San Joaquin Valley

Who bulldozed the Torres farm labor camp and why?

Submitted: Feb 06, 2006

Felix Torres CEQA Scoping Request to Agencies
Feb. 6, 2006

From:

Lydia Miller, President
San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center
(209) 723-9283, ph. & fax
raptorctr@bigvalley.net
P.O. Box 778
Merced, CA 95341

Steve Burke
Protect Our Water (POW)
(209) 523-1391, ph. & fax
sburke5@sbcglobal.net
3105 Yorkshire Lane
Modesto, CA 95350

Bryant Owens
Planada Association and Planada Community Development Corporation
(209) 769-0832
recall@mercednet.com
2683 South Plainsburg Road
Merced CA 95340-9550

To:

Robert Lewis Director
Merced County Planning and Economic Development
2222 M Street
Merced CA 95340
Phone:(209) 385-7654
via Fax (209) 726-1710

Board of Supervisors Merced County
2222 M Street
Merced CA 95340
Phone:(209) 385-7366
via Fax (209) 726-7977

Board of Commissioners
Housing Authority of Merced County
405 U Street
Merced CA 95340
Phone:(209) 722-3501
Fax (209) 722-0106

Sunne Wright McPeak Secretary
Business, Transportation & Housing Agency
980 9th Street, Suite 2450
Sacramento, CA 95814-2719
Phone (916) 323-5400
Fax: 916-323-5440

Judy Nevis Director
Housing & Community Development
1800 Third Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone (916) 445-4775
Fax (916) 324-5107

Richard L. Friedman Acting Deputy Dir.
Division of Financial Assistance
Phone (916) 322-1560
Fax (916) 327-6660

Kim Dunbar Assistant Division Chief
Phone (916) 322-1560
Fax (916) 327-6660

Janet Marzolf, Section Chief

Asset Management & Compliance Section
Phone (916) 327-2896
Fax (916) 327-6660

Patrick Dyas Program Manager
Office of Migrant Services
Phone (916) 327-0942
Fax (916) 327-6660

Monday, February 06, 2006

Re: CEQA review of proposed new migrant housing in Planada (Merced County), Scope of Project, Analysis of alternatives to project, irregularity in NEPA analysis of environmental impacts; project incompatibility with current County General Plan; misappropriation of federal funding for migrant housing to construct low-income housing. Environmental Justice Abuse.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

We are greatly dissatisfied with and concerned over the actions of the Housing Authority of Merced, especially concerning the demolition of the Felix Torres Migrant Camp, and a documented agreement made with certain Merced county officials by Housing Authority Executive Director, Nick Benjamin in which the County of Merced purportedly required Housing Authority to relocate Planada Village in collaboration with SUDP zoning changes proposed by the County of Merced during the environmental review of Planada’s Community Specific Plan Update (Dec 2003).

As you all may certainly verify, the funding for the proposed renovation of the Felix Torres Camp, and funding for the demolition and replacement of Planada Village (asbestos) was individually encumbered in two separate OMS grant in year 2003. There was also a third grant awarded to the Housing Authority bringing the aggregated total for renovation of Planada Migrant camps to just over $10 million dollars.

Planada citizens were delighted with the concept of renovation of the existing camps, but were solidly in opposition to the idea of moving either camp further away from the community. .

The decision to combine these grants into a single ‘project’ seems to have been solely at the discretion of Mr. Nick Benjamin. [1] No satisfactory explanation was ever given to date as to why the Felix Torres camp could not be rebuilt on its original site. It is clear that Department of Housing and Community Development owns the structures of the Planada Village Camp and contracts with Housing Authority of Merced for the maintenance thereof, and it is also clear the Housing Authority owns the land, and both parcels were and are still zoned for the use of Migrant Housing.

Our contention is that CEQA review should have begun at that point at which Mr. Benjamin decided to move the existing camps to new locations, back in 2003. As a semi-autonomous State Agency, Housing Authority has lead agency status with regard to NEPA review of this proposed project, however, that autonomy does not supercede land use authority in Merced County when a proposed project requires a zoning change, or as in this case, a conditional use permit. (Migrant Housing is not an automatically granted land use on land zoned A-1 Agricultural, there are specific requirements of the County General Plan that must be met and approved, and that process requires public review and opportunity to comment under CEQA).

Mr. Benjamin’s decision to relocate the camp(s), was facilitated by the Central Valley Coalition for Affordable Housing (a non-profit organization formed by the Housing Authority of Merced in 1987), which secured a loan from (or through) Housing Authority to purchase alternate land for the construction of a proposed ‘combined’ migrant and year round camp.

Mr. Nick Benjamin at that time was both the Executive Director of Housing Authority, and the Secretary of Central Valley Coalition for Affordable Housing and it is believed that he had full authority to act on behalf of both organization’s boards with regard to the procurement of the specific 24-acre parcel on Gerard Avenue (the originally intended location to which Felix Torres camp was to be moved).

Public outcry and written opposition to the change in location of Felix Torres Camp presented to the County Board of Supervisors, stalled the project and lead to an elaborate ‘shell game’ of deed transfers and money laundering that culminated in Jan. with the recording of the sale of that parcel to Merced County C.E.O. Demetrios Tatum and his wife. This land sale and all its intermediary steps are currently under the investigation of the Merced County Grand Jury.

Mr. Benjamin is a person who wears many hats in Merced County. Beside those previously mentioned, he also holds a position on the board of the Community Action Agency (a quasi-governmental non-profit agency whose funding, such as Community Development Block grants, is directly controlled by the Merced County Board of Supervisors). Mr. Benjamin also sits on the Workforce Investment Board, (established by statute in 2001 and whose members are appointed by the Merced County Board of Supervisors).

Mr. Benjamin has collaborated extensively with Mr. Rudy Buendia, the director of FirmBuild, (a non-profit corporation involved with other projects in Planada such as the Bear Creek Village) for many years. Mr. Buendia currently is appointed as a Commissioner of the Housing Authority of Merced’s Board of Commissioners (appointed by the District Supervisor for district 1 which includes Planada.) Mr. Buendia also hold an appointed position on the Merced County Planning Commission as a Commissioner (also appointed by the District 1 Supervisor)

Mr. Buendia seems to be in the enviable position of sitting as a voting member of the ‘lead agency’ for the NEPA approval of the proposed new Felix Torres Project, and as an advisor to the ‘lead agency’ for the CEQA review of this same project. Additionally FirmBuild may be involved in the eventual reconstruction of the Felix Torres Camp. Consequently the public has no clear or speedy means of determining whether or not any other inappropriate financial aggrandizement may occur through the eventual release of these encumbered OMS grant funds.

The normal checks and balances, which would preclude such conflicts of interest, are demonstrably absent in a rural setting such as Merced County where one person can wear so many hats simultaneously.

There seems to be a great deal of overlap in the funding streams coming into Merced County through the Department of Financial Assistance of the Department of Housing and Community Development. It is clear to these commentators that the restrictions on the beneficiaries of grant funding through specific programs such as Joseph C. Serna Farmworker housing (which represents about one third of the grant funding for this proposed project) may be effectively circumvented under the aegis of Mr. Benjamin’s proposal.

The Predevelopment Loan Program used to demolish the Felix Torres Camp may have been used in violation of CEQA in that no environmental review was even contemplated for that aspect of the project until during the actual demolition when the commentators did a site inspection and discovered evidence of endangered and/or protected species on site, and brought such information to the attention of Housing Authority. The public will never know whether or not there was illegal ‘take’ of endangered/protected species during the demolition of the Felix Torres Camp buildings, but what is clear from written communications with the Housing Authority is their stated contention was that the contractor would have been liable for the illegal ‘take’.

This demonstrably limited understanding of the Housing Authority’s responsibility for complying with the laws of the State of California and those of the United States does not inspire confidence that this project is proceeding according to established standards of environmental review.

Having brought this situation to the attention of the grantors, it should not remain incumbent upon the public to force an internal audit of this morass; it would seem incumbent on the director of the Department of Financial Assistance or his superiors to follow up on a complaint such as this.

We clearly see and understand the financial incentive Housing Authority has in cooperating with the parties financially interested in securing the zoning changes proposed in the 2003 Planada Community Plan Update; the Planada Village was to be replaced with a zone for commercial development along Hwy 140, and the Felix Torres Camp is directly adjacent to a riparian waterway (Miles Creek) and is being actively sought for the residential development capabilities afforded by the proposed change to low density residential zoning.

Both parcels would appreciate multiple orders of magnitude in value and would represent an irresistible temptation to seek less valuable real estate on which to build replacement migrant housing with the already encumbered grant funding.

While we can appreciate the considerable potential financial benefit of this collaboration to Housing Authority, we can also clearly see conflicts with other applicable land use authorities of the State of California including tenets of the Cortese-Knox- Hertzberg Act of 2000, as it would apply to the provision of municipal services outside of an established SUDP; specific proscriptions under CEQA disallowing a public entity to select a preferred alternative based solely upon the affordability of the land in question; the ongoing environmental injustice being inflicted upon the displaced population; not to mention the near impossibility of evaluating the compliance of this proposed project or any like it with the hopelessly outdated Merced County General Plan.

The community has already suffered the deprivation of the 88 Felix Torres Camp units and has born for three years the added congestion of accommodating those returning migrants in the sparsely available low and very low-income housing. The local economy has suffered commensurately lack of workforce during crucial times of harvest during the last three years.

The public was informed by Housing Authority representatives that the decision to close and demolish Felix Torres Camp was a directive of the State of California, and under the Public Records Act we wish to inspect any written document corroborating that assertion, if such could be identified in the files of any of the above parties to whom this letter is addressed. It is our belief that the decision to close and then demolish Felix Torres Camp was rather retaliatory and punitive of the public who voiced opposition to the political and residential development interests who were clearly the intended beneficiaries of this collaboration.

The citizens of Planada participated in the federal NEPA review of this proposed project. Written comments regarding the draft EA (Environmental Assessment) have not been acknowledged or answered and the Housing Authority acting as its own lead agency has approved their NEPA review. We attach a copy[2] of the submitted comments to assist you in determining whether substantive information has been overlooked in the EA by the ‘Lead Agency’(Housing Authority of Merced County).

Irrespective of the relative weight given to public comment during the NEPA environmental review process, the Housing Authority has now contacted the Merced County Planning Department seeking CEQA review and approval of this disputed project.

CEQA requires that the Lead Agency (Merced County) examine all feasible alternatives to the proposed project, and that the scope of that analysis include all issues identified in the earliest initial study, including, in particular, the intent of the original funding source, and the setting in which those particular funds were encumbered. By completing the NEPA analysis of this project independently from the CEQA review, the Housing Authority has sought to limit the analysis of the environmental impact solely to their preferred alternative. This is both subtle and inappropriate.

Plaintiffs who sued Merced County over the inadequacy of the 2003 Planada Community Plan on behalf of those migrants displaced by the actions of the Housing Authority (closing the Felix Torres Camp in 2003 and demolishing it in 2005) have not abandoned their suit. In fact that suit is currently in 5th Appellate Court in Fresno.

Merced County’s recently disclosed plans to radically expand the SUDP boundary of Planada as part of a County General Plan Update, seek to circumvent and moot the efforts of the appellants.

There is clearly a nexus of growth pressures, lack of sewer capacity, declining economic opportunity, and poverty in Planada that demand a comprehensive environmental analysis. The migrant housing to be built with this funding (encumbered since 2003) is certainly a seminal component of Planada’s housing supply, and crucial in that it will be supportive of the actual agricultural labor force indigenous to the community.

Unfortunately, though, it has come to light that the Housing Authority has no intention of limiting residents of the proposed new Felix Torres Camp to farm workers and their dependents. The overarching intent of providing low-income housing in Merced County on which so many other government subsidized funding streams reaching Merced County tend to depend, would seem to provide an incentive for County Planning to limit the CEQA review of this project. We hope this scrutiny will persuade Housing Authority Executive Director Nick Benjamin and County Planning to honor the actual legislative intent of the OMS grant funding. We wish to somehow ensure that the proposed housing is actually going to replace both the structures and the context that were demolished at the original Felix Torres site. The conclusions presented to the public in the Housing Authority’s draft EA do not inspire confidence that the public’s expectations for this project will be realized.

It seems clear that more specific guidance from the State Agency with direct control over the expenditure of these funds is necessary. Without intending to jeopardize the funding for migrant housing in Planada, may we suggest that Housing Authority is within their authority to rebuild the Felix Torres Camp on its original site, and can do so without abusing Merced County’s land use authority or the public’s trust.

If, as we believe the County of Merced is the land use authority and Lead Agency for the CEQA review of the Housing Authority proposed project on newly acquired property, then we request and require that the Scope of this project be broadened to include the original site of the Felix Torres Camp and all of the previous public involvement and comment on this proposal.

Sincerely,

Lydia M. Miller – President Steve Burke,

San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center Protect Our Water

Bryant Owens- Chairman

Planada Community Development Co.

Attachment: Draft EA Comments-2005

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Housing Authority Board of Commissioner minutes

[2] Comments on Draft Environmental Assessment 2005

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Unlikely McCloskey?

Submitted: Jan 30, 2006

McCloskey an unlikely opponent for Pombo

By JIM BOREN
Fresno Bee
27-JAN-06

I was momentarily confused by the radio snippet I heard the other day about a Republican challenging Rep. Richard Pombo, the Tracy, Calif., Republican who has raised the ire of some for his conservative positions on the environment and property rights. Did the newscaster really say that former Congressman Paul M. "Pete" McCloskey would run against Pombo?

It was time to do the math because I covered McCloskey's last campaign, an unsuccessful U.S. Senate race 24 years ago. My first thoughts: How old is McCloskey now, and can he really be serious about winning a campaign against a Republican power broker?

The answer to those questions came quickly when I heard that familiar voice a few days later in a telephone interview: "Yes, I'm serious," McCloskey said. "At 78, you don't give up five months of your life to lose an election."

His determination aside, the odds are against the one-time Marine who served 15 years in
Congress. Pombo has $555,000 in the bank, and could spend $5 million on a re-election
campaign. Pombo also has a solid GOP base, although he faces criticism over ties to admitted felon Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist.

But few think Pombo is in serious trouble unless further revelations surface. For McCloskey to win the June primary, he will have to persuade Republicans in a Northern California congressional district that he's a better party nominee than the incumbent.

That's where it gets a bit tricky for McCloskey, who has been called a maverick Republican for most of his career. Some think that means he's not really a Republican.

Wayne Johnson, Pombo's political consultant, said the more voters learn about McCloskey, the less enthusiasm there will be for him. He really should be running in the Democratic primary, Johnson said.

If McCloskey's campaign takes hold, Pombo undoubtedly will point out that his opponent has often gone against his party, starting with McCloskey's 1972 challenge of President Richard Nixon over the Vietnam War, and then supporting Democrat John Kerry over President Bush in 2004.

That isn't a record that you'd expect to be a roadmap for success in a rock-solid Republican district that covers parts of San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

But McCloskey says 11th District voters want someone they can trust, adding that Pombo caters to the powerful and ignores his constituents.

"This is going to be a fun campaign," McCloskey said in a telephone interview from Lodi, Calif. "Pombo has a hotshot campaign consultant who says Pombo won't debate me, which is an interesting position for someone who is part of Congress, which is a debating society."

McCloskey began his political career amid much applause. He defeated Shirley Temple Black, whose career as a child actress made her a household name. That began a congressional career that saw him making news often because of his direct talk.

Among his accomplishments in Congress was co-authoring the Endangered Species Act, which Pombo is trying to dismantle. Now that has made this personal.

McCloskey understands that he may not be taken seriously by the political establishment or the media. But he said he's committed to changing the minds of doubters.

"You are entitled to view with skepticism why a 78-year-old retired farmer and attorney from Yolo County would move 90 miles to San Joaquin County in order to challenge incumbent Congressman Richard Pombo of Tracy," he said last week during his campaign announcement.

McCloskey looked for other Republicans to challenge Pombo, and decided to get into the race when he couldn't find a serious candidate. Despite his age, he said he is willing to take a stand.He said Republicans in Congress have strayed from party principles of smaller government, less intrusion into citizens' lives and a commitment to the environment.

"It was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who gave us a strong environmental policy to protect parklands, wildlife preserves and wilderness, as well as anti-trust laws to control business excesses," McCloskey said.

It's a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, he said.

We'll see whether Republican voters in California's 11th Congressional District see it that way. McCloskey, at least, will give them a choice in the GOP primary. At a time when gerrymandered districts have sucked the interest out of congressional elections in California, this one might be fun to watch.

(Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com.
-------------------

I was sorry to read that the McClatchy Co. has decided to bury Pete McCloskey's challenge to Rep. Richard Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy, in the rhetoric of the horse-race. For the corporate media, whenever political values threaten the tranquil flow of business (the real estate business in California), it instantly resorts to handicapping as a form of political coverage.

The headline is dismissive: "McCloskey an unlikely opponent for Pombo."

We assume McCloskey had something to say after his comment, "You are entitled to view with skepticism why a 78-year-old retired farmer and attorney from Yolo County would move 90 miles to San Joaquin County in order to challenge incumbent Congressman Richard Pombo of Tracy," -- and Boren just forgot to mention what McCloskey had to say in the next sentence.

I don't know what airy heights Boren now inhabits in what Scripps-Howard office building or where in the country is it. But I have registered voters in recent years in front of supermarkets in Tracy, Manteca and Stockton, in the 11th congressional district. From my observations, those people are no less deserving than any other Americans to honest, decent political representation in the House of Representatives. At present, they are represented by the political front man for Pombo Real Estate Farms, a man who cannot remember how many times he met Jack Abramoff and would be happy to forget he received about $55,000 from him, if other organizations had not reminded him of the fact. To local dairymen, he is the front half of the Pomboza, a duet of congressmen so committed to the real estate development of their districts they cannot be counted
on to represent the dairy interests in the upcoming Farm Bill.

We welcome McCloskey to the San Joaquin Valley, as should the newspapers. He's a strong guy and a straight shooter.

"It's a battle for the soul of the Republican Party," Boren quotes him saying. "This one
might to fun to watch," he concludes.

The message to the readers: Even though you have a political system stacked against all you fools that read our papers trying to get information about important public affairs; even though that political system favors all our wonderful advertisers whose fraudulent messages are, if only by convention, so far beyond the truth they have to pay us handsomely to have them printed, don't you be losers now; don't you imagine for a minute there might be someone running against a crook for a decent reason. The system would crumble tomorrow if that notion were allowed to escape in public. Don't you dare dream of possibly cleaning up this corrupt system, congressional seat by congressional seat. Don't you dare dream you have that kind of power as individual voters. Uh-huh. No, no.

Boren is so obscure, who knows what he's trying to say? Who cares? What, for example, is so wrong with a battle for the soul of the Republican Party? Republicans have souls just like Democrats. All God’s chillun got souls. When Pombo's campaign manager repeats the ancient charge McCloskey should run as a Democrat, we're just talking two-bit power talk c. 1970. (I am always suspicious of so-called “journalists” when they think like back-alley political hacks. If they want that life in its uncertainties, why don’t they have the guts to live it?) This campaign is actually about the soul of both parties, because Democrats should vote for McCloskey on behalf of the general public in the district. That's because, somewhere, sometime, working politicians must step out of their respective machines and begin to think about the public instead of their damned places in the machine. One of the secrets of political campaigns is that it never made much difference which party working politicians worked for, they were and remain essentially the same kind of human animal -- neither the worst nor the best, but one of America's very first inventions, before the steam engine or the cotton gin, and their value remains when it ain't all bought up by the corporations.

The problem we are facing today with both working politicians and the political press is a
complex process of destruction. Maybe it could be accurately said that Republican politics traditionally centered in the soda fountain or the barber shop on Main Street, while Democratic politics centered in the tavern near the mill where the workers cashed their checks. It had to begin in some kind of concrete community because if America had been suburban from the beginning we would never have had any politics. We would have had the monarchy now so rapidly reaching fruition.

We are having a hell of a problem trying to conceive what politics means, now. The high-tech, suburban geniuses say history has fulfilled its purpose in themselves. Not in us,
necessarily; in them. They will manage it all by their perfect numbers from hereon out. So, you don't need to worry about politics anymore. That's nostalgic. America is a technocracy now; it's not even trying to be a democracy anymore. Forget that. That's oldthink. Yes, it is true that once we were based on political principles that were expressed in words complete with logic and argument oldamericans were willing to fight and die for. But the irrepressible forces of American business genius have led us to the newtime in which we live, here and now. Follow the numbers. They change frequently, providing endless variation.

Oldthink was so primitive that the nation had two parties: the Donkeys and the Elephants. The Donkeys and the Elephants lived in the belief that by the strength of their argument alone, after the Civil War, they would protect liberty and justice for all. It was said in public schools every day, little hands placed on growing hearts, as if it weren't a prayer but a pledge of allegiance -- "liberty and justice for all."

What terror awaits the voters of the 11th CD. They have been given a choice denied most Americans. And all the risk of voting for a possible loser, an honest man running against a man who does not have the truth in him. A terrible, terrible thing. Maybe they vote wrong.

Oh, terrible, terrible thing. Not to pick the winner.

Politics is not a horse race. It is really much, much more important than any horse race.

Before you believe your newspapers, realize they make their money from the crap on their advertising pages, not from you. The only reason you exist in their world is that the more there are of you trying to get some decent information on public affairs, the higher the rates they can charge to the advertisers.

As for Boren, oh well. What do you do about one more wannabe politician with a mortgage and an office with a view of somewhere high above the 11th congressional district? One may lack the authority to speak about this district if he hasn’t stood in front of the south Stockton Kmart watching cars being boosted in broad daylight whilst registering the odd Democrat. The sneer from airy heights doesn’t erase for me the fine local coverage of news the Stockton Record has delivered, especially on the incredible complexities of the Delta, through the years. Nobody in their right mind loves Fat City – which in a nutshell is the problem with right minds. Stockton is love at first sight or a heart attack. Take it or leave it. Fat City could care less.

Bill Hatch

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Wobbly three-legged stool

Submitted: Jan 20, 2006

The three-legged stool

Viewed from an ecological perspective, rooted in the environment of the San Joaquin Valley of California, politically affairs this week seem to be perched on a very wobbly three-legged stool.

The short, skinny leg

When (funded) “value-free facilitators” begin showing up in your community, it is probably time to count the silverware or, from an ecological perspective, inventory the environmental quality of your neighborhood. We have an area called “South” Merced, where, traditionally, minority groups have lived south of the tracks and the highway. Through the years, the city has done a pretty decent job of hustling federal funds to repair and restore old single-family houses and build some multi-family apartment complexes. The county housing authority is located there. However, the area has almost no business, at least business useful to the residents, like a decent shopping center with a supermarket. In recent months, the city has proposed the development of a specific urban development plan for the neighborhood, appointed a citizen’s advisory commission and has engaging consultants to draw up a land-use plan.

What the area needs is development that pays its way for the schools it overcrowds, a decent shopping center with a supermarket, and more employment. A dark thought is that it will the area in which the city will fulfill its low-income housing quotient required to keep its general plan correct. Several new low-income complexes have already been built and more are already in the planning pipeline.

“We’re just glad to be here to facilitate this process,” said the value-free facilitator with a Crash Davis (“Bull Durham”) grasp of cliché, before a group of about 40 at a meeting two weeks ago. A number in the audience were government officials, including three city council members (including the mayor) and two supervisors. A city planner led a significant portion of the meeting.

An elderly resident complained about the governing vocabulary. “My tax bill doesn’t tell me I live in North or South Merced,” she said. “It says Merced. All we want is to have the same facilities throughout Merced.” She described 24 empty streetlights on her street. Later, an officious city councilman told the group those streetlights were in the county, not the city, so the city wasn’t responsible.

“There is something ignorant about this whole thing,” the resident commented. “Let’s use our intelligence and forget this North/South Merced.”

The value-free facilitator and the city planner went right on calling it South Merced, referring to my neighborhood as “Middle Merced.” North Merced is where the growth, induced by the arrival of UC Merced, is rapidly doubling the size of the city.

One of the neighborhood’s present dilemmas is what to do with Carl Pollard, an African-American resident of the neighborhood who, after losing six campaigns for the city council, was recently appointed to it. Less than a month after the appointment, he was charged with driving a car without insurance, with an open container of alcohol and some amount of marijuana in it. He has been fired from his realtor job. If convicted, presumably he would lose his council seat. Pollard led an invocation at the beginning of the meeting.

There are better people than Pollard, a political accident that has happened, trying to work for a decent level of services (at least one supermarket south of the tracks, for example), as development that does not pay its way rages to the north and more “low-income” housing development – horribly impacting schools in the south – is planned for the neighborhood. Perhaps, if they organize themselves, beginning by believing almost nothing of what city and county officials tell them, they will have a prayer the Rev. Pollard shall not lead.

“Value-free community organizing” facilitated from the top down by University of California personnel is illusory. What has worked in a modest way in the neighborhood has been volunteer crime watches that have existed for years. What will make things more miserable is crowding in more low-income residents to satisfy regional low-income housing mandates into an area with a chronically low level of services and usable commercial enterprises.

The fat, middle leg

A year ago, the Sacramento Bee did a series of articles exposing a classic situation of corporate power in diary processing. Hilmar Cheese had been polluting surface and groundwater near its site for years. The San Joaquin Regional Water Quality Control Board had been effectively bought off by the corporation. Publicly embarrassed, the board levied a $4-million fine against Hilmar.

After the state Water Resources Board in November refused Hilmar Cheese’s proposal to pay a fraction of the fine the regional water quality board had levied against it for polluting its area with huge quantities of wastewater, the federal EPA approved a test deep-injection well this week. Presumably, if the engineers on this project are more skillful than on the plant’s last techno-fix, the test will be successful, paving the way for injection of Hilmar Cheese’s 2-to-3 million gallons a day of waste water more than 3,000 feet below the Valley surface.

Meanwhile Hilmar’s corporate lawyers and water board lawyers continue to negotiate a settlement of the fine. The board should hear a new proposal by March, Catherine George, water board attorney, said today.

Vance Kennedy, a retired hydrologist from Modesto, told me yesterday it was as “done deal:” EPA has the power to override the state water board’s decision, on the grounds that deep injection is out of the state board’s jurisdiction over surface and ground water.” George confirmed Kennedy’s report.

“Ground water” refers to the aquifers several hundred feet down from which well water is drawn for domestic and agricultural use.

Kennedy said the EPA is using the analogy of water injection into oil and gas wells to force the products to the surface from beneath impenetrable layers. Hilmar, he said, is supposed to have a 100-foot thick layer of shale deep down, presumably impermeable.

He repeated the point he made in several hearings on the project: that water is incompressible and will move laterally, for miles, until it begins to push salty water up into groundwater aquifers lying above “impenetrable” layers.

“The sad thing is that salty water elsewhere may not show up for years or decades,” he said. He added it might not ever be possible to trace salt-water intrusion into wells back to the lateral pressure caused by Hilmar’s deep injection system.

Worse, Kennedy said, it’s a precedent for the San Joaquin Valley. Every wastewater facility from Redding to Bakersfield will be looking at this technology. EPA approved a number of wastewater deep-injection wells in Florida, providing another decade of rapid growth. The Sierra Club sued in February 2005, citing massive ecological damage. Kennedy said he’d been told Miami effluent has been traced as far away as Bermuda.

This middle leg is overweening corporate power to dominate surrounding communities and destroy their environments. Merced, the second largest dairy county in the nation, is afflicted with Big Dairy, an extremely powerful lobby from county to country devoted to the propositions: Bigger and More. The best comment I’ve heard on the economic philosophy of Big Dairy was from a small dairyman who said: when someday milk is so over-produced it isn’t worth a penny, some dairyman will say it’s a good day to buy cows.

The Hilmar Cheese deal reveals a tendency in our economy toward outright corporate ownership of government. In the lexicon of American politics exists the phrase, which covers the situation so well a book about the political career of a former Merced congressman, Tony Coelho, is titled, “Honest Graft.”

This sort of corruption tends to spiral out of control, as in the present case of the Abramoff affair. Some economists argue that eventually, the power of special interests devours the nation’s substance for the gains of very few, if gigantic firms. In the case of US transnational corporations, the approach has been to cause deep structural unemployment of domestic industrial workers and devour other nations’ substance at very low wages. The process is well advanced in the US, particularly in California, where the state budget is beginning to resemble the budget of Third World nations like Argentina and Chile, raped by utility and development corporations and thrown into the tender claws of Wall Street for the foreseeable future.

The impact of the EPA decision may go far beyond Hilmar.

The housing development industry is a radical example of the domination of sheer financial interest over the construction of subdivisions containing rows of three or four “housing products.” Everything about the structure of this “industry,” from the elaborate system of subcontracting to the pittance the state requires it pay for the schools it overcrowds, is designed to protect the developer investor from any public liability. In employs mobs of illegal aliens, heretofore always called “unskilled farmworkers,” to do highly skilled construction work for well below union wages. It has bought wholesale political and legal attacks on state and federal environmental law. It is pricing out farmers on agricultural land while making large rural landowners who sell for development rich. Development in states like California and Florida has made a mockery of any concept of urban planning.

If the deep-injection fix takes off in the Central Valley, residents and farmers will be the losers but the corporations will be the winners in the near term, which is their only time frame. Meanwhile, laws that haven’t already been written will be written to limit or exempt them from liability. But, one might object, wastewater facilities likely to jump on this fix are public entities. They are public entities driven every step of the way into surface and groundwater pollution by private development corporations. The system to protect the genuinely public interest is broken, corrupted, for sale, less and less often these days with even a pretence of being other than for sale. Growing numbers of rightwing politicians aggressively promote the ideology that public policy ought to be for sale to the highest bidder. Up and down the ranks of the Republican Party, this is considered to be “the hard, right decision.”

The local glaring, daily example is the loss of rights of existing residents of a region to the same quality of life they had before a UC campus was located in their county and development took off, running roughshod over law, regulation and resources. Against the local land-use authorities’ power to reject projects under the California Environmental Quality Act is the constant drum of developer propaganda: “Growth is inevitable.” You hear it on street corners out of the mouths of people who were once citizens but now passively accept the role of being mere subjects of alien, hostile government. It makes you wonder what else could have been done with all the money it took to convince Californians of this suicidal proposition that has, in 30 years, distorted this state out of all self-recognition, that has replaced, for private gain, a state composed of cities, towns, communities with abundant natural resources and rural economies of hope, with a slurbocracy of mere subjects.

Hilmar Cheese, “largest cheese plant in the world,” is using demonstrably bad Florida technology because its industry largely owns its regulators. Not that the EPA needed much encouragement to worsen the environment of the San Joaquin Valley. Its present administrator started his scientific career at Litton Bionetics, one of the nation’s leading developers of chemical and biological weapons: he is the perfect Bush fox for the EPA henhouse.

But, in our terribly contemporary political culture here in the 18th Congressional District, in Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced, we have the epitome of the emerging one-party state, under the relentless pressure of special interest corruption. Cardoza is referred to locally simply as the south end of O Pomboza, the northern end being Rep. RichPAC Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy. Pombo is an exemplary modern American fascist, complete with his corruption problems linked to Abramoff, who he denies knowing, and his strong penchant for breaking laws he can’t change, like the Endangered Species Act.

The EPA decision leaves people to believe – and they are definitely meant to believe – they are powerless to stop this level of pollution, corporate irresponsibility and corruption, because the corporations, the Pomboza and the regulating agencies don’t give a damn about the people and believe they exist to do the bidding of the least responsible whim of the corporations who effectively own their own regulating agencies. Some political theorists call this form of government corporatist and describe it as a precursor to fascism. We will content ourselves with the homey old American expression, “honest graft,” well established in government during the McKinley administration, apparently the guide to all domestic politics in the W. administration.

There are residual American political tactics against such corruption. People concerned about this well and its implications for the future of groundwater in the Central Valley ought to consider starting a national boycott against Hilmar Cheese products. A boycott has the old-fashioned charm of asserting the dignity of human communities in the face of inhuman corporate power. People might find it a refreshing diversion from being oppressed and depressed by decisions affecting their lives over which they have no control.

The long, weird leg

A preface is required to begin to describe the last leg of the current stool. I’ve chosen a passage from Douglas Dowd’s book on Thorstein Veblen, an American economist who wrote this during the McKinley administration, at the turn of the 20th century:

“Business interests urge an aggressive national policy and businessmen direct it. Such a policy is warlike as well as patriotic. The direct cultural value of a warlike business policy is unequivocal. It makes for a conservative animus on the part of the populace. During war time, and within the military organization at all times, under martial law, civil rights are in abeyance; and the more warfare and armament the more abeyance … a military organization is a servile organization. Insubordination is the deadly sin. (The Theory of Business Enterprise, Thorstein Veblen, 1904, p. 391)

What is true of those directly involved in the military applies also to the civilian population in significant degree:

“They learn to think in warlike terms of rank, authority, and subordination, and so grow progressively more patient of encroachments upon their civil rights … At the same stroke they (patriotic ideals) direct the popular interest to other, nobler institutionally less hazardous matters than the unequal distribution of wealth or of creature comfort. (Ibid. p. 393)

But for those who might see this as a triumph of business enterprise over the threat of social change led by workers, it is turned by Veblen into a hollow triumph. For, if the discipline and values of the warlike and patriotic society may “correct” the institutionally disintegrative trend of the machine process, it is just as probable that, for the same reasons there would be “a rehabilitation of the ancient patriotic animosity and dynastic loyalty, to the relative neglect of business interests. This may easily be carried so far as to sacrifice the profits of the businessman to the exigencies of the higher politics (Ibid. 395).

Thus, Veblen sees the system of business enterprise caught in a terrible historical dilemma: If, to offset the institutional and threatening imperative of industrialism, it encourages, or acquiesces in, developments that will cause social unrest to “sink in the broad sands of patriotism,” it is faced with the equal probability that what is quicksand for one will sooner or later pull down the other.

The last paragraph of the Theory might be Veblen’s epitaph for the system of business enterprise:

“It seems possible to say this much, that the full domination of business enterprise is necessarily a transitory dominion. It stands to lose in the end whether the one or the other of the two divergent cultural tendencies wins, because it is incompatible with the ascendancy of either. (Ibid. p. 400)

(Thus, in the late 1930s, German industrialists who had supported Nazism as a “corrective discipline” for the political and economic troubles of the early 1930’s found themselves increasingly harassed by regulation, taxation, and general interference in their affairs by Nazi Party and Wehrmacht functionaries.) – Thorstein Veblen, by Douglas Dowd, 1964, pp. 52-53.

In our suddenly radical contemporary experience in Merced, we now host UC, a university whose two national laboratories of mass destruction are now competing for the design award for new nuclear weapons. Therefore, we must ask, for what end, the Cold War having ended some years ago? Our current, neo-McKinley imperial administration cum dynastic, monarchal pretensions, aims at nothing less than world domination. Like the Nazis, the neocons didn’t come to power just to regulate, tax and interfere with business. They came with a plan for world domination. Read all about it at the Project for the New American Century (http://www.newamericancentury.org).

The details of the vision really don’t matter nearly as much as the absurd fact of the vision itself “for the spread of American ideals.” For the neocons, the vision is the only fact that matters. One observes the tendency daily in the president. In fact, as opposed to vision, America cannot even fight successfully in two war theaters, let alone the many anticipated by the PNAC. And their he-man, Ariel Sharon, is in a coma.

On the other hand, they have our UC to build new nuclear weapons.

The fat leg should be called by its name: totalitarian ambition. It has not happened yet. The Alito confirmation hearing was held up for a week. Investigations of scandals mount. The drums for impeachment tap, if inaudibly to the ears of American subjects. However, “yet” is a highly ambiguous term in such a moment, because, although we are aware of the velocity of change, we aren’t able to measure it accurately, in large part for lack of honest media. The totalitarian ambition has been an old dream of American industrialists and financiers, evident to Veblen in 1904, far more overt before the two world wars, and the Bush family has been heavily involved in it since before WWI.

The only question of any importance today is whether the American people have the intelligence to see it and the energy left, in this rapidly decaying economy, to resist it, particularly without an effective opposition political party. Appeals to the ideals of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights fall on largely deaf ears. The fundamental right for which American subjects of the British crown fought was the right of political participation. After a century of fraudulent commercial advertising and government propaganda, is there enough citizenship left in the subject population to resist the neocon plan to make the Mideast safe for Israel, US oil companies, conduct an eternal Indian War against Arabs, and subject the US population to enough terror so that it doesn’t notice the absurdity of the neocon vision and the destruction of both the domestic economy and its environment.

The question is important, however, as a preliminary to the larger, more dangerous problem of how we confront global warming and lesser forms of environmental destruction. We haven’t a prayer of avoiding the global tipping point without strong state regulation of corporate environmental destruction. It also leads one to wonder just how many UC-built nuclear bomb blasts it would take to tip the planet over the edge. It is hard to imagine anything more destructive to the environment than a nuclear bomb. But, UC Merced is an environmentally conscious campus.

And they ask why the public mind is boggled so often these days.

Veblen’s prognosis for American business is a useful anchor:

“It seems possible to say this much, that the full domination of business enterprise is necessarily a transitory dominion. It stands to lose in the end whether the one or the other of the two divergent cultural tendencies wins, because it is incompatible with the ascendancy of either.” (Ibid. p. 400)

“Full domination” has been achieved all too successfully. The rule of law is rapidly crumbling before this full domination. Law was the arena in which the divergent tendencies met and argued. Without law effectively protecting the rights of citizens, the United States of America ceases to be itself and the voice of reason is drowned by the screaming antinomy between privileged and desperate subjects in a rapidly deteriorating environment. The reasonable solution would appear to be something less than “full domination of business enterprise,” beginning with regulatory agencies that are permitted to perform their necessary public function, uninfluenced by either political pressure or foxes in henhouses. The political irony is that business enterprise would have to call for a rapid, perhaps radical reduction of its domination in order to save the system of government that nurtured its rise to power. That would require an act of reason probably beyond the capacity of corporate attitudes today and equally beyond the capacities of its bought and sold political class. The real road to Hell has been paved with done deals between special interests and government.

But that’s just how things look from the middle of the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Bill Hatch

Notes:

Hannah Arendt: Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution

Douglas Dowd: Thorstein Veblen

Hilmar Cheese Permitted to Drill Test Well
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/local/story/11676192p-12403995c.html

Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations

Brooks Jackson, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process

Upgrades planned for U.S. nuclear stockpile. Agency leader expects significant warhead redesigns...James Sterngold
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/01/15/MNGTTGNL5P1.DTL&type=printable

Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush

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Timing is everything

Submitted: Jan 06, 2006

While some in Merced scratch their heads and chew their pencil erasers trying to comment on a large Riverside Motorsports Park Master Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report and others don their black RMP caps to rally in support of the track, John Condren, CEO of RMP, and Kenny Shepherd, RMP president, take their dog-and-pony show to Tracy to talk about the wonders of an expanded Altamont Speedway and about expanding their lease on the Speedway from two to 10 years.

Although these guys are too cute by half, in their various pitches here and there about the Valley, they manage to drop things.

“We’ve had more tracks close in the past 12 months than in the entire period (from) 1975 to 2005,” he said. With Stockton 99 due to close at the end of 2006 “we cannot afford to lose another track, so we stepped up to the plate.”

Timing is everything. Condren is a talented man. Perhaps, given the timing, he should consider promoting bicycle tracks, popular during the McKinley administration, widely adored by the present administration at war for oil and the right to torture anyone to get more of it.

Bill Hatch
--------------------------------

Changes come to local raceway
Christopher H. Roberts

Tracy Press -- Jan. 6, 2005

Major changes are afoot at Altamont.

Just three weeks after the surprise announcement that Riverside Motorsports Park, LLC, of Atwater are the Altamont raceway’s new managers, the company’s CEO and president revealed the vision for the track’s future at a meeting Thursday in Tracy.

Among the planned improvements are a new Musco lighting system, membership in NASCAR, a remodeled pit area, effective wind-screens and the ability to convert the quarter-mile oval track into 27 different street courses.

Riverside, currently in the middle of a $230 million racetrack construction project in Merced, chose to take on the added burden of managing and improving Altamont for the overall good of the sport, CEO John Condren said.

“We’ve had more tracks close in the past 12 months than in the entire period (from) 1975 to 2005,” he said. With Stockton 99 due to close at the end of 2006 “we cannot afford to lose another track, so we stepped up to the plate.”

The meeting began with a blend of urgency and fatalism.

“Motorsports is in trouble,” Riverside president and former racer Kenny Shepard said. “If we don’t do something, Altamont will be a business park in two years.”

“Failure is not an option,” Condren said.

To explain the business side of the venture, Condren and Shepard used a mix of racing talk and corporate speak.

Condren announced that the days of one event a week at Altamont are over, as a wider variety of events spread over three to five days make for “multiple revenue streams.”

“I like to call this a paradigm shift,” he said.

However, many racers present raised fears that their particular racing classes would be phased out at Altamont, fears that neither Condren nor Shepard allayed.

“We’re looking at what’s going to work for the next 10 years,” Condren said. “If your class gets eliminated
— I’m sorry.”

The problems that have plagued Altamont for years — shoddy lighting, primitive pits and the legendary high winds — were specifically addressed.

And news that a new Musco lighting system was already on the way drew a round of applause.

Still, the 200-odd assembled drivers, mechanics and racing fans were skeptical at first.

“These are promises we’ve heard before,” Ken Benhamou of Pleasanton said to Condren. “You’ve got a big task ahead of you — if you make promises, I want to see you commit.”

To this, Condren pointed to the $1.5 million already invested by Riverside in Altamont as proof that the new management will stay for longer than the initial two-year lease.

He also emphasized the large amount of work already done.

“We’ve moved a mountain in three weeks” since signing the agreement to lease the track, Condren said.
The plan is simple at its core.

“The goal is to get the stands full,” Shepard said. “This conversation means nothing if that track is a
ghost town.”

To do that, Riverside will need to make sure Altamont’s image becomes much more ubiquitous.

“A lot of people in this town don’t know that the track is still around,” Gayle Widgay of Tracy said.

Condren and Shepard assured that a sophisticated marketing plan is already under way, including extensive media advertising and corporate sponsorships.

The professionalism seemed to encourage those present that 2006 would truly usher in a new era at Altamont, and any fears held going into the meeting were relieved — at least for now.

“They seem like real businessmen,” racer Ryan Steele of Pleasanton said. “Not just some old guys running a track. And that’s what Altamont needs.”

http://www.tracypress.com/sports/2006-01-06-raceway.php

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Vroooom!

Submitted: Jan 02, 2006

A fine example of pro-racetrack poison penmanship appeared in the Merced Sun-Star on Friday. It is offered with a few questions in reply below.

Critics' motives are tainted

Editor: I'm getting very concerned with the ulterior motives of the few but very vocal detractors of the Riverside Motorsports Park facility. Much of what they write is conjecture; the rest is simply untrue.

What are the real reasons they push so hard against such a facility that can add millions of dollars in tax revenues that can then be spent on University of California, Merced, programs, working with RMP as a test lab, to solve some of the problems these people claim to represent? What are they really after?

Many are the same who opposed UC Merced. For that, I would say that RMP is keeping very good company. However they did delay UC Merced's opening for a long time, and when you Google some of the opposing organizations, all you get is a page full of lawsuits and out-of-court settlements. I haven't seen where any of that ill-gotten gain has been spent to solve water or air quality problems. I do see in the environmental impact report that RMP has a plan to save water. If some of our problems are solved, do the detractors lose a source of income?

They are even attacking backers now, claiming that backers are in it for the big bucks. I'm a backer, and I don't stand to gain a dime. We just want a facility that we can be proud of, and this one is like no other in the country.

Speaking of big bucks, where do you suppose all that money from litigation went? To fund a letter writing smear campaign?

DAVID WOOD

Let's try a few simple questions on this smear by Mr. Wood. What ulterior motives would opponents of the racetrack have other than trying to protect their air quality in one of the top two worst air basins in the nation? What ulterior motive would they have beyond trying to avoid incredible traffic congestion and noise?

What's the connection between any tax millions the track might earn and the UC campus? Is he conjecturing that sales taxes will flow from one to the other? The track folks have been suggesting lately a win-win public/private partnership with UC on automotive problems. But I am not familiar with any statements made by UC about this partnership. Have I missed something? Has the UC Merced chancellor endorsed Riverside Motorsports Park?

Where does Wood get the idea that the people who oppose the track are many of the very few people who opposed UC Merced? Where has Wood found a website or any other information describing any out-of-court settlements between UC Merced and opponents? What is he talking about?

Isn't the RMP track similar to the major NASCAR track at Sears Point, about 100 miles from Merced? Aren't the RMP people already exploring a backup plan to expand the old Altamont track near Tracy, which they now manage? How would Mr. Wood know the proposed track "is like no other in the country"? Has he been to the other tracks in the country or is he relying on RMP's Mr. Condren's sales pitch?

Is Mr. Wood just very badly informed or is he deliberately lying on behalf of the racetrack? It doesn't matter because the damage is done. He's made a mean fool of himself in print to anyone who knows anything about the areas he covers in his letter.

But, mean foolishness is all part of this project. The fundamental problem is that the proposed facility -- quite aside from its obvious environmental impacts -- is a temple to denial of reality, like the Iraq War. With more than 2,100 American dead and 16,000 wounded, and around 30,000 Iraqi confirmed dead, we are losing a war lies got us into so that US oil companies could exploit those resources to make gasoline for our cars. Is the motive behind the pagan ritual of stockcar racing (What would Jesus drive?) that as long as the worshippers can see the cars zooming around the tracks, they can forget the reality of shrinking natural resources that will steadily erode the quality of life for all of us?

Kurt Vonnegut summed it up nicely:

"We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on." -- http://www.counterpunch.com/swanson12272005.htm

Personally, I like the idea suggested recently that we should have a racetrack as long as all the racecars on it are solar-powered.

Bill Hatch

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Reform mood hits Valley

Submitted: Dec 19, 2005

Appropriate for the worst air quality basin in the nation, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District last week decided the Valley would be the first region in the nation where developers must pay an air pollution fee for the new homes they build. While the amount of the fee, less than $800, which can be reduced by various mitigating factors, is a token that will be entirely passed on to home buyers, it establishes an important principle.

The Valley air pollution fee on new development acknowledges that the public has been subsidizing new development in the Valley as air pollution descended to Los Angeles standards and is now worse in some years. The Valley public has subsidized the new development with its own health, particularly the health of its most vulnerable citizens – children and the elderly. It has subsidized development with higher health care spending. The Valley public has subsidized growth in terms of deteriorating water quality and supply, sewer, water and road expansions. Valley children have subsidized growth by attending over-crowded, deteriorating public schools.

The Valley public has subsidized urban sprawl politically through the loss of representation of its elected officials, who for years have been distracted from their obligations to the general public by their obligations to developers, who make up the largest part of their campaign financing. The system whereby any developer, from the University of California to the national homebuilders to sand-and-gravel miners, automatically indemnifies the local land-use authority (city or county) from paying its own legal costs if the public sues the jurisdiction for violations of environmental law or public process has protected local land-use decision-makers from taking financial responsibility for decisions appellate court judges on occasion find absurd – unless the University of California is involved. How could UC say or do anything absurd?

Valley children are paying the highest price. Not permitted recess periods during the increasing number of bad air days; their asthma rate is a regional disgrace. What may be producing action on the air quality front is that childhood asthma has no decent respect for income levels, affecting the rich as well as the poor children of the Valley. But, due to developer political rigging in Sacramento, the children also pay because the developers do not pay an adequate amount of money for schools to keep up with growth.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board recently refused to be intimidated by a Hilmar Cheese legal/public-relations campaign to make it back off fining the “largest cheese factory in the world” $4 million for polluted ground water. The board will soon hold a scooping meeting and public workshop to examine agricultural pesticide discharges into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

Tracy, hometown of Rep. RichPAC Pombo, under national attack for months,

authorized spending $60,000 to hire a consultant to write a plan that will identify potentially available land encircling the city's limits and address how the city can pay to keep that land pristine. If adopted, residents may continue to see acres of farmland and trees around town instead of unbridled roadways, rooftops and restaurants. (1)

It might be that the Pombo dynasty of real estate farmers is losing its grip on Tracy government. The leader of the local slow-growthers is Celeste Garamendi, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi’s sister.

The Stockton Record editorialized on Dec. 16 about preserving the Williamson Act to preserve agricultural land.

For 40 years, extraordinary measures have been taken to protect California farmland. This commitment is critically important now -- Since 1965, the Williamson Act has been the No. 1 device for conserving California's 30 million acres of agricultural land. More and more, its protections are under assault as homebuilders, developers and farmers seek ways to circumvent its restrictions. The Williamson Act is a relatively modest program that has been successful in protecting and preserving agricultural land in a state whose economy depends so heavily upon it. It's been especially important in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. There's no reason it shouldn't remain California's agricultural sentinel for 40 more years. (20)

Modesto Bee editor Marc Vashe wrote a tribute to Ralph Brown, former speaker of the state Assembly from Modesto, who wrote the Brown Act protecting the public’s right to access to governmental decisions. Brown retired after a successful legislative career of nearly 20 years, the last three as Assembly speaker. Jesse Unruh succeeded him. John Williamson was elected to the state Assembly in the early 1960s from Bakersfield. He seemed only to have served long enough to get the agricultural conservation law passed, when only years later came to bear his name.

Little is heard from the other half of the bipartisan environmental law gutting team that farmers are calling O Pomboza, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced. A consortium of local, state and national groups filed suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service yet again last week on its latest truncated, politically coerced, critical habitat designation for the 15 endangered and threatened species living in or close to the vernal pool wetlands. The largest fields of contiguous vernal pools in the nation lie in Cardoza’s district. So far, his several bills to damage or destroy the designation under the Endangered Species Act have failed but his finger prints are visible on the various slashed versions of the designation since Cardoza went to Congress in 2003.

Meanwhile, The Shrimp Slayer has a bit of a mess on his hands in his local office on the third floor of the Merced County Administration Building. A few weeks ago, the county announced Ruben Castillo, county counsel, would be leaving, after a lackluster defense of county policies in a number of lawsuits. Today, the rumor was that Planning Director Bill Nicholson has been demoted to assistant planning director. The new planning director, the story goes, comes from fast-growing Henderson, Nevada, where (s)he has doubtlessly burned the midnight oil studying the California Environmental Quality Act.

And UC Merced still does not have its Clean Water Act permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to expand northward onto the Virginia Smith Trust land where its Long Range Development Plan said it would. This leaves the option of expanding onto the land presently designated for the University Community.

Cardoza, whose political mentors appear to be Tony “Honest Graft” Coelho and Pombo, has worked hard to corrupt both the Brown and the Williamson acts in Merced County on behalf of UC Merced and developers. That kind of reputation might be coming around to bite him if the reform mood surfacing in the Valley gathers any momentum.

Notes:

(1) Tracy to plan for open spaces...Rick Brewer...12-18-05
http://recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?Date=20051218&Category=NEWS0101&ArtNo=512180351&SectionCat=&Template=printart

(2) Keep saving the land...Editorial...12-16-05
http://recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?Date=20051216&Category=OPED01&ArtNo=512160333&SectionCat=&Template=printart

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Higher education as if students mattered?

Submitted: Dec 11, 2005

The study just released by the University of California, “Return on Investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future,” (1) is a particularly specious bit of UC/corporate flak, reminiscent of the campaign for UC Merced. The study argues that if you have more college-educated people in your society, you will have less crime and more high-paying jobs. Many economists would suggest that job demand has something to do with the equation – but they didn’t get this grant. A supply of college-educated people of working age less than the job demand for them could be a recipe for extreme job competition, lower wages, higher rates of turnover, social discontent and emigration of a significant portion of a workforce whose education was subsidized by taxpayers. Since what is meant by education in this study is technological training, it’s fair to ask how Californians with technological training compete today with Indians and Asians with comparable training. Ask Silicon Valley, which has been off-shoring California jobs to India and Asia for several decades, as well as importing foreign high tech workers to the Peninsula. San Jose is today a true city of the world, a place larger than California, attracting the best and brightest technological workers of the world.

Training, inventiveness, intelligence and education aren’t the problems facing California. Funded by a group calling itself the Campaign for College Opportunity, which appears to be a front group for the California Business Roundtable, once again, UC is taking an opportunity to recycle unreliable demographic data to make a case for more public spending on UC, with a bit left over for the lesser public institutions of higher learning.

People are tired of this nonsense. It is highly conspicuous waste, meant to doll up a class of “leaders” for their next honoraria. The study was commissioned by the business roundtable, a cabal of banks, insurance companies, developers, land companies, energy companies, construction and engineering firms and miscellaneously wealthy companies like Gap and J.G. Boswell, involved in the world, cotton trade, and the J. Paul Getty Trust, headed by Barry Munitz, former Charles Hurwitz associate and (“chainsaw”) chancellor of the CSU system. The intervening group, Campaign for College Opportunity, is headed by the roundtable’s president, includes a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce vice president, several university officials, a UC regent, union officials and minority group representatives. But the state taxpayers paid for the salaries of the UC researchers to pimp the next college/university building boom, based on demographic assumptions already dubious when they were used to sell UC Merced (2). But, at least then, we knew they were just the usual state Department of Finance figures to support the coming speculative housing bubble. That is now rapidly fading. Evidently, the study indulges in them only because it can. Apparently, it is a UC affectation to demand more public funds, pay exorbitant executive salaries (3), sell its services to whatever the corporate buyer demands, and all without any responsibility to the public that pays for the salaries, the maintenance, repair, and for the thousands of other services, plants and equipment that go to making up public institutions of higher learning from the community college outpost in the remote rural town to UC Berkeley.

Perhaps the cogent business reason for promoting another higher education building boom, paid for by the public, is because new colleges and universities, particularly if located in remote areas, attract suburban development like stables attract horse flies.

Perhaps, the state’s enlightened business roundtable, representing 56 corporations, almost half on the Fortune 500 list, believe that it is essential for us to pay for enough new public higher education institutions so that not one – not one! – potential bio-technician or computer engineer escapes his or her destiny to be trained for entrance into the “new economy;” so that not one potential mortgage lender, predatory credit-card enabler, insurance agent or realtor will slip through the system to become a bum, a mechanic or a handiman in this economy, which our business leaders assure us will continue, generation after generation, through levee breaks, global warming, oil peak, waves of immigration and global competition. We should pay through taxes, tuitions and living expenses to educate the next generation so that not one, but five or ten shall be trained identically, to cut each others’ throats in the high-tech job marketplace of the eternally affluent future of technocracy, sure to continue if only we believe our universities, our business leaders and those they employ in elective governmental posts.

Since the propaganda is coming down so hard on us from this source, I think it might be fair for the public to request that California corporations clean up our air and water, stop building more slurbs, build colleges and universities in other states, subsidize our deprived youth to attend them, pay off the current state budget deficit, and provide adequate energy supplies as long as possible at non-profit rates.

At a time when the state treasury rests firmly in the hands of Wall Street, when rich Californians are not even taxed at the normal level prior to 1993, our business leaders urge more public investment in higher education. Following a period of immense profit-taking, unable to wrap themselves in the flag (sullied by total failure in Iraq), they wrap themselves in the Blue and Gold, the priestly garb of a public university reported to have misplaced 600 pounds of plutonium (3), another $6 million of public funds at Los Alamos National Laboratory (4), and the “distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in administrative stipends, bonuses and other hidden cash compensation to employees” to be investigated by the Legislature in January (3).

Education as if the state’s youth mattered might begin by designing a curriculum around what they will need to survive the economy bequeathed them by our business leaders? This would involve the question: what does California society need from business rather than what business needs from society? This might lead to concerns about the problem of quality of life rather than income levels, in world where even stolen resources are rapidly shrinking and life satisfaction might well have to be found in living a life “simple in means, rich in ends,” as philosopher Arne Naess puts it. The problem of how to educate a generation of youth to face – not just the diminished expectations of our generation – but the radically diminished expectations compelled by resource depletion on theirs – would be worthy of a public university. But that might require a university that felt itself under some obligation to tell the truth to the people of the state rather than to flak its corporate funders’ line. It would require a look at where we are, rather than at the “statistical fantasies” offered by this study. (5)

By contrast, “Return on Investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future,” seems redolent with privileged irresponsibility, people saying things because they can merely because they are who they are – the ones who got the grant. Perhaps it is a fashionably conspicuous form of madness cultivated in leading academic circles these days.

Bill Hatch

Notes:

(1) http://www.collegecampaign.org/CalROI-ExSum.pdf
(2) http://www.csun.edu/~hfoao102/@csun.edu/csun97_98/csun0223_98/features/wave.html

Said Paul Warren, director of the LAO's education division, "The academic world is saying, 'Panic, panic, panic.' We're saying it's not time to panic.

(3) www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/ c/a/2005/11/30/BAGGQFVT7J1.DTL
(4) www.californiaaggie.com/article/?id=7299
(5) http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/columns/walters/story/13949532p-14784215c.html

The notion of studying the costs and benefits of public higher education is plausible. We should know what maintaining the system is costing taxpayers, what economic benefits flow to society and students from those dollars and what the eventual return to taxpayers might be. We should also be told how the public colleges and universities fit into the state's largely private economy - whether they are training the right number of professionals in the right kinds of fields, for instance, or whether their research is enhancing job creation.

Finally, we should know whether higher and lower education systems, maintained by taxpayers at immense cost - well over $60 billion a year - are meshing well or are wasting money on turf battles and incompatible priorities.

UC professors Henry Brady and Michael Hout, however, merely assume that attending college is a societal benefit and amass their synthetic evidence.

"California is sliding from exceptional to ordinary, from 'great' to 'good enough' (and) our study shows that educational investments can help restore California's greatness and preserve its high quality of life while returning more benefits to the state than they will cost the taxpayers," Brady said in a statement.

Brady and Hout don't tell us whether the economy could absorb the increased number of college attendees and graduates they advocate, or even whether there are substantially more youngsters capable of doing college-level work. While decrying the decline in California's high school graduation and college education rates in relation to other states, they don't explore the factors, such as the huge increase in non-English-speaking students or the immense changes in the California economy, that contribute to those trends. They assume, more or less, that there are many millions of Californians who would attend college if only the taxpayers would foot the bill and that expansion would generate big economic returns.

Finally, Brady and Hout fail to explain this phenomenon: There's no apparent shortage of college-trained workers in California (except in a few highly technical fields), but employers are having a heck of a time recruiting cops, carpenters, nurses, electricians, auto mechanics - even truck drivers. Who's going to do the real work if everyone is getting a college degree?

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The Board

Submitted: Dec 03, 2005

A limited partnership of politicians, developers, agribusiness corporations and the University of California, Merced, appear to have established a unified board of directors composed of three divisions: founding members of the UC Merced Foundation board of trustees, the Great Valley Center board of directors and staff, and the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, recently appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In mid-November, UC Merced and the Great Valley Center announced they had merged and that UC Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey would become the chairman of a downsized GVC board of directors. (1)

Viewed from the perspective of the on-going ecological crisis in the Valley, this group would appear to have been assembled around common interests: the defeat of environmental laws, regulations and local, state and federal agencies mandated to enforce them, dismantling the Valley’s agricultural economy except for its largest agribusiness corporations, and promoting the expansion of UC Merced. This interlocking board of directors is a formidable array of political influence, money and propaganda capacity. Powerful synergies of propaganda, lobbying and funds probably will develop to mold Valley public opinion to accept the worst air pollution in the nation, diminished water supply and quality, the loss of prime farmland, open space and wildlife habitat, the linking of one continual slurb from Stockton to Bakersfield, and UC Merced research guided by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in directions both ethically and ecologically offensive.

Some of the problems The Board faces immediately:

Although UC has built the first phase of its Merced campus, federal environmental regulations forced it off the originally donated land of the Virginia Smith Trust onto the former site of a municipal golf course. UC Merced has yet to get federal approval for its plans under the Clean Water Act, regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The regional water quality board rejected Hilmar Cheese’ proposed solution to on-going violations of water quality standards, provoking the ‘world’s largest cheesemaker’ to announce plans to build an even larger plant in Texas. (2)

The San Joaquin Valley is growing almost as fast as Mexico, considerably faster than either California or the US. (3) The worst air-polluted parts of the Valley, mainly around Fresno, now experience endemic child asthma, the highest rates in the state. (4) Sixty percent of the problem is from mobile emissions, the rest from stationary sources. Lately, it has been admitted that dairies are the leading stationary source of air pollution. The growth of the Valley dairy industry is second only to the growth of suburbanization (building sprawling, low-density residential areas also known as slurbs). What is routinely denied about dairy pollution is the contribution of daily, diesel-fueled milk truck traffic. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District also has been looking at charging an air-pollution fee on new construction. And the state Water Reclamation Board recently started to question development on flood plains near Delta levees.

The Valley Board is disturbed by this “unbalanced” regulation.

Then, there is the national political embarrassment of the north Valley congressional delegation, known by local farmers as “O Pomboza," formerly representatives RichPAC Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy, and Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced.

A forthright approach to environmental problems was pioneered last spring by board member Greenlaw “Fritz” Grupe, a prominent San Joaquin County developer. Grupe assembled developers at his Lodi ranch for a joint political fundraiser for O Pomboza. Not long after the fundraiser, the two congressmen jointly authored a bill to gut the Endangered Species Act, with particular attention to critical habitat designations, because their joined districts contain extensive critical habitat for 15 endangered species associated with seasonal wetlands. UC Merced is built on and wishes to expand on the densest concentration of vernal pools in the nation.

Beyond the Pomboza problem, the period of one-party Republican rule seems to be running off its tracks and corruption investigations are becoming popular again. These are stressful times for special interests because it may become unpopular as well as illegal again to actually buy a politician. Public opinion may resent, at least for awhile, the daily spectacle of the richest, most powerful interests purchasing votes from elected toadies, "cultivating leadership," and the whole seedy story of how money buys power to make more money. The fathomless propaganda resources of UC could be invaluable at such a time.

The possibilities for networking and "synergy" (this year's replacement for the old standby -- "win-win, public/private partnerships) on The Board are beyond imagination, however its Executive Committee, composed of those who sit on more than one of its divisions, is small.

Tony Coelho, the former Democratic congressman from Merced, is a member of the founding board of trustees of UC Merced and of the board of Great Valley Center. In his position as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Coelho was so spectacularly corrupt that an ethics committee when his own party controlled the House, investigated personal loans he received from Michael Milken. Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson wrote a book about Coelho, called Honest Graft. (5) It’s not well read in the Valley, but The Board knows the story well because prominent members were involved. Coelho, like Tom DeLay and other House members currently under investigation, was a political entrepreneur. He may have thought of himself as a pioneer in the theory that politics was just another business, but Jackson reminded us that in fact, Coelho and the Republican campaign funders against whom he competed were just reproducing the political conditions of the McKinley Era, so highly prized by Karl Rove 20 years after Coelho left. Jackson said of Coelho: “In a healthier political setting Coelho could well have become Speaker of the House, possibly a great one. He deserved a better system. So do we all.” (6)

However, his career from beginning to end was shaped by the Valley political system, in which Valley special interests contributed large amounts of money, often to coastal liberal Democratic machines, in return for promises of support on key special interest legislation and to keep liberal policies out of the Valley.

Coelho quit Congress and went to Wall Street. Ecologically, he is known for trying to get two projects into the Valley that environmentalists defeated: a United Technologies rocket factory and a super-collider. According to reliable rumor, he was frequently summoned by Valley interest groups to explain complex issues to his successor, Gary Condit, and Coelho was deeply involved, from the beginning, with siting UC Merced.

He is a brilliant, energetic politician whose ambitions drove him to rise and fall and rise again in local and national political systems none of us deserve.

Grupe was also a member of the founding board of trustees of UC Merced Foundation and last month the governor appointed him deputy chair of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. Since 1966, one of Stockton’s two major developers, Grupe now has other credentials. He is a member of the advisory board of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley; and he was past-president and current member of the Urban Land Institute. But Grupe is on The Board because he's a charter member of the political economic system neither Coelho nor we deserved.

Carol Whiteside, founder and president of Great Valley Center, was also a founding member of the UC Merced Foundation. She served on Pete Wilson’s staff and was appointed by him assistant secretary of the state Resources Agency. As mayor of Modesto, Whiteside presided over that city’s most rapid growth period.

Rayburn Dezember, of Bakersfield, currently serves as a director of the Bakersfield Californian and Trustee of the University of California, Merced Foundation. He previously served as chairman of American National Bank from 1966 to 1990, director of Wells Fargo Bank from 1990-1999, director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 1984 to 1989 and director of Tejon Ranch Company from 1990-2002. The governor appointed him to the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. Plans to develop a $57-billion new city on the Tejon Ranch threaten the habitat of one of America’s most endangered species, the California Condor, along with a host of other wildlife species located on the largest piece of private property left in the state. Dezember’s local newspaper, the Californian, has long had a reputation as one of the most rightwing papers in the state.

By chance, it was avian rehabilitators from Merced who started the original Condor Project to save the giant, nearly extinct birds. To date, $35 million has been spent to rescue the condor from extinction. (7) On paper, Dezember is pro-growth, anti-air quality and environment – bad for Bakersfield, bad for the Valley, but a Republican and no doubt excellent contributor to the Hun.

Frederick Ruiz, in the words of a Hun press release, is from “Parlier, has over 40 years experience in the food processing industry. He and his father founded Ruiz Foods in 1964. He has served as a member of the University of California, Board of Regents since 2004. In addition, Ruiz is currently on the board of directors for the California Chamber of Commerce, a trustee on the University of Merced Foundation, a member of the President's Advisory Board of California State University Fresno and a member of Valley CAN ‘Clean Air Now.’ Ruiz is a Republican.”

The Hun replaced Dolores Huerta on the UC regents’ board with Ruiz. Huerta was co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. Two conjectures: although Huerta looks like a union socialist and Ruiz like an entrepreneurial capitalist, Ruiz Foods received more federal and state grant and loan funding than the UFW ever did; Huerta’s brilliant, committed and sustained community organizing, mainly on behalf of Latino communities in the Valley, did more good for Ruiz Foods than Ruiz Foods ever did for working people who want unions.

Daniel Whitehurst, president, Farewell, Inc. Fresno, was on the founding board of trustees of the UC Merced Foundation and is a member of the GVC board. Whitehurst is a member of a Fresno-based family of extremely political morticians, people of influence since at least the time of late state Sen. Hugh Burns, with old connections to the west side of the Valley.

The Garamendi family presents nearly a two-fer because John Sr., the state Insurance Commissioner now running for state Lt. Governor, is a member of the founding board of the UC Merced Foundation and John, Jr. was appointed vice chancellor for University Relations at UC Merced in June. Family values are important in the Valley.

Agribusiness holds only single memberships, mainly on the UC Merced Foundation board. (8)

Chuck Ahlem, Partner, Hilmar Cheese Company, Hilmar
H.A. "Gus" Collin, Chairman, Sunsweet Growers, Inc., Yuba City
Robert Gallo, President, E&J Gallo Winery, Modesto
John Harris, President, Harris Farms and Harris Inns, Coalinga
William Lyons, Sr., President, Lyons Investments and Mapes Ranch, Modesto
Thomas Smith, President, CALCOT, Bakersfield
Ann Veneman, Attorney at Law, Sacramento (former Secretary of the USDA)
Roger Wood, Vice President, J.R. Wood, Inc., Atwater;
Stewart Woolf, President, Los Gatos Tomato, Inc., Huron

There is a scattering of agricultural producers on the UC Merced Foundation board, along with local businessmen and large landowners:

Carl Cavaiani, President, Santa Fe Nut Company, Ballico
Bert Crane Sr., President, Bert Crane Ranches, Merced;
Jim Cunningham, owner, Cunningham Ranch, LeGrand
James Duarte, President, Duarte Nursery, Inc., Hughson
Price Giffen, President, Giffen Company, Fresno
Art Kamangar, Kamangar Ranches, Merced

Other members include retired UC officials, Silicon Valley executives, lawyers, developers, other educators, investors, public officials and local business people. The Board includes no one from any local, state or national environmental organization. In fact, The Board looks like a special interest reaction against environmental, public health, economic and agricultural concerns to protect its rapid growth strategies. It also looks like a non-elected government.

Bill Hatch

Notes:

(1) http://www.mercedsun-star.com/local/story/11495660p-12233968c.html
(2) http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/story/13919592p-14757777c.html
(3) Dr. Michael Teitz, presentation at Merced City Council Chambers, Dec. 1, 2005
(4) http://www.valleyairquality.com/
(5) Jackson, Brooks, Honest Graft, Knopf, 1988.
(6) Jackson, p. 6
(7) http://www.laweekly.com/ink/05/13/features-zakin.php
(8) http://www.ucinthevalley.org/articles/2000/march1700.htm

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