News & Notes 

Denny's faces a "mini trial"; Hayward superintendent gets hers, and then some; and new publisher hopes to shake the Planet.

A tough egg to crack: The city of Emeryville awoke this New Year's Day resolving to quash a couple of public nuisances. At a meeting just prior to the Christmas break, city officials finally voted to crack down on Denny's and the neighboring Union 76 station. The 24-hour diner and filling station, authorities say, have failed to control the late-night party crowd that descends each weekend, stretching the small city's five-cop graveyard shift as thin as a flapjack ("Handcuffs with That Grand Slam?," December 4).

Efforts to work with the businesses have foundered; after months of negotiations, politicos say, little has changed. "We had problems on New Year's Eve," says top cop Ken James. "A lot of cars, music, the same thing we've been dealing with for the last year and a half."

Now the fate of the businesses is in the hands of the city planning commission, which on January 23 will commence a lengthy process of monthly public hearings that City Attorney Michael Biddle calls a "mini-trial." During the proceedings, each side has an opportunity to present its case, cross-examine witnesses, and question police. City officials, who want the offenders shut down during late-night weekend hours, say the process is necessary to give them legal power to enforce any restrictions. "I've seen these things take the better part of a year or a few months at least," Biddle says.

Denny's has argued that closing during the high-traffic after-hours would unfairly harm its business. In past meetings with the city, the restaurant's representatives offered to add additional security and patrol the surrounding area, but balked at putting the deal in writing, Biddle says. And that wasn't good enough for city leaders.

With the possible aim of swaying the commission, Union 76 shot Emeryville a letter on Christmas Eve stating it would start closing voluntarily between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (Friday and Saturday nights). "Last weekend was the first weekend they started this," says James, "and it did help some of the problems." But Biddle argues that these efforts are yet another reason it may take a while to get this mess resolved. Any appeasement efforts by Denny's and Union 76 will need to pass the test of time, he says, and even if such actions send the sideshow crowd packing, the city wants any commitment in writing. -- Helene Blatter

A costly divorce: Parting is such sweet sorrow. But it's especially sweet if you get yourself the kind of golden parachute that Hayward Unified just gave embattled former Superintendent Joan Kowal. Yup, Kowal has officially resigned, ending her controversial 21-month stint. In exchange, the district will give her nearly $270,000, which includes her wages for the next eighteen months, a retroactive raise, and stipends for her academic degrees.

And why stop there? The district also pledged to shell out medical, dental, and life insurance for Kowal and her husband for the next two and a half years. "We're just as generous as hell," grumbles Jeff Cook, head of the Hayward Educational Community Alliance, one of several groups that demanded Kowal's ouster.

District watchdogs were hoping Kowal would be fired for cause. But what troubles them even more than the cost of the settlement -- which came on the heels of a financial report revealing that the district is $3.3 million in the hole -- is a gag clause that forbids Kowal, school board members, and senior district administrators from making "disparaging remarks" about one another to the public, the media, or potential future employers.

Interim superintendent Jay Totter says a memo advising staff to refrain from such remarks was also sent out to more than 120 district employees, including school principals and vice principals.

The deal ensures that any official district comments on Kowal's departure will be limited to a glowing predrafted press release and a letter of recommendation, both of which praise her attempts to boost student performance, and refer only obliquely to the staff unrest and allegations of fiscal mismanagement that led hundreds of parents and teachers to call for Kowal's termination. "Dr. Kowal has been forthright, innovative, and determined in pressing this agenda," the press release reads. "However, the controversies of the past several months have made it difficult to accomplish this goal and have overshadowed the larger issue of student achievement."

Cook, who has asked a lawyer to examine the hush clause, questions the legality or enforceability of an agreement limiting the free speech of district staff, and worries that the vagueness of the term "disparaging" may prevent employees from being forthcoming as the state's Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team investigates the troubled district's books. "This is going to create an unwarranted and chilling effect on anybody saying anything," he says.

Ralph Stern, the district's lawyer, doesn't foresee any problems. "The free-speech rights of employees -- including public employees -- are not absolute. There is a tradeoff for the paycheck," he says. Stern adds that he doesn't believe the agreement will prevent district staff from complying with the state audit, nor with investigations by the county and an independent evaluator hired by the district. "It's clearly not the district's intent that any audit be impeded," he says. -- Kara Platoni

That's Citizen O'Malley: Berkeley media hounds may rejoice now that the Daily Planet, the city's defunct broadsheet for gadflies and politicos, promises to return to the newsstand. Becky O'Malley, a longtime South Berkeley resident, self-made software maven, and nebulously lefty busybody, has said she'll bankroll the paper's resurrection and hopes to resume printing as early as this month. But be warned: This won't be the scrupulously bland and inoffensive paper that cringed at the slightest hint of partisanship. O'Malley has every intention of putting her personal stamp on the paper -- and she has exactly the sort of crusading publisher's personality that promises to make it an interesting, if sometimes embarrassing, read.

Since making her fortune in software, O'Malley has dedicated her extensive free time to poking around in Berkeley's civic affairs, for good and ill. She's most notorious for her work on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, mostly due to the panel's bizarre notions of which buildings are worth preserving. During O'Malley's tenure, the commission has landmarked such architectural gems as the Top Dog on Durant Avenue and a corrugated tin shack in West Berkeley, leading critics to claim that the body was merely trying to thwart development. Even O'Malley's friends note that she can be a process-monger, maliciously holding up city projects over inconsequential regulations and abusing city staff in public.

O'Malley has long been skeptical of the virtues of "smart growth," the development fad that would stanch sprawl in the 'burbs by building dense housing along urban transit corridors, and her votes on the commission reflect that attitude. Still, she's not just another NIMBY. Last fall, she opposed a height initiative on the Berkeley ballot that would have capped most new housing at three stories, thereby effectively killing all new apartment construction.

In short, O'Malley is a smart, caustic, opinionated eccentric -- it's no coincidence she once worked for Bay Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann -- and her new Daily Planet will reflect these qualities.

O'Malley has big dreams for her little paper. She plans to dump all the Associated Press fluff that no one reads and replace it with freelance essays on gardening, architecture, pets, and other pursuits for overeducated Berkeleyans. Promising to model the Planet after journals like the Anderson Valley Advertiser and I.F. Stone's Weekly, O'Malley intends to beef up the op-ed page into a spread of as many outrageous screeds as will fit in each issue -- friends say she's a controversy junkie, loves nothing more than a good rant, and is convinced her readers will, too. "Controversy fills papers," she says.

O'Malley notes that she's been talking with former Planet editor Judith Scherr about the prospect of returning, and that the paper will come out two or three times a week at first. She also promises to cover -- horrified shudder -- more City Hall gossip. For example, O'Malley cites Linda Maio's decision to kick Ann Wagley off the Peace and Justice Commission and suggests that Maio gave Wagley the boot for daring to run for city council against her favorite candidate, Andy Katz. Such are the stories that get her blood running. Of course, O'Malley missed the real story here, which is this: Who gives a shit about the Peace and Justice Commission? -- Chris Thompson

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