San Jose City Council waives outdoor business fees, extends free food, improves virtual meetings
A view of vacant downtown San Jose after shelter-in-place orders took effect. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

    As virtual meetings become the new norm, San Jose leaders voted unanimously Tuesday to make local government more efficient and accessible.

    Attendees of the July 28 and Aug. 3 City Council sessions might have noticed the meetings are now translated into Spanish and Vietnamese. However, to listen to the Vietnamese translation, Zoom users must select “German,” as Vietnamese is not an option on the platform. This is just one of several challenges the council has faced in creating inclusivity after moving meetings online.

    “The translation that we implemented a few meetings ago is really critical. Although I am a little frustrated with Zoom, that they list German as one of their top languages and not Vietnamese,” Councilmember Pam Foley said. “That just seems so odd to me, for a company that’s in San Jose, that they would consider German, a more popular language.”

    The city’s Rules and Open Government Committee suggested a handful of changes to bolster civic engagement, including adding visual directions to guide users to closed captioning, displaying on-screen text so viewers can read the discussion in Spanish, Vietnamese and English and translating meeting agendas on a regular basis.

    Translation comes at a steep price. Interpretation for Spanish and Vietnamese can run up to $5,000 per meeting and would cost approximately $4,000 to translate just one agenda, but councilmembers Tuesday said it’s well worth it.

    “How can you put a price on democracy?” Councilmember Maya Esparza said.

    Councilmember Raul Peralez backed the proposed changes and suggested the agenda item titles and numbers be displayed until the vote is finalized. He also advocated for the final votes to be displayed on the screen.

    “I don’t think any of us could have assumed this is where we would be back at the beginning of this year and that we would be likely concluding this whole year, or at least majority of it since March, with virtual meetings,” Peralez said. “I felt it was important — and so did a lot of our committee members we’re hearing from — that we we made some changes.”

    Jean Cohen, political director for UA Local Union 393, said the recommendations from Peralez will create much needed improvements.

    “When there’s a lack of communication from whoever is chairing the meeting about what item is being discussed, or what the outcome of a vote was on that item, it’s really challenging for the general public to be able to follow what’s happening,” Cohen said.

    Cohen supported pushing back the times for council meetings so more essential workers can participate in the local government process. “Working people have schedules that are not often accommodated by a nine-to-five traditional schedule,” she said.

    Waiving fees for outdoor businesses

    As COVID-19 forces more businesses outdoors, San Jose will foot the bill to keep them alive by waiving fees to use city parking lots and outdoor spaces.

    The council voted unanimously Tuesday to make the application process easier for fitness, education and personal-care based businesses to operate in parks and downtown plazas. The proposal is an extension of San José Al Fresco, a plan spearheaded by Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmember Dev Davis in May that sought to give businesses additional spaces close by to expand their operations.

    The first parking lot that will be available for businesses to use is on Minnesota Avenue, west of Lincoln Avenue. Businesses must be located within a quarter mile of the lot to qualify and space will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

    The city will work with businesses to determine other parking lots and outdoor spaces that they can use to continue operating. Interested businesses should visit the SJ Al Fresco page.

    The agreement to waive fees will remain in effect until Dec. 31 or until the local state of emergency is lifted.

    Feeding San Jose

    As the pandemic exacerbates hunger in Silicon Valley, the City Council voted unanimously to extend three contracts with food and essential resource providers to support residents hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

    Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, Provide Meals and Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County will continue providing food to families and individuals who are low-income, homeless, isolated and at high risk of contracting COVID-19. With council approval, these delivery services will be extended through Dec. 31 and will receive additional workforce support from the San José Conservation Corps.

    An agreement with FIRST 5 Santa Clara County providing diapers, baby formula and wipes could also be extended through the end of December.

    We’re hearing, quite frankly, situations where people were reusing disposable diapers,” said Angel Rios, deputy city manager. “We wanted to fill that need right away. It wasn’t just diapers, but it was also access to formula.”

    Rios said 3,800 families and more than 9,000 babies have received formula and diapers through programs sponsored through FIRST 5 Santa Clara County since the start of the pandemic.

    Food distribution services  were originally set to end Sept. 30. The deliveries first began in March as an emergency response to the pandemic. Since the program began, more than 52 million meals have been delivered across the county.

    A plan for greener energy 

    San Jose will be one step closer to having one of the world’s largest battery storage facilities to harness power for the city’s electrical grid.

    The City Council voted unanimously to grant franchise to Hummingbird Energy, allowing them to operate in the public right-of-way.

    Eric Schoenaur, a lobbyist representing the project’s developer esVolta, said the storage facility is crucial for transitioning the city to renewable energy.

    “We cannot have more reliance on wind and solar. Plus we have a way of storing power and then using it at times that the wind is not blowing and the sun isn’t shining,” Schoenaur said. “And a side benefit locally to this storage facility is that it does enable the ultimate decommissioning closing of the natural gas burning Metcalf Energy Center, which obviously has air quality and climate change benefits of locally and globally.”

    The proposed franchise agreement will have a 25-year term and the city will collect more than $11,000 per year in franchise fees for housing the energy station.

    A new arts commission

    The city voted unanimously to add four new temporary members to the Arts Commission to serve a term from Aug. 11 to Dec. 31.

    The Arts Commission has not met since the shelter-in-place order was issued in March. In a July 30 memo, Councilmember Johnny Khamis and Councilmember Dev Davis suggested existing commissioners should get more time to serve because of the pandemic.

    “As you well know, our commissioners are a passionate group of dedicated citizens who work diligently during their last term to button up any last minute items they have poured their energy into,” Rudy A. Flores, Jr of the Parks and Recreation Commission wrote in a letter to the council. “To cut their efforts short would be a disservice to the community spirit we all seek to inspire during this highly unusual time.”

    Before COVID-19, the commission had 11 members. After the four temporary commissioners conclude their term on Dec. 31, the commission will return to 11 members.

    Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.


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