News

Friday, January 19, 2018

A forum on gun safety reform will take place at Saratoga's Westhope Presbyterian Church Jan. 20, featuring Assembly members Evan Low and Marc Berman, along with Rev. Erik Swanson and Saratoga Vice Mayor Manny Cappello.

Like most everyone else, the Rev. Erik Swanson watched the grisly scene of a gunman opening fire at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas last October in horror. The murder spree left nearly 60 people dead and more than 500 injured. In the days following what was deemed the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S., Swanson’s horror turned into frustration. How could something like that happen in a developed nation?

Swanson, a pastor at Westhope Presbyterian Church, didn’t have the answers himself, but he knew it was a problem he could no longer ignore and he had to do something about it. His first move was to call Manny Cappello, vice mayor of Saratoga.

“Erik Swanson contacted me and asked if there was something that we could do to address this big problem, and I said that a really good person to contact would be (Assemblyman) Evan Low because I knew he’d been proposing legislation at the state level that could address some of these issues,” Cappello recalled.

Low said he was “pleasantly surprised” to be approached by Swanson and Cappello about this issue. One piece of legislation he and his colleagues in the Assembly are exploring, he said, would create a database allowing law enforcement to track bullets and weapons that have been used in a crime. He cited the legislation as an example of sensible firearm regulation, a position that respects individuals’ freedom to own firearms, while focusing on the impact of gun violence on communities and preventing future tragedies.

“We talk about our commitment to society and the sanctity of life,” said the assemblyman, “(but) places of gathering are no longer sacred anymore. You’re thinking you’ll be safe in an elementary school; you’re thinking you’re safe in a movie theater, in a nightclub, in a house of worship. … There have been mass shootings in nightclubs, in churches, in movie theaters, in elementary schools. … When does it end?

“We need community members to hold their elected officials accountable” Low continued. “My message is I’m only one person; we need to organize our communities to articulate what our desires are.”

Along with Assemblyman Marc Berman, Low, Swanson and Cappello are uniting to host a forum at Westhope on Saturday, Jan. 20 to address these issues. Also taking part will be about two dozen members of the interfaith community.

Low said he plans to bring up regulations that are already in place and to draw comparisons to successful measures other industrialized nations, such as Australia, have taken.

Ultimately, said Swanson, the intended goal of the forum is “to establish a foundation from the grassroots to make changes in sensible firearms safety legislation, some of which are already being worked on and some of which has yet to be worked on.”

Swanson said he hopes that the forum will serve as the first step in an ongoing dialogue about gun safety reform, while Cappello said he’d like to see a continued collaboration between faith communities and the key players in Sacramento.

“The urgency is there to see some real legislation take place that curbs these types of violent acts that lately feel like acts of mass destruction on human life,” Cappello said. “My personal opinion is that this isn’t a restriction on guns for individuals or inhibiting our citizens’ constitutional rights to bear arms; this is more of a putting some pieces of legislation in place that can prevent these very, very violent and destructive acts from occurring.”

For Berman, the forum will be an opportunity not only to discuss his own ideas but to hear solutions others might have about what he considers to be an “all hands on deck problem.” Dialogue and mobilization are important steps toward passing laws on the federal and state levels, he said.

“This has to be an ongoing conversation, and we need to make sure people’s awareness of the problem stays at the forefront of their consciousness,” he said. “We can’t just have spikes of activism every time there’s a large gun-related catastrophe. We need to stay vigilant about this issues at all times.”

The forum is free and open to all. It will take place Saturday, Jan. 20, 3-4:30 p.m. at Westhope Presbyterian Church, 12850 Saratoga Ave.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Looking to combat the opioid abuse epidemic, a Silicon Valley legislator has introduced a slate of bills meant to clamp down on access to highly addictive prescription drugs.

Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) authored three measures meant to provide a better understanding of patients’ access to these medications, building on an existing state database tracking prescriptions in California.

“I don’t think there’s enough attention at the issue at hand, which is the system is not working,” Low said.

One proposal by Low would enable California’s database, called CURES, to link up with those in other states in order to trace “doctor shopping” for multiple opioid prescriptions in multiple states.

Another would require pharmacies to report dispensed prescriptions to the database within 24 hours, instead of the current timeframe of seven days.

The third bill would add more regulations to the printing of prescription pads in order to cut down on fraudulent prescriptions.

“We need to hold our health providers accountable for ensuring the health and safety of the patients they’re fundamentally attempting to serve,” Low said. “Without this data, without this accountability and transparency, how are we able to say, ‘OK prescriber, here is where you went wrong.’”

Opioid abuse has surged into a national crisis, though it has not been as acute in California as in other states. Kaiser Health News reported Thursday that while overdose deaths have soared in other states, the death rate has plateaued in California.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

California’s housing crisis was Sacramento’s major focus in 2017. While housing affordability will remain a serious challenge for the state in 2018 and beyond, the state Legislature’s actions this year made it clear that this issue has our leaders’ full attention at last.

“It’s been a big year, and we’ll have to ensure that this year’s bills are enforced properly,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. Wiener wrote SB35, one of 2017’s most important housing bills. It requires cities and counties to approve certain projects that comply with existing zoning requirements if these jurisdictions have failed to meet their home-building targets.

The housing crisis is a many-tentacled beast. It had multiple causes and will require multiple solutions. The 15 major bills passed in 2017 are just the beginning of a long process that will require every Californian to rethink how and where we live in this state.

“We have to continue to look at ways to ease the approval process for housing production, we have to continue to look for ways to fund affordable housing, and next year we’ll need to look at exclusionary zoning,” Wiener said.

Public funding for housing production, especially the lowest-income housing, is important because the private market is unlikely to meet the demand. This need has grown far greater since 2012, when the state did away with redevelopment agencies at the tail end of a brutal recession.

SB2, from state Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, establishes a $75 fee on real estate transactions (excluding new home purchases) to create a fund for affordable housing. The fee is expected to generate $200 million to $300 million per year. SB3, from state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, is a $4 billion affordable housing bond measure that will be on the ballot in November 2018.

A third bill in the package, AB571, is designed to improve a current state tax credit for farmworker housing development.

The most controversial new laws address California’s housing crisis by lowering barriers to development in local jurisdictions and pushing local governments to fulfill their responsibilities to add housing units.

Local governments may cherish their control over land use, but their collective choice to say no has been a major driving force behind our current crisis.

SB35 is the major new law dedicated to rebalancing this inequitable status quo. It’s the stick to two other carrots being offered to local governments in the form of SB540, from state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and AB73, from Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco.

SB540 invites local governments to apply for state grants to cover the cost of creating zones designated for expedited housing development, where at least half of the homes will be affordable to low- or moderate-income people. AB73 offers incentives to local governments that complete environmental and planning reviews in advance, so affordable housing can rapidly be built within those areas.

Historically, there haven’t been very many mechanisms to ensure that local jurisdictions were implementing their housing production goals.

AB1397, from Assemblyman Evan Low, D-San Jose, SB166, from state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and AB879, from Assemblyman Tim Grayson, D-Concord, require local governments to continually update their general plans with realistic housing goals and to mitigate constraints on housing development such as long permitting times.

These bills will be complemented by Skinner’s SB167, which increases the burden of proof on local governments to reject or require downsizing of a housing project that includes affordable units.

Finally, there’s a strong statement of the state’s new focus in AB1505, from Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica. AB1505 allows local jurisdictions to have inclusionary zoning policies for rental housing, overruling a 2009 court decision.

AB1505 is a statement about equity — and so is all of Sacramento’s effort on housing this year. California won’t work if only the wealthiest people can afford to live here.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

SACRAMENTO — Advocates and lawmakers who have pushed to end California’s backlog of untested rape kits say they are hoping the national attention to sexual harassment and assault will drive efforts to pass much-needed reforms in the state.

And, entering the New Year, they are focusing on one area in particular: California has no idea how many rape kits are sitting on shelves in police evidence or hospital storage rooms.

“We want that changed,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national group pushing to end backlogs.

The foundation’s initiative, End The Backlog, tracks how well states are tackling the issue and tallies how many untested rape kits each state has based on public-records requests and media reports. The foundation says California has more than 13,000 untested rape kits and that legislative efforts to address the backlog are trailing other states, including Texas and Kentucky.

“Right now, California has a law in the books that says rape kits should be sent to the lab for testing, but that’s a loophole big enough to drive a truck through,” Knecht said. “We want to see that should turn into a shall.”

Knecht said California has made progress. On Jan. 1, California will add several laws to the books, including AB41 by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, which requires law enforcement agencies to report how many rape kits they have collected and examined, then disclose why any kit is not being tested.

AB41 applies only to new rape kits, and would not require agencies to do an inventory of their evidence rooms.

A criminalist with the California Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services stacks DNA collectors at the State DNA Laboratory in Richmond.

Also going into effect in January is AB1312, by Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, which creates additional protections for rape victims, including a requirement that police keep rape kits in evidence for at least 20 years. The law also will make emergency contraception available at no cost to a victim. AB280 by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-San Jose, allows taxpayers to designate a donation on their income tax return to a fund that would help eliminate the state’s rape-kit backlog.

Last year, California ended its 10-year statute of limitations on rape. That law applies only to victims of crimes that occurred on or after Jan. 1, 2017. The state passed a law in 2014 that encouraged law enforcement to test rape kits within certain time frames.

Those bills are helping, Chiu said, but there is more to do. Chiu said he is looking at what bills he could author in 2018 to further help victims.

“With more attention on sexual assault and related issues, my hope is in the coming year we will have more political will to address the rape-kit backlog,” Chiu said. “There is a heightened focus and commitment to addressing these issues. I hope that continues.”

Victim advocate Heather Marlowe said many of the proposed bills fail to meaningfully tackle the reasons so many rape kits have languished in police custody. Many police departments are quick to label a report of rape “unfounded” with little to no investigation, she said.

“Legislators should focus their efforts on holding police accountable in thoroughly investigating all rape complaints,” said Marlowe, who sued the city of San Francisco and its Police Department, charging that her sexual assault case was mishandled in 2010. The case was dismissed. She said she is appealing to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the past, police departments did not test rape kits when the the suspect was known to the victim, finding little need for DNA evidence if the identity was not in question. However, prosecutors like Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said that thinking has changed in recent years. As police agencies tested their backlogs, they found many instances in which one suspect was linked to several victims.

O’Malley’s office is prosecuting a case involving a rape kit that languished in the Berkeley Police Department for six years from a 2008 case in which two teens said they were abducted and raped near Berkeley High School.

Once evidence was tested in 2014 at O’Malley’s behest, DNA evidence linked the incident to a man with a lengthy criminal history who had assaulted a woman in Berkeley.

The suspect, Keith Kenard Asberry Jr., is facing multiple counts of rape, sexual assault and kidnapping in the two cases. He has pleaded not guilty.

The Berkeley Police Department said it could not explain why the rape kit from the teens was never sent to a laboratory to see if there was a DNA profile that could help identify the assailant.

Asberry’s next court date is Jan. 26.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

It’s an all-too-familiar scene in Sacramento. A group of friends heads to midtown for a night of partying and drinking, but one friend has to miss out on the fun and stay sober to be the designated driver.

A new law that takes effect Jan. 1 may not only let everyone join in on the fun, but it’ll also mean more money for the bubbly.

Under Assembly Bill 711, alcohol manufacturers and licensed sellers can offer free or discounted rides to transport drinkers home safely through ride-sharing services, taxicabs or other ride providers.

Vouchers or codes can be given to alcohol sellers or directly to consumers, but cannot be offered as incentives to buy a company’s product. Current law restricts alcohol licensees from offering discounts of anything more than inconsequential value to consumers, though liquor and wine manufacturers have been temporarily allowed to pay for rides for people attending private, invitation-only events.

The measure, by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Cupertino, would relax the rules to expand that program, allowing alcohol manufacturers to underwrite free or discounted rides in all cases.

Low noted that thousands attending the Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara in 2016 didn’t have options to get home safely after drinking. Forty-four other states and the District of Columbia allow liquor manufacturers to pay for free or discounted rides, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

The bill cleared the Legislature unanimously, and was supported by major beer manufacturers as well as ride-sharing company Lyft. Last year, Anheuser-Busch partnered with Lyft to offer rides home across 33 “safe ride” programs throughout the nation.

Katja Zastrow, vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility for Anheuser-Busch, said since teaming up with the ride-sharing service, the program has provided more than 64,000 rides. “Drunk driving is 100 percent preventable and offering safe rides is one way that we can have a real impact on reducing (it),” she said.

The bill was opposed by Alcohol Justice, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that lobbies against policy thought to promote the “alcohol industry’s harmful practices,” according to the group’s website.

Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, the organization’s research manager, said AB 711 could encourage people to drink more. Alcohol Justice says overconsumption of alcohol costs California $35 billion a year and causes 10,500 deaths annually.

“The idea that drunk driving is the only harm from alcohol is a real misunderstanding of alcohol harm,” Benowitz-Fredericks said.

The main concern from both Benowitz-Fredericks and the Rev. James Butler, the executive director of the California Council on Alcohol Problems, is that though the bill says the rides should be provided in order to get drinkers safely home, there is no real way to prevent consumers from using the free rides to go to another drinking spot.

“If they get free transportation, maybe instead of two beers they have six,” Butler said. “And when people overconsume alcohol, they make bad decisions.”

It’s an all-too-familiar scene in Sacramento. A group of friends heads to midtown for a night of partying and drinking, but one friend has to miss out on the fun and stay sober to be the designated driver.

A new law that takes effect Jan. 1 may not only let everyone join in on the fun, but it’ll also mean more money for the bubbly.

Under Assembly Bill 711, alcohol manufacturers and licensed sellers can offer free or discounted rides to transport drinkers home safely through ride-sharing services, taxicabs or other ride providers.

Vouchers or codes can be given to alcohol sellers or directly to consumers, but cannot be offered as incentives to buy a company’s product. Current law restricts alcohol licensees from offering discounts of anything more than inconsequential value to consumers, though liquor and wine manufacturers have been temporarily allowed to pay for rides for people attending private, invitation-only events.

The measure, by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Cupertino, would relax the rules to expand that program, allowing alcohol manufacturers to underwrite free or discounted rides in all cases.

Low noted that thousands attending the Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara in 2016 didn’t have options to get home safely after drinking. Forty-four other states and the District of Columbia allow liquor manufacturers to pay for free or discounted rides, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

The bill cleared the Legislature unanimously, and was supported by major beer manufacturers as well as ride-sharing company Lyft. Last year, Anheuser-Busch partnered with Lyft to offer rides home across 33 “safe ride” programs throughout the nation.

Katja Zastrow, vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility for Anheuser-Busch, said since teaming up with the ride-sharing service, the program has provided more than 64,000 rides. “Drunk driving is 100 percent preventable and offering safe rides is one way that we can have a real impact on reducing (it),” she said.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Hate can happen anywhere—on BART, a school campus or while just casually walking down the street, says Assemblyman Evan Low.

The former Campbell mayor said during a community meeting on Nov. 27 that he’s heard plenty of stories from people who have been attacked because of their identity, whether it be because of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, political affiliation or a combination.

That’s why Low teamed with the Council on American-Islamic Relations to participate in bystander intervention training.

“Frankly, being born and raised in Silicon Valley, I never thought (attacks) would happen,” Low said, regarding his own experiences and after seeing a viral video of an Asian American man being verbally and physically attacked on BART in November.

According to the FBI, 6,121 criminal incidents and 7,321 related offenses were reported last year as being motivated by bias against race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity. Earlier this summer, the state’s attorney general reported the number of hate crimes in California rose about 11 percent last year.

“When we see wrongdoings, we should fight,” Low said during the meeting. “We should stand up to people.”

The training teaches people to help the victim rather than focus their attention on the attacker, according to Courtney Mangus, programs coordinator of the Council of American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area Office.

According to Mangus, this is the first year the office is conducting the bystander training, which has spread by word of mouth to other organizations. The Council of American-Islamic Relations hosts trainings for organizations that request them.

“The training is meant to cut the bystander effect,” when a person is less inclined to assist someone because there are others around, Mangus said. “This returns responsibility to the public.”

Mangus said bystanders who witness a person being targeted should not address the attacker at all. Instead, point out to other bystanders that something wrong is happening and help the targeted person by talking to them or help them leave the area.

“Make sure you or someone records and documents the incident,” Mangus said. “Never interact with the attacker; it could escalate the situation. Go up to the targeted person and have a conversation with them, any conversation. The attacker is ignored, and people are not validating what’s being said.”

She added that bystanders and victims look should also look for an exit from the immediate area.

For more information, visit ca.cair.com/sfba.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An audit released Tuesday found the election office in Santa Clara County made numerous errors over the past decade and changes need to be made.

As a voter, you trust the registrar's office is giving you the right information during election time. But a state audit found 26 errors were made in election materials provided by the Santa Clara County Registrar's Office. In one case, voters were sent ballots with missing information. It proved to be costly.

"Due to staff error there was up to a quarter million cost to reprint and inform our voters about corrections that were necessary to be made and we need to be responsible with the tax payer dollars," said California Assemblyman Evan Low in a news conference this morning.

The audit shows numerous cases where mapping for the district boundaries were done incorrectly and that resulted in voters receiving the wrong ballots. Over a third of the errors included candidates statements and arguments omitted from voter information guides.

The audit shows numerous cases where mapping for the district boundaries were done incorrectly and that resulted in voters receiving the wrong ballots. Over a third of the errors included candidates statements and arguments omitted from voter information guides.

"Very disappointed in seeing such errors, I am hopeful and optimistic though that such highlighting of this report that we'll have specific guidelines and principles to ensure that this doesn't happen in the future," said Low.

As soon as the Registrar learned of mistakes, corrections were made. The audit says the problem is the Registrar's Office does not have written procedures to ensure mistakes won't happen again.

When asked about the audit, Registrar Shannon Bushey said, "I think they did a very thorough job of looking into our complex processes and they made 10 recommendations for our office that I think are very thoughtful and will be useful to us."

The audit found none of the errors had an impact on the outcome of any election. Now the Registrar's Office will work with the auditor and the Secretary of State to prevent future mistakes.