Op-Ed: Revisiting Silicon Valley’s Best, Worst Political Decisions

A recent column in the Mercury News listed what Scott Herhold considers to be the best and worst local decisions in the last 50 years. One might quibble with his priorities, but it was hard to argue with most picks—except for the Saddle Rack. That dive was an eyesore and we don’t need any would-be urban cowboys hauling into San Jose. Also, Midtown’s Safeway and the accompanying affordable housing was much needed in the neighborhood—and the area still needs more revitalization. Here are a few other things the columnist missed.

Best Decisions

Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara: The Stadium has been a cash-cow for the economy of Silicon Valley. Super Bowl 50 on its own provided more than $1 billion in local economic activity—even though San Francisco was officially the host city. Kevin Moore’s “Hail Mary” was huge.

BART to San Jose: While still not completed, Ron Gonzales deserves credit for bringing this project—kicking and screaming—to San Jose. Carl Guardino and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group also deserve plenty of praise for pushing to complete the project through transportation initiatives. Once completed, BART will serve as a critical transportation option and move thousands of people off of our congested freeways.

Metcalf Energy Center: This modern-day power plant helps power Silicon Valley. The California Energy Commission approved the plans despite opposition from Mayor Gonzalez and the city of San Jose. Energy produced by the plant is a critical component of the Bay Area’s infrastructure.

Development of Agnews Hospital: Although it received unanimous support in the end, the development of Rivermark and Oracle’s campus on the old mental hospital grounds was almost derailed on a narrow 4-3 vote in Santa Clara. Council members Lisa Gilmor, Rod Diridon and, critically, the late Aldyth Parle helped make this happen. The project almost failed because of city greed and a failure by some members of the council to understand the economics of the project, which included affordable housing, a school, a fire station and parkland. Reason ultimately prevailed.

SAP Center: Herhold did mention the Sharks, but it is the original HP venue itself that has been key to the team’s success. In addition to being the home of the Sharks, San Jose became an option for top-tier entertainment acts that could only be found in San Francisco and Oakland. Former mayors Tom McEnery and Susan Hammer both deserve credit for their vision and the completion of this project—all of which was opposed by the dependable NIMBYs. Ask yourself: What would San Jose be like without the arena?

Highways 85 and 87: Long opposed by NIMBYism, Highway 87 was finally built under the supervision of Eileen Goodwin, coming in on time and under budget. Highway 85 took more time, but persistence by then-Councilman Jim Beall, who served as a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), made 85 a reality.

Rent Protection: The recent 6-5 vote by the San Jose City Council to protect renters will certainly go down as one of local policymakers’ best decisions. How Mayor Sam Liccardo wound up on the opposite side of this “moral” issue is baffling. Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco showed tremendous independence by breaking from the mayor—who appointed her to the position to help with wing votes. The mayor’s decision could be an ominous sign for his political future.

Bike Lanes: Developing a bicycle friendly environment is a long-term winner. While it could have been done better in some respects, Mayor Liccardo deserves credit for this initiative. Shiloh Ballard of the Bicycle Coalition has continually advocated for San Jose to become a more bicycle friendly city. One area of the city that needs more attention is the East Side of San Jose, where bicycle lanes and tails would offer an affordable option for the population—especially kids—to get around.

Worst Decisions

San Jose Airport: The location of Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport has hampered planners and developers in downtown and Santa Clara for decades. A good option would be to convert Moffet Field into a commercial airport and free up prime land for development. It will never happen, but one can dream.

Keeping Caltrain at Grade: The electrification of Caltrain is a great idea, and the NIMBY opposition of High Speed Rail to San Francisco has been stupid and myopic. NIMBYs who will not be alive to see High Speed Rail spoke loudly against the project. Instead they supported 19th century modes of transportation. An aerial structure would allow development underneath, free up traffic, prevent car accidents, help prevent suicides and be less noisy than the current system. There will never be true High Speed Rail to San Francisco as a result—and traffic on their local streets will never improve.

Measure B: Herhold did mention this in his column. My problem with some of the people who supported Measure B—notably former Mayor Chuck Reed and current Mayor Sam Liccardo—is that they’re lawyers and knew better. Reed helped cause the problem and his consultant, Victor Ajlouny, was a consultant for many police associations before he turned on them with Measure B. It was all done for political reasons and they (i.e. Reed, Liccardo) knew better. They are lawyers. The Reed legacy is that he is now considered one of the worst mayors in San Jose history.

Losing the San Francisco Giants: Mayor Susan Hammer tried to get voters to support a stadium in San Jose. But the NIMBYS prevailed and now AT&T park, which is still cold, has become an economic boon for San Francisco. Meanwhile, San Jose still pines away for Major League Baseball in the form of the A’s. Three world championships and the revenue that accompanies the World Series was lost because … traffic is bad. Note to NIMBYS: you still have traffic and your decisions continue to make it worse. How is that Caltrain ride or drive to AT&T? We’d be there half an hour earlier if the train were elevated. Just sayin’.

Charging Gonzales with a Crime: In one of the most egregious political and legal blunders of all-time, Mayor Ron Gonzales was over-charged by the District Attorney’s Office for a political deal. He was falsely accused of taking a bribe and five other counts—all stemming from his “taking a bribe.” He received no personal benefit from a political deal and Judge John Herlihy noted the malfeasance of the prosecution. The real tragedy was the collateral damage to the city of San Jose. At the time I noted that Gonzales was not guilty but should resign. He chose not to do that, which is understandable, but the city suffered as a result of a mayor who was forced to defend meritless claims while still trying to run the largest city in the Bay Area. For District Attorney George Kennedy and subordinate Julius Finklestein, it was a low point in their respective careers. The media under-reported the effect of this horrendous decision, which is a shame. Mayor Gonzales was clearly mistreated by a prosecutors who ran amok.

No BART to San Jose: Not incorporating BART to San Jose from the start was a huge mistake in retrospect. San Jose gadflies were worried that BART would leave San Jose broke, as jobs would flee to San Francisco. Having no vision of Silicon Valley, their myopic and selfish view has led to a series of tax increases. These people, like the opponents of High Speed Rail today, showed an ignorance that will cost future generations in lost time, lower productivity, more traffic and less convenience.

Urban Sprawl: Wall to wall concrete over the Valley of the Hearts Delight. Yes, the vision of Dutch Hamann still haunts us today. Instead of long-term planning for housing, transportation and infrastructure, San Jose threw up ranch-style track homes as fast as they could go up. Selling for an outrageous price of $13,000 to $25,000 in the early 1960s, these homes continue to be the major cause of our sprawling nightmare—two cars in every garage and no mass transportation infrastructure. On the upside, because of the lack of affordable housing, it did create a lot of millionaires in the valley. At least until the next bubble breaks.

Election Equipment Debacle: The county’s process for buying election machines and counting ballots is an embarrassment. Instead of following a model similar to San Mateo, where ballots are counted by 10pm on Election Night in a secure system, Santa Clara County bought machines that were totally inadequate for the job, before rejecting them altogether and implementing a process that includes abacuses for counting. The entire process was fraught with mismanagement and conflicts of interest. The county Board of Supervisors was deceived by staff, including Richard Wittenberg and then-Registrar of Voters Kathryn Ferguson (who went on to work for Sequoia Voting Systems the winner of the RFP for the now defunct electronic voting system). The time it takes to count  ballots on Election Night is an embarrassment to Silicon Valley, and we are among the last to get our official results into the Secretary of State. Kern County is faster.

 Executive Compensation over average employees: In a series of negotiations, county executives increased their own pay while limiting the pay of public employees—all while increasing employee pension benefits and pleading poverty to the Board of Supervisors. Again, Richard Wittenberg was a master manipulator of the board and the press. One year he gave all the executives a raise in December. The following year, executives took no raises. Then, in the following January, Wittenberg noted the executives had not had a salary increase for the entire year and proposed new increases for executives. The media bought it hook, line and sinker. Wittenberg was also a fierce negotiator with unions, often getting them to settle for little or no raises. He did increase their pension benefits, though, and he was long gone before the bill came due. By keeping salaries down for employees, Wittenberg claimed he had saved the county millions and deserved more pay as a result. The board bought it. This has happened in many jurisdictions, so Wittenberg wasn’t the sole culprit—but he was a master of manipulation.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. A light rail extension from SJSU to Cupertino should have been planned. Straight down San Carlos to Stevens Creek. Major artery that has been completely ignored,

  2. > BART to San Jose:

    BART is a wasteful, exploitive, filthy, puke stained, violent, flaming trainwreck (pun intended).

    The obscenely overpaid BART unions screw the public at every opportunity, and throw in a gratuitous recreational screwjob every now and then just so they don’t get out of practice.

    Oh, and the violence.

    “BART takeover robbery: 40 to 60 teens swarm train, hold up riders”


    The future of transportation is self-driving vehicles on dedicated carriageways.

    BART is nineteenth century robber-baron, union boss, monopoly bankster, politician cronyism.

      • > Try shutting BART down for week–and find out how violent people get on the roadways.

        Is this a threat, RIch?

        Are you suggesting that the rationale for BART’s existence is to prevent violence?

        “You’s guys better build BART or something bad might happen.”

        Are you suggesting that the gang-bangers who hijacked BART in Oakland would start hijacking cars if there were no BART?

        The wise people of Los Gatos once upon a time declined the opportunity to have VTA “service” their community. Urban legend has it that among the persuasive arguments for rejecting VTA was the concern that it would facilitate easy access for “urban youths” to visit Los Gatos and “materially participate” in the community’s orderly prosperity, without asking.

    • hear, hear!!!

      Typical single-party, make-work money sink, no one learns anything from history in this state.

  3. Guess this guy did not read about the 60 robbers on Bart. Didn’t Richie call Lisa Gillmor crazy? Did he not put mailers attacking a woman for marrying an Asian American and using his name?

  4. Closing of Agnews State Hospital may have gotten you released way too early Rich, and as for the rest of the patients that now run the city, state and the rest of the Borg hierarchy your vision of the future pretty 19th century Marxism.

    We would have decent highways if the smart people hadn’t spent 75% of the transportation funds on 19th century light rail screwing up traffic on the surface streets. That’s what should have been raised or lowered.

    As you said we need 85 and 87 and a lot more freeways. Traffic lights should have been computerised throughout the valley. What we have now is a system of tortured transportation designed by green tree frog environmentalist. I’ve seen better planning on SIM CITY.

    We are just beginning to see “Bright Flight” as the smartest millennials flee for greener pastures and a place with a yard and single family home, 3 car garage and some hybrids, the American dream not the valley nightmare.

    • He wanted it closed, the people he worked for voted against the project at Rivermark.

    • More cars is not the answer. Light rail needs to improve. . .but it is faster than 87 at peak hours. In addition, I agree that the light rail line should go down Stevens Creek to Cupertino–but the eastside extension should take place first. . .

  5. RIch, where do get off saying the houses selling for $13,000 to $25,000 dollars in the 1950’s and 1960’s was outrageous? In what way? Outrageously high in price or low? Study some economic history and see what salaries were like in those days. It wasn’t all wine and roses. If you were making $500.00 a month (gross) in the 1950’s, a $13,000 dollar house with a $100.00 a month mortgage was a very dear amount of money to you.

    One thing I notice about people like Robinson, Wadsworth et al. They seem to lack any sense of perspective. It’s a SV thing, I think.

  6. BART to San Jose is way too late for me – if it had been completed 30 years ago I might applaud it but I’m retired now and all I see is a traffic nightmare when the Berryessa station opens and my alternate route to the freeway is going to be clogged with traffic.
    While the Shark Tank is great for sports, it is an abomination for “top-tier acts”. The acoustics are horrible. Won’t go to concerts there.
    San Jose Airport – rather a good idea now that all the construction is complete. A nice modern airport that saves me a trip to SFO – I have only flown out of SFO once in the last 20+ years.

    • In all do respect–it isn’t all about you. We, as a society, have to start taking a larger view as to what is good for the future. The people who denied BART to San Jose made huge mistake for your quality of life–let us not make to same mistakes for future generations. SJ Airport is great to fly out of. . .however, it hampers our ability to build a sustainable lifestyle in downtown due to height restrictions, the airport must close–which does affect potential international flights–gates space is becoming limited at all airports, noise continues to be a problem for some local neighborhoods. Flight paths from SFO, Oakland and San Jose are affected. Take off and landings have power down requirements because of noise. . .it is just not the optimal location.

          • The Airport-

            In FY2017-2018 the airport has a predicted $20 Million dollar deficit and a residual crushing debt for basically the rest of eternity; using unspent bond proceeds for harebrained capital projects instead of paying down the principle of expensive Bond loans; chronic problems with runways due to underground water; Council’s ingrained stupidity for waiving landing fees to attract airlines; the cost per enplanement is only going to grow, but-is still a better deal than sitting and waiting to die an ignominious death on Hwy 880; the environmental concerns of fall-out from residuals of spent and unburned aviation fuel falling from the atmosphere that spawns part of the idiotic Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan, the chronic ongoing security issues spawned by substandard management of the airport such as the very weak security on the West side of the airport and the looming threats to cancel the curfew as aircraft become more “quieter.”

            What a deal for the San José taxpayers!

            David S. Wall

      • The arrogance of this insignificant little man is sad. If he is so proud of the NIners than why does he let them take the blame for his dark money group, Blupac, the most inane dark money group ever to exist. The Sheriff of Santa Clara County is the most incompetent person in Valley history, and she is Robinson’s meal ticket. Robinson just keeps on writing this drivel time and time again. No one in Santa Clara is happy with the stadium anymore, and he insists it was his idea. Now this fat tumor on the Valley body politic is writing about the airport and downtown San Jose which he has nothing to do with. Herhold with all of his faults is still an excellent columnist worth reading. Robinson is a puttering little fat man in old golf shorts who is a nothing.

        • It was Kevin Moore’s idea–and it was a good one. . .as for the Sheriff–take a look at the Department before she arrived–it was a disaster. She has modernized the force, taken back the jails, oversees the Cornor’s Office–and she still has to deal with leaders of the DSA many of whom don’t belong anywhere near a badge of authority. By the way; I shot 44 over nine holes the other day–and Golf shorts are new.

          • To Lisa Gillmor, Jamie Matthews, Pat Mahan=Stadium was not idea

            Hey, Rich, how is Steve Mangold doing? He is not on the Blupac reports, why?

  7. Rich, it’s a ridiculous idea to close the SJ Airport. As bad as you may think it is, the die is cast. Taxpayers have invested far too much in this airport to give it the heave-ho. Yes, Moffett Field would be preferable as an international airport (good luck getting that one past the NIMBYs who live adjacent), but at what cost? What’s to become of the present airport? What’s the long-term prospect for passenger air traffic? If Jerry Brown’s ‘high-speed’ rail actually works and we get self-driving autonomous cars, how many people will still choose to travel from SJC to LAX, Orange County or even San Diego via air? Will SJC lose significant gate traffic to these new technologies? If that’s the case, how do you pay a new airport when you lose so much of your current revenue? And how do you build an airport that can compete with SFO? Because that’s what you would need. It’s no use building a copy of the current airport, you need something that you can open on Day One and it be competitive with the biggest airport in Northern California. Does SJ have the desire and the COMPETENCY to there? Big Question. What do you think?

  8. At one time I thought there was potential for Santana Row to be built downtown instead of next to Valley Fair. That seems a huge bad decision.

  9. On your “good” things. Levi’s is a disaster for San Jose. The SAN FRANCISCO 49’ers now have a home stadium within 1/2 mile of San Jose. The message to the world is that San Jose is a suburb of San Francisco. The city of San Jose should have linked with San Francisco to keep the 49’ers up there. Why did not the leaders in Santa Clara not insist on renaming the team the SANTA CLARA 49’ers?
    On rent protection– why? This area needs some people who provide necessary but inexpensive services. The market would have adjusted normally to let people who provide those services live here.

    On your “negative” side. Measure B was beaten back– yes. However, it reacted to a real problem. Mayor Reed foresaw that San Jose cannot provide adequate services to it’s residents while the housing portion of the city’s make-up is so out of whack as to be, by far, the worst in the country. Expected services are simply unaffordable until the housing to non-housing proportions in San Jose are corrected.
    The “urban sprawl” about which you rail, is a problem. However, you then advocate more housing (affordable). Earth to Mercury News. If you do not see that you are advocating the same thing that you identify as a problem, there is no hope for you.

    • Why don’t the New Jersey Giants and Jets exist? They play in Jersey. The Foxborough Patriots? The Golden State Warriors play in Oakland; think they complain there is no “Oakland” Warriors? My point regarding Measure B was that Reed et al caused the problem, then created a solution that was unConstitutional and did not not solve the problem, but made it worse. As for Affordable Housing, it is about density vs. urban sprawl. Try taking an Urban Planning course.

      • First, among the many courses, I have taken are included courses on Urbanology, local history and government. Also included are extensive conversations with city leaders including the former Planning Director. So, don’t get smug on that point. I’ll put my academics against yours any day of the week. Second NO TYPES OF HOUSING generate a net income to the city. That’s NONE, ZERO, ZILCH, NADA. High density housing simply lessens the degree of net loss. An old cliche’ says that “when you find yourself in a hole, STOP DIGGING”. That is where San Jose is. Among the 25 largest cities in the country, San Jose is the only one that provides housing for a larger population than it has jobs. San Jose offers approximately .8 jobs for every potential worker in the city. None of the other 25 largest cities offers less than 1.0. It is why San Jose cannot repair potholes and has a police force 1/3rd the necessary size (were you embarrassed by our protective services failure to protect the Trump rally while San Diego, just a couple of days earlier, managed to protect the event). It is why we have libraries sitting empty or with reduced operational hours. It is why our parks are marginally maintained– at best. The list could go on. By contrast, Palo Alto offers 3.5 jobs per employable resident. In contrast to San Jose, it has money to burn. No potholes; no shortage of police protection; well maintained parks, etc. San Jose has provided the bedrooms with workers for the west valley cities’ economies. That needs to be brought into balance. Either the prosperous west valley cities start building more housing, including “low cost” housing, or San Jose needs to stop providing the workers for them. The housing failures are in the west valley where the communities have not done their share to offer housing for their workers. They expect dumb San Jose housing policies to do their jobs for them.

        There are just two solutions to this problem. First, San Jose can declare a moratorium on new housing permits and focus on commercial, industrial and professional zoning which should force the west valley cities to start doing their fair share of housing or stifle their economies’ growth. That would be drastic and wrenching but San Jose cannot continue on its current path without risking turning into a slum center. The better solution, but I am unsure as to its legality, is to create a “regional” government that provides income from ALL taxes in proportion to the community’s population. That would allow a continuation of the present course. San Jose could remain the reservoir of