Friday, December 23, 2011

Special meeting sparsely attended

One more point worth making about the City Council's special meeting decision to green-light a business incentive program: lack of public involvement.

As noted in today's Tracy Press story, only four people attended the meeting, which was called Monday, publicized Tuesday and held Wednesday, at a time two hours earlier than normal because of the normally scheduled Planning Commission meeting. Also, three of the four people in the audience were members of the Press.

The city manager suggested that the special meeting was necessary because the opportunity presented to the city might slip away if the council waited until the regularly scheduled Jan. 1 meeting.

Still, the timing of the meeting -- one day after the canceled regularly scheduled council meeting - was curious, and its last-minute nature contributed to the lack of public scrutiny on what could prove to be a huge deal for the city of Tracy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Local newspapers still have special place

Reports of the demise of the printed word might be greatly exaggerated, at least when it comes to community newspapers.

A recent industry survey found what some local newshounds already suspected: When it comes to tight-knit communities, readers prefer a local newspaper when it comes to getting their information about their town as well as advertising specials.

Just one more reason I'm thankful to be part of the Press.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A timely downtown cleanup

Leaving the Press on Thursday, the leaves downtown had been piled into huge drifts by the winds blowing through the previous two days. Fun for shuffling feet through fall foliage, but rather unsightly.

On Friday morning, they were gone, collected by city crews.

Seems that somebody knows small, daily maintenance is as critical to a welcoming business district as is million-dollar makeovers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Downtown problems, case in point

I've put this opinion in print before: If everyone doesn't get on the same side — that means the city, business owners and property owners — downtown Tracy will languish, redevelopment effort or no.

A case in point happened this week, when structural problems left unaddressed by a property owner forced the closure of Helm's Ale House. This is a blow to downtown, as the ale house was exactly the type of outfit a bustling center needs — a restraurant anchoring a busy streetcorner that caters to a wide variety of customers, but that also fosters nightlife and gives people a reason to visit the area.

(Plus, the beer selection was superb.)

The problems to the building were known by the property owner for some time, but according to business owner Dave Helm, they either went wholly unaddressed or the landlord tried to fix the issues with substandard Band Aids.

Don't maintain the building that houses an up-and-coming business that pays you rent — it's the perfect way to kill downtown growth.

It's a story that will repeat unless everyone with a stake in downtown gets on the same page and realizes all players benefit from prudent cooperation and investment.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Proceed with your campaigns

Looks like the many folks who have flocked to the redrawn districts around Tracy and San Joaquin County seeking political opportunity (it's like the Sooners, but for cash and power as opposed to land) can continue their campaigns.

The state's supreme court dismissed a challenge by California Republicans that said some of the boundaries were drawn in an underhanded manner.

Sorry GOP, the underhanded stuff happened when lawmakers of both parties were allowed to draw their own districts, which is what happened in 2000. That's why we had citizens do it this time.

Occupy the Central Valley

Occupy Wall Street — the loose movement decrying corporate greed and government complicity — hasn’t made an appearance in Tracy, to my knowledge. But it has appeared in San Joaquin County.

A smattering of protesters has been sighted in the downtown of county seat Stockton, carrying the now well-known “We are the 99%” signs and trying to convert passers-by to the cause.

Still, some folks seem unsure about what the protesters want. In fact, some of the protesters don’t even seem to know what they want.

In my opinion, they’re standing up for a very American principle — the idea that when power is concentrated in the hands of too few, democracy dies.

Whether in the form of wealth, political influence or a police state, too much power spread among too few is anathema to the republican form of government envisioned in the Constitution. And that’s true whether those few are government officials, businessmen, or anyone else.

I think the protesters are, though maybe not in eloquent terms, giving voice to the simmering sentiment that the American deck is more and more stacked in favor of those with the deepest pockets, biggest microphones and closest connections.

I don’t think these protesters want a hand out. I think they want a level playing field.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The roots of Tracy's lost courtroom

We all know things don't look good for the county's superior court system. Tracy just lost its courthouse, after all. But according to an article at, the current underfunding of the San Joaquin County courts is the product of a flaw in how the state decided to originally allocate money for the institutions.

San Joaquin County jurors can't get coffee in the waiting room. There's no bottled water in the courtrooms and no Post-It notes for employees to use. Private security guards have replaced sheriff's deputies at some screening stations and civil courtrooms.

This month court leaders took more drastic action, closing the Tracy courthouse and all but one courtroom in Lodi. Small claims court will be dark most days of the week.

San Joaquin is one of the state's handful of chronically underfunded courts, as calculated by a formula tied to caseload. Its problems stem from its days under county control. State court funding levels were set by matching county allocations to courts in the 1994-95 fiscal year. San Joaquin and other counties were suffering the effects of a recession that year, which effectively put their courts financially behind those in other counties that had fared better.

Part of the remedy, the author writes, is to change how the money for courts is redistributed. Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cardoza calls it quits

We called it. Dennis Cardoza, who represented South-Central Stockton, a narrow neck of San Joaquin County, and many parts farther south in Congress, has officially announced its retirement.

As many political observers, it's not a shocker. Redistricting left Cardoza without a natural district to defend, and many strong potential candidates he'd have to wrestle.

Too bad. Cardoza has been one of few people to stand up and demand relief for the thousands of Central Valley homeowners who were flayed by the housing bubble's collapse. If they could get some refinancing help, maybe they could keep their homes and have more money to put back into the economy, the thinking goes.

But so far, observers say the government has been slow to act, and banks have balked.

And in just over a year, one of the few voices calling to change that status quo will leave the halls of Congress. Sigh.

Out of the shadows

Michelle Brown isn't around to tell her story. That's why two weeks ago, the Women's Center of San Joaquin County told her story for her as part of a message against domestic violence.

The 26-year-old and mother of a 5-year-old daughter was a victim of domestic violence, shot to death by her boyfriend after work while trying to break out of the abusive relationship.

A cardboard cutout in City Hall stood in memory of Michelle, a reminder of the message behind Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is October.

Domestic abuse is often a hidden crime. Though we see it in the police log, folks at the Women's Center say it's a crime that's vastly under-reported. And sometimes, when it becomes apparent, it's too late.

The cardboard figure outside the council chamber was just one more effort to encourage those who are suffering to step out of the shadows, and a reminder to everyone else about what can happen behind closed doors.

Different power plant, same story

This story from the Stockton Record should be pretty familiar to folks in Mountain House and Tracy. Build a power plant in Alameda County, send the smog to the San Joaquin Valley.

By now, this is no random occurence. It's a pattern. We've seen efforts to do this time and again (though not always successfully), and it always seems like San Joaquin County gets the short end of the stick in terms of pollution fallout and lack of tax revenue.

Of course, it isn't counties that approve sites for power plants. That is vested with a state agency, though counties can voice their pleasure or umbrage at a possible location. (I'm guessing Alameda County folks don't mind reaping the economic benefits of a plant when the wind will blow the less-than-desirable side effects into someone else's backyard.)

Mitigation measures extracted from power producers by our local air pollution control district (in the case of this plant, $200,000 worth) undoubtedly help. But that doesn't excuse the trend.

Expect it continue, though, as the area near Mountain House previously targeted for power generators has nearby water supplies and easy hook-ups to electrical infrastructure.

Breathe lightly, my friends.

Catch as catch can

Time to catch up on some blogging, as we've been fairly buried recently. Expect sporadic updates in the future, as the Press is on the lookout for a new managing editor, as Kelsy Ramos, who was with the paper for nearly 7 years, has stepped down to pursue other interests.

We'll try to keep you updated.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Don't be part of the news

One of the cardinal rules in journalism is, "Report the news. Don't be part of the news."

Well, today, at the coming-out party for Jose Hernandez's campaign for Congress, my notepad and pen got caught in the action, when at least a dozen kids pressed forward for autographs before I could grab my interview — another crowd member suggested my pen would be better than their pencils, and my pad would make a good writing platform.

Not wanting to disappoint the kids, I temporarily donated the services of my equipment. (Photographic proof below.)

Darn kids.

An emotional issue... meeting tonight

This column about whether or not to put the name of Staff Sgt. David Senft on the Tracy War Memorial after he killed himself during his fourth tour of duty in the Middle East has generated the most response out of any column I've written during my six years at the Tracy Press.

For good reason. Honoring servicemen and suicide are extremely emotional issues both. Combine them, and hoo boy.

For the record, nearly all the feedback I've received is in support of putting Senft's name on the memorial despite the argument of Scott and Julie Conover, whose son is on the war memorial for dying in battle. They say the fact that Senft took, instead of gave, his life is reason to make a distinction when it comes to the memorial.

The Conovers understand it's a touchy subject. I talked to Scott on Friday after the column ran, and he said he respects Senft's family and has the utmost sympathy. But he said that while Senft served bravely, his final action should mean the difference between being on and off the memorial.

“We support the military, and we support this family, too, whether they know it or not,” he told me. “We just don’t think a suicide belongs on the war memorial.”

For their part, Senft's family thinks he without a doubt deserves the honor. My take is on display in the column.

All this emotion promises to play out tonight at the American Legion Hall. I've heard the War Memorial Association plans on moving the meeting into a bigger part of the hall than it's used to — this could be the best-attended WMA meeting in history.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tracy gets on the anti-cancer bandwagon

Tracy looks like it's finally getting its cancer-fighting bandwagon rolling with its first Walk for the Cure, an effort of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an organization dedicated to breast cancer education and eradication.

But if that seems like a story that sounds like it's not from your corner of San Joaquin County, it's because this is Tracy in southwestern Minnesota — it of the 2,163 population. (It's a repeat guest of the "Hey, that's not my Tracy," section of Second Thoughts.)

It's not too far off to say it's one Tracy following in the footsteps of another. The Tank Town Tracy has had one of the most successful anti-cancer fundraisers in the most populous state in the union. Good to see one of our smaller sibling cities doing the same thing.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Signs of the season

Two cues that fall really is here seen from the road this morning: Red tomatoes scattered on highway asphalt, and grey fog peeking over the Altamont Hills.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Updated: FoodMaxx first grocery big box victim?

Back when the city of Tracy was mulling whether to approve — at about the same time — a WinCo supermarket, Walmart Supercenter expansion, and a Raley's, at least one consultant's study warned that there would be casualties among the city's existing grocers.

Today, we found that FoodMaxx will close up shop in October.

It's hard to tell if FoodMaxx's closure is a direct result of WinCo and Raley's coming to town (Walmart's plans are still in process) but I wouldn't be surprised.

Of course, that's the way free markets work. If you can't hang with the competition, you're toast.

But this still presents a problem for the city as far as urban planning goes. As in, what happens when the anchor of a strip mall, which FoodMaxx was, disappears? Do the smaller ships drift into oblivion when the anchor's pulled out?

Let's hope not.

Turns out the FoodMaxx won't sit vacant for long. Word on the street is that another market will take over once FoodMaxx departs.

Good to hear the storefront won't sit empty long.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Market moves out

Work is happening today at the Westside Market, which the city of Tracy recently purchased.

Employees could be seen packing up boxes and moving out shelves at what was formerly a small grocery on the corner of Eighth Street and Central Avenue downtown.

It's not officially known what will be put in its place, but several people close to the matter have suggested the city is seeking a restaurant or some other high-traffic type establishment to further the rejuvenation of downtown as a cultural hub.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Don't bet on a quick turnaround

Fitting that at last night's City Council meeting, Finance Director Zane Johnston told councilmembers that the need to trim employee costs was pressing, even though the Measure E sales tax increase doesn't expire for four more years.

We haven't seen the light at the end of the tunnel, he said.

Truly, he spoke.

A UCLA study, this report says, envisions San Joaquin County lingering in the economic doldrums until at least 2017. It's consistent with what the University of Pacific Economic Forecasting Center has said in its quarterly reports for nigh on a year: The state's coastal and more urban areas are starting to show signs of life, but the Central Valley will continue to lag behind.

That means cities like Tracy, which have a budget to balance, would do well to get into the black sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The end of butterfly season

Last week, anyone exiting or entering Tracy on 11th Street east of town got a little something extra for free — a new coat of yellow paint.

Well, not paint so much as the remains of hundreds of bright yellow butterflies that flitted over and across that stretch of pavement. Beautiful to watch, but sad — there's no way to avoid turning your car into a giant bug swatter. Not to mention, they're a pain to clean.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A nation of cowards?

Another poll, another set of data that suggest maybe Americans don't value their freedom as much as they say they do.

This one suggests that a majority of Americans — including, no doubt, many of the "get your government hands off my Medicare" types — are willing to trade freedoms for security.

At some level, it's common sense. We do this all the time. Think stop lights and speed limits — we give up our freedom to drive however the hell we want in the interest of public safety. Because obeying a certain set of rules makes us all less likely to end up roadkill.

But what we're talking about here is different.

We're talking in the context of national security, giving the government widespread power to search and snoop without warrants or other advance notice. The bogeyman of terrorism, since Sept. 11, 2001, has been used to justify all sorts of government overreach, and our federal government is perhaps more cloaked in secrecy than ever before.

Government secrecy — and untouchable authority — is the enemy of republicanism and democracy. And now we have proof that a majority of U.S. citizens seem willing to go along for that ride.

I'll leave today with one thought, cribbed from the mind of none other than Ben Franklin: "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."

You can bet Ben wasn't talking about traffic signals.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hotter in the classrooms

A parent wrote in to complain this week that local schools had the air conditioning turned off a week ago, during one of the hotter days of this relatively mild summer.

Intrigued, Second Thoughts investigated.

Turns out, it is indeed warmer on Tracy Unified campuses this year. Just not when classes are in session.

The district, in an effort to save money and be an environmental steward, ratchets down the air conditioning after classes are out in the afternoons. But when school is in session, a district spokeswoman said, students should be appropriately cooled.

Of course, that doesn't account for equipment breakdowns and that kind of thing. But there's no plan in place to save a few bucks by baking the kids.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Another hit to local journalism

An area newspaper is taking a big hit, and it isn't the Tracy Press. It's a paper that competes with the Press for local coverage: The San Joaquin Herald.

The Herald is the San Joaquin edition of the Tri-Valley Herald, owned by Bay Area News Group, which also owns pretty much every major paper between here and San Francisco that isn't named "Weekly" or "Chronicle."

Soon, it'll be known as The Times, and will officially be merged with the Contra Costa Times and East County Times. But re-naming isn't important — ANG has repackaged the same content for different papers for years. What's big news is the company is using the consolidation as an opportunity to lay off 40 people from its newsrooms — 17 percent of its news staff.

While the company claims this will allow it to "offer additional value for readers," it's hard to imagine how employing fewer news-gatherers will help these papers — ostensibly news-gathering organizations — better inform the people who turn to them to help make sense of the world.

Some might think the Press would celebrate a competitor downsizing, but that's far from the case. No blow to the journalism industry — and fellow journalists — is welcomed. No one here wants to see more journalists unemployes and less vital information get to the hands of our readers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

McNerney's homegrown challenge

Ricky Gill, the bright political up-and-comer challenging Rep. Jerry McNerney in the 9th District in 2012, opened his campaign with a salvo this morning, buying full-page ads featuring an open letter in two 9th District newspapers (Mountain House is in the 9th District, Tracy is in the 10th).

He came out swinging, mostly focusing on his in-district credentials, while painting McNerney as an out-of-town, and out-of-touch, carpetbagger:

"The fact is, Jerry McNerney has had five years to learn about and address our valley issues, and he just hasn't done the job. A first step in turning around our local economy is to stop outsourcing our Congressional representation in Washington to the East Bay. ... If you remember one thing about me from this letter, it's that I'm running for Congress not just to vote on your behalf, but to lead on behalf of our entire community." (emphais his)

At first glance, his letter is a powerful statement in favor of San Joaquin County residents. On second, closer look, it's a mixed bag.

He's absolutely right that San Joaquin County and the Delta region require their own voice in Congress, someone who knows the issues here and is dedicated to addressing them and fighting for its residents. But is homegrown synonymous with local knowledge?

Gill's examples that highlight McNerney's out-of-town status could be viewed as McNerney's ignorance of local issues — or they could equally be viewed as McNerney's informed stances that don't jibe with Gills'. I'd say it's more the latter than the former, but that's my personal take.

Ultimately, it'll be up for voters to decide whether Gill, a Lodi native, is the best man to represent the region's interests; if McNerney, with several years experience representing most of San Joaquin County can do the best job; or if that distinction lies with somebody else.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dems get the early drop

When it comes to staking a claim to the newly drawn political districts in San Joaquin County, Democrats are getting the drop on their Republican counterparts.

Today, Cathleen Galgiani confirmed to me that she's running for the 5th Senate district, which will be all of San Joaquin County, plus Galt and Modesto. The three-term assemblywoman is termed out in that chamber, so the state Senate is her best shot at staying around Sacramento.

Galgiani's Associate Press-style tag (D-Livingston) might suggest she's a carpetbagger, but that charge is leveled by her history and honest SJC roots. Galgiani is a fifth-generation Stockton native, and owns a home within walking distance of that city's vibrant Miracle Mile.

And though her district now only is partly in the county, she said “I always felt like I represented all of San Joaquin County."

Mike Barkley is another Democrat who declared immediately — actually, he's been working on his campaign since before the new districts were drawn. The man from Manteca might not have inside-the-Beltway orthodox views on a range of topics (scope his comprehensive and obviously thought-out platform here), but Barkley insists that's the type of representative you need if you want to shake up the District of Columbia. But smart money says he won't be the biggest Democrat in the Tracy-inclusive 10th Congressional District fight.

Rep. Jerry McNerney has also said he'll run to represent Mountain House (not Tracy) in Congress.

On the GOP side, Ricky Gill will be in the mix against McNerney for certain. He is the lone Republican so far to get ahead of his Democratic counterpart. He declared early this year that, however the districts would be drawn, he'd run to represent San Joaquin County and be a truly homegrown candidate, something the area has been sorely lacking for years. He's an energetic and sharp-as-a-tack guy with a ton of promise.

The GOP's Jeff Denham has all but said he will run in the 10th Congressional District opposite Barkley and whomever else joins the race, but has not officially declared that will be where he tosses his hat. We'll have more on him and his positions when he gives the official "I'm in."

With this year's redistricting, the 2012 election season looks like it could be a bumpy ride. So hang on — Second Thoughts and the Tracy Press will try to keep you as up-to-date as possible.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Grand success

To anyone wondering if the Grand Theatre could ever be a viable spot for big musical events, you have an answer. The show of country artist Kellie Pickler is all but sold out, less than 10 days after tickets went on sale.

If you're interested, the last count had five individual tickets left for sale.

That means a recognizable artist agreed to perform in Tracy, and completely filled the house. This suggests the Grand, if it can match the right talent to the Tracy audience, can keep its seats filled with high-level acts — something critics in the past have questioned.

It's an encouraging sign that the theater can inch its way toward self-sutainability, even though that was never the plan for the place in the beginning. (Nor should it be the place's primary goal.)

It's good to see the Grand succeeding. But those who have kept their finger on the art center's pulse have known that all along.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

SJC's political wrestling match continues

Leroy Ornellas, Tracy's rep on the county board of supervisors, condemned the process of redrawing supervisorial district boundaries after the other four supervisors voted in favor of new maps yesterday.

To wit:

Just as state Legislators drew maps to their political benefit 10 years ago, it appears that the temptation to fiddle with district boundaries for political advantage is too strong for some folks to resist. The process of redistricting was intended so that voters could choose their legislators, not so legislators could choose their voters. Carving up districts in such a way so as to enhance your political careers is wrong. It's bad government, and I won't be part of it.

To read why Ornellas was hopping mad, see last week's Second Thoughts column. In short, supervisors were in charge of redistricting, not citizens, and some observers have accused supervisors other than Ornellas of tinkering with the lines behind closed doors and giving the public scant time to review the changes.

His words are about as close as you'll see one person call out colleagues in public on political skullduggery.

Meanwhile, other supervisors, especially Steve Bestolarides, defended both the process and the decision, and said that media reports (including last week's column) were unfair to the supervisors, mischaracterized the process and were baldly inaccurate.

Bestolarides said "political hyperbole" had clouded a process that was agreed to by all supervisors, and said it was a shame that certain rules seemed to apply for four supervisors, while other rules seemed to apply for one. You can guess which man he was talking about.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

National Night Out, rethought

By outward appearances, the new order for Tracy's National Night Out was a success.

People were playing, strolling and laughing on the greensward by City Hall earlier this evening, and the event's organizers said so many people showed up that they ran out of hot dogs and hamburgers (though some reports indicate a few folks went back for more than their fair share of the freebies).

However, it strikes Second Thoughts as something of a letdown to have NNO in one centralized location, instead of spread throughout the city, as in previous years.

Sure, it might save money. And it might make for a better party. (Getting the city manager in a dunk tank has gotta count for something.)

But the idea behind NNO is to take back city streets. It's not just to get information from public safety officials — it's designed to get neighbors talking to one another in their own front yards.

That's why the neighborhood-by-neighborhood block party idea was such a success. It got people unafraid to use their public spaces, which is one of the best ways everyday citizens can fight back against crime. It's something that goes missing when the event is concentrated in one space.

I'm glad tonight appeared to be a hit. But I'd rather see National Night Out spread throughout the city.

Monday, August 1, 2011

R.I.P. Leo Smith

Leo Smith — the man whose family was helped by a small army of Tracy volunteers after this story ran in the Press — died this morning, Councilman Steve Abercrombie reports.

Smith and his wife, Angela, got to enjoy the hard work of the Tracy community less than three weeks. But Leo's final days, I have no doubt, were made better by the folks who gave up their time and talents to help a fellow Tracyite in need.

His death so soon after the work was completed in no way diminishes what those people did for him, out of the desire to do the right thing. And it in no way diminishes the joy he and his wife got from knowing that other people cared about them, that they weren't merely on their own, that they were part of the community.

That's the kind of gift that cannot possibly be overvalued.

It's a sad story, yes. But it's a reminder that a little time, a litle effort, can mean the world to someone else. And that spirit is a huge part of what makes Tracy special. At least in my eyes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

No punches pulled on McNerney announcement

Rep. Jerry McNerney, who has no district to call his own thanks to redistricting, has announced that he will move to San Joaquin County and seek to represent a planned district that will include the north part of the county, as well as some of eastern Contra Costa County.

(It should be noted that congressional reps don't have to live within the district they represent, though Second Thoughts maintains it's good form.)

The campaign of Ricky Gill, the 24-year-old Lodi native who's made his SJC roots a cornerstone of his early efforts, seized on the announcment to draw first blood in the race:

"Jerry McNerney's claim to have adopted San Joaquin County as his 'home' is laughable. During his time in Washington, he has utterly neglected the people of San Joaquin County and the greater San Joaquin Valley," said Colin Hunter, who works for Ricky Gill for Congress. "We trust the voters will recognize that McNerney is moving to San Joaquin County for political purposes, plain and simple."

Gill seems like a thoughtful man, and he speaks in nonpartisan terms that seeks to build bridges with others, even those at different points of the red-blue spectrum. But if you thought his campaign would be so congenial, it's time to think again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New Jerusalem lends hand to Stockton school

The Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton (I know, a tad out of our coverage area) has rejected an idea for a charter school, saying the proposed academy does not meet its standards.

But the charter system has proven beneficial in the Tracy area — New Jerusalem's Delta Charter and Tracy Unified's Tracy Learning Center being two prime examples.

So it's no surprise that New Jerusalem is stepping up to the plate for the proposed Academy of Business, Law and Education, offering to partner with the up-and-coming school so it can become a reality.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More downtown business group tidbits

One significant thing that wound up on the cutting room floor of this column about the Tracy City Center Association is a brief primer on its origin. And it's a creation tale that chaps the hide of some folks who didn't get a say in the matter.

The genesis story of the TCCA involves a bit of politics.

Several city parcels, notably the Tracy Transit Station, were included in the district, giving the city one of the largest votes when it came to whether or not to approve the business association. Meanwhile, one of the largest private parcels historically considered to be in the downtown — the Tracy Inn, which includes Tracy Thai and the now-defunct Dick's Newsstand — was left out, after being included in initial draft plans for the district boundaries.

It was a move to help ensure the district was approved, and that maneuvering has left a bad taste in the mouth of several people — especially some merchants who didn't get a vote in the matter. Remember, the TCCA vote was one among property owners. (Which, for full disclosure, included the Tracy Press. Our ownership voted in favor of the TCCA.)

Second Thoughts wishes the TCCA all the best, and hopes it can bring new life to downtown. The revitalization of the city's historic core is essential to making Tracy the type of city many hope it can be, and the TCCA and its volunteer members are dedicated to making that happen.

The TCCA is an organization that has the potential to really change downtown for the better. But we'd be remiss if we didn't remember the "how" of it came to be, and the friction that resulted.

Friday, July 15, 2011

True public servants

Addition to the Better Future Files: Read this heartbreaking yet uplifting story by Press reporter Denise Rizzo, and then you'll know what public service really is.

The firefighters, police officers, city councilman and other volunteers who went to the aidof Angela and Leo Smith — whose money for a ramp to help Leo, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, was stolen by some lowlife while the couple was at the hospital — are true heros. Because that's how a town like Tracy gets better. One helping hand at a time.

In a world in which so much is going wrong, it's nice to know decency still rules many human hearts.

Hopefully, the selflessness of these volunteers is an inspiration to the rest of us. Good way to start the weekend.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Closer to that solar farm

A city of Tracy plan to turn the old antenna farm off Schulte Road into a solar array that produces clean power for the local grid is a step closer to reality.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committe approved legislation that would transfer to Tracy 150 acres, land that's vital to the solar project. The full Senate is set to vote soon on the measure.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer. Rep. Jerry McNerney introduced identical legislation in the House of Representatives. Both houses of Congress must OK the bill before it can become law.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Keeping our cool

A week ago, Tracy was sweltering in 100-plus degree temperatures. Today, unofficial temperatures have the daytime high pegged at about 80.

The reason? You know if you looked toward the Altamont this morning, where fog crept over the hills and wrapped itself partly around the feet of Mount Diablo. The Bay Area's fog is keeping us cool — the the breeze caused by warmer inland temperatures doesn't hurt, either.

The cool but sunny weather is supposed to last as least until Friday. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Friday, July 8, 2011

At least we're not Stockton

Folks in town have made much ado about public safety in Tracy, especially over the past two years, when year-ending spikes in gang activity have focused the media's spotlight on the issue.

But at least we're not Stockton, where even the police station is a target of drive-by shootings.

Now THAT is a public safety problem.

Lawsuit in waiting

One more interesting twist in the saga at our local police department.

Capt. John Espinoza's lawsuit has so far not moved forward — as of Friday, July 8, it hadn't even been served to the city of Tracy, at least according to San Joaquin County civil records department.

Usually, the plaintiff has 90 days to serve the entity he or she is suing before the court issues an order to show cause — courts like to know why a lawsuit is filed but not followed up on. For Espinoza, that 90 days has come and gone, though the court hasn't yet sent out its OSC.

The reason could be one of many things. A breakdown between attorney and client, a mutual agreement between plaintiff and defendant to hold off to see if things can be worked out, a plaintiff just letting the thing go.

But we're unsure of a reason in this case. There's a call in to Espinoza's attorney, Christopher Miller, seeking an answer. We'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tracy, the sloping city

Alert reader Steve Riddle called the newsroom today, trusty GPS device in hand, to corroborate a couple stories by publisher emeritus Sam Matthews that tried to track down Tank Town's elevation.

Riddle said that outside Raley's on Tracy Boulevard in the south of town, the elevation was above 70 feet. But the farther north he drove on Tracy Boulevard, the lower the elevation.

"It depends on where in Tracy you are," he said.

He reported 67 feet above sea level at Tracy Boulevard and Schulte Road, and 29 feet by the water tower outside the Boyd Service Center near Sixth Street. Which fits nicely with what Sam found out in his most recent column, even if the specifics are off.

Riddle insists his GPS is accurate to a T. He said that, when he compares it to official elevation signs in the mountains, the device "is right on the money."

We'll let Sam take over on this one and figure out how high the town.

Update II:: Another wrinkle to the police chief saga

Reporter Denise Rizzo broke the story this week of Tracy's new police chief, who just resigned his post from Turlock to return to the burg where he made captain. Three cheers for the new chief, Gary Hampton.

One thing the story didn't explore, however, is the exceedingly quick turnaround from Chief Janet Thiessen's resignation to hiring her replacement. Folks familiar with the process have told me it isn't uncommon for police chief (or for that matter, department head) searches to last six months. This one was conducted and closed in less than 30 days.

Also, it's just been made news today that Thiessen, whose resignation was supposed to be effective this Friday, July 8, will stick around until Aug. 14, the day before Hampton is supposed to officially take over. Evidently, the city wanted to avoid naming an "interim" chief.

After Thiessen, Capt. John Espinoza was the highest ranking officer in the TPD and seemed a logical choice to serve at least as interim chief, as he has on occassion when Thiessen was out of town. But Espinoza has also filed a lawsuit against Thiessen and the city, and while some agree with the suit that Espinoza has been a victim of bad practices within the department and city government, others have commented that he is somewhat of a polarizing figure.

(As far as the lawsuit's merit and outcome, we'll have to see how the courts sort that out. Expect updates from the Tracy Press as they become available.)

It's speculation, but those extenuating circumstances might have been a factor in getting a new permanent chief in as quickly as possible and eschewing the "interim" designation. For the record, when Chief David Krauss left, Capt. Rick Gophin was named interim chief until Thiessen was selected for the job.

• This entry was updated from its original form.

Remembering the Fourth on the fifth

One of the enduring values the United States was built upon — at least in the eyes of people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — was that unchecked and unquestioned authority is a path to tyranny. Hence the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the rights of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances and to speak without fear of government reprisal, as well as the protection of journalists to print their material without prior review or censorship. (It also guarantees the right to assemble peacefully and the right to religious freedom.)

It's a concept as American as apple pie.

Attendees of Tuesday's City Council meeting were reminded of this by a citizen who has made himself a staple at council meetings the past year or so: David Helm, who somewhat fittingly owns a tavern on Central Avenue and 10th Street. (I say fittingly, because the American independence movement gathered steam in the bars and pubs of New England.)

He took to the podium again Tuesday, the fifth of July, to say it wasn't his intent to be "highly critical" of the city, a characterization offered by a recent Press report on the City Council's Brown Act compliance. Rather, he quoted Jefferson and Franklin, saying that it's the duty of all citizens to keep government honest.

"When things are wrong, they need to be righted ... that hasn't been done so far," he said, referring to an investigation of police department personnel that has dragged on far beyond the city's own time limits for such inquiries.

Aside from the specific complaint, which needs to be addressed by the city, the take-away is that an involved citizenry is a key to ensuring government functions with the interest of its constituents in mind. We've seen — especially on the federal level — that government can become an insular place that serves the well-connected, rather than the average guy and gal.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Flyboys aren't only ones with stake in airport

As the early comments show on this story, there's not a whole lot of sympathy for folks who can afford their own planes.

But the city of Tracy — and us earth-bound plebes — should still care about the repair of runways at Tracy Municipal Airport.

The airport is an economic engine. Hangar rentals, fuel sales, and other business out there (as documented in this oldie but goodie column) bring money into the city. Which, last time I checked, was a good thing.

If the runways keep chewing up planes, and if the hangars aren't up to snuff, the flyboys will go elsewhere. And they'll take their money with them. (Also, there's a safety and liability issue that we won't even get into.)

The bigger worry I have is not that pilots aren't satisfied, but that this story points to a continued pattern of not fully realizing the airport's potential. More amenities, including business expansion and the opening of a restaurant, have all been discussed, but the plans keep stalling out. Not only that, but if the Ellis subdivision is eventually built right under the main approach to the airport, there is a serious possibility activity could be curtailed.

Tracy Municipal Airport has the potential to generate money for the city and local economy. It'd be a shame if that potential was squashed by inaction, poor planning and provincialism.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some might call it the 'Helm policy'

So the City Council has decided to clamp down on long presentations at the beginning of the council meeting.

It's an obvious response to public comment sessions over the past few months that have run on the long side. Much longer, in fact, than allowed for, according to the City Council's written policy.

Though there's been some criticism of the decision to be more strict with the time allotted for the council's public comment section at the beginning of every council meeting, the city appears to be on firm legal ground.

For the record, the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Jim Ewert, a Brown Act expert, has signed off on both the policy and the enhanced enforcement of the rules as meeting the letter of the law. He even went so far as to say the Tracy City Council is an "enlightened" bunch when it comes to allowing public comment, especially compared to some other cities.

By and large, Ewert is right. There are two public comment periods in each council meeting (the second of which is now virtually never utilized) and time for individuals to comment about each item on the council agenda in its turn. Also, the City Council has been far from heavy-handed, so far, when it comes to people sharing their views for extended periods of time before the council dais.

But it's hard to deny the practical effect of the city's new emphasis on a timely first "items from the audience" period. Namely, that it will push lengthy complaints about city leadership and policy — such as the comprehensive criticisms offered over the past few months by downtown business owner David Helm — to the end of the council meeting, when fewer people will be paying attention. That means such speeches could have less of an impact.

And that could create a perception problem for the city, even though the council is abiding by the Brown Act and (apparently) well within the law when it comes to accepting public comments. Because, whether it's accurate or no, when you read between the lines it looks like pushing long and critical speeches to a less prominent place in the meeting lineup is seemingly, at the least, a welcome side effect for the city.

And that kind of action, while legal, doesn't set a good perception nor create the type of tone conducive to public debate.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Under pressure?

A billboard erected to try to bring two suspects to justice in a murder investigation was defaced sometime between yesterday afternoon and this morning.

Black graffiti covers the names and faces of the two sought-after suspects, which as of Thursday were visible to westbound traffic on 11th Street east of town. Evidently, it's the work of friends of the suspects who don't want their buddies hauled off, or of the suspects themselves who don't want to be hauled off.

Either way, it's a sign that someone feels pressured by the billboard's presence. Which means it's imperative to clean it up as soon as possible, and get those faces back on the minds of the thousands of drivers who travel westward into Tracy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A conspicuous absence

No, I'm not referring to the over-long hiatus of the Second Thoughts blog, but to something that city planners left out when it comes to the proposed re-zoning of 11th Street.

This story highlights the changes the city wants to make, including outlawing future sit-down restaurants on 11th Street between East Street and Tracy Boulevard. The move would push such businesses elsewhere — city planners hope that somewhere is the Central Avenue-10th Street downtown axis.

But a notable absence from those 11th Street businesses included is the Tracy Inn, which houses a Mexican restaurant on the bottom floor (coincidentally, a watering hole rumored to have the best Margaritas in town).

I say it's notable because the Tracy Inn also received exemption from the Tracy City Center Association, the downtown business association that is funded by fees levied on property owners within its boundaries. Members of the TCCA make no secret that the Inn was excluded from the district to ensure the district was approved — the district needed the approval of owners representing a majority of the property within the boundaries to pass.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Foregone conclusion in Mountain House

If Mountain House Community Services District director Jim Lamb has any hope that the California Energy Commission might not give final approval to a 200-megawatt power plant on Mountain House's western doorstep, this might squelch it:

"(The CEC) ... held a Committee Conference at the Mountain House Community Services District on May 5, 2011. The Full Commission adopted the PMPD and Errata as submitted at the May 18, 2011, business meeting."

See? According to the California Energy Commission's siting committee, which ensures proposed locations for power plants are acceptable, the plant has already been approved. Nevermind that the final approval date is at least four weeks away.

Funny thing, those foregone conclusions.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lawsuit story addendum

A quick update to this story, which documents several lawsuits employees have filed against the city of Tracy for alleged unfair employment practices: Police Chief Janet Thiessen, whom is named in the latest suit brought by Capt. John Espinoza, was out of town last week and didn't receive my message seeking comment until after the story was published. So apologies to the chief. Still, my bet is there wouldn't have been much comment. My experience is that government agencies tend to keep a pretty tight lip when it comes to lawsuits and how they're handled and challenged.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Letter of the week

They say brevity is the soul of wit, and the key to clear communication. In that case, this letter to the editor reprinted here in its entirety... "Dear Editor, Please help our state once again put our kids first!" ... is brilliant. Or some of the most cryptic writing the Voice section has received in many moons.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gazebo gone

Lincoln Park is without its trademark gazebo, location for numerous Tank Town weddings and afternoon band rehearsals. The structure had long lived past its sell-by date, with shingles missing from the roof, semi-rotted posts and a creaky floor. Not to mention stairs steep enough to pose a serious hazard to stiletto-heeled brides. So now, it's a bulldozed plot, waiting for a new built-to-last structure.
The new gazebo should be ready by July Fourth, in time for Tracy's annual Independence Day blowout. And it's just part of an extensive upgrade to one of the city's best parks. Read more on that here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Phone call of the day

It's not unusual for a dog to have its x-rays taken, and for strange things to appear in those x-rays. Canines, after all, usually decide if something is edible by eating it and just sort of seeing what happens next.

But a recent caller to my work and cell phone says his mutt's images have captured The Prince of Darkness.

That's right. Satan himself is evidently inhabiting some poor dog, the caller said, and it's a story that could put the Tracy Press on the map.

Sigh. Just another reminder for us all to take our prescription medication.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Feeling right at home

As described in Friday's column (find it here), a local Sikh temple welcomed me this past weekend, giving me and a few other guests ceremonial orange scarves. The color represents their faith, and is supposedly the highest honor one can receive in the temple. Luckily, I have proof of the congregations' generosity and graciousness.

That's me, newly ensconced, with TUSD Trustee Walter Gouveia on the left.

And that's me in the orange head covering, with Tracy City Councilmen Steve Abercrombie and Bob Rickman on the right.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In support of the Congress

After Saturday's shooting of an Arizona congresswoman, those in Congress are re-assessing their safety and Capitol police are reviewing security measures.

But as this note left on the office of Rep. Jerry McNerney proves, not everyone is out to get someone.

If you can't make it out, it says, "Not everyone is crazy out there! We care about you. Fellow Tenant. "
Sarah Hersh, McNerney's communications director and the person who sent the image to me, said "We were all very touched by its sentiment." Especially after a very tough week in the halls of the Capitol.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

At the heart of the crime problem

I thought I'd re-post this comment left on the Second Thoughts blog, because it illustrates one of the crucial issues regarding crime in Tracy. Namely, accurate reporting of crime so we actually know what we're dealing with:

I have learned from personal experience that a factor is how the police choose to categorize a crime is a factor.
I had a break in attempt in a commercial business, one small window in the glass storefront was smashed, there was no glass break sensor. The alarm company told me the interior motion detector was tripped. Nothing was stolen. The police categorized it as vandalism.
I complained to the officer who came to write the report, to no avail.When he departed and I was waiting for the glass company, I then finally took time to rewind the surveillance cams, which caught the perpetrator walking inside, then suddenly turning and running out as the alarm sounded.
I called the PD to come back and showed them the video, and they had to agree to change it to burglary.
~ Anonymous

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

That new library smell

As students began to file to the front desk of the new Tracy High library this morning, I asked generally if they liked their new building.

The response:

"Yeah, it has that new smell," said one.

"What did the old one smell like?" I asked.

"I dunno," chimed in another kid. "But this one has a smell."

Now there's a sight you don't see every day...

My thoughts, as a city of Tracy pickup drove away from City Hall with the city's Christmas tree — wrapped snugly in cellophane two-thirds of the way up — standing straight up in the bed.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

We're working on a story that tells us how safe Tracy is, statistically speaking. What we've heard so far, officially, is that crime is down in Tank Town across the board.

The numbers, a police spokesman has said, is proof.

However, with several gang-member-on-gang-member attacks in the past month and nine homicides in the past 20 months, that isn't necessarily the public perception.

So, how can raw emotion and raw numbers be so different?

First, it's a well-known psychological phenomenon that people seize on the bad incidents and ignore the others. (It doesn't help that media outlets, including the Press, publicize the shootings, stabbings and other instances of violence.) It's an inaccuracy that comes from recalling powerful anecdotes and assuming those individual instances represent a general trend.

Second, it could be in the police reporting. Police have a set of guidelines for when they write up a report, and when something is documented as a crime. Certain situations are mandatory for police to write up. Other times, it depends on a victim's willingness to make a report. And other times, it's at the officer's discretion. So there could be instances that might be reported in some cases, and not in others.

Third, it could just be that, though crime overall is decreasing, there are more instances of violence that simply stand out.

Or fourth, it could be that a lot of the crime that's happening in the city isn't being reported. For instance, just the other day, my car had a rock the size of a grapefruit thrown through the front window while it was parked out in front of my house in Stockton, where I just moved to. (The perp didn't even have the decency to rip out the stereo.) But I didn't report the incident to police, because there was nothing they could do about. As a result of my not wanting to spend time on the phone, that definite crime will never be part of the official record. I'm sure I'm not alone when it comes to stuff like this.

Whatever the case, it's clear that perception of Tracy's safety in some quarters does not match with what the numbers are telling us. Very similar to something I wrote more than a year ago, as the city dealt with another seeming wave of violence.

Seems some things might never change...