Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Doing the civic duty

Yesterday, I performed my civic duty by standing in line, waiting in a room, and explaning to a judge why I couldn't perform my civic duty.

Yes, I was called to Stockton for jury duty today, and it was a fail. On my part.

Judge William Morris gave a stirring speech in Department 14 of the superior court house in downtown Stockton, invoking patriotism, civil responsibility and the guarding of our democracy to encourage prospective jurors not to offer phony claims of "hardship" to get out of jury duty.

So it was with trepidation that I stood up and told the judge that I couldn't afford going without pay for the two weeks the trial was scheduled for.

It was the truth, but it didn't make me feel any better.

Serving on a jury and supporting the criminal justice system is one of the most basic requirements of citizenship in the United States, and the more people who shirk that duty, the worse the system is.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Signs of life in downtown

Good Start Nutrition is set to open soon in downtown Tracy at 917 N. Central Ave.

While Second Thoughts doesn't know exactly what GSN is (we're making an educated guess that it has to do with food for young'uns) it's a good sign that a business is opening its doors in downtown.

However, we question whether the location is the best fit. The venerable and tastefully expanded 12 Monkeys — in this space's opinion, far and away the best house of ink Tracy has to offer — is right next door.

Although there could be countless tie-ins waiting to happen.

• Baby portraits for your back
• "Hot Mama" discounts
• Matching tats for Mom and Dad specials

OK ... so maybe not.

The Press' Hester Prynne

I swear, walking around downtown Tracy trying to get a quote is near impossible. At least when you're wearing this thing:
It's like my very own scarlet letter.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thwarting Walmart for Dummies

According to the Wall Street Journal, a consulting firm has made its own cottage industry out of preventing Walmart from moving into communities, working on behalf of other large grocery chains and passing off the opposition as a grassroots movement.

Says the Journal:

"For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a (Saint Consulting Group) manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees. They flood local politicians with calls, using multiple phones to make it appear that the calls are coming from different people, the former employees say."
"Safeway, a national chain based in Pleasanton, Calif., retained Saint to thwart Wal-Mart Supercenters in more than 30 towns in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii in recent years, according to a Saint project list and interviews with former employees. Former Saint employees say much of the work consisted of training Safeway's unionized workers to fight land-use battles, including how to speak at public hearings."

It's worth noting that Tracy's Walmart project will move ahead after a lawsuit aimed at the to-be-expanded giant was dropped for lack of follow-through on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Keep in mind, this kind of thing is typically totally legal. It's just further proof that while citizen-based movements sometimes really are citizen-based, they can also be used as tools by vested interests with deep pockets.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thoughts on Melissa Huckaby

Thanks to the official sentencing of Melissa Huckaby for the murder of Sandra Cantu and the details that have been released regarding the case, this past week has given me — as well as everyone else in the Tracy Press newsroom — a lot to think about. Specifically, about what the role of the media, especially a community paper, is when it comes to publishing distrubing information about criminal cases.

It's a balancing act, with the public's right to know and the media's watchdog role on government pulling hard against the right of victims to privacy and a general sense of common decency.

It's led to some spirited and emotional newsroom discussions. Because, contrary to what's often assumed, we don't treat this stuff lightly. We honestly belong to a paper that prides itself on being a part of the community it covers.

You can see the compromise we arrived at in Friday's Tracy Press. Basically, that publishing salacious or gory details for their own sake don't add anything to the public's understanding of what happened in this case and simply hurts greiving family members. However, when stomach-turning information helps contradict Huckaby's statements, and demonstrates that she's either lying or unaware of what she has done, that merits consideration. We believe our readers should be treated as adults.

(For an overall defense of media action in cases like this, The Record's court reporter has an interesting take. You might not agree, but it's worth a read.)

As for Huckaby, it's hard to show any sympathy for her tears in court on Monday. It's absolutely fitting that she will have to live with the guilt and shame of murdering and abusing an 8-year-old girl for the rest of her life. The pain she's wrought is immeasurable. I doubt Huckaby even truly comprehends what she's done. And nothing she can do will make it an ounce better.

However, I do have sympathy on this one level — she was not born like this. Huckaby is fully responsible for what she did, oh yes. But I wonder what happened in her life to turn her into someone capable of murder.

Huckaby took that leap to take a life and ruin a family. But I'm willing to bet she didn't get close to the edge all on her own.

A bridge with troubled pavement

This evening at the Tracy Transit Station, the city of Tracy will start to publicly deal with a problem long familiar to local motorists — the 11th Street bridge east of town. Or, as my car calls it, "No, no, please — not that."

The street, to put it mildly, is not smooth (shades of my most recent column about the mess on Grant Line Road). However, unlike the Grant Line issue, there's no real reason that we at Second Thoughts can postulate for the road's disrepair. Other than that it's old and desperately needs repairs or replacing.

According to a city press release, it appears replacement is the preferred option. No surprise, since several years ago the overpass was declared not up to snuff by the feds in an annual bridge report.

So tonight, you have a chance to weigh in on "proposed alternative designs" being considered for a new 11th Street bridge. Stop by 50 E. Sixth St. at about 6 p.m. if you — or your car — are interested.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Delta residents — Delta water 'outsiders'?

Water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been ratcheted up once again, according to reports from Central Valley news outlets.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said that it's a victory for his region over "Valley outsiders."

Except that many of those "outsiders" he refers to are, in part, residents of the same valley. It's just that they happen to live where the water is being diverted from, rather than being diverted to.

Those who depend on water exports to till often marginal land in Parts Previously Unwatered have quite the nerve to label as "outsiders" residents of the San Joaquin Delta — who this past decade saw marked increases in the water pumped out of the Delta and the dramatic adverse impact those diversions had — or fishermen who rely on a healthy ecosystem for their livelihood.

That's not to suggest the folks near Fresno and on the western side of the lower Central Valley shouldn't get any Delta water at all. Just saying that a little honesty in this debate could go a long way — especially from a congressman.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why fix those medians now?

I've heard a lot of grumbling about the "improvements" being done to the medians on 11th Street, especially the timing of the work given the city's financial straits. I put improvements in quotation marks, because I've heard serious doubts as to whether these rocky centers are actually an upgrade.

I can't answer the question of taste, but I can tell you that the money for the median work isn't coming from the city's General Fund. It's from developer fees that are specifically set aside for median improvements on Tracy's main thoroughfares, according to City Manager Leon Churchill.

In other words, this is not money that could be used to shore up the city's projected $4.8 million deficit for 2010-11. It's not money that could pay for firefighters and police officers. It's not money that can be used to maintain your local park, or keep Joe Wilson Pool open. It's money that either must be used for median upgrades, or sit unused.

So, Churchill said, instead of not spending money just to feel more frugal, the city decided to go ahead with the long-ago planned construction.

In reality, the only quibble I have — aside from the small delays the work has caused — is that there seems to be a serious dearth of trees on those new medians.

I get the rock — it's low-maintenance, doesn't need water, etc. But the city needs trees. Not just for looks, but for shade and their natrual cooling effect on brutally hot days.

For a town trying to reach Emerald City status, I would have thought more fast-growing trees would have been a no-brain decision. Then again, when it comes to getting green, "no-brain" is a relative term.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Murphy's Law for journalists

When you have a very important Web edition planned for the day, you can count on your website to be a complete functional and visual mess...

Friday, June 11, 2010

More on the mall incentive

One thing that hit the cutting room floor of today's story about the city of Tracy's plan to give Macy's $2.75 million to move into the struggling West Valley Mall is a word about where the money's coming from.

The residential specific plan is a document that guided growth in the city for some time a couple decades back. The money the city is using for Macy's — which will be augmented by a similar amount of money from General Growth Properties — came from a settlement with developers who built under that RSP.

Even after builders mitigated the impacts of those various developments scattered across the city, I've been told, there were disputes that the city didn't get all the money and fees it was entitled to. So there was a suit, and a settlement. That settlement left Tracy with about $5 million to use for one-time capital improvements.

It's what helped pay for the City Stimulus: master planning of vast stretches of western Tracy, the $500 auto mall gift card program, and the $1 million small business loan fund. Now, it's being used to help boost the mall before it reaches the point of no economic return.

We'll have more on this in a follow-up report before Tuesday's City Council meeting, where 3 of 2 council members will have to approve spending the money if Macy's is going to come to Tracy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Better Future Files, cont'd

The latest installment of the BFF — a dossier of Tracy folks trying to make a better future for their city and neighbors — comes courtesy of the Coalition of Tracy Citizens to Assist the Homeless.

The ad-hoc, grassroots effort led by Marvin Rothschild and aided by several prominent locals, is celebrating a milestone at 2 p.m. Sunday at Corral Hollow Realty World (a makeshift headquarters for the coalition at 10th and B streets.)

That accomplishment worthy of coffee, snacks and general revelry: The coalition has placed 100 people into homes since it started working to ease homelessness in Tracy.

Bravo, good citizens. Bravo.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Final bullet for CA high-speed rail?

At least one policy wonk — Michael Lind of the New America Foundation's Economic Growth Program — is dissing the idea of California high-speed rail, and high-speed rail in general. Remember, Tracy is pushing hard to be a major stop on the to-be-built system that's supposed to link NorCal and SoCal and improve regional transit, to boot.

In fact, he's calling for an expansion and smarter use of our Interstate freeway system, which has served the country — and helped it sprawl — since its inception.

Read Lind's interesting take on the future of American infrastructure here.

Stressed out in San Joaquin

Yet another set of statistics that says San Joaquin County is deeply mired in an economic morass. This time, courtesy of The Associated Press.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Get involved in your own safety

Talked to police Chief Janet Theissen today in person for the first time. Mostly, we rapped about the department's renewed effort to get the community involved in keeping Tracy's streets safe.

In her own words, Theissen is big proponent of community policing — the idea that the most effective form of combating crime is to get non-uniformed residents to secure the streets of their city, a notion heartily endorsed on numerous occassions by Second Thoughts.

The theory goes that if people use their public spaces, know their neighbors and take ownership of where they live, work and play, there just isn't a whole lot of room for ne'er-do-wells and worse.

Theissen seems to be genuinely on board with the idea — she's certainly been visible in the community and has made herself available to folks who live here — and it's one reason I have hope for a safer, saner city.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Funny money matters in 11th District race

One note that should be added to Friday's story about Tony Amador, Elizabeth Emken, Brad Goehring and David Harmer, the four GOPers hoping to take down Rep. Jerry McNerney:

The money figures from the FEC, apparently, don't tell the whole story about who is raising what.

First of all, the figures are from the whole election cycle. That means the money Harmer raised in his 2009 special election bid for the 10th District seat counts toward his reporting total.

Also, when a candidate puts money into his or her campaign fund and then takes it out, it counts toward both income and disbursement totals. That means you could cycle the same $10,000 in and out of your campaign account 10 times without spending it, and you would report $100,000 in expenditures and $100,000 in contributions attained. While that wouldn't give you any more money to spend, it would inflate your fundraising numbers — and in the eyes of many political observers and insiders, that can make someone an imminently more attractive candidate.

Also again, those totals do not represent money just raised for the primary campaign season. It includes money that candidates might be tucking away for the general election campaign, as well.

It should be mentioned that these notes also apply to incumbents such as McNerney, not just challengers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rhetoric meets reality

Friday's Tracy Press cover story brought you the nuts-and-bolts campaign pitches of the four Republicans who look to be Rep. Jerry McNerney's main challenger this fall. But there's some analysis that didn't make it into the final report.

One thing in particular struck me during the interview process for the story. All four are running against an incumbent, and all, at one point or another in this campaign, have made reference to the corrupting nature of Washington, D.C., and that what the 11th District — and nation — needs is a representative untouched by that influence.

But they have also touted their experience working with legislators, knowledge of the legislative process and their ability to be effective from Day One.

There's a great argument to be made for being an outsider — someone who comes in with an outisde-the-Beltway perspective. There's also a great argument to be made for being experienced in the legislative process — someone who knows the ropes and who will be an effective representative of their constituents. (If you can't be that, remember, there's little point of being in Congress.)

However, it's tough to run as an outsider if you're also touting insider credentials. Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tracy Press makes the nightly news

Rich Ibarra — he of the Channel 3 roving news team — just stopped by to interview someone at the Tracy Press about its shift to once-a-week publication. That someone just happened to be me.

If you're interested, I'll be on one of their afternoon or evening newscasts, at 5, 6 or 6:30 p.m.

We talked about the challenges facing newspapers and the Press in particular, specifically declining revenue, competition from the Internet and TV news, and just a seeming decline in citizenship interest in general.

Ibarra also shared about some of the changes in the TV news business since he began working at Channel 3 — which just happened to be 30 years ago today. (Quite the accomplishment in this business, by the way.)

He and his cameraman are a two-man crew basically tasked with covering everything south of the San Joaquin-Sacramento county line. So times are tough all around, not just for your local paper.

A cautionary tale for City Council

As the Tracy City Council considers raising revenue (city speak for taxes) at its meeting tonight, there's a story in Stockton, our county seat, that the five council members should keep in mind when directing staff to deal with the city's continued budget deficit.

It's also a story that should get the attention — and fair reading — of union members and representatives.

You see, Stockton's fiscal ship is sinking faster than Tracy's. Much faster. So much faster that bankruptcy could soon be an honest consideration. One of the major holes in the government's hull is its union contracts — fire and police there receive (to the average working stiff) too-good-to-be-true benefits. And, unlike Tracy's outfits so far, it seems as though they've been more obstinant than helpful in negotiations.

So, what's the lesson for Tracy and its unions? That the housing boom, and the money it brought with it, is over. And it ain't coming back any time soon. That means everyone will have to recalibrate what is fair compensation — and fiscally responsible compensation — as cities try to live within their means.

Unions and cities can work together so that employees still get pay and benefits that are the envy of their neighbors while cities keep their financial houses in order. Or, they can squabble, waste money, drive the city further into the red and tarnish the reputation of police and fire employees who otherwise are usually the toast of the town.

Your decision, guys.