principal Sergio Montenegro two weeks ago. Their session resulted in Diaz ordering Cingular Wireless to halt installation of the cellular antennas and begin taking down the two poles.

On Wednesday night, Cingular asked Diaz if the district would accept the poles, without the cellular antennas, as a donation. Diaz said he would talk with Montenegro who in turn would consult with parents before making a decision.

If the district accepts the donation, it would get around a potentially messy situation.

Cingular already has invested in labor and supplies to install the poles and does not want to invest more time and money removing them. The company could ask the district to either honor the contract or pay for the pole removal itself.

“They’re being cooperative,” Diaz said of Cingular. “I think it’s a generous offer. They could take a different position.”

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