Sunday, February 23, 2014

The mysterious disappearance of Royal Calkins

Some people liked him. Right-wing conservatives hated him. I had some dealings with him and thought he was a pretty reasonable guy. Up until a couple of weeks ago, Royal Calkins was the editor of the Monterey Herald, our daily newspaper.

Royal was a good communicator. As a matter of routine, he openly and honestly kept his readers informed about the nature of his job, the criticism he's encountered, and the many changes being made at the newspaper by its corporate owners, Digital First Media.

At the end of December he wrote a column warning readers that the daily comics page was about to change drastically. He explained that it was a corporate budgetary decision to have the exact same comics page in all of the company's newspapers to save labor and cut costs. Combining humor with a refreshing sense of honesty he opened himself up to an inevitable barrage of complaints saying:
"Yes, we know readers don't like this. In fact, we understand many of you just flat out hate it whenever it happens. And we expect to hear about it Monday, when the new daily comics page debuts.
The number to call about the elimination of "Frank & Ernest" or "Squid Row" is 646-4381. That's my number. If you call, I will sympathize with you. I'll try to understand what you liked about Hagar. But what I won't be able to do is put your favorite back in. That's because I can't."
No feel-good positive spin there. He laid it out as it really was. If every company communicated that way, with respect for the customer's intelligence, this would be a much better world. 

A month later Calkins wrote another column informing us that come March the overall look and layout of the newspaper would be changing. The production of the Herald, along with eleven other newspapers in the chain, will be consolidated into one production facility in Chico, costing "four or five" Herald copy editors and paginators their jobs (unless they were willing to leave the cool shores of Monterey for the sizzling summers of Chico).

Two weeks later Royal Calkins vanished. 

With no explanation, the paper's February 7th front page announced that Don Miller, editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, would now be doing double-duty as editor of both the Sentinel and the Herald. The article made a clumsy attempt to reassure readers that Miller was familiar with his newly annexed territory because he likes "hiking at Point Lobos, golf, riding bikes and eating at local restaurants." So he's qualified to publish a travel guide, but it would have been far more reassuring if he named a few local political issues he'd been following instead.

Naturally a lot of people became concerned. Including me. How can the local newspaper effectively cover local politics if the guy in charge lives and works in a very different community? 

Have no fear, Herald publisher Gary Omernick told us in a February 13th column loaded with enough spin and fluff to make a boatload of cotton candy. The sincerity we came to expect from Royal Calkins was nowhere to be found. Instead, Omernick blamed the community's skepticism on competitors "trying to scare advertisers away from The Herald to help their bottom lines." Never mind that the Monterey County Weekly and the Carmel Pine Cone, despite being editorial rivals, have both openly acknowledged the importance of the Herald as the Peninsula's primary news source. As for the rest of us, Omernick said "I don't put much stock in what disgruntled people say because...well, they're disgruntled." Way to blow off people's concerns, Gary!

If the publisher can glibly blow off readers' concerns, then readers are fully justified in blowing off the Herald's spineless explanations. Fortunately, the Herald has some good competition to ask the hard questions. In a February 13th article the Monterey County Weekly asked What does the hedge fund that really owns the Herald have in mind?  Along with uncovering at least some of the truth, the Weekly's editor lamented the loss of Calkins because of his tenacity in uncovering county political corruption.

So what happened to Calkins? As of now, the best we can do is make an educated guess. The possibilities are:
  • He left voluntarily and amicably. This is the least plausible explanation. His departure was abrupt and unexplained. Had he resigned voluntarily he would almost certainly have written a goodbye column in accord with his normal habits of keeping readers informed about the goings-on at the newspaper. He understood that readers don't like surprises, as evidenced by his columns informing readers of upcoming changes earlier this year.
  • He walked off the job in disgust. Possibly. Watching your newspaper being slowly dismantled by corporate bean counters has got to be stressful and perhaps one day he decided he'd had enough. According to the Monterey County Weekly he did send an internal e-mail praising his staff, suggesting there might have been friction from above and comfort from below.
  • He was downsized. We know that Digital First Media is consolidating everything. Ad production is being done in India. Printing is now done in San Jose. Production is moving to Chico next month. And three other positions (publisher, advertising director, and circulation manager) had already been consolidated with the Sentinel, making this explanation plausible. But it doesn't explain why Calkins didn't write a goodbye column, which he probably would have done had he seen it coming.
  • He was fired. Maybe for violating company policy, maybe because conservatives had been calling for his head on a platter, maybe because (according to one theory - not mine)  local politicians didn't like the way he brought corruption to light and they put pressure on the newspaper's owners to get rid of him. Maybe.
  • He was murdered. Well, there's no body, and his family hasn't reported him missing, so we can probably rule out foul play. 

Regardless of the reason, one thing is certain. Despite all the happy "we're committed to serving the community" talk from the new editor and old publisher, we can no longer believe that the Herald has the readers' or the community's best interests at heart.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Goodnight, Ms. Fontaine

One of our local celebrities, Joan Fontaine, passed away over the weekend. The famous Hollywood actress spent her retirement years living in the Carmel Highlands. Coincidentally, the two Alfred Hitchcock films Rebecca and Suspicion, which made her a big-name star, both contained brief scenes filmed right here on the Monterey Peninsula. The first film in 1940 got her an Academy Award nomination, while her second performance the following year earned the Oscar itself.

I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Fontaine a few times in the 1980s when I worked at Brinton's in Carmel. She was a regular customer there. Among the store's staff she had a reputation as being kinda fussy, but in my dealings with her I always found her to be very pleasant, easygoing, and friendly. I remember one occasion when she was seeking advice on the best way to remove mildew from a patio umbrella. It was a rather mundane conversation, but an enjoyable memory nevertheless.

One of the last times I saw her was in the mid 1990s when I was assistant manager at the now-demolished Crossroads Cinemas at the mouth of Carmel Valley. She came to the show with a couple of friends, a man and another woman. On the east wall of our lobby was a mural, a montage containing hundreds of movie star photos from the 1920s up to about 1970 when the theater was built. The group began studying it, and the man started naming people he recognized. At one point he said to Fontaine "There's you..." as he continued putting names to faces.

AHA! I thought. I had sometimes looked for Joan Fontaine on that mural, but never could find her. Now I knew she was there, but I  still didn't know exactly where. I couldn't just go up and ask them. Company policy was very clear, if a celebrity was in the building we were absolutely not permitted to acknowledge that we recognized them. Celebrities were to be treated exactly the same as any other customer.

So I devised a little trick. I went up to them and said "I'll give you free popcorn if you can name all of the people up there." An impossible task, of course, at least in the limited time before the next show started. But it worked. The gentleman said "What will you give me if I show you someone on this wall who is in this building right now?" He then tapped his finger on Fontaine's picture, then made a sweeping gesture towards his companion and introduced "Miss Joan Fontaine." She then gave me a timid little wave and a pleasant little smile. I think I said something like "I'm happy to meet you," and then they turned and went into the auditorium.

It was nice having that lady around. She will be missed.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Measure K supporters play the victim card.

Yesterday Mrs. Toy found a cheap, home-printed flyer opposing Measure M and supporting Measure K in our mailbox. It was signed by five people, including three former city council members, Helen Rucker, Steve Bloomer, and Darryl Choates. The other two were "Seaside Resident" James Bogan, and "Local Seaside Merchant" Dennis Volk. Now, I've come to expect almost anything from Bloomer and Choates, but the normally sensible Helen Rucker ought to know better than to put her name on such hokum.

The flyer said:

"Dear Seaside Neighbor,

"On Tuesday November 5, there will be an election that will have a very big impact on our city and our families.

"Measure M takes control away from our elected Seaside City Council and gives that power to wealthy outsiders in Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove."
Whoa! Right off the bat they're turning this into a class warfare issue. Poor Seaside is being picked on by our "wealthy" neighbors, er, "outsiders," people not of our kind! How dare they dictate what happens in Seaside!

Well, for starters, much of the land affected by Measure M is under the county's jurisdiction, not Seaside's. Seaside hopes to annex it, but unless that actually happens, voters throughout Monterey County, not just Seaside, have every right to decide how that land will be used.

As for Seaside's portion,
my reason for taking the decision out of the city council's hands is clearly stated in my previous Mental Note K vs. M, so I won't repeat myself here.

The flyer continues...

"Measure M eliminates over 20,000 good-paying jobs....."
Wrong again. You can't eliminate jobs that don't yet exist. Those 20,000 jobs are merely potential jobs that would only be created if every planned feature of Monterey Downs, including a racetrack, two hotels, a shopping center, and a bunch of new houses, are all actually built. Considering that Seaside has been unable to get hotels and/or shopping centers built near the Main Gate area, or at the Bayonet/Black Horse golf courses, or Lower Broadway, where support infrastructure like streets, electrical service, water mains, and sewers already exist, how likely is it that they will ever get built where no infrastructure exists?

The flyer then repeats the widely discredited Measure K mantra about the veteran's cemetery, then concludes by saying 

"The wealthy outsiders who wrote Measure M hope you and your neighbors won't show up at the polls Tuesday to protect your interests."
Evidently, the cosigners of this flyer want us to believe there is a Peninsula-wide conspiracy against Seaside, that Measure M is part of some nefarious plot by neighboring cities to keep Seaside poor and stupid. What I see, however, is that these five individuals are hoping Seaside residents are just stupid enough to believe that, so we'll vote against imagined "wealthy outsiders" who are actually our friends and neighbors, fellow residents of the Monterey Peninsula.

Oh, speaking of wealthy outsiders,
the flyer was paid for "with generous support from Monterey Downs" the only real outsider in this whole matter, and a very wealthy one.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

K vs. M

Monterey County voters have every reason to be confused by two competing measures on the November 5th ballot. Measures K and M would, each in their own way, have a profound effect on the future development of Fort Ord.

The primary development issues at play are:

  1. A massive commercial development called Monterey Downs centered around a proposed horse racetrack.
  2. A long awaited veterans cemetery. 
Theoretically, and frankly, in actuality, these are and should be two separate matters. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years questionable political alliances have hopelessly intertwined these issues so that they have become indistinguishable in the minds of some people.

Briefly, Measure M would permanently preserve the centuries-old oak forest - 50,000 trees in all - where Monterey Downs wants to go. Local recreation and open space advocacy groups are behind Measure M. Measure K would not directly approve Monterey Downs, but it would make it a lot easier to get through the bureaucratic hoops. The developers of Monterey Downs paid most of the expenses of getting K on the ballot as a direct challenge to Measure M.

The veterans cemetery would go next door to the proposed site of Monterey Downs no matter what, but not everyone sees it that way. Veterans say only Measure K would let the cemetery go forward, partly because they believe M would make the cemetery more difficult, if not impossible to build, but mostly because Monterey Downs would help finance the underfunded cemetery.

In the ensuing scuffle between the two ballot measures, conflicting claims and counter-claims have been flying across the land with each side accusing the other of misleading voters. Worse, Measure K promoters are emphasizing the veterans cemetery in a "tug at the heartstrings" campaign designed to distract voters from Monterey Downs.


I'm going to vote for M and against K, and here's why.

I'm voting No on K because it is not about the veterans cemetery. It's all about making it easier for Monterey Downs to get built. Why else would out of town developers have paid tens of thousands of dollars to get it on the ballot? The cemetery angle is a red herring, misdirection, a bait and switch tactic. Frankly, I find it shameful that local veterans would allow themselves to be used as the political pawns of southern California development interests.

My feelings towards Measure M
are a little less straightforward. Some have legitimately argued that it circumvents the standard land use approval process of public hearings with the ultimate decision resting on the shoulders of our elected officials. I almost decided to vote against M for that reason. Unfortunately, our elected officials - the Seaside city council specifically - have already made it pretty clear they want the tax revenue from Monterey Downs and they want it bad. They've turned this into a simplistic "trees vs. jobs" issue and they seem to have their minds made up even though the process has barely begun.

Seaside recently trotted out
an "unbiased" report saying - surprise - that a massive commercial development like Monterey Downs would create more jobs than the trails through the existing old oak forest. Of course, any third grader could tell you that without spending thousands of dollars on a fancy report. But land use decisions are far more complex than that. Our quality of life here depends heavily on our natural resources. A little over a century ago there was a plan to subdivide Point Lobos for a small town like Carmel. A few lots were sold, and the only thing that halted the plan was an economic downturn. Would a town at Point Lobos have created more jobs than the park it became? Sure! Would we be better off if Point Lobos became a town instead of a park? No way!

Then there's the elephant in the room, the blighted areas of Fort Ord that are not being redeveloped a good 20 years after we were promised they would be. This makes the "trees vs jobs" argument for Measure K even more ludicrous. By their implicit support for Monterey Downs Seaside council members are showing that they'd rather develop unspoiled areas than redevelop the spoiled ones. In reality, this isn't "trees vs. jobs" so much as which do we prefer to eliminate, healthy trees or dilapidated buildings?

Thus I have concluded that voting YES in Measure M will send a clear message to decision-makers: Redevelop the blighted areas first!

So I encourage you to vote Yes on M and No on K.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

That's Chutzpah!

Ever since Fort Ord closed almost twenty years ago local veterans groups have been trying to establish a veterans cemetery on the former military base. It is and always has been a laudable and appropriate tribute to the soldiers who passed through Fort Ord prior to putting themselves in harms way for their country.

Unfortunately, their progress has been slow, apparently due to the massive bureaucracies and sluggish processes that affect most land use matters around here. Funding also appears to have been a problem. Understandably, cemetery proponents have grown frustrated by the whole process. 

But sometime in the past couple years the veterans' tactics took a dark turn. Cemetery supporters hitched their wagon to the controversial Monterey Downs project, a proposal to build a massive horse racetrack, hotels, and other big things on a pristine old-growth oak forest. Monterey Downs and the cemetery would then occupy different areas of the same parcel of land. Evidently, the arrangement the veterans made with the racetrack developers would have provided the cemetery with a suitable piece of land and funding to develop it. In return, Monterey Downs would gain a veneer of civic responsibility and a political wedge to help justify their own development.

It was sneaky politics, and nasty things followed. Suddenly anyone who dared question Monterey Downs, and there are a lot of legitimate questions, was branded as being anti-veteran. If you opposed Monterey Downs you were, in the eyes of cemetery supporters, against the cemetery plain and simple.

As the past year wound down some sensible public officials found a way to disconnect the cemetery project from the Monterey Downs planning, allowing the cemetery to occupy a portion of the parcel without being contingent on the approval of the racetrack. A more appropriate source of funding was also found.

Fast forward to recent weeks. A new concern has been raised about the cemetery plans. Some people are saying that the land was cleared of hazardous, and possibly explosive, materials only to a depth of four feet. Since graves are dug six feet deep there might be a problem. I'm not qualified to assess the legitimacy of this concern, but that's not why I'm writing now, anyway.

No, I'm here today because I read a guest commentary in Tuesday's Monterey Herald written by Richard Garza of the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery Foundation. I almost fell off my chair when I read this sentence:
"The most frequent tactic used to try to derail [the veterans cemetery] involves attempts by various groups to link it to the proposed Monterey Downs development."
WHAT??? It appears that cemetery supporters are now blaming others for their own stupid mistake. The cemetery wasn't even remotely controversial before its proponents linked up with Monterey Downs. Now they're suggesting that this well-documented relationship was a myth cooked up by cemetery opponents to discredit the cemetery project. What chutpah!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Keep the Steinbeck Forum

The ball has started rolling on a major remodeling of the Monterey Conference Center. The project is still in its initial stages, with nothing set in stone, but it has received the official blessing of the Monterey city council.

I don't have any strong feelings about the project in general, but one specific proposal has me disturbed. A consultant has recommended that the center's Steinbeck Forum, a 494 seat theater-style lecture hall, be eliminated and replaced with a plain, flat, empty room with four walls just like every other room in the conference facility.

Bad idea.

The Steinbeck Forum is unique among local conference venues. For starters, it's very comfortable, having permanent theater-style seating instead of the firm and tiny portable chairs used elsewhere in the conference center. Also, because the seating area is raked at a fairly steep angle, each row of seats is much higher than the one in front, making for unobstructed sightlines and excellent views from every seat. Contrast this with conventional meeting rooms where every chair is on the same flat surface. In such rooms, everyone's head is at the same level, so views are often blocked by the people sitting in front of you. The Steinbeck Forum also has an ample stage suitable for lectures, panel discussions, films, musical bands, and other forms of popular entertainment, plus a complete control booth for sound, lighting, and video technicians.

But the consultants say it's not versatile enough. A plain flat room, they say, can do more things. Well, true enough. You can't, for example, hold a roundtable discussion or a high school prom in a theater. But for reasons already stated, a flat room can't necessarily do everything well. A well-rounded conference center requires a variety of venue styles to best meet the diverse needs of different types of events. One size or shape does not fit all.

Furthermore, flat conference rooms are a dime a dozen on the Monterey Peninsula. The conference center already has several, as do the adjoining Portola Hotel and neighboring Marriott. In fact, every major hotel from Seaside to Pebble Beach has several of them. One more isn't going to make Monterey more marketable as a conference destination. 

On the other hand, having a unique, very comfortable venue in the conference center gives it an advantage over other conference facilities on The Peninsula. Let's not eliminate that advantage.

The Steinbeck Forum was done right. It's a wonderful venue. Don't mess with it!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Doesn't hold water.

I have a small book called “Gumpisms” which is a collection of sayings by the movie character Forrest Gump. My favorite Gumpism (sanitized by me for your protection) says “Keep your B.S. detector in good working order.” That's good advice, particularly when reading the propaganda being put forth by our private utility companies of late. I've written about PG&E's B.S. in the past, and now it's time to take on Cal-Am, our water company.

An insert in our latest water bill attempts to explain away a sudden rash in inexplicably high water bills that some customers are getting. We're talking about bills that suddenly jump from under $50 to a couple thousand dollars with no detectable explanation. Cal-Am is blowing these spikes off as unrepaired leaks, even when licensed plumbers can find no leaks. One likely culprit, according to this flyer, is toilet leaks. Here's what they said:
“By far, the most common source of lost water in a home results from a leaky toilet. And unlike a broken irrigation line, it rarely leaves a trace. That's because all the water leaks back down into the drain unnoticed and can waste more than three gallons a minute. This can add up quickly.

“Let's say you have a modest leak at one gallon per minute. That's 1,440 gallons per day and more than 43,000 gallons a month. Add that to the water you're already using and you could be facing a very high water bill as a result. There's no puddle, no water damage and worst of all, toilet leaks are often intermittent which means they may be overlooked by a plumber.”
This sounds plausible because there is an element of truth to this. Toilet leaks are indeed very common. Chances are very good that you've had one within the past couple of years. Most likely someone on your block has a toilet leak right now, though it's not costing thousands of dollars.

But when they say that toilet leaks leave no trace, their logic starts to get murky. This is true only of the oldest toilets still in use. With old toilets, if water trickles out of the tank, the fill valve would open ever so slightly and refill the tank at the same slow rate, making no noise. But modern water-saving toilets, those made in the last 25 years and which nearly all of us have by now, are designed to alert us to leaks. The fill valve opens up only after the water level in the tank drops an inch or so, thus turning on the water full blast so you can hear it running. If you hear the toilet running and you haven't flushed it, that's the alert signal that you have a leak. So unless you have an very old toilet, leaks do, in fact, leave an audible trace that all but the hard of hearing can detect.

As we read on, Cal-Am's numbers on toilet leaks start to venture into fantasyland. Typical toilet leaks release a few gallons per day, an amount that won't add more than a few dollars to your monthly bill, as it has done to ours from time to time. The one gallon per minute leak in Cal-Am's example is not “modest” by any means. Unless you're on vacation, you'd notice it pretty quickly because you'd not only hear your toilet running almost constantly, you'd probably see the water running into the bowl as well. Furthermore, you'd notice that your toilet won't always flush properly because the tank would be half empty half the time. At three gallons per minute (a gallon every twenty seconds) water would be rapidly rushing through the bowl. You'd have to be blind, deaf, and thoroughly stupid to let that run more than a minute, much less a full month!

Finally, Cal-Am insults the plumbing profession by asserting that they will overlook intermittent leaks. This sounds like an excuse to dismiss reports that plumbers have inspected the homes of people with spiked bills and found no leaks. An experienced plumber would certainly consider this possibility and provide dye tablets to their customers to place in the toilet tank. If the dye shows up in the bowl without flushing, even after the plumber has left, you'll know you have a toilet leak. You can also do this yourself with dye tablets from the hardware store, or just ordinary food coloring.

So when Cal-Am tells customers that thousand-dollar water bills are caused by toilet leaks, their argument just doesn't hold water.