The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

August 24, 2011
Food handler fix carves out exemption for sheriffs

A bill to head off a potential big headaches for restaurants and other eateries is finally headed to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

And it includes a free pass for county sheriffs.

Senate Bill 303, which was given final legislative approval this week, tries to fix problems in a new state law designed to protect consumers from nasty food-borne illnesses by requiring workers to get training in sanitary food handling.

The requirement that workers get food handler "cards" was creating lots of confusion, especially among mom-and-pop establishments. So county health officials plan to grant an unofficial grace period until Jan. 1 before real enforcement begins.

The law has a long and tortuous history, as detailed in this piece from April.

Influential lobby groups won carve-outs from the bill. Health care facilities, and public and private school cafeterias were exempted. So were farmers markets, most grocery stores and many national chain restaurants. Unionized food facilities were exempted.

SB 303, given final passage by the Senate on Monday, adds county jails and state prisons, as well as elderly feeding programs, to the exempt list. The measure also clarifies that the food handler law only covers those who serve the general public at the retail level.

August 17, 2011
Does 'Aggie Lager' send a mixed message?

aggie_lager_lg.jpgUC Davis officials talk about taking alcohol out of Picnic Day, the university's annual open house that has been marred by drunkenness and beer-fueled misbehavior.


Tuesday, they announced a licensing agreement with a local brewery to offer "Aggie Lager" at Davis restaurants.


Does anyone else see a mixed message here?


UC Davis officials hope the deal will raise awareness for its 53 years of teaching and research in brewing science. They also hope it raises $25,000 a year - enough to fund one athletic scholarship for an in-state student.


That's all well and good, but this is an area that has been controversial on other campuses and where UC Davis ought to tread very carefully.


Even some university officials seem to acknowledge the possible disconnect. The campus has a Safe Party Initiative with the city of Davis to reduce problems with overdrinking.


"I join the university community in the expectation of safe and responsible consumption of Aggie Lager and all alcohol products," Michelle Famula, executive director of Health and Wellness at UC Davis, said in a news release. "For those who choose to drink, UC Davis advocates that they do so legally and safely."


UPDATE: While university officials had been considering putting Picnic Day on hiatus (The Bee's editorial board supported that idea), a spokeswoman said today that the plan is go ahead with the event in 2012. It's scheduled for April 21.


"Measures taken last year resulted in progress 'rewinding' the atmosphere surrounding the event to its family friendly traditions," spokeswoman Julia Ann Easley said in an email. "The university and student organizers will continue to work with the city and community members to further address safety issues and improve the Picnic Day experience."


Photo: Sudwerk masterbrewer Jay Prahl pours Aggie Lager from the tap. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

August 10, 2011
Reading Rack: Sam Zell's ownership of Tribune smacked

"The Deal from Hell; How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers"

James O'Shea, Public Affairs Books, 395 pages

Lifelong newsman James O'Shea offers an insider's view of the machinations behind the take over of a California institution, the Los Angeles Times and its since-merged parent Times Mirror Company.

O'Shea was managing editor of the Chicago Tribune until October 2006 when he was installed by Tribune Co. executives as the Times' editor. He quit in January 2008, shortly after Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell took control in leveraged buy-out that saddled the company with billions in debt and hastened its bankruptcy.

O'Shea tells the story in a memoir-like fashion, mixed with investigative details about some of the controversies that swirled around the company, including debauchery by Zell-appointed executives, who commandeered executive suites at Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for poker games and a tryst.

O'Shea's book is less about Wall Street and the hubris of deal-makers who thought they were slick, and more of an ode to the newspaper business, including its declining fortunes. He notes that Tribune spent less on the foreign staff of the Los Angeles Times than it did when it owned the Chicago Cubs and paid Sammy Sosa to hit homeruns.

"It really comes down to values," he writes. "What, in your soul, are you as an editor and the newspaper company that employs you trying to do report the news needed to sustain a democracy or make and save money? If the latter is more important, then you have an identity crisis."

"The Deal from Hell" is a worthwhile addition to all the many tales of greed and mismanagement from the past decade. O'Shea rightly portrays individuals, notably including former Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky, a one-time Capitol reporter, as heroes who fought to maintain quality. However, the full story of Zell's take-over and his mismanagement of Tribune Company remains to be told.

Dan Morain

August 10, 2011
Reading Rack: Are Web-powered citizens the new muckrakers?


"Are newspaper reporters still necessary?"


That provocative question begins an intriguing piece in the Summer 2011 edition of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, but it turns out to be misleading because the answer is actually yes.


Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic magazine, declares that California is "the most fertile ground for innovation" in watchdog journalism to make up for the decline of newspapers.


He cites California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The Bee has collaborated with the center and published some of its work in the last few years. He also mentions Cal Watchdog, the Voice of San Diego and the startup in his article, entitled "The New Watchdogs: Can the Web drive investigative journalism in a post-newspaper era?"


He points out that the first report of corruption in the city of Bell came from a blogger on a citizen website -- not in The Los Angeles Times, which in April won journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, for its Bell coverage.


But Friedersdorf ventures onto shakier ground when he suggests that the gap left by downsizing newspapers could be filled by an army of volunteer "civic watchdogs" who "behave more like detectives or auditors than like reporters."


He says an enterprising nonprofit could fund such an operation (including lawyers to sue officials who don't cough up public documents), but he never quite explains who would command it or how to make sure it's not a partisan zealot.


Call me old-fashioned, but what he's talking about is pretty much how the news business has worked for eons. There have always been citizen watchdogs; the Internet just makes it easier for non-journalists to dig up information.


But many times, it still takes the resources and reputation of a newspaper to turn tips into actual stories that have real impact.


The Bell scandal proves that, as Friedersdorf concedes when he writes that the amateur citizen-journalists "couldn't dig as deep or growl as menacingly as newspaper reporters backed by a powerful regional publication."


The media landscape continues to evolve, but the citizen journalist revolution hasn't happened quite yet. Like it or not, it still takes trained, experienced reporters to do the heavy lifting of muckraking.


To see other suggested readings from The Bee's editorial board, check out Reading Rack in California Forum this Sunday.



August 10, 2011
Reading Rack: John Muir's complexity

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. By Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 535 pages.
John Muir, who is pictured on the California quarter along with Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, is well-known as an explorer and for his writings on and advocacy for national parks and wilderness. The cover of this book shows Muir as we imagine him - with long, flowing beard and walking stick in a wild place - but Worster quickly shows us that Muir was much more.

Worster places Muir in the important time period from just after the Civil War to the early twentieth century. He shows Muir as part of a generation that was exploring new ideas about the individual, nature, technology and economics.

Muir, a Scottish immigrant to the United States, was steeped in the poetry of Scottish poet Robert Burns ("indeed he was always with me," wrote Muir, "for I had him by heart...Wherever a Scotsman goes, there goes Burns") and the exploration narratives of Scottish explorer Mungo Park into the interior of Africa. From early in Muir's life, nature and exploration went together.

Muir also was an inventor of labor-saving machines from a self-setting sawmill that automated the sawing of logs into lumber to clocks to water wheels to automatic feeders for horses to an alarm-clock bed that dumped him upright on the ground. He was a botanist, who collected plants and sent them on to scientists; he has at least one plant named after him. Muir also was a largely self-taught scientist, who pioneered new understanding of mountain geology and glaciers. He was criticized at the time as "wrong" and an "ambitious amateur." But the amateur, it turns out, was right.

Muir's love of nature was scientific, artistic and spiritual. And that took him into politics - finding new ways for individuals to press their government into setting aside wild places for all citizens to enjoy. We take that for granted today, but Worster shows just how unique and hard-fought it all was and how one individual made his mark.

August 3, 2011
Sacramento's city manager-to-be and the Cincinnati riots

All indications are that as soon as Thursday, Sacramento will have a new city manager -- John Shirey, now executive director of the California Redevelopment Association.

He has three decades-plus in a series of local government jobs, but he has been the chief administrator only once, in Cincinnati from 1993 to 2001. His tenure there was not always smooth sailing, with controversies over development projects and rocky relations with some council members.

His ultimate undoing came from the April 2001 riots after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man. The unrest was the worst since the 55 deaths in 1992 in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

Less than a month after the riots, Shirey resigned to avoid being fired. "I just felt somebody was going to have to take the fall for the unrest and it was likely going to be me," he told The Bee's Ryan Lillis this week. "I just felt that I had used up my capital and done what I could do, and it was time for me to move on."

He had more to say in an April interview with Cincinnati public radio station WVXU marking the 10th anniversary of the riots.

Shirey said he was saddened by the riots, which he described as the culmination of years of ill feeling between the police department and the city's African-American community. Before the fatal shooting that sparked the riots, 14 other black men were killed in confrontations with police in six years on Shirey's watch.

He said he wished the incidents could have been avoided and that community relations would have been better, but he did everything in his power. Fair or not, he added, someone would have to be blamed for the riots. "As a chief executive, the buck stops with me," he said.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

The Bee's editorial board has posed a series of questions that it believes council members ought to answer before moving forward on hiring a city manager. To read what more the editorial board has to say about Shirey's impending selection, come to on Thursday.

About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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