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District 4 Supervisorial candidates (from left) Jane Parker, Dennis Donohue and Alex Miller ponder during Thursday’s campaign forum at the Oldermeyer Center in Seaside.

Ex-Salinas mayor claims to be neutral on Monterey Downs despite strong letter of support

For all but about a minute of Thursday night’s campaign forum, political opponents Jane Parker and Dennis Donohue were as polite as they could be with each other but there were two brief periods when the claws came out.

Donohue the challenger, who repeatedly promised to push for more and faster redevelopment at Fort Ord, added a slight barb the last time when he said he would “support the Fort Ord Reuse Plan and not just say I’ll support it.” It was subtle but it was a dig at Parker the incumbent, who embraces a more deliberate pace with considerable time for environmental review.

But it was Parker who got in the bigger zinger. The forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Sustainable Seaside, featured questions from the audience. One was whether the candidates support Monterey Downs, the hugely controversial proposal to build a residential and commercial complex at Fort Ord anchored by a thoroughbred race track. The proposal appears to be dying a natural death because of financial uncertainties but it remains a lightning rod issue on the Peninsula.

Parker said redevelopment of Fort Ord should be focused on creating permanent jobs and mixed-use communities and that gambling and racing don’t fit in.

Donohue skirted the question by saying that he might have to weigh in officially on the venture at some point so he was “not in a position to prejudge the project.” The major decision-making rests with the Seaside City Council and only then would his opinion matter, he said.

Parker seized the opportunity to counter-punch. She asked Donohue why, then, had he invited the Monterey Down developers to make a presentation to the Salinas City Council while he was mayor of Salinas, a presentation that led to a resolution of support.

In a draft of a letter to Monterey Downs managing partner Brian Boudreau on May 15, 2012, Donohue wrote, “I wanted to let you know how much the City Council appreciated the presentation on March 13 by Beth Palmer on behalf of the Monterey Downs project and how excited we are at the prospect of this economic ‘game changer’ at the former Fort Ord. In that much of the planned redevelopment of Fort Ord has been stalled, your project could be the welcome spark to bring many other initiatives forward, consistent with the adopted Fort Ord Reuse Plan.”

Donohue wrote that he understood that the local jurisdictions and environmental regulators were still reviewing the project and that the city supports a fair and rigorous process. Still, he continued, “we understand the importance of Monterey Downs not just as another attraction for Monterey County but the start of a new industry that provides jobs at all economic levels and also complements and supports protection of the unique environmental resources of the vast Fort Ord lands. We cannot overlook the creation of up to 3,000 direct and 2,000 indirect job opportunities for our citizens at a time when Monterey County jobs market lags both state and national employment rates and when we continue to struggle with keeping jobs already here. On behalf of the City Council and our community, we welcome the long-term investment that Monterey Downs is willing to make in this unique and high quality development and wish for your success in obtaining necessary government approvals.”

Because the forum was just that, a forum, and not a debate, Donohue had no immediate opportunity to respond to Parker’s questions and he didn’t get back to it in his closing comments.

Overall, Donohue repeatedly emphasized that his focus as supervisor would be on economic development and job creation.

“Job one is creating jobs,” he said.

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Some good news in Newspaperland?

vintage newsboyI did a little happy dance today because of some encouraging newspaper news out of the east. If you’re interested in journalism and public affairs, you might want to look for your tap shoes too.

The good news is that Apollo Global Management has ended its effort to acquire Digital First Media, the newspaper chain that publishes 70 some papers across the country, including the Monterey Herald and the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Apollo. It is a very successful investment fund and it has made sizable profits for its many investors. It manages some $160 billion in assets and it apparently is very good at what it does. But what it does is make money, not run newspapers.

If Apollo had completed the deal, worth somewhere in the universe of $400 million, it would have been one large investment fund buying the newspaper group from another large investment fund, the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. Months of talks broke down, however, apparently because the parties couldn’t agree on price. Which is a good thing, I believe, because the transaction very likely would have led to continued shrinkage of the staffs and contents of the newspapers. I’ll explain my thinking in a bit.

This leaves the future of the Herald, the Sentinel and their various stablemates in a limbo of sorts. Digital First Media officials said two rather contradictory things Thursday — that the chain isn’t for sale but that they may be selling off pieces, either regional clusters of newspapers or individual papers.

As we and others have reported previously, there are local groups interested in buying both the Monterey and the Santa Cruz papers. One is headed by Geoff Dunn, a writer, educator and filmmaker who has been involved with alternative weeklies in Santa Cruz and elsewhere for decades. He was involved last year in brokering the sale of small dailies in Santa Clara and San Benito counties along with a Santa Cruz weekly and he continues to pursue Digital First Media operations on the Central Coast and elsewhere in Northern California.

Other groups have expressed interest in other Digital First holdings around the country, but DFM has deferred discussions with most of  them while pursuing a package deal with Apollo. If it starts negotiating with groups here and elsewhere, it is likely to become a complicated financial chess game with other newspaper groups proposing trades and other newspaper operations making plays for various configurations of newspapers. (As it stands, the Monterey and Santa Cruz papers are part of Digital First Media’s Northern California group along with papers in Chico, Red Bluff, Vacaville, Vallejo, Red Bluff, Fairfield, Eureka, Mendocino, Ukiah, Clear Lake, Woodland and Paradise. The San Jose Mercury News is part of the company’s Bay Area News Group along with the Contra Costa Times and several closely affiliated papers in the East Bay. At different times, the Sentinel has been part of both groups, as has the Marin Independent Journal.)

I am encouraged for several reasons. I believe local ownership could help restore at least some of the quality at the local papers. Corporate operators are by definition far more interested in profits than in journalism. Also, I believe the right kind of local ownership would be in much better position to make improvements.

Here’s why. As the U.S. newspaper industry has suffered large losses in advertising, circulation and revenue, the impression has been created that they are barely profitable if at all. The reality is that many newspapers have made respectable profits in recent years, not by increasing circulation or their advertising linage but by cutting expenses. With the Apollo deal falling apart, there already is talk of new budget cuts for the DFM papers starting in July. If the deal hadn’t fallen apart, budget cuts would have been on the near horizon anyway, or at least that’s what I think.

What sets local ownership apart from investment banker ownership is that local investors would have much less incentive to cut in order to create the kind of returns that hedge funds and other asset managers proudly offer their clients. Potentially, local investors motivated by public spiritedness might even be able to reinvest some of the profits and rebuild the newspapers.

Am I dreaming? Probably so. But until today, I was expecting to watch the continued decline of most DFM newspapers, including the Herald, where I once held the editor’s title. Now, I feel there is at least a possibility of recovery and the public benefit that goes along with it.

In the past few months, I have given talks to various community groups, including the League of Women Voters of Monterey County, the Gentrain Society at Monterey Peninsula College and the Carmel Valley Association and each was keenly interested in the future of the Herald. The people in the audiences are more involved in public affairs than most folks and a relatively high percentage of them still subscribe to the Herald even as they complain about its dwindling daily report.

I told them about the potential Apollo purchase and the local possibilities, which at the time seemed remote. After each talk, several people came up to me or called or emailed to say that newspapers remain extremely important to them, that they would be following the sale process closely and would be pulling, pulling hard, for local ownership. For the sake of the Herald and the Sentinel and the communities they serve, for the sake of the readers and the advertisers, for the sake of all, let’s hope it works out.

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lettuce plantation of familiar agriculture in brazil

They may not look like it, but the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley apparently are tall enough to prevent Peninsula residents from seeing over them

I was a guest last week at the annual meeting of the League of Women Voters of Monterey County and was jazzed by part of the discussion.

As you know, the league mainly focuses on issues of general concern and advocating for better government, voter rights and campaign finance reform. Though it is aggressively non-partisan, it is widely considered to be a progressive body, largely because opinions supported by good research tend to be progressive.

The portion of the proceedings that lifted me was about potential research topics for league committees in the coming year. The first four mentioned were immigration, literacy, police procedures and affordable housing. What they have in common is that each is of particular interest to those living in the Salinas Valley.

Though the Monterey Peninsula and the Salinas Valley share a county, there is a very real divide. I don’t know who coined the term Lettuce Curtain but it’s apt. It applies to economics, social standing, living conditions and political and cultural issues. And it also applies to an attitude way too common on the Peninsula.

A great many Peninsula people, even those who consider themselves open- and fair-minded, dismiss Salinas as a dangerous and unappealing place. They don’t view the community’s issues as their own. Crowded housing, gang crime, pesticide pollution and conflict with law enforcement don’t alarm many people of the Peninsula nearly as much as their water bills, beach bonfires, view-sheds and what’s playing at the Osio.

You probably know people who would never shop in Salinas, unless stopping for gas can be called shopping, and who would never go out to eat in Salinas. When my daughter enrolled at Salinas High School, arguably the best public high school in the county, some of my Peninsula acquaintances were appalled.

“Don’t you know about the gangs?” they asked.

Over the past couple of years, Salinas has struggled with officer-involved shootings, four or more in the past 18 months alone. The victim in each case was a Latino male, a fact that has stirred a fair amount of consternation and protest in the community. The Salinas community, that is. Not the larger community.

Housing in East Salinas is as crowded as any place in the country, a factor that contributes to the type of violence that Peninsula residents worry about but only when they fear it might slip under the curtain.

Many people on the Peninsula correctly organize themselves to combat poorly planned or poorly placed development. Developers and their supporters in government and other industry have declared war on environmental laws and environmentalists, so it is critical that the resistance remain vigorous. But those who fight the latest plan to plant houses where they don’t belong need to realize that the people of the Salinas Valley see each defeated project as lost jobs and lost opportunities for affordable housing. To succeed in defeating illogical development long-term, the people of the Peninsula need to help create jobs and suitable housing on both sides of the curtain. It is the right thing to do, and if it doesn’t happen, Peninsula interests can count on being clobbered at election time.

Pesticide spraying too close to homes and schools is common in the Salinas Valley, and the issue produces not a peep from the same Peninsula people who came unglued when the state sprayed non-toxic pheromones over the area to control a crop-threatening moth.

Yes, it is true that the Salinas Valley doesn’t have cute boutiques or enough trendy restaurants to draw many of your neighbors. But it does have more than 200,000 people who are up against economic conditions of the type that many people of the Peninsula have overcome. To a great extent, the Salinas Valley is populated by the people who do the Peninsula’s work but become invisible at the end of the day.

Sorry if this sounds like a sermon, but I don’t want to hear one more person from Monterey complain about “gang encroachment” until I’ve heard 10 people taking a direct interest in the schools or libraries of Salinas.

Salinas isn’t dangerous unless you’re a gang member or a cop. It has restaurants with cloth napkins and vegan food. In my daughter’s high school class, there were two National Merit scholars while no Peninsula schools produced any. They’ve had an In-N-Out for years now, and downtown Salinas is taking off.

League of Women Voters, you’ve always been on the right track and you showed me last week that you plan to stay on it. Let’s hope you can drag the rest of us along with you.

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PURELY OPINION: The Monterey Herald gets one right

For many readers, a good editorial is one they agree with. As long as the conclusion or recommendation is on target, the supporting information is secondary. For good editorial writers, however, the supporting information is the most important element. After that come the usefulness of the analysis, the crafting of the piece and, finally and in a distant fourth place, the actual position taken.

An editorial is an opportunity for a writer schooled in a topic to use any number of creative tools to analyze and explain an issue of public importance. Unlike the beat reporter, largely constrained by the rules of he said/she said journalism, the newspaper editorial writer is free to use various writing devices to demystify anything from water politics to Dave Potter’s political longevity. That’s why astute readers are likely to disregard the most subjective passages while keying in on the rest of the package.

The importance of the underlying information is why I was pleased to see the announcement in Sunday’s Monterey Herald that Phyllis Meurer has been added to the Herald’s editorial board.

This means Meurer will have a place at the table when the four-person board considers its positions on various issues. Presumably, her vote will carry  as much weight as that of the other members, Publisher Gary Omernick, Editor Don Miller and editorial writer Tom Honig. (Sometimes publishers insist on veto power, which seldom works out well.)

The upside here is that Meurer brings a deep understanding of government, politics and public policy in Monterey County. She is a former Salinas city councilwoman, a onetime leader of the League of Women Voters and the wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer. What she doesn’t know about public affairs in Monterey County, her husband does.

Some readers of the Monterey Bay Partisan will remember that I was editor of the Herald until February and I wrote the editorials for the past several years. I am not a fan of what has happened to the editorial page since my departure – a sharp right turn in the choice of columns and editorial cartoons and a decline in the number of local editorials and columns. Some of that is a function of the relatively short tenures and divided focus of the editorial board members.

Omernick has been publisher about six years but the realities of modern newspapering require him to concentrate on the business side of the operation, both here and at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Miller has spent his entire newspaper career at the Sentinel, where he continues to serve as editor even while holding the same position in Monterey. He is counting the days to retirement. Libertarian-leaning Honig also spent his entire newspaper career in Santa Cruz before being replaced by Miller. Honig’s relatively short Peninsula experience prior to his recent Herald assignment consisted of working for the Armanasco public relations firm and the Panetta Institute. I write about their backgrounds not as criticism but to explain their challenge. It’s tough to thoughtfully editorialize on local issues when your idea of local involves a different locality. Meurer’s appointment to the editorial board can help change all that. She has a remarkable depth of local knowledge and an endless list of local contacts to help the Herald unravel the issues.

Still, there already has been grousing in some quarters—progressive quarters—about Meurer’s new role. I believe much of it is misplaced and, even if it isn’t, it really doesn’t matter all that much.

One issue on the left side of the political dial is her leadership role in the successful campaign against last year’s Measure M, which was intended to stop the proposed Monterey Downs racetrack development at Fort Ord. She told me she was motivated largely by her belief that the proper government decision-making process is preferable to decision-making by referendum. I strongly disagree with her, largely because the government process in the land-use arena is easily and often corrupted. But because she probably doesn’t see the government process the same way, her position is sincere if not valid.

During that campaign, I called Meurer to ask how she defended the highly deceptive advertising her camp was using in its campaign against Measure M. I wasn’t satisfied with her answer, which essentially was that the other side was being deceptive as well. But I did come away feeling that she truly believed what she was saying. Some of my environmentalist friends who were on the opposite side of the issue have suggested that she was somehow bought off. She was not.

Also from the progressives comes concern about Meurer’s husband, Fred, who ran Monterey’s City Hall for decades before retiring and taking a position with the Panetta Institute. Fred was an exceptionally capable and accomplished city manager who could balance a budget in the morning and fix the Planning Department copy machine before lunch.

In recent years, unfortunately, Fred Meurer has been vilified by some as a tool of business interests, the hotel industry, the good ol’ boys of local commerce. I understand the perception. The local economy and city government revenues are so dependent on the hotel industry and other elements of the local power structure. (Did I mention Cal Am yet?) I don’t embrace the accusation, however, because when a City Council has five members, city managers quickly learn how to count to three. Those who didn’t like Meurer’s administration should have spent less time complaining and more time getting their candidates elected or lobbying the successful candidates. Fred Meurer would have been an equally forceful and successful manager on behalf of an entirely different sort of city council.

Phyllis Meurer is an independent and highly capable woman who has nothing to apologize for as she assumes this new role. While I was at the Herald, the publisher talked often about bringing a woman from the community onto the all-male editorial board. I made a series of suggestions but never mentioned Phyllis because of Fred’s City Hall role at the time. If not for that, I certainly would have recommended her.

It doesn’t particularly concern me that she favors Monterey Downs. For reasons I never understood even though I was there, the paper editorialized early on in favor of that project. Never mind that it is seriously misplaced and doesn’t have an adequate water supply and that horse racing is the sport of scoundrels. It doesn’t concern me that her husband has been a huge figure in local politics and public policy for decades. I am won over by knowing she brings with her a wealth of knowledge about how things work around here, about who pulls the strings and even about where the bodies are buried.

One thing that does concern me is that her new role could help cement the Herald’s fear of offending Cal Am. Fred Meurer has been a consistent supporter of Cal Am, which has developed a loyal following in the business community by engineering a pricing structure that favors large commercial customers over residential water users. Phyllis Meurer will provide a valuable service if she demonstrates her independence and research skills in this area.

During the recent campaign over Measure O, the unsuccessful ballot measure in favor of public ownership of the Cal Am water system, Monterey County Weekly published an absolutely excellent editorial in favor of the proposition. Beyond the appropriate conclusion, what made it so strong was the information and analysis it presented. It was unusually long, long enough to discuss each significant issue and explain it to a population that was clearly confused. It was so well researched that it would have been instructive even to the staunchest opponent of Measure O. The Herald’s editorial opposing the initiative was little more than a rehash of Cal Am talking points.

It is my hope that with Phyllis Meurer aboard, the Herald will be reminded of the importance of research no matter which direction the paper leans on specific issus. As I said at the start here, editorials succeed not by how much they persuade but by how much they inform. I expect Meurer to provide some of the necessary information and, when she doesn’t have it, to ask that it be provided in some fashion before an editorial decision is made. If she draws from her strong League of Women Voters experience, the Herald and its readers will be well served—even when its opinions are all wet.

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