The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

November 30, 2010
CDC: foodborne diseases cause 5,000 U.S. deaths a year

In a strong bipartisan showing, the U.S. Senate today passed legislation bolstering the nation's food safety laws. The Food Safety and Modernization Act, among other things, gives the Food and Drug Administration greater authority to respond to disease outbreaks such as those affecting beef, spinach, peanuts and other products in recent years.

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, take a look at the CDC statistical report Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States. Drawing from multiple data sources, the authors estimate that "foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year." According to the tables, the biggest causes of illness are the Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria, Giardia parasite and Norwalk-like viruses. The deadliest agents are Salmonella, Listeria and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in undercooked meat.

November 30, 2010
Local government workers earning $250,000+

The state controller's office recently published a list showing the salaries of nearly every city and county employee in California. The controller did not list employee names, just their job titles. Here's the local employees on the controller's list who made more than $250,000 in total pay during 2009.

The controller's office counted any wages subject to Medicare as total pay. That includes deferred compensation, overtime, bonuses and cashed-out vacation and sick leave. (This is what employers put in box 5 of your W-2 form.)

Rocklin's city manager is a retired annuitant. He draws earnings from CalPERS and the city.

One more thing: About 20,000 people work for cities and counties in the Sacramento region, and the vast majority of them make nowhere near this much.

Earlier: Local government salary data now online

November 26, 2010
New lumps cut driving speeds

By Chelsea Phua
cphua@sacbee.com

The problem: Vehicles speeding along a stretch of 14th Street in the South Land Park neighborhood. Residents say the portion between South Land Park Drive and 43rd Avenue often serves as a shortcut for motorists traveling to Freeport Boulevard.

Alonzo Eaton, 53, who has lived on 14th Street for five years, said he has seen an increase in traffic. Sacramento city officials said traffic studies showed the majority of drivers on 14th Street going at speeds of the posted 25 mph or faster.

The solution: Speed lumps, which are raised devices with cutouts at the widths where tires of emergency vehicles and buses can pass through. Linda Tucker, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Transportation, said residents submitted a petition for the devices on the road, which already has two sets of undulations spaced about 1,800 feet apart.

A petition needs at least 10 signatures. Tucker said residents collected 20 by August 2009. The process includes investigation by traffic engineers, approval by the City Council and by a ballot sent out to residents. Officials said 67 percent were in favor, meeting the two-thirds majority requirement. In October, four lumps were installed.

Not everyone seems happy with the additions, which cost about $10,400 and were funded by Measure A, a countywide half-cent sales tax used for roadway and transit improvements.

Eaton's neighbor, Lyle Moffett, 64, said they scratch the underside of one of his cars with a low bumper. "They are just a pain," Moffett said.

Eaton's wife, Candy Holiday, 49, said she likes them. "It slows the traffic way down or you'll be popping up in the air," she said.

November 26, 2010
City salaries out in the open

By Ryan Lillis
rlillis@sacbee.com

Sacramento City Hall wants you to know that it's not Bell.

As you probably remember, Bell is the Los Angeles-area city where it was discovered that the city manager and other top executives were making hefty salaries. Eight officials, including the city manager, were arrested.

When the news out of Bell broke this summer, cities and counties across California scrambled to show that their public official salaries were in check. On Tuesday, at the request of Mayor Kevin Johnson, the Sacramento City Council was told what City Hall was doing.

The most notable steps include:

• Posting the salaries of the mayor, council members and top officials on the city's website, www.cityofsacramento.org. For the record, the highest paid city employee is interim City Manager Gus Vina, who makes $215,000. Johnson makes $116,646, and the part-time council members make $60,800.

• Providing a link on the city's website to the state controller database of city worker salaries around the state.

• Giving information on how salaries are set for every city position.

At Tuesday's council meeting, the mayor said the city "wanted to set an example."

"We don't want to just do what other cities are doing," he said. "We want to push the bar a little further when it comes to accessibility and transparency."

Councilman Kevin McCarty added that he'd like individual city worker salaries to be searchable by those employees' names.

November 23, 2010
Sacramento is the 72nd most dangerous city in the U.S.

ST LOUIS.jpgAlthough the FBI discourages the use of its crime data to compare and rank cities, CQ Press continues to publish its City Crime Rankings every year. The publisher uses violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault, etc.) stats per 100,000 population to compile the listing.

Last year, St. Louis crept past Camden, N.J., as the nation's "most dangerous city" of 75,000 or more. They are followed by Detroit and Fint, Michigan. The top California cities are Oakland, Richmond, Compton, Vallejo and Stockton. The "safest" cities in California are Mission Viejo, Irvine, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Murrieta.

Sacramento comes in at number 72 of 400 places.

PHOTO CREDIT: The St. Louis Gateway Arch frames a barge and tow making their way north along the Mississippi River in 2004. AP Photo/James A. Finley.

November 22, 2010
Illegal tobacco sales to children fall to historic low in the state

The California Public Health Department announced last week that sales of tobacco products to minors have dropped to an all-time low. That's based on an annual compliance check at retail outlets (supermarkets, drugstores, liquor stores, service stations, doughnut shops, etc.) The state began monitoring stores in 1995. Minors participating in the study were able to purchase cigarettes 37 percent of the time. That percentage has steadily fallen in the past 15 years. In 2008 the rate was 12.6 percent. In 2009, 8.6 percent. And this year, 7.7 percent.

That's good news. But it begs the question: is use of tobacco by children also dropping? CDC statistics indicate that it is. One report, Cigarette Use Among High School Students -- United States, 1991-2009, shows the percentage of students who have ever tried cigarettes falliing from 70.4 percent in 1999 to 46.3 percent in 2009. In addition, the percentage of students who reported current cigarette use also fell from 36.4 percent in 1997 to 19.5 percent in 2009.

November 18, 2010
Fix It: Truck traffic tempered in Folsom neighborhood

The problem: The Lake Natoma Shores neighborhood, adjacent to both the Folsom Corporation Yard and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, has long coped with industrial and commercial traffic along its narrow residential streets.

Laurie Laurent, a resident, said the problem accelerated when the city paved a link between the yard, the VFW Hall site, and the neighborhood.

That meant increased commercial and industrial traffic on neighborhood streets west of Folsom Boulevard, particularly on Forrest Street.

"It's an invasion to bring heavy industrial and heavy commercial traffic into a planned unit development," Laurent said.

The solution: City Councilman Ernie Sheldon has asked city staff to discourage truck traffic in the area, and that has helped. The city's garbage trucks no longer use Forrest Street, for example. Instead they use the Corporation Yard's northern, primary gate at Leidesdorff Street.

Rich Lorenz, public works and utilities director, said the city is sensitive to residents' concerns. And the city has begun moving away from using the Forrest Street exit.

The city also is exploring how best to construct a driveway tying the VFW Hall to Leidesdorff Street, he said. That project could begin in the spring.

That would bring relief, he said, by blocking the use of Forrest Street for any traffic to and from the VFW Hall and the Corporation Yard.

- Loretta Kalb

November 18, 2010
Watchdog Report: Galleria fire questions still smolder in Roseville

So far, Roseville officials have left several significant questions lingering in the wake of last month's fire at Westfield Galleria, the region's largest shopping mall.

Among the most pressing:

• Who ordered the mall's sprinkler system shut off and why?

• Did that decision exacerbate the damages, estimated to be $55 million?

• Did the use of bomb- detecting robots help or harm the situation?

• Were concerns that arson suspect Alexander Piggee possessed explosives warranted?

Earlier this week, outgoing Mayor Gina Garbolino said she is happy with the pace of the city's internal investigation, which will presumably answer those questions and more.

She also said she is comfortable with the Police Department investigating its own incident response.

The "after-action report" will be made public the week of Dec. 6, officials said.

In response to a public records request by The Bee, the city this week released 320 pages of e-mails about the fire.

Withheld were e-mails directly related to the police and fire response - information that could be used to draft the post-fire report.

What is left are frantic e-mails between members of the public relations team, e-mails from outside agencies offering help and post-event congratulations.

"Everyone involved in the emergency response performed exceptionally well and did what they were supposed to do," wrote City Manager Ray Kerridge. "I am proud of this organization."

- Ed Fletcher

November 11, 2010
The Money Trail: Who pays for big turnout at firefighter memorials?

The large turnout of firefighters and engines from agencies throughout the region for the recent memorial services for a Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District employee led a reader to ask who foots the bill for such participation.

The reader expressed appreciation for those wanting to honor a colleague who died in the line of duty but wondered about the overall impact on strained budgets and services.

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District spokesman Capt. Christian Pebbles said a certain number of on-duty personnel are allowed to attend without depleting the firefighting force, and other agencies help by staffing stations. When those agencies suffer losses, Sac Metro returns the favor.

"Basically, it's a respect thing," Pebbles said. "Everybody takes a bit of a hit to put on the show."

Off-duty firefighters attending such services do so on their own time. Essentially, Pebbles said, the cost for fire personnel and equipment is no different from any other day, except for fuel and wear and tear on vehicles. Those costs come out of the district's general operating funds.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said his agency follows a similar practice. On-duty personnel are allowed to attend services with the permission of their supervisor, as staffing allows.

Off-duty employees who attend do so on their own time. "We don't allow overtime," Curran said.

Fuel usually accounts for the extra cost, he said.

- Cathy Locke

November 11, 2010
The Money Trail: Mayor gets his library - city's cost is $9,805

The unofficial Kevin Johnson Mayoral Library is open - but just for himself and his colleagues on the Sacramento City Council.

City crews recently finished renovating a room on City Hall's fifth floor into a library at Johnson's request. Mayors can do whatever they want with the room. It's not clear how it was used under former Mayor Heather Fargo, but crews apparently had to remove lots of boxes when they began work.

The labor cost of the project - including fresh paint, a wall mounting for a flat-screen television and new electrical outlets - was $9,805, a city invoice says.

Johnson's aides said the mayor paid for most of the furnishings and that over the past two years, they had avoided many of the office upgrades afforded new mayors.

As the room is behind the locked door that separates the public from the mayor and council offices, you can't just walk off the street and spend a few minutes there. That privilege is reserved for council and its staff.

Still, it could be difficult for council members to plow through "War and Peace" there. In an e-mail sent to City Council offices announcing the opening of the library, Lisa Serna-Mayorga, the council operations manager, wrote she "will be most able to accommodate requests of under 60 minutes."

Priority for using the room goes to the mayor, of course. "He will be using the room for both scheduled and impromptu meetings with his staff and guests," Serna-Mayorga's e-mail said.

- Ryan Lillis

November 11, 2010
Industry winners/losers in November election

As the postmorten on the November voting winds down, the campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics wonders which special interests emerged as winners (and losers) this cycle. But how do you measure success (or failure) in this arena? Well, if every member of Congress represents the industry or special interest that contributed the most to his or her campaign, as CRP suggests, then one can count the net number congressional seats each group gained (or lost) this time. 

The biggest winner in 2010 -- as a group -- were people who identify themselves as "retired" in campaign finance disclosure. They tend to favor Republicans, giving $60 million of their $109 million donations to GOP candidates this year. Retired donors gained two seats in the U.S. Senate and a whopping 20 seats in the U.S. House. Coming in second were leadership PACs (political action groups founded by prominent political figures) which gained a net 12 House seats.

The big losers in 2010 were lawyers and law firms. They suffered net losses of 15 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

November 10, 2010
Student debt rising at UC Davis, Sacramento State

The University of California and California State University systems are considering more student fee increases. UC would raise undergraduate tuition by 8 percent, which would follow a 32 percent hike this year. CSU is expected to hike tuition 15.5 percent by next fall, which would also follow a 30+ percent increase this year.

To deal with the increases, California students are increasingly saddling themselves with debt. At Sacramento State and UC Davis, federal student loan disbursements have doubled over the past decade, a trend only partially explained by enrollment increases. The $129 million in federal loan disbursements at UC Davis last year equates to about $4,000 per student, though some students took far more and others took no loans at all.

The chart below shows the amount of federal loans disbursed to UC Davis and Sacramento State students over the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.


November 8, 2010
Authorities not tracking hospitals with potential quake risk

More than a dozen hospitals in the state run the highest risk of collapse during a severe earthquake, according to the investigative reporting group California Watch. And further, state authorities and hopital officials have done little to alert the public to these hazards. Nor have they determined the quake risk for many of the of the 700 hospital buildings identified in the 1990s as being potentially dangerous.

Under law the state can shut down hospitals that don't address serious seismic issue by a certain deadline. But knowing which face the biggest risks is problematic. Only 90 structures have been evaluated for "collapse risk" (i.e., the probability of collapse -- based on the building's condition, distance from a fault and likely ground motion -- during the biggest potential quake for that region).

The facility on the list with the greatest risk is Kindred Hospital in Ontario (31.75 percent), followed behind by Citrus Valley Medical Center in West Covina (30.36 percent). Closest to Sacramento is Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville. Its West Wing and Nouth Wing buildings have modest risk indices of 2.56 and 1.81 percent, respectively. 

November 5, 2010
Brookings: could take 12 years for job recovery

The good news: the U.S. economy added a net 151,000 new jobs in October. Private sector employers added 159,000 positions. The public sector lost 8,000. The bad news: the national unemployment rate has been essentially flat since May, holding at 9.6 percent. That's about 14.8 million unemployed people. About 6.2 million (41.8 percent) of the jobless have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. (Some 1.01 million Californians are struggling with long-term unemployment, as reported in September by the state Employment Development Department.)

The Brookings Institution has been tracking the national employment situation through its Hamilton Project. In particular, it makes monthly estimates of the U.S. job gap, i.e."the number of jobs the economy needs to add in order to return to pre-recession employment levels while absorbing the 125,000 people who enter the labor force each month." Brookings researchers say the gap fell slightly from 11.9 million jobs in September to 11.8 million jobs in October.

Unfortunately the current job gap won't close any time soon. According to Brookings, if employment grows at a realistic 208,000 jobs a month (the average rate of growth during the best year of the 2000s), it would take 142 months (about 12 years) to recover to levels prior to the recent economic downturn.

November 4, 2010
The Money Trail: Oregon voters set aside lottery funds for parks

California voters weren't willing to pony up an extra $18 each year to underwrite state parks, while their neighbors to the north voted to funnel millions into their parks.

Key difference: California wanted to tap into the controversial vehicle registration fee to prop up the parks. Oregon went for lottery funds.

The resounding defeat of Proposition 21 - 58 percent of the voters opposed it - could send a message to other states. It was expected to raise $500 million annually for state parks and wildlife programs.

The approach has gotten widespread attention since Montana first approved the fee in 2003. Unlike California, though, Montana and several others states have made the extra registration payment optional for motorists.

This week, more than two-thirds of Oregon's voters agreed to continue indefinitely dedicating 15 percent of state lottery profits each year to parks and natural resources. In 1998, two-thirds of Oregon voters approved the lottery allocation through the end of 2014. It has raised more than $800 million.

Tapping into lottery money for parks is unlikely in California, where it would take another ballot measure to change voters' 1984 decree to fund education from the lottery pool, officials said.

Opponents of California's plan argued that the vehicle fee hike was a ruse by politicians to dump responsibility for state parks on voters and continue their wasteful spending.

- Marjie Lundstrom

November 4, 2010
Fix it: When truck takes a big plunge, who cleans up?

The problem: A tractor-trailer loaded with peanut butter chips and ice cream freezers went off the side of Highway 4 near Ebbetts Pass in Alpine County in late August.

The driver was backing up when the trailer started going over the edge, the California Highway Patrol reported. He jumped off before the truck went over, falling 200 feet or more down the steep roadside. A tow company pulled the truck back up in October.

While leaf peeping, reader Megan Harris peeked over the roadside to see where the truck had been recovered and saw there was still a lot of debris. Bears have rooted through the food and several large freezers were still down the hill, she said.

She wanted to know who was going to clean up?

The solution: After a crash, it's up to the CHP to go after insurance companies to handle cleanup, said Officer Jeff Gartner.

The insurer for the truck and trailer stepped up to pay South Tahoe Towing to recover that part of the wreckage.

"It was one of the top 10" unusual towing jobs, said Scott DeChambeau, the towing company owner.

If CHP can't get the insurer for the contents to take care of it immediately, it may turn to the U.S. Forest Service, Gartner said.

The Forest Service - which manages the Toiyabe National Forest, where the crash occurred - would foot the cleanup bill until the insurer could pick up the tab.

The CHP wants it picked up before winter snows cover it up, Gartner said.

- Carlos Alcalá

November 3, 2010
November election not so good for self-funding candidates

In June this blog highlighted a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics concluding that candidates who bankrolled their own campaigns fared poorer than those who didn't. The 2010 election cycle attracted a good many self-funders -- including Meg Whitman who poured $142 million of her own money into a failed gubernatorial bid. So how well did others do this time? Early indications suggest not so good.

At the federal level, only one in five self-funding candidates managed to win U.S. House and Senate seats. That's according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics who compiled recent data on 58 congressional candidates including top spender Linda McMahon (R-Conn), who furnished virtually all the $46 million raised by her campaign. She lost the general election to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. Number two spender Jeff Greene (D-Fla), who provided almost all of his $23.8 million war chest, lost in the primary.

Also unsuccessful was California's Carly Fiorina, who gave $5.5 million to her $17.9 million race.



About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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