Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The economy, in comic strip form

It appears Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson knew about our pending collapse 15 years ago.

Image copyright of Bill Watterson.

Of self-standards

There comes a time when every writer must own up to or explain some sort of inconsistency. Consider this mine.

In last week's column, I wrote that it'd be nice for our community to be given at least a week before Oakland police Sgt. Mark Dunakin's death — and the deaths of his three fellow officers — was turned into a prop for a gun control debate.

But family members of a Tracy Marine killed in Afghanistan this year didn't receive such a time delay from me.

I penned a February column about the death of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Daniel Hansen not six days after he was killed on duty. At least one letter-writer at the time called out the decision as gauche, to say the least.

It wasn't my intent to politicize the sacrifice of the elite Marine and West High graduate as an argument for or against continuing involvement in America's two overseas wars — I actually did not intend to use him as a political football, as servicemen and -women have so often been the past six years in columns and blogs.

But the death of the highly decorated Marine did make me realize that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were still ongoing but had not appeared in our newspaper — in opinion form or otherwise — for quite some time. I thought the column would be a poignant reminder that men and women were still fighting and, sadly, dying, and that the situation overseas is still tenuous and dangerous in many ways despite the declining news coverage of the issue.

I wanted to make the point that Hansen's death, while tragic for our community, was part of a bigger picture that many seem to have forgotten.

I still see it that way.

However, that is no doubt cold comfort — or just cold — to those closest to Staff Sgt. Hansen, who no doubt thought my analysis violated my own standards of decency.

UPDATE (4:20 p.m. Wednesday): It occurs to me there's a more concise way to say what's written above.

I wholeheartedly think that the days following a tragedy is not the time to moralize about said tragedy.

I realized that in writing a column about Staff Sgt. Daniel Hansen I stood the chance of being perceived as heartless and unfeeling toward those who knew him best. I'm sorry that some people were hurt — had their "hearts bruised," as one letter-writer put it — by that column. I really am.

But the intent of the column was not to use Sgt. Hansen as a prop for a specific political argument. That's the only reason I went ahead and wrote it.

So in short, I did think about the ethical standards expressed in the Sgt. Mark Dunakin column before I wrote the column mentioning Staff Sgt. Hansen. That's all I really wanted to say, because readers have a right to know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A reminder in the Cantu case

Police are stressing that they have no evidence to suggest that 8-year-old Sandra Cantu was kidnapped.

As the previous post suggested while acknowledging its speculative nature, however, kidnapping is a distinct possibility. And it's certainly on the mind of many parents, even if such occurences are rare indeed. (Again, part of the point of the most recent post.)

Offically, though, Sanda is simply missing. Hence no Amber Alerts.

Cantu case cuts deep

News that Sandra Cantu, a darling 8-year-old, disappeared in northern Tracy last Friday has dominated the weekend news cycle.

No surprise. A child disappearing, apparently without reason, is a parent's worst nightmare. And even those of us without children can empathize with those enduring the anxious, unbearable waiting game.

From what has been disclosed to the media, it seems a logical — if a still unsubstantiated — conclusion that Sandra was kidnapped.

If that conslusion is confirmed by investigators, expect it to stick in the city's collective memory.

Nevermind that such cases of a child simply being picked off the street are relatively rare — they stick because they're traumatic, because they're wrenching, and because media outlets (the Press included) make sure they're public knowledge. These cases are vivid, and more easily recalled than the thousands of times children walk to and from school or a friend's house safely.

Sandra's case is no different, and it is sure to leave a mark on the Tracy community as surely as it has scarred her family. Thankfully, there's still the possibility that the scar will be small — that she will be reunited safely with her family. And soon.

Investigators believe she's still alive. We're hoping for the best.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Take a bow, sponsors of education

Mike Mahedy forwarded me a list of donors who helped send more than 300 students to the state Capitol on a civics field trip that included question-and-answer sessions with Sen. Lois Wolk, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi.

Since the Tracy Unified School District didn't pay a dime for the trip, private contributors footed the bill. The following people and businesses should take a bow for giving local students a close-up look at their state government:

• Donald Storer and Storer Coachways
• Tracy American Legion James McDermott Post 172
• Andrew Trosien, DDS
• Dr. Donald Ringer
• Dr. and Mrs. James Franco
• James Hallen and Sonic Interiors
• Tim Koehler
• Charles Hill

A unified theory

We're happy here at Second Thoughts over the news coming out of the Lammersville School District: Mountain House will have its own high school — and unified school district — in five years or so.

This idea was being seriously kicked around as early as a year ago, and enthusiasm in the commuter town has evidently grown since.

As it is, schools are at the center of the fledgling community and will only provide it more strength — and give house-hunters reason to seriously consider living there. Combined with the Delta College satellite (which should eventually achieve the permanent-campus status promised to voters and residents), it could make Mountain House an educational hub for the south county.

Not to mention a good neighbor for Tracy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Students on their way to Sacto

Nearly 400 Tracy Unified students, parents and teachers are set to head to Sacramento tomorrow morning for a hands-on lesson about the state budget. Or, depending on how you look at it, for some under-the-radar activism.

The school district doesn't play politics, so this is not a lobbying trip, as stressed to me by school district officials several times. There won't be signs and slogans shouted down the halls of the Capitol.

But there's no hiding the intent of the parents who organized this stellar idea of a field trip — make State Sen. Lois Wolk, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi answer some very uncomfortable questions about this year's budget and drastic cuts to school funding.

It's a protest that isn't a protest. And here's wishing the kids and their supporters luck when bending those legislative ears.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fine, you tell the students

As much fun as it is to rant and rave until animal control is concerned about the froth on your mouth when the government raises taxes, consider for a moment the alternative in our current paradigm:

The California government — primarily because of a massive economic downturn — has slashed school spending to the point where our Golden State spends the least per pupil in the country. That means teachers are being laid off, sports and magnet programs that challenge children to excel are in danger of being shut down, and the overall quality of education is surely going to slip further.

The fact of the matter is that no one likes to pay taxes, but they have real-life benefits. A few short-term solution tax hikes now are the only thing between our state's schools and even more draconian budget cuts.

A stimulating idea

This morning, Mayor Brent Ives unveiled a stimulus proposal to better position Tracy for when the economy rebounds from its current slump — and to bolster business during the meantime.

When the press release was first handed out Friday, I thought the "Tracy Investment Plan" sounded a lot like Richard Nixon's secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.

But on first glance, the city's proposal to seriously support the Tracy economy without simply building more houses gets a thumbs up. This space has said before that the slumping economy could be an opportunity for Tracy, and this ambitious plan at least makes it look like the city and mayor agree.

Of course, with a plan like this, the devil could be in the details. We're still sorting through it all at the moment, so stay tuned for more in-depth analysis and commentary in the coming days.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A clear economic picture

A Friday evening run-in captured with crystal clarity the state of the economy, better even than a 2,000-word report from the Wall Street Journal.

Grabbing a quick smoothie from the Safeway Jamba Juice, I struck up a conversation with a lovely woman working the counter. She was all smiles, even though she was consigned to a weekend at work.

Why? She had a job.

She (I regret now that I didn't have my reporter's notebook to jot down a name and tell her story properly) graduated not two years ago with a master's degree and had spent the interim time searching for a job. The response she got more than not was, "You're too qualified." "You're not qualified enough," she said, was a close second.

To simply have a full-time job now, she explained, is a blessing.

It's as clear as that.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A distinct lack of buzz

The almond blossoms have mostly come and gone from the orchards around Tracy, but a key visitor made precious few showings during the short-lived bloom: the bees.

Reports from around the Central Valley have documented a distinct lack of buzz in many orchards. Coupled with a relatively late cold snap, drastic reductions in water deliveries and an overall decline in the bee population, and almond growers are predicting a much lighter crop this season.

Not a good outlook for a major piece of the valley's agricultural mosaic.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Turn that vandalism into art

A trio of taggers was arrested this week for using city property as a canvas. Not surprisingly, they prefer the term "artist" over "vandal."

Graffiti can indeed be art. Los Angeles, where I spent four years wandering the exurban wasteland, is rife with murals and commissioned works of spray paint. All beautiful. Wouldn't mind seeing some of that pop up around Tracy.

But when that art goes up on personal or public property without consent, it's called vandalism, no matter how pretty it is. And woe to those who can't make that painfully basic distinction.

So some advice for our enthusiastic friends with the spray paint: If you want to be considered an artist, act like one.

Put together a proposal for public graffiti art to the city or the Arts Commission. Pitch your idea to the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts and tag some hunks of concrete for display in a proper gallery.

And if you keep on painting property that isn't yours, don't expect sympathy from City Hall.

Good water news No. 3

This legislation won't help with this year's drought, but it could help in future dry spells.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sharing the good news

Finally, two pieces of good water news in a winter that's seen far too few.

The first is something that should have happened a long time ago: affluent Los Angelinos who don't save water will pay for it.

I'd like to see the water wasters pay more than an $11 extra a month, but it's something. A plush lawn in the middle of a desert just isn't as important as a farmer's crops or the collapse of the American West's biggest delta ecosystem.

The only real problem with the SoCal penalty plan is that it's proportional. If you're already a committed water saver and find it nearly impossible to trim that 15 percent of your water use, you get it in the shorts.

The second bit of good news is that the State Water Project will dole out slightly more water than originally expected.

The 5 percent boost isn't exactly going to save valley farmers, but every little bit helps. Just pray for more rain.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A taxing decision for downtown

Along with many others, the Tracy Press could become part of a new association that charges increased taxes in an effort to pay for area improvements and marketing.

I can hear the supply-siders now: Voluntarily increase your taxes in this economy? You crazy?

Possibly. It all depends on cost-benefit analysis.

If the business district does everything its consultant backer says it will, the higher fees could pay for themselves. But many merchants are wary, especially since the taxes — ostensibly charged to the property owners — will undoubtedly be paid by the tenants. And probably the customers.

I don't know enough about the proposed business area improvements to weigh in on this specific measure. I do know that the downtown needs a bigger profile, and this could be a means to that end.

But I also know that, since several city-owned properties would be subject to this tax, city government needs to consider the voices of the taxpayers who will foot part of the fees.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Give these greenies credit

The editorial in today's Tracy Press made a passing reference to "certain activists and candidates for mayor and City Council" who have long advocated a greener, more sustainable Tracy.

Since Second Thoughts is in favor of giving credit where credit is due, let's clear up that vagueness.

It's obvious to me that the editorial refers to Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert and Celeste Garamendi.

Tolbert has long been a proponent of sustainability in Tracy, and it looks like some of her efforts (check this article for a list of Tracy's green initiatives) are starting to pay off. She's told me more than once she doesn't care who gets credit for the things she supports, as long as it gets done, but I'll give her a round of applause anyway.

Garamendi made several green initiatives central parts of her 2008 campaign for mayor, including putting solar panels on city buildings. She might not have won the race against Mayor Brent Ives and Tolbert, but her ideas when it comes to renewable energy are sticking nonetheless.

But regardless of who's steering the city's ship, let's hope that Tracy's foray into this field is just beginning. Because there's plenty of greenbacks to make from being green.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Your pork, my bacon

Following up on last week's column, the money earmarked for San Joaquin County by Rep. Jerry McNerney is now a done deal. The bacon's coming home in the form of several projects:

• $454,000 for studying projects in the Lower San Joaquin River, like flood control and habitat restoration
• $950,000 for an Interstate 5-French Camp interchange project that will benefit the Stockton Metropolitan Airport
• $950,000 for studying a very complex Interstate 205-Lammers Road interchange
• $5 million for maintaining the Deep Water channel that feeds the Port of Stockton
• $1.34 million for studying improvements to the shipping channels connecting the Port of Stockton and San Francisco Bay
• $4.79 million for a CALFED program to identify Delta levees that need shoring up

All of these pass the Second Thoughts sniff test for legitimacy. No pork spending here. Unless, of course, you don't live in our neck of the woods. If you call the plains of Kansas home, these projects are probably look like more over-the-top spending of precious tax dollars, big government run amok.

Some federal earmarks no doubt waste money. And the whole process strikes many as a form of legal corruption and vote-buying. It's an uncomfortable compromise, at best.

But at least in San Joaquin County, the requests for federal funds aren't off-the-cuff wishes. There's a vetting process involved where projects are prioritized — or, as county supervisor Leroy Ornellas put it last week, “(McNerney) didn’t dream these up. These are all projects that various communities and cities have (put forward).”

So, bacon or pork? It mostly depends if it's landing on your plate or someone else's.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cut the schools, save the prisons

We all know that Tracy Unified School District must cut about $14 million from its upcoming fiscal budget, thanks to massive cuts in education spending decided by the state Legislature.

But while the kids at Delta Island School must leave their sanctuary for unfamiliar learning environs, some quite powerful (and quite bloated) entities escape with nary a scratch.

Namely, the California prison system.

While sports, art, music and magnet programs disappear from local schools in tight times, the state prison system saw exactly zero budget cuts for the current year. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

It's nice to know that, while Californians won't dedicate proper resources to put kids on a successful life path, we're more than happy to lock them up when they leave it.

Delta Island School closes down

No one wanted to see Delta Island School closed, but it's easy to see why Tracy Unified trustees voted Tuesday to shutter the rural school.

Delta Island School is the most costly in the district to operate per-student, partly because of its small population, partly because of its environmental issues, partly because of the extra services it offers so that children are more prepared for the real world and so that parents can be more a part of their children's education — the school serves mostly the children of farmworkers, many of whom do not speak English fluently.

The trustees were damned if they did — shortchanging children who need a little extra help to succeed in school — and damned if they didn't — failing to trim almost $1 million from a budget that could see the elimination of sports, art and magnet programs.

In the face of that $14 million deficit, the dollars and cents move was to close the school and try to provide these special services to the students at their new schools.

Unfortunately, this episode proves what champions of social services have long warned about: When budget cuts fall, they usually hurt those who need the help the most.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Visit the Grand tonight

Glenn Moore, the talented journalist who snaps the vast majority of photos you see in the Tracy Press, is now an artiste.

Several of his best nature photographs — shot while walking Northern California's scenic hiking trails — hang in the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts beginning tonight alongside the works of Ansel Adams, perhaps the greatest scenic shutterbug of them all.

There's a reception at 6 p.m. tonight at the theater, 715 Central Avenue.

Go check it out. And bring a copy of the Press — Glenn loves giving autographs.

(While you're at it, check out more of his photos and thoughts at his blog.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

The bounce-back county?

Saturday's column focuses on some of the efforts spurred by federal and state money to lay the groundwork for a brighter economic future in San Joaquin County.

But some folks at the University of the Pacific's business forecasting center seem to think the region could rebound all on its own. Not because of the infrastructure investments touted by me, but because there will simply be more people.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The return of Prop. 8

Judges and lawyers wrangled today about the constitutional legitimacy of Proposition 8, the successful November ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage.

I do not profess to be a constitutional expert, so Second Thoughts will not wade into the sticky issue the court must consider — whether Prop. 8 is an amendment to the constitution, and therefore legitimate, or if it was a fundamental alteration of the constitution, and therefore invalid as things now stand.

The ramifications in this case are so far-reaching it makes the head spin.

When it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, however, it remains a black spot on our citizenry that we would not only prevent people from marrying their lovers and partners, but that we would also seek to rip apart 19,000 unions already consummated. (Backers of the proposition publicly stated that it was designed to be retroactive, and the wording of the proposition seems to clearly bear out that intent.)

As attorney Kenneth Star, who today argued in favor of the gay marriage ban by saying voters have the "raw power" to "define rights," ironically said:

"We govern ourselves — and we may govern ourselves unwisely."

Allowing the government to place barriers between consensual, reciprocal love. How unwise, indeed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Affordability — it's all relative

Remember just two years ago, when affordable housing in San Joaquin County was a huge issue and Tracy was struggling to find answers to the problem?

Turns out, all we needed to make local housing affordable again was a recession.

Of course, now that housing is "affordable" for working families, many of those families don't have jobs. Seems every silver lining of this economy has a dark cloud all its own.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A minute in a teacher's shoes

In honor of the birthday of the late great Theodor Geisel (known to millions as Dr. Seuss), I took a turn in front of a Jacobson School first-grade class today as a special guest reader.

Topping the reading list was "I Can Read with My Eyes Shut," a Seuss tale, and a couple other class favorites. I think I went through them a little fast, but man, the kids were loving it anyway. And a lot of them said they loved to read — guess there's hope for literacy and newspapers after all.

Walking out after about 20 minutes in front of the class, though, I was left with one overwhelming thought: The people who want to increase class sizes should be forced to teach those larger classes.

There were only about 20 kids in my class, and they were all pretty well behaved. Good, bright students, from all I could gather in the few minutes I was there. But they're also first-graders. Read them a story, do an activity, and they'll want to talk and play.

The teacher that day, Ms. Nikki, was a substitute, and she did a great job handling the kids. But it's a full-time job keeping children in line and getting them to learn. (And from what I remember of school, it's an even more challenging task for high school teachers.)

Increasing class sizes, which the school budget cuts make all but mandatory, will make it more difficult for teachers to rein in their students and give them the attention that they need.

It only took 20 minutes for me to understand this. Before deciding on future cuts to education, policy-makers might want to take a similar field trip.