Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

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March 15

Lodi's frustrating power losses will be history after May 2017

This was suggested in the June 5, 2013, edition of the News-Sentinel, but we missed the significance at the time.

Then it came to us this week — like the bolt of lightning that knocked out the only Lodi connection to the electrical grid a minute before midnight on March 5. It was the fifth time in eight years the entire city lost power.

Out of a sound sleep, we made an eerie drive to the paper. The lights were out all over Lodi. So were our computers, presses and inserting machine. The power came back in 45 minutes — just before we woke up our neighbor and guardian angel, Galt Herald publisher David Herburger.

We didn't suddenly become an afternoon newspaper that day, but it was scary. Depending on when the power goes out, every Lodi business and resident can suffer similar frustration.

That night, we asked ourselves for the umpteenth time: When is the city of Lodi ever going to a build a second transmission line?

We found the answer when we called Lodi Electric Utility Director Liz Kirkley on Friday. She pointed us to the article nearly a year ago in the Lodi News-Sentinel (a veritable wealth of information, no?).

The article discussed the $100 million to $125 million price tag for upgrading the city's link to the state's power grid. Like Kirkley the electrical engineer, the article talked about more kilovolts and megawatts.

Halfway through the short article was this sentence: "PG&E will install new 230,000-volt power lines stretching from a substation on Eight Mile Road near Interstate 5 to another south of Lockeford, going through the improved Lodi substation." That means there will be two connections to the grid, an upgraded one from the Lockeford substation where we've received our power for years, and one of equal capacity from North Stockton.

Finally, Kirkley connected the dots. Those frustrating power outages that have us scooting across a darkened city in the middle of the night will be a thing of the past after May 31, 2017, — if all goes according to plan.

And the plan's not finished yet. For instance, the routes of the new power lines are not set. There will public hearings once the consultants make proposals. Kirkley's hoping for a good turnout from citizens.

She also said the project is designed so the city can lower its operating costs. The savings will pay the cost of the equipment and our power bills will stay the same. They'll even go down once the loans are paid off.

Let there be light!

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March 25

Marin Independent Journal: Larkspur should not tune out from county public-access TV agency

Larkspur City Hall's threat to pull out of the Marin Telecommunications Agency is just part of the overall uncertainty concerning future funding for Marin's public-access media center.

The center is dependent on a slice of the franchise fees municipalities collect from customers of local cable providers. That money pays for running the agency's San Rafael studio.

But the future of the studio — the Community Media Center of Marin — is rocky as a one-time $3 million grant from Comcast is running out and municipalities aren't jumping for joy at the opportunity to share some of their franchise fee revenue to support the center.

Larkspur Councilman Larry Chu, his city's representative on the MTA board, says Larkspur has serious problems with the agency's role as the governmental conduit for collecting and distributing franchise fee revenue.

Chu says it might be cheaper to get rid of the small bureaucratic conduit and let the county and cities collect and distribute their own money.

Larkspur has many other priorities, Chu says.

But there appears to be a clearer nexus in using cable franchise fee revenue for a well-run community-access media center than for filling potholes.

The agency is comprised of representatives from the county and every Marin city except Novato. Novato has for years run its own public-access TV programming.

The Comcast fund predated the state Legislature's decision to remove cable contracts from local control and give that responsibility to the state. That change gutted the premise that formation of a countywide agency would be more advantageous in negotiating with Comcast, AT&T and Horizon Cable.

Since then, Comcast has reduced its financial support of the media center.

That has put pressure on municipalities to contribute a slice of the $3.7 million in franchise fees they collect annually. The proposal under consideration would be $660,000 over three years — or a 6 percent slice.

For Larkspur, that's about $17,000 per year out of the $284,753 per year it receives.

Certainly, with the state taking over governance of cable franchise contracts, there's a valid question concerning the cost and responsibilities of running a countywide agency.

But Larkspur, like every other city in the agency, should pay a fair share in support of the media center, which has become an impressive hub for community broadcasting, from city council meetings to prep sports and many other community activities. And doing so should be a collective decision.

If Larkspur's concern is about how the money is collected and redistributed, that should be an issue apart from support for the media center.

The proposal by the agency — which requires super-majority support among its member municipalities would increase the level of franchise fee revenue to keep the media center running. A strong consensus by MTA members provides an appropriate and clear level of support for a commitment of public funds.

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March 26

Marysville Appeal-Democrat: Here's hoping N. Beale Road business returns

"Oops!"

That word that expresses the futility of something just done and can't be undone . seems about right for the situation on North Beale Road.

It's almost a classic case of disconnect.

The county folks thought they were doing well — making big changes to a major corridor, improving the looks of the neighborhood, increasing safety. But commercial property owners are shocked that the changes seem to have cut into business by quite a chunk.

The North Beale corridor is a main route to Yuba College and Beale Air Force Base. There's a fair amount of traffic there.

The new landscaped medians from Lindhurst Avenue to Linda Avenue look good, businesses say, but don't allow for mid-block left turns; drivers have to go to the end of a block and make a U-turn. Trouble is, business owners say, that lots of drivers are just continuing straight on and passing them by, rather than going down the block, turning around and coming back.

One person, whose business depends on truck traffic, said it's even worse because trucks with trailers can't do the U-turn like cars can.

A story by Eric Vodden, in Sunday's edition, got comments from both sides.

One business reports a 25 percent decline in business since the medians were installed less than a year ago. Another said business declined 40 percent.

The $1 million median project was done with federal traffic safety grant money. A high number of vehicle-pedestrian accidents were cited as motivation for the grant.

Yuba County Supervisor Andy Vasquez, whose district includes Linda, noted in the story that there had been several public scoping meetings. And there was a final review meeting open to the public.

Cynthia Peña, whose insurance and tax service business is on North Beale, and who is challenging Vasquez for the 1st District seat in June's primary election, said she thought communication from the county to businesses could have been better.

There's enough frustration, it seems, to go around. County folks wanted to help the community, wanted to improve safety, wanted to make the area look better. Yet, they're catching flak from folks they would have expected to have shown up at scoping meetings and made their concerns known.

Businesses are frustrated because the reality of the redesign strikes them differently than the plans. And they might not have noticed there were scoping meetings; and how does a small-business owner get away from the business and interact with government, anyway?

More work is planned for 2015 in a $2 million project to install storm drains, curbs and gutters, transit stops, lights and landscaping from Lindhurst to past Hammonton-Smartsville Road. Hopefully, there are no surprises for business owners in this phase.

(And also on the drawing board is a round-about proposed for the intersection at North Beale and Hammonton-Smartsville roads. At present there is no funding for that project and no timetable. And we've heard several businesses worrying about the practicality of a round-about where there's some level of truck traffic. They might want to make sure they've registered their concerns.)

It takes a while, when changes are made, for people to accept the changes, to adapt, to change patterns. Here's hoping that the majority of customers, who are currently passing by businesses located on the left side of the road, will re-learn their routes and will bring their business back to where it's vitally needed.

And in the future, maybe officials can do a little door-to-door and businesses can be a little more on the lookout

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March 25

Orange County Register: Union teaches UC about hanging tough

With the threat of a five-day strike this week at the five hospitals run by the University of California — including UC Irvine Medical Center — the union representing some 13,000 patient care technical workers extracted an exceedingly generous contract from UC negotiators.

"It was very encouraging," said Todd Stenhouse, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3299, "to see UC do what they did, which was come back to the table and bargain in good faith."

Well, we find it discouraging, because UC agreed to a 24.5 percent pay increase over four years. That's more than double the average raise received by private-sector employees the past four years. And that's more than triple the projected rate of inflation over the next four years.

And that's not the only giveaway to which UC negotiators capitulated. They froze health care rates for four years for lower-salaried hospital workers. They also limited increases in health care rates for higher-paid workers to no more than $25 a month.

UC walked back its demand for greater flexibility in right-sizing the labor force at its five hospitals. And it acceded to the union's demand that no hospital work be contracted out to save UC money on pay and benefits.

What amazes is that Dwaine Duckett, UC vice president for human resources, characterized the deal as a win-win for UC hospitals and the union. "There was a true compromise by both sides to reach this agreement," he maintained.

Well, AFSCME did indeed make certain concessions — most notably, an increase in the amount unionized workers contribute to their pension plans. But, as we score the "two years of very challenging negotiations," as Duckett described them, Local 3299 clearly got the better of the tentative agreement.

The prima facie evidence is the union's web site. "WE WON," it celebrates on its home page, while boasting that "we have forced UC to finally give us ALL our core demands."

The hospital contract marks the second time in as many months that UC has been rolled by the union.

Indeed, with the threat of a five-day strike by non-faculty union workers on UC campuses, including janitors, groundskeepers and food-service workers, UC negotiators all but surrendered to union demands, including an immediate 4.5 percent across-the-board pay increase as a "signing bonus" for some 8,300 workers, plus 3 percent annual raises.

From the 2008-09 academic year to 2011-12, UC average annual student charges increased more than 64 percent. The two separate union contracts to which UC agreed the past two months all but ensures a similar escalation in UC student charges over the next four school years.

Last fall, Robert Birgeneau, UC Berkeley chancellor from 2004-13, warned that the UC system's budget "is not stable in the long run" and that the "challenges are not over" for its 10 campuses.

These two contract agreements UC struck with AFSCME make those budget challenges all the more daunting.

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March 25

The Porterville Recorder: We call on quick action to approve new reservoir

California's drought and water crisis has caused two lawmakers — one a Democrat and the other a Republican — to actually step forward and proposed new water storage for the state.

It is an action we were not certain we would see, but dire times sometimes bring positive action.

Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat, and Doug LaMalfa, a Republican, both members of the House of Representatives, called for building a new reservoir north of Sacramento. At the same time they called for accelerating an existing federal feasibility study to authorize construction of the Sites Reservoir and they hope construction will begin next year.

This is the first real attempt to build new water storage in the state, although Rep. Devin Nunes has proposed a dam (Temperance Flat) on the San Joaquin River above Millerton Lake that would add storage to that watershed, but so far that has not gone very far.

While we would rather see the new dam to increase storage in the Friant system, we'll take whatever we can get and the Sites Reservoir proposal would add 1.9 million acre feet of water for a state that is getting more thirsty by the day. The Sites Reservoir would ensure growers on the west side of the Valley would get water and that could free up more Friant water for the east side growers here who are suffering this year.

We know getting a new reservoir built in this state will not come easy. Already, environmentalists with their heads in the sand are saying we only need to conserve more water, but more storage is key for this state to survive.

We call on Gov. Jerry Brown to show the same vision his father had and endorse the idea and do all he can to get state approval. We also call on our Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to support the plan. It is time to really do something about this state's water crisis and not just throw band aids at what water shortages cause — loss of farm income and farm jobs.

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March 24

U-T San Diego: Sweetwater, San Ysidro schools must weather tough times

Two South Bay school districts find themselves in difficult straits, and it's going to take patient, smart leadership to get them to a better place — from administrators, board members and teachers unions alike.

In the Sweetwater Union High School District, a far-reaching bribery and influencing-peddling scandal may soon lead to the resignation of two more trustees, leaving the five-seat board with just one member. This will trigger a state law provision under which Susan Hartley, the president of the San Diego County Board of Education, designates members of that board to serve on the Sweetwater board until the vacant positions are filled by election or appointment. Hartley can fill some or all vacancies, according to a county education board spokeswoman.

This board attrition occurs at a difficult point for the 41,000-student district. On March 14, the 1,800 members of the Sweetwater Education Association — largely consisting of teachers — voted to give their leadership the go-ahead to call a strike if negotiations on pay and benefits remained at an impasse. The biggest hang-up appears to be over how much the district will pay toward health care costs. Administrators backed away from a previous deal, saying changes required by the federal Affordable Care Act forced them to revise the district's insurance program.

We hope that having county board members serve on Sweetwater's board during labor talks will prove a good thing. The temporary members will have no baggage from past elections or established agendas. They can make the case to the teachers union that it's budget math — not a perceived lack of "respect" — that explains why a district with declining enrollment can only offer small raises and must hold the line on the overall cost of benefits. And they can apologize for the herky-jerky way that the district handled health insurance changes.

The San Ysidro School District, which has 5,550 students from kindergarten to eighth grade in five schools, appears in even worse shape. The district won't be able to pay all of its bills this school year or in 2014-15. The same corruption scandal that buffeted Sweetwater forced San Ysidro's superintendent, Manuel Paul, to resign last year. His interim replacement has resigned effective April 1.

If a state mediator can't get the teachers union to accept pay cuts, a state takeover is likely soon — at which point under normal scenarios a state-appointed trustee gains sweeping unilateral authority that sometimes even trumps collective bargaining rights, the source of union power. Teachers in San Ysidro need to factor this possibility into their bargaining position.

It's a sad but true fact that in California, school districts with financial problems almost inevitably have to try to reduce teachers' compensation. When it's by far the biggest chunk of school budgets, districts typically don't have any other choice.

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