Sunday, February 27, 2005

The End of Affordable Housing

It’s 2006.

A high tech mogul purchases and donates to the City of Palo Alto a four-acre plot of commercial land, specifying that it can only be used for affordable housing. The mogul’s husband, a big-time developer, offers to engineer, design and build this housing at cost.

City council members and planning commissioners are ecstatic because this will fulfill a longstanding community need. They unanimously approve needed zoning changes. State Sen. Joe Simitian rushes to the proposed site with a folding chair and holds office hours. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo seeks a federal law to amend. Assemblyman Ira Ruskin creates a blue-ribbon task force to study the feasibility of reviewing needed alterations of state regulations and laws.

The North of East of Wherever Neighborhood Association expands its boundaries over the proposed development and argues the city must preserve the character of the area, which is dominated by tilt-up concrete office buildings.

Three retired HP employees from Barron Park issue a 120-page analysis of who should be allowed to live in the development. It excludes city employees, who, based on news reports, all earn more than $100,000 annually. Fire fighters are banned because all of them have second jobs or side businesses. Police officers are scored on pending lawsuits and criminal charges, but most make it into the pool. Because of tenure and marital status (read that household income) few public school teachers make the cut.

Environmentalists check off because the land isn’t soaked with PCBs and such, but insist parking lots be striped to exclude SUVs.

The school board, stung by serial parcel tax defeats, demands that only people with no children or committed to a childless life, be eligible for residency. Otherwise, it contends, elementary schools will become overcrowded and will have to drop advanced placement genome analysis classes.

Then things cool off. Simitian gets cranky about poor turnout during his office hours. Eshoo gets bored and re-focuses on finding Homeland Security money for the Atherton Police Department. Ruskin holds meetings.

Beaten to a pulp by conflicting demands, the city manager, planning commissioners and city council members escape to an Easalen nude encounter session. Newly bonded, they return to set public hearings at which anyone can talk, but not more than once. They pay a consultant $200,000 to enforce the rule.

It’s 2012.

The developer bails out, angry that his commitment to the project prevented him from bidding on the fabulously profitable new hotel at Sand Hill Road and Interstate 280.

Eshoo retires to a fortified compound in Atherton. Simitian replaces her in Congress and vows to never again waste time sitting on a folding chair on a vacant lot. Ruskin is a state senator and remains willing to champion a coalition to build affordable housing - but only after a new study.

The school district finally gets its parcel tax, then declares that accounting errors caused it to underestimate actual revenue. It uses the windfall to extend advanced placement classes to kindergarten students.

The city council is entirely populated by former presidents of homeowner associations, all of whom ran on a pledge to maintain the character of their own neighborhoods. It deadlocks on building affordable housing because the proposed site lies within the boundaries of an association run by someone who is rude.

The tech mogul has used up all the tax benefits that came from the land donation. She buys the site from the city for pennies on the dollar and builds lavish new corporate headquarters. Her husband’s company gets the construction contract.

Which was the plan all along.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Gay Marriage Redux

A year ago San Francisco extended to homosexuals a right basic to the preservation and enrichment of our society – the ability to create a family through marriage.

Since then, the 3,000 same-sex weddings in that city have been nullified. Citizens of 14 states have amended their constitutions to specifically deny this right to anyone who wants to marry someone of the same gender. Lawsuits have been launched on a long trip toward the U.S. Supreme Court, which will make the final decision on whether people can be denied the bonds of marriage based solely on who they are.

The anniversary of San Francisco’s version of the Boston Tea Party serves as a cue to a society that has largely ignored the issue in the face of war and elections. Surely all the arguments and sub-arguments will resurface and fill news pages and the airwaves. Surely the millions of people who are willing to discuss it will once again get lost in claims and counter-claims.

But the heart of the issue is relatively straightforward.

The Constitution of the United States, as well as those of all 50 states, guarantees equal treatment under the law. That is what the Supreme Court said in 1967 when it struck down statutes barring people of different races from enjoying the rights and responsibilities of marriage. That Joe is Caucasian and Barbara is African-American is meaningless under the Constitution. That Mary and Susan are of the same gender should be deemed equally irrelevant.

The case against same-sex marriage is muddled.

Opponents contend that allowing same-sex couples to wed denigrates marriage and its benefit to society. But the basic concept of marriage -- two people forming an emotional, social, and legal bond -- supports a healthy society. As for harm to the institution, people should reflect on the 50 percent divorce rate among heterosexuals and ask, “could gays do worse?”

Those who insert religion and millennia of morality into the debate should turn to their bibles, specifically the books of Kings and Genesis. There they will learn Kings David and Solomon were polygamous and the prophet Abraham’s first child was born out of wedlock to a slave. Of course that was at a different time and in a different place. And so our time and place is different than when the bible was written.

Some also contend that marriage was created to legitimize procreation and provide a stable and loving environment in which to rear children. That makes sense. It also makes sense to the thousands of gay individuals and couples who are doing their best to rear healthy, happy children.

Civil rights flow from the Constitution, not from personal opinion or societal preference. Denying gays the right to marry is discriminatory. As the Supreme Court wrote in a 2003 case involving homosexuality , “… the Court’s obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate its own moral code.”

Friday, February 04, 2005

Five Rules for Politicians

I really shouldn't do this, but I'm going to give our county's public officials some public relations advice.

I offer these tips because I like our elected and appointed governors and it hurts me to see them stumble and fumble when they deal with media hounds. Besides, snacking on tassel loafers and sling-back pumps is unhealthy and not recommended by Dr. Atkins.

First, my credentials. Over the years, I've worked in both journalism and PR. I've counseled CEOs of Fortune 500 companies on these very matters. I even tried (well, sort of) to flog walnuts to food editors. I was fired from that job and rightfully so.

Rule No. 1: Don't lie.
You may get away with it this time, but you will get caught. Guaranteed. For instance, one elected city official recently told a reporter she knew very little about a particular issue. A week later said official conceded that she had, indeed, been talking about it with her colleagues. Can you say credibility gap?

Rule No. 2: Unless you can prove it, don't claim you were misquoted.
Of course jounralists make mistakes, but they are taking notes and photos while you try to remember your next sound bite. No one's going to believe you anyway; even your mom understands that "I was misquoted" is usually nothing more than code for "I said it but wish I hadn't."

Rule No. 3: Newspapers are supposed to tell you how to do your job. You, however, are not supposed to tell newspapers what to do.
Editors have been really, really touchy about this one ever since that silly First Amendment thing was added to the Constitution a couple of centuries ago. Some people still don't get it, though. A high-ranking municipal employee recently called to complain about the transfer of a reporter he didn't want transferred. After a nanosecond's consideration, it was decided the city official wouldn't gaze upon that reporter's bright and shining face anytime before the next millenium.

Rule No. 4: Unless your name is Richard M. Nixon, editors and reporters are not out to "get" you.
Sure, your inability to give up your loafer-munching will be reported in full. But so will your brilliant solution to a long-standing community problem. And even if your name is Richard M. Nixon, we will feel obliged to note your achievements as well as your less-than-savory activities when you board your helicopter and fly off into history. Could we be more fair? I don't think so.

Rule No. 5: Don't believe your own PR. (This is the one almost everyone forgets.)
Keep in mind that sometimes your face appears in the newspaper for absolutely no other reason that it's a slow news day. Never forget that the dent in the seat of your nice leather chair was made by someone else. And, given term limits and a fickle electorate, remember that someone else will be propping their spit-shined snacks on your desk sooner rather than later.

Copyright 2004, ANG Newspapers. Reprinted with permission.