Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bidding adieu at the Tracy Press

As 2009 closes shop in anticipation for 2010, the Tracy Press is saying good-bye to two writers.

The first farewell comes from Justin Lafferty, Our Town editor, general reporter and cake-baker extraordinaire. Justin is off to explore other avenues and possibly become a teacher, though the Press is going to miss him.

The second see-ya comes from Mike McLellan, uber-volunteer and resident Ethics & Values guy. His writing, filled with wit and wisdom, will hopefully continue to make cameo appearances in the Press, and he's looking for a new title for an every-so-often column. (You can send suggestions to jmendelson@tracypress.com.)

Though it's with a certain sadness, Second Thoughts offers cheers to both on their new endeavors.

What doesn't kill me...

Makes me stronger? Wounds me slightly? Postpones the inevitable?

Which phrase completes the sentence was hard to tell this year, which wasn't exactly a banner one for Tank Town.

The trials endured by Tracy in 2009 are well-documented, so I won't repeat them in this space.

Despite the grief, loss and struggles of the past year, there was joy, too. In end-of-year retrospectives, it's easy to fixate on the bad stuff. Too bad, because there are plenty gems of goodness sprinkled even in the toughest of times — a fact worth contemplating when you're shrugging off your New Year's Eve hangover.

Suffice it to say, though, this newsman is glad for the chance for a fresh start with a new calendar, even if the whole "new year" thing just boils down to a number on paper.

Sometimes, a fresh frame of mind is all it takes to start anew. And that's something we can all be thankful for.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Off-roaders get temporary ticket to ride

Better than a Beatles song, off-road enthusiasts got the First Court of Appeal to postpone the closing of Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area southwest of Tracy.

Ride on, man, ride on.

But the cheers likely won't last. It will only be a temporary reprive the backers of a lawsuit to clean up Corral Hollow Creek convince the court that significant harm would be done if the park remains open until it has a permit and an improved management plan.

Wading into this matter is sticky business.

On one side: Thousands of people looking to have a good time riding trails in the hills, who also likely bring a fair amount of money to the local economy, as plenty riders don't call Tracy home. Also, the state Parks and Recreation Department, which runs Carnegie.

On the other side: Environmentalists who point to high levels of pollution in Corral Hollow Creek and evidence suggesting it's the off-road activity that's fouling the creekbed.

Complicating the matter: The creek is mostly dry, even during the wet season; The area was historically home to mining and industry and has a Superfund site as a neighbor; Another neighbor with a ranch nearby has had a hand in the lawsuit process.

And, of course, there's the mutual suspicion that seems inborn between environmentalists and off-roaders.

Listing the players and plays, however, doesn't make sorting out the game any easier.

The off-roaders, for their part, just want a place to play. It's a place that's been their home for years, and Carnegie wasn't exactly a pristine piece of land before the trail-masters hit the dirt. Given that, and how many people use the popular park, it makes sense for the local economy (and the spirit of good fun) to keep Carnegie open.

However, environmentalists like Bill Jennings of the plantiff California Sportsfishing Alliance have a legitimate beef in wanting to keep waterways — even mostly dry ones like Corral Hollow Creek — free of heavy metals and other poisons. And, let's face it, off-roaders don't have a repuation as the kindest stewards of the land.

It seems compromise is the order of the day. The least-disruptive alternative would be to keep the park open while an environmental protection plan and water permit are worked out by the interested parties. That keeps riders riding, businesses in business, and environmentalists protecting the environment.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Great ideas in technology

Good news for local Pacific Gas & Electric Co. ratepayers: PG&E has a new, technologically advanced way for you to see where power failures have hit and to find out when the problems might be fixed.

The bad news: It's online, so if your power's out, chances are, you won't be able to use it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Christmas

The bug has won when it comes to the blog, but there is a Second Thoughts column in the Dec. 26 edition of the Tracy Press.

Until then, Happy Christmas. With a little reminder to stay true to the spirit of the season from my favorite comic strip:

Comic copyright of Bill Watterson.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The great Bug Battle of 2009

So, maybe it's not so "great," but a nasty-ish flu-like bug has scrambled my brain, thus the lack of recent postings. However, I will do my best to continue to update the Second Thoughts blog (and possibly pen a column for Saturday).

To all those others fighting off the virus going around, I'm pulling for you — we're all in this together.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Scotland has so many pubs

This is the definition of coffee shop and ale house weather:

Weather like the fog blanketing San Joaquin County today is the reason why countries like Scotland and Ireland have so many pubs.

When you often walk to and from place to place in damp, chilly conditions, it's nice to know you don't have more than a block or two to walk until you can duck inside for a quick warm-up.
Too bad I'm spending the rest of the evening in the office.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tracy militia — a matter of time?

Stockton residents and a councilman in Lathrop have flirted with establishing armed militias. With yet another violent crime taking place in Tracy this week, it might be only a matter or time before Tank Towners publicly kick around the idea of arming themselves en masse.

I'll keep my ear to the ground and report back if and when those rumblings begin. Until then, here's a column about the Stockton and Lathrop efforts, originally published in the Press on May 9 and reproduced here, since it seems to have vanished from the Internet:

If you’ve always dreamed about playing cops and robbers with real guns and without that pesky Police Academy business, Alan Pettet of Stockton wants your help.
The 66-year-old has promised — or threatened, depending on your point of view — to raise a militia in that city if police there are laid off. Well, the Stockton Police Department earlier this month issued layoff notices to 55 officers, so we’ll soon see if Pettet was doing more than using his idea as political leverage.
From what I’ve read, though, the Vietnam War vet isn’t bluffing about patrolling the streets four to a car with rifles.
And I’m reasonably afraid.
He’s been quoted in the Stockton Record saying "Who’s going to stop us?" arguing it’s his constitutional right to form a militia. He’s even intoned that his group could oust the elected City Council and impose martial law upon the city, should he be sworn in along with the 270 people he claims are interested in his concept.
A semi-organized collection of volunteers taking the law into their own hands and launching a possible coup while armed with high-powered rifles. What could go wrong?
I’d chalk this up as an isolated incident of crazy, if it weren’t for the suggestion of a Lathrop city councilman more than a week ago. Christopher Mateo said that each council member could be given a badge and a gun — after sufficient training, of course — and sworn in as deputized officers of the local police department.

Thankfully, law enforcement representatives have urged these enthusiastic citizens to holster their proposals. This is not the kind of self-policing we’ve been asking for.
At some level, it’s difficult to criticize the efforts of Pettet, Mateo and anyone else who wants to make their communities safer. After all, one of the easiest ways for residents to secure cities and neighborhoods is to take personal responsibility for those spaces. These guys are nothing if not dedicated, personally
trying to protect themselves and their neighbors.

But it’s a peculiar brand of protection. These plans call for citizens to embrace an active, even pre-emptive, use of force — a far cry from keeping a gun for personal defense.
And as far as safety is concerned, while some members of these movements, such as Pettet, have extensive firearm training, others probably don’t.
And knowing how to aim and fire a gun is not the same as knowing how to use a gun. Or how not to use one.
Then there’s the whole issue of justice and equal enforcement.
If given license to uphold the law as they see fit, these outfits could easily become as dangerous as the crooks they seek to stop. Real police officers undergo months of rigorous training and
evaluation before they’re given a badge, Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman told me Friday.

He added that, without such training, an armed militia could be a liability.
“I would be concerned if I were to go through a town that had a militia that lacked that training and experience,” Sheneman said, “even if they were well-intentioned.”
Thank sanity the militia talk has missed Tracy.
Such do-it-yourself justice is a hazard to public safety — especially since there are proven ways for residents to fight the criminal element without resorting to armed recon missions.
Several Tracy neighborhoods have found that crime can be controlled peacefully, and local statistics show that Neighborhood Watch and other vigilance organizations are quite effective. Bet the house that this is the type of help police are after.
For those who share Pettet’s and Mateo’s grassroots fervor, the Tracy Police Department offers several crime-prevention programs in which concerned citizens can participate.
A self-governing militia is not among them.
 
 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In search of those bright lights

In response to this week's column, reader Victor_jm provides this link for people interested in checking out Web-surfer approved holiday light displays.

Or, if you want my personal recommendations, in Tracy check out any of these locales, winners of the Tracy Rotary Club's annual decoration contest.

And if you're headed toward the county seat, check out Meadow Lane in Stockton (east off the Benjamin Holt exit, north on Alexandria Place, east on Meadow Lane). It's the city's reigning champ when it comes to the Season of Lights.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The water crisis we can't see

By now, followers of this blog are probably well aware that the state's vital waterways face a crisis. But there's a water crisis literally under the surface of the state that, until now, has largely been hidden from view.

Thanks to the folks at NASA, we have a visual to confirm what common sense long ago said was happening: The state's groundwater table is being rapidly depleted.

Drought conditions didn't stop water agencies, farmers and other entities from pumping enough H2O from the Central Valley water table the past six years to fill the largest reservoir in the nation — the lake made possible by Hoover Dam.

Those overdrafting from aquifers lay the blame (tell me if this sounds familiar) on environmentalists who have succeeded in reducing the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They're essentially saying that groundwater reserves are being destroyed because they can't further destroy the Delta.

It's another facet of California's water puzzle that is far from sustainable. And it'll remain that way until the myth of infinite growth is put six feet under.

Another sign of the Apocalypse

Our doom must be nigh. How else do you explain this recent poll, which found Californians trust Britney Spears — Miss Responsibility herself — just as much as the Legislature when it comes to managing finances.

If the poll's methodology is sound, you can throw this on the mounting pile of evidence suggesting our state needs to blow up its governing system and start anew.

At Second Thoughts, we're asking Santa for a California Constitutional Convention.

Friday, December 11, 2009

It's up to the lawyers now

Read this and this.

Then you'll understand why this is good news.

The quick wrap: County officials need to slash more than $50 million from the budget. The District Attorney, if it is forced to lay off seven attorneys, won't be able to prosecute run-of-the-mill misdemeanors.

So a compromise was offered. Forego pay increases to save several of those vital public safety positions.

Part of it's a political move. If the members of the county attorney association say no, meaning those misdemeanors go unprosecuted, county lawyers look like they're more concerned with protecting individual pay than keeping the peace in the county. That's old-fashioned country hardball.

That said, if we're strictly speaking public policy, it makes much more sense for the association to accept the compromise and continue their good work protecting the citizenry.

There comes a time to look out for Number 1. One would hope that time isn't when general law and order would come in at Number 2.

C'mon guys. We need this help.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Public opinion: Cut taxes, raise taxes, save more, spend more

If you're confused by the headline, maybe you don't want to check out these new Bloomberg poll results.

In short, a majority of those polled (and if it's a good poll, by extension a majority of Americans) want the government to simultaneously tax the rich and enact an across-the-board tax cut; spend more on infrastructure, job training and job creation, and reduce the national deficit; avoid tax raises on the middle class and avoid cuts to entitlement programs.

Yup. We want the government to provide the best of everything, but we don't want to pay for it.

It's the American way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Coal in Tracy manager's stocking :Updated:

Just in time for Santa's trip down the chimeny, a Web site has decided to gift Tracy personnel director Maria Olvera with a sockful of coal by naming her the nation's 11th-worst boss for 2009.

While you can read the inglorious top-25 list at the eBossWatch web site, I'm taking this shot at Olvera with a grain of salt. One big enough to season my entire Christmas goose.

Because the ranking seems to stem from a lawsuit filed earlier this year by a pair of disgruntled former Tracy workers who accuse Olvera of demeaning employees, using abusive and degrading language, and generally creating a hostile work environment.

The pair — Elizabeth Allred and Ethel McFarland — also say they were fired in retribution for having complained about their working conditions.

Keep in mind that this lawsuit is pending and that what Allred and McFarland allege — the seeming basis for BossWatch's ranking — has not yet been proven substantial in court. It's just a formal accusation. We don't really know if Olvera deserves a public lambasting or an exoneration.

So while this might make great fodder for someone wanting to prove a point against the city — I mean, saying Tracy employs the 11th-worst boss in the whole friggin' country is pretty sensational — I say that until the lawsuit is settled, Olvera doesn't deserve the serving of compressed carbon.

UPDATE: City Manager Leon Churchill defends Olvera here, and his response seems far more measured than the ranking from eBossWatch.

You think it's cold now...

... Try spending a night on the streets.

No, I haven't done it. Certainly not when the mercury dips below 32 degrees. But every time Jack Frost gnaws on my nose, I can't help but think about the people who can't simply duck indoors to thaw their fingers and toes.

To help the homeless and those who can't afford to heat their homes, donate coats and especially durable blankets, sleeping bags and tents to Tracy Interfaith Ministries.

Tracy Interfaith is easy to reach — its office is in El Pescadero Park, where Parker Avenue dead-ends at Grant Line Road.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Putting your health Furst

I usually hesitiate from passing off another newspaper's opinion as must-read material. But this editorial from the Stockton Record is worth a glance.

It excoriates county public health officials, specifically Dr. Karen Furst, for being less-than-helpful in answering media questions about the H1N1 virus and communicating with the public about when and where the vaccine will be offered.

I've only personally dealt with Dr. Furst once, while researching a column about the real vs. perceived danger of West Nile virus. It wasn't the best interview I've ever had, but I imagine it can't be fun being pestered by the media for answers reporters could easily find elsewhere.

However, what I think is most noteworthy about this subjedt is not the Record's beef with county health, serious and justified as it may be.

What's striking about the H1N1 scare is that it has so far proven no more deadly than the common flu. Yes, it is a health concern, particularly because of the population it seems to hit hardest and because of its potential to mutate into a much more dangerous virus.

But it seems a lot of the media attention devoted to "swine flu" could be directed elsewhere. Say, like reminding everyone that we're still embroiled in a couple of very expensive wars.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

'Tis the season at the Tracy Press

Today the Press welcomed a pair of Christmas trees into the office. They're stately firs, and they perfume the place with a scent that screams wintertime, at least to me.

We're planning on decorating them in turn — we're thinking ornaments made wholly from Tracy Press newspapers for the newsroom conifer.

Gotta stay true to the product, and all that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The new plan, same as the old plan

It's expected that President Obama will later today announce a major escalation in the Afghanistan war. Damn.

Though Obama campaigned on drawing down forces in Iraq and escalating in Afghanistan, this is the time the U.S. should be disengaging from both fights. It is a drain not only on human lives, but on resources that we don't have.

If this escalation goes through, there should indeed be a sort of war tax, a proposal that has come from the Democratic side of the congressional aisle.

Since then-President Bush told America after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to resume consuming and go about normal life, the sacrifices of the "War on Terror" have been borne by only a small portion of the population. Namely, the servicemen and -women who do the actual fighting, and the families they have left behind.

Furthermore, we have so far paid for these wars through debt financing, ironic considering both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have been the darlings of establishment policital conservatives, and those same conservatives have been railing against health care reform in part because of its huge cost. (Maybe war debt is OK, but debt to give everyday Americans better health insurance options is not.)

It's time to spread the true cost of this war around, because aside from it being fiscally irresponsible to finance these wars on debt, more Americans need to be reminded that war is a tough, nasty, and expensive business. If driving that message home means wrenching open a few wallets, so be it.

We might just find that if rank-and-file Americans have to share more of war's cost, war will suddenly become a much less popular endeavor.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time off to celebrate

The Second Thoughts blog is retiring for the week in honor of our national day of thanksgiving.

While you are (hopefully) enjoying the company of friends and family and the comfort of hearth and home, remember those who aren't so lucky with a prayer.

Happy Thanksgiving! See you all again next week...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The help they've been looking for

Several weeks back, Second Thoughts brought you a story about the closure of a Fremont-based Toyota plant (known around here as NUMMI) and the 24,000-odd workers it could effect, many of whom live in San Joaquin County.

Workers felt betrayed by both the company and by politicians who, they said, did far too little to help keep one of Northern California's bigger economic engines humming.

Today, federal Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis shared a bit of good news for those middle-class workers looking for a little love, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

We say a bit, because while 4,500 workers directly employed at the NUMMI plant will qualify for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance, so far those other 20,000 workers that make up parts of the vast NUMMI supply chain — many of them Central Valley folks — are not eligible.

Better than nothing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

How to know when crime's getting out of hand

When your local newspaper's Web site has a section wholly dedicated to homicides.

Courtesy of copy editor Kelsy Ramos for finding this space in the Modesto Bee online edition.

Just remember Tracyites, we might've seen four homicides in the past year, but it could be much, much worse.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Expert reveals brutal details of Tracy crime

This is one story we didn't get into Saturday's paper, but probably should have.

The accused killers of Tracy resident Cynthia Ramos didn't come out of a Thursday court hearing looking like particularly sympathetic defendants. Not after a forensic expert gave enough brutal testimony to convince a judge that Robert Morgan and his partner, Jorge Morgan, should stand trial.

There's a reason I say "brutal."

The forensic expert testified that Ramos was stabbed 55 times, bludgeoned 13 times and strangled with some type of small rope.

What was done to Ramos was so bad that original reports said that she was beaten. There was too much damage to even tell what happened until later.

Remember, the two Morgans are still only suspected of the crime. They're not guilty until proven so in a court of law.

If they are, though, I expect plenty of people will want to see them fry.

Rain, rain, go away

Really, I want there to be as much rain and snow as possible this wet season. But not tonight, not when the Tracy High varsity football team is playing its first-round playoff game on grass.

Sloppy conditions are likely to hamper the Bulldogs; their biggest assets are athleticism and what-was-that-blur-oh-now-he's-past-the-secondary-and-into-the-end-zone speed.

Sludge slows speed, and if the heavens open up as forecasters have been predicting all week, what the Bulldogs hope is a track meet could devolve into a slug-fest.

Rain would make for entertaining football. But at least for one more night, I'd like to see it stay nice and dry.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The end of satire

This is so close to reality, it's hardly satire. (That's my silent weeping you hear in the background.)

As usual, it's up to the satirists to call a spade a spade.

And for reference, the real Constitution.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why is the rum always gone?

Because there's no money in the state budget to buy it.

And just when we really need it, too.

Another take on the city's dire straits

In Saturday's column, I put most of the onus of the city's current financial woes on the housing meltdown/recession and outsized employee costs — dual plagues eating the city's balance sheet from opposite ends.

But at least one local activist argues there's a third reason that I neglected to mention: General incompetence.

The current impasse — a $9 million deficit and a $25 million reserve fund that's fast being depleted — is the result of a pattern of bad decisions by an entrenched status quo, which for too long was focused on building houses and nothing else. That myopic focus left Tracy especially vulnerable to the current bust. Or so the argument goes.

No doubt that Tracy was led far down a dubious path by leaders who saw residential expansion as a golden goose. (It sure didn't hurt that developers with significant clout benefitted from the situation, too.)

Of course, residential expansion can't float economic well-being forever. It's a one-shot boost. Once the house is built and furnished, the development fees collected, the sales tax directed into city coffers, the golden goose stops laying eggs.

That leaves a choice to either diversify the economic base or build more houses. Guess which one prevailed in Tracy? And guess one of the major reasons why this area was so hard-hit when all those adjustable-rate mortgages started resetting into the stratosphere?

This all rings true. So does the general charge that the city should have done much more with the economic boom than it did. But in all honestly, the city could be in worse straits that it finds itself in today. Much worse.

Also, in my analysis, even a more well-balanced Tracy would be flailing right now. The problems just might be reduced by some measure.

And recession or no, the city should still consider re-negotiating with its unions and other employees to reduce expenditures on benefits. City employees aren't the natural enemy of taxpayers, but the current level of employee outlays is not sustainable. Even the city's finance director has admitted as much.

Regardless of the cause, the concern now is how to get out of this mess. Though it would be a shame if we forget how we got into it in the first place.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Parcel tax dropped like hot potato

I guess asking voters to tax themselves while city employees enjoy relatively cushy benefits isn't something the Tracy City Council thinks is politically prudent.

The idea of asking voters to approve a new property tax to fully fund public safety surfaced more than a month ago, but it was indefinitely put on hold tonight.


Voters probably wouldn't have been keen on a self-imposed tax during a bitter recession in the first place. But after the Tracy Press published the pay and benefits of public safety and other city employees 1½ weeks ago, the tax idea was probably dead on arrival.


As I said in last week's column, when private businesses cut pay, benefits and jobs in an effort to stay afloat, taxpayers want to feel that those working on their tax dime are sharing the pain.

Whether that's sound policy or jealousy/vengeance probably depends on the eye of the beholder. What isn't open for debate is that the city cannot continue to bring in less in tax revenue than it spends on the police and fire departments alone.

Oh, as for the theory that someone "slipped" the pay and benefits info to the Press in an effort to poison public opinion at a critical juncture: It's rubbish.

The pay and benefit information was available as public record. In regards to the timing, it seems prudent to investigate what the city is really spending on its employees, seeing as how it's running a structural deficit, is poised for layoffs and was considering asking voters for more money.

Forget the Delta, what about Luna?

They've found water on the moon!

How long do you think it'll be before SoCal cities and the Westlands Water District try to pump it their way?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Celebrating the death of the Delta

Landmark. Monumental. Unparalleled. No adjective is too grand for those trumpeting the draining of the Delta — er, we mean the water infrastructure package — recently OK'd by the state Legislature.


Sure, there are goodies thrown in there that should make anyone clap — a 20 percent urban conservation mandate and aggressive groundwater monitoring. But this is clearly a loser for the Delta and those who rely on its health as a waterway and ecosystem.

Turns out that the biggest political players got what they wanted, including more dams and a fairly clear pathway to building a peripheral canal.

Don't believe it? Think these players might shy away from digging a gigantic ditch to funnel water away from the Delta and call it an environmental victory, all the while continuing the harmful and wasteful practices that have led to the Delta's near-collapse to begin with?

Consider then the words of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Why it has to do with the environment is because we're also going to, part of this package is to fix the Delta and to build a canal around the Delta ... That was great news this morning."

The guv's delivery was made all the more poignant by its location — in Stockton, heart of Delta country. The Delta region was bypassed when this legislation was crafted, and if its backers have their way it'll be bypassed again by the canal.

Unfortunately, in all the political wrangling the state's biggest water problem was overlooked: overdraft. The state's water is overallocated. It is physically impossible to deliver all the water Californians have water rights to.

Instead of admit that there are simply too many demands on a limited supply of water — and making the requisite tough decisions about what the priorities for water use should be — politicians ignored the difficult truth, perpetuating the idea that all we need to do is conserve a little and build, build, build to untap more agua.

Now it's time for the canal cheerleaders to sell voters on a $11.1 billion bond that will help finance the legislation. Expect Second Thoughts to keep you posted...

Waiting on the Easter bunny... in November

At least one downtown Tracy merchant has already jumped on the Christmas-comes-early bandwagon.

Take a walk down 10th Street and you'll see that The Lighting Gallery has already painted its front window display with a holly, jolly theme.

Sigh.

The Christmas season last long enough if you start celebrating the day after Thanksgiving. Do we really have to start putting up decorations the second week of November?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

For the veterans

Despite being in the office, Second Thoughts took Veterans Day off from blogging, even though Veterans Day would be one of the most appropriate days of the year to exercise the Freedom of the Press fought for by generations of Americans.


For the veterans, with a sincere thank you:







Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Our very own UFO

The best call of the week (so far) came Monday night on my cell phone.

An excited man told me he had the "story of the century": There were lights in the sky — maybe a UFO — and he had the video to back him up. Unfortunately, he didn't come by the Press this morning to share.

Not that he's alone. Plenty people called the Press saying they'd seen various lights in the Monday night sky southeast of the city.

The most vivid description came from a man whom I talked to in the Press lobby. He described a rotating dark blue light hovering above a field off Chrisman Road, with the light becoming stronger or fainter depending on how fast the oval, saucer-shaped thing spun. Far from looking or sounding crazy, he said that he brought several other people out to witness the strange event, and that there were plenty of folks who observed the exact same thing and would corroberate his testimony.

He was totally sincere, and — let me repeat — did not seem crazy.

It's clear that these people saw something — and Second Thoughts would love to get its hands on video footage, if it exists.

Left to make stabs in the dark, I'm guessing one of three things:

• This is just another reminder that we all need to take our perscription medication.

• Someone, somewhere, has a lot of explaining to do about their latest "science project."

• Aliens from Nebular 5x are secretly plotting our demise.

Tongue-in-cheek aside, what's certain is that something pretty strange went on Monday night, though exactly what that is is anyone's guess.

Personally, I'm betting on the Nebular 5x guys.

City Council campaign kickoff

Larry Hite, the inspector/contractor/frequent contributor to the Tracy Press Voice section, is taking another stab at the City Council in 2010.

Hite's been a feature of local races the past two election cycles — bowing out of the mayor's race in deference to Brent Ives in 2006, and losing to Mike Maciel and Steve Abercrombie in the 2008 go-around.

This year, he'll be seeking one of two seats up for grabs, that of Vice Mayor Suzanne Tucker or Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert. Hite's first fundraiser is scheduled for Dec. 9 at Famous Dave's.

In other campaign news, this space has heard rumors that Tolbert might not seek another term. Though Second Thoughts didn't endorse her for mayor in 2008, she's a strong, smart member of the council, and this space hopes she decides to defend her seat.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Forgot the 'could be worse' part

In last night's post on Tuesday's City Council meeting, I talked about the Cloud of Doom hanging over City Hall, but not on the silver lining.

I swear, it's there, even if it's only a sliver. But at 12:30 a.m. after a raft of Simpler Times, it's a little harder to see.

The silver lining is that the city of Tracy isn't as down the hole as a lot of other cities. There's still a few million dollars in the rainy day fund that can help bridge small budget gaps for another couple years, putting us light years ahead of Stockton. And Vallejo — it of bankruptcy fame — isn't even in our galactic neighborhood.

Furthermore, if the city can survive on a bread-and-water diet for a couple years without the place going completely to hell, when the economic picture gets rosier Tracy will have a lean, less wasteful base on which to expand.

There, that's better. You may now resume rending garments and gnashing teeth.

Could be worse, could be better

Sat through the DVD of Tuesday's City Council meeting, in which various department heads went before the council and proffered their budget-cutting strategies.

First reaction was that it could be worse, but it still ain't going to be pretty.

The city's faced with the dreaded damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-do decision: It must cut costs, which means it must cut services, since the other option is a politicall unpopular fee or tax hike (something that might happen anyway).

No matter what services get the ax, or even just a shave, someone out there is going to notice. And complain.

Plenty of people say they want bare-bones tax rates, even though they also tend to not like bare-bones city services.

Well, services are going to get trimmed. It's going to be a reminder that you get what you pay for.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Defending Delta isn't just about the fish

Just a couple more reminders — straight from those who are living proof — that asking legislators to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from the voracious needs of Parts Previously Unwatered is not a Fish vs. People issue...

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations:
"The Bay-Delta is not a reservoir; it is the most important estuary on the West coast and gives life to many of our coastal fisheries. With this bill, the health of the delta and our fisheries lies with an unfunded council with no authority. The majority of its members will be appointed by the governor, and Schwarzenegger has made it clear he is willing to drain the delta if it means more water for land speculators and developers. We have little faith this council will support and act on the pressing needs of our delta and our fisheries, especially if it means putting a halt to the south's attempts at a water grab. This back-room, special-interest bill is fishy for sure, but definitely not because it will restore our industry to its former health."
...
"Destroying the Bay-Delta, as a peripheral canal and new diversions would do, makes the sheer environmental destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley pale in comparison."

Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association:
"After months of special interests distorting the facts about our water woes, the Legislature went behind closed doors and came up with this stinking dead fish of a package that is sure to continue draining the Delta and killing what is left of our salmon fishery."
...
"The simple fact is that this legislation will cause the Delta to collapse and turn the San Francisco Bay estuary into a cesspool, undoing decades of work to restore the Bay to good health. Westlands Water District, private land developers, and the governor all deserve a special place in hell for engineering the destruction of Northern California’s ecosystems."

Real strong words from real people who will be hit hard by the continued damming, draining and diverting of the Delta. And let's not forget those who actually call the Delta home.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Full steam ahead for peaker plant upgrade

According to this report, GWF Energy's effort to turn the Tracy Peaker Plant into a combined-cycle facility is moving right along.

With the California Energy Commission staff giving their green light, saying the project meets all laws, organizations and standards, locals can expect to soon have a bigger (some say better) power plant on the western fringe of town.

For more takes on the plant expansion, visit here and here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fine wine in Tracy, indeed

Jeff Brown, who oversees several vineyards in the Tracy Hills appelation, confirmed early reports that this year's local harvest is going to be a good one and survived an early October storm with nary a scratch:

"This year's harvest has been the longest and most productive in all of my years farming grapes, and next week I should be done with my last two varieties. I grow 23 different varieties here on Bird Road on 400 acres."

Varieties from Southern Italy, Portugal and the Rhone and Bordeaux regions are Brown's specialties. But he says the pride of his Tulip Hills wines (some of the grapes are grown in Tracy) are the Cabernets and Syrahs. "Excellent," Brown calls them.

So tip back a glass, and savor a real taste of Tracy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quote of the day

Intern: "You should really check out the Post Office."

Reporter: "Why's that?"

Intern: "Because there's a car in it."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Big numbers! BIG NUMBERS!!!

So the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 10,000 last week, and the investment world rejoiced that the recession is over, confidence in the market has been restored, and all our problems are over.

Not so much. The hullabaloo over the Dow's recent surge is just more proof that the denizens of Wall Street do not live in what the rest of us like to call The Real World.

Remember, the last Wall Street surge was not associated with a surge in real wealth. The wealth was all on paper. In fact, the average American became poorer during the economic "boom" in the mid-to-late 'aughts, as real wages for the normal worker stagnated and declined even as those at the top of the pay scale saw their compensation increase dramatically.

Remember also that the most recent "boom" busted rather dramatically, precisely because all the gains were imaginary, just figures and machinations on someone's spreadsheet.

I don't get to jazzed up over the recent gains on Wall Street. Show me more living-wage Main Street jobs, and then I'll declare the Bull is Back.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A major blow to Tracy vitality?

In Saturday's Press, the editorial board gives a preliminary thumbs up on Page 10 to a proposed business district that could add some juice to downtown Tracy's vitality.

Right across the fold on Page 11 and earlier on Page 4 are stories that explore one of the major threats to that mojo. Fear.

Amore's Italian Restaurant was trying something different to bring more business — and more life — to its downtown locale: dancing at night. Whether it was rented to private parties or open to the public, it was an unusual evening when Amore's wasn't host to folks enjoying an atmosphere that isn't often found in Tracy.

The Oct. 10 shooting that killed an unsuspecting patron has effectively put the kibbosh on Amore's experiment.

That cold-blooded killing in and of itself is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of Niam Bey, who was by all accounts a good guy and family man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The secondary tragedy is that this incident could prevent other entrepreneurs from pioneering similar night life options.

It wasn't hip-hop music that caused the fatal shooting, nor was it alcohol or the many people who went in and out of Amore's to kick back a few, chat, dance and have a good time. And it certainly wasn't the restaurant, as Amore's had security present and, from police and witness reports, did what any responsible establishment would do.

But all of that and more are getting at least part of the rap, instead of just blaming the jerk with a handgun who decided to get in a fight and randomly blast away.

It's unfortunate. Because that kind of blame-it-all attitude could poison attempts to keep Tracy's downtown on a path of business, culture and retail by day and food, fun and libations by night.

Here's hoping that the fear loses out, and that downtown's mojo continues to grow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Misleading press release of the week

GWF Energy LLC sent over a missive this week about its effort to expand production at the Tracy Peaker Plant titled, "GWF announces plans for environmentally beneficial conversion of Tracy power plant."

The release refers to the effort to turn the peaker plant into a full-time "combined cycle" facility.

The scoop:
GWF's release is technically true, as the plant will be cleaner per hour of run time in its new incarnation. However, that new incarnation will also release far more total pollutants and burn more fossil fuel.

While the press release touts the per-hour efficiencies that the new plant will produce, it fails to mention the gross impacts.

The analysis:
The new and improved power plant will indeed be cleaner relatively speaking, but calling any fossil-fuel burning plant "environmentally beneficial," especially one that is going to increase its pollutant output, is an outright contradiction in terms.

That doesn't mean the expansion is a bad idea (in fact, the Press Editorial Board endorsed it). But at least people should be aware that GWF's company line isn't telling the whole truth.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Police drill spices up Friday night

We received more than a few phone calls tonight about a bunch of police staking out a building in northern Tracy. Apparently, they said, hostages were involved.

Had this city, fresh off a fatal shooting at a nightclub, already moved on to a bigger, badder front-page event?

Not quite. It was a training exercise, the Tracy PD confirmed.

A few quick thoughts:

• It's nice to have a community that cares about knowing what's going on enough to call the local newspaper office.

• It's nice to have a police department that prepares for the wrost-case-scenarios.

• It's not so nice that no one who called seemed especially surprised. Concerned, but not surprised.

Your charity dollars at work

This week, the Tracy Community Council of the United Way (full disclosure, I sit on the board) announced its grant award recipients for this year.

The recipients applied for and received the grants based on their work in the community, especially for their work with the poor, needy and underserved.

Without further ado, your winners are:

• Boys & Girls Clubs of Tracy
• Give Every Child a Chance
• Hospice of San Joaquin
• Manteca CAPS
• McHenry House Family Shelter
• Pregnency Resource Center of Tracy
• Second Harvest Food Bank
• Tracy Art League
• Tracy Free Clinic Inc.
• Tracy Interfaith Ministries
• Tracy Volunteer Caregivers
• Vinewood Center for Children and Families
• Women's Center of San Joaquin County

Please, a big round of applause. And consider supporting any and all of these outfits as the holiday giving season draws nearer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fast start to the rainy season

In the 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday morning, Tracy received 1.09 inches of rain, bringing our season total since July 1 to 1.27 inches (according to the uber-sophisicated Tracy Press rain gauge).

In 2008-09, it took until the middle of December to sniff that mark.

Let's hope this is a harbinger of the wet season we need.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The letter we couldn't run

Every once in a while, a letter to the editor doesn't run in the Press' print edition because it doesn't meet our publishing guidelines. I try to post the more interesting ones in this space.

This one, from a frequent contributor, somehow appeared in my inbox weeks after it was sent in, and even longer after the original letter to which he refers was published — too late for it to run in print. However, the writer has an interesting idea:

In last Saturday's Tracy Press, I read Betty Hanson's letter about the word change that had been made to her letter. Betty, don't feel bad; I've written many letters to the Tracy Press, and most can't find their way to print without being altered in some way or another. In Wednesday's Press, I wrote a letter in about the president's trip to Martha's Vineyard. More than a word was changed, and the icing was the changing of the word "paying" to "playing."

Perhaps with the cutting of the number of days Tracy's paper is circulated, they also cut proofreading.

On occassion, the Tracy Press should let the letters to the editor be the letters sent to the editor and not the version that they ultimately end up putting in the paper. Sometimes, the letters written by we simpletons are better comprehended. If not, the Tracy Press should change the name to Letter to the Editor with Alterations!

There is also the "better-read factor." After some of the changes the Tracy Press makes, you might have to re-read the article for it to make sense.

To the editor, a plea! Leave the letters as they are and let the chips fall where they may. Allow the writers to deal with the public scrutiny. After all, it is our opinion.

While taking the writer's advice would save us a lot of time, unfortunately, it could also make the Your Voice column less-than-readable. Sometimes, extensive editing is needed on submitted marterial. But believe it or not, those editing take extreme care to preserve the intention and opinion of the writer. We just don't always get it perfect.

For the record, this 218-word letter was presented here in edited format — as the original contained no fewer than 19 grammar, syntax and spelling errors.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Understatement of the week

While Second Thoughts is all for Tracy as the next Emerald City (this type, not this type), the state's reasoning for putting its weight behind the think-green effort here is less-than flattering.

As Tracy spokesman Matt Robinson told the Press earlier this week: "They selected Tracy because we have essentially not been considered a city that would be a poster child for sustainability."

In other words, if this city can do it, so can anyone else.

That assessment might seem overly harsh, but let's face it — it's not inaccurate. Tracy is a sprawl spot. As are most of its neighboring Central Valley cities.

Which means we really are the perfect laboratory for seeing if haphazard development can be turned into something more Earth and people friendly. My fingers, at least, are crossed.

Thanks for my Peace Prize

So I've been a booster of President Obama since he was Candidate Obama. But receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for what basically amounts to just being alive? Puh-leeze.

More than really honoring anything the president has actually done, I think this decision demonstrates how little people in the international community really thought of our leadership the past few years, and how hungry the world was for a thoughtful, more reasoned America.

To honor the likely motivation of those who bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize on Obama, I think it should have been renamed for this one year to the Nobel "America's Most Recent President So Screwed International Relations That We Decided Simply Replacing Him Was A Huge Step Forward For World Peace" Prize.

In which case, I feel America's voters should really get this award.

So Mr. President, thank you for accepting this Nobel on my behalf. I'm adding this accomplishment to my resume.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Editors — the last line of defense


Copyright of Stephan Pastis, creator of "Pearls Before Swine."

Cutting class

The south county satellite of San Joaquin Delta College is revving up, but the college overall is winding down many courses and classes.

Budget cuts are forcing administrators to consider narrowing the college's focus, according to several local reports, possibly even the base level English, reading, writing and math courses.

Another $3.65 million in cuts will do that to you.

But the upshoot is that, to quote one of these news outlets, Delta College "may never be the broad community resource it is today."

One of the best aspects of Delta, as it currently stands, is that it is an institution that serves a wide variety of people in an area where affordable higher education has been hard to come by. It would be a shame if that were to change.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

You mean there's still shop at school?

The emergency scanner lit up not a minute ago about a structure fire at Tracy High School — specifically, according to dispatchers, in the "welding shop."

Which is big news. I didn't know the school still had a welding shop.

Another reason to save the Delta

Want a reason to protect the Delta from encroaching interests from Parts Previously Unwatered? How about San Joaquin County's $2.1 billion agricultural output in 2008, a 6 percent increase from the year before.

San Joaquin farmers get a good deal of their water from senior rights to rivers and — you guessed it — the Delta.

But to quench the thirst of places with junior rights — places that arguably shouldn't have been farmed with permanent crops in the first place — one breadbasket might be damaged to sustain another.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Farewell to a helluva reporter

Today, Jennifer Wadsworth left the Press for greener pastures.

Jenn, as she's called in the office, was a boon to the newsroom. Not only was she a solid reporter with golden instincts and a knack for wheedling a story out of people (who could forget how she helped police unwrap the sordid tale of Melissa Huckaby, the suspected killer of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu), she was a genuine person.

To see her handle the pressure of the circus following the Huckaby stories — including the near-constant requests for interviews from Nancy Grace, Geraldo, even Dr. Phil — was to see a humble professional.

Happy trails, Jenn. The Press will miss ya.

Steady at the Helm's

When the economy tanks, there's nothing like a good brewhouse where you can fill your tankard.

And Tracy's got a new one — Helm's Alehouse, right at the corner of Central Avenue and 10th Street.

The tinted windows might not provide a great feel from the outside, but once you're inside, there's great beer on tap — including a unique watermelon-flavored brew served with a wedge of melon I've not been brave enough to try — and traditional pub fare with a California twist. (Order the jalepeƱo burger, but you'll regret it if you're macho about it.)

The outfit is run by the aforementioned David Helm, a police force veteran and a great barkeep. He'll talk to you all day, or leave you alone if you're the antisocial type.

It's a great addition to downtown. Here's a round to it sticking around, and beating out the curse that seems to follow whoever sets up shop in that space.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Poor, poor us

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1-in-4 children in San Joaquin Valley are living below the poverty rate.

More than 22 percent of our kids and almost 17 percent of all county residents are below the federal poverty line. And if you know anything about the "poverty line," you know that it's a bargain basement measure of poverty, and plenty of folks living above that income level still can't make ends meet.

The federal definition of poverty is an annual income of $22,025 for a family of four.

That's for the whole country, mind you. So in a state like California, where the cost of living is a little more expensive than say, West Virginia or Alabama, it's hardly an accurate measure of poverty.

Translation: If you think the "official" numbers on poverty are bad, the reality is even worse.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A semi-regular tragedy

It seems that almost every other month, the Tracy Press or its sister paper in Patterson posts a story such as this one — a body dragged out of the Delta-Mendota Canal. In this case, possibly a fisherman who disappeared Monday.

The canal is a notorious death trap, for both vehicles and those on foot. Fall in, and you're probably not getting out.

If such an outfit existed, it would be the San Joaquin mafia's version of the Hudson River.

Yet the canal is still a popular spot for fishing trips, trips that far too often end in tragedy, as one apparently did this week.

Yes, there are fish aplenty in the concrete-lined Delta-Mendota and California Aqueduct. But there are better fishing holes to be had, ones that aren't one false step away from disaster.

Quote of the week

"A village cannot reorganize village life to suit the village idiot." - Frank Schaeffer

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dim, grim economic forecast

According to the University of the Pacific Business Forecasting Center, it'll be at least one more year before the valley economy begins its bounce back, reports the Modesto Bee.

The largest contributors? Well, first off is another possible wave of foreclosures. (What, you didn't think that was over, did you?)

The other is the closure of the NUMMI plant in Fremont, a topic discussed in last week's column.

According to UOP, the unemployment rate in San Joaquin County should push 20 percent — Depression Era numbers if I've ever heard them.

But before you hide what cash you have left in a coffee can under your orange tree, remember that while those numbers are bad — horrible, if you consider what they mean in human terms — our area traditionally sports much higher unemployment than other regions.

So at least it won't be as bad elsewhere. Cold comfort, but that's all we've got right now.

Worst argument of the year

If you repeat it enough, maybe people will think it's true.

That must be the impetus behind columns like this, which continue to erroneously describe the story of drought in California as a matter of People vs. the Delta smelt.

But William Busse (and Fox News' Sean Hannity, whom I observed heading a misguided protest during his Thursday night broadcast while at the local In-Shape) continue to prepetuate the canard.

A brief corrective:

The smelt is a stand-in for the Delta as a whole. The Delta has been dammed, diverted, polluted and exported to the point it's no longer a stable ecosystem. The smelt — and the lawsuits and water pumping restrictions that surround it — is merely a legal placeholder for that crumbling ecosystem and the people who depend upon its health.

Just one of the many results of the overuse and abuse of the Delta — Delta salmon populations have crashed, contributing to a two-year idling of the commercial salmon fleet. (However, you won't see farmers who rely on subsidized Delta water say that this is a battle against farmers vs. fishers, because that simply doesn't have the impact of saying farmers vs. fish. Nor will you hear them concede that having water flow through the Delta to the ocean is useful, even though even fifth-grade ecology says so.)

The truth is, it's mostly those on the valley's West Side — the people whose existence would be impossible without the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct — who are seriously being hurt by the pumping restrictions. The drought, though it is indeed causing fallow fields and failed orchards, is not being evenly felt by all farmers. In fact, for many farmers and crops, this is sizing up to be a record year.

Now, I think it would be great to have a very serious discussion about the impact of pumping restrictions on these farmers, the possible solutions and those ramifications.

But as long as the "Fish are more important than people" big lie is peddled by the likes of Hannity and Busse, it's a futile exercise.

UPDATE: Mike Fitzgerald, The Record's worthy columnist, also apparently saw the Hannity episode. He has this to say. If there's a more perfect description of the Fish vs. People insanity, I don't know where to find it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

More McNerney challengers

With Tony Amador throwing his hat into the ring to challenge Rep. Jerry McNerney in the 2010 election, the GOP primary is getting crowded.

Amador last campaigned in Orange County (he just moved into the 11th District from Elk Grove a month ago, the Lodi Sentinel reported) and he now hopes to beat out fellow conservatives Brad Goehring and Jon Del Arroz for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A blow for the local economy

This just in: Tracy's been beaten out in the quest to host a to-be-built South County Administration Building. Your winner — Manteca.

It's too bad such a center couldn't have been located here, especially since it would have been a boon to the local economy.

Hear it told by Manteca City Manager Steve Pinkerton:

"Working with the council, we felt like this was something that was worth pursuing, given that this could bring hundreds of jobs to the area, along with as much as 1,000 people a day coming into the area to access county services and spend money in our community.

"We looked around for the win-win situation, which would be a cost-effective place for the county to build with utilities in place, amenities, a location that was beneficial to the county and at the same time a location that could help the economic development of the community."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Turn it into a town hall

For those who were disappointed with Rep. Jerry McNerney's recent phone-in town hall meetings (and if I recall, there were more than a few) the Democratic representative will host one of his "Congress at your corner" events from 1 to 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21, at the Margaret K. Troke Branch Library, 502 W. Benjamin Holt Drive, in Stockton.

Consider this your chance to score some face time with our local representative in the halls of Congress.

Not so patriotic

After proclaiming his opposition to Patriot Act policies that threaten civil liberties as a senator, President Obama seems to want to extend several of the act's controversial facets.

For those of us who were hoping Obama would undo some of the Bush administration's overreaches in terms of executive power, this is a huge disappointment.

What a fickle mother

Mother Nature blessed us with a cool fall weekend for the bean festival (which happened to go nicely with Saturday's column — sometimes the timing is just lucky).

But oh, that woman, she's fickle.

Predicted temperatures by week's end top triple digits.

Break out the swim trunks — summer's coming back for (what we hope is) one last hurrah.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years later — what we've lost

Musing today about the attacks of Sept. 11, I didn't think so much about my initial reaction to watching the Twin Towers tumble, killing thousands and covering New York City with dust, or even where I was. (For you curious readers, I was in my freshman year college dorm room at the time, glued to the TV along with my suitemates.)

I thought about what we've lost since then. What we've done. Both personally and as a nation.

The people with relatives and friends who died in the attacks obviously suffered extreme loss. (One of the people who worked in my college newsroom had a family member who worked in one of the towers.)

But the nation has suffered, too.

Since that date we've launched wars, tortured prisoners, become less trusting, more afraid, more bitter, more divided.

Today, I don't have a moral. (If you must have one, read the most recent Tracy Press editorial.)

Today was a day for reflection. A day to remember what we've lost.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bean buzz building

Stepping outside the Tracy Press after dark, yellow lights were flashing and people were moving.

There was no police action -- it was part of the pre-setup for the Tracy Dry Bean Festival, which technically kicks off Saturday. (Though as a veteran of schoolyard festivals, I can tell you that a set-up night, hopefully complete with icy cervecas and grilled meats, can be the best party night of all.)

With the streets set to close Friday afternoon, the buzz is building for Tracy's biggest annual party.

Hopefully, we'll see you downtown come Saturday.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Columnist fail

You might have noted that there was no live blog from the Kimball High School campus as President Obama addressed the nation's students.

My apologies, as I seem to have come down with a case of strep throat for the second time in a month.

However, I'm pleased to say that, from my own reading of the speech's transcript, that it was about as admirable — if not boring — of an address that the president could have given to students.

Sad thing is, the inspirational exhortation will likely mean very little if the students aren't raised in an environment — that includes parents and teachers — that sets academic achievement as something that's important, expected and worked toward.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stimulus capital improvement continues

As promised in Saturday's update regarding the city's stimulus package, the following is a list of infrastructure projects hustled onto the fast track. The list comes courtesy of City Manager Leon Churchill.

Completed (at a cost of about $17 million)
Old City Hall renovation, 11th Street median improvements, alley rehabilitation, street overlays, 10th Street improvements, traffic calming (have you seen the new humps on many midtown avenues?), bus shelter improvements, Northeast Industrial Area infrastructure improvements, CNG fuel station expansion.

Under construction (at a cost of about $35 million)
Widening of Grant Line Road between Parker Avenue and MacArthur Drive, downtown transit statino, water well No. 9, miscellaneous water and wastewater line replacements, Old Schulte Road improvements, Lammers Road improvements (Phase 1 in front of Kimball High School).

Ready for construction award (at a projected cost of $8 million)
Sidewalk rehabilitation, Bessive Avenue reconstruction, water booster station upgrade, replacement of Dr. Powers Park restroom, park playgound equipment replacement, various water and wastewater projects, street overlays and slurry seals.

Under design (at a projected cost of $35 million)
Corral Hollow Road widening from Grant Line Road to the West Valley Mall entry, Grant Line Road repairs and widening from MacArthur Drive east to the city limits, Corral Hollow Road widening from Grant Line Road to Old Schulte Road, miscellaneous water and wastewater line replacements.

President to *gasp* encourage learning

For those who haven't heard, President Obama plans at 9 a.m. Tuesday to address students in schools across the nation and encourage kids to further their education.

This has prompted plenty of folks to worry that their children will be insidiously indoctrinated by the country's leader. (I guess having an education is the equivalent of being a communist-facist-traitor to some folks, which kind of explains how these guys have an audience.)

The speech will be shown in many -- not all -- Tracy Unified School District classrooms. And as a nod to the several parents who have called in concerned that their child might be inspired by the leader of the free world, no students will be compelled to watch the speech. School district officials assured me Friday that there will be alternative options made available.

I, for one, am not worried about a political message being sent through the speech. First off, it would be an ethically suspect thing to do, and I expect better of the president. Second, it strikes me as an extremely politically unwise thing to do -- can you imagine the backlash if the president used school time to plug his pet programs (even though that didn't stop President Ronald Reagan from doing it in his school address 1988)?

Stay tuned. Second Thoughts will be reporting live from a Tracy classroom as the speech unfolds Tuesday.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Simplifying the Peripheral Canal debate

Usually, I'm not a fan of oversimplification. The world is full of nuance, and neglecting to realize that leaves you with this.

However, the debate over the Peripheral Canal truly can be distilled to these two essences:

• If you rely on water pumped down the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal, you're in favor of a Peripheral Canal.

• If you rely on the Delta as a healthy, vital waterway with actual freshwater in it, you're not in favor of a Peripheral Canal.

Glad we could clear that up.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The best e-mail we couldn't publish

Sometimes anonymous letters to the editor come in with no contact information. Without a name, they can't run in the Press (per our editorial policy). But that doesn't mean we can't showcase some of the gems here:

Wake up fellow Tracyites
EDITOR,
We have many problems in this town of ours.
It all started many years ago. I've been here since 1979. This used to be a quiet, friendly, decent little town!
Where are all the smiles? I see none every day as I make my daily errands. Why?
1: The people who run this town have the wrong priorities.
2: The people who run this town have succumbed to big developers, and now it is getting out of control — starting in the early 1990s. My qualifications for this statement are as follows: a lifetime in construction.
3: Where is the $7 million they lost in the 90s?
4: Why do we have a cultural theater on Central Avenue, which they spent $20 million on — yes, $20 million — that loses money every year and was tagged upon completion? Must be the wining and dining, in my book.
Do we Tracyites want to be Stocktonians? Not me! But we're already halfway there!!!
Let's nip it in the bud (my favorite beer).
We need to support our local police department and fire department even if they get their federal grant — they deserve it.
Signing off...
~ One Grumpy Old Man, Tracy

As per One Grumpy's suggestion, I'm going to nip another Bud and see if it makes more sense then.

A stimulating update

Back in March, Mayor Brent Ives rolled out his plan to give local business a shot in the arm — the Tracy Investment Plan.

Now it's September, nearly five months after Ives declared the city would invest millions of dollars in an effort to keep Tracy's fortunes from sinking too far with the rest of the economy.

We at Second Thoughts want to know how that multifaceted effort is panning out, especially in light of depressing recent job statistics.

Tune in this Saturday to the Tracy Press for answers.

Friday, August 28, 2009

But what about the farmers?

Following Saturday's column, I expect to get some flak for neglecting the fate of farmers and siding with environmental whackos — that I'd rather defend an endangered fish than defend the livelihood of farmers.

Not so.

However, I would rather defend a region that is home to 4 million people, fertile soil, a dynamite agricultural industry, diverse wildlife, a rich fishery (when it's healthy) and a supply of water for millions and millions of Californians than defend the continued growing of crops on marginal soils with heavily subsidized water.

Some of it's nativism, since I've lived in San Joaquin County my whole life and I have a personal attachment to the Delta. But some of it is also common sense. Much of the land that is going fallow, drying and dying was never really prime ag land to begin with and would be downright unfarmable (as we can well now see) without that irrigation.

This is not to say that irrigation is itself evil. Only a fool who ignores the blessing of a cheap, abundant food supply would contend such a thing.

This is also not to diminish the plight of the farmers and workers whose livelihoods are at stake because their farms and fields are now without water. Their suffering is real, and not to be minimized or made light of. Many could lose a life's worth of work and investment in the current aqua-logical climate.

However, when we talk about the Delta and what to do with its limited supply of water, we're talking about priorities — how can we most wisely use this precious resource? And that means undoing the poor decisions of the past and making some very painful choices for the future.

Maybe this is too easy for me to say, since my livelihood isn't endangered and my supply of water is not at risk. But it still strikes me that ignoring the difficult decisions ahead is like living in a fantasy world.

Mountain Housers on edge for school nod

Justin Lafferty reports in the Press that the next step in the unification process for Mountian House's Lammersville School District is up to the county. Then it's on to the voters.

(Quick refresher: Unification means that Lammersville School District would have its own high school, thereby actually breaking away from Tracy Unified School District, which now schools Lammersville's high school-age students.)

Once the county approves the unification -- which I'm willing to be will happen -- Lammersville voters will have the chance to OK the move.

Given the independent spirit of those in Mountain House, I'd be shocked if unification didn't pass handily.

There also could be a hidden benefit to Tracy Unified. Though TUSD would initially lose a significant amount of money when Mountain House-based students no longer attend Tracy schools, it could ensure that overcrowding in Tracy will not be an issue for many years.

Tracy's third comprehensive high school, Kimball, eased overcrowding at West and Tracy High schools. The departure of MH kids from the Tracy Unified fold -- in addition to fostering that windswept community's sense of pride -- will further thin the ranks at those schools, indirectly making the investment at Kimball last longer.

How's that for silver lining?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In the interest of liberty

This in response to the once-again-surfaced issue of the rights of detainees in the War on Terror, and America's ghoulish to-torture-or-not-to-torture question:

Some might wonder why some people defend the rights of the people at Guantanamo Bay — considered by many to be terrorists, even though few have been convicted or even tried for anything. Well, I think our friend Tom Paine — he of "Common Sense" fame — summed it up well (Courtesy of Glenn Greenwald):

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

It's the same idea that guides the thinking behind the First Amendment. Or, to paraphrase that famed First Amendment-user, pornographer Larry Flynt:

To protect the speech you love, you must also protect the speech you hate.

Hear, hear.

A jazzed-up downtown

OK, so I kinda stole the headline, but this story about another cool hangout in downtown Tracy is more welcome news for the city's epicenter.

First, the old JC Penney building found an occupant in Corral Hollow Realty. (Not the fit I had imagined, but the space looks infinitely more inviting now than it did when it was home to a scrapbooking store that just couldn't fill out the building.)

Then, we heard news that a pub-style establishment was taking over the Central Avenue-10th Street building formerly occupied by Gigi's Pizza and Hula Huts restaurant. (Three cheers for fresh local suds at the corner!)

Now, Main Street Music's plans to offer an Italian cafe with vino and light eats. (I just hope the cafe has outdoor seating to take advantage of our balmy summer evenings and cool fall and spring breezes.)

Downtown needs more businesses that give people a reason to stroll around, sit down, stay awhile and spend some hard-earned money. I know I'll stop by Main Street's new stop for a glass of red stuff — I just hope others do, too.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Damned if he does...

Rep. Jerry McNerney's taken some heat for his phone-in town halls regarding health care. Understandably, some constituents are frustrated by the lack of direct access inherent to this particular medium.

But the poor guy is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Consider:

McNerney has seen what's happened across the country when other congressmen and -women have met face-to-face with the public. While a good portion of the people showing up want real answers to pertinent questions, you also get this, this and this. These folks sure know how to take the "civil" out of "civil debate."

That's probably something he doesn't want to deal with. And I don't blame him. It wouldn't take but one or two unbalanced folks looking to cause a ruckus to hijack the entire event.

On the other hand, not having a face-to-face meeting with the public makes it looks like he's trying to distance himself from his constituents. It could even give the impression that he's trying to control what questions get asked, which comes off as distinctly anti-democratic. (Remember, trust is something for friends and family, not politicians. Not even the ones you like and vote for.)

No matter how many phone-in town halls McNerney hosts, it will not be as satisfying as a face-to-face event. (Though in the eyes of some, even those meetings would not satisfy.)

Ideally, I'd like to see McNerney host an in-person town hall in a couple cities around the 11th Congressional District, allow people to ask questions, lend their support, voice dissent, even cause a scene.

The result might not be pretty. But it would undoubtedly make for some great theater.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Quote of the day...

OK, this actually happened a couple of days ago, but it's so good that it still qualifies.

Rep. Barney Frank isn't exactly a perfect spokesman for, well, anything. But when it comes to health care reform, he deserves credit for being the first person in Congress to put the nutty "death panel" crowd in its place, albeit less-than-diplomatically.

The money quote from the openly gay, Jewish congressman, upon being confronted by a woman who asked why the representative supported President Obama's "Nazi policy" health care plan:

"I am going to revert to my ethnic heritage and respond to your question with a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time? ... It is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. ... Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Test scores good, learning better

Good news about the Tracy Unified School District's standardized test scores. Across-the-board, the scores are up.

If only those scores meant something. Well, OK, so they do mean something. But not necessarily that these kids are getting a good education. (Though I'm sure, Tracy Unified officials and teachers, that they are.)

Talk to many teachers, and standardized testing is often described as a pain, if not something that actually prevents learning. Good scores on standardized tests don't just tell us that students know the subject material -- they more often reveal that students are good at taking standardized tests, not that they're prepared to enter the world after school.

These two things are not necessarily the same thing.

Consider all the time spent teaching specifically to state- and federally mandated tests. Now consider all the valuable things that could (should) be taught instead.

Things such as basic civics (you have no idea how few people understand that funding for school districts and cities do not, in fact, come out of the same general fund -- or who even know what a general fund is) or economic survival (it seems our credit-hungry society could use some schooling on home budgeting and taxes) or even writing (don't get me started).

Then there are the bygone subjects that imparted hands-on skills that even my generation never got to experience -- auto shop, metal shop, carpentry. It's more than just money problems that prevents these things being taught. It's also the time.

I realize that testing will always be a necessary part of school. Even standardized testing has its place, if judiciously administered. But preparing for fill-in-the-bubble tests, and their corresponding scores, should never be mistaken for true learning.

Friday, August 14, 2009

City Council meeting update

If you pay rigorous attention to the Tracy Press print edition "meetings" list on Page 6, consider yourself temporarily hoodwinked.

The regular City Council meeting this coming Tuesday has been canceled, in favor of a 4 p.m. special meeting. (The agenda is here.)

What's coming up, you ask? Something having to do with amending the plans for the Gateway Business Park. Not sure what it's about, specifically, but if it's part of the plan to draw more commerce to the business park...

Well, woohoo!

Who doesn't need an 'Internet happy box'?

If you've been reading a lot of the public commentary about health care reform (and you're still sane, that is) you probably feel like weeping silently into a very deep glass of whiskey.

Luckily, Stephen Pastis, creator of "Pearls Before Swine," has a cure.

Rejoice, online refugees. Rejoice.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health care makes my head spin

Researching an upcoming series of Tracy Press editorials regarding health care reform has been an eye-opener, and no surprise.

Aside from getting confirmation that several stated concerns about current reform proposals are truly bat s--- insane, it's obvious from a little research that the problems facing America's health care system are deep-seated and massively complex.

In fact, it's tough to figure out where to start, especially with the disinformation and unruly rhetoric surrounding this issue. That's why the Press will give its official take and health care reform primer in the coming weeks.

So stay tuned, alert readers. You might learn something. Or at least find something to write in about.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Peer behind the newsprint curtain

Ever wondered what kind of conversations go on in a newsroom?

This Web site gives folks in the journalism world a place to post some of the more-quotable (and less-suitable-for-public-consumption) newsroom utterances. It's well worth the trip if you have time to waste or some sort of print-o-phile curiosity.

Note, this is not recommended for those without a slightly morbid sense of humor. Or bourbon.

Not as bad as advertised

It's been repeated by many that California's most recent drought is putting tens of thousands of people out of work.

As pointed out before, the University of the Pacific has found that is a vastly overstated claim.

But don't expect The Associated Press — or the "self-interested" parties often interviewed for such articles — to stop citing the drought as a major motivator behind the Central Valley's high unemployment rates.

Traffic tangles

Reports in from the first day of school at Kimball High are mixed.

Seems as though traffic tie-ups on the one-lane-each-way stretch of Lammers Road are going to be common until the city is able to expand the road and beef up the turn lanes.

Until that day comes, expect serious delays getting in and out of Tracy's newest high school. And avoid the Lammers Road-11th Street interchange if at all possible between 7:45 and 8:30 a.m.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Get up and go, Master Green

Eric Green of West High has a great opportunity.

He can go to a premeir basketball high school on the East Coast, get a bigger platform to ball on, add a couple years to his high school experience and challenge himself academically.

What's not to love?

I suppose if you're a Wolf Pack booster, you might feel a bit burned because your only returning starter from last year's varsity basketball team is suddenly skipping town. But that would be awfully small, considering we're talking about a huge opportunity for a 16-year-old kid.

So let's wish him a bon voyage, instead of begrudging the young man his crack at success.

We're glad this is a big deal

Why be glad that the second killing in Tracy in less than a year (prudence and legality prevent me from writing the M-word) is hogging media attention?

Consider the alternative.

Tracy is a pretty peaceful town, despite a spate of high-profile cases and what seems to be a burgeoning tagging scene. A suspected homicide here is a rare thing.

That means, when someone is apparently beaten to death in her own home, it makes headlines. Thank goodness it's not a run-of-the-mill thing. Because, in some American cities, it is.