Saturday, March 28, 2015

What "conservative" really means.

Late Thursday night I was listening (somewhat involuntarily) to the John Batchelor Show on KGO radio. Batchelor is an uncommon well-mannered right-wing talk show host who spends a lot of time bashing president Obama and liberals in a soft-spoken, intellectual fashion rather than by shouting insults.

That night he was complaining that the New York Times and the “liberal” media in general have been using the word “conservative” to describe the hard-line leaders of China and Iran. He argued that the word “conservative” has a very specific meaning in America as a political ideology favoring limited government, low taxes, and that sort of thing - the very opposite of what the heads of China and Iran represent.

He then stretched his “logic” to conclude that because liberals (in his mind) associate “conservatives” with “enemies” they now use the two words interchangeably as if there is no distinction, hence their use of the word “conservative” to describe unscrupulous leaders of other countries. Batchelor had two guests reinforcing his conclusion that the mainstream news media is out to demonize conservatives by changing the definition of the word.

But it was Batchelor who was changing the definition, not the New York Times. By the dictionary (the definitive source of definitions) a “conservative” is someone who is cautious, resistant to change, a traditionalist, someone who prefers to maintain the status quo and is reluctant to try new ways of doing things. This correct definition perfectly describes the leaders of China and Iran, both so entrenched in their particular ideologies that reformers are having trouble gaining a foothold. It also perfectly describes Americans who resist gay marriage, gun regulations, environmental regulations, tax increases, and immigration reforms to name a few. It's not that American conservatives are ideologically equivalent to Chinese or Iranian conservatives, they couldn't be further apart, but they all have the same conservative reluctance to change their ways.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Emergency Mysteries

Last Thursday, March 19th, shortly before 10:00 PM, I was channel surfing and stopped for a few minutes to watch the live broadcast of the Seaside city council meeting. I came in at the end of a presentation about the library, and after a minute or so they invited public comments. I probably would have moved on to better entertainment, but the first person to speak happened to be someone I knew, so I stuck around.

As she was speaking someone in the council chambers began moaning very loudly. The woman stopped speaking, turned around and said “We need an EMT.” The video cut to a wide shot of the dais where I saw councilman Dennis Alexander's chair turned around and his right arm was moving erratically. Men in police or fire uniforms were rushing to his aid as councilman Jason Campbell jumped out of their way. The mayor called a recess and the screen went dark. It was such a disturbing scene that I was shaking for the next ten minutes. 

I tuned into the 11:00 news to see what had happened. KSBW didn't mention it all, but KION had a reporter at the meeting and she said the meeting had been cut short because a city council member had a medical emergency and was taken away in an ambulance. She said he looked OK, but had no further details. She didn't even say which council member fell ill. 

I fully expected to hear more about the incident on Friday when, presumably, more information would come to light. But again, KSBW had nothing. KION briefly repeated the same vague information from the night before, but only as a footnote to a story about the council's activities. The Monterey Herald and Monterey County Weekly newspapers also missed the story entirely, especially odd for the Weekly which covers Seaside pretty closely and posts stories daily on their website. We have to wait a couple more days to see if the Carmel Pine Cone mentions it. 

It's a mystery to me how an elected official being hauled away from a public meeting in an ambulance, with dozens of witnesses, can almost completely escape the notice of the local news media. I certainly hope he's OK. The news folks should be keeping us informed so we don't have to guess. 

By a strange coincidence, the reason KION was at Thursday's council meeting was because the city is thinking of dropping out of Monterey County's 911 emergency dispatch service and taking the city's business elsewhere, either to a new agency of their own making or possibly to Santa Cruz County's call center. A couple days earlier it was reported that Salinas and Pacific Grove were planning to do the same, and as of this week it looks like Del Rey Oaks will join them. What in blazes is going on? 

I follow local news pretty closely, but until last week I can't recall hearing a single complaint about emergency dispatch services. Not a peep. Now all of a sudden it's a major problem. If reports are accurate the cities say they're paying a lot for the county to provide 911 service but the cities don't have much say in how it's run. OK, I can see why that might be a problem, but not one of sufficient severity to jump up and say “We're outta here.” 

Perhaps this is some sort of political ploy to get the county's attention, but I can think of less alarming ways to accomplish that. The appropriate thing for these cities to do is pass resolutions asking for greater influence on call center management, or ask to renegotiate the arrangements, and see how the county responds. Instead, four cities have abruptly said they want a divorce, and have done so with almost no public discussion. Until last week the issue wasn't even on the public radar. 

The idea that cities in Monterey County could afford to start a 911 system from scratch, or successfully move their 911 services to a neighboring county is difficult to believe in the absence of any formal studies. KSBW reported that Santa Cruz county's facilities would require a major and costly expansion to accommodate our cities. Worse, by having separate dispatch services, local cities would isolate themselves from neighboring police and fire districts which could hamper mutual aid calls. And what will happen to the county's emergency call center if it loses a major source of funding? It doesn't look like local cities have thought through their position very well. So why are they so eager to bail out? That's the second emergency mystery this week.

Addendum April 1, 2015:

Tuesday's Herald (3/31/15) reported that local cities and the county have agreed in principle to convert the county 911 system to a joint powers authority with all participating governments having an equal voice in how it is run. If that's what the cities wanted, why didn't they just come out publicly and say so?

It looks like
the cities' announced intent to jump ship may indeed have been just a stunt to get the county's attention. If so, it was rather childish. On the other hand if it was serious it was kind of foolish without knowing what the costs would be to start their own 911 services from scratch.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Seaside has a long history of poor land use decisions.

Monterey Downs, the controversial horse race track, hotel, and other assorted components proposed for an undisturbed portion of Fort Ord land, was a hot item at last Thursday's Seaside council meeting. I did not attend in person, but I did watch much of it on TV. The question of the day was whether the city should extend an exclusive negotiation agreement with the developer, Brian Boudreau, for another year or give up on it now.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a major turning point or an earth shattering decision, but it drew an enormous crowd anyway. After two and a half hours of public testimony with a majority opposing the project, the council voted 4-1 to approve the extension.

No surprise there. With the exception of Jason Campbell, Seaside city council members have been known to drool excitedly over the prospect of any new development in Seaside, and something on this scale is beyond anything dreamed of before Boudreau came along. In short, they're seeing $$$$$ dancing in front of their eyes.

This isn't the first time Seaside leaders have been dazzled by the prospect of easy money. It has afflicted almost every mayor and city council over the last 30 years leading to a string of poor land use decisions of little economic value. One young lady, a student from CSUMB likened Seaside to an ugly girl who will accept a marriage proposal from the first guy who comes along. So true!

I've felt that way ever since Chili's restaurant came into town. Here was a prime lakefront commercial property, unlike any other available in the entire city, and the best use city leaders could find was a bargain-brand chain restaurant with a big red pepper above the door. The city told us Chili's would have outdoor seating overlooking the lake, but that never materialized. I have nothing against chain restaurants per se, but Chili's boxy building does little to take advantage of the property's scenic assets, and the standard corporate architecture cheapens the park setting.

Evidently, the city learned nothing from this experience, because the one remaining lakefront parcel is destined to become a drive-through hamburger stand.

A short skip down the street on the corner of Del Monte and Canyon Del Rey we got a Starbucks. We can thank the late Jerry Smith for that. Prior to Smith's administration that plot of land was to become part of a new train station to serve the revival of long-planned and much-needed rail service between the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco. Its location across the street from Seaside's two biggest hotels was well suited to an intercity transportation terminal, and would have spurred future development in the surrounding neighborhood. But Smith took the quick coffee money and effectively blocked state and regional transportation plans to connect the Peninsula with California's growing passenger rail network.

A couple blocks north of there is the west end of lower Broadway, a run-down avenue which the city has been trying for decades to develop into a “downtown” environment with attractive shops and restaurants. About a dozen years ago I had the opportunity to talk to some consultants the city hired to help develop the lower Broadway plan. When I told them the city had just killed the train station I practically had to scrape their jaws off the floor, they thought it so foolish.

Meanwhile, the city sort-of managed to complete the first step of the Broadway plan with the completion of the City Center shopping center at the corner of Broadway and Fremont. They got the architectural design right, it's the most attractive building in Seaside, but the tenants are all wrong. They're the same kinds of neighborhood strip-mall stores you find all over town. That corner needs a major anchor, like a department store, to draw shoppers from all over the Peninsula, not just the immediate neighborhood. That in turn would attract smaller businesses to the rest of Broadway. If Seaside had a department store on one end and an intercity rail station near the other, Broadway would be well on its way to becoming an economic engine for Seaside. If only....

Here's another inexcusable failure. For decades Seaside has wanted to build a new library on Broadway next to the post office. $3.5 million from the county was made available for this purpose in 1997. Seaside lost the money in January 2014 because we sat on it too long.

Two other major projects have also been on Seaside's drawing boards for a couple of decades, including a resort hotel at the city's golf courses, and the Main Gate shopping center, both on Fort Ord land. These, too, have moved at a snails pace. Not a speck of dirt has been moved. Meanwhile, neighboring Marina has managed to slowly but surely redevelop its portion of Fort Ord making tangible economic progress while Seaside stagnates. Why is that?

Mayor Ralph Rubio offered a worn-out excuse at Thursday's meeting. He said Seaside can't develop the blighted areas of Fort Ord because the city can't afford to demolish the old concrete Army buildings to make the land suitable for new development – a problem he says Marina didn't have to deal with. He implied that the income from Monterey Downs would provide the necessary revenue for Seaside to clean up the blight, hence the importance of keeping Monterey Downs alive.

If that is true why did Seaside take on the responsibility to clean up the Army's mess in the first place if the city didn't have the financial resources to do so? Shouldn't the federal government be paying for that? And what is the Fort Ord Reuse Authority's role here? It's their job to help local cities successfully redevelop the former Army base. I haven't followed FORA's workings very closely, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here, but shouldn't FORA, not Brian Boudreau, be the one helping Seaside subsidize the clean up? We shouldn't have to scar undeveloped land to fund the redevelopment scarred land.

So Seaside has a long history of land use blunders. Many of them involved underdevelopment of prime real estate. Monterey Downs takes the city to the opposite extreme – overdevelopment – beyond the region's capacity to support it. Housing, shopping, hotels, and a racetrack hosting numerous special events all require roads and water to function, and we don't have a lot of either. The Peninsula already hosts dozens of special events every year, more than many big cities. How can our little corner of the world handle the additional crowds, without stressing our infrastructure and resources to the breaking point?

With Monterey Downs I think Seaside is taking on more than it can chew, especially given city hall's track record of poor judgment. The best case scenario I envision has Monterey Downs collapsing under its own weight. The forthcoming environmental impact report will likely show that the area hasn't the capability to support it, everyone will agree with the findings, and it will die a painless death. The city will then concentrate its focus on the Main Gate, the resort hotel, and lower Broadway – all non-controversial projects with basic infrastructure already in place – and hopefully get at least one of them off the ground in the next couple of years.

Dream on. If past experience is any guide, Boudreau and his friends at city hall will dig in their heels, spin the numbers to their liking, maybe scale things back a bit, and plow ahead. Monterey Downs will become an obsession, taking planning department resources away from the more credible projects. It would be analogous to invading Iraq and neglecting Afghanistan resulting in a mess on both fronts. In the end nothing will get done, Seaside's economy will continue to stagnate, and city leaders will blame everybody but themselves.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Going out on a limb with a suggestion for Seaside

There was an article in the Monterey Herald last weekend about a public meeting in Seaside to develop a new violence prevention program. Always willing to offer my two cents, I e-mailed the following outside-the-box suggestion to the city's youth violence prevention coordinator. In typical Seaside IT fashion, it bounced back as undeliverable last weekend, but it went through when I tried again on Tuesday. I got a response saying my suggestion would be taken under consideration as part of the overall program. My three regular readers may or may not be interested in my unconventional idea, so here it is.

Plant trees.

It has long been my observation
that communities with lots of trees have fewer problems with violent crime than communities like Seaside which have few trees. If you look at Seaside from Cannery Row you can see Seaside's borders defined by the timberline.

This is speculation on my part,
I don't have any scientific evidence to back me up, but I believe trees have a calming effect on communities. They make neighborhoods more attractive, and they also absorb noise, conditions which help people relax. Conversely, neighborhoods with mostly hard surfaces, like we have in Seaside, reflect noise which I think adds to people's stress levels, possibly making some folks more prone to anger and violence.

Of course it takes time
for trees to grow, so we'd have to wait several years for new trees to have their full effect. However, more immediate results may be had by getting Seaside youth involved in planting trees. By helping to beautify our neighborhoods they would be part of something larger than themselves and give them a sense of purpose without needing to join gangs.

Since there is probably not
sufficient public land to plant a lot of trees, I think a successful tree planting campaign should also encourage property owners to plant trees in their front yards if they don't already have them. This would beautify residential streetscapes without needing to dig up sidewalks. And if young people are encouraged to help plant them, it would give them a chance to meet their neighbors, teach them how to work with others towards a common goal, and thus help strengthen neighborhood cohesion.

Planting trees won't end gang violence by itself, of course. But as a component of a multi-faceted anti-violence program it's worth a try. If nothing else we would at least end up with a prettier city.