Saturday, May 29, 2010

The times, they are a-changin'

When I joined the Tracy Press in 2005, it was a six-day-a-week publication. As of next week, we're down to a run of once a week in print.

Though we're still going to publish breaking news and sports stories on the website, it's signals a change in how we bring you the news. It's also a big change for me, personally.

City Editor Eric Firpo will no longer be the worthy hand at the helm of our news coverage. Instead, I'll be shifting a decent slice of my focus to hard news. Have no fear, the Second Thoughts blog will still be in operation, as will my tenure as the dude in charge of the Voice section.

However, fans of the Second Thoughts column will have to be patient, as it will no longer publish on a strict weekly basis. Rather, it'll run on a whenever-I-feel-like-it-and-have-the-space basis — because as its name implies, we want to field as many voices as possible in the Voice section.

This is a tough transitional time for the Press, but we're also excited. Because this gives us another chance to hone our focus and bring you news that matters about Tracy, Mountain House and San Joaquin County. It's a silver lining in a cloud that otherwise is pretty freakin' dark.

I just hope you alert readers decide to bear with us. Because while we might be down to one publication a week, we're not abandoning our mission — to be your eyes and ears, and to give you the best understanding possible about what's happening in our communities.

Friday, May 28, 2010

More water soon headed south?

Looks like the Westlands Water District — one of the primary forces helping drain the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and pusher of a peripheral canal — is having some success in court fighting protections against excessive pumping of Delta water.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Send us your history

Later this year, the city of Tracy is celebrating 100 years as a city. And the Press is helping throw a party with a special section dedicated to the history and changes of Tank Town. We want your help, too.

If you have stories, photos or other memorabilia from Tracy's past, share them with us. Send them to the Press at 145 W. 10th Street, or to, and we'll do our best to get them into our special section, set to publish in late July.

Heck, we might even get those photos back to you.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A contradiction: pro pot, and pro D.A.R.E.

Today's Press featured a pair of letters to the editor claiming that Drug Resistance Abuse Education actually does more harm than good, especially in its portrayal of marijuana as a bogeyman.

Therefore, the writers claimed, the city of Tracy would be in the right to discontinue funding D.A.R.E. to the tune of $60,000 a year.

That prompted a response from Tracy resident Ed Burnell, who supports D.A.R.E. by saying, in part:

"The DARE program, in my opinion, has the potential to save the City more than it costs. The cost to the community for investigation, prosecution and incarceration of just one person will usually exceed the cost of funding the program for a year. While it offers no guarantees, DARE needs only reach one student per year to be a good investment."

Which was the exact point of my most recent column.

But Burnell takes the argument a step farther:

The anti-DARE voices are the pro-legalization of marijuana voices. ... From where I sit, a no-vote for DARE funding is a smile and a wink and a thumbs-up to the legal pot crowd, and all that follows with them.

Not so fast, Ed. Just because you support D.A.R.E. — and giving kids the tools to deal with issues including drugs, alcohol and violence — doesn't mean you can't also support legalized pot in good conscience.

There's a not-insignificant list of arguments to be made in favor of legalized marijuana — its recreational use is already widespread, enforcing laws against it costs money and jail space we don't have, it's far less harmful than some legal drugs like alcohol, the state could make a tidy profit off pot taxes and many of the arguments against pot have been fueled by hyperbole, half-truths and racism.

Besides, even if California voters legalize pot in November — which I believe they should — there's still a need to warn kids about responsible use and to keep the stuff out of the hands of minors. I mean, just because alcohol is legal doesn't mean we don't educate kids that it can be both a source of responsible enjoyment, or a scourge that can rip apart lives and kill people.

You can be pro legal pot and pro D.A.R.E. without being a walking oxymoron. In fact, I think it makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We're all wet

If you're thinking that this has been a pretty strange May —especially compared to last year — you're not alone. The statistics are with you.

According to the Tracy Press rain guage, since the end of March we've received 2.1 inches of rain — quite a bit more than the .9 inches we saw in the same time period in 2009. In fact, that 2.1 inches is a full 30 percent of last year's annual total.

Factor in the constant winds and relatively cool weather — have we even had a day in the 90s? — this has been a May for the books.

Which is nice, if you like spring weather or you're counting the drops in Sierra reservoirs like a hawk. But if you're chafing for shorts, sandals and warm Delta breezes — or a farmer whose crop could be ruined by a late rain — chances are you're pretty set for summer to arrive.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wine yes, lines no

"Shoot me now," said one worker at the Friday Spring Wine Stroll to Press photographer Glenn Moore as the evening got under way. The problem: lines that reached Space Mountain proportions marring what was otherwise reportedly a lovely time in downtown Tracy.

Evidently, there was a backlog as people exchanged their tickets for wine glasses — a new tact that hadn't ever before been used at the stroll, as people before always purchased their glasses directly.

At the exchange table — where people turned in their tickets, were ID'd and given identifying wrist bracelets before picking up their glasses — the process didn't work as well as had been previously hoped, and lines grew so long that Glenn couldn't help but take pictures to tell the story.

I hope that before the next stroll rolls around, organizers either return to the old method or figure out how to speed up the ticket-glass exchange. Because it's just wrong to keep folks from their booze.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A sign of progress

This from Larry Hite, City Council candidate, regarding Tracy's slow but noticeable progress when it comes to self-promotion:

"After years of badgering city hall and the city council to start putting up 'banners' to advertise citywide events (to attract people to our city to spend their money), I noticed today that a big banner is stretched across the center divider on 11th Street at Lammers Road advertising the Wine Stroll!

"This is fantastic......we have actually 'cracked the eggshell' as Mayor Brent Ives would put it, and we are making progress toward telling the outside world about Tracy and its local events. Now we just need to keep the pressure on to make sure they put up banners for all events.... ie, Fourth of July, Bean Festival, etc.

"This is a HUGE victory for business in Tracy!"

I'll disagree on one point. It's perhaps a modest victory. But — huzzah — a victory nonetheless.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Remember, it's all about me

If you want to see a real Master of Ceremonies do work, head to Wicklund School in Mountain House tonight at 7 p.m.

The political forum moderated by yours truly promises to be the most heart-pounding, faint-inducing, tear-jerking performance by a true MC since Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

(It's also your one and only chance to personally quiz and question, at the same place at the same time, all of the candidates vying for a seat on what would be the very first Lammersville Unified School District board of trustees, which would lay the foundation for the education in the community of Mountain House for decades to come.)

But remember, it's all about me.

Downtown on display -- again

Every year, downtown Tracy -- still in the midst of a major redevelopment effort -- gets several chances to put its best foot forward. Perhaps its best one is coming up Friday.

The Wine Stroll is an annual tradition in which the good businesses in downtown Tracy -- with help from the city, and soon help from the new Downtown Business Alliance -- open their doors and pour fine local vino for fine local residents who want to get plastered. With class.

Aside from the obvious Bacchanalian revelry, the very cool social vibe and the opportunity to refine one's palate, the annual stroll allows downtown Tracy to shine.

Despite its documented flaws, when pumped with a bit of 70s rock and soulful jazz and populated with a couple thousand friendly folks, the soul of Tracy's historic heart comes out to play. It's a taste of what downtown could be if revitalization is shepherded in the right direction. And it wears quite well.

So if you can afford a babysitter and $25 for an evening-of ticket, come on down. And if you need a last-ditch DD, hit me up. I'll be working at the Press office.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Awesome! But don't hold your breath

So, San Joaquin Delta College officials say that the south-county campus could be a beautiful bastion of "green" in just 15 years.

It sounds great. Awesome. Stupendous. But locals are encouraged not to get too excited, because so far the Mountain House campus has a history of not living up to expectations.

Back in 2004, voters passed a huge bond to the tune of $250 million to renovate the college's main Stockton campus and get the ball rolling on a modest but permanent campus in Mountain House.

For a variety of reasons, that didn't quite pan out. You can read some of the saga here, but suffice it to say that the process was a disaster. It opened several semesters late, with less bang for more buck, and lacking the gravitas typically befitting a college.

Furthermore, it's unknown exactly what kind of scrill voters will have to pony up to see the "green" vision at Delta's south-county campus become a reality. It could take another sizeable bond, and good luck getting that one passed any time soon.

In short, don't put too much stock in those predicitons for 2025.

That said, Mountain House has a collegiate learning center, and for that we should be thankful. Even though it's all portables and not exactly an eye-catcher, it's educating teens and adults alike. It fills a crucial role in our community, despite being a few miles outside Tracy.

And when it comes down to it, the way the college looks is secondary to the results it produces. I'd much rather have a beautiful, environmentally friendly, student-attracting permanent facility than the current portable-on-asphalt setup, but looking good on a brochure is not the primary mission of a college. It's to give folks the kind of education that leads to good jobs and stable communities.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ride on — if you can

Tomorrow is Bike to Work Day, sponsored by the city of Tracy. Of course, per the city's own statistics, fewer than 66 percent of the city's workforce will actually be able to bike to work.

That's because Tracy is a commuter town. And for those who work over the hill, riding a bike to work is probably a little bit out of the question — unless you get creative. Say, by riding to the downtown Tracy Transit Station and hopping a bus to the Altamont Commuter Express, or just riding your cycle to ACE in the first place.

Still, the turnout at the Tracy Transit Station celebratory gathering from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. Wednesday might be a little smaller than anticiapted. Which is too bad, because the whole get out of your car concept is something Tracy badly needs to work on.

But don't feel too bad if you can't do the cycling thing. I won't be biking to work, either — I'll be walking, just like every other day.

That sucking sound returns

And it could be more of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water headed south. A judicial decision could allow more water to be sent to large farms in the southern Central Valley and SoCal cities.

How much water can be "safely" pumped form the Delta without hastening its seeming inevitable collapse, however, has yet to be determined. Stay tuned...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Former Wine Cellar awaits rebirth

The space that used to belong to the Tracy Wine Cellar — which was a fixture of downtown and a favorite hangout for vinophiles — is undergoing a facelift.

The owner of the Wine Cellar, it’s been widely reported by downtown insiders, moved because the property owner would not give the business enough of a break on the rent — and was even considering raising said rent.

So, a local institution of fine culture bit the dust.

It’s yet another example of how downtown will never reach its full potential if property owners don’t get on board with the businesses they shelter.

But now the space on 10th Street is getting a facelift. On Tuesday, workers were busy installing new carpet and slathering the walls with fresh paint. They had no idea who would be moving in — apparently, the space is open to whomever would like it.

Here’s hoping that, whatever the store’s reincarnation is, it restores a bit of the panache that downtown lost when the Wine Cellar departed.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Morbid curiosity, or true news value?

Several news organizations, including the Stockton Record (but not including the Tracy Press), are taking legal action to unseal court records and lift the gag order regarding the Melissa Huckaby-Sandra Cantu case.

The news outlets want access to the records sot hey can answer the questions still swirling about the case, and they're willing to go to court to get it.

But is this just morbid voyeurism? What could possibly be gained from revealing the no-dobut sordid and sickly details of the 8-year-old Sandra's murder?

Possibly nothing. Possibly everything.

After such an unthinkable crime — as attorney Stephen Clark told the Press, "There’s no motive that anyone could comprehend. This is just one of those ones where no one would understand.” — we still search for answers. It's because of the nature of Huckaby's crime — one that not only was especially heinous, but one that also breaks nearly every convention in the homicide handbook — that there's so much curiosity.

To confront some of the darkest sides of humanity, you first have to know them. If court documents are never unsealed, and if the gag order is never lifted, we may never know what exactly happened to Sandra Cantu, or why Melissa Huckaby did what she did.

We may never know, regardless. But not even getting the chance is a surefire way to keep the mystery murky.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Candidate puts his foot in it

This is exactly why modern political campaigns have PR flaks. Because candidates sometimes say and write really, really stupid things.

Monday, May 10, 2010

One more murder under wraps

Melissa Chantel Huckaby pleaed guilty this morning of kidnapping and killing Sandra Cantu in 2009, apparently bringing to a close one of the most sordid tales in Tracy history.

That makes two of five Tracy homicides that have ended with some sort of justice.

I say "some sort of justice" because it hardly seems that life in prison without parole is a fair trade for taking the life of a sweet 8-year-old with the world in front of her. There's no punishment appropriate for what Huckaby did that can be meted out in this world.

However, it will hopefully bring some closure for a community that found itself the center of a national media storm more than a year ago for all the wrong reasons. It also offers hope that our justice system (and even the media) truly does work.

Of course, it won't cure our homicide hangover for 2009.

Still without a conclusion are the homicides of Clayton "Cotton" Riggins (found bludgeoned to death in his home), Naim Bey (fatally shot at Amore's Italian Restaurant) and Spencer Sampson (gunned down on East Street near Tracy High School). And then there's the alleged torture case of a then-16-year-old boy who escaped in the final month of 2008.

But 2010 is a long way from over, and all but the Riggins case are in court. So Second Thoughts holds out hope that these cases will all be closed before the calendar flips.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Well, we asked for it

You might've heard grumbling about the city of Tracy's newest plan to help stimulate businesses locally -- in this case, spending up to $75,000 in tax money to figure out ways to help make the West Valley Mall more attractive.

But if the griping comes from a person who also complains the city doesn't do enough to attract businesses and jobs, you might feel entitled to tell them to kindly shut it.

For years, I and many others have asked the city of Tracy to be more business-friendly, to focus on economic development that wasn't simply building more houses. Spending money to determine the best approach, as the city has done in this instance, is just one of the many ways to accomplish that goal. Building a commercial base typically doesn't come without expense.

In other words: This is exactly what we asked for.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Farm Bill supports biggest players? We're not surprised

Earning this week's No-Duh News Report award is a San Francisco Chronicle story titled "Crop subsidies found to help largest farms most."

Evidently, despite supposed efforts on the part of Congress to help small farms compete, the Farm Bill is still a bloated piece of legislation that essentially writes giant welfare checks to some of the biggest players in agri-business.

In other words, no news here.

It's still news in our region's case, however, because the Farm Bill is helping destroy the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in its own way.

That's because many growers on the Central Valley's West Side — you know, the folks growing water-intensive crops like cotton in a grassland desert — are getting Farm Bill largesse. They grow subsidized crops with subsidized water from the Delta, but they want government to get off their backs.

Ironic, but we're not surprised.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The agricultural water picture

April storms mean that the Central Valley Project can be more generous with its water allocations. Farmers south of Tracy who receive water from the Delta-Mendota Canal will get 40 percent of their water contracts filled this year, up from an estimated 30 percent just weeks ago.

But while that might be the touted news item, who gets how much water — especially in the Central Valley — is a complex issue.

This Central Valley Business Times report has a fairly decent rundown of who's getting what. If you're interested.

Flame on, 2010

Just in time for Cal Fire's "Wildfire Awareness Week," fire season has unofficially begun in Tracy.

At least four engines and a water tanker were called to battle and extinguish a grass fire on the northeastern bank of the Delta-Mendota Canal off Chrisman Road south of town today.

No damage was apparent as I drove by the smoldering scene, but it — along with the Altamont Hills that have shed their spring green in favor of their warm-weather gold — is a reminder that grass fire season has arrived in the Valley.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Handicapping the 11th District race

If signs dotting San Joaquin County are any indication, the race for the Republican Party primary election in June is down to Brad Goehring and David Harmer.

Their campaign signs and slogans dot major intersections -- as well as lesser-known stretches -- from Lodi to Tracy. But in this race, localized signs don't really mean much in terms of who's building significant support.

The 11th District is a classic gerrymander, originally engineered to secure a Republican seat in Congress. Changing demographics mean that the district is now split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans (there's also a significant number of independent-identifying voters). But those far-reaching boundaries -- which include Danville, Pleasanton, San Ramon, Tracy, Lodi, parts of Stockton and rural San Joaquin County -- remain.

So candidates come from around the district. So sometimes the lack of signage could mean something, sometimes it probably doesn't.

It probably doesn't for Elizabeth Emken, who lives in Danville. Far over the hill, so it's not unreasonable to suggest her power base lies in the western half of the district.

And Goehring is a large landholder in northeastern San Joaquin County. So it's no surprise he has a fair amount of local support.

But Tony Amador, who's from Lodi, seems to not have generated too much sign-buzz around the county.

As for Harmer, who is from San Ramon, his signs on this side of the Altamont Hills could mean he's got an edge in campaigning.

I expect Harmer to have the most refined political machine, however, as he is fresh off a failed 2009 campaign for Caifornia's 10th Congressional District. He also made a run for Congress in Utah in 1996, again unsuccessfully. He knows his way around a campaign, so it's no surprise he's focused on reaching "far-from-home" areas in his district.