Monday, June 30, 2008

I don't think cell phones are the problem

Today is the last day you can legally talk on a hand-held cell phone while driving in California. But maybe they're not the problem.

I witnessed a driver — distracted by nothing more than his own lack of awareness — barrel through the B Street and 10th Street downtown four-way stop, right in the middle of the lunch hour.

Some folks, evidently, don't need extra distractions to be bad drivers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday random thoughts ...

• And think, it might not have been cut enough: This year's San Joaquin County budget, just approved, is about $84 million smaller than last year's.

• Let's hope the interpretation of personal instead of collective rights is applied to other amendments as well: The Supreme Court's first-in-history assertion that the Second Amendment entitles sane, law-abiding citizens to own guns in the home.

• According to the president's past statements, isn't this appeasement? Dropping the "State Sponsor of Terror" designation of North Korea in response to its recent nuclear concession.

• Barack, I've got a 'but' for you: It's great, all this hope and unification talk. But I wouldn't mind if you once told your base voters something they don't want to hear. As long as it's the truth.

• Oh yes, the pain is coming: The war in Iraq has been paid for pretty much exclusively by borrowing. Sooner or later, we'll have to pay that bill.

• The signs of an addict: If we're addicted to oil, like President Bush has said before, why are we trying to drill for more oil?

• Calvin and Hobbes quote of the week: "Have you been reading the papers? Grown-ups really have the world fouled up. ... The only bright side to all this is that eventually there may not be a piece of the planet worth fighting over."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A disappointing decision

Rep. Jerry McNerney voted this week in favor of a bill updating FISA, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act.

A McNerney statement last week said he voted for the legislation because it "updates our nation’s surveillance laws for the 21st century, considerably strengthening civil liberty protections and giving our intelligence community the tools to conduct surveillance of potential threats against our country."

From analysis that I've read, that's not inaccurate. At least this version of the bill clearly states that warrantless wiretapping — a favorite tool of the Bush administration — is expressly illegal when it comes to American citizens.

But the disturbing part of the law is the part dealing with telecommunications companies that turned their customers' confidential phone records over to the government just because the Bush administration said they should. (Note here, at least one major company, sensing that something was either fishy or downright illegal, said no.)

The White House wants complete immunity for the telecoms that broke the law, I'd guess to cover up its own mistakes and law-breaking in the War on Terror. Lawsuits against these companies are likely to reveal just what civil liberties were trodden on by the administration in its hunt for the terrorist bogeymen.

So it's a big deal for the rule of law that the companies — and their records — be subject to the public scrutiny of legal action.

As an answer, the new FISA bill requires that a judicial review must decide "substantial evidence" exists before granting a company lawsuit immunity from customers pissed that their information was illegally handed over to Big Brother.

Andy Stone, McNerney's spokesman, reminded me Tuesday that the congressman voted against an earlier bill that contained so-called blanket immunity.

But as a columnist for another local paper penned last weekend, "other language says the courts must decide solely on whether the Bush administration told the telecoms the spying was legal."

In other words: If the president said so, the immunity sticks.

That stinks.

Let's hope the Senate doesn't give in to the administration's desires.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thank goodness for the experts

If it wasn't for official reports, how would we ever figure out when the Central Valley air wasn't healthy?

Even if you just poked your head toward a grime-covered window today, you knew you were taking your health into your own hands by walking outside, as this past weekend's lightning storm has sparked hundreds of fires across the state.

And all that smoke has ended up in the valley — you couldn't ask for a more perfect smog trap. It's days like today that ensure the valley will probably never meet strict air pollution standards, no matter how hard we try.

(If you don't trust your lying eyes, this Web site has the daily air quality forecast.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tough news for the little guy

Looks like our state senator isn't getting rave reviews when it comes to dealing with the housing crisis, and Ground Zero is in the middle of his district.

The San Francisco Chronicle took Mike Machado, D-Linden, to task today for voting in opposition to several bills that would have enacted some measure of regulation on the home-lending industry.

Part of the reason the housing meltdown happened was because those with the power of industry oversight decided to "trust the free market," while conveniently forgetting that often includes barely-legal (and sometimes downright illegal) schemes that ultimately create more losers than winners.

Sensible regluation can help keep industry in check while allowing its captains to still make a comfortable living. But if you prefer more Enron "success stories," that's your perogative.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Big Delta deal, or no Delta deal?

One of two local congressional candidates has been touched by the Delta College Mountain House debacle.

The grand jury report excorciating the Board of Trustees said, in part:

"The day after this closed-session meeting, phone calls and a faxed letter indicated that one or more board members had relayed confidential, closed-session information about the 'breach of contract' discussion to the developer and his consultant. If true, this is a violation of the Brown Act."

Turns out that consultant, assuming the credibility of this report, was none other than Dean Andal, who's running to unseat Rep. Jerry McNerney this fall.

It's fair to say that Andal had nothing to do with possibly violating the Brown Act. That's solely on the head(s) of the unnamed trustee(s) who relayed the confidential info.

However, it is fair to ask what role Andal played in a continuing effort to push a Mountain House satellite campus that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars and cost students several semesters that could have been spent in classrooms.

We'll have more when more develops.

Friday random thoughts

Worst. Management. Ever: San Joaquin Delta College trustees and the Mountain House satellite campus.

Heads must roll for this: The above-linked grand jury report concludes that Delta wasted several years and millions of taxpayer dollars because of incompetence. There's just no nice way to put it.

A project that Tracy can actually afford: The multimodal station will only cost the city $250,000. Not bad for a project with a total price tag topping $12 million.

Weak. Timid. Spineless: How the San Francisco Chronicle characterized the Democratic House kowtowing to the Bush administration in passing wiretapping legislation. I couldn't agree more. Those wusses.

It's not just John McCain who's had a change of thought: Now that gas is topping $4.50 in some places, plenty of folks are reconsidering bans on oil drilling in Alaska and on California's coast.

The Tracy Press, watchdog of the daily grind: Before this story, Home Depot had no idea it was breaking city law. Thanks to the report and the company's quick action, it's now in compliance.

Anyone else see the problem with this logic? Marriage as a religious institution between man and woman only, OK. I'll hang with that. But the state -- that would be the government of all things secular -- has no right defining marriage based on the religious leanings of one group, even if that group is a majority.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Wal-Mart: Rolling back an image

OK, so I'm no fan of Wal-Mart.

The stores are eyesores, the parking lots eat agricultural land, their locations often encourage sprawl, the company has a spotty track record with its workers, and the shops have a nasty habit of putting strain on homegrown businesses. And I highly doubt the need to expand the one Tracy's already got.

That said, the company has its good side, as evidenced by Monday's gift of a $3,000 corporate grant to Freiler School after students there collected 11,000 pounds of plastic bags for recycling. (Of course, Wal-Mart helped create the need for such projects by sending customers off with good-laden plastic bags, but that's another tangent.)

Also, Wal-Mart was named 2007 Business of the Year in Tracy, in part because of its annual "Shop with a Cop" event and other charity programs.

So let it not be said that Wal-Mart doesn't care about the communities it settles in. But don't forget that the bottom line is ultimately more important.

Big bond money for Tracy transit

Tracy voters, here's your reward for passing Proposition 1B — $500,000 for the multimodal transit station in downtown.

The money, care of the San Joaquin Council of Governments, is part of the county's $2.5 million cut of the $136 million in bond funding set aside for statewide transit projects. Of course, with the governor ready to raid statewide public transit funding from the state general budget to the tune of $1.4 billion, it looks like a wash.

In any case, for Tracy's future, it's imperative that this $500,000 be used effectively and efficiently. It's a sprawling city, and when gas hits $7 a gallon (who knows when? but you know it's coming) we'll live to regret the planning of the past. An attractive, functional transit system will help keep Tracy alive with traffic and commerce when driving across town becomes prohibitively expensive.

When most of us find ourselves hopping the 10:20 bus to the West Valley Mall, we'll be thankful for that $500 grand.

Monday, June 16, 2008

An unromantic 'dying breed'

It's not often one sees their profession eulogized, especially when one is still gainfully employed in said profession.

Alas, as Lawrence Downes points out in an eloquent ode, the copy editor is a dying breed.

(The unromantic part? We copy editors don't ride off into the sunset. We don't even "just fade away." We sidle into the kitchen to dissect a competing newspaper with a red pen, slowly drowning in ink and coffee.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday random thoughts...

• A very fond farewell: To Tracy Press reporter Danielle MacMurchy, whose final day on the job is today. She's leaving the Press to be married to Aaron Nadler, and the couple will move to Las Vegas after their June 28 nupitals. I'll miss Danielle's knack for breathing life into personal, intimate stories and her steady hand in guiding the Our Town section. Three cheers for (not-for-long) Miss MacMurchy!

• Workaholics Annonymous, you are America: More workers are being robbed of time off. And people wonder why the American family unit is breaking down?

• A burned-out living corpse in a cubicle generally isn't as productive as a well-rested human:
Those too shortsighted to take or allow others time off are killing productivity in the long run and wreaking serious havoc on their lives and families. Whatever happened to balance?

• Welcome to the new media:
My dad works about half a mile from where a fire ravaged a Stockton neighborhood Tuesday. Did he find out from the smoke or sirens? No. He found out from my mother. Who works in Manteca. She found out from my sister. Who lives in Los Angeles.

• I don't care what NBA Commissioner
David Stern says, the Sacramento Kings were screwed, and we didn't need an ex-referee scumbag to tell us: Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

• And if you didn't believe us:
It's not just a big fire season for the Central Valley. Check out this recent feed from Santa Cruz County.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cool the hope jets

Barack Obama might consider ditching the whole "Hope" theme.

After all, whether it's him or John McCain who takes the oath of office in January, the new president will really be able to do little but try to repair the damage the previous office holder left behind.

Consider the honey-do list:
Fix a ballooned budget that needs slashing, a debt that needs paying off, a murky war in Iraq, a forgotten war in Afghanistan, compromises to the country's values and Constitution, a diminished standing abroad, a fractious political landscape at home, a dangerously depressed economy.
The next president will have to be a Repairman-in-Chief.

So how about a new slogan: "Fixing the Mess the Last Guy Made"

That's about as much as we can "Hope" for.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Changing our small world

One of the neat things about Tracy and this county is that it's small enough that you get to know people and run into folks in unlooked-for places. It's a sense of community you just don't get in a place like L.A. or S.F.

Trying to track down facts for a story on graffiti with the county sheriff, I ran into, via phone, an old buddy, Matt Cook, who works for the department. We go back to kindergarten, when nap time was the second-best part of the day. (First best, of course, was recess. Still is, now that I thnk about it.)

Of course, run-ins like that could become less and less common. Right now the county is drawing up plans as part of a valley-wide blueprint process to project growth as far away as 2050. The county's also going to work on a new General Plan beginning next year. And you can be developers of single-family tract homes are getting their message across to planners.

We need growth, but not at the expense of our area's defining characteristics — agriculture, open space, low cost of living, and a sense of community. Let's hope our leaders remember that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Let me get this straight

One of the arguments to oppose gay marriage was that homosexuals made up such a small percentage of the population that it was a "deviant" lifestyle.

Now, two of the state's most conservative counties, Butte and Kern, say that they don't have the staff to officiate both striaght and gay weddings, as surely a crush of rainbow-wearing people will head to the County Clerk's office beginning next week. (Story in the Chronicle here).

The lame excuse: there will be a mad rush June 16, and the counties in question can't possibly handle it. Or ask the people lined up to come back the next day.

Make sense to you?

Ring of fire

Firefighters have said this will be a doozy of a fire season, and they weren't kidding.

Stockton's ablaze (no, seriously, big fire there) and more than one grass fire has whipped through the fields near Tracy in the hot, dry weather of the past few days. And of course, there was the Sunday fire in Tracy triggered by a molotov cocktail.

So Mother Nature's angry, someone's got the arson bug, and it's not even summer yet.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Another salvo in the water wars

Lois Wolk, who's running to represent these parts in the 5th State Senate District, is author of a bill in the Legislature that would have profound effect on the Delta. And the state and federal Delta-water export process.

Problem is, with every effort to clean up the Delta and keep water in it to sustain some type of ecosystem, farmers and cities to the south are robbed of water.

Now, I could care less if Los Angelinos have to let their plush lawns go brown ( you wouldn't believe how green the swanky Hancock Park neighborhood is where the mayor lives). But when farmers can't water the crops that provide food for the country, we have a problem.

We're faced with the question of how to do both — get more water to farmers and more water into the Delta. Otherwise the crops will wither and the Delta completes its deathmarch.

Impossible you say? Let's hope not.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The best of the blotter

The Police Log is a popular item among Press readers — as well as the editors. We found a few prepping Saturday's paper that will require a stiff drink to get over ...

• A woman reported her boyfriend took her 1995 Nissan Sentra a month ago and has not returned it. She suspects he may have sold it to someone and said she would file an embezzlement report if the car goes unreturned. (If it's been missing for a month, what hope do you have? And how is this man still your boyfriend if he's had your car unseen for a month?)

• Police arrested a man after a caller reported a fight at The Shamrock. (Glad I went to Ralph's that night.)

• A woman reported a group of Pakistani men have been meeting in Larsen park for a couple of months and she thinks they might be terrorists who are "monitoring traffic and casing the area." (Thank goodness — these guys might be the next Osama bin Ladins, right here in target-rich Tracy! I will now sleep better at night knowing someone's on the case.)

• A caller reported a woman "having loud intercourse in an upstairs apartment" The caller said she asked the woman to be quiet, but she just kept yelling. Dispatchers noted that they could hear noise over the phone. (My guess is neither party here was too thrilled about the interruptions.)

• A caller from Save Mart reported developing pictures ... of kids and a naked man. Police determined there were no kids in the photos, but that a man took pictures of his penis. (Be afraid. Be very afraid.)

Until our next reminder to take our prescription medication, be sane, be safe, and try to stay out of the blotter.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday random thoughts

• The intractable problem with water in California: Too high a demand on too small a resource. We need to find a new source or get better at conserving. And fast.

• And though it's tempting...: We can't say "Screw the smelt" and drain the Delta further. It would be simple, but it would also be the death knell for a declining ecosystem.

• Will the best policy finally prevail? The county is fielding input as to what growth should look like in the next 40 years. And while almost everyone knows what's healthy — considering current gas prices, pollution, traffic, etc. — developers and single-home sprawl still have the inside track.

• Guess he wasn't kidding about the cow spots on his campaign posters: Two of newly re-elected Supervisor Leroy Ornellas' dairy cows appeared on the cover of the 2007 county agricultural report. No shocker, dairy products were a big economic star.

• Jerk of the Week Award: Goes to the driver who hit this 78-year-old and sped off. Runner-up awards to the dozens of witnesses and bystanders who didn't rush to the person's aid.

• How much evidence do we need, exactly? A recent report from Congress detailing, again, the ineptitudes and outright deception of the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

• Calvin and Hobbes quote of the week: "Dad, are you vicariously living through me in the hope that my accomplishments will validate your mediocre life and in some way compensate for all of the opportunities you botched?" "If I were, you can bet I'd be re-evaluating my strategy."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

2 out of 10 ain't bad

At least if you're Tom Benigno.

The perennial candidate found himself on the losing end of an election tally once again Tuesday, as Leroy Ornellas secured re-election to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors by a 60-point margin. That's a shellacking.

But despite Benigno's maligned reputation among many local politicos — Ornellas' 2008 campaign manager is on record saying "It's pretty difficult to take Tom seriously" — he still managed to pull in 2,128 votes (a small but not shameful 20 percent).

Count on that showing at the polls to give Benigno the encouragement to run yet again in 2010. In the ever-changing world of politics, it's nice having something you can count on.

It's so sad to say

After the months of sniping, slinging, and suffering, listening to pundits predict the newest manufactured issue in hopes of breaking a story that really doesn't exist and enduring the latest CNN insta-graphic, it's over. Sen Barack Obama, it seems, has captured the Democratic primary.

Now, I didn't vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton, but am I the only one who feels sorry to see Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated?

It's always a sad thing to see someone who poured all of themselves into a cause finally call cut, wrap, print on their made-for-TV-movie dream. And this instance is no different, even if it's Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The loneliest election

At 11 a.m., there were four lonely volunteers at the Tracy Community Center handing out ballots.

As I approached the table, they said that they were happy to have me there (not because my reputation preceded me, but because they were just glad that someone — anyone — had given them something to do). Evidently, voter turnout has not been great today.

But there's still plenty of time. Go down to your local polling place and give the civic-minded folks there something to do. And tell them "Thank you" while you do it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The results are in...

Judging by the highly unscientific Second Thoughts City Council poll, it seems that a campaigner's economic plans will -- by far -- have the biggest impact on voter decision-making this fall.

Hairstyle -- thankfully but somewhat unfortunately, from a comedic standpoint -- looks to have little bearing on the fall contest.