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Sergio Sanchez, the former Salinas city councilman, is on a mission to restore the “safe and sane” fireworks stands that have traditionally popped up at major intersections every June as Independence Day approached, and he says he is tired of having his motives questioned.

“No, I am not being paid by anyone,” he said a couple of months ago. “Why does everyone keep asking me?”

The simple answer: W. Patrick Moriarty.

Some members of the Salinas City Council are too young to remember Moriarty and the cloud of corruption that he spread across California in the late 1970s and mid 1980s while he headed the nation’s largest fireworks manufacturer, Red Devil Fireworks, then based in Anaheim.

Moriarty was briefly imprisoned for fraud and corruption but escaped serious time by serving as a key government witness in prosecutions that led to convictions of a dozen politicians, bankers and Moriarty associates. His actions also prompted a sweeping but largely unsuccessful investigation into corrupt practices within the state Legislature.

In 1982, campaign contributions and other inducements from Moriarty led the Legislature to pass legislation that would have banned California cities from outlawing safe-and-sane fireworks. That would have instantly enabled Moriarty and his few competitors to begin selling their Fourth of July packages in Los Angeles and other large cities where all fireworks are banned.

FBI agents, who had already been investigating Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in earnest, thought they had hit the jackpot when they obtained a 1982 letter in which one of his closest associates said Brown wanted Moriarty to provide $18,500 in campaign contributions for six Democratic candidates for seats in the Assembly. The money was collected and distributed but Brown denied any knowledge of it. He was never charged with a crime in connection with Moriarty’s activities though it was established that he had lobbied local officials around the state to support legalization of Moriarty’s products.

Ultimately, at the urging of fire marshals around the state, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.

At one point, numerous state legislators were believed to have retained defense lawyers because of the Moriarty probe but the investigation fell short of expectations because of the difficulty proving a direct link between illegal campaign contributions and legislative action. Prosecutors also complained in court documents that their star witness seemed to be protecting some of the key targets.

Moriarty’s long gone from the fireworks business but the Red Devil name remains as a brand of another large fireworks outfit, TNT. That company along with Phantom Fireworks spent more than $80,000 to finance a petition drive intended to reverse Salinas’ fireworks ban. (A TNT representative and the key lobbyist for the California fireworks industry started subscribing to the Partisan this week, possibly in anticipation of this article.)

The Salinas City Council tonight, Feb. 9, will be faced with the decision of either reversing its unanimous ban on fireworks or putting the measure to a public vote as part of the June 7 ballot.

There will be considerable pressure on the council to back down and legalize fireworks. There will be Sanchez, waving the pro-fireworks banner, and he’ll be joined by some of the non-profits that take in serious money by selling fireworks each summer. Their strongest argument may be that the county elections office has estimated the June ballot measure would cost the city as much as $280,000.

What do I think? First, I think the number from the elections office sounds high. Way high.

Second. The Salinas fire chief, Ed Rodriguez, wants the ban to stay in place. He says, “There’s nothing safe or sane about a firework that can reach thousands of degrees in temperature.” I think no amount of money from the fireworks industry is going to change that.


Mechanical electric kilowatt hour meter register dials macro imageHere’s what Gov. Brown said Friday when he vetoed six bills designed to reform the California Public Utilities Commission:

Parts of some of the bills conflict with others, so I will work with the Legislature to address the issues in a more orderly fashion.

Here’s what he meant:

I’ll work on some of the most innocuous issues for a while and let the meaningful parts slide until everyone has forgotten about them.

Once again, the utility brotherhood has prevailed in Sacramento and the Public Utilities Commission remains its captive. The decision-making process remains a dark and mysterious function understood only by lawyers and lobbyists and designed to slowly and steadily extract as much money as possible from people who have nowhere else to turn for electricity, gas or even water. Here’s a fairly complete story from the Chronicle.

The six bills had been overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature, a remarkable accomplishment considering that the California legislative body, while not nearly as fractured as Congress, is no model of consensus. Some of the bills were approved unanimously.

Among other things, the new laws would have tightened the rules on backroom conversation between the five appointed commissioners and the companies they regulate and would have made it easier to mount court challenges against the bureaucracy when it fails to appropriately respond to requests for public records.

One of the vetoed bills called for appointment of an inspector general to oversee the commission, an important step considering the degree to which the previous chairman, Michael Peevey, allowed the body to be controlled by the utilities rather than the reverse.

Advocates for the legislation say, correctly, that if these laws had been on the books years before, we might have avoided the San Bruno natural gas disaster caused by negligently maintained PG&E pipelines. Soon after the 2010 gas line explosion killed eight, a release of emails revealed secret dealings between Peevey and PG&E, leading to continuing investigations by state and federal prosecutors.

Local advocates for the legislation say, correctly, that if these laws had been on the books, we might have avoided a PUC decision holding ratepayers rather than the utility responsible for the cost of removing Cal Am’s negligently maintained San Clemente Dam.

Current PUC regulations allow private meetings between commissioners and their subjects as long as the utilities report the talks to the full commission. One of the bills would have eliminated a loophole that allows the meetings to remain secret if the parties agree that the commissioners essentially did all the talking. Really.

Even a law firm representing the PUC found last year that the back-channel communications “systematically favor the interests of utilities and other well-funded parties.”

Here is what Brown actually wrote in his veto message:

“Taken together there are various technical and conflicting issues that make the over fifty proposed reforms unworkable … . Some prudent prioritization is needed.

“I am directing my office to work with the authors on drafting these reforms and to ensure the commission receives the necessary resources to implement them swiftly and effectively.”

Let the breath holding begin.

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California Gov. Jerry Brown uses a newly dispatched rattlesnake to demonstrate what he will do to those who continue yammering about high-speed rail and Big Ag’s water use.

Ran into a former colleague and during the course of our catch-up conversation, he allowed how his wife admired my some of work here at the Monterey Bay Partisan.

Really, which pieces? I asked.

Probably the cries from my heart about the spreading stain of police misconduct or the ongoing freedom enjoyed by the architects of the U.S.’s torture-and-secret-prisons system.

Perhaps, the rapier wit I employ about doofuses like Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump’s crackerjack team of Hawaiian birther investigators, who evidently took a four-hour trip aboard a charter boat called the S.S. Minnow and vanished without reporting back to Generalissimo Bad Hair for Life.

No, the erstwhile colleague said, it was the one about your dogs.

Oh yes, my occasional prose odes to the grandeur of our pair of Dachshunds, Max and Minnie. While these pieces capture the pure joy of frisky pups rolling on their backs for mandatory belly rubs, I’ve never considered columns about animals — even the cutest dogs on the planet — to be the cream of my commentary.

Otherwise, I’d launch right here into 900 words about our year-old tuxedo cats, Gracie and Lucy, because they are the cutest cats, named after two of the nation’s finest female comics, on the face of the planet.

But I will spare you — for the time being.

I also refrain from a lengthy thumbsucker about this week’s two hottest animal videos, a remarkable guinea pig that runs with a dog pack, and a monkey that tried to tear the face off a smart-ass waving a bird at the monkey with his middle finger. Sorry, I can’t cock my eyebrows like KSBW’s Dan Green during his funny animal stories.

But like one of those children’s puzzles in which you try to find 10 pesky squirrels in a leafy tree, animal stories keep appearing before me like gopher mounds in a Prunedale field.

First an apparent celebrity named Dog the Bounty Hunter goes on Fox News and tells one of Fox’s blond chickadees that Hillary is the cat’s pajamas for the Dog among the growing pack of hyenas howling to be the next president.

Dog’s early endorsement raises two immediate questions: Who does McGruff the Crime Dog like, and is Dog’s magnificent mullet really a pelt taken from a rare, medium-sized rat that went extinct in 1978?

Then there is Snakegate. That’s what some California political bloggers are calling the mystery surrounding the recent photo of Gov. Jerry Brown and an apparently dead rattlesnake.

Brown’s office released the photo, but a herd of buffalo (actually the depleted herd that is the capital press corps) couldn’t get such details as: where the snake and governor butted horns, if the snake bared fangs first, and did the mongoose governor kill the serpent himself. Brown’s office clammed up.

All we know from the evidence: Brown’s sun hat appears to be made from a petrified jellyfish; his jaunty, elasto-band pants — pulled almost halfway to his chest — fit him as snugly as sealskin; and the governor’s forked walking stick makes it impossible for the dead snake to suddenly rear like a spooked stallion and strike.

Until someone burrows to the bottom of Snakegate, we are left with more questions than the number of stripes on a zebra. A few of the persistent nags:

Are the rest of us at increased risk, like sheep amid a pack of jackals in the parched landscape, from rattlesnakes?

Was it right for Brown to crow about killing one of God’s creatures?

Were several squirrels in a leafy tree purposely cropped from the photo?

Like most Californians, I have a few rattlesnake yarns, but none as mysterious as the governor’s.

I once worked in the woods with a fellow who drove a Jaguar (a Princeton Tiger, I believe) who killed and sautéed a 5-foot rattler like you would prepare a fresh-caught trout.

The pale snake meat tasted much like any mild sautéed fish, fowl or tofu because the Princeton Tiger forgot to add any seasoning or special ‘rattler sauce. What a turkey. Ivy League!

I haven’t eaten alligator, but that’s no excuse for the skunks in Sacramento to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes on Snakegate. Do they think we are dumb as oxen? Vipers!

If I wasn’t so upset I would tell you about Lucy and Gracie. I think they see a squirrel at my desk.


keeleytestifyingAre you ready for some good news on the political front? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Leading candidates for the open seat on the California Public Utilities Commission include East Bay Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and former Central Coast legislator Fred Keeley, and that, as they say, is a win-win for those who would like to see the PUC return to its core mission of protecting the public interest.

Keeley’s name was forwarded to the governor by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and he is high on the short list. He would be an exceptionally good choice for the Central Coast because he knows all about the water shortages on the Peninsula and in coastal Santa Cruz County and would be in the perfect spot to shape the solution.

While Keeley was in the Assembly, he authored what came to be known as Plan B, a state policy statement favoring desalination instead of a new Carmel River dam as solution to the Peninsula’s water shortage. Though the Peninsula has struggled with that and other methods of addressing its severe water shortage, Keeley demonstrated considerable knowledge on both the political and technical fronts as he helped steer the process.

It’s an odd situation, but the PUC is in charge of the current effort to build a desalination plant to serve the Peninsula. As it stands, it has been content to let the Peninsula’s water purveyor, California American Water, mostly dictate the terms but someone with Keeley’s abilities on the commission could put the customers back into the equation.

During the state’s electricity crisis at the start of the century, Keeley was the Assembly’s point person on the exceedingly complex issue, advising both the Legislature and the governor’s office and negotiating with power producers and brokers.

Keeley, 64, a liberal Democrat, began his political career as an aide to Santa Cruz County supervisor Joe Cucchaira. He then became chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Sam Farr. He later served two terms on the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors before campaigning for an Assembly seat in 1996. He served two terms and quickly gained the reputation as a leader in budgeting and the environment.

He left the Assembly in 2002 because of term limits and became executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, turning down an appointment to head the state Department of Finance under Gov. Gray Davis. In 2005 he was appointed Santa Cruz County treasurer and he was elected to the position the next year.

A spot is open on the commission because its battered president, Michael Peevey, opted to leave at the end of his term this month rather than seek reappointment. It was essentially a compromise intended to spare him the embarrassment of removal over revelations of the commission’s remarkably friendly relationship with PG&E, which it purportedly regulates.

Peevey is a former chief executive of PG&E’s southern counterpart, Southern California Edison.


Nancy Skinner

Skinner, also a Democrat, doesn’t have the Central Coast connections that Keeley does but she has strong progressive credentials that suggest she would stand up rather than cozy up to the utilities.

She is leaving the Assembly this month because of term limits. She began her political career while she was a student at UC Berkeley, starting in student government and then becoming the first student elected to the Berkeley City Council. She earned degrees in natural resources and education.

While in the Assembly, Skinner distinguished herself in the areas of climate change and taxation.