With the Trump administration looming like greedy locusts, much is being written about what the media can and should do to help limit the destruction nationally. Simultaneously it will be a great and horrible time to be a journalist covering a president who thinks he’s king.
In his war with the press and other modern realities, Trump has enlisted legions of foot soldiers who believe the New York Times is the ultimate enemy though many of them have never read it. We are entering a time of the new regime communicating with its subjects via Twitter and expecting them to get the rest of the story from the Russians via Facebook.
It’s an upside world, with the traditional media mortally wounded though they have never been more important. Though the right and much of the left dismiss the media, we remain dependent on the newspapers and the networks to deliver most of what we know about this new order.
But what about the local situation? Does the quality of local news matter in this time of national calamity? I say yes, of course, but there is no denying that, overall, much of local journalism seems to be slipping toward irrelevance.
If Medicare and Social Security are diminished, we may know the national ramifications but who will tell us about the impact at home? If Trump tries to punish California for voting intelligently on Nov. 8, who will tell us about grants that have gone missing or field offices being closing? Of friends being loaded into trains? If you think we can count on KSBW and the Monterey Herald to keep us up to speed, you’ve been away for a while.
Just as numerous advocacy organizations are regrouping, news organizations nationally are reconsidering their missions, and it certainly is not too soon for a community conversation about the state of the local media. Consider this a status report and a call to action. A diminished news corps plays into the hands of the Trumpistas nationally and also makes it much harder for the public to follow along as corrupting influences chart the course for our institutions locally.
The one bright spot, the only bright spot locally, has been the success of the Monterey County Weekly in filling in some of the gaps created by the erosion at the Herald and the Salinas Californian. At the end of this report, look for some thoughts about what the community can do to encourage the Weekly – and possibly others — to take on a larger load.
As some of you know, I was an editor at the Monterey Herald for more than a dozen years and then the chief editor for a couple of years until the bosses there became tired of my ways. (Cost-cutting played a role.) I still have friends at the paper and at other media outlets that I will be mentioning. Media people tend to look at media critics the same way police officers look at Internal Affairs and I’m hoping they won’t take my analysis too personally.
For decades, and longer, the Herald was the dominant news organization of Monterey County. Arguably, it now shares that distinction with the Weekly and KSBW. How times have changed.
The Herald was founded in 1922 by Col. Allen Griffin, a real-life Army colonel with a distinguished military career both before and after becoming a newspaperman. Newspapers back then were different. They were solidly black and white and equally stodgy but they took stands. They pointed out problems in their communities and campaigned for solutions. Griffin fought, with some notable success, for preservation of historic buildings, especially Monterey’s Colton Hall, elimination of coastal blight, eradication of billboards, and for trees. He had some influence on how Highway 1 was configured as it snaked through the Peninsula.
The colonel was a Republican but Democratic administrations repeatedly tapped him for trade missions. He was a member of every important organization in town and he was eager to share his opinions, either in conversation or in print.
Unfortunately, 14 years before his death, the colonel sold the Herald in 1967 to the Block family of Ohio, which operated it as part of a small chain. In a trade of assets, the Herald was then acquired in 1992 by a larger chain, the E.W. Scripps Co. It was traded again in 1997 to the Knight Ridder chain, which made it part of bigger and better brand name after a rocky beginning.
The Knight Ridder chain began its Peninsula tenure by firing the news staff and forcing the employees to apply for their old jobs. It was an unsuccessful attempt at union-busting and it cost the Herald much goodwill in the community. Some strong people were lost in the process.
The good news was that Knight Ridder was one of the largest and most prestigious newspaper chains in the country and the Herald, for a period, had the resources it needed to serve the community adequately.
I joined the paper in 2000 as city editor, heading the local news operation. Many have grown weary of my recitation of how many people worked for the Herald when I started and how many remain, but the information remains informative.
The newsroom back then employed almost 50 ink-stained wretches. The “cityside” news operation, producing the local report on courts, crime, politics and the like, amounted to 24 people. Today, the entire newsroom staff numbers about a dozen and the volume of local news has declined almost as dramatically. Good public officials like seeing a reporter in the room when the council or commission meets. Bad public officials prefer to work in the dark.
While the end of the 20th century had been fat years for the newspaper industry – with annual returns for individual properties often exceeding 20 percent and even 30 percent – the new century was not quite as kind. Contrary to the impression you may have, the high profits continued at many newspapers but only because managers were forced to trim costs so dramatically. Initially, it amounted to mere belt-tightening. Eventually, it would become a case of self-destruction, selling of the seed corn.
Under pressure from investors used to fabulous profits, Knight Ridder put itself on the auction block in 2006 and was sold to McClatchy Newspapers, a smaller but relatively prestigious chain based in Sacramento. Unfortunately for the staff and the readers, McClatchy spun off the Herald and several other KR properties to MediaNews Group, William Dean Singleton’s chain of bargain-basement, cost-cutting newspapers.
There were some twists and turns after that and each brought expense cuts and layoffs mirroring national trends. Eventually, the MediaNews Group morphed into something called Digital First Media, which tried to revitalize its holdings by putting greater emphasis on breaking news online rather than in print. It was a sound idea but it was executed slowly and the ownership, a New York-based hedge fund, lost interest.
Of significance locally, Digital First also acquired the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2013, presenting the opportunity for cost-cutting through consolidation. Early on, the publisher and ad director of the Herald were assigned to the same duties at the Sentinel and soon after the editor of the Sentinel, Don Miller, was assigned the same role at the Herald, displacing me.
There were and are obvious opportunities for the two papers to share some of their journalistic roles as well but they have been slow to take advantage of the geographic closeness, seemingly intent more on controlling costs than on increasing reach. Recently, the features pages of both papers have been produced by the Sentinel and the two papers help each other out with some sports coverage, but otherwise there has been little overlap.
Since 2013, copy editing and page layout for the Herald, the Sentinel and several other Digital First papers have been handled by a crew based at Digital First’s paper in Chico. That enabled the coastal papers to lay off several copy editors. The only remnant of the old copy-editing staff in Monterey is workhorse wordsmith Christy Hoffknecht, who is responsible for coordinating matters with the Chico desk.
In charge of the news operation is Miller, who spends more than half his time in Santa Cruz and who had been expected to have retired by now. He was the longtime No. 2 editor in Santa Cruz, working for many years under the now retired executive editor of the Sentinel, Tom Honig. Honig now works part time writing editorials for the Herald and the Sentinel. (After leaving the Sentinel, Honig worked briefly for the David Armanasco PR operation in Monterey and for the Panetta Institute.)
In some ways, Miller and Honig are more at home in Monterey than in Santa Cruz. The Sentinel for decades was a sharply conservative voice in an increasingly liberal community. (I worked there, too, for a couple of years before moving to the Herald.) In private and in editorials, they were openly hostile to the city’s left-wing politicos, though the tone has moderated in recent years. For years, before taking on their Peninsula responsibilities, they regularly attended the Panetta lecture series and became fairly chummy with former Monterey Mayor Dan Albert, the Cannery Row fellows and others from the Peninsula power structure.
Honig may not be a registered Libertarian but he should be. Miller’s political leanings are not as clear as Honig’s but he is no rocker of boats. They are joined on the editorial board by Publisher Gary Omernick and Phyllis Meurer, the former Salinas City Council member and wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer, who now works for the Panetta Institute. Together, they have supported most development projects, including the ill-considered Monterey Downs, and all pro-development candidates. Phyllis Meurer, in fact, played a leadership role in a ballot measure campaign intended to advance the Monterey Downs project, which has since died a natural death.
To some extent, most daily newspapers attempt to reflect their communities editorially. In much the same way that the Sentinel was never in tune with Santa Cruz, the current Herald leadership seems to have misread the Peninsula and the rest of Monterey County, which is a deep shade of blue. It may not be as liberal as Santa Cruz, but few places are. The paper has become a constant champion of Cal Am Water and seldom misses an opportunity to dismiss environmentalists as nettlesome obstacles to progress.
Under Miller is City Editor Dave Kellogg, a veteran editor who spent much of his career with the sports staff at the San Jose Mercury before becoming sports editor at the Herald. Few editors anywhere work harder under more trying circumstances. Having too few reporters to supervise does not make the job easier.
Many recognizable names are gone from the cityside news operation. Larry Parsons, Virginia Hennessey, Julia Reynolds, Dennis Taylor, all departed. Significantly, they were among the strongest writers ever to work for the Herald, and Hennessey and Reynolds were two of the strongest investigative reporters. What remains is a small reporting crew with a big heart but limited range.
The only survivor in the sports section is John Devine, who has covered high school sports in Monterey County longer than anyone. Few reporters anywhere work harder.
Covering county government and the all-important water beat is Jim Johnson, who is remarkably thorough and accurate but who seldom endeavors to dig beyond Cal Am Water’s official line even though water and Cal Am’s role in delivering it amount to the most important local stories of the time. You may have noticed that when something big happens in the water world, such as another setback for the deslination project or another Cal Am rate increase, the Herald quotes Cal Am’s spokeswoman at length but seldom seeks input from the company’s highly visible critics such as George Riley and Ron Weitzman.
Claudia Melendez Salinas covers education, social services and immigration-related issues while sharing Salinas coverage with Johnson. Melendez is a champion of the underdog, which helps her stand up to the challenge of being responsible for covering a dozen or more school districts, several colleges and other important topics. She is responsible for some the paper’s most ambitious reporting of the past couple years.
James Herrera was the Herald’s longtime graphic artist when he was pressed into service as a reporter, mostly covering Seaside and Marina. He has done an admirable job of mastering the basics but lacks the experience to dig much beyond the official agendas. He is doing a job that two reporters once handled.
Carly Mayberry’s experience is mostly in the entertainment industry. She has done solid work covering the city of Monterey and other lighter assignments but, like Herrera, isn’t generally equipped to push officialdom for details beyond what it wants to give up.
Tommy Wright was a young and ambitious sportswriter when he was reassigned to cover courts and cops for the Herald. Again, he has done an admirable job under difficult circumstances but it would take many years of experience and strong supervision before he could be expected to produce work like court reporter Virginia Hennessey put out on a regular basis.
I don’t mean to criticize any individuals here. Blame for the Herald’s deficiencies rests squarely with the ownership. But no matter where the fault rests, what the community is left with is an inadequate daily report from an overburdened news staff and superficial analysis by an opinion staff with little local foundation. Yes, this is the opinion of a disgruntled former employee, but that does not mean it is wrong.
Once there were separate news, sports and features staffs. Now the sports staff is one person and there is no features staff. Two photographers remain, solid professionals Vern Fisher and David Royal. I’m betting one will be gone within a year.
Over the past year or so, Melendez has produced some strong work on school-related topics and on a troubling rape case but the others have had virtually no time to address anything beyond the daily grind. Investigative reporting, or the euphemistically named enterprise reporting, takes time and time is money. The shareholders don’t like to share.
The situation at the Salinas Californian is even more dire. It is owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which has contented itself over the years with watching its products deteriorate in order to keep the cash flowing in the corporate direction.
Forever, the Californian was a six-day weekly but it now publishes only three times a week. Its Alisal Street headquarters was recently sold and the staff soon will move to smaller quarters. A short-term rental would seem prudent.
With the looming retirement of veteran journalist Roberto Robledo, who has handled just about every newsroom task, the news staff will be down to two reporters and there is an open question about whether it will remain that way. Columnist and City Hall reporter Jeff Mitchell once covered the Salinas hospital’s troubles well and he has produced significant City Hall coverage but he now works principally on health issues under a special grant, so his voice is usually missing from the daily report.
The newspaper offices close at 5 p.m. and so does the search for news. Salinas is better off with the Californian than without it, but that’s the about best that can be said of the situation.
Fortunately, there is the Monterey County Weekly. Usually, weekly papers in communities with dailies are called alternative papers, but the Weekly has become required reading.
Originally known as Coast Weekly, the paper was formed in 1988 by Bradley Zeve of Carmel Valleyy, who has become an active figure in alternative press organizations. While most papers of its type focus largely on entertainment and food, the Weekly has put greater energy into coverage of government, politics and the environment.
For much of the time I worked at the Herald, I found that the Weekly covered pretty much the same topics and, with a weekly deadline instead of daily deadlines, often did a better job explaining the fine points. I was surprised, and still am, that it didn’t adopt a flashier strategy but it has worked out well for the community.
In my humble opinion, the Weekly has unnecessarily expended much of its energy in recent years with its online effort, breaking daily news on its website, often interesting crime news of relatively low importance. With the recent departure of Editor Mary Duan, a true newshound, that seems to have fallen off, which will be a good thing if it results in more time for more thoughtful journalism.
The editorship of the Weekly has been a bit of a revolving door in recent years, in large part because of short-staffing in the management ranks and a grueling workload. Veteran reporter Sara Rubin is the interim editor and, by all appearances, has earned the permanent title but I’m hoping she can negotiate for some additional help with production duties.
There is little to fault with the Weekly’s news coverage — except for volume. The reporters have been breaking stories with some regularity, much more often than their counterparts at the dailies or the TV stations, and they weigh in frequently with solid explainers on long-running stories or environmental issues. They have done well with the Monterey Downs saga and the continuing story of severe erosion issues surrounding the Cemex plant in Marina.
My first suggestion for the Weekly – and I’m hoping for some community support here – is that it step things up.
The Weekly’s news staff numbers about eight plus the occasional intern. I don’t have any real numbers, but it appears to grown little if any over the last decade. True, most papers have lost staff; some have lost most of their staffs because of tight times. But the status quo isn’t going to position the Weekly to take a bigger role in protecting the community from the bad guys nationally and locally.
The paper is thick with ads, so I feel comfortable guessing that Zeve has the assets needed to greatly expand the news staff and the space to be filled with news. If he’s waiting for encouragement, here it is.
My second suggestion is in the same vein. It’s also about stepping up.
Back when I used to hire talented young reporters, one of the first pieces of advice I gave was to think big. Don’t try to be one of the better reporters on this staff, Be the best and then be better. If you didn’t have the ability to succeed here, I wouldn’t have hired you. Think bigger.
I have similar advice for the Weekly. Don’t settle. I’ll use this as an example, but don’t think I’m picking on you, David Schmalz.
Schmalz has done a lovely job covering the Cemex issue and several others in his relatively brief time at the Weekly, but he received perhaps the most attention for his recent piece on financial issues surrounding the family of Monterey Downs promoter Brian Boudreau.
It was a fine account, well researched and well packaged, but the information had been sitting around for a while and didn’t really connect significantly with the Monterey Downs controversy. People acted as if Schmalz had a Pulitzer on his hands. The community is starved for investigative reporting and anything that hints of it is likely to received outsized appreciation.
The point is simply this. Good work needs to become routine and truly special work is needed with some regularity unless we’re willing to concede victory to the dark forces. There is plenty of trouble to be explored in Monterey County and, given what’s happening in the rest of the county, the list of topics will only grow.
I could go on and on about the important local topics that have received no or little attention from the local media, including, in some cases, the Partisan. The Herald and the Weekly have written about the controversy over city rental practices at the Wharf but neither has provided anywhere near the depth that Willard McCrone has in the Partisan. Schmalz has written some interesting pieces about some funny real estate transactions involving developer Nader Agha and his downtown headquarters, but no one else has followed up.
The county Board of Supervisors is putting growers in charge of monitoring groundwater in the Salinas Valley, all but ignoring the interests of environmentalists and the general public, but the topic hasn’t made print.
There’s funny business afoot at Carmel’s City Hall but no one including the Carmel Pine Cone is picking up on it and the Pine Cone probably won’t bother with it until someone manages to offend the publisher.
Oh, TV. Almost forgot.
KSBW does one thing exceedingly well. With a small news crew, it manages to cover almost every significant piece of breaking news in not one county but three – Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito. The news director, the assignment editor, someone there is a magician.
Beyond that, KSBW and, to an even greater extent, KION, shouldn’t even be mentioned in a discussion of news involving process, procedure or politics. In fact, it should be discouraged from covering topics such as Fisherman’s Wharf leasing policies or desalination because the staff has neither the time nor the expertise to cover them well. A bad news story is probably worse than no story at all.
So where does that leave us? Here’s where.
Under the current ownership, the Herald is almost a lost cause. Unless the entire news business goes through a dramatic turnaround, the staff will continue to shrink and the quality will continue to slide. The Herald has one of the most expensive subscription rates in the nation. I’m not recommending that anyone stop reading it or stop advertising in it, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone put a lot of energy into trying to fix that situation.
I suggest that people who don’t read the Weekly start reading it. (It’s free and you can find it in news boxes all over the county). And when you see something you like, let them know. And when you see something you don’t like, let them know. If you know of news, call ‘em up. If you think they are missing the news, call ‘em up.
If you advertise, advertise with the Weekly. Don’t cancel your Herald or KSBW ads but increase your budget and get your face in the Weekly.
No, I’m not getting a commission. My relationship with that publication has been a rocky affair. I thought its endorsement of Dave Potter in the last election was absolutely indefensible. Some onlookers at one recent event thought Zeve and I might have been on the verge of actually scuffling over something I had written. But it is locally owned, clearly headed in the right direction and obviously has the potential to help fix some of the things that need fixing around here if Bradley is willing to spend a buck or two.
Finally, the community should also look for other opportunities to increase the amount of time, energy and space committed to uncovering and solving the community’s problems and trumpeting its achievements. To that end, the Partisan and some of its supporters are contemplating an effort to expand our range and upgrade our offerings with a structure that involves more than a couple of old guys popping off now and then. Yes, we would be in competition with the Weekly and the rest, but competition’s a good thing.
We’re thinking a Web production with more features, wider participation, and a more sustainable financial structure. The plan isn’t even a plan yet, it’s that amorphous, but you will be hearing more about it. If you have encouragement or support to offer, if you’d like to be part of it, chime in below or send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: See modified section on Panetta’s opinion of Measure Z.
Republican congressional candidate Casey Lucius’ new campaign ad takes a big swing at opponent Jimmy Panetta, but she manages in the course of just a few seconds to drop the bat rather than launch a home run.
The TV spot has a dramatic opening with a narrator sounding an ominous tone. There’s a black-and-white photo of Panetta, without his characteristic smile. Tough words scroll across the screen.
“Washington is broken, because of people who want to be someone, not do something, because of a corrupt system based on who you know, not what you can do.”
The commercial uses two photos of Panetta. In the second, he looks kind of menacing, his image large against the Capitol in the background. At one point, the word “corrupt” goes from black to red.
It’s a provocative start. Then the bat slips out of Lucius’ hands. Black and white gives way to a nice color shot of the smiling candidate and her family and the thread of the commercial is lost.
Here’s how it goes from there:
“I’m Casey Lucius. I joined the Navy, earned a PhD and became a professor. This election cannot be about political connections and dynasties. This election is about opportunity. It is about believing in our country and our community. I haven’t been handed anything. I have worked hard. I want to work hard for you.”
It’s not a long piece, but by the time it’s over, the viewer is likely to have forgotten the ominous opening and is left with the Hallmark portion of the piece, “This election is about opportunity. It is about believing in our country and our community.”
If Lucius had followed up on the opening with some meat about how Panetta’s famous father (Leon, for those of you who moved here 20 minutes ago) had done the Central Coast wrong, which he didn’t, or how the Panetta family foundation was being used as a shakedown tool for the Democrats, which it isn’t, she might have had something. Instead, we’re mainly left with the impression that Lucius really, really wants to go to Congress and it would make her family really proud of her if that happened. What was that about corruption?
Not enough to swing my vote.
If I had been given the chance at Monday night’s debate between Panetta and Lucius, I might have asked Jimmy to compare his belief in our country and/or community to Lucius’ belief in same.
I hadn’t seen the commercial until after the debate and I’m guessing that neither had the other 250 or so souls who filled the Weekly’s juice bar and meeting space to get a closer look at the candidates. Regardless, the commercial created the biggest drama of the evening, particularly when Panetta gave it back to Lucius.
Said Lucius: “If this was Jimmy Williams sitting here, he wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Said Panetta: “That’s absolutely offensive to the 70 percent of the electorate who voted for me in the primary.” He went on about how his family name hadn’t helped him while serving in Afghanistan, or prosecuting criminals in Oakland.
In the primary, he said, “They didn’t vote for Panetta. They voted for Jimmy.”
She got a good hand for her opener and he got an equally good one for his closer.
It is absolutely true that Panetta began the race with a huge advantage. His father was a congressman forever and then he was the head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense. Somewhere in there, he became the best known and best liked political figure on the Central Coast, likely the most powerful person in the region.
To her credit, Lucius recognized the uphill nature of her task and she has worked hard. From a fairly modest station, the Pacific Grove City Council, she has attracted a substantial following of people impressed by her presence, her military background and her willingness to break with the Republican Party from time to time. Making that easier, of course, is that the GOP recognized early on that she has no chance against Panetta, who has worked at least as hard as she has in community affairs and civic door knocking over the past several years. Since the party hasn’t funneled any money into her treasury, she isn’t obliged to follow its script. She constantly makes the point that Panetta is getting help from the fat cats of Washington, D.C. She hasn’t had the opportunity to demonstrate how she would respond to similar circumstances.
Often, the candidates agreed on key points Monday. They both said they are opposed to Measure Z, the anti-fracking initiative on the November ballot. Panetta says he doesn’t believe fracking will ever occur here, so he doesn’t think the measure is needed to prevent fracking in Monterey County. He said he fears it could have a negative impact on the oil industry. Lucius said pretty much the same thing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Listening again to Panetta’s response via You Tube, the above needs to be amended. He said he would support Measure Z enthusiastically if he believed it was aimed solely at preventing fracking but he feels the need to delve more deeply into the measure’s fine points.
They agreed the nation needs comprehensive immigration reform and that Obamacare needs work.
They had different takes on the future of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority, which is in charge of redeveloping the former Army base.
Lucius, who currently sits on the FORA board, said she sometimes finds it dysfunctional. She said the agency should be allowed to fold as scheduled in 2020. At that point, she said, the cities with pieces of the base should be allowed to develop the property as they wish, particularly if that wish is to create affordable housing.
Panetta said he didn’t believe the various cities were ready to accept the responsibility for the base cleanup and other complications that go along with redeveloping the land.
Panetta said he will vote for Hillary Clinton. Lucius said she was thinking about voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson. Panetta jumped in, saying that his opponent had said at a high school speech last week that she would vote for Johnson — despite his campaign promises to repeal all gun laws and environmental regulations.
Both candidates displayed a strong grasp of most of the issues of the evening. Lucius would spin it one way, saying a solution would be at hand if the Democrats would “reach across the aisle,” and Panetta would spin it the other, complaining that the GOP might as well be opposed to everything.
Lucius repeatedly criticized Clinton’s handling of Middle Eastern affairs and, in response to a question from the audience, said the president should be required to have served in the military. Panetta countered by noting that that would disqualify about 99 percent of the population.
Lucius said she opposes the ballot measure that would legalize marijuana in California. Panetta, though he is a prosecutor, said he supports it. She said she supports the death penalty. He said he does not but he didn’t get the chance to elaborate.
In commemoration of Mary Duan’s resignation as editor of the Monterey County Weekly
It seemed to be me to be quite odd
To call one’s self a cephalopod
You wonder about a person’s id
To see her call herself a Squid
You’d think the simple facts would teach her
Not to ape a deep-sea creature
A creature not known for its great knowledge,
And probably never went to college
So it’s hard to see how such a beast
Could so keenly on our pols feast
To tear them up and toss away
Their foibles for yet another day
But Squid Fry calls for us to credit
Her great insight, once we’ve read it
She’s taken on all pols in sight
Especially those who’re never right
And, in that regard, as it’s well known
Those types of pols aren’t overblown
It seems as if they’re all hell-bent
To not help those they represent
So, Squid, adieu, good luck to you
And with words that are strong and true
Remember -each political sinner
Who gave you food to eat for dinner
Bill Hood is a retired lawyer and engineer who divides his time between Carmel and Ohio
I’ve always greatly enjoyed Mary Duan’s columns in the Monterey County Weekly, and I enjoyed most of her farewell column this week. With her husband’s lottery winnings tucked into a mattress, she has stepped down as editor after a productive and sometimes grueling six years.
Thursday’s column was about politics and Mary’s decision to enjoy life for a while. The part I didn’t love was the little section where she sort of lost her way while writing about Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter and his effort to fight off a challenge by a strong candidate, Mary Adams.
She wrote about how the Weekly had endorsed Potter, setting off some serious groaning from the left side of the political divide, which constitutes a good share of the paper’s readership. I have it on good authority that Duan argued mightily for an Adams endorsement but was outmuscled by her bosses, who got on the Potter train long ago and stayed onboard while others departed. (I’ve always suspected it has something to do with Potter being a good source, especially when he needs to divert the attention of journalists looking too closely at his affairs.) The result of the internal debate at the Weekly was an endorsement editorial that made note of Potter’s “integrity” issues. You won’t find that part quoted in Potter’s campaign mailers.
Here’s the portion of Duan column that I found, well, exasperating.
“There’s a heated level of vitriol being thrown our way because of the Potter endorsement – progressives, it turns out, can be a hostile bunch,” Duan wrote. “I don’t think we’ve been called stupid, but we have been called inept and corrupt.
“Potter gets called corrupt a lot, by the way. He’s done some dumb stuff, but in terms of outright corruption, I haven’t been able to prove it (and boy have I tried) and neither has anyone else. My message to the angry progressives is this: Prove it. Prove what you think you know.”
I would be surprised if I didn’t enter Duan’s thoughts at least fleetingly while she wrote that last paragraph. And here’s why. While I don’t have a file of documents that a prosecutor could take to a grand jury and get Potter thrown in jail, I have been involved in covering Potter for 16 years now and I believe it has been proved several times now that if not outright, damnably corrupt, he is ethically challenged to the point that he should not be in office. Corrupt is a pretty big word. One of the Merriam-Webster definitions is a good one, “Doing things that are dishonest or illegal in order to make money or to gain or keep power.” Ms. Duan, I think it has been proved that the definition applies to the fellow your former employer endorsed. (It should be noted that my former employer, the Herald, has endorsed him as well.)
The publisher of another weekly paper in the area, the Carmel Pine Cone, has accused me over the years of being out to get Potter, though he has never explained why. The truth is that, like most people who know Potter, I like the guy. He can be a real charmer and he knows more than anyone else about two of my favorite topics, local politics and governance. Even when he has been beyond irritated at something I had written about him, he and I have managed to have pleasant and even constructive conversations. For instance, he was the one who explained to me why former Supervisor Lou Calcagno is endorsing Supervisor Jane Parker instead of her challenger, Dennis Donohue. It’s because Donohue has signed onto a plan to let the city of Salinas spill over onto some of the wonderful farmland south and west of town.
So, back to the point. What has been proven about Potter, his method of operations and his integrity? I can only tell you what I know, which is a fair amount.
Two examples make my point about Potter’s integrity, and I’ll go into some detail about those. For now, let’s not worry about the house he bought from the land-use lawyer’s family, the building and coastal permits his construction company forgot to obtain before starting projects, the time he was using campaign money to pay his construction company rent, the time he bought a car from a dealer who was seeking a coastal permit while Potter was on the Coastal Commission or the time he tried to arrange free property at Fort Ord so his company could build a hockey rink there. The list of troubling but not indictable acts goes on.
Let’s focus instead on the Nader Agha campaign contribution and the forgery allegation.
Agha, of course, is the local developer and antique dealer who has been pursuing a desalination plant in competition with Cal Am’s. He is well known for his generosity, both to charities and to politicians.
You can read a Monterey Herald article about the issue here and get the details but I’ll summarize the key points.
In January 2004, Potter asked Agha for a $10,000 campaign contribution. But rather than have him make the check out to his campaign fund as legally required, he asked Agha to make the check out to a business associate, Russ Carter, one of a group of San Jose investors who have repeatedly lent money to Potter over the years.
Much later, then-county Supervisor Lou Calcagno told Agha that the money had gone toward a vacation rather than campaign expenses. To make a long story short, Agha then sued Potter for return of the money and – and this is key here – included a copy of the canceled check to Carter along with the legal filing.
Potter denied everything and insisted that he had been exonerated through an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission. It’s true that the FPPC didn’t take any action. It seldom does. But Potter was never able to explain why Agha had written a $10,000 check out to a close Potter associate with whom he had no connection of his own.
Agha at one point said he would pursue the lawsuit vigorously to prove that Potter was lying. Unfortunately for those of us who care about facts, Potter did everything he could to keep the matter out of public scrutiny. Monterey public relations man David Armanasco went to Agha on Potter’s behalf and arranged a settlement. Rather than pursue the litigation, Agha agreed to settle out of court for an unreported amount and agreed with Potter’s request to have the settlement details sealed.
“I’m kicking myself,” Agha said later.
It is true that Agha’s assertions were never proved in court and that the FPPC didn’t charge Potter. But in the court of public opinion, the one in which Potter and Mary Duan and the Partisan reside, the canceled check to Carter is both persuasive and damning.
The forgery matter also made it into the courthouse but, like the Agha matter, was not resolved there. Still, in the court of common sense, Potter loses.
Again, there is a long Monterey Herald story that spells it all out, so we’ll only summarize here.
In 2012, Potter’s ex-wife, Patricia, said in court papers that Potter had forged her name on home loan documents after their estrangement so he could take out another mortgage on their Monterey home.
(The home, by the way, was one Potter had bought from the mother of land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo, with partial financing from the mother, but that’s another tale.)
Anyway, in court papers, Patricia Potter alleged that her former husband surreptitiously signed her name to the paperwork so he could obtain a second mortgage of $193,000. She said that $168,000 of that went to pay off loans that Potter had received from three San Jose investors, including Russ Carter (the fellow who had earlier cashed the $10,000 check from Agha.)
The paperwork was processed in San Jose, at a meeting Patricia Potter did not attend, and the signatures were notarized by a Silicon Valley real estate agent who is a business partner of the investors who received the $168,000. Patricia Potter alleged that her ex-husband then recorded the documents without her knowledge, something that her ex-husband’s lawyer actually verified in court papers.
The allegations went away without landing Potter in any real trouble. That’s because Herald reporter Jim Johnson, who wrote the story on the allegations, called Dave and Patricia Potter for comment and they got their heads together before returning his calls. By then, before the story came out, they had come to terms about disputed spousal support and agreed to say that the forgery allegation was the result of a simple misunderstanding.
The headline on the resulting Herald article said Patricia Potter had retracted the allegation. The last time I checked the court record, she had not done so in court papers.
To my way of thinking, Potter could have been prosecuted but the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office concluded that there was no case since Patricia Potter had changed her story. Some tough questioning of the real estate agent who notarized the signature might have produced a different result, but who knows.
Does this prove Potter is corrupt? His supporters won’t think so but many of those supporting Mary Adams will argue that the case has been made. That’s how it goes in politics. Those folks over at the other local weekly, the Pine Cone, are so blind to Potter’s failings that they may try to hold Adams accountable for the words on these pages. The ferocity of the Pine Cone’s repeated attacks on Adams, combined with its historic unwillingness to examine Potter’s record, suggests another form of misfeasance.
As I wrote above, Potter is an exceedingly knowledgeable politician. His understanding of the ins and outs of local governance is without parallel. He has done some good things and I do not believe that, deep down, he is an evil fellow. I believe that he has struggled financially at times, for reasons I do not understand, and that he has routinely cut corners and done worse to get by. Corrupt? You be the judge.
The Potter strategy in the current campaign is to portray Adams as inexperienced, incapable of stepping in to deal with the difficult realities of county government. My counter is that she is highly experienced in the equally complicated world of non-profit social services, that she is smart and quick, and that she carries absolutely none of the type of ethical baggage that causes even neutral observers of Dave Potter to question his sincerity in almost everything he does.
The election is June 7.
I always used to harrumph at the Weekly’s Best of Monterey County contest because I harrumph at many things. But my attitude was quickly adjusted when I learned the Partisan is a finalist in the best local blog category.
Since I immediately voted, I apparently am not able to revisit the Weekly’s online ballot to confirm the identities of the other finalists, but I recall some:
I considered voting for Cal Am’s desalination blog but I checked and there have been no updates since 2013.
The graphics are good on the Monterey Downs blog but I have to wonder why there are all those pictures of Supervisor Dave Potter being wined and dined by race horse owners in Ireland. I doubt they’re supposed to be there. (UPDATE: As of Thursday, Feb. 11, the Monterey Downs website appears to be defunct,)
I’m not sure you could consider the Salinas Police Department’s website a blog, but it might be a contender if not for all the repetition. The description of each homicide case is just like the last — young guy walking down the street is gunned down for unknown by another guy in a black hoodie.
The Carmel Pine Cone’s editor and publisher has been putting out his blog of sorts for quite a while now but it’s like the Cal Am blog in that it hasn’t had anything new since 2013. Coincidence? You decide. I enjoyed one of the more recent entries: “We’re the only publication that cares about Carmel but seeing as how we’re based in P.G., I guess maybe we don’t care all that much either.”
So I guess that leaves the Partisan, your portal to many things you’d really rather not know about local politics and governance.
You can vote by clicking on the link above, or this one right here, but, no, your work will not be done at that point. You still have to sign into the contest site, but won’t it be worth it when you’re sitting at your favorite coffee shop and someone reading the results asks, “What in the hell is the Monterey Bay Partisan?” As you’re ordering another low-fat latte, you’ll be able to smile that knowing smile and for once be the one with all the answers.
After seeing the journalism procedural “Spotlight” in Monterey, I want more than two thumbs to thrust upward in ringing endorsement.
I was glued to the seat as the film tautly demonstrates how a Boston Globe 2002 investigation by four reporters unfolded. It shows them working their tails off to reveal the Catholic Church’s systemic cover-up of scores of sexually abusive priests and hundreds of their victims.
“Spotlight” is the better of the two great U.S. journalism films of the past 40 years. The other is 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”
The movie about the Washington Post’s Woodward-Bernstein reporting team and Watergate was a Washington, D.C., movie — secret sources, timely leaks, the reluctant but ultimately grinding strength of the capital’s machinery of political power.
“Spotlight,” though based on what happened in Boston and how a Boston paper finally told its Boston readers what happened, is really about good, below-the-surface journalism in any community.
That’s apparent from three screens (using very small type) that appear before the final credits. They compose a long list of other cities around the country and world where cover-ups of Catholic clergy abuse were brought to light after the Globe’s example.
Monterey, of course, was on the list, as someone in the row behind me said aloud as the names quickly scrolled before the lights came up.
Former colleagues of mine at the Monterey Herald had worked those local stories about abusive priests in the Monterey Diocese. And local media still work the story, as evidenced by the Monterey County Weekly’s Oct. 29 cover report on unsealed court records in a case involving alleged sexual abuse by a priest in Salinas.
Much commentary about “Spotlight” has focused on the question of whether the shrinking staffs and resources of American newspapers — especially regional papers and those in smaller cities — will support the commitment to time-consuming investigative reporting like the Globe did 14 years ago.
I’m hopeful important journalism about stories that mean something has a future because I see the evidence every day. That said, the media in Monterey County — home to two daily papers in thrall more to financial returns than community service — have an uphill battle to go beyond the daily blotter into the heart of matters. But there are good journalists here, new tools to gather information, new ways to tell stories, and the old fire that has always begged for “more reporters” and “more time.”
What made “Spotlight” so good were little details the film’s makers got so right about the work reporters do and the buildings where they work. It’s true there is a certain nostalgia for a very recent past at play here.
My heart raced with joy at the scene where one of the Globe reporters asks the paper’s library to pull all the clips — the paper’s previous stories — on clergy sexual abuse.
I loved rifling through those little manila envelopes stuffed with yellowed, but date-stamped clips. When the paper’s own library collected, copied and collated them, I felt bliss. Those were the days.
(Rule of thumb in working a big story: Check all the clips at the get-go.)
Other parts of “Spotlight” had me chuckling to myself. Small details in the film deftly captured so much of newsroom life.
— A farewell party in an opening scene with newsroom staffers holding small paper plates and little squares of frosted white cake. My teeth still ache with the molar memory of so many similar newsroom occasions.
In earlier days, they were usually to honor colleagues moving on to bigger papers, better jobs or family moves. Toward the end of my career, more cake breaks marked simple retirements, buyout retirements or colleagues moving into –gasp — better-paying public relations jobs. The ones who left via layoffs didn’t get to break cake at all with the shrinking pool of survivors.
— Near the end of the film, the top Globe editor scratches out something in a final draft of the first big story in the paper’s investigation. The reporters, who can’t see which of their words are being scrubbed, gasp as if their first-born children are being wrested from their arms.
“Just another adjective,” the editor explains without lifting his eyes.
That’s good editing, what every reporter needs. Nouns and strong verbs tell stories best. Adjectives and adverbs are weaker words, and too often inject a writer’s editorial opinion. Cut them away.
— In a short scene, Rachel McAdams (playing reporter Sacha Pffeifer) demonstrates what a good reporter does best: listen to what people say and ask logical follow-up questions. McAdams’ character actually spends much of her screen time doing what reporters do: knock on doors, interview people and take notes.
In this scene, she confronts a retired priest about his abuse of children. Her expression is neutral as the old man offers a sickening alibi. It wasn’t really sexual abuse, he reasons, because he derived no pleasure. Like myself, I’m sure many viewers felt like slapping the old man silly.
But McAdams’ expression remains unchanged. She hurriedly asks more questions without being judgmental. Keep people talking. That’s what reporters do.
Of course, the scene ends when the old man’s sister appears, tells the reporter to go away and slams the door. McAdams is still writing in her notebook as she goes down the steps, getting all the details of the brief exchange down in the record. She doesn’t react in any way to the door being shut in her face. That’s just part of the job.
Usually when a city hires a city manager, it’s a fairly routine matter. The fellow, and it usually is a fellow, is introduced to the community through a short story in the local newspaper. There might have been some drama over the previous manager’s departure, but the new manager usually slips into the position quietly, barely to be discussed again outside City Hall until his welcome has worn itself out a few years later and the cycle repeats.
Expect something different this time around in Seaside, however. The fellow selected by the City Council as the new city manager, Craig Malin, left his previous job in Davenport, Iowa, with a splash. In fact, he seems to do most things with a splash and is still rippling the Davenport waters five months later. He says he was not fired but that he didn’t resign. He disputes much of what was reported about his departure and he accuses the daily newspaper there, the Quad City Times, of knowingly writing falsehoods about him.
In emails to the Partisan and elsewhere, Malin suggested that shoddy coverage of his situation may have led to the subsequent departures of the longtime publisher and longtime executive editor, an analysis that surprised those in the newsroom.
“He’s trippin’,” said a veteran journalist there. “Those were retirements.”
Asked to back up his assertion about the departures, Malin offered no evidence, nothing at all, but stressed that he had qualified his analysis with the word “perhaps.”
A cursory review of Malin’s tenure in Davenport suggests he is highly ambitious and unusually outspoken, almost flamboyant at times. He doesn’t accept criticism well but he can dish it out with seemingly casual regard for its accuracy. While most governmental managers try to remain behind the scenes, Malin maintains a blog that he uses to disseminate opinions on everything from his favorite restaurants to his least favorite journalists. The name of the blog, simply Craig Malin.
Seaside officials announced Malin’s selection in a news release last week and plan to make the hiring official with a City Council vote on Dec. 3. Routine business. There was barely any buzz at all until the Monterey County Weekly did some digging, in the form of a Google search, and found that Malin’s departure in Davenport was one of the bigger controversies to hit that riverfront city since his staff proposed to install a piece of public art, a giant push pin sculpture, a push pin like you might use to post something on a bulletin board.
Anyway, a Squid Fry column in the Weekly this week noted that Malin had served in Davenport for more than a decade, a lifetime by city manager standards, and that everything was hunky dory until it wasn’t. That had to do with a dispute over plans for a casino in an area already rich with casinos and Malin’s alleged decision to provide the project some $1.7 million in site preparation work without the approval of his city council. He denied acting without authority, others said he did and others said he didn’t. His ultimate defense is that he has sparred with casinos in the past so why would he suddenly try to help one.
There was much muss and fuss over the grading work. The mayor banged on his desk and publicly called for Malin’s resignation in June, but the 52-year-old manager proclaimed that he would not quit.
Malin did not let the Squid Fry item go unnoticed, responding online by saying he appreciated the wit exhibited in the item but not the information attributed to the Quad City Times.
“In any event” he wrote, “‘run out of town…negotiated behind the backs … on the hook for $2 million … and paid $310,000.’ All untrue. Perhaps why the editor, editorial page editor and publisher have all moved on? Who knows.”
Exactly how Malin’s job ended isn’t entirely clear, which seems to be the way Malin wants it. There was a council vote of some sort, and much intrigue. Agreements were reached. Malin’s departure was arranged and a $310,000 financial package was completed. He objects to calling it severance.
“The basics are Davenport paid me for my unused leave, provided up to $25,000 in transitional education/professional development reimbursement (which I don’t think exceeded $17,500), maintained my insurance benefits until I transfer to some other plan and paid two of three chunks of four months salary ($70,000 gross each). So the actual check math of something that wasn’t owed me in any event works to be about $157,500.
The Partisan asked him to elaborate on the separation.
“How would I describe my departure? Somewhat unplanned but entirely amicable. I did not resign. I was not fired or terminated (remember, the City Council boycotted the meeting called to terminate me).
“I set a record for service in Davenport that can’t be broken until 2030 at the earliest. I accomplished my personal goal of getting my kids through school in one place and surpassed every expectation of progress in Davenport that I know of. I hold the record for tenure for any Iowa city over 100,000.
“With a fully supportive City Council (the one alderman who voted against it did so out of principle that he didn’t want me to leave) I simply said, thanks, it’s been great, I wish you all the best. Repeating myself now – kind of a simple story, really. Goals secured, moving forward.
“I can consult. I can retire. Having worked full time since the age of 12, I can pretty much do what I want to do now.
“My plan is to come to Seaside, and help that community surpass its dreams.”
During his time in Davenport, Malin won all sorts of awards and the city did too. He appears to have been fairly popular with the city staff. The business community in Davenport expressed strong support for his redevelopment efforts, especially downtown and on the waterfront. The sore points of his tenure appear to involve repeated controversies over the city’s relationship with casinos in the area, the riverboat variety and others, the city’s attempt to regulate a porn business, and Malin’s truly horrible relationship with the Davenport paper, the Times.
Based on a day or so of reportage, which is pretty flimsy, it appears that Malin was an unusually successful city manager in Davenport but a highly unusual one as well. While most city administrators try to assume a low profile, letting the elected officials take the spotlight, Malin appears to have promoted himself at every opportunity, touting his successes on his blog. The cover of the River City Reader magazine once featured Malin on a skateboard. The headline, “Malin Breaks the Mold.”
Much of Malin’s work with the city is chronicled in his blog, which contains a ridiculously detailed resume, photographic and written biographies and his views on a lot more than municipal governance. Some of the most interesting reading involves his beloved Chicago Cubs but his description of his interactions with the media is more revealing. He repeatedly criticizes the Davenport newspaper and gleefully comments on the arrest of an editorial writer for a minor drug offense. From that posting:
“The guy who turned barrels of black ink into judgment days for others – for years on end – now has his own judgment day before the black robes. All that permanent, black ink of false piety seeping into your skin, the concocted morality coursing through your veins, the sanctimony staining your soul as you delivered judgment after judgment after judgment on others. Day after day, and never being wrong, or even acknowledging doubt.”
Malin elsewhere describes the newspaper’s editorial board as the “all Caucasian, decidedly suburban and Baby Boomers and older need only apply editorial board ….” and writes of being grateful for being able to leave without giving the newspaper a chance for a photo of him cleaning out his office.
In an email exchange with the Partisan, Malin accused the Times of committing two of journalism’s greatest sins — “knowingly” reporting false information about him and fabricating a quote that made him look bad. Pressed to support those comments, he provided a list of news items he disagreed with but no evidence of their falsity or of the newspaper’s recognition of their purported falsity. As for the quote, his support is on the slim side of shaky.
So what does the newspaper have to say about him and his criticisms? Not much.
“We have no comment about Mr. Malin,” City Editor Dan Browerman said Tuesday. The Quad City Times, circulation around 50,000, is part of the Lee newspaper chain. Determining whether the paper treated Malin fairly or unfairly would require considerably more reportage but there are no indications that others have joined Malin in denouncing the coverage.
Seaside officials used a head-hunting firm to find Malin, who had been a finalist for a similar position in Glendale, Ariz., last month. Seaside officials said they were aware that he had left Davenport following a dispute with the mayor and others, but the connection to a casino was not widely shared. The Squid Fry item this week caught extra attention at Seaside City Hall because of the casino tie-in, a concern to some because Seaside seeks to become home to a controversial development featuring a horse racing track.
Based on anecdotal evidence, the vetting of public officials moving on to bigger and better things isn’t always what it should be. A search process similar to Seaside’s a couple years ago presented the Monterey Peninsula school system with a proposed superintendent who was embroiled in a major and highly publicized sexual harassment scandal at the time. Separation agreements negotiated during the departure of public administrators often contain clauses meant to discourage candor. (Malin says he provided Seaside with more than 100 references.)
If Seaside officials understand that they are getting something entirely different in Malin, if they understand that he is more interesting in giving advice than taking it, it should make for an interesting hire. He appears to be a can-do guy headed to a city where development plans mostly gather dust.
However, if the city’s leaders haven’t dug extra deeply into Malin’s track record and don’t understand the risks that attach themselves to a high profile administrator with some unconventional views, they might want to talk this one over some more.
BTW, here’s a quick quiz for those of you who have read this far: Who was Malin’s predecessor in Seaside?
Both the Herald and the Pine Cone ran articles this week on Carmel’s response to the county grand jury’s report of its investigation of specific City Hall actions and procedures. The response was a letter drafted by the city administrator, approved without change by the City Council, and signed and sent to the grand jury. I have read the letter and the memorandum from the administrator to the council recommending approval and have a number of issues with the entire process.
Some of the key issues identified by the grand jury include problems with the issuance and oversight of contracts and the well-known outrage that evolved from hiring and termination actions taken during the prior city administrator’s tenure.
In essence, the letter describes some procedural and hiring changes that the council evidently concludes completely addresses those concerns and issues identified by the grand jury. In part, they include (1) requiring council approval of any contract in excess of $24,999; (2) training staff and producing a manual on purchasing procedures and the issuance of purchase orders, plus the creation of a ledger that tracks contracts and purchase orders; and (3) a proposal to hire additional staff to presumably bolster the ability of the city to manage contracts and avoid future employment-related gaffes.
I believe the proposed changes are probably long overdue, but they don’t go nearly far enough. In other words, in spite of how the city characterizes them, they do not totally address the underlying causes that led to the investigation in the first place.
My biggest concern is that the role of the city attorney is not specifically included nor necessarily implied. For example, the letter states that a contract review form will be circulated and must be signed off by “numerous city officials” before the contract can be presumably approved and executed. Those “city officials” are not specifically designated, which makes no sense if the city is attempting to convince both the jury and its citizens that it has truly committed to doing the process as effectively and efficiently as possible.
It should not be a surprise to anyone that I say the city attorney is the person who should play the most important and key role in determining whether a proposed contract provides for the most efficient and cost-savings result, while fully protecting the interests of the city and its residents. This role is crucial and in every venue of which I have worked, both governmental and private, contracts are not executed without the full involvement and recommendations of in-house or outside counsel. Contract managers are a good thing, but when it comes to legalities, liabilities and commitments, only a legally trained person’s recommendations should be sought.
The Carmel city attorney, Don Freeman, is not mentioned as having a role in any of the procedural and hiring changes proposed by the city in its response. And, even more telling, the letter states that outside counsel had to be retained (at what cost?) to assist the city attorney in reviewing suspicious contracts that helped trigger the investigation. That means that the city’s own in-house attorney, on retainer for $7,500/month, either never insisted or was never tasked to review those contracts in the first place. What was he being paid for? Reviewing legal documents would seem to be a natural part of his responsibility, and certainly one that he must have recognized, but evidently did not ask or push for. If he was actually directed not to be involved, that would have been an unbelievable, negligent act, putting public money at great risk.
The city attorney also should have insisted on the selection and management of all outside counsel. A seasoned attorney, presumably, would have relevant knowledge as to the appropriate counsel for the need, to direct counsel as to strategy, to review costs and statements for appropriateness, and to even participate in some legal actions such as preparing or reviewing of briefs, motions, etc. It does not appear that the city attorney was tasked to do any of those roles, all of which could have saved the city both money and grief.
The next biggest concern I have doesn’t relate directly to the letter to the grand jury. It is the fact that the city council has seen fit, in the wake of all the mismanagement and failure to use the expertise of the city attorney in ways that were crucial, to give that person an almost 50 percent raise. On top of that, the resolution to do so states that if the city attorney is confronted with complex litigation or issues, he can bill the city for extra time, plus all of his costs. So here is a very experienced person, now earning $10,500/month representing a village of 4,000 persons, and his job description is so loose that he can, if he wishes to do so, take great advantage of the city.
None of this makes sense. and I don’t think the city should be applauded for making changes, long late in coming, and in overlooking the key elements of what went wrong in the first place.
Bill Hood is a retired water lawyer and engineer and former executive director of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. He lives part-time in Carmel.
A former colleague now lives in a sizable city where the daily newspaper became a three-days-a-week paper a couple years ago.“It’s dreadful,” she says. “We still get the printed paper, but so much of it is old news by the time it arrives. It’s a shambles. I hate what has happened to a good newspaper. The community has lost the common voice, and that bodes ill in so many ways.”
Now it’s the Salinas Californian’s turn to go from daily to three days – Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a sad thing, a very sad thing for a paper that launched shortly after the Civil War, but it isn’t the newspaper or even its staff that I worry about. I worry about the community, one that has already lost much of its cohesion because of the newspaper’s slow but steady decline in recent years.
As usual, management at the newspaper felt compelled to search for a positive spin. Editor Pete Wevurski’s column about the changes wasn’t as fatuous as it might have been but the headline was the worst: “You’ll still see all your favorites … and more.”
The “more” promised in the headline apparently is additional commentary provided by you, the readers, on those days when there are enough pages to accommodate anything more than the essentials.
Publisher Paula Goudreau put her true feelings in a box and hid them beneath her desk before writing her column, which told us, “Today I am excited to announce a significant change that is an important step to assuring The Californian will continue to build on its first 144 years for many decades to come.”
“This shift – driven by our consumers and advertisers – enables us to invest in a new way of doing business and better position ourselves for the future. Salinas has evolved into one of California’s youngest markets, and research tells us that a decidedly large portion of that key younger demographic clearly prefers to get their news on mobile devices, rather than print.
“The Californian has recognized the digital opportunity these past few years and has focused on local breaking news and local content that appeals to the changing marketplace in Salinas. Its mobile apps for smart phones and tablets were upgraded early in 2014 and the mobile version of TheCalifornian.com web site is robust. And more improvements related to new kinds of content, video and advertising opportunities on the mobile platform are in development. We’ll be telling you about these in the coming weeks.
“Blah, blah, blah….”
In other words, not to worry. We’re excited to tell you that less is more.
I’m not trying to be mean here or pick on anyone at the Californian. Though it was a key component of the competition while I was at the Monterey Herald, newspaper people love newspapers and other newspaper people. It’s just that I’ve been through my own share of belt-tightening and cutbacks in the industry and I’ve heard too many people at the top of the food chain tell us that the readers would still love us no matter how thin the gruel became.
Fortunately, cutting back on production should not require any cuts to the production staff in Salinas because the paper, for the most part, is edited and put together at a sister paper in Visalia, another outpost in the huge Gannett chain.
My biggest fear now is that some bean counter at corporate will calculate that a three-day-a-week newspaper doesn’t need as many reporters as a daily. One might look at it that way, I suppose, but not after being reminded that most journalism of real value takes longer than a day to produce. In other words, there’s nothing at all wrong if a reporter working on Monday also spends Tuesday working on a story for the Wednesday paper instead of a Twitter blurb about a fender bender.
Goudreau tells us that this is not a cutback, not a retreat, but simply a change in direction, a change in platform, away from the old days of print and toward the exciting new world of digital. That is, of course, exactly what is happening at newspapers everywhere, which promote the concept of instant news on readers’ phones and laptops. Which would be a good thing if it was in addition to what we used to get in print and not a replacement.
The Herald is owned, for now, by a company known as Digital First Media, a name that included the mission statement. Unfortunately, news distributed digitally is not as lucrative as news delivered to your porch, and the company is now for sale.
Fortunately for readers on the Peninsula, Monterey County Weekly has done an excellent job supplementing the news supply as the Herald has trimmed staff and pages. For better or worse, the Weekly also has devoted considerable resources into its Web product, which unavoidably takes resources away from the print product. Still, all in all, the Peninsula is relatively well served by a combination of the Herald, the Weekly and the Pine Cone with an intermittent assist from the Partisan.
The case is not at all similar in Salinas. There isn’t a weekly. There isn’t a Salinas Partisan or, for better or worse, anything resembling the Pine Cone.
The loss of the Monday, Tuesday and Thursday Californian won’t have a dramatic impact immediately. People will get used to not having the paper every day and not knowing as much about civic affairs. The process will be gradual, like the community’s adjustment to the slippage of recent years. For now, perhaps we should take a clue from Goudreau and Wevurski and express some optimism, real or imagined.
Perhaps Gannett will discover that the old way was more profitable.
Perhaps someone will start a good weekly or a Partisan or two will spring up.
Maybe someone with more money than sense will buy the Californian and turn it into what it once was.
Or maybe, just maybe, someone at the paper will read the promises that Goudreau and Wevurski made about commitment to the news and the community and actually try to make good on them.
Wish them luck. Wish us all luck.
One of the bigger stories of the year in Carmel broke on a Friday, too late to make it in that week’s Carmel Pine Cone. Fortunately, we have the Monterey Bay Partisan, which let the community know about the Monterey County grand jury report that blamed the weekly newspaper for causing problems at City Hall rather than simply reporting on those problems.
Now, the fine folks at the Monterey County Weekly have helped spread the word by reprinting the Partisan’s unflinching account. If nothing else, it will give PC Publisher Paul Miller something tangible to crumple up while he works on his own report due out in the morning.
Our prediction: Miller will announce that he has seen the error of his ways, admit that he was hellbent on stirring up trouble rather than informing the public and that he welcomes the attention and suggestions from an obviously public-spirited grand jury.
Anyone who doubts that a political and cultural war is being waged in Monterey County would have been disabused of the idea at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
The issue on the table was approval of a settlement agreement that county staff had negotiated with the government watchdog group Open Government Monterey and the environmental group LandWatch Monterey County. The agreement was meant to end litigation in which those groups spelled out their concerns about the impact and legality of the county’s 2010 general plan, which is heavily weighted toward the wants of developers and agribusiness.
Everyone in the room knew there was no chance that the supervisors were going to publicly ratify language taking back any of what the business interests had won five years ago, but the session provided them with the opportunity to talk tough in front of various benefactors.
“We can’t strangulate this county,” said Supervisor Fernando Armenta, according to a report in the Monterey County Weekly. Armenta said he had recently enjoyed a drive along Napa Valley’s vaunted wine trail and wished Monterey County could be more like that, green and relatively lacking in contentiousness. He mentioned without making his context clear that he had not seen any of the endangered species that are issues in Monterey County planning matters.
Much of the discussion was about Monterey County’s wine corridor, which the wine industry envisions as a series of wineries and tasting rooms along River Road on the western edge of the Salinas Valley. Although county officials have expressed nothing but support for the idea, little has materialized there.
(In a meeting with Monterey Herald editors several years ago, vintner Kurt Gollnick was asked what benefits a wine corridor would provide to those outside the wind industry. He couldn’t come up with an answer at the time.)
Specifics of Tuesday’s discussion included what can and cannot be planted on steep slopes susceptible to erosion, what can be done to accommodate the passage of wildlife through farms and fields.
The advocacy groups and the county had reached a tentative agreement in January but it could not take effect without a majority vote of the supervisors. It didn’t come close. Supervisor Jane Parker was the only supporter. She noted that the county’s legal bills are adding up quickly as the discussions continue and court proceedings loom.
By a vote of 4-1, the supervisors agreed to continue the discussion for another couple weeks, but the chances of a negotiated settlement appear to be growing slimmer.
Supervisor John Phillips voted for the extension but was dismissive of the general plan opponents.
“We all know the plaintiffs here live by litigation and that’s how they support themselves,” said Phillips, who supported himself by working as a lawyer and then a judge before joining the board
The supervisors were being cheered on by the county Planning Commission, several farm and business groups, the mayors’ association and the cities of Gonzales, Soledad and even Sand City, which is almost entirely unaffected by anything that goes into the general plan.
Last 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.
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!”
Monterey County officials did the Ferrini Ranch developers a favor by allowing them to rely on the county’s 1982 general plan rather than the stronger 2010 plan, but they managed to fumble the process anyway by allowing the project to skirt even the less stringent provisions of the old plan. That is a key contention of a lawsuit filed Friday by LandWatch Monterey County, legal action that complements a suit filed the day before by the Highway 68 Coalition.
Seeking to block the Highway 68 development, the new suit faults the county on numerous fronts, saying the environmental impact report on the project failed to properly consider impacts and mitigations on traffic, sensitive habitat, visual impact, water supply and other areas.
The EIR couldn’t properly address many of those issues because the design of the project, including the location of lots and various traffic features continued to change even after the county Planning Commission had approved the venture, according to the litigation. It was filed on LandWatch’s behalf by San Francisco environmental lawyers Mark R. Wolfe and John H. Farrow.
It challenges the county’s decision to get around the law requiring developers to present proof of a long-term water supply. Instead, county officials simply declared that the existence of the Salinas Valley Water Project constitutes such proof even though has no concrete plans in place to augment the valley’s dwindling water supply.
Supervisor Lou Calcagno, in one of his last official acts, voted for the project but only after announcing a public relations gesture. Though there had been no public discussion, Calcagno announced that the developers, the Kelton family of Southern California, had agreed to contribute money toward a possible wastewater recycling facility, which theoretically would help address the Salinas Valley groundwater shortage.
Later, in an end-of-term interview with the Monterey County Weekly, Calcagno said he took pride in how he had handled negotiations over the Ferrini venture – negotiations that the public was not privy to until they were a done deal.
The project consists of 185 lots on 870 acres along Highway 68 on both sides of the Toro Regional Park entrance. The development would run from near San Benancio Road to near River Road. It would require removal of 921 oak trees and would see construction of houses on slopes steeper than 30 degrees. Each of the supervisors who voted for the project—Calcagno, Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas—had received campaign contributions from the developers.
A sidenote about an email, snarky but inconsequential:
After the supervisors approved the Ferrini Ranch project, the Partisan filed a public records request with the county, seeking access to any emails between the developers and the supervisors. County officials responded this week, saying they had found only a handful of emails.One of the more interesting communications, at least in the Partisan’s view, was a copy of a Partisan article about the approval along with comments from numerous Partisan readers attached.
Builder Ray Harrod of the development team had emailed the article to project spokeswoman Candy Ingram, developer Mark Kelton and project attorneys Tony Lombardo and Brian Finnegan. Harrod mentioned in the email that one of the original reader comments had been deleted. He added, “Guess Royal (Partisan proprietor Royal Calkins) does not want anyone to see what type of followers he has.”
I’m not sure, but I think I’ve been insulted, at least a little. And if you’re reading this, you might have been as well.