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The Siren Song of ‘No’

Remember the Sirens of Greek mythology who lured sailors to a fatal lethargy with their seductive singing? Those who navigate the treacherous waters of municipal policy are at peril from another type of Siren: the Sirens of No. Whenever a new idea comes forward, the Sirens of No are ready with predictions of civic disaster at every advance.

For example, take Silicon Valley Power, Santa Clara’s city-owned electric utility. If the Town Council had listened to the Sirens of No, we’d be paying PG&E’s rates today.

In 1896 the Town Council decided to use a revenue surplus to build a generator to power the city’s streetlights, freeing Santa Clara from purchasing privately owned power.

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Samuel Morrison, who later constructed and managed the town’s gas works, and “Captain” James Sennett, a former stevedore and local fruit grower, brought a lawsuit charging that this proposed lighting plant would exhaust the town’s general fund and create a debt in excess of revenues. Fortunately for us today, the judge didn’t agree.

The generator proved to be such a success that the Santa Clara Commercial League (forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) extolled the virtues of the City’s publicly run utility:

“…the [street] lamps cost …$4.60 per month for each arc lamp. The town formerly paid a private corporation for each…$9.65 per month. The commercial lighting is also controlled by the town and is a source of revenue, although the price is as low as any place in the State – that is, 10 cents per kilowatt hour.”

We still pay lower electric rates.

We take sidewalks for granted. But hard as it may be to believe, a century ago, the Sirens of No were energetic in their opposition to paving city streets.

“Monday, the 14th day of the June, was the time fixed for the hearing of protests,” reported the May 15, 1915 San Jose Mercury Herald. “A large number of the property owners on the streets to be paved are meeting against the improvement, and …it was decided to distribute protests in the parts of town to be paved to be signed by the property owners against the contemplated improvement.”

The daughter of city father Frederick Franck, Caroline Franck, was one of those who took a dim view of street paving; reportedly saying that, “if God had wanted the sidewalks paved, he would have done it himself.”

The effort to pave Santa Clara’s city streets began in 1912.

“The next three years will be the most important in Santa CIara’s history, and a successful foundation for the city’s future cannot be too long delayed,” wrote the Santa Clara News.

“For this reason the Town Trustees, have earnestly discussed the advisability of paving the streets of the town in preparation for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when millions of visitors will inspect every foot of Santa Clara’s beautiful valley.”

As we know, the streets got paved despite Caroline Franck.

But our ancestors’ objections to progress should be a caution to us today.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves how our decisions will look – not even a century from now but 10 years from now – if we listen our contemporary Sirens of No.

How will the Old Quad look if the historic houses deteriorate past the point of no return? How will the down-at-the-heel El Camino look with another decade of neglect? Will we be proud to point out to our grandchildren an empty lot where the International Swim Center used to be?

How will our tax revenue look when San Jose’s Santana Row 2.0 opens for business? Or if trade shows and conventions pass Santa Clara by because the convention center is too small? Or if businesses start moving away because the state-of-the-art office campuses are San Jose, Sunnyvale or Mountain View? How will we feel when our children migrate to Austin and Pittsburg because there is no place for them to live here?

How will our property tax revenues look when business follow the talent to Austin and Pittsburgh? When developers take their new projects elsewhere and Santa Clara property is stuck at tax rates from 20, 30 and 50 years ago? Are prepared for the deteriorating infrastructure that comes with declining municipal revenues?

Ask yourself: Would visionaries like Don Von Raesfeld and Gary Gillmor have a chance in Santa Clara today? Or would they, too, be “shown the door?”

The question is: Will our descendents see us as wise stewards of what we’ve inherited– or footnotes in California history about a one-time capital of Silicon Valley that listened too long to the siren song of ‘no’?

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The Mlnarik Law Group, Inc.

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