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January 9, 2007 > Different as night and day

Different as night and day

Milpitas business owner, Aslam Ali, is the target of unsubstantiated accusations of gross negligence.

By Steve Warga

When citizens approach their local politicians with complaints of unsafe or unsanitary conditions in the neighborhood, it behooves those politicians to pay attention. Serving the citizenry certainly includes the task of assuring public safety to the greatest extent possible. But what should politicians do when the complaints before them lack merit? Or, more bluntly, what should they do when those complaints are different as night and day from the facts?

Milpitas City Council will face just such a dilemma, January 16, when they consider an appeal of a planning commission decision denying Jerry's Market a permit to sell liquor at its South Main Street store. As TCV reported December 26 ("Preschool survives"), members and directors of the Starlite Pines Homeowners Association (SPHOA) accused the market of facilitating and tolerating some disgusting conditions in its vicinity. They described to council, "public urination and defecation, discarded needles, drunken patrons, and litter." Several residents claim they no longer allowed their children near the market for fear of injury or assault.

Predictably, some uninformed councilmembers lashed out at market owner, Aslam Ali and his attorney, Rick Warren, in response to the inflammatory accusations lodged with council. Vice-Mayor Bob Livengood was especially offended that Ali was not present that night, even though Ali's attorney addressed council in support of a request for a continuance. Given council's longstanding policy of granting such requests, Ali felt that his attorney's appearance should suffice. And council did grant the request, with only Livengood opposed.

Going even further than the vice-mayor, Councilmember Althea Polanski promised aggrieved citizens the appeal would be denied. Polanski only grudgingly retracted her ill-advised promise after City Attorney Steve Mattas suggested she might be denying Ali's constitutional right to due process under the law. Mattas was diplomatic enough to avoid mentioning that Polanski had no authority to speak for the entire council.

Once the emotional heat cooled and rational thought prevailed, a troubling picture emerged of a minority group of homeowners fabricating accusations in a desperate attempt to defeat Ali's application to sell liquor. In point of fact, neither any private citizen, nor homeowner's association representative has offered any supporting evidence to back the claims of dangerous negligence related to Jerry's Market or its owner. Rhetorical bombs are the only thing they've produced.

Ali, on the other hand, presents a compelling case of personal community activism and responsible ownership. Throughout the application process, he and his attorney have produced solid, credible and substantial evidence refuting each and every groundless accusation. Going even further, Ali has secured in excess of 550 signed petitions supporting his application; some 450 of them are from residents of The Pines subdivision, which is controlled by the SPHOA and whose homes border three sides of the market.

With about 861 homes numbered in The Pines, Ali's 450 petitions represent a majority in favor of granting the permit without even considering how many homeowners haven't expressed an opinion one way or the other. The vociferous opposition of the directors is not consistent with the will of the association as a whole.

Ali and his wife even offered to donate $110,000 to SPHOA for badly needed improvements to the wall and fence separating the parking lot from bordering homes and to fund other improvements the association lacked funds to accomplish. (Unsightly as it has become, Ali cannot legally touch the wall and fence without association approval.)

Along with his very generous financial offer, Ali also committed to closing his store no later than 11 p.m. every night even though he could remain open as late as 2 a.m. Finally, he offered to have one of his employees visit the tiny "park" area abutting the fence line along his parking lot, every day, to collect any trash or refuse. He offered this in response to charges that his patrons were throwing their trash over the fence. Again, no evidence was offered to support this allegation.

Not only were Ali's overtures rejected out-of-hand, they have since been characterized as an attempted bribe. Describing this very public, on-the-record offer as a bribe provides a good illustration of the sort of smear tactics being used against Ali. How does one "bribe" an entire association? Even so, in order to avoid even the appearance of a bribe, Ali reduced his offer to $50,000 for fence improvements only. Dissidents rejected this too, then criticized him for playing games by making and rescinding offers.

Curiously, the fence itself mutely refutes much of the neighbors' accusations. It runs from eight to ten feet high and borders not only every foot of Ali's property, but also extends to the intersection of South Main St. and Cedar Way; and its design discourages attempts to scale it.

So, according to accusations from disgruntled residents, patrons of Jerry's Market are in the habit of purchasing beer or wine, then walking a full block down to Cedar Way, turning right and walking even further to Fallen Leaf Drive, then right to Lone Tree Court and, finally, right again to the end of that street. These industrious patrons allegedly go through all this in order to litter the SPHOA mini-park, before passing out drunk.

Supposedly a similar bunch of miscreants also find their way to the same area before shooting-up illegal drugs and then tossing their used needles where children might soon play. Jerry's does not traffic in illegal narcotics, nor has Ali ever been accused of this, but according to opposition, he's still responsible for the discarded needles they say exist.

If Milpitas is truly interested in accommodating neat, clean, efficient, service-oriented small businesses, Aslam Ali deserves approval of a permit to add liquor products to the mix of items sold in Jerry's Market. Councilmembers are obligated to inform themselves of the facts instead of merely reacting to accusations.

A cursory inspection of the premises, or a few minutes spent with Ali, himself, would convince a reasonable person that he's been subjected to defamatory rhetoric from a vocal few. Spending a little bit of time investigating the facts doesn't seem like too much to ask of those officials elected to serve the needs of the majority whenever possible.

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