Cardoza won't hold town hall meetings...MICHAEL DOYLE and JOHN ELLIS, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, has opted not to schedule traditional town hall meetings during the congressional August recess, his press secretary said Friday.
"With what's going on now, there's no way to have a reasonable dialogue," said spokesman Mike Jensen.
Skeptics also are asking why organizers abruptly canceled a Friday morning Fresno health care forum with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, among its panelists.
Officials at the UC San Francisco's Fresno center -- the host -- insist last-minute scheduling conflicts compelled them to pull the plug. But doubters wonder if the planners or participants simply hoped to avoid protesters who had vowed to show up.
Costa's office said he had nothing to do with canceling it.
Lawmakers have been skittish lately about events like this. In recent days, congressional town hall meetings called to discuss President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul have become boisterous and occasionally chaotic.
A few Democratic congressional offices report that they have received threats connected to the health care debate, and in recent weeks.
Cardoza will be in his congressional district during the recess and participating in regularly scheduled events. He said these could include future potential visits to the Valley from Obama administration officials and members of the congressional leadership.
Footage of people shouting questions without waiting for answers and attacking lawmakers for backing a "socialist agenda" have proliferated on YouTube and cable television.
The protests have prompted Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., to decry "Brown Shirt tactics" and caused some lawmakers to question the wisdom of holding public sessions.
Baird said he has received threatening phone calls. He canceled the rest of the town hall events he'd scheduled during Congress' August recess.
That's why some aren't buying the UCSF explanation.
"If there are conflicts, you would have to know about it a couple of days ago, not at 4:30 on the day before the event," said Visalia resident Eric Hughes, who is with the Central Valley Tea Party, a conservative anti-tax group.
The U.S. Capitol Police has advised all lawmakers to cancel their town hall meetings.
Activists from across the political spectrum planned to go to the Fresno health care forum
Housing boomlet frustrating home buyers
Many are once again taking advantage of low prices...SCOTT JASON
Last month, Daniel and Laura Eckman were hours from signing a contract to buy their first home, a $235,000 place on 21st Street.
It was triumphant moment for the husband and wife, who are both 31-year-old high school teachers. They'd spent the past six months trying to find a house where they'd eventually start a family.
Their goal was simple. They wanted a home priced about $250,000 in an older North Merced neighborhood, where houses were built with backyards. They didn't want to live in a recently built subdivision where the homes are crammed together.
The first offer they made, back in January, was on a short sale -- a deal when the current owner owes more than the home's worth and the bank is willing to take the loss. It took three months for Bank of America to deny their offer.
The Eckmans were poised to sign the contract on their latest offer and begin escrow. Then their agent called. Out-of-town investors swooped in with an offer of $240,000 that the bank accepted.
"You go out and you have a romanticized version of buying a house," Daniel Eckman said Friday. "Then you get out there and everything's killed."
All told, they've looked at about 25 houses and made four offers. Still, no home.
Once again, local buyers are getting squeezed out of the Merced market because of a short supply of houses and a spike in investors loaded with cash. Despite low asking prices, many homes being bid up because of the high demand.
Call it a recession-era feeding frenzy.
There's another round of foreclosures expected to flood the market with more homes and bring supply more in line with demand.
For the time being, however, real estate agents are warning local buyers that it's going to be a hard and potentially long process before a home is in their name.
There is slightly more than a one-month supply of houses on the market, one of the consequences of foreclosure moratoriums. In November 2007, there was a 30-month supply of homes.
Cash investors are returning to the Merced market because the homes are selling for less than what it would cost to build them, real estate agent Andy Krotik said.
Under most conditions, they make up five percent of buyers. Today, though, they make up nearly a third of the market, Krotik said.
While spikes in foreclosures have been described as waves and later tsunamis, Krotik is now calling what's ahead a blizzard. "It's going to snow and snow and snow," he said.
Loren Gonella, president of Coldwell Banker Gonella Realty, said his office closed 109 deals last month. He's heard there are hundreds of buyers with down payments in the bank and preapproved loans in hand.
The X-factor is whether there'll be enough buyers to absorb the coming foreclosures, he said.
With low interest rates and houses at an affordable level, that hasn't been a problem. "We have a huge pent-up demand for property, and it's not being filled," Gonella said.
While on hold with Gonella, a recorded voice explains that the real estate market is more challenging than ever.
The Eckmans couldn't agree more. On Thursday they submitted an offer on another house on 21st Street. They're waiting to see if it's accepted.
If it's denied, they plan to trudge on until they sign a mortgage. He admits it has been a daunting experience. "I don't know if it's a great time to buy for the common person," he sighed.
Or, to paraphrase the old warning: buyer, be there.
Tom Frazier: Don't shoot the messenger
Our forefathers were very perceptive when they framed the Constitution.
They created three branches of government, each with separate and distinct powers.
Then they gave us the First Amendment to the Constitution, which stipulates Freedom of the Press.
Thomas Jefferson made his feelings clearly known when he penned, "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."
The press, mainly newspapers back then, thus became known the fourth estate, to keep an eye on government.
The same is true today -- both at national levels and yes, even local levels.
Joe Rivero, at last week's Atwater City Council meeting, chastised the Sun-Star for printing the story about racist e-mails. I think he meant that the e-mails containing the offensive "jokes" should not have been printed, but the story itself was acceptable.
He did not exactly say that.
Others have made it very clear on blogs or comments on stories. They blatantly blamed the Sun-Star for "dragging Atwater through national disgrace."
What's up with that?
I don't picture the publisher and editors of the Sun-Star rubbing their hands together like cartoon villains. Instead, I would suggest there was much discussion and verification before the story was printed.
I don't think I would want to be in the reporter's shoes, proving beyond a doubt that it was a legitimate story from a legitimate source.
Rumors have suggested that this whole fiasco was driven by Cal Fire -- trying to "get even" with Councilman Gary Frago. In case you don't follow Atwater politics, Frago has been very critical of Cal Fire's performance.
Suppose the rumors are true. Does that really change anything?
I'd like to see this episode fade into history, but I have a feeling that won't be the case.
Just like Watergate, the most notorious investigative reporting in our history, the paper should keep digging. That's not only their charter, but it's their responsibility to us, the readers.
We can't be everywhere. The media need to be our eyes and ears -- and keep us informed.
While I applaud the Sun-Star for doing its job -- and doing it right, I also slap their wrists for their treatment of Joe and Jeff Rivero.
Just as it was Mayor Joan Faul's right to come to the paper to impart her opinion, it is also their (both Riveros) right to remain silent.
And by the way, it's not "the Rivero brothers" or the "bobsie twins" as some bloggers have called them. They are two citizens who were elected who happen to be brothers.
Heck, I know some families where siblings belong to two different political parties.
Let's give Joe and Jeff a chance to be two individuals.
And please don't shoot the Sun Dog, I'm just the messenger.
Key water meeting open to public...Matt Weiser
A high-level meeting of state and federal water officials on Wednesday will be open to the public in Sacramento.
Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David J. Hayes and California Water Resources Director Lester Snow will meet as part of a new joint effort to coordinate response to the state's water crisis and problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Hayes was recently designated as the Obama administration's liaison to help coordinate a federal response to California's water shortage and related environmental problems. Snow was named as the state's representative.
An agenda hasn't been released for the meeting yet. It is scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Capitol Plaza Holiday Inn, 300 J St., in downtown Sacramento. For more information, visit http://www.water.ca.gov.
Pacific Ethanol's losses grow in second quarter...Dale Kasler
Bankruptcy protection isn't insulating Pacific Ethanol Inc. from heavier losses.
The Sacramento ethanol maker reported higher second-quarter losses Friday because of continued weak market conditions.
The company, which put most of its operations into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in mid-May, said its second-quarter loss grew to $27.4 million from $8.3 million a year earlier. The per-share loss grew to 49 cents from 23 cents.
Ethanol makers around the country have been squeezed by a decline in market prices, and Pacific Ethanol is no exception. Its revenue fell to $70.1 million from $198 million in the second quarter, the result of a 30 percent decline in prices from a year ago and a 50 percent reduction in output. The company has idled three of its four wholly owned production plants to conserve cash.
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Pacific Ethanol said it has burned through $12.3 million of a $20 million loan it obtained just after filing for bankruptcy protection. The company said it believes it has enough cash to get through the end of August.
Pacific Ethanol shares closed at 38 cents, up a penny, on the Nasdaq market.
San Francisco Chronicle
Lawsuit losers not liable for agency legal fees...Bob Egelko
Californians who unsuccessfully sue government agencies over closed meetings or sealed records will no longer be on the hook for the agencies' legal fees under a law taking effect Jan. 1.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday signed SB786 by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, a bill backed by news media organizations who said it would promote open government.
It was prompted by a 2007 case in which a nonprofit group sued an Orange County school district for censuring a school board member for his comments during a meeting, and allegedly erasing those comments from a public video recording.
A judge ruled that the suit was an unwarranted attempt to penalize the district for exercising its constitutional right to censure the board member. California law allows judges to dismiss such suits at an early stage and order the plaintiff to pay the defendant's attorneys' fees, which in this case amounted to more than $80,000.
Under Yee's bill, anyone who unsuccessfully accuses a state or local government agency of violating public-records or open-meetings laws won't have to pay the agency's attorneys' fees unless a judge finds that the suit was "clearly frivolous," which rarely occurs.
Organizations representing school boards and community colleges opposed the bill, arguing that their taxpayer-supported agencies should be entitled to recover legal fees on the same grounds as any other litigant. But the state Senate voted 34-0 for the measure and the Assembly passed it by 66-2.
SB786 will guarantee that "laws designed to ensure free speech are not used to silence those who seek access to government proceedings and documents," Yee said in a statement.
New York Times
Wind Power Industry Retreating From Wyo., Citing Sage Grouse Concerns...SCOTT STREATER, SPECIAL TO E&E of Greenwire
Wyoming's wind energy boom is stalling amid growing confusion over state regulations designed to protect environmentally sensitive sage grouse and how those rules should apply to wind power projects.
Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy announced last week that it is indefinitely suspending plans to build a 300-megawatt-capacity wind farm that would have occupied one of dozens of state-designated "sage grouse core areas" deemed essential to protecting the imperiled bird.
In suspending its Simpson Ridge project, Horizon cited ongoing regulatory uncertainty about sage grouse protections, particularly the question of whether proper mitigation plans can be developed that allow for wind turbines to be built in sage grouse core areas.
The chicken-like bird depends on Wyoming's sagebrush-steppe habitat for shelter and food. But those same areas, especially in the south-central part of the state, are also among the best wind power development sites in the West, according to industry experts.
Horizon had spent more than a year researching sage grouse issues in the area where it planned to build its wind farm. But the company lost confidence in its mitigation plans after the Fish and Wildlife Service made clear last month that it would look very unfavorably upon any wind power project built in a core sage grouse area.
For their part, state officials are desperately trying to avoid a federal Endangered Species Act listing for the bird -- a designation that would force the adoption of broad conservation measures that could sharply curtail energy development, including wind power and conventional sources such as oil and gas.
"There's just too many unknowns out there right now," said Arlo Corwin, director of project development for Horizon's Western regional office in Portland, Ore. "We're going to continually reassess the situation and then decide what's the next step to take and when to take it."
But, he added, "The project is not dead."
Industry on the offensive
Horizon is the first company to formally suspend a project in Wyoming due to concerns about sage grouse, but other energy companies have told Wyoming leaders they will hold off on planned projects until questions over sage grouse protection are resolved.
Nationally, the wind power industry has gone on the offensive, with three of the leading renewable energy trade groups urging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to review the state's core sage grouse area policy. Many believe new sage grouse protections -- not only in Wyoming but also Idaho and other Western states -- could set back the Obama administration's agenda to significantly expand the use of renewable resources like wind and solar energy.
In the letter to Salazar last month, the leaders of three major trade groups -- the American Wind Energy Association, Interwest Energy Alliance and Renewable Northwest Project -- wrote that rendering the "rich wind energy resources" of Wyoming's core sage grouse areas off-limits to wind power investors "would ban the development of 10,000 megawatts of the highest-quality clean wind resources in Wyoming and in the nation" and would result in the loss of more than $20 billion in capital investment.
The wind power industry has focused on the state's south-central region, where sage grouse populations are highest, because it is closer to population centers like Las Vegas, where energy demand is growing fast. Also, the south-central region is flanked by the southern and central Rocky Mountains, creating conditions for strong, steady winds. Corwin, the Horizon Wind Energy official, called the site of its proposed Simpson Ridge project "one of the windiest in the company's portfolio."
But Ryan Lance, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), whose administration has made it a priority to protect the sage grouse, in part to avoid a federal endangerment listing, rejected the argument that Wyoming developers have no option but to develop in core habitat areas. He said the impact of sage grouse protection on wind power development in the state should be short term and that the industry is welcome to build turbines in the eastern part of the state, where sage grouse are scarcer.
"The 'fear of delay' argument is probably overstated," Lance said. "Our position is, there are plenty of areas to the east with ample wind resources."
Lance also said the south-central part of the state, where the 14 million acres of sage grouse core areas are concentrated, lacks adequate transmission capacity. "The core areas issue is kind of a bump in the road," Lance said. "The bigger issue is transmission. Until we get that taken care of, the sage grouse isn't even that big of an issue."
But that is what makes the Simpson Ridge proposal such a good project, Corwin said. Unlike most proposed wind farms in the region, Horizon had secured an energy transmission agreement to carry the electricity generated at the wind farm to the bigger power grid.
A fragile bird
With 54 percent of the world's sage grouse residing in Wyoming and 82 percent of those occupying designated "core areas," state officials believe they have little choice but to steer developers away from the birds and their habitat.
Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the state that its best chance of avoiding a federal endangered species listing for the bird would come with the establishment of core habitat areas followed by policies aimed at keeping energy development away from those lands (Land Letter, June 4).
Scientists say Western sage grouse populations have plummeted from as many as 16 million birds in the early 1800s -- when they were first described by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition -- to as few as 100,000 today.
In August 2008, Freudenthal signed an executive order instructing state agencies to maintain and enhance sage grouse habitat, including by permitting new development in core population areas "only when it can be demonstrated ... that the activity will not cause declines in Greater Sage-Grouse populations."
Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said "the evidence is very suggestive that there are going to be significant impacts" from wind turbines, adding, "That's why these policies are being developed."
Yet one wind farm in a core area near the Simpson Ridge project site was already built before Freudenthal's order took effect, and dozens more have been proposed.
It is not clear whether the industry will heed Freudenthal's suggestion that they move to the the east side of the state. Only recently has the extent of the problem become evident as more wind power projects have moved through the siting and permitting process.
Steps to decision
The latest controversy started in late June when the wind industry approached Freudenthal's office with concerns about the sage grouse core areas. Among the industry's complaints were that the governor's task force charged with designating the core areas did not fully consider the wind power industry's needs when drawing boundaries.
Freudenthal reconvened the task force for further discussion, ultimately deciding that more study was necessary because so little was known about the effects of wind turbines on sage grouse. As part of its negotiations, the state agreed to do in-depth studies on two proposed wind project sites inside core sage grouse areas, said Lance, the governor's deputy chief of staff.
One of those sites was the Simpson Ridge project. The other was a site being developed by Denver-based Anschutz Corp. In addition to investigating wind turbine impacts, researchers were also planning to test various mitigation strategies, Lance said.
Controversy over the additional studies ensued, prompting Wyoming Game and Fish to seek clarification from FWS over the proper course of action. "At that time, there was a lot of concern out there that Wyoming was retreating on the core-area concept," Lance said.
In a July 7 letter to FWS's Cheyenne field office, Wyoming Game and Fish Director Steve Ferrell asked: "With the current state of knowledge, what are the [service's] thoughts on the probability of developing a wind turbine project in a core area with a suitable mitigation plan that would ensure no loss of sage grouse?"
The response from FWS Field Supervisor Brian Kelly was clear.
"Constructing wind farms in core areas, even for research purposes, prior to demonstrating it can be done with no impact to sage-grouse, negates the usefulness of the core area concept as a conservation strategy and brings into question whether adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to protect the species," he wrote.
Lance said FWS further advised that if any development were allowed in the core areas, the agency would withdraw its support for the core area concept -- a move that would undermine the state's prospects of avoiding an ESA listing for the bird.
Shortly after the exchange, Horizon decided it would suspend the Simpson Ridge project, Corwin said.
"Our company's view, and I feel comfortable speaking for the whole industry on this, is that maps are a great planning tool but not a decision-making tool," Corwin added. "It's concerning that a group of people, whatever their intentions may have been, can draw lines on a map that cause significant setbacks for good projects that otherwise might not have occurred."
Lance said the state is sympathetic to the industry's concerns. "But the reality is if the sage grouse is listed, they won't get any different answer out of the Fish and Wildlife Service," he said. "I think we can avoid sage grouse areas and still get a lot of wind out of Wyoming."
Ga. governor deals with water battle at home, too...GREG BLUESTEIN, The Associated Press
ALBANY, Ga. -- The age-old tension between rural Georgia and its sprawling metropolis may only intensify because of a federal ruling that could keep essential reservoir water from trickling into Atlanta.
That tension meant Gov. Sonny Perdue had a delicate task during trip this week to rural Albany in southwest Georgia: Convince communities that the water crisis threatening Atlanta also imperils the entire state.
After all, many rural residents have long feared that metro Atlanta could stick its giant straw into water sources that supply their towns, fuel utilities and feed their agricultural irrigation systems.
On Thursday, Perdue was abruptly reminded of how difficult that may be.
"The crisis is in Atlanta," said Paul DeLoach of Flint Riverkeeper, a local conservation group, suggesting the rural region shouldn't be concerned about the ruling.
Perdue quickly corrected him. "No, the crisis is in Georgia," he said.
The governor needs rural Georgia behind him to present a united front as the long-running regional tug-of-war between Georgia, Alabama and Florida intensifies with threats of more litigation and an escalating war of words.
However, the concern outside Atlanta has only grown since a judge ruled last month that Georgia had little legal right to Lake Lanier, a massive federal reservoir that supplies more than 3 million metro Atlanta residents.
Editorial pages lament that "chronically overdeveloped" Atlanta will try to soak up more water before it meanders downstream. Environmentalists say the city should pay for its sins. Farmers fear for their livelihood.
"When you're growing sweet corn, you can't stop the irrigation," said Hal Haddock, a farmer in nearby Early County. "Those crops out there, you just can't turn off."
The governor sought to calm those concerns during his journey this week, saying he didn't want south Georgia residents to be territorial about their water.
"The fact is, what's good for the goose is going to be good for the gander - all over the state," he said.
"Our futures are maybe more closely linked than they would imagine at first glance," he added in an interview with The Associated Press.
He has his work cut out for him, said state Rep. Bob Hanner, who took in the governor's talk with about 150 other local officials.
"If Atlanta's cut off from water, they may look to us," said Hanner, a Democrat from the nearby town of Parrott. "Atlanta is the engine that drives the state, but we've got to start developing outside the metro area if we're going to grow."
Georgia has been locked in a legal struggle over federal water rights with its neighbors for nearly two decades. It only escalated after a judge ruled on June 17 that withdrawals from Lake Lanier could be drastically cut if Congress doesn't approve a deal within three years.
That pressing deadline has sent Georgia's leaders scrambling for a solution.
Perdue has outlined a multi-pronged effort that includes appealing the judge's decision and inviting the governors of Alabama and Florida back to the negotiating table.
He also told the AP that Georgia is preparing to make Florida's environmental record and a 150-year-old Supreme Court ruling that could give Georgia more access to a key river a larger focus of its legal case.
And he did not rule out the possibility of embracing interbasin water transfers, the controversial practice of shifting water from one river basin to another, but said such a discussion should come "far down the line."
There was another reason for his downstream visit, too, that quickly became evident at a local college in Albany. As Perdue mulled questions and ticked through a presentation, he sought to unify the state behind a common threat: The neighbors.
Florida residents, he said, don't care which river their water comes from.
"They'd be happy to drain them all, if they can keep that flow," he said.
DeLoach, for his part, said he took little comfort in the governor's words.
"He's tried to unite the troops to create some unity and he's trying to convince us because Atlanta's having a crisis, we're all under a crisis," he said. "But I don't agree. The crisis is an Atlanta crisis."
3 regional banks fail
Two failures bring the national tally up to 72 for the year. The closures cost the FDIC $182 million...Julianne Pepitone
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Three regional banks failed Friday, bringing the 2009 tally to 72, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said.
Two Florida banks -- First State Bank, of Sarasota, and Community National Bank of Sarasota County, in Venice, -- and one Oregon bank -- Community First Bank, of Prineville -- closed Friday.
St. Cloud, Minn.-based Stearns Bank, N.A., will assume control of the assets of both Florida banks, and Home Federal Bank, of Nampa, Idaho will assume the assets of the Oregon bank,the FDIC said.
The failure of First State Bank -- which as of May 31 held assets worth $463 million and total deposits of $387 million -- will cost the Deposit Insurance Fund an estimated $116 million, according to the FDIC.
Community National had total assets of $97 million and total deposits of approximately $93 million as of June 30 , and its closure will cost $24 million, the FDIC said.
Community First Bank had total assets of $209 million and total deposits of approximately $182 million. In addition to assuming all of the deposits of the failed bank, Home Federal Bank agreed to purchase approximately $197 million of assets, the FDIC said.
The FDIC estimates that this closure will cost the Deposit Insurance Fund $45 million
In total, Friday's bank closures will cost the FDIC fund $185 million, bringing the cost for failed banks to $16.58 billion this year. That compares with $17.6 billion in all of 2008.
The number of bank failures so far in 2009 has almost tripled last year's total of 25.
Consumer bankruptcies jump 34%
Bankruptcy filings spike in July as households are squeezed by unemployment...Catherine Clifford
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Consumer bankruptcies surged in July to their highest level since October 2005 as U.S. households struggle under the burden of past debt and rising unemployment.
Total filings reached 126,434 in July, a 34.3% increase from the same period a year ago and an 8.7% increase over June, according to a report released Tuesday from the the American Bankruptcy Institute.
The number of filings was the highest monthly total since the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act went into effect in October 2005.
"Today's bankruptcy filing number reflects the sustained and growing financial stress on U.S. households," said ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano in a written statement.
Fewer jobs, less income: Without a job, consumers are hard pressed to pay their bills as their debt climbs.
"Rising unemployment on top of high pre-existing debt burdens is a formula for higher bankruptcies through the end of this year," said Gerdano.
The unemployment rate currently stands at 9.5%, a 26-year high. And the job market doesn't look to be improving anytime soon. The government releases July jobs numbers on Friday, and unemployment is expected to rise to 9.6%, according to a consensus estimate of analysts polled by Briefing.com.
Those people who do have jobs aren't seeing their incomes increase. According to a government report released Tuesday, incomes eased 0.1% in June and were essentially flat in May, excluding the impact of government stimulus. Meanwhile, spending ticked up 0.4%.
Of the bankruptcy filings in July, 28.3% were Chapter 13 cases where the consumer in financial trouble sets up a payment plan to get caught up on the debts.
In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, which is more common, most of a consumer's debt is absolved or forgiven.