Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Heckuva way to end the year

Those wondering how the local news scene in 2008 would close have their answer: Parking lot turf wars.

After the Press' Wednesday story about a pair of downtown shop owners duking it out over precious parking spaces by towing customers' cars, local news crews decended on the scene.

At least one camera crew has been camped in front of Pete's Liquors and Tarasco market — conveniently located across A Street from the Press office — for the better part of the day.

No known tows yet to report, but it looks like folks are keeping a careful watch on their cars while others wait like hawks for an unsuspecting customer to park in the wrong spot.

Will the turning of the calendar mean a new outlook that wipes away this small-minded feud? Doubt it.

Happy New Year indeed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Protecting aboretal assets

Cities seem to often have trouble taking care of their trees. The Stockton Record has documented that city's often dying and disregarded foliage, and now a few of Tracy's green sentinels are set for a date with city chainsaws.

This story in the Press stems from a city of Tracy press release. Nearly 30 leafy 50-year-old trees are set to be removed because they present a safety hazard near the Tracy Ballpark — according to the city, several trees have dropped branches or have just plain fallen already.

There's no disputing that the trees pose a hazard and should probably be removed. Rather, the protest to make is about whose responsibility it was to take care of the trees in the first place.

The city's press release seems to blame crews from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for trimming the trees from utility lines in an "unbalanced" fashion. I'm wary to take the claim at face value, but I've seen what utility crews consider "trimming" in my parents' backyard in Stockton. I can tell you, aesthetics and tree health aren't their top priorities.

So it's likely that poor trimming jobs have a little or a lot to do with the trees' pending fate. But if the trees are on city property, and if the city cared about protecting its aboretal assets, it's the city's job to make sure the trees were pruned in a responsible manner. (Please, note the conjecture.)

Some might call this conversation overblown. I say it's a conversation worth having. Trees don't just make a city pretty, they help cool it down in the summer and provide their surroundings with a literal breath of fresh air.

We need more trees, not less of them. And protecting them should be more than a last-minute afterthought.

Taxpayers to lawmakers: we'll owe you this time

I've long thought that if pay was witheld from state and federal legislators who fail to meet their annual deadline with a balanced budget, we'd have an on-time, in-the-black fiscal spreadsheet most every year.

Now we might get to test that strategy, as the California controller says those in the state Senate and Assembly are first in line for IOUs if the state can no longer pay its bills.

It's a step that should have been taken a long, long time ago. This version of the budget is months late and still hemorrhaging red ink.

Too many lawmakers obviously aren't motivated enough by the public trust. Maybe their personal wallets are more of an incentive.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Black day for golden shores?

California's coast — from its sandy southern beaches to its rocky northern cliffs — is known for its beauty and abundance of life.

It soon might be known also for its oil derricks.

The view off Santa Barbara of drilling platforms emerging from the morning fog might become ubiquitous as the federal ban on coastal drilling expires. (Report courtesy the S.F. Chronicle.)

The state only controls the seabed for only 3 miles off the coast — so no matter how much Californians protest, a drill-friendly federal government could allow the pillaging of the state's offshore oil and gas reserves.

Our state's economy relies heavily on the beauty and natural bounty of the coasts. And drilling for more oil only puts off the day that petroleum is no longer a viable energy option. (Many environmental scientists and entrepreneurs say that day has already come and gone.)

Let's hope the Golden State doesn't become dotted with offshore wells. Some things are more valuable than even black gold.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Top 10 of 2008

No column this week. The family company, roaring fire and glass of 16-year-old single malt Scotch were too much to give up. But the column will be back in the Voice section Jan. 3.

Don't despair, though. The blog will still be active, starting with a wrap-up of the biggest stories of the year.

No doubt the "Biggest Story of 2008" honors will go to the sordid saga of Kyle, the teenage boy who escaped apparent abuse and captivity in a Tracy home. Four adults were arrested on suspicion of torturing him, and the trial will be back in the news early in 2009.

However, it's far from the most important story of 2008 in Tracy. Kyle's story certainly grips the imagination and headlines (it's not every day a bloody body races into a health club with a chain around his ankle and pleads for help), but these 10will undoubtedly have a far greater impact on our community, in no particular order:

• Ellis project gains approval
• Holly Sugar selected as sports park site over Schulte
• Delta College trustees waste millions of taxpayer money
• Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta stretched to the breaking point
• Ives wins re-election as Tracy mayor; Abercrombie, Maciel elected to City Council
• Foreclosures sweep through San Joaquin County
• More people than ever apply for charity assistance
• City wins public records lawsuit on technicality
• Economy takes nosedive
• Gas prices soar for summer, slump in winter

And of course, in the non-local category, Number 1 goes to Barack Obama winning the presidency in a landslide over John McCain after one of the longest campaign seasons in history.

Did any stories make your Top 10 list for 2008 that didn't make it into print here? Let us know. The list is open for revision.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas letter

My hands were all shaky,
my face had gone pale.
A letter from Santa
just arrived in the mail!

It was hand-written
in old-fashioned ink pen.
It was handsomely written
and dated twelve-ten.

"Dear Calvin" it said,
"I'm writing because,
this year I've repealed
my naughty-nice laws.

So now, I urge you
be vulgar and crude!
I like it when children
are boorish and rude!

Burp at the table!
Gargle your pease!
Never say 'thank you,'
'you're welcome' or 'please.'

Talk back to you mother!
Don't do as you're told!
Stick your tongue out
at your dad if he scolds!

Drive everyone crazy
I really don't care!
Act like a jerk,
anytime, anwhere!

I'm changing the rule!
The bad girls and boys
will be, from now on,
the ones who get toys!

Good little kids make
me sick, it's no joke.
Sincerely, signed Santa"...

... and then I awoke.

I hate being good
(or trying to fake it).
One day until Christmas,
I don't think I'll make it.

~ Courtesy of Bill Watterson, creator of "Calvin and Hobbes"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An end to lawlessness

With things like dramatically increasing unemployment and general financial chaos to worry about, it's no wonder that some things aren't getting the press they deserve.

Things like the vice president of the United States admitting he broke the law, and that he's proud of it.

In several end-of-the-administration interviews, both VP Dick Cheney and President Bush have tried to reconstruct their miserable record of wars botched and a Constitution disregarded as something done for the greater good. As if their last-minute revisionism could change the reality of the past eight years.

Cheney especially insists that he and the administration he guided were right in their illegal wiretapping activities and in ordering "enhanced interrogation techniques" like waterboarding — procedures countless observers throughout history have documented as both being actual torture and also wildly ineffective.

But what is truly apalling is that so many people seem willing to let these now-admitted transgressions pass into history unpunished.

They must be punished. These — let's call them what they are — criminals against the Constitution must be brought before the courts and given a trial. (Note that this space says they should be afforded the due process they have denied so many others.)

If people like Cheney are allowed to be above the law, there is very little reason to think that future leaders will refrain from the same power-grabbing actions.

If they aren't at least brought to stand trial for breaking some of the highest laws in the land, we make the de facto admission that our nation's laws do not apply to those in power. The guy on the street may be fined for jaywalking, but the vice president can walk free after violating the Convention Against Torture, the War Crimes Act, the U.S. anti-torture statute, and the quaint little document that the country was founded on (See esp. Amendment 8).

Why? Because that's what a democratic nation founded on the principle that all citizens are subject to the law does.

Going after people in government who break the law isn't petty or part of a vendetta. It's vital to ensuring the rule of law and democracy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tracy makes concrete progress


The parking lot for the Tracy multimodal transit station lacks pavement, but drive by the train tracks on Central Avenue and you can clearly see the parking lot's boundaries, as well as the foundation and early skeletal stages of one of the main buildings.

The station could prove an achievement to pair up with the Grand Theatre and City Hall in the city's downtown revitalization, and what's even better, it was paid for the right way.

Though the station should cost more than $12 million, the city will only pay a cool $250K, thanks to city staffers busting their butts to secure grants and other funding for the project.

Of course, this could all go down the toilet if the station isn't used wisely to tie Tracy together and with the rest of the county.

But let's not go there quite yet. Right now, there's plenty to be positive about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Use that triangle...

At least it didn't take long for the city of Tracy to start using its $25,000 "Think Inside the Triangle" slogan.

You can see, periodically on the Tracy Press Web site, one of the city's ads using the campaign. Slightly tweaked, it encourages: "Want more jobs in Tracy? Support local businesses... Shop Inside the Triangle."

Nice copy. Could turn out that this slogan -- as derivative and silly as it seemed at first -- could work.

Let's hope.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Yes, it gets to us, too

Stories of sadness, loss and abuse often affect readers. Truth be told, it affects journalists, too.

We're supposed to be a conduit of truth, unfazed by what we see so that the public can know exactly what's going on. Yes, in the moment there's detachment — you're a professional, doing your job.

But after the adrenaline's gone, what you've seen and known can weigh down the soul.

Press photographer Glenn Moore has been in the middle of such a heartwrenching story, as he has taken photos of the house, numerous warrant searches and all three arraignments in the Tracy Torture Case. His behind-the-lens account can be found here, and it's an insightful look into how even veterans of the business feel their work.

As a journalist, when the story's breaking there's a job to do, and emotion can't get in the way, even on the scene of a grisly accident or horrific tragedy. Afterward, though, is a completely different story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sac Bee states obvious about Delta

Finally, the voices of common sense are speaking up.

The Sacramento Bee's editorial today is basically what I've been saying for two years — there are plenty of people with a stake in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's health, and all of those people need to give up something or risk losing everything. Without compromise, there just isn't enough water to go around.

Before the state plunges feet-first into a new generation of water works, though, it must recognize the limits of its hydrological heart – the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

For far too long, California has treated the Delta and its vast watershed as a resource to be tapped and exploited.

Excessive pumping and diversions, from all parts of the vast watershed, have hurt fish and other wildlife. Excessive conversion of wetlands has turned the Delta into a mono-culture of sinking islands, vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. Excessive pollution has made the Delta a filthy place to draw drinking water.

We have to realize that we can't just insert another straw and keep on drinking. Two very dry years combined with California's unquenchable (and growing) thirst have brought the Delta to the brink of collapse. If water-use-as-usual goes unchanged, the Delta will turn from unhealthy to untenable, and we'll really be up a dry creek.

In other words, any water plan for the state must be, as the Bee said, "grounded in reality." Because "promising everything to everyone is how the Delta ended up in its current mess."

Ellis at the council

It's 12:35 a.m., and I still don't know what's happened at the City Council meeting about the Ellis project, which was up for discussion and a possible vote tonight.

But I do know several things about the project:

• It makes no sense to trade home building rights for an aquatics center when a city consultant has recommended closing the existing city pool to save money. Especially when Surland, Ellis' developer, would get the aquatics center land if the city didn't start building there within two years.

• It makes no sense to spend countless staff hours right now figuring out a massive residential expansion when the homes A) can't be built until 2012, and B) we should be using that time to focus on budget balancing and economic revitalization.

• It makes no sense to surround the Tracy Municipal Airport with homes unless there is some sort of ironclad agreement that the airport will be able to operate freely no matter how much the Johnny-come-lately Ellis homeowners complain.

• A comprehensive public transportation model should be in place before Ellis goes forward, because $1.50 gas won't last forever (remember last summer, dontcha?)

• There must be substantiative answers to questions regarding the Jefferson School District's ability to absorb the hundreds of schoolchildren who will one day call the Ellis development home.

• The mock-ups given by Surland to the city and public for perusal look beautiful.

• Ellis can be a good project for the city, if done on the right scale, at the right time and with the right incentives.

Check back later today at for Eric Firpo's blow-by-blow account of the Ellis discussion and any City Council action.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A winter journey

After spending a blissful day telecommuting from Santa Cruz, I took the morning trip over the mountains to get in for a busy Tuesday deadline day.

And what did I encounter but snow. Inches of it falling on the Santa Cruz mountains, turning what's usually a temperate rainforest into a winter wonderland.

My reaction? Cool. Er, cold.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

No shopper riots in Tracy — yet

Today's column in part relates the sorry story of a New York mob so eager to save a few bucks on cheaply made consumer goods that they trampled a Wal-Mart worker to death.

Luckily, no such incidents have visited Tracy.

According to a source at the Tracy Police Department, no shopper riots — or even heated disputes — have happened in town.

The police officer I spoke to thought I'd be disappointed at the news, seeing as how bad news sells better and all.

On the contrary, I'm thrilled that, in Tracy at least, iPods and DVD players still aren't as valuable as a person's life.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Budget busters

Suddenly, the city of Tracy's $9 million projected deficit doesn't sound so bad. Not considering the "fiscal Armageddon" staring the state of California in the face.

The state's shortfall of $15 billion this year looks bad, but the 2010 deficit projection of a $40 billion (yes, with a "b") if no action is taken is downright frightening.

Makes one wonder what the folks paid to wisely spend taxpayer money are doing. Actually, I take that back. There's little left to wonder about. These legislators are obviously doing two things:

1. Spending too much money in a deluded belief that years of record revenue growth will continue forever.

2. Actively avoiding the reality that taxes must be raised to maintain the level of social services Californians are used to or that these popular services must be wildly slashed.

Unfortunately, these two things are exactly what's driving us toward the governor's vision of apocalypse. The picture isn't pretty.

In fact, our situation in Tank Town looks downright rosy in comparison. Although it's a sign of how bad things are when a $9 million budget shortfall passes for fiscal strength.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't blame the Cougars

Nearly every follow-up story about the fourth arrest in the Tracy Torture Case has opened by saying Anthony Waiters was a coach for the Tracy Cougars youth football team.

But the members of the Cougars want the general reading public to know something: Don't blame the organization for one man's alleged mistakes.

According to members of the team, Waiters, a semipro player in his own right, didn't do anything inappropriate with the Cougars kids and that they were as surprised as many Web site commentators who have said Waiters was "a good guy."

It's safe to say Waiters won't be welcomed back. Even if he is acquitted, his relationship with the looking-more-guilty-every-day Kelly Lau and Michael Schumacher — according to reports, Waiters called Lau his "friend" and was shown in Lau's MySpace pictures as Schumacher's drinking buddy — should be enough to keep him away.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Someone stop the bleeding... please

Man, the bad news just doesn't end for San Joaquin Delta College.

First it was a Civil Grand Jury report that slammed the board of trustees for wasting money, not listening to consultants, possibly violating California public meeting laws and basically being a completely disfunctional entity.

Then the state auditor weighed in and said the trustees squandered both public trust and public money.

The school's accreditation — a state approval to operate — was even put in question because of poor management.

Then the teachers' union endorsed not a single incumbent in the first truly contested trustee election in years.

Now, it turns out that one of the trustees not voted off the board (she wasn't up for election) wasn't following the rules when it came to reimbursement. She pleaded no contest to charges of corruption and resigned Monday.

Also looks like student leadership followed the lead of the trustees and spent student money frivolously. Although the report that lambasts the students and their adviser doesn't name the adviser, leading me to suspect there's more at work here than just a watchdog action, it seems a continuation of a disconcerting pattern nonetheless.

Luckily, new trustees will be sworn in tonight. Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen. Good luck fixing this train wreck.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Small shift in the spotlight

Now that the Tracy Three have been arrested and arraigned in a Stockton courtroom, datelines of news reports following up on the Tracy Torture Case will no longer read "Tracy." It looks like it'll be "Stockton" from here on in.

Small consolation to a town made famous — at least for a week or two — by one of the most horrifying child abuse stories in recent memory.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Predicting the future, 50 years ago

Back in 1958, a group of local residents foresaw Tracy's future as the Bay Area's bedroom. Too bad no one took their advice in the decades that followed.

A headline in the Jan. 27, 1958, Tracy Press reads: "Committee says Tracy should not become a 'bedroom town'."

The proclamation is courtesy of the Planning Our Progress committee, which evidently understood that the building of the Interstate Triangle (yes, that triangle) would open Tracy up to a future of commuters.

Lo and behold, the prediction came true.

In the wee hours Thursday morning, our current Planning Commission took a bold step to prevent a continuation of that trend. They sent back the proposed Ellis project, which right now does not meet the needs of the city as a whole but could be changed to be a jewel of a development.

Thanks to the majority of the commission, who, like a committe 50 years back, want a better future for Tracy.

In defense of the Delta

For residents of the San Joaquin Delta looking for someone to defend your turf, Mike Fitzgerald's your man. His latest piece in The Record pulls no punches in opposing "the rape/kill of the San Joaquin Delta":

... in recent years, state and federal agencies charged with guarding the Delta actually increased water exports.

Merely degrading the Delta wasn't enough. They're determined to kill the biggest estuary in the Western Americas and pipe a Peripheral Canal around the corpse.

To put it another way, the degradation of regulatory agencies is as bad as the degradation of the Delta. The agencies need systemic change, too.

The issue is more complex than a mere Balkan problem of NorCal residents and resources vs. SoCal's outsized water demand.

It's true that without plundering the Delta's limited water supply, folks in Beverly Hills would never have been able to build lush gardens in a chaparral desert. Then again, major agriculture in the Central Valley — the nation's breadbasket — would also never have come to pass. Keeping farmers in business is a major problem when advocates clamor for a decrease in pumping from the Delta.

I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing SoCal get by on its own water sources, but letting farms blow away in a new Dust Bowl is an unsettling thought.

But Fitzgerald's main point, despite the sometimes-over-the-top rhetoric, is well-made:

The Delta's collapse is irreversible. Once a delicate mechanism that took millennia to evolve is smashed, its inhabitants gone extinct, there is no remedy under law.

The Delta, to say nothing of this region, will remain permanently impaired.

Bottom line: If something isn't done to protect that resource soon, we'll never be able to save it. And then we'll all be royally screwed.

So if finding a workable compromise between the stakeholders requires Delta residents to enter negotations on a hard line and move to the center later, so be it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Do as I say, not as I spend

In its final meeting before many of its members are supplanted by newly elected replacements, the Delta College board of trustees heard about the "alarming" and wasteful spending of the college's student government.

Shouldn't be surprised, given the example the students had to follow.

They were just quick studies.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Heart of darkness

It's always a surprise when the dark side of the human soul appears in your backyard.

At first blush, the story of a teenager who ran into a gym seeking shelter seemed a prank. But it became soon apparent that it was a true case of depravity, a story of a boy escaping slavery and untold abuse that grabs national headlines because of its utter atrocity.

The story is always the same: a "normal" family in a quiet subdivision, neighbors who didn't suspect a thing, and an unlikely escape. The upshot is also the same: a young person's life ruined.

We're not unfamiliar with the plot — and that's the truly scary thing. We've heard it before. But it doesn't get any easier with repeated listenings. It gets more and more difficult to fathom.

Let's hope our two (or, police say, three) Tracy abusers are punished to the full extent of the law if found guilty.

Let's also remember that such evil is not everywhere, but it can surface anywhere. This is not an indictment of Tracy as a town or a place to live. This is a crime perpetrated by individuals. And, if guilty, they should be held responsible for what they've done.

Monday, December 1, 2008

So crazy it's true

When we first heard about this story, I thought it was some teenager's idea of a prank. Since when does a 17-year-old run into a public place with a chain around his ankle saying he's been held prisoner?

Turns out, it happens today. In Tracy.

After calling Matt Robinson at the city, I learned that this made-for-TV event was legit. Police arrested two people in connection with the alleged imprisonment and are desperately seeking more clues — turns out traumatized captives don't often provide the most complete list of details.

Keep checking the TP Web site for more updates. We'll be on this story for the duration...