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no stupidityA few years back, Republican House Speaker John Boehner declared it wasn’t his job to tell the American people what to think.

Boehner repeatedly tells Americans what to think about taxes, the economy, the Keystone Pipeline, the Israeli Likud Party leader and the Affordable Care Act, for example. But when it comes to the abiding belief among many Republicans that President Obama was born in Kenya, he takes a childish time-out.

This Boehner Doctrine of selective neutrality when it comes to disabusing nuts of nutty thoughts was completely at odds with the muscular Bush II White House policy, as stated by Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, of telling the American people they “need to watch what they say.”

There must be a midpoint between Ari’s enthusiasm for shutting down conversation and Boehner’s let-the idiots-keep-spouting-idiocy, at least for anyone who claims the mantle of being a national, state or local leader.

Which is why it’s dismaying that only California Democrats — led by Attorney General Kamala Harris and some state lawmakers — have been outspoken against a proposed state initiative to allow private citizens to shoot dead gays and lesbians.

The putrid proposal is the excrescence of an Orange County attorney, who calls it the Sodomite Supression Act. The subhuman behind the initiative would need about 370,000 signatures from equally hate-filled executioners to qualify for the ballot, where it would lose by astronomical numbers.

Harris is the odds-on Democratic favorite to seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer. She is trying to head off this colossal waste of time and money by asking the courts to excuse her from preparing a title and summary of the murder measure for circulation.

There is debate in legal circles — when isn’t there? – about whether the attorney general can get out of that ministerial duty under the state’s initiative laws. But there shouldn’t be any debate in human circles in condemning, in every possible way, such a hateful proposal that was put in motion by simply paying a $200 filing fee.

I’ve yet to see any state Republican leader comment on this effort to legalize vigilante killings. Maybe no one is asking them, but just a few weeks ago, the state GOP Party finally granted official recognition to Log Cabin California, a gay Republican organization, and some party activists were trumpeting that news.

Well, GOP leaders should be trumpeting their revulsion about the proposed let’s-kill-gays ballot measure. Silence allows Harris to be the sole public face in the fight against the outlandish proposal. That’s not good politics.

Silence also makes one wonder whether GOP leaders are content to sit on the sidelines because A. The crazy idea is no big deal and will go nowhere, or B. they don’t want to rile the basest anti-gay elements in their base.

So far, the only conservative commentary I’ve seen about the idiotic proposal is a sneering commentary on out-of-control direct democracy fostered by the initiative, referendum and recall procedures put in place in the early 20th century by California Gov. Hiram Johnson, a — shudder — Progressive. The piece failed to mention how Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax cap and foundational victory for modern conservatism, got on the ballot by initiative. Or that conservative same-sex marriage opponents used the same tool to qualify Proposition 8 in 2008.

The problem with the outrageous kill-the-gays proposal isn’t California’s relatively easy initiative process. It’s the blind hatred behind it — pure and simple.

Lots of political leaders, from every party, should be telling people what to think about this spasm of hate. And they should be supporting the attorney general in her effort to block it from the ballot, or the light of another, single day.

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Monterey Downs draft EIR released

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Business people horse racingHere is the draft environmental impact report for Monterey Downs.

 

 

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Who needs the police when we’ve got Paul?

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image1How interesting it might have been if the police had not stopped local GOP bigwig Paul Bruno from tangling with the Highway 1 protesters.

The caption with the Herald photo is a little hard to read but it says the Paul’s girlfriend had been stuck in traffic so he had decided to drag them off the road.

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image copy 2It’s always something different that gets me excited about the impending start of the Major League Baseball season, now just over a week away.

It could be this winter’s worth of worry about how the defending champion San Francisco Giants will fare in 2015. I won’t go into the multitudinous reasons to obsess.

It could be the roster of former boys of summer who’ve died during the off-season — Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso top this winter’s sad roll call — who make me yearn to see how today’s rookies and journeymen will fill those positions in baseball lore.

It could be turning on sports radio, in hopes of hearing more about the golden season the Golden State Warriors are having, and hearing Giants announcer Duane Kuiper go through a half dozen lineup changes in a dull spring training game. His immediately recognizable voice is the aural equivalent of a uniform dirtied by diving for a grounder behind second.

This year, my anticipation for baseball’s resumption came from an unlikely source. A few weeks back, I was reading “The Brothers,” a 2013 history by Stephen Kinzer on John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen, the architects of American foreign policy as secretary of state and CIA director for President Eisenhower. It’s an important book for anyone interested in the national security state, modern American exceptionalism, domestic politics of fear, and U.S. interventions in Tibet, Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, Lebanon, Indonesia, the Congo Republic, Cuba and Vietnam.

A few paragraphs about the Dulles’ reaction to Fidel Castro’s 1959 overthrow of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista — a regime propped up by Mafia gambling resorts and American corporations cozy with the Dulles brothers — put me in the mood for baseball.

As every student of the game knows, there was a Triple-A team (one rung below the Major Leagues) playing in Havana when Batista fled and Castro took over. Kinzer offers a Cold War twist on what happened to the franchise — the Havana Sugar Kings.

Let’s pretend we’re in a rain delay and listening to announcers A. and B. kill some time talking about Cuba, baseball and the Sugar Kings.

A. Sad to see the passing of Minnie Minoso, one of the great Cuban-born major leaguers and a wonderful ambassador for all the great black Latino ballplayers who followed him.
B. Been a lot of great Cubans in the Major Leagues, back in Minoso’s day and today. Mike Cuellar, Tony Oliva, and just look at Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes right now.
A. Well, my media guide says the first Cuban to play baseball in the U.S. was a fella by the name of Esteban Bellan in 1871. Went by the first name Steve.
B. That was a ways before my time.
A. Oh, you never played a little pepper with Steve?
B. Well no, but I knew some guys who played Triple-A with the old International Leage team in Havana, the Sugar Kings.
A. That’s right, the Cincinnati Reds — kind of an ironic name, considering what happened — had the Havana Triple-A franchise from 1954 to 1960. That team drew 30,000 fans to games, and they had music, beauty pageants, all sorts of festivities for games.
B. They won the league championship in 1959.
A. Boy, what a wild year for the Sugar Kings. You know you can buy replicas of their flannel tops today. Pretty nice looking jerseys.
B. Yep, 1959. League champions, Castro takes power, and some wild stuff at the ballpark in Havana.
A. I’ll say. You know Castro, like many Cubans, was a baseball nut. Pitched in college, and attended Sugar Kings games. That year he organized a team called Los Barbudos — it means the bearded ones, the guys with beards — to play an exhibition game before a Sugar Kings game.
B. Those fellas would have fit right in with the Oakland As of the early ’70s, what with all the facial hair.
A. I’ll say. Then a couple nights later, the Havana fans got a little raucous celebrating the Castro victory — they called it the 26th of July Movement. People shooting guns in the air, and the Sugar Kings shortstop and the third-base coach for the other team, the Rochester Red Wings, got nicked by bullets. The Rochester manager pulled his team from the field for safety.
B. Wow, pretty wild, kind of like the Disco Demolition Riot at Comiskey Park in 1979. You know you can buy replicas of Los Barbudos jerseys today. Pretty nice looking, too. But I bet Fidel doesn’t get a cut.
A. Well, the Sugar Kings’ last season in Havana was 1960. Things got really rocky between the White House and Castro, who was nationalizing U.S. companies in Cuba. Our government pressured the International League to pull out of Havana.
That broke the heart of Cuban fans, even Castro. He offered to pay the team’s debts. But the next year, the franchise was the Jersey City Jerseys, and it went belly up after one season.
B. Wonder if you can buy Jerseys jerseys today? Just wanted to say that.
A. Most likely. I always wondered how baseball became so popular in Cuba. Figured U.S. troops  must have introduced the game. Cuba became almost our colony after the Spanish-American War with our soldiers occupying the place.
B. Well, with this rain delay I was able to do a little research. And I’m sad to report you’re wrong.
A Well, it’s not the first time.
B. Seems the game was brought to Cuba in the 1860s by sailors and Cuban students returning from the U.S. Became immensely popular and a rallying point of anti-Spanish patriotism. After a failed revolution in 1869, Cubans were forbidden by Spanish authorities from attending baseball games.
A. Man, that is harsh.
B. Seems the natives liked watching baseball a lot more than going to bullfights. And that didn’t sit well with their Spanish overseers.
A. So the Cuban founding fathers preferred the old horsehide to the old cowhide?
B. I’ll let that go. Look, I think I see some blue sky. Yes, they’re taking to tarp off the field.
A. Finally, I’m ready for some beisbol.

Opening Day 2015 is April 5. The San Francisco Giants start the season April 6, visiting the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With the Obama administration’s effort to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations, Major League Baseball is looking into holding an exhibition game in 2016 between a U.S. team and the Cuban National Team.

In 1999, the Baltimore Orioles and Cuban National Team played two games, the first in Havana and the second in Baltimore. Each team won one game.

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Are the reporters all on vacation, or what?

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White wall texture with a chairLast Thursday, March 19, shortly before 10 p.m., I was channel surfing and stopped for a few minutes to watch the live broadcast of the Seaside city council meeting. I came in at the end of a presentation about the library, and after a minute or so they invited public comments. I probably would have moved on to better entertainment, but the first person to speak happened to be someone I knew, so I stuck around.

As she was speaking, someone in the council chambers began moaning very loudly. The woman stopped speaking, turned around and said “We need an EMT.” The video cut to a wide shot of the dais where I saw Councilman Dennis Alexander’s chair turned around and his right arm was moving erratically. Men in police or fire uniforms were rushing to his aid as Councilman Jason Campbell jumped out of their way. The mayor called a recess and the screen went dark. It was such a disturbing scene that I was shaking for the next 10 minutes.

I tuned into the 11 o’clock news to see what had happened. KSBW didn’t mention it all, but KION had a reporter at the meeting and she said it had been cut short because a City Council member had a medical emergency and was taken away in an ambulance. She said he looked OK, but had no further details. She didn’t even say which council member fell ill.

I fully expected to hear more about the incident on Friday when, presumably, more information would come to light. But again, KSBW had nothing. KION briefly repeated the same vague information from the night before, but only as a footnote to a story about the council’s activities. The Monterey Herald and Monterey County Weekly newspapers also missed the story entirely, especially odd for the Weekly,  which covers Seaside pretty closely and posts stories daily on its website. We have to wait a couple more days to see if the Carmel Pine Cone mentions it.

It’s a mystery to me how an elected official being hauled away from a public meeting in an ambulance, with dozens of witnesses, can almost completely escape the notice of the local news media. I certainly hope he’s OK. The news folks should be keeping us informed so we don’t have to guess.

By a strange coincidence, the reason KION was at Thursday’s council meeting was that the city is thinking of dropping out of Monterey County’s emergency 911 dispatch service and taking the city’s business elsewhere, either to a new agency of its own making or possibly to Santa Cruz County’s call center. A couple days earlier it was reported that Salinas and Pacific Grove were planning to do the same, and as of this week it looks like Del Rey Oaks will join them. What in blazes is going on?

I follow local news pretty closely, but until last week I can’t recall hearing a single complaint about emergency dispatch services. Not a peep. Now all of a sudden it’s a major problem. If reports are accurate, the cities say they’re paying a lot for the county to provide 911 service but the cities don’t have much say in how it’s run. OK, I can see why that might be a problem, but not one of sufficient severity to jump up and say, “We’re outta here.”

Perhaps this is some sort of political ploy to get the county’s attention, but I can think of less alarming ways to accomplish that. The appropriate thing for these cities to do is pass resolutions asking for greater influence on call center management, or ask to renegotiate the arrangements, and see how the county responds. Instead, four cities have abruptly said they want a divorce, and have done so with almost no public discussion. Until last week the issue wasn’t even on the public radar.

The idea that cities in Monterey County could afford to start a 911 system from scratch, or successfully move their 911 services to a neighboring county is difficult to believe in the absence of any formal studies. KSBW reported that Santa Cruz County’s facilities would require a major and costly expansion to accommodate our cities. Worse, by having separate dispatch services, local cities would isolate themselves from neighboring police and fire districts, which could hamper mutual aid calls. And what will happen to Monterey County’s emergency call center if it loses a major source of funding? It doesn’t look like local cities have thought through their position very well. So why are they so eager to bail out? That’s the second emergency mystery this week.

James Toy is a native of Carmel, currently living in Seaside, who occasionally gets involved in local political matters. He is the creator of a community-oriented website called The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box at www.montereypeninsula.info. This commentary also appears on that site.

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????The LA Times’ George Skelton does a great job putting urban v. ag water into perspective. Here’s a link and then the text for those of you who would rather not click on a link.

http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-cap-drought-20150323-column.html

 

 

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Monterey Downs EIR to hit the shelves Tuesday

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Business people horse racingThe long-awaited, sure-to-be-debated, gonna-get-people-agitated Draft Environmental Impact Report on the Monterey Downs project is now scheduled to be available for perusal on Tuesday, March 31.

According to the Keep Fort Ord Wild group, Seaside officials made that decision this week. Unless a last-minute delay occurs, the comment period will run through June 1.

The documents should be posted on the city’s Monterey Downs website Tuesday and hard copies are to be made available at City Hall, the Oldermeyer Center and the Seaside Library. A public study session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday April 30, featuring presentations by the city staff and the applicant.

Monterey Downs is the horse race track and residential/commercial complex proposed for property at Ford Ord. The Environmental Impact Report has been delayed several times. Among the many issues involved are the large number of trees to be lost and the lack of an identifiable and sustainable water supply. The horse-racing industry’s treatment of horses is also being raised as an issue by those who would like to stop the project.

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Surprised redhead girl with laptopThe advent of online journalism gave rise to judging how many people read stories by simply counting clicks — how many times the story is opened on someone’s electronic device.

It’s not an exact measure of readership or quality. Far from it. But it has become a basic metric, the way circulation used to be.

It’s always been my cynical view that you could increase clicks on a story by more than 50 percent simply by working the word nudity, or any of its variations, into the web headline.

Any police story, particularly one with a “half-naked, tattooed suspect,” invariably creates more site traffic than, say, a sober analysis of why water, sewage or garbage rates charged by your local government are quadrupling. That is unless you massage the rate story to include allegations of books being cooked “in the raw.”

Over the years, I covered my share of sensational stories. But more of my talent went toward telling people what their government — from city halls and legislative chambers to courts and school rooms —  was doing in their name and with their money. Funny, I thought it was important.

Feedback on those kind of stories was spotty. Perhaps I’d receive a few phone calls, maybe provoke some letters to the editor, or one of the gadflies who inhabit public meetings would wave a copy of my article while questioning the intelligence, ethics and ancestry of a panel of stone-faced officials practiced in the arts of stone-faceditude.

Then the world changed, and clicks could be tallied. And what a sad story they appear to tell.

Case in point: Five or six years ago, I wrote a couple different stories.

One was the first piece — my competitive brethren like to call such stories scoops, but I prefer to think of them simply as news — about a proposed development on several hundred acres of Fort Ord land that you may have heard of recently, Monterey Downs. This was so long ago that preliminary negotiations with the developer — I believe it was a Mr. Ponyman of Malibu — were being handled by the long-defunct county redevelopment agency instead of the city of “We Never Get Nice Things” Seaside.

The print version of the story — thanks to ever-so-wise editors living up to the reporter’s creed to never trust a cabal of editors — was placed unobtrusively on an inside page. The online version sank with nary a click, except for a few land-use wonks from the “Why Can’t We Have Nice Trees?” camp.

Then I broke a story online based on a press release from a Salinas Valley community that police were investigating the apparent exchange of copious amounts of beer and grilling meat to a father in exchange for his underage daughter’s hand in marriage.

For that story, I slapped on the understated headline “Father trades daughter for beer and meat,” and posted the “breaker” online. Within a half hour, the story was being linked by far-flung news outlets from Tasmania to Europe. The clicks came so quickly, I thought of one of those clunky Geiger counters in a 1950s sci-fi flick when the giant insects are just over the next sand dune from the innocent family preparing a barbecue.

Of course, the story turned out to be a more complex tale of a cultural clash between California jurisprudence and the traditional ways of an indigenous Mexican people. But nuance doesn’t generate clicks, and the original story is probably still out there, assuring tut-tutting readers that the world is so horrible that fathers will pimp out daughters for a few cases of beer and barbecued ribs.

But even this story, for which I still have an abiding shame, didn’t generate near the online traffic as what proved — based on the click meter — to be the most popular story, or series of stories, I reported in the waning days of my long affair with journalism.

I was reminded of this weighty subject while checking this Wednesday’s agenda for a special joint meeting of Seaside’s planning commission and architectural board. The only item of business: permits for the design, signs and development of an In-N-Out Burger restaurant on Del Monte Boulevard at the city’s southern entrance.

Every story I wrote about the slow progress of this fast-food outlet generated the most clicks ever for my stories, along with periodic emails from burger-minded readers worried the project had been killed. Oh, pent-up demand on the Peninsula for the simple fare on the In-N-Out menu.

You could say appetites are wanton, desire Is naked, and the buns are …. Well, I’ll leave the rest to my successors on the all-important fast-food beat. I would hate to strip the subject bare. There are clicks to be had.

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Single family house on pile of money

An effort to terminate affordable housing restrictions on 161 Monterey County homes is currently underway. You can help keep the homes affordable, but first you need to understand the following background:

The homes are located in the Moro Cojo housing project near Castroville. Built during the late 1990s, each home is subject to a deed restriction requiring that it remain permanently affordable to very low, low or moderate income households.

Owners of the homes, represented by Community Housing Improvement System Planning Association Inc (CHISPA), applied to Monterey County to have the “permanent” deed restriction converted to a 15-year restriction whose term commences on the date when the homes were conveyed. Since most of the homes were conveyed between 1999-2001, approval of CHISPA’s application would mean that either this year or next, these 161 homes could be sold at unrestricted market rates, and Monterey County’s affordable housing stock would decrease by 161 homes.

Many government agencies made substantial financial contributions to make the Moro Cojo homes affordable. Monterey County waived $118,868 in processing fees and contributed a $476,150 Community Development Block Grant grant toward the project. The Red Cross donated generously. State and federal governments provided low-interest loans and other financial aid. The Federal Resolution Trust Co. sold the land for the project for an alleged “fraction of the amount [which had been] loaned on the property.”

The public purpose of those contributions was to significantly increase the supply of single-family homes affordable to very low and low income families.

Since the need for affordable homes is as great now as it was in the 1990s, I believe that changing the affordability from permanent to 15 years at this time would be an unlawful gift of public funds because it would be for the private gain of the 161 homeowners, rather than for the intended public purpose.

Please understand that I am not unbiased. I represented clients in two 1990s lawsuits about the Moro Cojo project. The first lawsuit resulted in a stipulated judgment interpreting a condition for project approval to mean that the homes were to remain permanently affordable until substantial evidence showed that the permanent restriction should be changed. The second lawsuit resulted in CHISPA suing my clients for tens of thousands of dollars, alleging that my clients’ lawsuit was frivolous and for the purpose of stopping the project.

The court rejected CHISPA’s allegation, affirmed the validity of that lawsuit (which had to do with water supply), and ordered CHISPA to pay my attorney fees for the time I spent defending against CHISPA’s unwarranted allegation.

So, I’m not unbiased. Nonetheless, I do know a lot about origins of the homes’ affordability.

First, it’s understandable that the homeowners want the greater profit they would reap from selling their homes without limitation on the selling price. Those particular homeowners would become free of any obligation to use any portion of the equity they accrue to help other families wanting homeownership, and they could pocket their profits. However, they would be undermining the very policy that benefitted them.

The homeowners argue that their homes were “self-help,” meaning that each purchasing household spent 40 hours a week for eight to ten months doing non-specialized labor on their homes to provide “sweat equity.” That’s commendable. However their “sweat equity” substituted for a down payment valued at $16,000 plus specified interest. And when they do sell, even with the affordability restriction, they can make a modest profit.

The homeowners argue that redevelopment law puts a 15 year limit on affordability on self-help homes rather than making it permanent. That’s true about now-defunct redevelopment law.

However redevelopment law has never applied to these homes, and the law that does apply commonly results in permanent restrictions on affordability.

The homeowners argue that permanent affordability deed restrictions are unlawful, and that they were not given adequate notice about the deed restrictions, and that the restriction makes it difficult to get home loans or refinancing. However a 2009 appeals court decision about the Moro Cojo permanent deed restrictions, Alfaro v. CHISPA, considered those same claims and rejected them.

It seems likely that, as in the past, issues pertaining to the homeowners’ application will be obscured by charges of racism and classism. Thus, involvement in this public issue should not be undertaken by the delicate. Nonetheless, Partisan readers who care sufficiently about affordable housing and are willing to get involved, should send their comments to the Monterey County Housing Advisory Committee at 168 W. Alisal St., Salinas 93901 before the first hearing, which will be on April 8. Explain whether you think the affordability restriction on the 161 Moro Cojo homes should remain permanent, or whether 15 years of affordability is enough, and why.

Two subsequent public hearings will be held, one before the Planning Commission and one before the Board of Supervisors.

The Alfaro court best summarized the issue when it said: “Plaintiffs are essentially arguing that this housing program should have been designed differently, namely just to benefit them, the first wave of low income buyers. We acknowledge that it would be a more beneficial program to this first wave if they were able to sell their properties for whatever price they could command. However, plaintiffs do not discuss how avoiding the affordable housing deed restriction will benefit the second wave and later waves of low income buyers. There is an inherent conflict between the goals of maximizing the financial benefits to the first wave and preserving affordable housing for future buyers. We consider it reasonable to impose a continuing affordability requirement for the benefit of future low to moderate income homeowners.”

Jane Haines is a retired lawyer who has been heavily involved in issues related to affordable housing.

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The following was posted by longtime Monterey County land-use activist Julie Engell as a response to news that Cal Am hopes to sell Salinas Valley water back to Salinas Valley interests. I am reposting it here as a standalone commentary because it contains some great background about the desalination project and mistakes that could have been avoided.

 

By Julie Engell

One of my biggest concerns about the original desal project was its potential impact on Salinas Valley groundwater. That project proposed vertical wells within the basin. I clearly recall a meeting a small group of us had with then-Supervisor Calcagno and Steve Collins trying to make the case that the project EIR was flawed and incomplete and should not be certified. At that meeting, I pointed out to both Calcagno and Collins that the project would require 20,000 acre-feet of Salinas Basin water to produce 10,000 acre-feet of desalinated water. We pointed out the flaws in the hydrological study and its conclusion that, after decades of trying to reduce groundwater pumping near the coast (something the Salinas Valley Water Project was supposed to fix), it was now a good idea to accelerate pumping at the coast.

Furthermore, I pointed out to both men that although the proposed intake wells were adjacent to North County’s aquifers, none of the well data used in the “analysis” came from wells in any of North County’s aquifers. This was frightening because North County’s aquifers, which are hydrologically connected to the Salinas Basin, are over-drafted and lie up-gradient from the basin. Because they drain into the Salinas Basin, as long as water use in the basin continues to intensify, North County’s aquifers will continue to decline, regardless of what North County residents do. This hydrologic connectivity was the justification used by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency to rope North County into paying some of the highest per-acre assessments for the Salinas Valley Water Project. The Fugro-West report calculated total water use in North County at 23,000 acre-feet. The Regional Desal project proposed pumping an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water from a Salinas Basin location just outside North County’s uphill aquifers.

(North County voters never figured out that Calcago repeatedly sold them up-river.)

When the Monterey County Water Resources Agency Board, dominated by agricultural interests, voted to recommend certification of the desal project EIR, I showed up, made the same case and just about begged them to recommend instead that the EIR be improved and recirculated. I should have done something else with my time and energy. Representatives of the Farm Bureau and the Salinas Valley Water Coalition were in attendance, but they supported EIR certification.

Now slant intake wells are proposed, which theoretically will draw less Salinas Basin water. Only now the very same Ag interests are having a cow. Go figure.

Those same interests never invoke the prohibition against exporting water from the basin (Zone2C) when it suits their purpose. No eyebrows are raised or protests uttered when parcels outside the zone are sold advertising well lease agreements with parcels inside the zone.

It’s no problem that Zone 2C includes a big unconnected blob of land high in the hills on the east side of the valley. It’s the Challone Vineyard.

Want to develop Ferrini Ranch? Just make sure the project’s well site has a toe hold in the basin and you can develop to your heart’s content.

I always thought there was a possibility that Salinas Valley interests would reverse themselves after Cal Am ratepayers built the plant, refusing to “export” any of their water or using the prohibition to extort free water from the project.

Salinas Valley Ag interests don’t have any problem exploiting others. They just don’t like being on the receiving end of the same treatment. When the original desal project began amassing huge bills for “pre-effective date costs,” all to be paid by Cal Am rate payers, I asked the Board of Supervisors and the MCWRA Board to look into it. I couldn’t figure out how a project that, at that time wasn’t being litigated, had already accumulated almost $1 million in legal fees. I couldn’t figure out why Cal Am rate payers were reimbursing the Monterey County Water a Resources Agency for director Curtis Weeks’ time at a rate of about $217/hour. I couldn’t figure out why travel and meal expenses were so eye-poppingly high when all the project partners were local.

Needless to say, neither the supervisors nor the water agency was responsive, so I submitted a Public Records Act request that revealed a great deal. Here’s what emerged. The lawyers, both County Counsel and special counsel, Downy Brand, redacted all fee information. Nobody involved in the process seemed capable of participating in a meeting that wasn’t scheduled during a meal. No expense was spared on meals and lodging while in San Francisco lobbying the PUC. Curtis Weeks submitted hand-written time cards with no supporting documentation for time he claimed he spent working on the project. I compared the dates he claimed with dates of meetings he also claimed he attended. More frequently than not, the dates didn’t jibe. The reason Cal Am ratepayers were being billed $217/hour for Weeks’ time was because his rate included all overhead associated with his position — his office space, his phone lines, his electricity use, his pens, pencils, paper clips, copies, his share of asset depreciation, etc., etc. This overhead expense, and for that matter, Weeks’ salary and benefits, was already being paid by all county taxpayers, which includes Cal Am ratepayers. Unless Salinas Valley interests are similarly assessed for work done by the agency director on projects benefitting the Salinas Valley, then Cal Am ratepayers were double billed — once when they paid their property taxes and once when the costs were passed through again to Cal Am ratepayers. Even if it’s common practice to assess each project for the director’s time, overhead which is already covered shouldn’t be paid for twice. And if the director’s time is reimbursed by each project, solid supporting documentation should be required.

The Board of Supervisors, which is largely controlled by Ag interests, and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency Board, which is dominated by the same industry, couldn’t be bothered to look into it.

But this wasn’t the first time Salinas Valley interests and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency buried the agency’s costs and spread the burden countywide. The Salinas Valley Water Project was approved by a Proposition 218 vote. The purpose of a 218 vote is to ensure that only the beneficiaries of a project pay for the project.

The project faced two major lawsuits. The first one the county lost. The result was that project assessments for that group of litigants were reduced and the county picked up the tab (millions) for its own and its opponents’ legal fees. After years in litigation, the county settled the second suit by purchasing the lake concession business and paying the legal fees of the litigant, and also absorbed its own legal costs. Again, the county spent millions. The lake concession operation has lost money ever since. Even though the Salinas Valley Water Project is designed to only benefit a specific group of Salinas a Valley interests, the entire county has paid to defend it. When you consider the difference in property values per acre between the Peninsula and the Salinas Valley, the Peninsula’s share to defend the Salinas Valley Water Project is greater than the share actually paid by the beneficiaries of the project.

So when Salinas Valley Ag roars about its water rights, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for some of us to remind them that the Peninsula has helped fund a lot of it. In my experience, the Ag interests that control the MCWRA don’t give a damn who’s getting ripped off, as long as it isn’t them.

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Single family house on pile of moneyThe California Legislative Analyst’s Office came out with a big report this week titled “California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences.

Here are some of the key findings. Please raise your hand when you learn something new. Strike that. If you learn something new.

California’s home prices and rents are higher than most other places in the United States. (You may have read a Monterey Herald editorial this week saying that the report found California’s house prices and rents to be “higher than anywhere else in the country.” It doesn’t say that. It says prices are higher in Hawaii and other expensive pockets).

Housing prices are especially high along the coast.

Building less housing than people demand drives housing costs higher. “A shortage of housing along California’s coast means households wishing to live there compete for limited housing. This competition bids up home prices and rents. Some people who find California’s coast unaffordable turn instead to California’s inland communities, causing prices there to rise as well. In addition to a shortage of housing, high land and construction costs also play some role in high housing prices.”

High housing costs are problematic for residents and the economy. Some families can’t afford to buy houses, some have to commute long distances because of housing prices and some families live in crowded conditions for the same reason.

Existing affordable housing programs have not had a major impact on the problem but more and better programs could be more effective.

 More housing construction in coastal urban areas would help reduce housing prices along the coast. However, “It could place strains on the state’s infrastructure and natural resources and alter the prized character of California’s coastal communities. It also would require the state to make changes to a broad range of policies that affect housing supply directly or indirectly—including policies that have been fundamental tenets of California government for many years.”

There are other revelations.

High housing costs make it hard for some employers to hire qualified employees.

There are other housing problems besides price, such as homelessness and substandard housing.

 Home prices and rents vary widely in different communities. Bakersfield and San  Francisco are mentioned.

High land costs can be offset through dense development.

My point is that the report seems to have been produced and written by someone named Mr. Obvious. Actually, it was written by a couple of policy analysts for the Legislative Analyst’s Office and there is some useful information. I suspected that housing prices here had gone up faster than in other parts of the country but didn’t know that for sure until reading this report.

But after reading some 40 odd pages and a long executive summary and reading all the charts, I am mainly left to wonder why this report was written in the first place. It provides almost no new information about any element on California housing and makes no specific recommendation about how to either increase the supply or reduce the costs.

One explanation could be that it is intended to be an attack, though a fairly mild one, on the California Environmental Quality Act. The report notes that California law, known as CEQA, is tougher than the environmental protection laws in most states and that it is often used to stop or delay construction projects. The report does not call for eliminating CEQA but it likely will be cited by legislators who hope to accomplish that.

The report’s leading point seem to be that the slow pace of construction in coastal California drives prices up along the coast and inland as well as some people, priced out of the coastal market, chose to live inland.

The report’s solution: Try to build more housing along the coast, even though there would be serious environmental issues, strong resistance from existing coastal dwellers, and high land costs.

To help, the report says the Legislature should consider changing the tax structure so that local municipalities receive more tax benefits from residences and fewer from commercial construction.

If the report focused considerably more attention on that topic, and made detailed recommendations on how to accomplish that, it would have been worthwhile. But it doesn’t so it isn’t.

California’s current formula for financing the functions of government has played a huge role in creating urban sprawl in many communities and causing cities to compete for large retail operations such as Costco and Walmart no matter how poorly they fit into their locations. Countless shopping complexes, such as the one in Sand City, exist in order to beef up city budgets.

But the report makes no real suggestions on how the formula should be set, nothing about other potential ramifications of changing the formula. It doesn’t address what the  cities or the Legislature could do to promote in-fill development and walkable neighborhoods rather than giant shopping complexes that wipe out locally owned businesses.

The report does not do a bad job of listing various aspects of the problem but it contains almost nothing that would better inform anyone who reads a newspaper once a week.

Which takes me back to the question of why? If you get a chance, give it a look. Here is the main link, a companion video,  and the charts. If you can figure out the motivation, let us know.

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Sorry I stole your horse, mister. Wanna buy it back?

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In case you missed it, the Weekly’s Sara Rubin had an important water story this week. Here it is. It’s about Cal Am Water and its plans for a desal plant in Marina and what happens if the plant, while sucking up ocean water, also sucks up Salinas Valley groundwater from a basin that extends to the shore.  That wouldn’t be legal, but Cal Am figures it can find a way to make it legal AND to take that Salinas Valley groundwater and sell it back to its rightful owners.

The correct reaction to that is “Amazing!”

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Water tap outdoorsOn Feb. 9, the Partisan posted lengthy comments by Tom Moore, a member of the Marina Coast Water District board of directors. He wrote about Peninsula water politics and other factors that have complicated the search for solutions to the area’s water problems.

The following was submitted in response by Ken Nishi, a former director of the Marina Coast district who has clashed with Moore on several occasions. Moore has been asked to respond a couple of times in recent weeks but he has not yet replied.

Life was great on the Monterey Peninsula in 1947. We were all neighbors, Italians, Chinese, Okies, Polish, Japanese, Germans, Native Americans, all. We were one community. It was so great that the state senator’s son in Carmel took the Bay Rapid Transit bus to Monterey and then walked to Wharf Number 2 to enjoy the day fishing. We all enjoyed fishing together and shared the joy of living here on the Monterey Peninsula.

 Times have changed, some things for the better and some for the worse. It continues to make me wonder why people continue to embellish facts with false statements like ”knows more about water issues than just about anyone around”. Then allows them to publish them as facts. Examples:

 Cal Am did not determine where to put the inter-tie on the former Fort Ord. It was determined by engineering as the best place where the existing and future infrastructure would be best for the recycled and potable water planned by the Marina Coast Water District (MCWD). This location is closer to Seaside High School than the main gate.

 MCWD had at the time in the House of Representatives a bill which would of made available a $450 million grant to pay for the costs of the Regional Desalination Project plus fifty million dollars for the take down of the San Clemente Dam, so why all this garbage about capital cost to be made by Cal Am? The potential loss of all that money as a profit source was the reason Cal Am turned on MCWD.  Also as a back-up, MCWD had a loan at 2.45% for four hundred million dollars by the State Resources Control Board.

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Tom Moore

The individual “who knows more about water issues” (Moore) does not mention the significance of our neighbors to the east and south, the Salinas Valley Basin. The economy of the Salinas Valley is agriculture. To maintain this vital factor, the inexpensive water should go to agriculture and urban areas should start planning to use more expensive water, recycled and desalinated. MCWD should take the lead and use the ground water for backup only and move to desalination.

The individual “who knows more about water issues” is starting his campaign again about getting paid for his “continued to serve the community by sitting on the Marina Coast Water District Board despite the coinciding directorship of some exceptionally cantankerous member” to be compensated. This issue came up before and he was told that the Board can approve whatever he wants to do about compensation but any increase would not be implemented for twenty years so we would not be like Congressional members who act to benefit only for themselves not the citizens.

Compensation became a dead issue but it is evidently coming back again. Someone forgot the free Christmas dinners paid for by the electorate of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency for the Board every year, MCWD Board passing a motion to give free dinners to Board members who attend the Special District Meeting not to just the Board member appointed to representing the District. Also when there was money left over from Seaside Highland recirculating hot water pumps, the same “knowledgeable” person wanted the Board members to have an opportunity to be able to receive the pumps before seniors, disadvantaged, and was told it was a conflict but still tried by again suggesting a lottery to include Board members and was told no again. When he was coaching a soccer team and needed a place to meet, he put on the agenda to make available the District’s beach office for meetings and was told it was a conflict. Whom does he represent?

 As Board member, we should work to give back to the community that we live in, not what we can take.

 As individuals involved in our community, we do our best when we work to solve the problems and not criticize others for trying.

 Life was great in 1947.                 

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Apollo Global Management boss Leon Black bought one version of Munch’s “The Scream” for $119 million, the most ever paid for an artwork at auction

After months of silence about the future of the Monterey Herald and 70 or so sister papers, some news has ascended out of the East. It isn’t the good kind. The trade papers are reporting that the frontrunner to buy the Digital First Media chain is the very large private equity firm Apollo Global Management.

If you are involved in high finance, you likely know about Apollo. It manages about $160 billion of investor and shareholder money and specializes in acquiring distressed businesses and extracting profits from them by whatever means necessary.

In other words, Apollo is similar to but larger than the company that now owns Digital First Media, Alden Global Capital. Apollo owns a long list of businesses you’re familiar with, including Coldwell Banker and Century 21 Real Estate, Caesars Palace, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carl’s Jr. In 2013 it bought a company with a strong local presence, McGraw-Hill Education.

That is not to say that Apollo is in the restaurant, real estate, gaming, cruise line and educational publishing businesses. It is in the business of buying companies, taking them in and out of bankruptcy, combining them with other companies, streamlining their management, laying people off, improving their short-term profit picture, and selling them off.

A piece in Forbes magazine last August had this to say:

“Apollo has been the hottest private equity player in recent years. Its biggest fund has delivered a net internal rate of return of 30%, it has raised the biggest new private equity fund the industry has seen in years, and its billionaire co-founders are buying professional basketball and hockey teams and famous pieces of art.”

Newspapers weren’t mentioned in the piece.

Apollo is headed by Leon Black, the former Drexel Burnham Lambert manager whose personal worth is estimated at $5.4 billion, according to Inside Philanthropy.

Three years ago, Black purchased one of four known versions of Munch’s “The Scream.” The $119 million price was said to be the highest price ever paid for a single artwork at auction.

Word is that Apollo is the only remaining bidder for the entirety of the Digital First network but that the deal has been delayed by complications involving DFM’s holdings in Texas. It is significant to note, however, that Digital First has numerous suitors for pieces of the pie, individual papers or regional clusters such as the Bay Area News Group, which operates the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and other dailies ringing the bay.

The Herald and Digital First’s Santa Cruz Sentinel have been pursued by local investment groups headed by Geoff Dunn, a Santa Cruz entrepreneur and activist who had attempted to buy the Sentinel the last time it was in play. Others have attempted to make offers for the Mercury News alone, the Denver paper and other combinations.

Unfortunately for almost everyone except perhaps DFM and Apollo, DFM’s owners so far have opted not to entertain offers for any of the various parts. I say unfortunate because in many cases, the potential buyers consist of investors interested in saving or even restoring their local papers to what they once were.

The rumored price for all the papers works out to about $400 million, which could be less than what just the Mercury News and DFM’s Denver Post would have gone for 15 years ago. But while that price is low compared to what it once would have been, it is high enough to suggest that the new operator, if it is Apollo, will be devoted to grinding profits out of the papers rather than letting them hold onto enough cash to rebuild.

Leon-Black

Leon Black, patron of the arts, would-be media mogul

In the past 15 years, the Herald has gone from a daily circulation of well over 30,000 to a figure hovering around 14,000. The newsroom staff has dwindled from 50 to about 15. The Santa Cruz Sentinel has experienced a similar decline. (Do a Wikipedia search for the Herald and you’ll see a daily circulation figure of 23,862 and a Sunday figure of 58,001. Take this as additional proof that Wikipedia is not to be trusted. The Sunday figure has no relation to reality, past or present.)

The conventional wisdom is that the papers have downsized so dramatically because they are losing money. The fact is that most papers continue to make handsome profits – largely because they have cut content, staffing and other expenses so dramatically. In other words, the ownership has chosen to deliver a thinner and thinner product in order to maintain double-digit profit margins. In still other words, much of the decline of newspapers is self imposed. Investor groups interested in the individual properties believe or at least suspect that ownership with much more modest profit expectations could revitalize the operations, with much of the benefit accruing to the communities they serve.

The current owner, Alden, acquired the Herald and the rest of the Digital First papers in a series of steps that also involved bankruptcies and other elements of modern deal-making.

The Herald was founded by well-respected Col. Allen Griffin and started its route through a series of ownership changes in 1967. It was purchased first by Block Communications, which traded it to the E.W. Scripps chain in 1992. In 1997, it was traded again to Knight-Ridder, one of the most highly regarded newspaper groups in the country.

Knight-Ridder included the likes of the Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald and other quality operations. For the most part, the Herald flourished.

The end of the empire came in 2006 after one of Knight Ridder’s largest shareholders complained publicly about inadequate returns, prompting company President Tony Ridder to put it all up for sale. In fairly quick order, the Herald went from being part of the Macy’s or Nordstrom of newspaper chain to the Kmart of chains, Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group.

Singleton made his mark on the industry through cost-cutting and “clustering,” consolidating operations of newspapers on a regional basis. One staff plus a few small bureaus produces several newspapers, quite similar but each with its own name. As just one example, all the copy editing and layout of the Monterey and Santa Cruz papers plus eight or nine others takes place in Chico.

Singleton’s papers became Digital First Media papers in stages that included a management contract, a couple of bankruptcies and eventually a merger. Ownership fell into the hands of Alden Global Capital, a very low-profile operation based in New York. Alden also became a major investor in other groups, including the New York Times and McClatchy but its role and influence in the industry have attracted scant attention.

Under the leadership of John Paton, a Canadian newsman, DFM began this decade with a serious attempt to build the brand by pushing each of the newspapers in the string to seriously ramp up its online operation. Paton and those around him recognized that print newspapers are a dying breed and that the future of news distribution is online. The challenge was that digital advertising is far less lucrative than print advertising.

Paton and company made a strong run at it but committed at least one fatal error. They persuaded Alden Global Capital to make some investment in the product and to show some patience, but almost all of that investment went into creating something called Thunderdome. It was headquartered in New York and was tasked with creating and bundling national and international news and features to be used on the websites of each of newspapers.

At the local level, editors, me included, were desperate to increase the quantity and quality of local reportage but the resources for that were being routed to Thunderdome instead. Individual papers were even billed for the cost of keeping Thunderdome afloat.

The national content created by Thunderdome was good but not good enough to drive readers to the Chico Enterprise-Record website or to cause El Paso Times readers to cancel their New York Times subscriptions. Alden’s patience wore out just over a year ago and the current sale process was launched.

It is not certain that Apollo will be the buyer, nor is it certain that it would only be interested in the quick buck.

The fear, given its history and that of other companies specializing in “distressed properties” is that it will try to make money simply by cutting expenses and putting the papers on the market. The question is whether there is anything left to cut.

Royal Calkins was editor of the Monterey Herald until February 2014 when Digital First assigned Santa Cruz Sentinel Editor Don Miller to lead both papers. Calkins previously was city editor and opinion page editor at the Herald and has consulted with Dunn on the potential purchase. By the way, many of you are familiar with the Julia Reynolds’ byline. She has been one of the top Herald reporters for nearly a decade now, skillfully covering courts and gang violence along with investigative topics. She is taking a voluntary layoff and her last day is Friday.

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Lovely girl and little pony

Contrarian Larry Parsons wants people to remember that a vote against Monterey Downs is a vote against ponies

It’s one of the glorious days when possible subjects to write about are falling from the sky like so many stars in a Jimi Hendrix song.

First, there are all advance quotes from former Vice President Dick Cheney’s interview in the upcoming issue of Playboy in which he — major SPOILER alert — calls President Obama the worst president of all time and space.

This from the guy who never saw an oil well or potential Middle Eastern war without feeling lust in his heart. Cue the Jimmy Carter canoe-and-cannibal-rabbit story, and juxtapose it with the time Cheney was bitten by a floppy-eared werewolf.

Another subject, naturally, is Starbucks’ harebrained push for employees to engage customers in conversations about racial relations in the United States. People much higher in their pay grades in politics, pulpits, the media and corporate board rooms should be having these conversations — not $10-an-hour baristas, for pity’s sake.

“Reparations, race cards, rap music!!! Just give me caffeine, for #!?%’s sake.” Oh, the sound of America healing.

And there is the Hillary problem — that amorphous, media-fed tidal wave carrying the flotsam of secret emails, cattle futures, travel bookings, botched health-care plans and being-married-to-Bill again to the shores of our presidential politics. But there will be time, oh, there will be time, to wear out the fingers blogging about this. It never will go away, and the mighty Wurlitzer is just getting tuned up.

Then I spotted a story from the right side of the media world that seemed especially piquant. A blogger for the Daily Caller, the conservative web site run by Peter Pan frat boy Tucker Carlson, quit when Tucker spiked a column critical of Fox News. Seems you can criticize everything under the sun but Fox News — Imperial Death Star of right-wing confabulation — at the Daily Caller.

The writer was unhappy that Fox lately has dropped threat-level 7 stories about the scourge of unauthorized immigration and Obama amnesty plans to pad Democratic voter lists. Apparently, Fox is hitting harder at the scourge of all things Muslim and the terrible fact that American troops are no longer dying in sufficient numbers in the Middle East because the last two wars went so well.

This falling-out among fevered founts of Fox fabulism got me thinking. I’d best watch my step, or something similar could upset the equilibrium here the Monterey Bay Partisan.

In my notebook, I found a few ideas I’d been kicking around for columns that I realize might run afoul of what could be called the Partisan party line. Rest assured they will never see the light of day, or I, too, would have to take the high road and resign in a righteous huff from this comfortable and prestigious sinecure. I will share a few, but this is strictly between me and you. Totally off the record, very hush-hush.

1. Sure Cal Am hasn’t produced a major water project for the Peninsula to save the Carmel River for almost 40 years and the multinational utility takes profits out of the community and passes on all sorts of questionable costs to customers who spend a good part of each day getting thorns and needles out of their hides from their prickly xeriscape gardens, but the water company isn’t all bad. I saw a crew fixing a water line one day, and the guy with the jack hammer smiled, or looked like he was trying to smile as his face jiggled like Jello …

2. We can agree that the undeveloped land at Fort Ord is pretty unsurpassed in coastal country beauty, but just a teensy bit could be tastefully destroyed to make room for the charming, little Monterey Downs horsolopolis. Think of all the jobs. You remember, Hercules got his start mucking out stables. And if there were horses, there would be ponies. So there will be pony rides for all the children, and we must think of the children …

3. OK, the Ferrini Ranch subdivision will dump hundreds of more vehicles each day on Highway 68, making the stop-and-go commute between Salinas and Monterey a lot more stoppy than goey. But there are a lot of good audio books that can be very instructive when you spend more than two hours a day listening to them in frozen traffic. And some folks, who must take Highway 68 to get to the two or three jobs they juggle to make ends meet, may decide to eat and sleep in their cars during peak congestion. This could ease the horrible shortage of affordable housing in Monterey County. Moreover, the slower traffic pace will allow travelers more time to enjoy the rustic beauty of the old red-and-white fence near Laguna Seca …

Seriously, these jottings, I promise, will never see the light of day at this blog.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the upcoming Cheney issue of Playboy. I’m interested in whether the Playboy editors have ever found a Playboy Party Joke that is funny. Like this one:

Trimalchio: I attended an orgy last night with the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Encolpius: Ooh, sounds nasty. Was it fun?

Trimalchio: For a while, but then Mike Huckabee arrived.

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