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Salinas seeks to end its homeless problem by decree

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Sofia, Bulgaria - November 4, 2014: Homeless man is sleeping on a bench in the center of Sofia. Years after joining the EU Bulgaria is still the poorest country in the union.The city of Salinas plans to try to do Tuesday what no other cities have been able to accomplish — to solve its homeless problem by ordinance.

The council meets at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Rotunda, just yards from where a few dozen homeless people and their advocates have been holding nightly sleep-ins for the last several months.

According to a city staff memo to the council, that has resulted in numerous complaints from city employees and others who say they have been intimidated or harassed by the campers and offended by the defecation and urination that occurs in the bushes and elsewhere when toilet facilities aren’t available. The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to camp, loiter, defecate or urinate on most public property in the city and a fair amount of private property.

While a handful of cities have addressed the same issues issue by creating additional shelter space, most have responded by criminalizing homelessness, using citations and various police powers to break up encampments when they become too large to ignore.

Santa Cruz has been a magnet for transients for decades because of its youth culture, good weather and seemingly open attitudes and it has found itself erecting a series of legalistic and administrative barriers to keep the complaints down. Santa Cruz police told the City Council that the department issued 1,913 camping citations last year, with about 3 percent of those involving sleeping in a vehicle. Police Chief Kevin Vogel said 96 percent of the citations went unpaid. A news account on his report to the council didn’t say whether the issuance of those citations had any impact on the underlying issues.

A memo to the Salinas City Council from Michael Mutalipassi, senior deputy city attorney, says violations of the ordinance would be criminal misdemeanors.

“A purpose of the proposed ordinance,” he wrote, “is to maintain public and private lands, streets, sidewalks, alleys, ways, creeks, waterways, parks, playgrounds, recreation areas, plazas, open spaces, lots, parcels and other public and private areas within the city, in a clean, sanitary and accessible condition. A further purpose of this proposed ordinance is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community. To that end, the proposed ordinance makes it unlawful to camp, establish, maintain, operate or occupy camping facilities, or use camp paraphernalia on public or private property subject to some exception.”

He continued, “It has been reported by city employees, as well as members of the public at large, that overnight camping has specifically interfered with their use of public buildings, public sidewalks, public streets, parking lots, parking garages, and other open spaces, most notably the public space surrounding the John Steinbeck Library and the public space in front of City Hall. City employees leaving City Hall have been confronted by overnight campers screaming, yelling, and displaying other aggressive and erratic behavior that has made those employees fear for their safety upon ingress or egress to or from the building. City employees have also been confronted by overnight campers subjecting them to unwanted sexual comments.”

Mutalipassi wrote in some detail that there have been numerous complaints about the smell.

“The ordinance creates a prohibition on public urination and defecation except when using a urinal, toilet, or commode located in a bathroom, restroom, or other structure specifically designated for the purpose of urination and defecation.

“In addition to establishing a prohibition on camping,” he went on, “the ordinance will prohibit certain conduct in public areas or areas associated with business establishments or public buildings. The ordinance shall make it unlawful to loiter in a manner as to prevent the free passage of the public on any public street or sidewalk. It shall also make it unlawful to loiter at the entrance or exit of any business establishment or public building if that action obstructs or hinders the free passage of the public. The ordinance makes it unlawful to walk, stand, sit, or lie on any monument, vase, decorative fountain, drinking fountain, bike rack, trash receptacle, median, fire hydrant, street-tree planter, berm, utility cabinet, railing, fence, planter, or upon any other public property not designed or customarily used for such purposes. The ordinance further makes it unlawful to take any action, in public, to abuse or mutilate any tree, plant, or lawn.”

To read the ordinance, go here and click on the link for the agenda. From there, you can link to the ordinance.

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I half expected Wes White to show up for our interview pushing a grocery cart piled high with his belongings. He is, after all, an advocate for the homeless and he is homeless himself, at least part of the time. But he pulled up to the breakfast spot in a minivan stuffed to the ceiling with sleeping bags and other necessities for life on the street.

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White

White keeps the sleeping bags in the van during the day. At the stroke of 6 p.m., he deposits them at Salinas City Hall where, for some weeks or months now, the homeless of Salinas have been conducting a nightly sleep-in right outside the Rotunda where the City Council meets.

One night this week, the protest was a tidy affair, more like a group camp at Yosemite than a protest. Young kids had turned one row of tents into a maze and were cheerfully worming their way from the blue one to the maroon one and the red one held together with duct tape.

An older fellow was still pitching his tent on the cement. I asked why he didn’t put it on the softer grass. He looked at me like I was a fool.

“Sprinklers” was all he said.

Conspicuously absent were any campfires. The city said no to that. Less conspicuous but equally absent, restroom facilities. City officials complain that the nightly campout creates sanitation issues but bringing in porta-potties could make it a permanent situation. The city leadership is already embarrassed enough.

“Imagine if we were touring a major employer around, which hasn’t happened in a while, but if we did and they saw that, there’s no telling what they would make of it,” said a high-ranking city official who asked not to be named for fear that his front lawn would become a protest site as well.

“They’ll probably figure out who I am anyway.”

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After seeing this woman’s photo in a Partisan post about homelessness in Salinas, her family reached out in an attempt to find her. If you’ve seen her recently, kindly call or text 595-8899 so we can update her folks.

The sleep-in began over the summer after the city mowed down the much larger homeless encampment in Chinatown where maybe 300 people had been squatting, literally and figuratively, for lack of anywhere else to go. The protesters have varying agendas, but for the most part they are seeking city funding for better shelter than tents on the City Hall lawn.

On Wednesday, White tried to arrange a rally in the space that would later be used for the nightly protest. It was set for 3 p.m., placing it right up against the 4 p.m. City Council meeting. It didn’t turn out to be much. A dozen or so homeless folks, some flags, a few signs. A shopping cart. The council members did their best to pretend they didn’t see the tangle of people as they walked toward their meeting.

White, not so incidentally, is running for a seat on the City Council. He had announced his candidacy over the summer, in opposition to District 4 Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa, but the city attorney ruled that he couldn’t be on the ballot because he can’t prove that he lives in the district.

White says he is staying with a friend at the moment, a friend who lives in the district, and that he uses as his mailing address Dorothy’s Kitchen, the soup kitchen and shelter at the center of Chinatown. Many of the homeless have used the Dorothy’s Kitchen address to register to vote and the courts have signaled no problem with that arrangement, said White.

“The city said I had to be able to show I was living in the district 28 days prior to the filing period,” he said. “No homeless person can do that, so does that mean that you have to have a home if you want to run for office?”

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White protesting gun violence

“The voter registration form also lets you describe where you live, like near the corner of such and such and such and such. If that’s good enough for voting, it should be good enough for running for office.”

White is a young-looking 41. He is on the short side and he brings nervous energy to his mission. For the breakfast meeting, he wore a dark shirt and a tie. If he has an old Army jacket, he left it at home. His friend’s home.

He was vague about what had occurred to make him homeless. He describes himself as a Navy brat who grew up around the country. He says he worked with computers and other tech before coming to Salinas several years ago. He admits to a couple of arrests in his younger days but says he has stayed on the right side of most laws since then. He said he works as a substitute teacher in the Salinas schools and spends most of his free time advocating. He is the vice president of the Monterey County Homeless Union, which also uses the Dorothy’s Place address. There is no president at the moment.

After the city attorney said no to his candidacy, White announced he would run as a write-in but hopes to go to court within the next few days seeking a court order to put his name on the ballot.

Berkeley lawyer Anthony Prince, who has attempted to prevent the city from bulldozing the Chinatown encampments, is representing White. He said Thursday he hopes to file a petition for a writ any day now.

“They may have started printing ballots already and they go out in the mail in a few weeks, so we don’t have much time,” Prince acknowledged. “We’re working on it. We’ll hold a news conference when it happens.”

With the Nov. 7 election so close and with ballots already drafted if not actually printed, there is little likelihood that a court would order the addition of White’s name at this point But council elections in Salinas aren’t big productions and the number of voters participating isn’t particularly high. Even if his court challenge amounts to be publicity stunt, it could be a big boost to his write-in campaign.

Though he is strongly associated with the homelessness issue, White says he is not a one-topic fellow. He has been active in city charter reform efforts and was involved in an effort to recall a school board member. He sits on the city’s Airport Commission.

He has been a frequent critic of the Police Department, arguing among other things that it is sanctioning theft when the city confiscates the belongings of the homeless during the periodic sweeps of Chinatown.

Larry Thome has lived on the streets of Salinas off and on for five years. He says it’s time for the city to listen to “the likes of Wes and them others” and stop trying to run the homeless out of town.

“We’re always going to be here and unless they find a way to buy him off, he’s going to be out here every day, too,” Thome said while walking toward his camp on the outskirts of Chinatown. “It’s an endless fight and I doubt he can win it, but someone has to try to do something because the way things are, well just look at the way things are. Hell’s bells.”

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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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500_F_76671671_dFHe5Ag3vEq5eGqU0fEiZzEOHYdfaNk4SALINAS COUNCIL TAKES UP FIREWORKS BAN AGAIN TONIGHT

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

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

The simple answer: W. Patrick Moriarty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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People in Salinas get excited about the littlest things. Strike that. Some people in Salinas get excited about the littlest things.

This week’s buzz is about a Jose, Castaneda, who tried to visit another Jose, Velasco, in jail. The motives of Jose Castaneda, the rogue Salinas City Councilman, remain unclear because his plan was nipped in the bud by an alert jailer and an equally alert patrol officer who fortunately understand the full range of negative outcomes that are possible when unauthorized communication between Joses is allowed to floursh.

The intended recipient of the visit, Velasco, is in jail because he attacked his mother in the middle of a busy North Main Street a little over a week ago. Velasco has been in the news because Salinas police officers attempting to restrain him tased him twice and finally resorted to a series of nightstick blows in order to subdue him after he grabbed a taser away from one officer and wrestled vigorously with others.

A passing motorist managed to get video of the arrest and it has become must see TV. Much of what is going on unfortunately is obscured by the officers themselves but it is clear that Velasco was struck at least 20 times. Some who have viewed the video say it appears that one officer, the one supplying the final several blows, may have gone slightly overboard. While the other officers involved remain on full duty, he has been assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of investigations.

Police Chief Kelly McMillin, while stressing he will reserve judgment until the investigations are completed, also told the Partisan early last week that anyone who believes excessive force was used is “simply wrong.”

Anyway, it seems that Castaneda attempted to visit with Velasco in jail on Thursday, a day when inmates are only supposed to be visited by their lawyers or relatives.

His plot was foiled, a victim of his notoriety. A clerk at the jail recognized him and who wouldn’t? He is the bad boy of Salinas politics, the subject of hours of TV footage of him walking away from reporters, the subject of countless columns by Jeff Mitchell, a Salinas Californian reporter with an apparent fondness for chronicling the misadventures of people who make his job easy by not putting up a defense.

If you were the victim of a crime in Salinas and wanted the Police Department to write up a report about it, you’d likely be told that the line starts over there but not until a week from tomorrow. Yet Castaneda’s trip to the jail was the subject of one of the fastest appearing reports of all time and it was in the columnist’s hands even before the officer’s supervisor could get a chance to sign it. Mitchell would like people to believe that the report came his way because of his sleuthing skills. Not so.

The report presents an interesting account that suggests that officer Ernesto Sanchez might want to consider ghostwriting Mitchell’s column from time to time.He reports that he had gone to the jail on other business but happened to encounter Councilman Castaneda.

“Once I arrived at the lobby of the visitor’s building, I observed a man who I recognized as a councilmember for the city of Salinas, Jose Castaneda …. I saw that he looked at me as I walked into the lobby and he greeted me by looking directly at me and forming a large smile on his face. Since I knew who he was, … I returned the same greeting and nodded my head to him.

“Almost immediately after I returned the greeting to him, I saw that his face changed into what I recognized to be a ‘can you help me?’ look; his eyebrows turned slightly upwards in the middle and he continued to hold a smile much smaller than the original smile … . He did not say anything else to me and I did not say anything else to him either.”

From there, the plot thickens quickly but the prose dries up, so paraphrasing will suffice.

Sanchez reports that he went about his business but a clerk pointed out Castaneda and informed him that Castaneda had tried but failed to get inside by claiming to be a relative of Velasco. Actual relatives of Velasco were there for a visit. Might Castaneda have said he was “with the family”?

Sanchez left the clerk’s name out of the report, apparently for her protection. From whom he does not indicate.

Disaster was averted but one might conclude otherwise listening to other council members. They were all over the TV news this week tsk-tsking about irresponsibility and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Apparently since Velasco’s family has obtained counsel and there might be a lawsuit, a councilman talking to Velasco would amount to treason.

The Californian columnist said the council is considering censure and it’s about time. Later, Mitchell gleefully reported that the Monterey County grand jury (lower case, JM, and you can look it up) just issued a report highly critical of Castaneda’s behavior and urging the City Council to find a way to force him to either pay a $5,000 fine or force him off the council.

It is true, very true, that Castaneda has been a pain in the council’s collective butt. He doesn’t play by the rules. He doesn’t file required forms, he has scuffles with people, he accomplishes just about nothing of import and he pouts a lot. His city stipend has been garnished because he can’t pay his bills. Castaneda is a troublemaker who brings little to his position except talk. He talks a pretty good game about equality and civil rights, etc., but undercuts himself through inaction. Some will recall that he was simultaneously and illegally serving on both the council and a school board at one time. People who voted for Castaneda made a mistake.

But the rest of the council, and Jimmy Olsen over there at the Californian, are making a mistake by making a big deal out of Castaneda’s attempt to talk to Velasco. Big whoops. But he lied! Maybe, but show me a politician who hasn’t told a fib this week.

If there was any doubt about Castaneda’s record as a councilman, news of the grand jury report would be a big deal, But confirmation of the obvious hardly amounts to groundbreaking stuff. Mitchell writes with disdain about Castaneda’s plan to appear Friday at a rally in support of Velasco, and to appear with the Velasco family’s lawyer. Mitchell is right when he says Castaneda has the right to do so. He’s wrong, though, when he goes on to say that it means Castaneda will be disqualified from participating in the city’s discussions over whatever lawsuit is filed on Velasco’s behalf. Jimmy Olsen seems to be getting his legal advice from someone other than a lawyer.

What is the worst that could have happened if Castaneda had talked to one of his constituents? The councilman isn’t likely to know anything about the Velasco arrest that everyone doesn’t already know. Some of Velasco’s thinking might slip out of his cell? Castaneda may say something that contradicts the official city line as though countless politicians in countless cities haven’t strayed from majority think without catastrophic result.

My chief concern here is simply this. I question the wisdom of having a police report prepared on such a minor event and I question the judgment of those who thought it should be leaked to a columnist who is obsessed with Castaneda. The police report filed by Sanchez says right at the top that no crime had been committed. Where does a report like this get stored? The political intelligence file? Does the Police Department think it makes itself look better by linking Velasco to Castaneda.

So now the council is inching closer to stepping up and issuing a censure. My dictionary describes that as a meaningless act that diverts attention from more important things.

There’s nothing the City Council can do to change Castaneda’s behavior. Most of the council members have already had plenty of TV time and the opportunity to demonstrate just how statesmanlike they are in contrast to their colleague. They would be doing the city, and Castaneda’s constituents, much more good by finding and encouraging a good candidate or two to run against him, but that’s a lot harder than going on camera and shaking one’s head.

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The owner of a minor league baseball team from Bakersfield, appropriately named The Bakersfield Blaze, says the team may move to Salinas for the 2016 season. The nickname, I figure, refers to Bakersfield’s blast-furnace climate and not to one of the hardscrabble city’s pioneer strippers.

The Blaze ownership’s first pitch will be thrown Tuesday to the Salinas City Council, and will include, per initial reports, plans for a 5,000-seat stadium on East Alisal Street financed largely with private money. Watch closely if the council has the old hidden ball of public financing tossed at it. The only sure thing is that Councilman Jose Castaneda likely will be against whatever his colleagues have to say on the subject.

The Class A team, which just lost its affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds, has the oldest stadium in the California League and the league’s lowest attendance. That’s despite having not one but three costumed team mascots — Torch, Heater and Pat D. Panda.

In years past, I attended minor league baseball games when Salinas fielded the prodigious Packers and the zesty Peppers in the old northside yard near the DMV office and rodeo grounds. I always thought a good name for a Salinas team back then would be the Pickle Pepper Packers, the Spry Spurs, The Fog, The Mist or The Foggy Mist.

500_F_60115782_25WUyIBSc35kXN4kVaOrj7BvRdKTufynThe complaint I heard most often about going to the ballpark was that nights in July and August in Salinas were too damn cold and wet. Indeed, there was a city softball field in the shadows of the real ballpark. I worked at the Salinas Californian then and played first base and outfield for several seasons in the Class Z softball league. Imagine that, a small-town newspaper with enough employees to field a softball team. Today, your average newspaper would be hard pressed to field a two-person toboggan team without resorting to freelancers.

Those softball nights were cold and damp. As soon as the sun went down behind the fog bank racing in from Castroville, there was enough dew on the outfield grass to solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water woes. One night in left field, I tried to get a jump on a low fly hit my way. One foot slipped, then the other slipped, and soon I resembled Bugs Bunny trying to dance on a frozen lake. I did something bad to my right knee, left the game and went to a doc-in-the-box clinic. Two friends and I left puddles of ballyard drizzle on the clinic’s floor as we waited for someone to check my knee, swollen by then to the size of an iceberg lettuce head in August.

Thirty years later, I believe climate change may be working in Salinas’ favor when it comes to night baseball games. This summer has been the foggiest-free summer I can remember. Many nights were clear, warm and surprisingly drizzle-free. So it may be a good time for minor league baseball’s return to Salinas.  And the team could sponsor a contest to let the community pick a nickname, say the Salinas Cool But Not Colds.

I have ideas for three new mascots — Crucifer Cruiser, Straw Berry Good, and Mixed Green Marauder. Hey, it’s not the majors.

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One of the best campaign commercials ever

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Salinas City Councilwoman Kimbley Craig is in the advertising business, so it stands to reason she could come up with a top-notch campaign commercial. Does this mean I’m endorsing her? Heck no. But I endorse the point she is making.

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