Monday, December 19, 2005

Woolsey and Nation: integrity is the difference

I recently wrote about how the Press Democrat uses news stories, editorials, and columnists to influence public opinion. Chris Coursey’s column today may be another example. (12/19/05, “Iraq provides dividing line in 6th District”)

Coursey wrote,

Conventional wisdom says that voters don't decide whom to send to Congress based on foreign policy. But in this election, with Iraq dominating the national debate and the war providing a clear difference between two Democratic candidates in a safely Democratic district, this issue will stand out in the campaign.

The clearest difference between Rep. Lynn Woolsey and the man who wants to replace her, Assemblyman Joe Nation, is their view of Iraq.”

The “clear difference” Coursey identified is that Woolsey has argued for months that we should get out of Iraq now. By contrast, Nation says we should get out in a year, or maybe two.

Coursey wrote,

The Democrat from San Rafael walks a fine line on the issue. He says he has felt ‘from Day 1’ that the invasion of Iraq was wrong; in fact he calls it ‘the biggest foreign policy blunder in my lifetime.’

In fact, the clearest difference between Woolsey and Nation is she’s the Sixth District Representative, and he isn’t. Nation’s Iraq policy is about the March 2006 primary election, not the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

He says he opposed the war, like Woolsey. And like President Bush, he says we can’t leave until we win:

’If we don't succeed in Iraq, this country's credibility will be shot,’ Nation says.

He defines ‘success’ as a self-governed Iraq in which all factions are represented in government, with a reduction of the now-daily violence and ‘respect for the rule of law.’

If Nation has any real support at all, it’s probably pretty much the same interests who backed SR Mayor Mike Martini’s quixotic race against Woolsey in 2002. A few months later he became Executive Director of the Sonoma County Alliance, the regional developer/business lobby.

Martini was the antithesis of all that Woolsey stands for to local voters.

So Nation is running as a guy who’s just like Woolsey—except that he disagrees with her on today’s most divisive issue: the war in Iraq.

And unlike Woolsey, he stands squarely on both sides of that issue: he’s against the war, and he’s against pulling out ‘til we win!

Forget Coursey’s campaign rhetoric.

The clearest difference between Lynn Woolsey and Joe Nation is her integrity.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

PD editor makes Kaulum the poster boy for CTS habitat destruction deal

A Press Democrat editorial said today (12/16),

A group in Arizona appears determined to torpedo a cooperative effort to protect an endangered species without wrecking the economy of Sonoma County. A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity called the local plan to regulate development near tiger salamander habitat ‘outrageous,’ and added, ‘certainly we will consider challenging it.’”

The editorial continued,

The group's reflexive response comes as something less than a surprise. Still, it's a disappointment that suggests that the center is more interested in stopping development than in saving the salamander.” And the headline was, “Legal threat/Is the goal to stop the world or restore an endangered species?

The editor quoted Keith Kaulum, who was a last-minute member of the developer-driven Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team:

It should be noted that representatives of local environmental groups disagree with the reaction of the Arizona organization. Keith Kaulum, who negotiated on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Madrone Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society, told Staff Writer Bleys W. Rose, ‘We would not have signed on if we thought it was a bad thing.’”

And the editorial concluded,

Local environmentalists and local representatives of key regulatory agencies - two groups never known for being soft on developers - endorse this agreement.Their opinions ought to matter to any group that claims to be acting on behalf of endangered species.

The editorial followed a PD story that said yesterday,

A U.S. district court decision in August in a lawsuit by the Arizona environmental center forced the [U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service] to consider critical habitat designation for a broad swath of the county west of Highway 101. The designation prompts federal agency review of development projects.

As a result, a local group representing public officials, developers and environmentalists scrambled to finish negotiations aimed at minimizing effects of those protections.

The Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy group unveiled its proposal last week. The federal decision Wednesday cleared the way for the group to seek government approval for its plans unencumbered by the possibility of federal opposition.

A U.S. Fish & Wildlife statement said the proposals by Conservation Strategy ‘would streamline the approval process for projects and avoid the need for habitat mitigation on a project-by-project basis.’ It noted that four endangered plant species also would be protected.

But the Center for Biological Diversity strongly differed. The federal decision is ‘outrageous and certainly we will consider challenging it,’ center spokesman Jeff Miller said.

He said the Conservation Strategy group's plan ‘is heavily weighted in favor of development interests’ and ‘appears to have its origins in the development industry's desire to minimize costs and delays.’”

The CBD spokesman was right. First the local developers sued USF&W last February. Then they dropped the suit and created the Strategy Team, to negotiate with F&W and other agencies.

An Implementation Team of bureaucrats and local politicians received a compromise plan from the Strategy Team this April, and continued to bargain. This week we learned F&W had accepted the deal--and dropped the critical habitat designation the CBD had won in court.

So it’s no wonder the CBD is talking about going back to court. And there’s no question the opposition to designation of critical habitat was developer-driven (and reportedly, developer-funded as well)--with the help of their friends at the Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park City Halls and the County.

The only news here is the PD is making the lone enviro on the developers’ Strategy Team the poster boy for the continued destruction of the salamander habitat. The story the day before reported,

Keith Kaulum, one of the environmental representatives on the local group, rejected that characterization, saying, ‘We would not have signed on if we thought it was a bad thing.’Kaulum represents the Sierra Club, the Madrone Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society, which have battled for wetlands preservation for years.

’Designation of critical habitat is problematic because you end up with a checkerboard of preserve areas that are not connected and there may not be a commitment from the federal agency to do any preservation work in any of them,’ he said

In fact, the developers’ plan Kaulum worked on not only dramatically reduces the area believed to be salamander habitat, it would create a checkerboard of man-made habitat “mitigation banks”. And now that the USF&W has copped out, it looks like there is no commitment from any federal agency to preserve anything.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Council sticks us with the bill: North Bay Corp. pays 1% more, we pay 8.1%

Two PD stories by Mike McCoy, from the Around the Empire column. The first one December 9 was headlined “Garbage rates going up 1%”.

It said, “The City Council on Tuesday is expected to approve a wide range of rate increases requested by the city's garbage hauler, North Bay Corp

And, “If approved, the increase would boost the monthly fee for a 20-gallon can to $8.51 from $7.87, a 35-gallon can to $9.88 from $9.14, a 60-gallon container to $14.58 from $13.49 and a 90-gallon can to $26.12 from $24.15.”

It looked to me like the rates were going up a lot more than just 1%--and they were.

The story said, “The rate increases, the company says, are being sought to offset increasing costs, including fees it pays at the county-operated landfills and an increase in the franchise fee the company must pay the city.

The 1 percent increase, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, is expected to generate $210,000 in additional revenue annually.

In fact, the headline was false. The Council was going to vote on a 1% increase in the franchise fee North Bay Corp. pays the City—not a 1% increase in the rates we pay North Bay.

Our rates were going up quite a bit more.

The second story ran December 14. It said,

The City Council granted the Santa Rosa's trash hauler, North Bay Corp., an 8.1 percent across-the-board rate increase that will go into effect Jan. 1.The increase will boost the monthly bill for a 20-gallon can to $8.51, a 64-cent jump; a 35-gallon can to $9.88, a 74-cent increase; a 60-gallon can to $14.58, a $1.09 jump; and a 90-gallon can to $26.12, a boost of $1.97.”

The story went on to say,

North Bay officials say the rate hike is needed to offset increases in tipping fees charged at county-operated landfills and in the franchise fee the company must pay the city.The city had been charging North Bay a franchise fee of 9 percent but starting Jan. 1 it is increasing the fee to 10 percent.The 10 percent fee is expected to generated $2.1 million annually for city coffers.”


Is that !% increase in North Bay’s franchise fee going to generate $210,000 a year more, like the first story said, or $2.1 million?

OK, the numbers may not be accurate. But these two stories say the city is charging North Bay 1% more starting January 1, and North Bay is charging us 8.1% more.

I don’t believe very much I read in the PD; but it sure looks like the City Council and North Bay Corp. are sticking you and me with the bill!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hear that lonesome whistle blow! PD spins the SMART EIR story

Looks like the establishment has decided the proposed Larkspur to Cloverdale commuter railway will be good for business.

The Press Democrat often speaks for the local economic and political machine, and the PD is not above distorting the news. One way the regional daily spins the news is by printing a fairly straight story, with a deceptive headline. Then it prints an editorial based on the spin, and its columnists echo the disinformation.

The November 22 headline, on page one of the Empire News section, was “Study finds support for rail“-- and then in smaller print, “SMART says counties will back passenger rail plan despite some increases in noise, traffic”.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) got $23 million from last year’s sales tax increase vote, so my first thought was the directors had spent some of it on a poll.

But in fact, the news story reported the release of the $4 million, 700-page Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the SMART project. The lead paragraphs said,

“Passenger rail service between Cloverdale and Larkspur could increase noise levels along 70 miles of track, boost traffic around rail stations and expose train cars and tracks to earthquake damage, according to a 700-page environmental impact report released Monday.

But officials with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit said the report is proof that commute patterns in Sonoma and Marin counties will support passenger rail and 4,800 people will eventually ride it every day.

‘It looks to me like our intuition in the beginning was right -- the impacts are going to be primarily noise from train horns, increased traffic in access areas to train sites,’ said SMART Chairman Bob Jehn. ‘I think the long-term benefits of having this train far outweigh the negatives. This (report) supports that.’”

The story summarized,

“The decades-old debate over local train service is expected to come to a head next fall when voters will again be asked to support a sales tax to subsidize the program. Voters in both counties have voted against taxing themselves to pay for rail service in the past.

If approved by a two-thirds majority in the two-county district, the quarter-cent sales tax would bring in approximately $660 million over 20 years. About $340 million would be spent to buy diesel train cars, rehabilitate 70 miles of aging track, rebuild trestles and bridges, and construct stations and a maintainence facility.

Operational costs could reach $10 million and $12 million annually, while ticket revenues are expected to bring in between $3 million and $4 million per year. An additional $1 million is earmarked for shuttle service and $1.7 million to insure and maintain the bike and pedestrian pathway.”

So the EIR didn’t say the public is for the SMART project, or will vote for another sales tax increase to build it. It was “officials” like SMART chair Bob Jehn, an insurance man who is Mayor of Cloverdale, who said it supported their “intuition” that the train was a good idea.

Five days later, the PD’s Sunday editorial said,

“A study has found that a long-awaited commuter rail line linking Sonoma and Marin counties is doable. The report for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit found that an estimated 4,800 people would eventually ride the train each week day, bringing in between $3 million and $4 million in ticket revenue every year.”

“That's not enough to cover the cost of operating the system linking Cloverdale and Larkspur, but it would cover about 30 to 40 percent of operational costs which - for a public transit system - is not bad. Like most public transit systems, a SMART train would depend on some kind of public subsidy. That subsidy would be a quarter-cent sales tax that is expected to go up for a public vote next year. Such a tax would bring in about $660 million over 20 years for the operation of the rail line. About half of that would go toward upfront costs such as buying diesel train cars and fixing about 70 miles of track.”

The editorial was headlined, “Smart train/Study shows rail would work, but what does public think?” It concluded,

“In any event, the experts have had their say. It's now the public's turn. Submit your opinions to SMART, attention Lillian Hames, 4040 Civic Center Drive, Suite 200, San Rafael 94903.”

So the PD says the “experts” say the SMART train is “doable”, will attract riders, and will earn money. And the editor wants us to tell SMART what we think about it—presumably, based on the PD’s spin of the EIR findings.

Mind you, the editor didn’t ask us to actually read the EIR. And he didn’t say our comments will be part of the Final EIR, to be quoted as evidence that we support the project!

Gaye LeBaron’s Sunday column—which pointed out that Sonoma County is coming to look like Los Angeles—added,

“We're becoming real train fans, particularly since we discovered this Surfliner system that will take you all the way to San Diego -- if that's what you want. It's making its way north. … Can Salinas be far behind? And San Jose, and a connection to the Caltrain?

Well, we can dream, can't we? Just as we can hope that SMART's recent survey saying that most voters favor a North Coast rail system is not just wishful thinking.”

Did Gaye see a survey that found “most voters favor a North Coast rail system”? Or did she misunderstood the PD headline too, like I did at first?

Then Chris Coursey spent an entire Friday column (12/02) replying to letters to the editor that criticized SMART. He echoed the PD’s report that the train’s only impact would be noise:

“What's to like about a $4 million document that takes 700 pages to tell us, essentially, that a train rumbling though the middle of two counties is going to make a lot of noise? But many are using the release of the report to take shots at the very idea of the so-called SMART train. And most miss by a wide margin.”

I could live with the rumble of the wheels and the engine whistle. What frosts me is the Press Democrat’s claim that the $4 million, 700-page EIR says noise and a little station traffic will be the only impacts of the two-county commuter railway. Either the EIR is flagrantly inadequate, or the PD is covering up the railway’s obvious growth-inducing impact.

This voter agrees with the critics. I see yet another regressive sales tax increase taking $660 million out of our pockets over 20 years, against $80 million at most in fares. Those hypothetical 4,800 daily riders will get a $580 million subsidy.

If there’s an election next year, I’ll vote against wasting $660 million to encourage regional growth as far north as Cloverdale.