The news of 2019 brought us corrupt parents and determined protesters, victims who decided to finally speak out and people celebrating achievements that were realized at long last.
The new Stanford Hospital finally opened, a $2 billion state-of-the-art facility that will play a key role in the life of the community as well as in responding to local disasters for decades to come. Other long-sought projects got off the ground, or into the ground, such as construction of the California Avenue garage, with the new police headquarters to follow.
Some efforts stalled out, like the city’s hopes to see developers build enough housing to lessen the demand, while others continued slow and uncertain percolation.
Troubling national phenomena — divisiveness and polarization — came home to roost in April when one woman’s attempt to dox a man wearing a Make America Great Again hat instead went viral, backfired and forced her into hiding.
In a refreshing turn of events, the Palo Alto Unified School District saw relatively smooth sailing on the part of administrators following years of turmoil and turnover. Meanwhile, a concerning tightfistedness when it comes to public records on the part of the city of Palo Alto seems to have taken hold.
With leadership of our country facing uncertainty, locals are looking at 2020 with an air of cynicism. Before we launch into a new and potentially tumultuous year, we pause to review the best and worst happenings of 2019 — and consider how 2020 might be better.
Biggest revelation of the corruption of privilege
Operation Varsity Blues
Doing nothing to bolster a positive view of human nature, a group of 33 wealthy parents found themselves charged in March with federal crimes for allegedly bribing test proctors and athletic coaches to secure their children spots at top-ranked colleges and universities. The $25 million scandal involved 11 prominent, local parents from Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park, Hillsborough and Mill Valley and college-admissions counselor William “Rick” Singer, who helped fake athletics resumes so their children would be recruited for college teams, including at Stanford University. In addition, SAT and ACT test proctor corrected the children’s answers or took the tests himself to boost the students’ scores. The parents allegedly paid Singer hundreds of thousands of dollars through his fake nonprofit organization, The Key Worldwide Foundation.
Most of the local parents have pleaded guilty to a variety of charges — including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services fraud — and received sentences ranging from no prison time to five months of incarceration along with fines and probation. Four local parents, including Palo Altans Gregory and Amy Colburn, have pleaded not guilty. They face additional charges, including money laundering, and await trial in 2020.
Most viral political diatribe
The MAGA hat tirade
An elderly man’s quiet cup of coffee at Starbucks on California Avenue in Palo Alto on April 1 turned into a diatribe-heard-around-the-world after a woman took umbrage with his wearing a red Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat. The Palo Alto woman attempted to shame the 74-year-old man and loudly exhorted other patrons to do the same. They didn’t join in, and he decided to leave the cafe. She followed him outside and continued to berate and swear at him at the top of her lungs, at one point calling the man, who is Jewish, “Nazi scum.” Posting about the incident on Facebook and Twitter, she called the man a “hater of brown people” and threatened to post pictures of him on social media, which she then did. She asked the public for help finding him — “I want him to have nowhere to hide,” she wrote — a practice called “doxing,” or posting a person’s contact information to encourage threats and harassment. The incident and her postings went viral, and in a case of “what goes around, comes around,” she soon found herself the object of scorn. The woman received hate mail and death threats, lost her job and for a time disappeared. She was later found safe.
Most significant arrest
John Getreu — alleged serial killer
DNA technology and dogged police work nabbed an alleged killer in two 45-year-old cold-case murders this year. Leslie Marie Perlov and Janet Ann Taylor, both 21, were found strangled on Stanford University land in 1973 and 1974, respectively. The cases remained unsolved until Santa Clara County detectives ran evidence containing DNA through familial DNA databases. Experts identified a suspect, John Arthur Getreu, 74, of Hayward, California. He was arrested in November 2018 for Perlov’s death and charged this past May with Taylor’s killing. He has pleaded not guilty to both cases and remains in jail.
Getreu lived in Palo Alto and surrounding cities during the time of the murders and worked at Stanford Hospital in the cardiac transplant laboratory at the time of Taylor’s death. By the 1970s, Getreu was already a convicted killer, having been sentenced for the rape and murder in Germany of a 15-year-old in 1964 when he was 18. He is likely to stand trial in 2020.
Most important celebration
Stanford Hospital opening
A decade in the planning and building, the new 824,000-square-foot Stanford Hospital finally opened on Nov. 17 when staff wheeled 200 patients from the old hospital into the new one. The new seven-story hospital, located at 500 Pasteur Drive, doubles to 600 the number of patients that can stay overnight. A new Level 1 trauma center is designed to handle injuries and illnesses caused by catastrophic events such as earthquakes, influenza and terrorism. Pluses for patients: All of the patient rooms are private and individual, surrounded by sweeping views; there’s a convertible bed for family members to stay overnight; and each room is wired for Wi-Fi so patients can contact their medical care team, stream movies and connect to the internet; an MRI-imaging suite is connected to an operating room for rapid diagnosis and surgical followup; and there are five healing gardens.
Runners up: Palo Alto’s 125th anniversary, which the city celebrated on April 28 with the opening of its first time capsule from 1994.
East Palo Alto pedestrian-bike bridge, a $14 million U.S. Highway 101 overpass that opened on May 18.
The Avenidas senior center reopened on April 1 with a renovated 22,000-square-foot facility that includes a fitness studio, cafe and technology room.
Palo Alto retired its old, polluting sludge incinerators in June and unveiled a new dewatering and haul-out facility.
Construction began on a six-story California Avenue parking garage at 350 Sherman Ave.
The City Council talked the talk in early 2018, when members named housing one of their top priorities for the year and set a goal of approving 300 new housing units annually. Two years later, that “talk” has produced little reason for optimism. The city’s new housing incentive program, which offered density bonuses for residential developments, has had no takers. Mayor Eric Filseth devoted his “State of the City” speech largely to criticizing SB50, the housing bill that would have required cities to approve multi-story developments near transit hubs and in areas rich in jobs. And the city’s most promising housing site, at Fry’s Electronics, has lost its lustre after the property owner said it’s not interested in redeveloping any time soon.
The only significant housing project that the council approved this year was a 57-unit development for low-income residents on El Camino Real — a victory that was more than offset by the loss of 75 apartments at the President Hotel downtown, whose owners want to turn the building into a boutique hotel.
Despite acknowledging the “housing crisis,” council members are likely to continue to oppose new state laws that encourage — or require — more housing. But given the city’s recent track record, their assertions that “local control” is paramount for increasing the housing supply are ringing increasingly hollow.
HIGHLIGHT: Hugest implosion
Stanford general-use permit application
With about 3.5 million square feet of proposed development, Stanford University’s proposal to expand its campus became known as the “largest project” ever under the governance of Santa Clara County. But just days before the county Board of Supervisors was set to vote on the university’s application, Stanford abruptly withdrew it. The university’s decision both was and wasn’t surprising. On the one hand, Stanford was on the cusp of victory, with the county preparing to let it build 2.275 million square feet of academic space and 2,192 housing units for staff between now and 2030. On the other hand, the permit that the county was preparing to approve — with additional required housing and stricter traffic limits — was not the one that Stanford wanted, making the victory hollow.
In the end, the approval process took on a meta flavor, becoming a negotiation about negotiations. Stanford wanted to negotiate a “development agreement” with the county — a mechanism that would have required opaque and diplomatic give-and-take. County leaders insisted on going through the regular planning process of setting requirements that Stanford would have to meet to compensate for problems the project would create. In announcing the withdrawal on Nov. 1, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Levigne said the university made the decision “with regret, but with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges before us in achieving a successful long-term permit at this time.”
Most notable coming out
For years, she was only known to the world as Emily Doe, a name that took on outsized symbolism: of solidarity for sexual-assault survivors, of the flaws in the criminal justice system, of the power of the growing movement in which women everywhere were saying, “Me too.” But 2019 was the year that Palo Alto native Chanel Miller shed her anonymity and came out to the world as much more than the woman who had been sexually assaulted by Brock Turner at Stanford University in 2015. Miller revealed her name this fall in advance of the publication of her memoir, “Know My Name,” in which she grappled honestly and poignantly with the aftermath of the assault, the trauma of the criminal trial and reclaiming her identity. “Never fight to injure, fight to uplift,” she wrote on the final page of the book. “Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy and freedom. Fight because it is your life. Not anyone else’s.” Miller is a Gunn High School graduate, a writer and artist. She lives in San Francisco.
Runner up: Rowena Chiu, a Palo Alto mother of four, broke two decades of silence this fall with a New York Times op-ed describing how Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had allegedly attempted to rape her while she was working as his assistant in 1998. In an interview with the Weekly, she said she realized “there’s a public duty, a civic good in speaking out.”
Most promising development at City Hall
Office of Transportation
City Hall saw some major changes in 2019, the first year with City Manager Ed Shikada in charge. The most dramatic move was the creation of the Office of Transportation, which now has a staff of more than 15 employees and is charged with reforming the city’s parking system, expanding local shuttle service and planning for rail grade separation. Some of its efforts are expected to bear fruit in 2020, when the city rolls out its new bike- and scooter-share programs and (presumably) narrows down its preferred alternatives for reconfiguring the railroad tracks at roadway intersections. With transportation topping the council’s priorities list and residents split over recent bike boulevards laden with “street furniture,” the stakes are high for the new office and its recently hired leader, Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi. And while success is not guaranteed, having more resources should help.
HIGHLIGHT: Worst trend at City Hall
It’s been a terrible year for oversight at City Hall. When City Auditor Harriet Richardson announced her resignation at the end of 2018, few could have expected her position to remain vacant a year later. But her office, which had been mired in internal bickering for several years before her departure, remains shrouded in uncertainty, overseen by an outside consultant while the city considers fundamental changes. One option on the table calls for shifting some of the responsibilities of the city auditor’s office to the city manager’s, a move that would significantly undermine the auditor’s independence.
An even more troubling trend is the lack of independent oversight in the Palo Alto Police Department, despite a recent uptick in claims of police brutality and the high-profile retirement of a veteran police sergeant who was caught on a surveillance video violently arresting a resident at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. For more than a decade, the city’s independent police auditor, OIR Group, has issued twice-a-year reports that detailed complaints against police officers, described all cases in which officers used force, and evaluated the department’s response to these incidents. This year, the police auditor did not issue any reports, citing direction from the city.
The City Council for its part has been mum on the issues of police brutality and improper conduct. Its only decision — to approve a $572,500 settlement with the Buena Vista victim (a settlement that also required all officers to undergo LGBTQ sensitivity training) — took place behind closed doors and was not publicly acknowledged until the following day, when reporters began making inquiries.
City staff have, similarly clammed up when asked about potential misconduct by police officers. Responses to requests for information through the California Public Records Act have been dragged out for months and, in the end, the city has released little information. It declined to release any information about an officer who was reportedly driving under the influence when he hit a neighbor’s car while off duty and then was caught lying about it to investigators.
The city has also not provided documents related to a botched emergency response in June to a 911 call. The Weekly requested any copies of audio and video recordings from the devices in the supervising officer’s patrol car and body-worn camera; emails related to the functioning and existence of the officer’s body-worn camera, patrol car dash-camera recordings and GPS tracking; and the policies and training documents the police department said it modified in the wake of the incident.
Similarly the city has withheld all information regarding its new contract with police auditor OIR Group, which the council approved on Dec. 16. And when confronted earlier this year with news reports of a senior police supervisor using a racial slur while speaking to another officer, the city’s only public action was to modify its agreement with OIR to clarify that future audits will not include internal personnel matters.
HIGHLIGHT: Most notable absence of drama
Palo Alto Unified under Superintendent Don Austin
The school board hired Don Austin from the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District in 2018, coming off of years of contention, drama and trauma in Palo Alto Unified, from federal investigations into bullying and sexual violence to a $6 million budget fiasco to teen suicide clusters to high turnover at the district office. His year and a half in Palo Alto may have marked the calmest period in the district in recent decades.
While there have been some dustups, primarily stemming from communication issues — such as the district’s decision to close new enrollment at four elementary schools for the Voluntary Transfer Program, which allows East Palo Alto students to attend Palo Alto Unified schools, and a reorganization of the special-education department — the high-stakes fights that defined much of his predecessors’ tenures have largely disappeared. Even a plan to revamp middle school math, a predictably contentious topic in Palo Alto, elicited no more than 10 public comments at the Dec. 10 school board meeting (though parents have said that the NextDoor.com and WeChat forums have been buzzing with reaction).
Cubberley Community Center
It was supposed to be a true partnership that would transform Palo Alto’s dilapidated treasure, Cubberley Community Center. That, at least was the vision that a 28-member committee of city and school stakeholders presented to the City Council in 2013. While it took some time to get off the ground, the joint planning effort by the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District proceeded apace this year, with a series of well-attended community meetings concluding in May. And in November, the project’s consultant, Concordia, completed the master plan for Cubberley, a document that envisions more green space, new swimming pools, teacher housing on a site next to Cubberley and rebuilt gymnasiums and auditoriums that would be shared by the city and the school district.
But it became increasingly clear by the end of the year that the plans are unlikely to materialize. School board members have indicated that they have no interest in rebuilding the gym or the auditorium any time soon and have backed away from building teacher housing. And some city leaders have grown impatient with the school district’s wavering. The two sides are preparing to sign a fresh lease for Cubberley in early 2020, giving them until the end of 2022 to come up with a cost-sharing arrangement for the improvements. While the new lease may bring some clarity and certainty to the process, it will also ensure that nothing of substance will happen at the community center any time soon.
Issue most acted-upon by City Council
When the City Council adopted “climate change” as a priority in February, some residents accused the council of “virtue signaling” rather than setting goals that are actually achievable. In the following months, the council demonstrated that when it comes to environmental sustainability, it means business. Emboldened by the priority, the council voted in June to ban plastic straws and produce bags and followed up in July with a law requiring contractors to disassemble — rather than demolish — buildings so that materials can be salvaged and reused. The coup de gras came in November, when the council passed a ban on natural gas in new buildings (which will now have to be all-electric) and reached an agreement with Valley Water, formerly known as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, to build a new recycled-water plant in the Baylands. The deal will expand the use of treated effluent for irrigation throughout the county and, if things go as planned, supply the city and Santa Clara County with a new long-term — and drought-proof — water source.
Quickest leadership turnaround
Ravenswood City School District superintendent
Gloria Hernandez-Goff was put on paid administrative leave and forced to resign in February following a tumultuous, controversial tenure as the Ravenswood City School District’s superintendent. Her temporary replacement, Gina Sudaria, the district’s student services director and a longtime staff member, has in just several months lifted staff morale and moved forward difficult conversations about budget cuts and school closures. It remains to be seen whether she’ll become the district’s permanent superintendent, with the board narrowly voting in October to conduct an external superintendent search, despite community pleas to keep Sudaria (including from donors eager to support the new leadership).
Best example of ‘NOT keeping up with the Joneses’
RV parking program opens in East Palo Alto; Palo Alto tries (again) to follow suit
East Palo Alto proved to be “the little city that could” this year when it tackled the homeless issue on its streets. The city partially funded a pilot safe parking program, which opened on land it owns on Bay Road in early May and provides spaces for up to 20 RVs to park overnight, plus toilets, showers and other amenities. The program is run by local nonprofit Project WeHope, which provides the homeless RV dwellers services, job counseling and help finding housing. So far, 10 families and individuals have moved into permanent homes, according to a December staff report. Palo Alto tried to enact an oversized-vehicle street-parking ban five years ago but tabled the ordinance after a similar southern California ordinance was challenged in court. Attempts to get churches to house a safe-parking program also failed. This June, Council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou proposed a safe-parking program on city-owned properties, an idea that the council’s Policy and Services Committee on Nov. 12 unanimously supported. In the interim, the committee recommended that a three-month pilot program launch on church properties next year. The council will then consider a larger program on two potential city properties.
Runner up: East Palo Alto’s long-awaited $14 million pedestrian-bicycle overpass at U.S. Highway 101 opened on May 18, linking the east and west sides of the city and providing access to and from neighboring Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Stanford. Palo Alto’s planned bike/pedestrian bridge over 101 has yet to break ground.
Read more of our year-in-review coverage:
- Weekly journalists recap the biggest news and surprising trends of the year on an episode of Behind the Headlines, our weekly show now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page
- News that made the decade: Recapping the defining moments of the 2010s
- A year in Shop Talk: The openings and closings of 2019
- An interview with a rat — and other reporters tales: What Weekly reporters did to get a few of this year’s stories
- In Memoriam: A tribute to remarkable figures of the Midpeninsula
- Rising to the occasion: Photos illustrate how Palo Alto persevered in 2019
- Odd stories from 2019 we wish came straight from our imaginations