The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

About Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee comes to Sacramento and editorial writing after reporting and editing for newspapers in Massachusetts and North Carolina and keeping his opinions to himself. So he managed to be a constituent of both Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Jesse Helms, as wide a gap in American politics as you could imagine. He was born in Korea, and grew up there as well as England, North Carolina and Ohio, making it pretty much unscathed through the disco and preppy eras simultaneously. He graduated from Duke, where he majored in history and college basketball, and went to graduate school during a fellowship at the University of Hawaii, where he learned how to study while reclining on the beach. He is thankful, and frankly amazed, to be still working in newspapers after all these years.



July 25, 2013
Pelosi to Filner, Weiner: Get a clue, get therapy in private

Nancy Pelosi didn't mince words Thursday when asked about the transgressions of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.

"Let me be very clear," the top House Democrat and first female House speaker told reporters on Capitol Hill. "The conduct of some of these people that we are talking about here is reprehensible. It is so disrespectful of women. And what is really stunning about it is they don't even realize it. You know, they don't have a clue."

"And...if they are clueless, get a clue," she continued. "And if they need therapy, do it in private."

That clear message is similar to what The Bee's editorial board said Thursday about Filner, who is accused of sexual harassment, and Weiner, who has admitted "sexting" more than a year after he left Congress in scandal.

So far, however, neither is heeding calls to exit the stage.

Pelosi wasn't asked directly whether she believes Filner should resign, as some prominent Democrats in San Diego have done. Asked whether Weiner should drop out of the mayoral race, she replied, "That is up to the people of New York."

July 12, 2013
Video on frying an egg in Death Valley goes viral


Here's the egg-frying video I wrote about today that was posted by a staffer at Death Valley National Park. Some visitors are ignoring her admonition to use a pan and not leave a mess, and that's annoying park officials.



July 10, 2013
Sen. Steinberg looks into crystal ball on his political future

So many possibilities, it's enough to make a politician's head spin.

Still, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg did clear up a few things about his potential political future in a meeting Wednesday morning with The Bee's editorial board.

Yes, he plans to serve out the remaining 16 months in his leadership post in the Legislature.

No, he would not run for Sacramento mayor in 2016 if Kevin Johnson seeks reelection.

Yes, he's interested in Attorney General in 2014, but only if Kamala Harris doesn't run again.

No, he's not inclined to run for Sacramento District Attorney in 2014 because it just doesn't appeal to him.

He's also not that interested in Congress, even if Rep. Doris Matsui stepped aside, because it would require a bicoastal life. A judicial appointment doesn't float his boat because it is "too sedentary."

To run for any office after he is termed out in 2014, it would have to be one that he would be "excited" about, Steinberg said.

If the stars don't align, he said he's prepared to wait as late as 2018 to seek elected office again. He already has some $800,000 in a campaign account designated to run for lieutenant governor in 2018. In the meantime, he would consider working with a foundation, perhaps on mental health, an issue he is passionate about.

June 26, 2013
Gay veterans will benefit from Supreme Court rulings

Gay military veterans are clear winners from Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.

With the federal Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional and California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage soon to go away, those who live in California will be eligible for benefits that other veterans get, including being buried next to their spouses in national cemeteries.

As I wrote about in April, gay veterans in California are plaintiffs in two federal lawsuits on the issue. The two couples were among the estimated 18,000 who married in California between the time the state Supreme Court recognized gay marriage and Prop. 8 passed.

Like DOMA, federal law and Department of Veterans Affairs policy define a spouse as being of the opposite gender, restricting the benefits available to same-sex couples. Gay vets who return to active duty can't transfer their GI Bill educational benefits to their spouse. If a gay veteran dies, their spouse isn't eligible for survivor benefits.

Also like DOMA, the Obama administration said it would no longer defend the law on veterans benefits, but House Republicans took up the cause.

The lawsuits had been put on hold until the Supreme Court ruled; now the federal judges will presumably follow the high court's lead.

June 26, 2013
Editorial: An incomplete victory for equal rights

The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the cause of same-sex marriage Wednesday, but sidestepped a chance to guarantee equal rights for all gay Americans.

Deciding on the narrowest of legal grounds, a 5-4 majority cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California. The ruling did not, however, say anything about same-sex marriages in other states.

In a second highly anticipated ruling, a different 5-4 majority threw out a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prevents same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits available to other married couples, including income tax advantages, immigration status and veterans' benefits.

While these decisions represent a major victory for gay Americans that we welcome, we wish the court had taken the opportunity to go further.

Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, writing for the majority, said DOMA violated the Constitution's equal protection clause for the federal government to treat gay couples - legally married in states that allow them to do so - differently than other married couples. But the ruling did not declare a constitutionally protected right for gay Americans to marry.

June 24, 2013
Sacramento may crack down on unpaid water and sewer bills

It seems like an easy call: Just like a private utility, the city of Sacramento should threaten to cut off service to customers who don't pay up.

Yet, it's somewhat more complicated for the City Council, which is scheduled to take up the proposal Tuesday evening, because of recent water and sewer rate hikes.

Starting last July 1, the bill for single-family customers increased by $3.44 a month for water and $2.36 a month for wastewater service. The rate hikes are helping fund repairs and upgrades to the city's utility system, including a main treatment plant.

The council approved a "lifeline" program to soften the blow for low-income homeowners. It basically offsets the increases by giving them discounts of $3.50 a month for water and $2.50 for wastewater.

But of the 1,600 applications as of May 31, about 75 percent had been denied, according to a report being heard Wednesday by the city's Utilities Rate Advisory Committee.

The problem, the Department of Utilities says, seems to be that the maximum income to qualify -- the federal poverty level -- is half as much as the income threshold used by SMUD and PG&E -- 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, the maximum income for the city help is $23,050 a year.

Yet, the people applying for the lifeline program are also the most likely to not to be able to pay their bills on time.

June 20, 2013
Back to square one in Congress on major farm bill

On a 195-234 vote today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down a proposed new five-year farm bill that would have changed eligibility so that 1.8 million lower-income Americans would lose benefits, 210,000 children would have lost their free school meals, and 850,000 families would have seen their benefits cut by an average of $90 a month.

The House bill called for $20.5 billion in draconian cuts to food stamps over 10 years -- compared to $3.9 billion in cuts in the Senate bill.

The Bee's editorial board urged the House to reject the food stamp cuts -- and, if the bill passed, for the president to veto it.

Sixty-two Republicans voted against the bill (wanting deeper cuts to food stamps) and 24 Democrats voted for it (for reasons other than food stamps).

Our local delegation split on the issue, and not along party lines:

June 19, 2013
Should state help feds clear backlog of veterans' claims?

California's veterans definitely deserve better and faster service than they're getting on their disability and other claims. But should the state spend taxpayers' money on what is a federal responsiblity?

It's not an easy call, but it's one facing Gov. Jerry Brown.

In the budget it sent to the governor, the Legislature inserted $3 million to create three "strike teams" of a dozen workers each who would go to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego.

They all have backlogs of claims; the Oakland office, which handles cases from across Northern California, is among the slowest in the country.

Federal officials have taken steps to reduce the backlogs, but legislators and veterans' advocates say it's not enough. Six members of Congress from California -- saying that there are 64,000 backlogged claims in the state -- have written a letter to the VA urging it to provide matching funds for the strike teams. They are Reps. Mark Takano, Julia Brownley, Paul Ruiz, Paul Cook, Jeff Denham and Gloria Negrete-McLeod.

Brown is wary about using state money to supplement a federal responsibility. The Legislature also approved an additional $3 million for county veterans service officers, who would help veterans file claims. That is more clearly a state responsibility,

June 5, 2013
Samantha Power's remarkable path to United Nations

Samantha Power, in line to become our next ambassador to the United Nations, took a remarkable journey to the White House Rose Garden today.

I've been a fan ever since I started reading her dispatches from the Balkan wars in the mid-1990s. She won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 book "A Problem from Hell," an unsparing indictment of U.S. indifference to genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere.

She had a hiccup when she had to step down from Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign when she called Hillary Clinton a "monster" for some of her campaign tactics.

But Power recovered and joined the Obama national security team. She has moved from outside critic to government insider.

UPDATE: In announcing her nomination as ambassador to the U.N., Obama called her a leading journalist, one of the most foremost thinkers on foreign policy and a strong voice for "moral responsibility" and "human dignity" in international affairs.

"I'm fully confident she'll be ready on day one," the president said.

Power, an Irish immigrant, called it "an honor of a lifetime to fight for American values and interests" at the United Nations.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Power will represent the United States in a problematic body. As she described, the U.N. can do much good -- she has seen aid workers feed the hungry in Sudan -- but often falls short -- she has seen peacekeepers fail to protect civilians in Bosnia.

The U.N. is also filled with many regimes and leaders she has criticized. Based on her history, some observers expect her to support more aggressive U.S. intervention to safeguard human rights, though the final call is always the president's.

To recap her career: war correspondent, academic, human rights activist, author, political aide, government official. It's not quite an only-in-America story, but there are not many places in the world her journey would be possible.

May 30, 2013
Many interesting reasons why plastic bag ban failed

A bill to ban single-use plastic bags in California fell three votes short in the state Senate today, and it's interesting to note how it got hit from all sides.

As The Bee's Capitol bureau reports, some Democrats voted against Senate Bill 405 because they said it would cost jobs in bag factories. Others said the Legislature shouldn't be trying to legislate behavior by trying to force shoppers to go for reusable bags.

Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, also voted no. That's kind of curious because San Francisco was a pioneer among local governments banning plastic bags. He didn't speak on the floor to explain his vote.

I'm sure it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he is running for secretary of state -- and so is the author of SB 405, Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles.

The conspiracy-minded might also take note that Yee's former chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, went to work recently, though not as a registered lobbyist, for Mercury Public Affairs, which represents the plastic bag industry.

Four Democrats did not vote, which in this instance (an 18-17 tally when 21 votes were needed) was like voting no and thus almost certainly killing the bill for the year. They included Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis, who, as today's Bee editorial in support of SB 405 noted, supports a tax on both plastic and paper shopping bags instead.

May 22, 2013
Video highlights vets working in salmon restoration program



Now, there's a video that shows one of the more interesting pilot projects to find new careers for returning veterans.

As I wrote about in December, vets are helping restore salmon populations along California's North Coast.

The video was released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is partnering with the California Conservation Corps and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on the project.

The video features Carolyn Jacobson, who says she had a hard time translating her experiences as a .50-caliber gunner. It also includes Nate Stalioraitis, whom I met and who moved to California from Pennsylvania for the program.

Unemployment for younger vets is at crisis levels in California and elsewhere.

May 21, 2013
Sacramento City Council wades into anti-gang money debate

City Councilman Allen Warren got to the crux of the matter Tuesday afternoon: How can Sacramento get the most bang for the buck in fighting gangs?

As The Bee's editorial board pointed out, the council has before it a staff proposal, another from the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force and a third from the Sacramento Safe Community Partnership, which brought Ceasefire to town. At the same time, Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. is starting his own "cops and clergy" initiative to persuade gang leaders to give up the street life.

So Warren asked more good questions: Are these efforts complementary? Or are they competing for resources?

The answer seems to be a little of both.

Ceasefire could potentially receive a grant if the council funds the mayor's task force request for $1 million in Measure U money in 2013-14. But those supporting Ceasefire say there's no guarantee and want their own $490,000 budget item. Meanwhile, the city Parks and Recreation Department is planning to restore programs for at-risk youth at community centers.

Warren has a particular interest because his district includes Del Paso Heights, the likely candidate to be the next Ceasefire neighborhood if the money is approved.

Warren said he believes Ceasefire can make a difference, but said there should be a multi-pronged approach with all these groups working together.

The big questions now are whether that kind of cooperation is possible -- and whether an agreement can be worked out before the council adopts the budget.

May 21, 2013
More hope to cut backlog of VA disability claims?

There's a flurry of activity on VA disability claims -- and, just maybe, some hope that the disgracefully long waits endured by veterans will be reduced.

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a partnership with the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans to help vets submit complete files, including private and federal treatment records, when they first file a claim. The VA says that can cut processing time in half.

The VA's goal is that by 2015, claims will be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. It's nowhere close to meeting that goal. About 570,000 current claims, nearly two-thirds of all claims, have been pending longer than that.

Last week, it announced that more than 10,000 workers at claims offices will be required to work at least 20 hours of overtime a month through September to cut the backlog.

Also Tuesday, Congressman Jerry McNerney, a Stockton Democrat, said that the House Appropriations Committee has agreed to his recommendation that any VA office with an average wait time of 200 days or more be required to report quarterly to Congress on its progress. The office in Oakland, which serves veterans in Northern California and has a branch in Sacramento, has one of the worst records.

Wednesday, a group of House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, plans to unveil a package of bills to cut the backlog.

The Bee's editorial board has repeatedly called on VA officials to follow through on their promises to fix the backlog of claims, many from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These new actions could be part of that solution.

May 2, 2013
2013 State Fair concert lineup is an encouraging sign

The new boss at the California State Fair promised free concerts every night and a modern mix of acts.

Looking at the lineup announced today for the 2013 fair, he seems to be following through. There are acts booked for all but the last night, on July 28. And while they include some tribute bands and groups way past their prime, there are some that people would recognize: En Vogue, Hoostabank, Lonestar and LeeAnn Rimes.

The Bee's editorial board is guardedly optimistic about new Cal Expo Rick Pickering's capacity to turn around a fair that had become rather tired and predictable.

On the concert score, at least, so far, so good.

April 23, 2013
Female veterans have a new number to call for help

Female veterans have a new hotline to call to make sure they're getting the benefits they've earned.

The Department of Veterans Affairs today announced the launch of the toll-free line at 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-829-6636).

"Some women Veterans may not know about high-quality VA care and services available to them," VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement. "The hotline will allow us to field their questions and provide critical information about the latest enhancements in VA services."

As I've written, the VA has been trying to ramp up to deal with the unprecedented number of women serving in the military and now becoming veterans.

Women make up nearly 15 percent of the active-duty military and 18 percent of National Guard and Reserves. The VA says the number of women using VA health care has more than doubled from nearly 160,000 in 2000 to more than 354,000 in 2012 and is expected to continue rising.

April 19, 2013
Signs of progress on VA disability claims, care for female vets

There are noteworthy developments on a couple of veterans issues I have been writing about.

One is the disgraceful record of the Department of Veterans Affairs in handling disability claims. The VA announced today that to cut the backlog, it will make provisional rulings on the oldest claims, many more than a year old.

"Too many veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. "That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015. This initiative is the right thing to do now for veterans who have waited the longest."

Under the plan, eligible veterans will receive benefits sooner. They can also submit additional evidence for one year that could increase their benefits.

The delays are partly due to the increased number being filed by those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wait times have been particularly long at the VA office in Oakland, which handles claims from the Sacramento region.

The VA has promised to make improvements before, so we'll have to wait and see how much difference this change makes.

The other issue is how the VA is adapting to the rising number of female veterans.

On Monday, the VA Northern California Health Care System plans to open a new flagship women's health clinic in Mather.

The clinic will serve women from throughout the Sacramento region, where the use of VA medical services by female veterans is rising by 8.5 percent a year. It will offer primary care, mental health, social programs and more. It will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays at the Sacramento VA Medical Center.

April 11, 2013
Finally, a move on citizen panel on Sacramento sales tax

In the category of better late than never, the Sacramento City Council will finally get around next week to starting a citizen committee to oversee how a sales tax windfall is spent.

The Thursday agenda for the council's Personnel & Public Employees Committee, posted today on the city's website, includes an item to start the recruitment process for the Measure U oversight panel.

As The Bee's editorial board pointed out, shoppers started paying the half-cent increase in the local sales tax on April 1, but the citizen committee was missing in action.

Before voters approved Measure U last November, council members promised that a citizen oversight committee would make sure the sales tax proceeds were spent properly, for public safety, parks and other basic services.

The current plan is for the committee to start work July 1. But that's after the budget process, when council members will decide how to spend $27 million in 2013-14 from the sales tax hike. It would be far better if the committee helped advise the council before those decisions are made.

March 26, 2013
Sacramento supervisors go on record against 4 a.m. last call

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors today strongly opposed a bill that could lead to a later last call for serving alcohol at bars and restaurants.

Senate Bill 635 would allow cities and counties to petition the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to extend hours from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. in designated nightlife districts.

Supervisors voted after hearing from the Sheriff's Department that it worries about more drunken driving and its ability to patrol more crowded roads at 4 a.m., when the commute to the Bay area is starting for some local residents.

That backed up a staff recommendation that also warned about the impact on public safety.

Supervisor Phil Serna said it was a "no brainer" for him to oppose the extended hours.

He and other supervisors also didn't think much of supporters' arguments that a later last call could actually reduce DUIs by limiting binge drinking by patrons slamming down drinks at 2 a.m. Backers also describe the measure as local economic development tool.

March 25, 2013
Here comes U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley, finally

Better late than never for Troy L. Nunley, who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become a judge on the federal district court centered in Sacramento.

Nunley was initially nominated by President Barack Obama last June, but was left hanging in December when the Senate adjourned without voting on his nomination and 10 other judicial nominees. The Bee's editorial board called them casualties of the partisan rancor in Washington.

Obama renominated Nunley in January the very day the new Senate was sworn into office. He was finally confirmed Saturday morning.

Nunley, a former prosecutor, is a judge on the Sacramento Superior Court. He will help ease a backlog in the Eastern District of California that is one of the worst in the country. According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, it takes a criminal case 30 percent longer to be completed than it did in 2009, and a civil case takes nearly four years to get to trial, 50 percent longer than two years ago."

"Judge Nunley's confirmation is a small step to help relieve the pressure in the Eastern District, but there is more to do," Feinstein said in a statement. "I will continue the fight to add more judgeships to the California's Eastern District, which has suffered from unsustainable caseloads for years."

March 21, 2013
Sacramento supervisors to take up 4 a.m. last call

Sacramento County supervisors could go on record Tuesday against a bill that would allow cities and counties to let bars and restaurants have last call at 4 a.m.

The staff recommendation says the Board of Supervisors should oppose Senate Bill 635 because the consequences of permitting alcohol sales to continue from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. "could be significant as they relate to health and safety risks."

"Later hours of sale result in problems which take a number of forms, such as public drunkenness, assault, rape, theft, begging and vandalism," the staff report says. "Consequently, the costs of community services such as police and medical services will be impacted."

The bill's author, Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, says it's about more local control and potential for tax revenue.

He and supporters, which include the California Restaurant Association, say the later last call would boost local economies and help nightlife districts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego compete for tourism dollars with cities such as Las Vegas, New York and Miami.

Under the bill, a local government would have to seek permission from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to allow the 4 a.m. last call in certain areas, on specific days of the week, or both. Each bar or restaurant wanting later hours would also have to get approval from the state ABC.

As I wrote earlier this week, I'm concerned that neighborhoods near nightlife districts might be burdened. I also worry about whether state ABC has the resources and right attitude to protect residents.

Supervisors are scheduled to take up the issue at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday. The bill is set for its first Senate committee hearing on April 9.

March 14, 2013
State auditor will look at employment programs for veterans

It's not a huge step in the scheme of things, but it could lead to progress for California veterans.

Today, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee directed the state auditor to look at how well the state is helping veterans get jobs.

State Sen. Lou Correa, a Democrat from Santa Ana who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, made the request, noting that young vets in particular are having a hard time finding work.

"Unemployment is at crisis levels for young veterans in California. I applaud the committee for agreeing that we must improve employment opportunities for our veterans," Correa said in a statement.

As I mentioned in a recent California Forum story on the issue, about 40 percent of veterans between 18 and 24 are unemployed. As Correa also notes, young veterans with short military careers are competing with peers who went to college or have more job experience. And as California's sluggish economy improves, many more veterans will be coming home as U.S. forces pull out of Afghanistan and the defense budget gets cut.

Bottom line: They need all the help they can get.

March 13, 2013
A successful test for California earthquake warning network

The small earthquake felt by much of southern California this week should help the cause for a statewide warning system.

But then again, we're talking about the Legislature, so who knows.

Scientists say a prototype gave 35 seconds of warning before the more damaging waves arrived from the magnitude 4.7 temblor in Riverside County.

The quake caused no major damage, but in a bigger one, it would have been enough notice for trains to stop, utilities to power down and for people to seek better shelter.

Sen. Alex Padilla introduced a bill this session to create a statewide quake alert network, at a cost of $80 million to install the sensors, plus about $20 million a year to operate it.

The Bee's editorial board is in favor, calling it a smart investment since it could limit much more costly damage, not to mention saving lives.

So far, there has been no action on Senate Bill 135.

March 8, 2013
Clergy raise the volume on Sacramento anti-gang program

Two dozen Sacramento clergy leaders plan to use their bully pulpits this weekend to urge their congregations to get City Hall to give more money to an anti-gang program.

As a Bee sister blog reports, they held a press conference this morning to publicize the effort. The clergy, under the umbrella of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, is also trying to capitalize on the renewed interest in reining in gun violence from the Newton, Conn., school shootings.

The Bee's editorial board has championed the anti-gang program, known as Ceasefire, urging the City Council to consider using some of the proceeds from the Measure U sales tax increase.

City officials are on a path to use about $5.5 million of the $27 million projected to be available in 2013-14 to keep 60 police officers hired with federal grants that run out. So far, there are no plans to spend money on community-based anti-crime efforts like Ceasefire.

March 7, 2013
Sen. Paul gets answer on drone strikes against U.S. citizens

For all his blubbering and ranting during an old-fashioned filibuster Wednesday on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director, Sen. Rand Paul did raise a valid issue.

The Obama administration ought to say flat-out that it is unconstitutional and wrong to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil in counterterrorism strikes -- if they are not an imminent threat.

Finally today, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Paul stating unequivocally that a weaponized drone would not be used against a U.S. citizen in this country who is not involved in combat. Paul tells CNN he will now allow a confirmation vote on Brennan. UPDATE: The Senate voted 63-34 this afternoon to confirm him.

While some fellow Republicans said that it was a non-issue and that Paul was encouraging needless fears, the hemming and hawing and word games about hypotheticals was unbecoming of a nation that is supposed to be a beacon for the rule of law. It has already taken too long for the White House to tell Congress, though not the public, what its precise legal justifications are to target U.S. citizens abroad in the war on terror.

March 4, 2013
Ami Bera gets dinged for sounding alarm on sequester

Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, reading out of the Democratic playbook, is sounding the alarm about the "sequester" budget cuts.

The new congressman listed the potential impact in an op-ed for The Bee. Later that same day last week, he took to the floor of the House to weigh in against the across-the-board budget cuts.

But a nonpartisan fact-checking group says his gloomy language went too far in warning that "homes are going to burn."

At issue are federal grants used to hire firefighters, including at the Sacramento Metro Fire District. Politifact says that Bera overestimated the potential dollar loss and was engaging in speculation that the sequester would lead to more fires.

Overall, it gave Bera a "mostly false" for his claims.

Of course, Republicans, who hope to retake the 7th Congressional District seat in 2014, jumped all over that.

"Rather than using extreme rhetoric and scaring California families, Congressman Ami Bera should be explaining to voters what he's doing to minimize the sequester's effects and offer responsible alternatives," Alleigh Marre, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

March 1, 2013
Johnson's State of the City was different, but was it better?

For his fifth State of the City address, Mayor Kevin Johnson sought to start a new tradition -- an event that was free to the public and in the evening so everyone can attend.

He certainly succeeded in giving it a different vibe. Thursday evening was nothing like traditional State of the City speeches for the past two decades - sedate luncheons hosted by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce and attended mostly by business types in suits.

This one featured blaring music, local hip-hop dancers and choirs, blues rocker Jackie Greene singing the national anthem and local TV personality Mark S. Allen going over the top at times with his boosterish emceeing. The crowd of about 3,000 in historic Memorial Auditorium was a broader slice of Sacramento; there were even a few children in the house.

For someone criticized for more style than substance, it was something of a risk for the mayor to glitz it up.

I'm conflicted about whether he pulled it off.

February 21, 2013
McCarty has lots of questions on new Sacramento arena

As Sacramento city officials work on a possible new arena deal to help keep the Kings in town, City Councilman Kevin McCarty wants answers, lots of answers.

To read his letter to City Manager John Shirey, click here.

As The Bee's editorial board says today, many of McCarty's questions are worth asking and the answers should be used to make any deal as good for city taxpayers as possible.

February 19, 2013
Big fight begins on plastic bag ban in Sacramento

The battle lines were clearly drawn this afternoon on a possible plastic bag ban in Sacramento.

Environmental advocates told a City Council committee that single-use bags are a scourge. Californians Against Waste estimated that city residents use 180 million a year. The advocates applauded the city for taking a leadership role.

But business groups expressed concerns.

An official from the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce said an ordinance would be "untimely and premature" because the local economy is still fragile and because Sacramento would be the first in the region with one. It urged that no action be taken until 2015.

The California Grocers Association said while it's not encouraging an ordinance, it's willing to talk. It wants to make sure all competitors in a market are treated equally, though the council members pushing the issue are discussing exempting smaller stores.

As The Bee's editorial board pointed out today, there are some thorny issues involved in a ban to avoid hurting businesses or consumers.

The council's Law and Legislation Committee will keep wrestling with this issue and try to come up with a proposed ordinance to go before the full council, probably in a couple of months.

February 14, 2013
California judicial nominees move a step closer to federal bench

Troy L. Nunley is back to waiting for the full U.S. Senate to finally vote on his nomination as a badly needed reinforcement for the federal district centered in Sacramento.

The Senate Judiciary Committee forwarded his name on a voice vote today. It signed off on his nomination in December, but the Senate adjourned before voting. That forced Nunley and 10 other judicial nominees awaiting floor votes to start over. As The Bee's editorial board noted, they are casualties of the partisan wars in Congress.

President Barack Obama renominated Nunley on the same day the new Senate took office last month. Nunley has been waiting since last June, when Obama first nominated him. He is a former prosecutor who is now a judge on the Sacramento Superior Court. He would fill a vacancy in the Eastern District of California, which is in an official judicial emergency because of case backlogs.

The Judiciary Committee also acted today on Beverly Reid O'Connell, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge nominated for a seat in the Central District. William H. Orrick III, a nominee for the Northern District, wasn't as fortunate. His nomination was held over.

UPDATE: Sen. Barbara Boxer of California applauded the committee action. She recommended O'Connell, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggested Nunley.

"These are both outstanding judges who would serve in judicial emergency districts with some of the heaviest caseloads in the nation," Boxer said in a statement. "We owe it to the millions of Californians who live in these areas to confirm these talented nominees without delay."

February 12, 2013
Want to view Sacramento council retreat? You're out of luck

Now, I'm really glad I went to the Sacramento City Council's retreat last week.

It was fascinating to see the interaction among the new and old council members.

It also turns out that the column I wrote will likely be the only public record of the gathering, other than the notes and recollections of the participants and city officials in attendance.

The retreat was held outside City Hall, at the Sierra Health Foundation. I was the only member of the public who was there. And the audio-video equipment that was supposed to record the meeting for posterity malfunctioned.

That word came via an exchange of emails between the City Clerk's office and Craig Powell, the head of Eye on Sacramento, a watchdog group that had raised concerns about whether open meeting laws and council rules had been followed. (They had.)

The city posts videos of all council meetings, so those who don't attend or see them live on public access cable can see their elected representatives in action. That won't happen in this case, but the lesson has been learned going forward, the clerk's office said today.

I would offer to donate my notes, but my handwriting is horrible. I doubt many people could make heads or tails out of them.

February 6, 2013
Dickinson says he'll push bill on online purchase privacy

That didn't take long.

The Bee's editorial board called today for the Legislature to clarify whether a consumer privacy law covers online purchases after a California Supreme Court ruling on Monday said it didn't.

This morning, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Banking and Finance, said he plans to introduce such a measure this month.

"In today's high-tech world, the privacy of online consumers is continually susceptible to being violated," Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat, said in a statement. "The court's decision will further impair the privacy of online consumers. I plan to introduce legislation this month that would increase consumer privacy while also ensuring appropriate fraud and identity theft protection. We must better protect consumers' privacy by safeguarding against the exploitation of personal information."

The consumer protection law, passed in 1990, says that retailers can't require personal information such as home address and phone number from customers using credit cards. In the split decision, the high court said the law applied to only "brick-and-mortar" stores and didn't extend to credit card purchases on the Internet, in part because online retailers can't check photo IDs.

February 1, 2013
Legislature gets another chance to make military service count

A California legislator is giving it the old college try a second time on a bill designed to make it much easier for medics and others with medical training in the military to get health care jobs in civilian life.

This week, Assemblyman Dan Logue introduced Assembly Bill 213, which would require state health licensing boards to create policies recognizing the education, training and practical experience of veterans. The measure would also require the boards to work with colleges to make sure vets don't have to retake classes they took in the military and can quickly complete course requirements.

I wrote about this issue last year, about all the hurdles that veterans have to jump through to become nurses and other health care providers.

Logue and other supporters say smoothing the transition would be a two-fer: Unemployed veterans would find jobs, and rural counties that need more primary care, especially with health reform, would get more bodies.

"Many rural areas of California have a large population of veterans, and the object of this bill is to fast track those who already have medical training from the military into civilian health care jobs," Logue, a Marysville Republican, said in a statement.

Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, is the bill's principal co-author.

A very similar measure stalled in the Legislature last session. Legislators approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed other laws designed to help veterans, but not this one.

January 28, 2013
Sacramento may make tiny dent in retiree health debt

Sacramento City Hall could start making a small down payment on a huge debt it owes for retiree health benefits -- if the City Council goes along Tuesday evening.

As the city balances its books, it has found $9.3 million in departmental savings and one-time revenues in its general fund for the budget year that ended June 30, 2012.

Of that relatively paltry windfall, city officials are recommending that $2 million go to establish a trust fund for retiree health care costs. That would be the proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the $440 million liability over the next 30 years.

But it would set an important benchmark that the council is taking the issue seriously, as The Bee's editorial board called for earlier this month.

January 17, 2013
NRA ad attacking Obama unleashes heated war of words


Here is the National Rifle Association's ad mentioned in today's Bee editorial. It attacks President Barack Obama for not supporting armed guards in schools when his daughters have guards at their school.

Critics say the NRA went too far by talking about the safety of Malia and Sasha. White House press secretary Jay Carney called the spot "repugnant and cowardly."

The NRA has not backed away from the ad.

January 17, 2013
State of downtown Sacramento: 'Slummy but sexy?'

Here is the award nomination video mentioned in an editorial notebook today about downtown Sacramento.

Carina Lampkin, owner of Blackbird Kitchen + Bar, describes downtown as "kinda slummy but sexy, all at the same time" when she talks about what drew her from San Francisco. Part of the attraction that downtown isn't fully developed, which creates opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs.

"I want to be a part of the future, and I thought I could add some identity to a growing downtown," she says.


January 10, 2013
Veterans homes in Fresno, Redding could open this fall
The long-delayed new veterans homes in Fresno and Redding could finally be on the verge of opening.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a budget today that includes $27 million to staff the homes. If the Legislature goes along, the first residents could move in this fall.

Assemblyman Henry T. Perea of Fresno said that the state Department of Veterans Affairs plans a job fair on Jan. 23 to hire the first 70 employees at the Fresno home.

"We have all worked very hard to get the veterans home open and these funds are the result of that work," Perea said in a statement. "This facility will serve our local veterans well for years to come."

Sen. Jim Nielsen, who represents Redding, thanked the governor for including the money. "I will work with administration officials and my colleagues in the Legislature to ensure that the proposed funding stays intact," he said in a statement.

Construction has been complete for months and there are waiting lists to get in, but the state hasn't found the money for operations and employees. Federal money helped build the $159 million, 300-bed home in Fresno and the $88 million, 150-bed home in Redding.

I've been following this saga for a while, ever since visiting the nearly finished home in Redding in late 2011. You can argue whether the homes are too costly for the number of veterans they will serve, but it made little sense to spend $280,000 a month to maintain the homes and have them sit empty.
January 3, 2013
Senators call on CIA to come clean about 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Three key U.S. senators went after the studio behind "Zero Dark Thirty," the acclaimed but controversial movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Now, they're aiming at the CIA.

The senators -- Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein of California, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and top Armed Services Republican John McCain of Arizona -- disclosed today that they have written letters to Acting CIA Director Michael Morell seeking clarification about the CIA's role in shaping the movie and what they call its misleading impression that torture helped lead to bin Laden.

As I've written previously, the senators say they're convinced by the Intelligence Committee's exhaustive review of still-secret CIA documents that "enhanced interrogation" did not provide the key information that uncovered bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. They have expressed concern about previous statements by CIA officials that suggest the opposite.

In a Dec. 19 letter to Morell, the senators raise concerns that what they call the CIA's "unprecedented cooperation" with the filmmakers misled them on how the information was obtained. The honorables request documents and other information on the CIA's role in the movie.

In a Dec. 31 follow-up, the senators ask Morell for more detail and clarity on his Dec. 21 message to CIA employees about "Zero Dark Thirty." He told CIA colleagues that "strong impression" left by the movie that enhanced interrogation was the key to finding bin Laden is "false."

But Morell also said that some intelligence on bin Laden's location "came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggest, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitely resolved."

As the continuing controversy shows, there can be little debate about that. The movie, by the way, opens nationwide on Jan. 11.
December 19, 2012
Senators to 'Zero Dark Thirty' studio: Tell the truth on torture
Three leading U.S. senators decided to play movie critics today, urging the studio behind "Zero Dark Thirty" to make clear that torture didn't lead to Osama bin Laden.

As I wrote last week about this controversy, some who have seen the award-winning movie, which opened in Los Angeles and New York today and opens nationwide Jan. 11, say it leaves the impression that waterboarding of a detainee uncovered the name of bin Laden's courier, who eventually led the CIA to the al-Qaida leader's hideout in Pakistan.

They now include Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Carl Levin of Michigan sent the unusual letter to the CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Based on their review of still-secret CIA documents, they write that the film is "grossly inaccurate" and that Sony has an obligation to tell moviegoers that the role of torture "is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative."

The letter goes on to say, "We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see 'Zero Dark Thirty' will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. 

"The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America's values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right."
December 13, 2012
Torture report approved, but public may never see it
The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 9-6 along party lines today to approve an exhaustive report on the CIA's interrogations of terrorism suspects.

But there's no telling how many of the 6,000-plus pages the public will ever get to see.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the committee's chairwoman, promoted the document as one of the most sweeping oversight efforts ever by the U.S. Senate, if not the last word on torture during the war on terror.

"The report uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight," she said in a statement.  

She said the report, which includes 20 findings and conclusions, is being sent to President Barack Obama and his national security team for their review. Only after they comment will the committee decide how much of the report can be declassified and whether to release any of it to the public.

Republicans boycotted the report, based on more than 6 million pages of CIA documents and other records, in part because they believed that review by intelligence agencies should have happened before it was approved.

One notable exception is GOP Sen. John McCain, who is joining some retired military officers and human rights groups in calling for the report's release. "It is indispensable to our success in this war that those we ask to fight it know that, in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to our country, they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, and the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others -- even our enemies," he said in a statement.

As I wrote about in an Editorial Notebook today, this whole topic has come to the fore again because of an award-winning movie that is about to come out on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. "Zero Dark Thirty" has left those who have seen it with the distinct impression that water boarding led to essential information to find the al-Qaida leader, who was killed at his Pakistan hideout in May 2011.

Feinstein says there is no evidence that torture helped lead to bin Laden.

"I also believe this report will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques such as those detailed in this report," she said in her statement today.

"I strongly believe that the creation of long-term, clandestine 'black sites' and the use of so-called 'enhanced-interrogation techniques' were terrible mistakes."
December 12, 2012
New Sacramento City Council promises unity, productivity
At least for one night, it was all sweetness and light for the new Sacramento City Council.

After newly-elected council members Steve Hansen and Allen Warren, re-elected council members Kevin McCarty and Bonnie Pannell and Mayor Kevin Johnson took the oath of office Tuesday evening, everyone on the council spoke about working hard and working together for the good of the city, particularly on jobs.

There was a sense of optimism as the local economy rebounds and as a half-cent sales tax hike generates money to start restoring budget cuts.     

"We've had enough of this darn recession," said Steve Cohn, now the senior member of the council. It's time, he said, for the city to reassert itself.   

"I'm really excited to see where we go," added Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby.

Johnson and several council members celebrated the diversity represented on the new council, which includes three African Americans as well as its first openly gay councilman in Hansen.

That diversity, the mayor said, makes Sacramento special -- a city that works for everyone.     

Dorothy Hill, a longtime community organizer in north Sacramento, added a note of reality and responsibility, reminding the new council: "Remember all of you, that seat is not you. It's about the people of Sacramento."

The Bee's editorial board called Tuesday for this new council to turn the page on the division and dysfunction that sometimes marred the past four years. If they can avoid the personal politics and be open-minded, council members have the chance to do some very good things for Sacramento.  

We'll see if the glad tidings last beyond the holiday season and the new council's honeymoon. 

December 6, 2012
Troy Nunley moves closer to becoming a federal judge
A local judge is one step closer to joining the federal district court centered in Sacramento, but we still don't know what the delay was all about.

On a voice vote today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Troy L. Nunley for the Eastern District of California, which one of the biggest caseloads in the country.

As The Bee's editorial board pointed out last week, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, didn't explain why he put off a vote on Nunley last week. He wasn't any more forthcoming at today's meeting.

Nunley, a former prosecutor, has been a Sacramento Superior Court judge since 2002. President Barack Obama nominated him in June and had his confirmation hearing in September.

His wait still isn't over. It's still unclear whether the full Senate will vote on Nunley during the lame-duck session, before a new Congress takes office in January. Often in recent years, the much longer delay has been between action by the Judiciary Committee and a vote on the Senate floor.   

Along with four other nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee and after two were confirmed by the Senate, that makes 20 nominees awaiting action by the Senate. A dozen, including five from California, would fill judgeships designated as emergencies.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups are putting the blame on Republicans for obstructing the nominations.

"Those who contend that judicial confirmation votes during lame duck sessions do not take place are wrong," Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "I urge them to reexamine the false premises for their contentions and I urge the Senate Republican leadership to reassess its damaging tactics. The new precedent they are creating is bad for the Senate, the fderal courts and, most importantly, for the American people."
November 14, 2012
Steinberg has no regrets about walking Raley's picket line
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says he has "absolutely" no regrets about walking a picket line during the Raley's strike.

Steinberg told The Bee's editorial board Wednesday afternoon that he was happy to stand with striking workers at the Raley's on Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento last week because the employees had legitimate grievances.

He has been taken to task for taking sides in a labor dispute by, among others, the board chairman of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to The Bee, John Frisch tut-tutted, "Seeing our local officials in the picket line is particularly disappointing given Raley's long history of positive employee relations and significant philanthropic contributions."

While Steinberg made no apology for being a friend of labor and said that protecting workers is one of his core principles, he also said that he's looking out for businesses as well.

He pointed out that he helped Vision Service Plan of Rancho Cordova, which had delayed adding jobs because the state's health reform regulators had initially declined to let stand-alone vision insurers sell coverage to individuals. After the California Health Benefit Exchange relented last month, VSP said it would add 400 jobs.

Steinberg also cited his work last session on reforming workers compensation insurance and limiting unfair lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
November 2, 2012
'Claw' backers try to dump Sacramento's yard waste measure

You can't blame them for trying.

But the last-ditch effort by opponents of the city of Sacramento's yard waste measure isn't going anywhere.

They want Measure T taken off Tuesday's ballot because, they argue, its wording is "vague, uncertain and confusing" to voters.

The measure would repeal Measure A, which bans the city from requiring residents to use containers for yard waste. The city wants that prohibition lifted so it can put in place a series of changes in garbage collection that it says will be more efficient and would allow overall residential rates to stay the same through at least June 2015.

The language rather clearly lays out the choice for voters: "Shall the ordinance enacted by voter approval of Measure A at the City of Sacramento municipal election on September 27, 1977 be repealed, which would then allow the Sacramento City Council to require yard and garden refuse to be placed into containers for collection?"

However, the opponents say the ballot should quote the full text of Measure A. It passed with 75 percent of the vote, but it's a mouthful, citing a specific part of the City Code.

They made their case in a letter this week to Mayor Kevin Johnson and the rest of the City Council. They apparently aren't going to get an official response.

But I was told today that the letter has been reviewed by the City Clerk's office and City Attorney's office, and both say it has no merit.

While there's a requirement to repeat verbatim state propositions that a ballot measure would repeal, there's no such mandate for local measures, the city says.

Besides, the city says, the ballots have already been printed, voters have already sent in mail ballots and it's just too late.

Of course, nothing would stop the opponents -- Annette Deglow of College Greens, J. Bolton Phillips of McKinley Park and Dennis Neufeld of Land Park -- from going to court with their complaint on the ballot language if the measure passes.

To read their argument against Measure T and an argument in favor from Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, go to The Bee's op-ed page on Saturday, in print and online.

As a reminder, The Bee's editorial board recommended a vote in favor of the measure, saying that "voters have the chance to replace a costly and confusing yard waste collection system with one that is more efficient and better for the environment."
November 1, 2012
Sacramento sheriff pledges openness on shootings by deputies

One of the major unknowns about new reviews of shootings involving Sacramento County sheriff's deputies is how much the public will be told about the findings.

Sheriff Scott Jones says he intends to disclose as much as possible, including general information about the suspects and the deputies and the basic facts of each case. He said his goal is greater awareness and scrutiny.

"Whatever the final report does look like, it will be in keeping with my commitment to transparency and accountability, while still maintaining legal protections and encouraging candid discourse in our debriefings," Jones said in an email this morning.

So far this year, sheriff's deputies have shot 11 suspects, killing eight of them. As The Bee's Kim Minugh reported Sunday, that's double the recent annual average and already more than the previous high of nine of 2006.

The final details are being worked out on the reviews, which would be in addition to internal investigations to determine whether deputies violated any laws or department policies

The more intensive reviews were proposed by county Inspector General Lee Dean. The primary goal is to flag any flaws in training or equipment or any other issues so that the right lessons are learned to avoid future shootings.

On Wednesday, The Bee's editorial board urged officials to make as much information as public as possible. The board also said that while the new review is welcome, it's still no substitute for investigations by District Attorney Jan Scully's office, which she chose to curtail last year after her budget was cut by county supervisors.
October 23, 2012
Obama dings Romney for not mentioning vets during debate
After virtually ignoring military veterans in the first two debates, the presidential candidates finally made some amends in their third and final face-off.

Well, at least President Barack Obama did. 

In Monday night's debate focused on foreign policy, Obama said that part of the dividend from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be used to take care of veterans.

"After a decade of war, it's time to do some nation-building here at home," Obama said. "And what we can now do is free up some resources to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans...making sure that, you know, our veterans are getting the care that they need when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, making sure that the certifications that they need for good jobs of the future are in place."

He mentioned meeting a former combat medic who was having trouble transferring that knowledge to become a nurse when he returned home to Minnesota.

As The Bee's editorial board urged him to do last week, Obama also bragged a little about his administration's efforts to aid veterans, including First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative to get companies to hire veterans. 

The president pointed out that the unemployment rate for veterans is now lower than for the general population -- 6.7 percent in September, compared to 7.8 percent overall.

But that's somewhat misleading since the rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is higher, 9.7 percent.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney, however, didn't mention veterans at all -- and now Obama is trying to make political hay out of that.

"The men and women and their families who have served this country so bravely...they deserve better in somebody who is applying to be commander in chief," the president said during a rally Tuesday morning in Delray Beach, Fla.

"I will fight for our veterans and our troops every single day," he added, according to press reports from the campaign trail.
October 11, 2012
Sacramento charter commission gets a ballot card of its own
Some supporters of the proposed half-cent sales tax increase in Sacramento were afraid that another measure on the Nov. 6 ballot -- whether to create a city charter commission -- would hurt their chances.

One fear is that the potential cost of the charter review panel might dissuade voters from increasing their own taxes to help restore city services. That may still be a major factor.

But another fear may prove unfounded. 

Backers of the sales tax hike -- Measure U -- believed that voters would have to wade through the charter commission measure, including the list of all 54 candidates who are running for 15 seats in case the panel is created, before getting to the sales tax measure. The thinking was that some voters wouldn't even make it that far on their ballot.

I just received my mail ballot, and it turns out that won't be the case. The charter panel -- Measure M -- and all the candidates are on a separate card. 

And that card comes after the two other city ballot measures, including the sales tax hike. Those appear on a page with the city school district's bond measures and state Propositions 39 and 40.

So it appears more likely that the sales tax increase will be decided on its merits, rather than ballot placement.

And since the charter commission measure comes at the end of the ballot, it's possible that some voters may not get that far and there will be a drop-off in the number of voter on that issue.

As a reminder, The Bee's editorial board recommended votes against both the sales tax and the charter commission

September 26, 2012
Sacramento gets more cash to conduct DUI checkpoints
Drunken drivers beware. One major law enforcement tool will continue in Sacramento.

The City Council is set Thursday evening to accept a $240,900 grant from the state Office of Traffic Safety to conduct 24 DUI checkpoints between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30, 2013.

Similar grants have enabled the police department to continue the checkpoints, despite budget cuts that have led the department to disband its traffic enforcement unit, among others.

As I explored in California Forum earlier this month, Sacramento has a big problem with DUI. It has the highest rate of deaths and injuries in alcohol-related collisions of any of California's 13 largest cities. It also has among the highest rates of DUI arrests.

In 2010, alcohol was a factor in 10 percent of all crashes, but more than 30 percent of fatalities in collisions.

One of the eye-opening facts is how many drunken drivers are caught in these checkpoints, even though they are announced in advance. Police publicize them to avoid constitutional problems with illegal search and seizure because every vehicle is stopped, whether there is probable cause or not.

The checkpoints are only one strategy to reduce DUIs.

As The Bee's editorial board said, the solution could also lie in tougher laws targeting repeat offenders and more effective and available counseling and treatment programs. Bars need to train staff to avoid serving intoxicated customers.

But it also comes down to us -- making sure we have designated drivers and keeping tipsy friends and relatives from getting behind the wheel.
September 20, 2012
Gov. Brown signs 18 bills to help California veterans, families
Gov. Jerry Brown today signed a raft of bills to help veterans and their families -- 18 in all.

While they're not necessarily groundbreaking, they will aid some vets, including those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, with education benefits and could ease their transition back into the civilian workforce.

Pete Conaty, the legislative lobbyist for several veterans groups, said the bills make "this is the most productive year for veterans legislation since the tragedy of 9/11 occurred and America went to war."

"Veterans groups have really come together this year to push legislation to help all veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," he said in a statement.

For instance, Assembly Bill 2462 requires the chancellor of the state community colleges to determine when military experience should count toward course credit.

"In California approximately 30,000 troops leave service with work skills that could be counted toward an academic degree, professional license or certification that could help them transition to civilian life after service to their country," Assemblyman Marty Block, a San Diego Democrat who authored the bill, said in a statement.

In May, I wrote about one specific area -- medics who want their combat service to count when they apply to nursing programs. While the bill doesn't directly address this issue, it could help.

Also, Assembly Bill 2371, authored by Democrat Betsy Butler, is designed to help veterans with service-related mental disorders like PTSD who commit crimes get treatment instead of being sent to prison. 

Last December, I wrote about special veterans courts in several California counties that have the same aim.
September 6, 2012
The ballot argument against sales tax that voters won't get
Eye on Sacramento, a local watchdog group, and others wanted to submit a ballot argument against Measure U, the proposed half-cent sales tax increase in Sacramento on the Nov. 6 ballot. But since they believed one from Mayor Kevin Johnson would take precedence, they didn't do so by the deadline. 

To read it, click here.

In an earlier post, there's a link to the ballot argument that Johnson planned to submit against the sales tax measure. Since he missed the deadline, voters will only get the "pro" argument signed by Police Chief Rick Braziel and Fire Chief Ray Jones, among others, with their sample ballots.
August 22, 2012
The ballot argument that Mayor Johnson wanted to submit


Mayor Kevin Johnson wanted to submit an argument against the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would raise Sacramento's sales tax from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent. But he missed the deadline for submitting it in time to be included with sample ballots.

Click here to read it.


August 1, 2012
Sacramento council poised to hike fines for false alarms
It's probably logical, even justifiable for the city of Sacramento to charge higher fees for false alarms.

But there's still the nagging sense that this is more nickel-and-diming of residents.

The City Council is scheduled to vote tonight on higher fines for false fire alarms. If it goes along, homes and businesses would continue to get a free pass on the first two false alarms within a year. 

But fines would kick in with the third: $120 for residences and double that for commercial buildings. For a fourth false call, the fines would rise to $150 and $300; and for a fifth, $180 and $360. An administrative penalty would be tacked on for subsequent false alarms.

UPDATE: Dennis Rogers, senior vice president for public policy and economic development at the Sacramento Metro Chamber, tells me that the item may be pulled from tonight's agenda so that the Chamber can work with the city on the issue.   

UPDATE #2: Council action on the issue was postponed until Aug. 21. City Manager John Shirey says he pulled the item because there may be some incorrect information in the staff report.

The Fire Department says it wastes a lot of its staff time and resources on false calls, with the most common cause being inadequate maintenance of automatic alarm systems. False alarms account for about 15 percent of all emergency calls, about 8,700 incidents a year. A standard response to a downtown commercial building requires units from three or four stations; hundreds of times a year, those units are then unavailable for real emergencies, the department says. It also says that similar programs are in effect in many other California cities, including Roseville and West Sacramento.

Last month, council members unanimously approved similar fines for false burglar alarms.

Now, there are no fines for the first three bogus calls, and the penalty for next five is $50 each.

Starting Oct. 1, the fines will start with the second false burglar alarm, costing $60. The third will cost $80. Second false panic or robbery alarms will cost $120 and the third $220.

Also, after three false calls at the same address, police will not respond until the alarm has been verified as real.

The Police Department says that it has averaged 26,000 false alarms a year for the last three years, 97 percent of all alarms calls. That hurts the ability to respond to legitimate emergencies, especially when budget cuts have reduced the ranks, the department says.
July 20, 2012
Sacramento taxpayers group comes out against charter panel
It's probably a moot point, but the Sacramento Taxpayers Association is now on record against the city's proposed charter commission.

The association had a "healthy discussion" at its board meeting Thursday before voting to formally oppose the idea, association Vice President Bob Blymyer told Mayor Kevin Johnson and the City Council.

Blymyer said that any necessary revisions to the city's constitution could be done by the council, itself, with some outside expertise. 

"Considering the city's current fiscal situation with labor costs and unfunded pension obligations, it doesn't seem in the taxpayers' best interest to set up another layer of administrative functions in hopes of improving some of the city's operations," he wrote.

Potential cost is only one concern. I've written about the likelihood that a charter commission would be dominated by special interests, not civic-minded citizens, and its deliberations would be a distraction that would further divide the city.

But council members Steve Cohn, Darrell Fong and Kevin McCarty told The Bee's editorial board this weekthat they believe the charter panel is a good idea, if only to get the strong mayor controversy off the council's plate.

They have opposed Johnson's proposals to give the mayor's office more power, in part because they say the plans were drafted in back rooms without enough public input.

But Cohn confessed that if there are only slates of candidates beholden to special interests, he may end up voting "no" to starting the commission.

Because a majority of the council has already voted to put the charter commission before voters and it would take a two-thirds vote to rescind that action, the measure appears likely to remain on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Besides deciding whether to create the commission, voters would also choose candidates to serve on it for two years. If voters say yes to the commission, the top 15 vote-getters would serve.
July 19, 2012
Chamber urges City Council to seek smaller sales tax hike
On the eve of tonight's City Council debate on whether to let Sacramento voters decide on a sales tax increase, a major business group has softened its opposition.

A majority of council members appear inclined to put a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot to increase the local sales tax to help restore basic services that have been slashed during the budget crunch, particularly public safety.

The Metro Chamber sent a letter to council members urging them to limit any hike to a quarter cent, rather than a half cent because of "the potential for competitive disadvantage" with neighboring cities.

Increasing the rate from the current 7.75 percent to 8 percent would only put it a quarter cent higher than Elk Grove and West Sacramento and keep the difference with Roseville under 1 percentage point.

The Chamber is also pushing for a "sunset" clause that would automatically end the tax unless voters approve one again. It suggests four years, saying that should be sufficient "given the current forecasts of economic recovery and thus the recovery of your underlying tax base."

Like The Bee's editorial board, the Chamber is also proposing strict accountability. It wants separate budgeting of proceeds from a tax hike, an independent audit and a citizen oversight committee that includes representatives from the business community.

The business group also wants the police and fire departments to get a share of proceeds equal to their share of the 2012-13 budget.

The Chamber makes clear it is still has severe misgivings about increasing costs for business. But, wrote Chamber President and CEO Roger Niello, "We also understand and appreciate the concept of placing the decision before the voters for their ultimate decision."
July 5, 2012
Local nonprofit wants to use golf to help disabled veterans
In reporting and writing about veterans issues in recent months, I've learned that there are quite a few nonprofit groups out there trying to help the surge of service members coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

And as I wrote this past Sunday, there's more emphasis these days on using sports as part of the recovery and rehabilitation for severely injured veterans.

So I wasn't too surprised, but still rather intrigued, to get a message today from a local group looking to golf to help vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Jim Rounsavell, president of Veterans Golf Park for Disabled Vets, is recruiting volunteers. The group, based in Citrus Heights, is also holding a fund-raiser on Sept. 24 at Sunset Whitney Country Club in Rocklin to buy a ParaGolfer cart, which enables those who have lost limbs or who are unsteady on their feet to swing a club.

It eventually wants to open an entire golf course designed for the disabled, similar to one in Lakewood, Wash.

More information is available at the group's website.
July 2, 2012
Angela Madsen qualifies for Paralympics, sets world record
Madsen.JPGFor readers curious about how Angela Madsen fared at the U.S. Paralympics track and field trials over the weekend, I'm happy to report that she made the team for the London games this summer.

In fact, she emailed me to say she broke the world record in her shot put event with a throw of more than 30 1/2 feet.

This makes her a two-time Paralympian. She also competed in rowing in 2008 in Beijing, but missed out on a medal.

She's going for gold in London.

I featured Madsen, a former Marine who is paralyzed from the waist down, in a column on Sunday about how sports is being increasingly used as part of the rehabilitation for seriously injured veterans coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to progress in prosthetic limbs and medicine, more veterans are able to take part in "adaptive" sports and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Olympic Committee and others are putting more money into programs.

Four other veterans qualified for the U.S. team at the track and field trials in Indianapolis. That makes at least 19 vets headed for the London games, Aug. 29-Sept. 9 -- more than the 16 who competed in Beijing.

Bee photo of Angela Madsen by Hector Amezcua
June 27, 2012
G.I. Bill abuses show why California vets want service to count
As the California Legislature dawdles on bills to help veterans get credit for training they received while in the military, lawmakers should take note of an interesting settlement today.

As I wrote in May, one of the arguments for the measures to require colleges and licensing boards to count relevant training and experience is to protect veterans from for-profit schools preying on them for their G.I. Bill benefits.

In the settlement announced today, QuinStreet Inc., an Internet marketing company based in Foster City, agreed to turn over its website, www.GIBill.com, to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The company also will pay $2.5 million to 20 states whose attorneys general alleged that the website misled veterans by only listing schools that were QuinStreet clients as places where they could use their educational benefits.

California isn't one of the 20 states sharing in the settlement, but veterans here are also heavily recruited by for-profit schools seeking G.I. Bill money. Those benefits have been increased for those who served in the military since 9/11.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Senate's Military family Caucus, praised the settlement and also plugged a bill she introduced earlier this month that would prohibit the deceptive use of the phrase "G.I. Bill" and would give it the same protection that Congress has given to "Medicare" and Social Security."

"For too long, our nation's veterans have been the targets of these misleading ads and marketing schemes," Boxer said in a statement. "The settlement announced today by Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway is the first step toward cracking down on these predatory practices. I will continue my push for legislation to permanently protect the phrase 'GI Bill' in law so that we can end these abuses once and for all."
June 13, 2012
New hope for new veterans homes in Fresno and Redding?
It's possible that new veterans homes in Fresno and Redding will open sooner than planned.

After an intense campaign by veterans and local legislators, the Senate Budget Committee this week joined its Assembly counterpart in allocating $10.6 million to start ramping up operations in January and get veterans into the homes by July 2013.

That's six months earlier than scheduled in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget, which calls for keeping them shuttered until at least January 2014. Until then, the state would spend some $280,000 a month for basic maintenance.

As I wrote last November, that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

There are veterans waiting to get into these homes. And the state and federal governments have already spent tons of money to build them. The 300-bed home in Fresno cost $159 million, while the 150-bed home in Redding cost $88 million

But the continuing budget crunch makes the fate of the money uncertain at best as negotiations go until the last minutes before Friday's deadline.

Even if the Legislature signs off, there's no sign yet that the governor would go along.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, a Fresno Democrat, is urging veterans and their supporters to call Brown's office. "The Legislature is sending a clear message to the governor that our veterans are a priority," Assemblymember Perea said in a statement today. "This fight is not over yet."
June 11, 2012
One federal judge on way to confirmation, two more nominated
Ever so slowly, the logjam continues to break on California's federal judges.

The U.S. Senate today barely reached the 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the nomination of Andrew Hurwitz for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco. The final confirmation vote on Hurwitz, now a justice on the Arizona Supreme Court, is expected Tuesday morning. UPDATE: Hurwitz was confirmed on a voice vote.

Also today, President Barack Obama announced he has put forward two more nominations for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. They are Jon Tigar, a judge on the Alameda Superior Court since 2002, and William H. Orrick III, now a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, recommended both. She issued a statement today praising their legal backgrounds and said that both will be strong additions to the federal bench.

California has some of the busiest federal courts in the country. That includes the Northern District, which starts at the Oregon border and goes down the coast through the Bay Area to Monterey.

But some open judicial positions have been sitting vacant for many months, if not years.

Some of the delay has been in Obama making nominations, but more of it has been Republican recalcitrance. Hurwitz, for instance, was held up even though both Republican senators in Arizona supported him.
June 11, 2012
Regional Parks will get a forum in county budget hearings
Another department will get its own platform at Sacramento County's budget hearings after all.

After requests from advocates and others to him and to county supervisors, County Executive Brad Hudson announced at the start of the budget meeting this morning that the Regional Parks will have its own presentation at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Hudson is recommending that the parks system get about $7.8 million in 2012-13 -- nearly $300,000 less than in 2011-12. The Regional Parks budget has been slashed in recent years, its longtime director Janet Baker retired last year and it has turned over some operations to nonprofits and the private sector, like Gibson Ranch

Though Hudson denied it, several supervisors were told that he initially planned for only the elected department heads -- District Attorney Jan Scully and Sheriff Scott Jones -- to present their budget proposals directly to supervisors. They are both planning to lobby this morning for more money. The sheriff wants $10.7 million more, while the district attorney is seeking another $2.2 million.

UPDATED: The heads of Human Assistance and Health and Human Services, among other major agencies, addressed the board as well. In wrapping up today's session, Supervisor Phil Serna thanked Hudson for responding to early criticism and noted that those agencies had less bad news to report on their financial pictures. 

Hudson has defended how he has put together his proposed budget. He told supervisors this morning that there has been plenty of community outreach. After his plan was posted on the county's website last Tuesday, an email blast went out to 40,000 people, he said.
June 8, 2012
Mayor Johnson, Rewers make nice after Tuesday election
There are apparently few, if any, hard feelings between Mayor Kevin Johnson and Jonathan Rewers, his most aggressive challenger in Tuesday's election.

At Thursday night's City Council meeting, Rewers congratulated the mayor. Johnson won a second term with 58 percent of the vote, while Rewers finished a respectable second with 24 percent in a grassroots campaign I profiled in which he said some not very kind things about the mayor.

"We both get to keep our old jobs," Rewers said.

"You made me work for it," Johnson replied.

The main reason Rewers showed up at Thursday night's meeting was to urge the City Council to consider a November sales tax measure. As chairman of the city Parks and Recreation Commission, he said that panel is working on a recommendation on how much money from a sales tax hike the parks system should get and what programs might benefit.

One obvious possibility, Rewers said, is to keep the city's pools open. A $1 million fund-raising drive led by Save Mart Supermarkets came to the rescue for this summer, but that money would have to be found for next year.

The Bee's editorial board today identified another possible way to spend money from a tax measure -- an anti-gang program that is running out of cash.

A quarter-cent sales tax increase would raise nearly $16 million a year for the city. But several council members said before asking voters to pay higher taxes, the city has to get its house in order -- including decreasing employee pension costs.

There are negotiations underway with city unions, but it doesn't appear they will be complete before Tuesday night, when the council is scheduled to approve a 2012-13 budget that includes another $16 million in spending cuts and another 252 in job reductions.

Under the proposal going before council members, any unions that agree to concessions by June 30 would have the layoffs in their area deferred. The council would have until July 31 to formally approve new labor pacts.
June 6, 2012
Editorial: Mayor Johnson must build agenda for second term
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson handily won a second term Tuesday, but he can hardly claim a mandate.

Against challengers he repeatedly reminded us were not credible and whom he vastly outspent, he appears to have failed to reach 60 percent of the vote. The City Council candidate whom he and his business allies put the most energy and money into supporting lost. And in his victory speech, the mayor basically conceded that he hadn't given voters an agenda.

Johnson told supporters Tuesday night that before he takes the oath of office in November, he plans to come up with a "clear vision" so he can "hit the ground running."

He also vowed to unite the fractious council and to build new coalitions that "transcend old divisions."

The results in the four council races on Tuesday's ballot, however, suggest that will not be an easy task.

In south Sacramento's District 8, incumbent Bonnie Pannell staved off former local NAACP leader Betty Williams, who had Johnson's active support as well as boatloads of campaign cash from Better Sacramento, the political action committee created by business leaders who support Johnson.

In District 6, Kevin McCarty easily won a third term. He has been one of the most vocal opponents of Johnson's proposals to give the mayor's office more power, and was also a skeptic on the mayor's push for a downtown arena.

In the District 4 seat being vacated by Rob Fong, Phyllis Newton - the choice of the Better Sacramento PAC - did not make the November runoff. It will instead feature Steve Hansen, a midtown activist and Genentech manager, and Joe Yee, a longtime city planning commissioner who lives in Land Park. Both oppose Johnson's "strong mayor" proposals.

The mayor still has a chance to add an ally in north Sacramento's District 2, where Sandy Sheedy - a thorn in Johnson's side - is stepping aside. Developer Allen Warren, whom Johnson backed, made the runoff against former councilman Rob Kerth.

All in all, Johnson can celebrate four more years in office, but he would be fooling himself to see the election results as a ringing endorsement.

To be truly effective in a second term, he has to follow through on his pledges to unite the city behind a shared vision. He says he believes that Sacramento's best days still lie ahead. He has a lot of work to do to lead the city toward that future.
May 29, 2012
California Senate passes compromise on disabled access suits
A measure to discourage "drive-by" lawsuits over disabled access at California building and businesses is halfway home.  

The state Senate voted 36-0 today for SB 1186, which now goes to the Assembly.  

The bill, the latest to deal with compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, would ban "demand" letters that some lawyers send to extract quick cash settlements from business owners. It would also require notice letters for any alleged construction-related violations, giving business owners 30 days to fix the problem. 

It is sponsored by top Senate Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and former Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga.   

"If a problem is a technical violation but doesn't actually impede access, businesses should have the chance to fix it without the threat of a lawsuit. We need to apply some common sense here," Steinberg said in a statement. "I have always been a champion of providing full access for those who are disabled but their civil rights are actually undermined when people abuse the law."

The Bee editorial board supported the measure, calling it a bipartisan and reasonable compromise between business interests and advocates for the disabled.

But Disability Rights California has opposed the bill, saying that basic civil rights shouldn't be delayed.  

May 29, 2012
Sacramento police department gets a good deal on a helicopter
It's a tale for our times: One local agency's financial pain is another's gain.

In this case, the Sacramento Police Department is getting a free helicopter, plus spare parts and components - a total value of $350,000.

The Bell OH-58 is being donated by the Yamhill County Sheriff's Department in Oregon, just north of Salem. It can no longer afford to have an air operations program.

Under military surplus rules, the copter has to be returned to the military or transferred to another law agency. The department couldn't find a taker, apparently due to concerns about potential cost, until it reached Sacramento on the military surplus list.

The City Council has on its agenda this evening a motion to officially authorize the helicopter's acceptance.

The department says there will be no additional cost because it will continue to have only one helicopter in the air at any given time. The donated helicopter is the same model as the department's two 40-year-old helicopters. Adding it to the rotation will extend how long they can be used, as will all the spare parts, saving the city money over the long run.

"Nothing but upside," says police Capt. Stephen Quinn.

This is a rare bit of good news for a department slammed hard by spending cuts in recent years and facing potential layoffs in the 2012-13 budget before the council. The city should land the chopper before someone changes their mind.
May 25, 2012
Kerth, Warren, Hansen and Newton lead way in cash race
If money rules -- and it sometimes doesn't -- in the free-for-alls for two open Sacramento City Council seats, then it's pretty clear which two candidates from each district will advance from the June 5 primary to the Nov. 6 runoff.

In District 2, where Sandy Sheedy is stepping down, developer Allen Warren leads the way. He has raised $113,000 and spent $110,000 so far and reported $37,000 in the bank as of mid-May.

Former councilman Rob Kerth is in second place, raising $83,000, spending $59,000 and having $48,000 in hand.

In District 4, where Rob Fong is stepping aside, attorney and nonprofit director Phyllis Newton reported raising $111,000 and spending $120,000. She had $35,000 in cash as of mid-May. She's also benefiting from the efforts of the Better Sacramento Political Action Committee, a group of business leaders and developers that reported spending more than $15,000 on her behalf.

In second place is Genentech manager Steve Hansen, who has raised $76,000 and spent more than $87,000. He reported having $47,000 for the stretch run.

The candidates had to file their campaign finance reports this week covering the period of March 18 to May 19. They will be the most complete reports before June 5.

While campaign fund-raising doesn't necessarily determine the winners, it does give a good indication of the level of support a candidate has and it shows how many signs they can put up and mailers they can send out. Given their resumes and other strengths, it would not be a surprise if they were the ones who emerge out of the crowded fields.   

May 23, 2012
City Council approves help for higher Sacramento utility bills
Following up our editorial on Tuesday, the City Council did endorse a "lifeline" program to soften the financial pinch Sacramentans will feel from higher water and sewer rates come July 1.

The assistance is designed to basically offset the increases. Poor homeowners will get $3 a month off their water bill and $2 off their wastewater bill. Those monthly charges will increase $3.44 and $2.36 for single-family customers.

The city's "lifeline" program is similar to ones that SMUD and PG&E have, but not as generous. It would be limited to single-family customers whose income is at or below the federal poverty line for Sacramento -- $22,500 a year for a family of four.

The program is projected to cost $914,000 the first year, with the money coming from the additional $1.1 million in city utility taxes from the rate hike that would otherwise flow into the general fund.

If more families sign up for the discount than projected, the council would have to decide whether to put in more money, or only offer the discount until the $914,000 is used up.

During the discussion Tuesday afternoon, a couple of council members also raised the issue of how poor renters might be helped since the discount only goes to owner-occupants.
May 21, 2012
U.S. Senate finally confirms another delayed federal judge
The political theater that is the state of federal judicial nominations had another act today.

Senate Republicans finally relented and allowed an up-or-down vote on Paul Watford, a Los Angeles attorney and former prosecutor nominated by President Barack Obama for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco.

Watford was confirmed on a 61-34 vote and becomes the second African American on the circuit court.

Democrats and their supporters praised the confirmation, but also blasted the GOP for the delay.

"It is great news that the Senate has confirmed Paul Watford, an exceptionally talented attorney, to serve on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He has a breadth of experience as a former prosecutor and a top appellate litigator and will make an excellent addition to the federal bench. However, I am very disappointed that more of my Republican colleagues did not join us in backing this highly qualified nominee," Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said in a statement.

It took also took months for Senate confirmation votes for Jacqueline Nguyen of Los Angeles, the first Vietnamese-American woman to be a federal judge, for the 9th Circuit and Michael Fitzgerald of Los Angeles, the state's first openly gay federal judge, for the Central District of California.

That still leaves Andrew Hurwitz, an Arizona Supreme Court justice nominated for the 9th Circuit, among qualified nominees who won bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee but have been left twisting in the wind.

As The Bee editorial board commented in March, Republicans have used the president's judicial nominees as pawns in their political chess match even though these courts are overburdened and plaintiffs and victims are forced to wait for justice. 

Watford will fill one of three emergency vacancies on the 9th Circuit, the busiest in the country. 
May 18, 2012
New survey focuses on needs of California's female veterans
One of the many differences between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and America's previous wars is the prevalence of women, including many who came into combat, or very close to it.

Now, they're coming home. California has the most female veterans of any state.

In a new survey released today by the State Library's California Research Bureau, female veterans said they need employment, health and education benefits to successfully transition back to civilian life. But many aren't aware of the services that are available.

Also, significant number said they had mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and sexual trauma.

As part of a series of pieces on veterans' issues, I wrote a year ago about government agencies and nonprofits, especially the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, trying to gear up to handle the surge of female veterans.

The new survey also includes demographic data and found that women are serving longer in the military -- more than six years for those who joined after 9/11.

The survey adds to a relatively small pool of knowledge about the specific needs and challenges of female vets. It was conducted at the request of the Commission on the Status of Women and the California Department of Veterans Affairs. The State Library plans to issue a final, in-depth report later this year.
May 15, 2012
Rewers appears before council as candidate, parks panel chief
Wearing his hat as chairman of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, Jonathan Rewers will appear before the Sacramento City Council tonight and urge it not to cut the parks and rec budget.

For the second year in a row, the appointed commission is recommending that the council reject the city manager's proposed budget. This one would trim another $1 million and 19 positions.

In a letter to the City Council that he released in advance, Rewers noted that the parks department has partnered with nonprofits to keep community centers open, worked with Save Mart Supermarkets on a $1 million fund-raising drive to open pools this summer and is increasingly relying on volunteers to clean up parks.

"There are few if any tools left available to maintain a minimum level of core services to the community," he writes.

Given that situation, the commission voted 8-2 to encourage employee unions to make concessions and to implore the council to look at cuts in other departments. The commission also said that if results from a recent city poll are positive, the council ought to consider putting a tax measure for parks maintenance on the November ballot. 

For the next budget year, 2013-14, the city needs to look at increasing parks fees while still preserving public access, the panel said.

While Rewers will be speaking on behalf of the parks commission, he can't help but wear a second hat -- that of candidate for mayor. Indeed, he sent out the letter to the media under his campaign masthead. And he'll be directly addressing the man whose job he wants to take -- Mayor Kevin Johnson.

As I reported on Sunday, Rewers is running something of a stealth campaign that is based on criticizing Johnson for letting basic city services atrophy while being distracted by the arena and strong mayor.

Should be an interesting presentation tonight.
May 7, 2012
Nguyen confirmed to 9th Circuit Court, finally
The logjam on federal judges for California broke loose even more today with the confirmation of Jacqueline Nguyen to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nguyen, who started in this country as a refugee in Camp Pendleton, is the first Vietnamese-American woman to be a federal job in her current post and will become the first Asian-American woman on an federal appeals court.  

President Barack Obama nominated her last September. After all the delay, the vote today was 91-3   

It came on the same day that some California legal community leaders were in Washington to urge action and argue that delays were hurting justice in the state.

The Bee editorial board called in March for an up-or-down vote for Nguyen, and also for Michael Fitzgerald for the Central District of California. Both were unanimously recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but their nominations had been held up by GOP political gamesmanship. Fitzgerald was confirmed later in March.  

Both courts were in official judicial emergencies because there backlogs of cases were so bad.  
April 27, 2012
Family farmers win skirmish on safety regulations for kids
A big concern in California's farming community is how to attract younger people to agriculture. The average age of the state's 130,000 farmers and ranchers is getting close to 60, and it's not at all clear who will step in when they retire.

As I wrote about last fall as part of the "Regs Run Amok" series, some argue that excessive layers of regulation are helping drive family farmers off the land and getting in the way of younger farmers just starting out.

In recent weeks, one regulation that has received a lot of attention was a federal proposal that would have banned children under 16 from using tractors and most other powered farm equipment, and would have restricted those under 18 from working at grain silos and feed lots.

Even though the proposal didn't cover children of farmers, family farmers flooded the department with comments in opposition, saying the proposal would add unnecessary restrictions. Agribusiness also lobbied against it.

Thursday, the Labor Department announced it was withdrawing the proposal.

The California Farm Bureau Federation joined those applauding the decision.

"Few issues galvanized family farmers and ranchers like this one did," federation President Paul Wenger said in a statement. "Everyone who has grown up on a farm or ranch recognizes the value of allowing young people to learn by doing."

Not everyone is happy with the decision.

Advocacy groups for migrant farm workers say that the rules would have protected children who are hired by farmers. Some accused the Obama administration of caving to powerful farm groups and lawmakers from rural states in an election year.

"These were common-sense protections that would have saved many children's lives," David Strauss, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, said in a statement.
April 24, 2012
VA adds reinforcements to help families on homefront
As legions of military men and women return from dusty, dangerous hamlets in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government is realizing that it's not only veterans who need help making the transition to civilian life, it's their families as well.

Even more, the Department of Veterans Affairs is starting to do something about.

The latest move: The department announced today that it is expanding its mental health services to include marriage and family therapists, as well as licensed professional mental health counselors. Those two fields will be included among the additional 1,900 mental health staffers that the VA plans to hire nationwide.

"The addition of these two mental health professions is an important part of VA's mission to expand access to mental health services," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement. "Veterans and their families can face unique challenges. By providing a complete range of services, we can help them address those challenges and help keep more families together."

In addition, because the new workers will be hired locally, it could provide a little boost to job markets across California, where the unemployment rate is still above the national average and where a large number of veterans live.

The VA also recently launched a new program that provides more aid to families of injured veterans who need help with daily living. As I wrote in February, the caregiver support program gives spouses monthly stipends of as much as $2,000, plus health insurance and travel expenses.

While the image we often see on TV is of happy reunions when soldiers come home, the reality is that divorce and marital stress is a reality, one made worse by repeated, lengthy deployments of our all-volunteer military. With all the issues that returning vets have on their plate, family support is essential.
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April 23, 2012
Is Kansas City a model for Sacramento, or is it a warning?

Throughout Sacramento's never-ending arena drama, boosters have pointed to Kansas City as a model to emulate.

It's happening again now that the Maloof family, owners of the Kings, has bailed on the framework of a deal to build a downtown arena. Mayor Kevin Johnson is talking up the possibility of moving ahead with a new arena in the railyard without the NBA team as an anchor tenant, noting that the Sprint Center in Kansas City is doing well without a pro sports franchise.

In November, his Think Big committee brought in former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes to talk about the economic development generated by the Sprint Center. Boosters see the arena as a game-changing project to jump-start development in the railyard and bring visitors from across the region to downtown Sacramento.

But as The Bee's editorial board pointed out then, the development boom in Kansas City also included a new convention center, a performing arts center and a retail and entertainment district. The editorial also noted that the city has had to dip into its general fund because sales taxes from the Power & Light District hadn't been covering all the debt payments.

Today, The Wall Street Journal weighed in on that point. It reported that traffic and sales are well below projections for the entertainment mecca for which Kansas City borrowed $295 million for infrastructure and other needs. That is forcing the city to set aside $12.8 million in its 2012-13 budget to cover the difference, and similar gaps are expected for years, the Journal says. The city's debt has led to a potential downgrade from one bond rating agency.

The newspaper says the problem in Kansas City is being repeated across the country because many cities sunk big money into development projects during the real estate boom, and those bets have turned sour because of the real estate crash and recession.

As Sacramento decides its next step, Kansas City could be as much a cautionary tale as a success story.

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April 20, 2012
VA pledges to speed up Northern California disability claims

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is offering what looks like a smidgen of progress to deal with a big backlog and a high error rate at the office that handles disability claims for Northern California vets.

Responding to a Thursday letter from 16 members of Congress from California, the VA issued a statement this morning that pledges it is "committed to doing everything within its authority" to improve the Oakland regional office's performance.

The Bee's editorial board is calling on the VA to fix the problems, pointing out the the average wait time of 313 days is well above the national average and that the backlog of 34,000 cases (80 percent of which are at least four months old) is the second worst in the country. In addition, about 74 percent of the claims are decided correctly by the office, 13 percent below the national average.

The office handles claims for service-related injuries and for mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, for veterans in 48 counties stretching from the Oregon border to the Bay Area and down the Central Valley.

Despite its problems, the Oakland office is not among the 12 nationwide scheduled to get a complete overhaul this year that includes a new computer system.

The VA statement today does not specifically put Oakland on that list, but does say it "will incorporate" some of the improvements. The agency also says that if it receives the necessary funding, the improvements will be made to the remaining 40 regional offices across the country by the end of 2013.

The VA says it is dealing with a record number of disability claims -- more than 1 million in each of the past two years -- because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an aging veteran population, Agent Orange cases from Vietnam and its own outreach efforts. 

The VA's response so far isn't enough to satisfy Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Pleasanton Democrat who was one of those who signed the letter. He asked for specific steps to lessen the backlog of claims and called for a "definitive timeline of steps to improve the processing of claims."

"I am disappointed it has taken the VA so long to address these issues, and concerned that the response is not a concrete plan," he said in a statement.

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April 17, 2012
Darrell Fong leads the way on Save Our Pools drive

Darrell Fong has not been a standout on the Sacramento City Council in his first term. He has been more of an enigma, as I detailed earlier this year.

But you have to give him some credit for his fund-raising ability.

He far outpaced his fellow district council members in helping the city and Save Mart Supermarkets reach the $1 million goal to open the city's pools this summer.

With the help of parks advocates in his district, Fong brought in $78,000 of the $163,000 in pledges secured by council members, according to a tally that Mayor Kevin Johnson sent around Monday. Fellow first-termer Angelique Ashby came in second with $27,000, while veteran Steve Cohn came in third with $20,000.

The two incumbents who aren't seeking re-election this year apparently weren't that interested. Rob Fong didn't bring in any pledges, and Sandy Sheedy a mere $250, according to the mayor's count.

Overall, $533,000 was raised or pledged by businesses, Save Mart customers, city residents and others. When matched dollar for dollar by Save Mart, that will be enough to open the same six pools the city opened last summer, plus all five standalone wading pools.

The mayor says 200,000 Sacramento kids will be the beneficiaries.

"This was a team effort, and I appreciate everyone's willingness to engage in friendly competition, make phone calls and rally the community to preserve this important resource," Johnson said in his email.

April 3, 2012
Fruitridge Manor in Sacramento will get a park, finally

The Fruitridge/Broadway area in southeast Sacramento is short of parkland. 

That's about to change. 

The district's City Councilman, Kevin McCarty, announced today that the state has awarded a $2.8 million grant to develop a park in Fruitridge Manor at the site of the former Manor Recreation and Swim club at 61st Street and 40th Avenue.

He noted that it is the only neighborhood in his district without a park and called it "a big win for a somewhat forgotten neighborhood." 

As part of its "Local Parks: Legacy of Neglect" series, The Bee editorial board pointed out in 2010 that the city has a stated goal of providing a park within a half-mile radius of every resident and of at least 2.5 acres of neighborhood parkland and 2.5 acres of community parks for every 1,000 people. Fruitridge/Broadway was only about halfway to the goal.     

McCarty's announcement praised the efforts of the neighborhood association to transform the private club into a public park serving a neighborhood of about 5,000 people.  

Construction on the new park is to start later this year. The park will eventually include soccer fields, a basketball court, a skate park, a children's playground and other features. 


March 28, 2012
Sacramento hopes 'smart' manhole covers stop overflows
Sacramento's Utilities Department now has the go-ahead from the City Council for three years of double-digit rate hikes to finance more than $260 million in water and sewer repairs.

It also is seeking far less expensive ways to avoid costly and messy sewage overflows.

One approach is to test "smart" manhole covers on the city's antiquated system of sewage pipes. In big storms, the deluge can flood streets and basements with a disgusting and toxic brew.

Sensors on the underside of the manhole covers measure water levels. If there's a dangerous spike, a supervisor will be alerted and a repair crew can be sent out.

The city just bought 10 of them, for a relatively cheap $4,500 a piece. It plans to install them at 10 "hot spots" that have a history of overflows.

Here's the list:

68th Avenue and 21st Street
River Park (exact location to be determined)
Rio Linda and Acacia Avenue
John Still Drive and 24th Street 
South Land Park Drive and Ridgeway Drive
Detroit Boulevard
Strawberry Manor (exact location to be determined)
Old Sacramento (exact location TBD)
Greenhaven Drive near Florin Road
Hollywood Park (exact location TBD)

If they work, the city has plans to put in 10 more a year for the next five years.

Other cities are also testing the manhole cover sensors, according to an article on Atlantic Cities, the magazine's website on municipal issues. Municipalities are hoping that this will be a cheaper way to comply with federal clean water rules to prevent overflows.

Many of these cities -- mostly in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest -- have combined sewage systems like the network that covers downtown Sacramento and some older neighborhoods where pipes collect both sewage and stormwater.
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March 22, 2012
Congress passes insider trading ban, but is it tough enough?

It's amazing how a little shame can go a long way.

For years, Congress ignored calls to put itself under the same insider trading rules as the rest of us. But after a "60 Minutes" report in November unleashed a tidal wave of criticism, bills started moving.

And on Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved and sent to President Barack Obama a measure that would ban members of Congress, along with other government officials, from trading stocks and other securities based on confidential information they learn from private briefings and other venues. The STOCK Act would also require them to disclose their trades.

But this being Washington, the House version of the bill headed toward becoming law isn't as strong as it could or should be.

As The Bee editorial board pointed out last month, the original Senate version is much stronger and preferable. It would make it easier for federal prosecutors to go after public corruption. It also included a provision that would force "political intelligence consultants" -- people who gather information of interest to hedge funds and other investors -- to register like other lobbyists.

On Tuesday, however, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he lacked the votes to push those changes.

And this being Washington, Democrats blamed Republicans for the weaker law.

"Despite this victory, we know more must be done to change the ways of Washington," top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a statement "House Republicans had the opportunity to take up the original, stronger, bipartisan Senate proposal, but refused to bring it up for a vote. Now, we must work to strengthen this legislation and uphold the confidence of the American people."

So while this legislation is better than the status quo, it would let a lot of nefarious activity continue on Capitol Hill. And it would all be legal.

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March 20, 2012
Do Republicans have a political winner in veterans homes?

For all the missteps California Republicans have made recently (my colleague Dan Morain catalogued some of them on Sunday), even they can't miss this obvious a potential political winner.

While Californians disagree on the wisdom of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's widespread support for the troops. So Assembly Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a baker's dozen bills to help the increasing numbers of new military veterans make the transition to the home front. The bills cover registration preferences at colleges, custody rights for vets who are single parents, recognition of health care training in the military and more.

The Republicans highlighted one measure that would earmark $26.1 million from the state's general fund to actually open and run the new veterans homes in Fresno and Redding.

As I've chronicled, the state and federal governments have invested big bucks to build them, but there's no money as yet to operate them so veterans can actually live there. The $159 million home in Fresno has 300 beds, while the $88 million home in Redding has 150 beds.

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal calls for a further delay; the homes would not open until January 2014. Until then, the state would spend $280,000 a month for upkeep and maintenance.

In his recent visit to The Bee editorial board, Brown said he hasn't changed his mind, despite intense lobbying from legislators and veterans advocates. He said the key question remains: Where do you get the money?

The authors of the veterans home funding measure, Assembly Bill 2151, ask a different question: How high a priority do you put on veterans?

"In a budget of $90 billion, it makes no sense to cut a few million dollars on those who sacrificed so much for our country," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen of Gerber the principal co-author of Assembly Bill 2151. "Budgets are about priorities and our veterans must be a priority."

"Veterans should always be a top legislative and budget priority," Assemblywoman Linda Halderman of Fresno added in a statement.

March 15, 2012
U.S. Senate breaks logjam on federal judicial nominees

There's apparently a deal today in the U.S. Senate that would break a logjam on federal judicial nominees that has stalled several California judges in waiting.

Several reports say that top Democrat Harry Reid and GOP leader Mitch McConnell have agreed to allow floor votes by May 7 on 14 of 22 pending nominations -- two a week.

Reid has been pushing for the votes, focusing on the 14 who received bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee. They include two from California: Jacqueline Ngyuen for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal and Michael Fitzgerald for the Central District of California.

UPDATE: The Senate voted 91-6 on Thursday to confirm Fitzgerald.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who recommended him to the White House, noted that he makes history as the first openly gay federal judge in the state.

"The federal bench in California will gain an extremely talented new judge as a result of today's historic vote to confirm Michael Fitzgerald," Boxer said in a statement. "His sharp intellect and broad legal experience will make him a tremendous asset to the people of the Central District. While I am pleased by today's overwhelming vote, it is shameful that he had to wait so long for a vote and I hope that Republicans will stop blocking the confirmation of highly qualified nominees."

As The Bee's editorial board pointed out last week in calling for votes on the nominations, both those courts are overburdened with cases, slowing justice for everyone.

Reid took the high-stakes step on Monday of scheduling votes to end filibusters on 17 of the nominations. In return for allowing the votes, Republicans will reportedly get Senate consideration of a jobs bill aimed at small businesses passed by the GOP-controlled House.

Several liberal-leaning advocacy groups have also been lobbying for the confirmation votes.

"Today's agreement is good news for many Americans who have been facing understaffed courts and delayed justice simply because of partisan gridlock in the Senate," People for the American Way's Marge Baker said in a statement. "But, unfortunately, today's progress doesn't end the Republican gridlock. Even after these 14 nominees are confirmed, far too many seats on our federal courts will still be vacant. President Obama's nominees still face consistent, unprecedented delays. It is absolutely ridiculous that it took such pressure to allow votes on a group of eminently qualified nominees with strong bipartisan support."

March 14, 2012
On parking deal, Sacramento has few guideposts to follow

Not only is a potential parking deal essential to financing a new arena in downtown Sacramento, its success -- or failure -- could also point the way for cash-poor cities across the country.

That much is made clear again in a new piece on Atlantic Cities, the municipal policy website of the venerable magazine. "Is There a Smart Way for Cities to Privatize Parking?" the article's headline asks.

It points out that Sacramento could become only the third major U.S. city to privatize its parking. As author Nate Berg details, "the two others -- Chicago and Indianapolis -- have had wildly different experiences with their privatization schemes, paving an uncertain path for Sacramento."

Chicago is widely viewed as a cautionary tale. Its 2008 plan leased the city's parking meters for 75 years for a one-time payment of $1.16 billion, which it immediately used to fill budget holes and pay for everyday services. The private company jacked up rates and in its first year made a profit of $32 million, Berg says, while the city is stuck with a 75-year contract.

Indianapolis is seen as a success story. In 2010, the city turned over parking to a private firm for $20 million up front and revenue sharing. In the first full year of the 50-year deal, the city's parking-related revenue hit $1.4 million, more than double the average in recent years. The private company raised rates, but it also improved technology and convenience, Berg says.

Sacramento, however, needs much more cash up front than Indianapolis received, in the neighborhood of $230 million of its $255 million share of arena construction costs.

It is looking at two general approaches: a long-term lease with a private company that would pay the city up front, or a city-created nonprofit that would borrow against future parking revenues.

There are pros and cons to both.

The long-term lease would put more of the risk on the private operator, if future parking revenues don't meet projections. But it would tie up a city asset for probably 50 years. And the city would likely give up some control over parking rates.

The city-affiliated nonprofit would let the city keep control over parking rates and the workforce -- which makes it attractive to some City Council members. But if revenues don't pan out, the city would face more risk, and in a worst-case scenario might have to dip into its general fund to repay bondholders.

Berg says that Assistant City Manager John Dangberg, City Hall's point person on the arena, is "trying to learn as much from Indianapolis' successes as from Chicago's missteps."

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March 8, 2012
Count Gov. Brown a skeptic on Sacramento arena deal
20120308_PK_BROWN_0107.JPGGov. Jerry Brown came in this afternoon to talk to The Bee's editorial board about his November tax measure and the state budget. But ask him about anything and the man will have an opinion.

Like the big topic this week in Sacramento -- the proposed new arena downtown.

While he was careful to say he hasn't spent a lot of time studying the issue, he also indicated he's squarely in the skeptics camp.

The public needs to focus, he said, on how the arena is being financed. 

"I would look into the details of how it all gets paid for," Brown said, adding that he isn't sure how the city will get its up-front contribution from leveraging its downtown parking.

But the governor also recognized which way things are headed after the City Council's vote Tuesday night to approve a term sheet on the arena.

"It's worthy of civic debate, but I can tell you once that boosterism gets going, it's like a freight train," he said.

Though he acknowledged that the areas around AT&T Park in San Francisco and Petco Park in San Diego are hopping, he recommended reading Roger Noll, a Stanford economist who is among those who question the benefits of arenas and stadiums to a city's economic development.

Part of Brown's skepticism is born of his experience as Oakland mayor, when the NFL Raiders extracted public money for improvements to the coliseum, which he said was not a good deal for the city. And now, he noted, the Raiders and A's want new facilities because they say the stadium is obsolete.

Pro teams continually push for nicer arenas and stadiums with more luxury boxes so they can afford escalating player salaries, he said.

"This," the governor said, "is a very strange business."

Bee photo by Paul Kitagaki, March 8, 2012.

February 29, 2012
Sacramento council gets on board the push for streetcars
The Sacramento City Council is on board with the push to return streetcars to the region.

In a significant step, council members unanimously voted Tuesday night to accept a study laying out a "starter" route that would connect Sacramento with West Sacramento across Tower Bridge.

The study calls for a network of streetcars that would traverse Sacramento's central grid and could ultimately extend into the River District, East Sacramento, Cal Expo and Oak Park.

Streetcars are meant to complement Regional Transit's light rail and buses, attracting riders for short trips for work, shopping or pleasure. The routes are also designed to encourage transit-friendly infill development.

Agreement on the study is necessary to have any real hope of securing federal grants that are the best hope of finding money to build the lines.

As The Bee editorial board pointed out, West Sacramento has been taking the lead, while Sacramento got bogged down in uncertainty over routes and funding.

"We're ready to step up and join as true partners," said Councilman Steve Cohn before making the motion to endorse the study. "The time has come for streetcars in Sacramento."

Councilman Rob Fong pointed out that the cost is "daunting." Just the starter line is projected to cost $125 million to $135 million to build.

But, he added, "If we don't get started, we won't get it done."

Cohn, who has been working on the issue already, also volunteered to be the "champion" for streetcars on the council -- as encouraged in the editorial.

After the unanimous vote, Mayor Kevin Johnson declared, "You have nine champions."
February 23, 2012
NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks on Sac arena deal
For those of you following every twist and turn in the arena saga, you can read and hear for yourself what NBA Commissioner David Stern has said.

In a column in The Bee last May, just after NBA owners gave Sacramento a reprieve, he extolled arena financing deals where the public and private sectors join forces and stressed that the Kings would make a "substantial contribution." "The NBA has experienced the success public-private partnerships can have in developing facilities that contribute to the economic transformation of neighborhoods," Stern wrote.

In an interview this week, he again pledged a "substantial contribution" from the team -- but suggested that money put in by potential arena operator AEG should count toward that sum because "whatever money AEG puts in is because of givebacks by the team to allow AEG to profit from the arena."

That calculation could kill the arena deal because the city is counting on $85 million from the Kings separate and apart from $50 million from AEG. So the proposal should be a non-starter, The Bee's editorial board said today.

Is Stern doing some negotiating in public? Or is he putting down a marker?

We should know pretty soon as negotiations between Mayor Kevin Johnson and other city leaders, league officials and Kings owners the Maloof family shift into overdrive this coming weekend in Orlando, in conjunction with the NBA's All-Star Game. All sides hope to come to terms by Thursday -- and the "term sheet" is to go before the City Council on March 6.
February 13, 2012
Restaurants are struggling with state's new food handler law

You could say that the glitches in California's new food handler rules prove the law of unintended consequences.

Yet, some people -- including me -- saw the problems coming.

In a piece last April titled "Recipe for Confusion," I reported on the legislative meat grinder that produced the new law requiring many workers to get training in safely handling food. "Lots of outfits are elbowing for the lucrative business of training employees and issuing the certification cards, and there are reports of shady operators trying to bilk unsuspecting business owners and workers," I wrote.

Well, the California Restaurant Association just sent an alert to its members that "numerous" businesses are finding that employees have acquired invalid food handler cards and are being penalized or given tight deadlines for compliance.

The issue is "widespread" across the state, says Leslie Huffman, an association vice president. "It's becoming a little bit of a panic," she told me today.

The problems are becoming apparent now because there was a six-month grace period, until Jan. 1, before local health inspectors started enforcing the law. 

The restaurant association is trying to steer members and workers to the right places to get the cards. It has also put together a system for managers to track their employees' compliance.

The intent of the law was laudable. But, as often the case, its implementation has been messy.
February 9, 2012
Big donation could open half of Sacramento's pools
It took a while, but a local company has stepped forward to help open Sacramento's city pools this coming summer.

Last summer, the city's budget crunch meant only six of 12 pools were accessible. This coming summer, only three have been scheduled to open.

As The Bee's editorial board said last August, "This is a prime opportunity for a civic-minded corporation to make a sizable gift that would buy it priceless goodwill."

The Bee's Bob Shallit reports today that Save Mart Supermarkets plans to announce next week that it will match up to $500,000 in donations.

Now, it's up to other businesses and the general public to pitch in.

The full $1 million would be enough to open six pools to full operations, along with all five of the city's standalone wading pools, says Dave Mitchell of the city's Parks and Recreation Department. He told me in an email that he hopes even more will be raised so more pools can open.

It's not a long-term solution to the city's budget woes. But it could bridge the gap until the economy turns around and city revenues bounce back.
January 27, 2012
Herger, state VA chief weigh in on veterans home delay
Congressman Wally Herger wants to make a federal case of the delay in opening the new veterans home in Redding.

State Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter Gravett wants vets to be patient and understanding.

Leading up to today's town hall in Redding, there are two intriguing letters on the issue/fact that because of the state budget crunch, the 150-bed, $88 million veterans home in Redding, and a 300-bed, $159 million home nearing completion in Fresno, are scheduled to sit empty for nearly two years.

The federal government put in about two-thirds of the construction financing -- about $142 million -- for the two homes. The state funded the rest, and it's up to the state to hire staff and run them. So far, the state says it doesn't have the money.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget includes $280,000 a month in 2012-13 to keep the homes maintained, but they wouldn't open to veterans until January 2014. The administration says it's one of the tough choices that have to be made when the state faces perpetual deficits.

"One thing veterans should understand better than anyone else is the fact that sometimes you have to make difficult choices. Gov. Jerry Brown's budget is a clear example of that principle," Gravett wrote in a letter published Thursday in the Record Searchlight, Redding's local newspaper.

"This administration is receptive to ideas for opening the Fresno and Redding veterans homes, but not at the expense of services and treatment for those veterans already living in the six other state veterans homes or at the continued expense of public safety programs that protect our communities, other social services that help the elderly, women and children, or our educational system," added Gravett, who will be at the town hall, 1-4 p.m. at Redding City Hall.

"Sometimes life isn't fair, but as veterans we should understand that sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good. We will be opening the Redding and Fresno homes, but not until we can afford it."

But Herger, a Republican who represents the Redding area, sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki asking whether he can put any pressure on the state to open the Redding home sooner.

"I have received many phone calls from constituents whose plan to place loved ones in that facility will now be delayed, and they are concerned that the state of California's decision will become an open-ended postponement," Herger wrote, adding, "Are there any binding obligations whatsoever on the state of California to open the Redding home by a certain time, or is it completely free to indefinitely delay the staffing and operation of this important facility?"

Good question.
January 24, 2012
More chances to speak out on Redding, Fresno veterans homes
Veterans and their supporters will get another chance to state their case about opening veterans homes in Redding and Fresno on time.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs, which will run the homes, said today that it will hold two town halls -- one in Redding on Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the City Council chambers, and one in Fresno on Feb. 3.

The $88 million, 150-bed home in Redding is largely finished, while the $159 million, 300-bed home in Fresno is to be completed in April.

Because of the state budget crunch, however, the state hasn't found the money to staff them and open them to residents.

Under Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal, the homes wouldn't open until January 2014 -- a year later than now scheduled. Instead, the governor's 2012-13 spending plan includes $3.3 million to just maintain the two homes.

Local legislators, Democrats and Republicans, are also trying to drum up public pressure to open the homes sooner.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, a Fresno Democrat, has created a Facebook page for supporters to register their feelings.

"Our men and women in uniform served our country with honor and they deserve better than being put at the bottom of our list of priorities," Perea said in a statement. "Over the next few months we need to send a message to Governor Brown and legislative leaders that our veterans need this home now!"
January 9, 2012
Another delay for Redding, Fresno veterans homes in Brown's budget


If supporters of new veterans homes in Redding and Fresno were hoping that Gov. Jerry Brown would ride to the rescue, they would be sorely disappointed.

Because of tight state budgets, veterans aren't scheduled to actually move in until early next year even though construction will be complete way before then. The 150-bed, $88 million home in Redding is almost finished, and the 300-bed, $159 million home Fresno is scheduled to be done in April.

Under the spending plan that the governor released last week, there would be a further delay. The homes wouldn't open for yet another year -- until January 2014. When education and safety net programs are being slashed, the Brown administration is saying that there isn't the money to hire staff and ramp up operations so the homes can be occupied. Majority Democrats in the Legislature have blamed Republicans for steadfastly refusing to consider higher taxes to pay for veterans programs and all sorts of other state programs.  

Instead, the Brown administration plans to hire skeletal staff and keep the brand-new facilities well-maintained while they sit empty. For the 2012-13 fiscal year that starts July 1, it has budgeted $1.4 million for the Redding home and $1.9 million for the Fresno home. That's about $280,000 a month combined for the two homes.

As I said in a California Forum piece in November about the situation, "Even by state government standards, this seems just crazy."

You can debate the wisdom of opening relatively expensive new veterans homes, though there's definitely a need. But if you're going to spend the big bucks to build them -- while the feds paid 65 percent of the construction costs, the state has spent $103 million -- having them sit vacant doesn't seem like a great solution.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a Republican who represents Redding, ripped Brown for the decision.

"This is just one of a long list of bad decisions Brown has made that have hurt veterans since he's been in the office," Nielsen said in a statement. "He's reneging on a commitment he's made to those who have fought hard, sacrificing their lives even, for our country."

His office estimates that it would require about $11.6 million for the Redding home and $14.5 million for the Fresno home in the 2012-13 budget to open them a year from now.

Boosters of the Redding and Fresno homes are trying to organize a meeting with veterans and a bipartisan group of legislators to try to get more money in the budget.

Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a Fresno Republican, says she's "disgusted" by what she calls a "crippling" budget cut and "a continuing betrayal" of veterans.

Honoring our veterans by fulfilling our state's obligations should be one of our highest budget priorities," she said in a statement. "I hope all of my Central Valley colleagues join me in rejecting this disrespectful and unacceptable cut to veterans funding."


December 22, 2011
An iconic kiss for a new era in U.S. military
So it won't become as iconic as the famous kiss between a sailor and a nurse in Times Square on the day that Japan surrendered during World War II.

But this week's smooch between a female sailor and her girlfriend is getting quite a bit of attention (including on today's Bee front page) -- and is emblematic of the U.S. military coming to terms with the end of "don't ask, don't tell."

That's a good thing.

It's a small, but symbolic, indication that the transition is going relatively smoothly. That was one of the big questions when the repeal of the 18-year policy -- which banned service members from openly acknowledging that they are gay -- took effect in September. 

One of the last defenses for don't ask, don't tell fell apart last year when the Pentagon said that it could be ended with minimal impact to readiness or unit cohesion. That conclusion was unveiled by the Pentagon's top leaders when they urged Congress to do away with the law, saying that legislation followed by an orderly transition was far preferable to an immediate change forced by a court order.

The Bee's editorial board was among the voices calling for the repeal of what it called the "discriminatory, destructive" law.

It's a Navy tradition that one returning sailor is chosen to be first off the ship for a kiss. Wednesday, when the USS Oak Hill docked in Virginia Beach, Va., the chosen one was Petty Officer Marissa Gaeta of Placerville. She met her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell of Los Angeles, who serves aboard another ship and was in civilian dress.

The Oak Hill's commanding officer didn't make a big deal out of it. But it was to Gaeta.

"It's nice to be able to be myself," she told reporters afterwards. "It's been a long time coming."
December 1, 2011
Does medical marijuana mean fewer traffic deaths?

Advocates of medical marijuana make lots of arguments: it eases pain for the seriously ill, it brings into the open the underground black market, etc., etc.

Here's a possible new one for their arsenal -- it can reduce traffic deaths, especially those tied to drinking.

That's the conclusion of a new study that found that traffic fatalities dropped by nearly 9 percent in the 13 states, including California, which legalized medical pot between 1990 and 2009.

In their paper published by a German research center, economists D. Mark Anderson of Montana State University and Daniel I. Rees of the University of Colorado say the link between marijuana and traffic safety is beer consumption.

They suggest that the easier the access to pot, the more people are substituting marijuana for beer, especially 20- to 29-year-olds. Less drinking, particularly in bars, means less drinking and driving and fewer accidents.

That, of course, cuts both ways because it suggests that medical marijuana is being widely used recreationally -- not quite what most California voters thought they were approving when they passed Proposition 215 in 1996.

Based on a more limited sample -- Montana, Vermont and Rhode Island -- Anderson and Rees also say that the legalization of medical marijuana leads to increased consumption among adults, but not among children.

Emily Badger, writing for the Atlantic magazine's website on city issues, notes that this study could also interest those who want to reduce traffic deaths. Raising the driving age reduced deaths. So did mandatory seat-belt laws. "Policy-makers," she writes, "may now want to add to this list an unexpected intervention: Legalize medical marijuana."

November 30, 2011
Governors urge feds to reclassify medical marijuana

Two governors joined the call today to get marijuana off the federal government's Schedule 1 list of drugs - drugs that are easily abused but have no medical benefit.

Christine Gregoire of Washington and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island sent a joint letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration urging it to reclassify pot as a drug with accepted medical uses, the New York Times reports. Their states, like California, allow medical marijuana, but are in a quandary because marijuana is still against federal law.

The governors say the reclassification is needed so their states can regulate medical pot dispensaries without fear of federal prosecution.

As the California Medical Association and The Bee's editorial board have pointed out, the reclassification would also allow more research into which diseases and conditions can be treated with marijuana and the best doses and methods of ingestion.

With U.S. attorneys in California leading the recent federal crackdown on medical pot, which they say has been hijacked by profiteers, you'd think that our governor would jump at the chance to join this petition,

How about it, Gov. Brown?

November 11, 2011
Bizarre Carrier Classic college basketball game a sign of the times

When I first heard about today's Carrier Classic college hoops game, I was very intrigued. In honor of Veterans Day, North Carolina and Michigan State are playing on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, anchored in San Diego harbor.

But in actually watching it, I find it jarring -- a bizarre mix of crass commercialism and partisan politics, as well as patriotism and sports.

The game is being televised on ESPN, which is milking it for all it's worth. It's sponsored by Quicken Loans, a major home mortgage company, which is kind of weird given that California is an epicenter for the housing meltdown. At halftime, State Farm had its name on a shooting contest for scholarships for military children.

Before the opening tip, President Barack Obama made remarks that at some points sounded suspiciously like a re-election speech. Besides saying the right things about the sacrifices of men and women in uniform, he also highlighted his efforts to help veterans, including tax credits that the Senate passed this week. He also mentioned that the Carl Vinson took part in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.

The teams are wearing camouflage uniforms -- with "U.S.A" on the back instead of players' names - that, let's face it, are hideous. And my distaste has nothing to do with the fact that I went to Duke, Carolina's archrival.

But I guess that's America today. You can't have a pure special commemoration for our veterans. It has to come in a package with money and politics - like it or not.

November 10, 2011
U.S. Senate pauses from partisan wars, passes jobs bill for veterans

Just in time for Veterans Day on Friday, the U.S. Senate actually managed to put aside partisanship aside and passed a jobs bill for veterans today.

 

The measure includes tax credits to encourage employers to hire veterans that were sought by Democrats and President Barack Obama, and also include job training enhancements called for by House Republicans.

 

It is the first part of Obama's broader jobs package to get through either chamber in Congress. After passing 95-0 in the Senate, it will go to the House as early as next week.

 

California has much to gain in the bill, and The Bee's editorial board supported its passage. As a piece in California Forum this past Sunday detailed, about 30,000 men and women leave the military and return to the state each year, and those numbers will go up as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

 

"The brave men and women who fight for our country shouldn't have to fight to find a good job when they return home. This bill will help veterans get the job training they need to build their careers while providing incentives to employers who put veterans to work," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

 

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top House Democrat, made clear her support for the bill, but also threw another jab at Republicans for blocking other parts of Obama's jobs plan, including money to prevent layoffs of teachers and public safety employees.

 

"President Obama has championed efforts to create jobs for our veterans; Senate Democrats led the way for this progress in their chamber; House Democrats have long supported a similar initiative to ensure jobs for our troops when they come home," Pelosi said in a statement. "Speaker Boehner should bring this legislation, and indeed the entire American Jobs Act, to the House floor for a vote without delay. Our veterans and all Americans can't wait."

 

 

 

 

October 27, 2011
Scary times for NBA cities like Sacramento

The longer the NBA lockout lasts, the greater the potential damage for NBA cities, especially Sacramento and six others where basketball is the only major league game in town.

The Bee's Dale Kasler wrote today about the companies that pledged $10 million in sponsorships for the Sacramento Kings' 2011-12 season getting skittish. If more games get cancelled, the team might have to give money back, or at least offer other benefits, such as Kings-related events. The 32 pledges helped persuade the NBA to give Sacramento another year to get an arena deal done.

The Bee's editorial board has opined that the work stoppage could undermine momentum for the Kings and the proposed new downtown arena.

Also today, The Atlantic magazine's website focusing on coverage of cities has a piece that argues that the lockout could reverse the momentum for the teams in the seven NBA-only cities, which had risen in value between 2009 and 2010, unlike franchises in more competitive markets.

Timothy Bella, a web producer for CBS News, notes that of the seven NBA-only cities, four have unemployment rates above the national average and that "the lockout's potential effects are as much about sustaining job opportunities as they are about preventing loss of jobs."

Sacramento, of course, is among the four with a high jobless rate. "Sacramento officials estimate that its NBA arena employs about 700 workers, including 550 part-time employees," Bella writes. And if too much of the season goes down the tubes, the employees could lose their health insurance, because they need about 1,300 hours on the job to qualify.

That's a reminder that those being immediately hurt the most by the face-off aren't NBA owners and players, who are haggling over hundreds of millions of dollars, but are the folks who work at concession stands or sweep the floors and clean the bathrooms and make a far lower hourly wage.

September 21, 2011
Katehi: Replacing hospital CEO would cost more than raise

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has an interesting defense for the sizable raise given to Ann Madden Rice, CEO of the UC Davis Medical Center.

Last week, UC regents approved a $259,000 raise to $960,000 a year, money paid by hospital fees, not state money or student tuition. The justification given was that another academic hospital was recruiting Rice and offering $1.5 million.

Katehi told The Bee's editorial board today that it was "not an easy decision" to support the salary hike.

While no one is irreplaceable, she said, the cost and time of replacing Rice would be far greater than the raise.

Just hiring an executive search firm would cost $500,000, Katehi said. Then the search would take a year, and UC Davis would almost certainly end up paying more for Rice's successor. That's just the way the market is, she said.

Rice, the chancellor added, is a great leader.

It's worth remembering that Katehi wasn't so supportive of Rice earlier this year.

Rice was one of 36 UC executives who demanded higher pensions, calculated on their entire salaries, not the first $245,000 of income under a UC formula. The execs threatened to sue over the issue.

Katehi came out against the higher pensions, saying that "this demand comes at a time when our university is being asked to make many sacrifices."

September 16, 2011
Mayor Johnson gets a quick business endorsement

Well, that didn't take long.

Just two days after Mayor Kevin Johnson announced his re-election bid, the Sacramento Metro Chamber's political action committee announced its backing today.

It's no surprise: the Metro Chamber PAC also supported Johnson in 2008 over incumbent Heather Fargo.

But the endorsement could mean big bucks. The PAC is registered with the city as a Large Political Committee, which allows it to give more in campaign cash than you or me. A large committee can donate as much as $10,100 per election to mayoral candidates and $5,050 to City Council hopefuls, compared to the individual limits of $3,050 and $1,500.

In a statement, Metro PAC Chair Ardie Zahedan said that while business leaders might disagree at times with the mayor, he is a "champion for businesses and pro-business policies" and has raised Sacramento's profile, which aids in recruiting business.

"We believe Mayor Johnson is the right choice for Sacramento as we did in 2008," Zahedan said. "The mayor has the right idea of making Sacramento more business-friendly. This town was founded as a crossroads of commerce, and we need elected leaders like the mayor who understand that when businesses are able to prosper, the community is better for it."

Even if Johnson gets a serious opponent, he will get the lion's share of business support. The more intriguing question is how much labor backing he gets.

Particularly this year, he has made it a point to reach out to labor leaders in his initiatives and has pledged to act as an honest broker between labor and business.

We'll see if it pays off in Johnson's campaign coffers.

September 7, 2011
Johnson, Cohn agree on redistricting, sort of

When it comes to redistricting, Mayor Kevin Johnson and City Councilman Steve Cohn don't agree on much.

They were on opposite sides of Tuesday night's vote adopting new election maps mostly drawn by Cohn. They exchanged some rather piercing barbs during the endless debates.

But now, they apparently are both behind an entirely different way to draw Sacramento's council districts the next time, in 2021.

Cohn let it be known Tuesday night that "after what I've seen this year," he would be fine with a ballot measure to change the City Charter to give the task to an independent citizens committee, along the lines of the one that just finished drawing state legislative and congressional lines.

"Let me say, that won't the take the politics out of it," he warned.

Johnson has been out there by himself calling for such a panel. There was no time to create one for this year's redistricting, so he pushed the council to appoint a citizens advisory committee, though the council kept the final say.

The citizens panel did help significantly increase public input, but it also ended up being at the center of the battle. The committee recommended four plans, but instead of working from those, the council chose to use a map submitted by Cohn.

That was when the redistricting process went awry, the mayor said again Tuesday night. What the council majority has done, particularly by splitting Oak Park and the UC Davis Medical Center, he said, is "gross negligence."

"I certainly can't match your eloquence in speaking for your point of view," Cohn responded acidly, "but that doesn't make what I said or any of the rest of the council what they said any less true....That doesn't negate my view or what I think is right."

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: 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 Spot.us 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 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 sacbee.com/opinion on Thursday.

July 22, 2011
Johnson says Sac deserves better on city manager search

To say that Mayor Kevin Johnson is underwhelmed by the self-declared front-runner for Sacramento's next city manager would be an understatement.

While making clear that he will support the City Council's eventual decision, Johnson is also making it clear that he's disappointed by the crop of applicants. The council could officially pick John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, in the next few weeks, if negotiations pan out.

"It's imperative that our next city manager have the managerial competence to ensure a steady hand at the wheel," the mayor said in a lengthy post on his blog this afternoon. "But we need so much more from our chief executive.

"The right up-and-coming city manager, one with fresh ideas and both public and private sector experience, could build a national reputation by taking Sacramento to the next level," Johnson continued. "From all accounts, that's not going to happen....Multiple candidates lacked even the minimum levels of experience established by the council."

Johnson supported keeping interim City Manager Gus Vina, but a majority of the council voted to do a national search, prompting Vina to leave.

The mayor also noted that the selection process has been conducted entirely behind closed doors.

The Bee editorial board also called on council members to involve the public far more in the process - to no avail.

Shirey may indeed be the best of the 30 applicants. But we'll apparently have to take the council's word for it.

July 20, 2011
Airport, downtown Sacramento back together in district

True to its word, California's Citizens Redistricting Commission has fixed an obvious flaw in its proposed congressional maps and put Sacramento International Airport in the same district as downtown and most of Sacramento.

An earlier plan had the airport in a separate district that included Glenn, Sutter and Yuba counties, among others. Sacramento County supervisors and others lodged a complaint, arguing that the airport's economic ties were to Sacramento, not to far-flung counties. They also made the point that it would make it much more difficult to secure federal funding that is the airport's lifeblood.

The Bee editorial board agreed with those arguments, saying it was a no-brainer.

The latest "visualizations" from the commission put the airport and downtown in the same congressional district. They also put the airport in state Assembly and Senate districts that include the city.

The commission is working feverishly toward an Aug. 15 deadline to finish and approve maps for congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization seats.

July 6, 2011
Did the media go overboard in the Casey Anthony case?

In all the blather following Tuesday's verdict in the Casey Anthony trial, two core truths emerged.

One is that the jury system worked, yet again. We certainly don't know if Anthony killed her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, or if it was a tragic accident. But jurors listened to six weeks of testimony, examined hundreds of exhibits and concluded that prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Anthony was guilty of anything other than lying to investigators.

The other truth is that some elements of the media behaved despicably. It was far less about justice for Caylee -- and far more about ratings and advertising dollars.

There's no denying that cable TV in particular focused on the salacious and elevated this case way beyond what it deserved. Nancy Grace convicted Anthony - or as she called her, "tot mom" -- over and over again on her HLN show. So it was little surprise that she showed an absolute lack of grace in response to the acquittal, claiming that "the devil is dancing tonight."

Do you think the media acted responsibly in the Casey Anthony case?

To read the full editorial, pick up The Bee or log on to sacbee.com/opinion on Thursday.

June 17, 2011
Feds announce redo of 'Secure Communities' program

Responding to a growing chorus of criticism, federal immigration officials are revamping a program designed to deport dangerous criminals.

To address concerns that too many low-level offenders are being netted, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton announced Friday that the Secure Communities program will be changed to focus more on those convicted of serious crimes.

A new advisory panel that includes local law enforcement officials and immigration advocates will come up with recommendations on how, for instance, to stop the deportation of people arrested, but not convicted, of minor traffic offenses who have no criminal history or serious immigration violations.

To deal with concerns that ethnic profiling is going on and that community policing is being hampered, there will be more training.

And to avoid cases where victims of domestic violence are deported, a new policy directs immigration officers to use discretion so that they and other crime victims aren't swept up.

"We need to do a better job of ensuring that the program is more focused on targeting those that pose the biggest risk to communities," Morton said in a statement. "Today we are undertaking several reforms--developed in collaboration with our law enforcement partners and other stakeholders--that help us achieve that goal and will improve and strengthen the program."

Officials and advocates in California have been at the forefront of pushing for change. A bill that would require that counties "opt in" to the program was passed May 26 by the Assembly and is in the Senate committee process.

The Bee editorial board also called for the program to be overhauled.

UPDATE: Some advocates blasted the changes as merely cosmetic and called for a moratorium on the program until more comprehensive reform.

"Today's announcement by ICE is simply window dressing," Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who is the bill's author, said in a statement.

"How many more innocent people have to be swept up by the ironically named Secure Communities program before the Obama administration will change course? Talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not an excuse for continuing with a flawed, unjust program that is having tragic consequences for communities across the country," he added.

Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of everyone arrested by participating local law enforcement agencies are run through federal immigration databases.

In California, nearly 1.8 million sets of fingerprints were checked from when the program started here in May 2009 through the end of March. Of those, 172,000 were matched to illegal immigrants and nearly 39,000 were deported.

Nearly 12,000 of those deported had been convicted of violent crimes or major drug offenses. But about 16,000 were deported for lesser crimes, and nearly 11,000 were "noncriminals" - those without any convictions, though they may have had gang affiliations or have been deported previously.

June 3, 2011
Is Sacramento's planning commission representative enough?

It's definitely a curiosity: Of the 11 members on the city of Sacramento's Planning Commission, six live in District 4 and another three in District 3. That's nine members from just two districts, while four districts -- 2, 5, 6 and 7 --- aren't represented at all.

But it's not clear whether the imbalance makes much difference in the commission's decision-making.

The concentration was worsened this week with the latest appointment: Darrell Fong, the new councilman in District 7, nominated William Wong, a close political ally who lives in District 4.

UPDATE: Wong responded by saying that while he doesn't live in the district, he has strong ties to residents there and has "already reached out to make sure that I have regular meetings to discuss District 7 concerns."

In an email, he also pointed out that he has lived in Sacramento since 1991 and has 20 years of public policy experience, including serving as a consultant to the Senate Housing and Community Development Committee, working at an advocacy group on rent control and affordable housing and serving on the Sacramento Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission.

For many years, planning commissioners were all chosen citywide. In late 2009, the City Council expanded the panel from nine to 11 members - two chosen at large and one picked by each of the eight council members and mayor. But there's no requirement that council members nominate someone from their district.

The over-representation is partly a product of many planning types living in Districts 3 and 4, which include east Sacramento, midtown, Land Park, etc.

The current commission is seen as diligent, doing its homework wherever a particular project happens to be. Still, it wouldn't hurt to have someone who lives in the district to weigh in.

Some of the highest-profile planning cases lately were in districts not directly represented on the commission: the poultry plant-SPCA kerfuffle earlier this year was in District 6, while the much-debated Curtis Park Village project last year was in District 5 and the Iceland skating rink issue last year was in District 2.

While the commission is one of the city's more powerful appointed boards, major and controversial projects are invariably appealed to the council, which does have district representation.

Any correction to the imbalance will take a while, barring any resignations. Commission members serve four-year terms and the next openings - three of them - don't happen until January. And two of those seats, in Districts 1 and 3, are already filled by people who reside in those districts.

Expertise is certainly important. But so is representation.

Council members ought to at least think about it.

June 2, 2011
League of Women Voters ads cause consternation

The Bee's editorial board says the League of Women Voters is making a mistake with its new, more aggressive direction and risking its long-cultivated reputation as a nonpartisan, good government group.

The league says it had to do something different to get attention for its support of the Clean Air Act so it launched TV ads accusing two U.S. senators of protecting polluters over people.

But the spots have caused heartache among some league members, who see it as a troubling departure.

Here are the two ads so you can judge for yourself whether the group has crossed the line into negative campaigning of the kind done by ideological advocacy groups.

The first goes after Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican.


The second criticizes Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.



June 1, 2011
Grand jury bill progresses, but has been defanged

A bill aimed at California's civil grand juries could reach the floor for a final Assembly vote as soon as today.

But it will be missing what many opponents saw as its most objectionable part.

Assembly Bill 622 would have required that witnesses testify in public session, except for confidential personnel matters. Critics warned that change would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers and that witnesses would be less willing to testify candidly. And that would hurt the ability of grand juries to go after fraud and abuse in local governments, the bill's foes said.

That provision was excised because it would have added costs to local governments as the bill passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote last Friday.

The bill still calls for the subjects of grand jury reports to have at least 45 days to respond before the reports become public. The measure also says that witnesses should be able to have lawyers at their side while testifying.

Opponents, who include former and current grand jury members in Sacramento County and elsewhere, say those requirements are unnecessary and would get in the way.

The measure is being pushed by new Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who came under fire from Sacramento County grand juries while he was a county supervisor. He says there needs to be more transparency for grand juries so they don't run amok and abuse their power.

The Bee's editorial board concluded that while grand juries have made some mistakes, there's no evidence there are widespread problems - and no compelling reason to change what have been important watchdogs over local government.

May 11, 2011
Clock ticking on suggesting Sacramento council districts

With time still on the clock, City Hall has already received more suggested maps for new Sacramento City Council districts this go-round than a decade ago.

 

As of Wednesday, 14 proposals had been submitted, compared to 13 for the 2000 redistricting.

 

Interested residents and groups have until midnight Monday to put in a map through the city's website. The mapping software will still be available after that, but the "submit" function will be disabled.

 

Some have questioned why the mapping software starts from the existing eight council districts, suggesting that might give the incumbents a leg up.

 

The city's explanation: To make sure no blocks are left out of suggested maps and to follow the criteria to consider "communities of interest" - one of them being existing districts. The city also notes that the location of incumbents' homes isn't marked, though of course that's not that difficult to figure out.

 

Council members are trying to broaden public outreach this time by appointing a citizens advisory committee that will help vet the maps. But the task is still tough: The population gap among districts is sizable, meaning quite a bit of shifting around.

 

The 2010 Census put Sacramento's population at 466,488, so to meet the goal to have each district be close to equal size, each would have 58,311 residents.

April 27, 2011
California Musical Theatre is having a blockbuster week

Everything is coming up roses for the California Musical Theatre this week.

It set a record with 1,600 subscriptions sold Monday and Tuesday for this season of Broadway Sacramento, thanks in large part to the coming of "Wicked."

And on Tuesday evening, the City Council unanimously approved a $300,000 line of credit to help CMT's cash flow for the next three years.

The Bee's editorial board supported the loan, noting CMT's importance to downtown, the city's vested interest in CMT's health and the safeguards in place for the city.

At Councilman Jay Schenirer's suggestion, the council added another, calling for community members with expertise in the arts to be added to an oversight committee that will review CMT's finances before the city releases any money.

"We're just proud to be partners," said Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Richard Lewis, CMT's executive producer, told the council that 600 of the 1,600 season subscriptions are new - a strong sign that his group is well on the way to recovery. CMT, like many other arts groups, has been hit hard by the recession as people cut their entertainment spending.

April 14, 2011
Sacramento hoops trade-up gets a boost with possible Burkle bid

Not to toot my own horn, but I did write a column in February suggesting that the best solution to the Kings saga might be a trade-up: A new owner for the Kings, or if they leave, another, better team with new owners in Sacramento.  

 

That seems much more likely with the news from New York today that billionaire Ron Burkle is interested in pro hoops in Sactown.

 

The Maloofs, who have until Monday to file a request to move the Kings to Anaheim, continue to insist they have no interest in selling the team. So the more likely scenario might be getting another team, possibly the New Orleans Hornets, who are owned by the NBA. The Hornets, unlike the Kings, are in the playoffs this season.

 

Speaking of that February column, I have to say that I was flat wrong about one thing. I called Marcus Thornton "an unproven second-year guard" and suggested he was nowhere near as good as Carl Landry, whom the Kings swapped for Thornton.

 

Thornton was probably the Kings' best player since the February trade brought him here, averaging more than 20 points a game, including 33 in Wednesday night's season-ending overtime loss to the hated Lakers.  

 

So mea culpa on that one
April 11, 2011
PG&E president promises a safer, customer-friendly company

Chris Johns, president of PG&E, has been on what he describes as a "listening tour" after what he calls the company's most challenging year ever.

That tour brought him this afternoon to The Bee's editorial board, where he vowed that the giant utility will operate safely, efficiently and with customers always in mind.

Last year, customers rebelled against the installation of "smart meters." Johns acknowledged that the company did not do a great job of educating homeowners and laying the groundwork, but also said PG&E was the victim of going first in California and timing with a rate increase and hot temperatures that convinced many customers that the meters were responsible for high bills.

The conversion is 95 percent complete in the Sacramento region and about 75 percent complete in PG&E's entire service area. Complaints are down, Johns said.

Then in June, Proposition 16, financed by PG&E, went down at the polls. It would have made it much more difficult for new public utilities to form and existing ones to expand - thus limiting competition. The Bee, along with most newspaper editorial boards, roundly criticized the ballot measure as a power grab.

Johns said he has heard loud and clear from residents and customers that PG&E shouldn't be in the business of putting initiatives on the ballot. He said he doesn't think it will happen again.

Asked whether it was bad policy or bad timing, or whether the company would sponsor a ballot measure ever again, he replied, "I'll leave it at that."

And then last September, a PG&E gas line ruptured and exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people, destroying 38 homes and leading to one troubling revelation after another but testing and maintenance of the natural gas infrastructure.

Johns said everything connected with the gas lines is now under a microscope and he accepts that. Saying it would be even more tragic if PG&E did not do everything possible to prevent a similar explosion, he promised that the company will emerge from all the scrutiny with the best-run natural gas system in the country.

More recently, PG&E has been dealing with its collateral damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled a nuclear power plant. The utility is having to prove to regulators, lawmakers and residents that its two reactors at Diablo Canyon are safe from natural disaster.

In advance of a town hall meeting Wednesday, the company announced today that it is asking federal regulators to delay re-licensing the plant until extensive seismic studies are complete, probably by the end of 2015. The plant, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is near two earthquake faults -- and within 50 miles of some 400,000 Californians.

James Becker, the site vice president at Diablo Canyon, said there are some important differences that make it much safer. The cooling system can work without any power at all, and if the grid goes down, there are six backup diesel generators with enough fuel on site to last seven days, he said.

And since 2009, about 800 spent fuel rods have been placed in more secure dry cask storage, leaving about 2,000 in pools, Becker said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who recently toured Diablo Canyon, urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today to require that transition to dry cask storage happen quicker at nuclear power plants across the country.

 

March 30, 2011
Sac redistricting panel will get Latino representation

A glitch became apparent in Sacramento's new citizens advisory committee on redistricting, but the City Council moved quickly Tuesday evening to try to fix it.

Once the mayor and each council member picked one member, and four others were nominated through the usual committee process, it turned out that there was not a single Latino on the panel.

Several Latino political and civic activists showed up at Tuesday's meeting to point that out -- and to urge the council to stand behind its pledge to have a committee that reflects Sacramento's diversity.

A "glaring omission," Councilman Kevin McCarty called it.

It also turned out, however, that no eligible Latino applicants stepped forward, apparently because the word didn't get out or because of confusion about the application process, or a combination of both.

At the suggestion of Councilwoman Angelique Ashby (who originally opposed creating the committee), the council voted unanimously to add two members to the panel, who presumably will be Latino. The deadline is April 3 to apply online, but even on an accelerated schedule, the change could delay the committee's first meeting, which had been scheduled for April 11.

The committee, designed to increase public input into the process, has its work cut out. Census figures show that the population imbalance among the eight districts is even larger than projected, meaning district lines will likely have to be adjusted even more. It's always a politically fraught process, and is likely to be more so with the divisions and rivalries on this council.

March 15, 2011
Chamber backs Sacramento poultry plant fought by SPCA

The Sacramento Metro Chamber today joined the voices calling on City Hall to allow a poultry processing plant to open off Florin Perkins Road.

 

After the Sacramento SPCA complained that a plant where chickens are killed would be a bad fit with its shelter near the proposed site, New American Poultry fell one vote shy of the six needed on the city's Planning Commission to get the special-use permit.

 

Company owner Harry Cheung is appealing to the City Council, saying that unless he can find a suitable site, he'd be forced to close his decade-old business on Broadway because his lease there isn't being renewed.

 

Metro Chamber CEO Matt Mahood wrote a letter to Mayor Kevin Johnson and other council members urging them to issue the permit. The Bee's editorial board made a similar plea this morning.

 

"This isn't simply an issue of whether or not 20 new jobs get created; it's also an issue of whether we retain the existing 30," Mahood wrote.

 

"Your choice is simple. Create up to 20 new jobs; or, lose as many as 50 jobs on net. If you are looking for an opportunity to demonstrate that City Hall's anti-business reputation is overblown, this one is as good as any."

March 14, 2011
Mayor Johnson resigned on Kings, bullish on Natomas

Mayor Kevin Johnson sounded even less hopeful today that the Kings will spurn Anaheim and stay in Sacramento after all.

He told the Natomas Chamber of Commerce that the Kings have one foot "and three toes, maybe four" on the other foot out the door, despite his entreaties to the Kings owners, the Maloofs. Johnson said everyone should know for sure by the NBA owners meeting in mid-April, if not before.

The mayor's advocacy for a new downtown sports and entertainment arena - with or without the Kings - does not go over well in Natomas, where residents and businesses fear what will happen to Power Balance Pavilion (formerly Arco Arena) if a new arena is built elsewhere. Chamber President Ed Koop teased the mayor in his introduction, holding up the plan to build a new arena in Natomas and saying it was still available to the city.

At the 7th annual "State of Natomas" luncheon today, Johnson renewed his commitment that any redevelopment of the Natomas arena site will mean the same economic impact or more.

More broadly, he acknowledged that City Hall has not "met the mark" in fulfilling the "grand vision" for Natomas as a mixed-use paradise. That's partly due to the budget crunch and economic downturn, and partly due to the building moratorium imposed until the levees are shored up, he said. But elected officials "have not lived up that vision," Johnson said.

Even with the building moratorium, Census figures out last week showed that Natomas is where the vast majority of Sacramento's population growth occurred over the past decade. It may be time, the mayor said, to "reset" with a new vision for Natomas going forward.

March 9, 2011
An even bigger challenge on new Sacramento council districts

The official 2010 Census numbers show that the job of drawing new City Council districts in Sacramento will be even tougher than believed.

That's because the gap between the largest and smallest of the eight districts is even larger than what officials thought based on 2009 population projections. The real numbers released by the city today show that District 1, centered in Natomas, has 106,729 residents - at least double the population of every other district except District 8. (Go to the city's redistricting webpage and click on "2010 Population Table" on the left rail.)

District 1's population is 83 percent above the ideal size for a district, while District 4's is 22 percent below the target population.

The district populations were already out of whack because the districts approved in 2001 weren't the best and because of uneven population growth this past decade.

It's going to be a complicated, politically tense task to get the districts close to the ideal of one person, one vote, while still keeping most neighborhoods intact.

The hope here is that success will be at least somewhat more likely this go-round because a new citizens advisory committee will also work on the districts starting next month. The mayor and council members named their nine appointees Tuesday evening. Another four will go through the city's usual appointment process.

The City Charter requires that the new districts be in place within six months of the data release, so the revised schedule calls for the council to adopt new districts on Sept. 6. Circle that date on your calendars.

February 24, 2011
Justifications crumble for Sacramento 'crash tax'

Really, is there any justification left to start charging the "crash tax" on out-of-towners starting Friday?

A slim majority on the Sacramento City Council voted last month to begin charging nonresident motorists for the cost of fire department response. They have consistently defended their decision by saying that the city had to come up with cash and had few options left.

But Wednesday, the city's Fire Department announced that it will receive a $5.6 million federal grant -- enough to hire 27 firefighters and restore two fire companies that had been browned out (taken out of service on a rotating basis). The cash infusion will improve response times throughout the city.

It should also cause council members to rethink the need for the "crash tax" since it would only raise $300,000 to $500,000 a year -- and that estimate may be a stretch. It certainly won't offset the damage the new fee has already done to Sacramento's reputation and its relations with its neighbors, and will continue to do if the fee stays in place.

The Bee's editorial board has consistently opposed the "crash tax" as an ill-advised way to boost the city's budget.

February 3, 2011
What will Rio Linda water district board do now?

Once again, the next step is up to the Rio Linda water district board -- and the question is whether it will act responsibly.

Wednesday evening, the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission voted to urge the board to accept temporary managerial help - most likely from the Sacramento Suburban Water District - to get the district's finances in order.

It was a small, but necessary move.

The district is under a state public health order to improve its system, but its financial condition is precarious. A recent independent audit raised the question whether it can survive. The new board is proposing a rate increase to obtain a $7.5 million state loan to build three new wells.

Meanwhile, there are allegations of misuse of public money and an investigation by the Sacramento County District Attorney's office, as well as continued infighting on the district board, after voters elected a new majority of three members in November.

LAFCO has oversight over the district, but says its control is limited without another public agency willing to take over the district. With all the financial uncertainty, everyone is extremely wary of getting involved.

Until there's a resolution, the 15,000 residents who rely on the district for drinking water and water for fire protection don't have a guarantee of adequate service.

February 2, 2011
Citizens panel will help guide Sacramento's redistricting

It's not as independent as the citizens committee that will draw California's new congressional and legislative districts this year.

But given the limited time and complicated politics, the citizens advisory panel that the Sacramento City Council agreed to form Tuesday night to help with the city's redistricting was probably the most that could have been expected.

The panel will include 13 members -- Mayor Kevin Johnson and the eight council members will each appoint one, then the council's personnel committee would nominate four at-large members to the full council. Anyone can apply, but several council members said they would be looking for particular expertise and suggested that representatives from good government groups such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause would likely be picked.

The council would keep the final say over the new council districts, which would be used for the first time in 2012. Any resident or community group could still submit maps. The advisory committee will review and analyze submissions, identify key issues and recommend the maps it believes would be best for the city. Possibly, it could come up with one of its own, combining elements of others.

Council members supporting the panel said it would help the process, increase citizen involvement and just perhaps mean a fairer redistricting.

New council member Jay Schenirer argued that it will help rebuild public trust, which he said was essential to moving the city forward.

But new Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, the lone dissenter in the 8-1 vote Tuesday night, said she opposed the advisory panel because redistricting is the council's job and she wants direct input, unfiltered at all by another layer.

Her district, District 1, will have to be changed significantly, largely because uneven population growth has grown its population to nearly double the size of four other districts.

The council plans to formally create the advisory panel with a resolution next Tuesday.

January 26, 2011
Are split votes a trend for new Sacramento City Council?

Close watchers of the Sacramento City Council might have noticed the intriguing way the votes lined up on the two 5-4 decisions Tuesday night, the first really substantive meeting with its three new members.

On the vote to do a national search for a permanent city manager, new councilman Darrell Fong joined Rob Fong, Kevin McCarty, Bonnie Pannell and Sandy Sheedy. Mayor Kevin Johnson, Steve Cohn and new council members Angelique Ashby and Jay Schenirer voted against it.

On billing out-of-town drivers for the cost of fire department response to crashes, Ashby, Cohn, Johnson, McCarty and Schenirer voted yes, while Darrell Fong, Rob Fong, Pannell and Sheedy voted no.

Darrell Fong pledged during the campaign that he would be independent. Though he voted with Rob Fong, Pannell and Sheedy on both issues - on the winning side on one, the losing side on the other -- he repeated that vow today.

No matter how it might appear, he's not part of any alliance, and will vote his conscience issue by issue, Fong said. He said he wanted to reassure his constituents.

"There are many more votes to come," he said.

McCarty, who said he didn't realize until driving home that he was the lone council member on the winning side on both issues, agreed that the same split won't happen going forward. He doesn't believe he'll be the swing vote on this new council.

While it might be better that a clear majority on the council makes policy, he said, he's not troubled by the two 5-4 votes right off the bat. Division, he said, "is the nature of democracy."

January 25, 2011
Council wants full search for new Sacramento city manager

A divided City Council decided today to do a national search for a permanent city manager.

After the latest in a series of closed sessions, the council chose not to give the job to interim City Manager Gus Vina, who took that role last March.

Vina could apply, and is likely to do so, but the fact that a majority of the council wants to look elsewhere first does not bode well for him.

He has the support of Mayor Kevin Johnson, but council members Sandy Sheedy, Rob Fong, Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Bonnie Pannell voted for the national search.

The Bee's editorial board has said he has done a good job in tough times and deserves serious consideration. Whether that will really happen - and how good possible candidates will be - are both open questions.  

 

January 20, 2011
Sacramento's Vina, UC Davis's Pomeroy get plaudits

There were two intriguing shout-outs during today's "State of the City" festivities in Sacramento.

Mayor Kevin Johnson put in another plug for interim City Manager Gus Vina, whose prospects for getting the permanent gig are uncertain at best.

"I think you would be a great city manager for Sacramento, or wherever you land," the mayor told an audience that included business leaders and fellow council members.

While Johnson and others want to keep him, other council members want to do a national search that could lead to a new city manager. The council has been meeting behind closed doors to discuss the issue and evaluate Vina. After another closed session on Tuesday, it could decide and announce its decision on a search.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Metro Chamber, which hosted the event, announced that Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis medical school and CEO of the UC Davis health system, is its "Businesswoman of the Year."

The chamber recognized her for helping make UC Davis "a major contributor to the health care industry and economy of the Sacramento region."

But Pomeroy may be better known these days as one of 36 UC executives who signed a letter to the regents demanding higher pensions, and threatening legal action.

They want their pensions based on their total salary, even the amount above a $245,000 federal cap. Pomeroy made $529,000 in 2009. The San Francisco Chronicle says that if the officials get their way, someone who earns $400,000 a year and retires after 30 years would get an annual pension of $300,000 instead of $183,750.

The execs have been pummeled by the press and by legislators. UC's top officials, including UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, oppose the request.

So the response will be interesting to say the least when Pomeroy joins other awardees in being recognized at the chamber's annual dinner on Feb. 4.

January 20, 2011
Johnson says Sacramento needs 'mojo;' it also needs lots of jobs

Mayor Kevin Johnson called today for Sacramento to return to its pioneering spirit to get back on track, to get its "mojo" back.

Without such risk-taking and entrepreneurship, it will take even longer to recover from the recession, he told some 900 people at his third State of the City speech.

"Things," Johnson said, "are grim."

How grim?

Earlier today, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report showing that Sacramento's economy is in worse shape than many other cities -- and that it faces an uphill battle.

The study by IHS Global Insight says that of the nation's 363 metro areas, Sacramento is one of 109 that will still have an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher at the end of 2011 (a projected 11.9 percent to be precise). At the end of 2014, its jobless rate is expected to still be above 9 percent.

Sacramento is one of only 44 metro areas that will have no job growth or actual losses (a 0.2 percent loss) this year.

And it is one of 152 metro areas that will not return to its pre-recession peak number of jobs until after 2014. The study says that the Sacramento region has lost 103,500 jobs since the peak in the second quarter of 2007, and isn't projected to claw its way back until the second quarter of 2016.

That's nine years.

In his speech, Johnson said supporting the green technology sector and boosting the downtown core can help create jobs. He also said he would fight Gov. Jerry Brown on taking away redevelopment money that he said he will "cripple cities."

And Johnson announced that he had snagged his first national headquarters. Of course, he had an inside track.

His fiancee Michelle Rhee is founding StudentsFirst, a national advocacy organization designed as a counterweight to teacher unions. She plans to have 1 million members in the first year, and 10 million eventually. She plans to raise $1 billion within five years. And she'll work from the national office in Sacramento.

While other big-city mayors "came a-courting" to Rhee, he said to laughter, '"I'm not ashamed to say that I pulled out all the stops."

It's a start, but as the mayors' study shows, there's a long, long way to go..

January 19, 2011
Council will look at citizens panel on Sacramento redistricting

It's nowhere near a done deal, but City Council members agreed Tuesday night to look at the possibility of a citizens advisory committee to help it wade through the redrawing of Sacramento's council districts.

The council agreed to similar public outreach as the last redistricting in 2001, but also asked staffers to come back in two weeks with options on an advisory committee - what its role would be, who would be on it and how its members would be picked.

During the debate, Mayor Kevin Johnson endorsed an advisory committee, and several others said they were at least interested enough to see staff proposals. Under the City Charter, the council would still have the final say, but an advisory panel could put more pressure on the council to adopt districts that are fair and sensible and ensure equal representation for all residents.

Because of how they were drawn 10 years ago and uneven population growth since, the current districts don't meet any of those goals.

But other council members said they should not rely on the advisory panel to hold public hearings and come up with a recommendation. District 2 representative Sandy Sheedy argued that such a committee could decrease citizen input and confuse the public if it was given too much authority.

Angelique Ashby, the new representative in District 1, said council members, themselves, should take the time to hear from the public and come up with the best map. Because it is home to an estimated 101,000 people -- nearly twice as many as four other districts - her district is likely to be significantly changed.

Besides the balancing act between council authority and public input, the redistricting process will also center on the balancing act between approving districts that are nearly equal in population - and also accounting for future growth that could skew the population balance.

Deputy City Attorney Matt Ruyak told the council it can factor in planned growth, but has to be able to justify it with real plans and estimates. If the council goes that direction, it might try to account for continued growth in Natomas, as well as new development in the downtown railyard and Delta Shores. Otherwise, the council could only redraw the maps again before 2021 if there is a major annexation.

January 6, 2011
McClintock delivers bipartisan critique of presidents

Who says bipartisanship is dead in Washington?

 

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from Elk Grove, is part of the new GOP majority in the House. But in his maiden floor speech of the 112th Congress today, he had praise, and criticism, for Democratic and Republican presidents alike.

 

Calling for this Congress to restore prosperity, he said government has to cut red tape and slash spending - all to advance economic freedom for consumers and businesses. "That's the fundamental problem that we face today. Our government has not only failed to protect the freedom that creates prosperity, but it has become destructive of that freedom," he said.

 

McClintock gave Democrats Bill Clinton and Harry Truman a pat on the back for reducing excessive spending that robs individuals of the freedom to decide where to spend and invest. And he slapped Republicans George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover for increasing spending.

 

As for the current occupant of the Oval Office? Democrat Barack Obama, of course, is in the negative category, according to McClintock.

 

"Presidents like Coolidge, Truman, Reagan and