It’s been nine months since I pulled the plug on “Vicki’s View” on the once-worthwhile vallejonews.com and five since last fall’s election. It’s, therefore, been awhile since I’ve had anything to say about the doings in our fair city. That doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t been paying attention. But it does mean that there’s a lot of catching up to do. Where to begin and how?
Let me begin with an observation about how little has actually changed. The same crowd runs the town – that inter-locking directorate of politicians, Chamber of Commerce cronies, Firefighters’ Union leaders, developers, and backroom lawyers – and they run it the same way they always have…for themselves. They swap jobs and move cash around through their revolving doors far too quickly for the untrained eye to catch. It’s a continual shell game of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” With the demise of vallejonews’ investigative reporting, there’s no one keeping a trained eye on them. Result? The good ole boys are becoming ever more brazen, the public ever more apathetic.
Here are but two recent examples of how it works. Complicated, but, in the end, oh so simple. Ready? Follow the bouncing bobble-heads:
1. The “Auto Mall.” Council member Jerry Davis won re-election last fall. His campaign manager Glenn Cornelius is vice president of Wilson-Cornelius Ford, of which son Rod is co-owner and which, for decades has sought to move from its Georgia Street site. Kenny Ross, owner of Team Chevrolet and city hall hanger-on, has also wanted to move from cramped quarters on Redwood Parkway. There’s a huge parcel of land (the K-Mart eyesore only now being demolished) available on Sonoma Boulevard’s Auto Row. Do Wilson-Cornelius and Team Ross consider joining the dozen auto dealers there, thus adding to the synergy of that commercial corridor. Nope. Why not? Because Gary Mandarich has been having trouble filling his Northgate Business Park along Columbus Parkway, bought on spec and having attracted only Toyota Vallejo. Enter Jack Wilson, Toyota’s owner and Cornelius’ partner at Wilson-Cornelius Ford. Together, the boys cobble together the “Auto Mall” scheme, which will co-locate the Ford and Chevy dealerships with Wilson’s Toyota operation. But they need a “sweetener” and ask the City Council to allow them to amortize $1.3 million in development fees over 20 years and hold back the bulk of sales taxes. On August 19, the Council approved the scheme unanimously – against the objections of the Sonoma Boulevard dealers and at a tight budget time, when the City is laying off union workers and cutting CBDG funds for community organizations.
Not content with this hold-up of the public treasury, the boys pressed for more. To “make it work,” they said, they needed to change the name of Columbus Parkway to Auto Mall Parkway; and a garish 100-foot high LED sign to advertise their three dealer “mall.” Shortly after the election, the Council approved the name change. To hell with the Sonoma Boulevard dealers, the Italian American community, and the rest of us!
The sign, however, would take a little longer, since it needed a zoning variance. That, in turn, would require a considerable – and probably illegal – variance to Planning Commission procedures. At a December 1 study session of the Commission, Ross and Wilson were told a variance could only be granted after a public hearing and subsequent vote. Ross objected that he and Wilson had been “promised” by city staffers Alan Wolken and Al DaSilva that they would get their sign. He added that, if he did not get Commission assurances to that effect before the December 17 closing date for the Northgate land deal, the deal was off. Each of the commissioners thereupon stated they would vote “yes” at the public hearing scheduled for January 21. Talk about chutzpah! At that hearing, to his credit, Commissioner Bob McConnell voted “no.” The others voted “yes,” including Linda Engelman, whose Council run had been supported by the Chamber of Commerce. Brand new commissioner Herminio Sunga gushed to the T-H that it was “quite exciting” to vote for the sign. After the meeting, the ever-smug Kenny Ross added “Unless someone throws another curve, I believe we’re done.”
End of story? Nooo! Next morning, Jack Wilson announced the sale of his 75 percent interest in Wilson-Cornelius Ford to Rod Cornelius. Then, in April, Kenny Ross was back at the taxpayers’ trough, seeking and getting a similar deal for his Hyundai dealership – this despite the fact that city staff told us last August that there was no more room for any other dealerships on Columbus – oops, Auto Mall – Parkway. And young Cornelius? He’s now a director on the Chamber of Commerce Board. Keep an eye out for the sign. It will be built by the same folks who brought us that tacky LED sign on the Fairgrounds’ side of I-80. I think Chamber CEO Rick Wells knows the name of the young lady who builds the signs. They’ll get us coming or going.
What this town needs is a good curve ball pitcher. Any lefties out there?
2. Downtown Development. I too favor the development of downtown and the restoration of the Empress Theater. I find, however, that the same concerns about revolving doors and backroom deals apply here. The inter-locking cast of characters and the largesse shown with taxpayers’ money is troubling.
Early last year, for example, Triad, the Seattle-based downtown developer co-opted the Chamber’s Tom Egidio by hiring him to grease the Vacaville skids for its justifiably environmentally-controversial Lagoon Valley Project. Tom’s wife Debbie soon followed by leaving the Convention and Visitors Bureau to take over as Triad’s downtown project manager.
The Egidios’ boss, Triad’s executive vice president for local operations Curt Johansen spent a lot of time and effort schmoozing local politicians and potential opponents like my friends at Vallejo for Community Planned Renewal (VCPR) prior to last fall’s Council vote to loan $2.5 million to renovate the Empress Theater and contribute $328,000 to pay off existing debt on the building. So too did Empress investors Robert Litwin and Mel Gomez (of Mel’s Roast fame). Mind you, Mel and Robert are great guys, but Mel is off a big financial hook and Robert stands to make a killing.
And Triad? Their in-fill plan (building on those unused parking lots) has great merit. But, still, I worry. Their phasing sounds too much like Callahan DeSilva’s for the waterfront – let us build our condos first and trust us on the rest. And the condo plan already seems a bit too ambitious, a bit too over-scaled for a Victorian downtown of four and five-story historic buildings. They are proposing, for example, seven stories for their Virginia Street condos and have already successfully applied to the Council not only for the increased height but a downgrading of construction standards to allow more wood construction on that project.
Finally, after the LNG experience I, and I suspect others, are leery of “front” groups like Sam Holtan’s “Citizens for the LNG Study.” In this regard, I recall wondering who supplied the yellow “Empress Now” buttons and placards at the February 3 Council meeting at which funding for the project was approved? Chris Walker?
FOLLOW THE MONEY.
If you found it hard following the smiling bobble-head dolls through the revolving door, try following the money to the pockets of those who grease the revolving door. Last year’s election provided me a more than ample education in this regard, and I came away from that exercise feeling unclean by association.
Just a few weeks into the campaign, I interviewed with the Napa-Solano Counties Building Trades Council, whose endorsement I would have valued. One of the interviewers immediately focused on my proposed campaign budget. On their questionnaire I put down an honest $2000, though I hoped to raise $5000. Sorry, I was told, we’re only considering “serious candidates.” I got the message: to the political class, money = “serious,” regardless of the value of one’s experience, ideas, or integrity.
About the same time, however, I explicitly turned down even interviewing with the two most powerful PAC’s in Vallejo, the fire and police unions’ United for a Better Vallejo and the Chamber of Commerce’s VALPAC, citing in my letters to them their consistently negative role in Vallejo politics. Those turndowns and my grounds therefore – although the subject of a press release – were not covered by the Times-Herald.
Neither did the T-H cover the lavish spending and faulty reporting by those two PACs. VALPAC did not file any of the three preelection financial statements required by the State’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) during the fall of 2003 and only filed the first report on December 31, 2003, nearly two months after the election. That egregiously late report revealed VALPAC spent over $3000 on T-H ads supporting Davis, Engelman, and Tom Bartee. This arrogant disregard for the law parallels their similar behavior in 2001, when they filed their first report eight days after the election. In neither case were the required $10 a day fines for late reporting or a possible $10,000 fine for a pattern of reporting failures assessed.
United for a Better Vallejo’s compliance with FPPC requirements has not been much better. Having missed a required September 25 report, they filed their first report October 29, listing only $13,000 for a telephone poll. At 2:18 p.m., November 4, they then filed a “Late Independent Expenditure Report” for $20,000 of $28, 730.75 due a Sacramento firm for four mailings and a huge T-H ad – this late on election day, weeks after the mailings hit our mailboxes, months after the first “Fire and Police Endorsed” posters went up for Davis and Bartee, and, after most people had already gone to the polls. Gary Cloutier was much more sheepish about accepting the endorsement and largesse of United for a Better Vallejo in both 1999 and 2003. He did, however, admit during one of the pre-election forums that, during the LNG struggle, Kurt Henke sought his vote for LNG – unsuccessfully.
PACs aside, there’s also a number - $249 – that cropped up repeatedly in the financial reporting statements of at least a few candidates last year. What is it about that figure - $249? I only ask, because Jerry Davis, who collected $20, 621.01 between July 1 and September 20, 2003, reported 59 separate contributions of $249 each (or $14,691 en toto) during that period. Is there something magic about that figure – the City Clerk and the FPPC say no – or is it some peculiarly precise way of dividing up some obscure pie? Just asking.
Another question worth asking is why Davis didn’t recuse himself from the infamous “Auto Mall” vote, when the principal beneficiaries of that giveaway contibuted about $1700 to his campaign during just the July-September reporting period? Oh, I know City attorney Fred Soley ruled that accepting campaign contributions is not grounds for recusal on votes affecting the contributors. The law, or at least his interpretation of it, is one thing. But what about others, like ethics and integrity?
If all this seems a tad too detailed and arcane, there is a reason. It may be the first and last you read of this, unless some watchdog citizens’ group like Vallejoans for Open Government (VFOG) lodges some formal complaints with the FPPC. In the meantime, we are left with an election in which tens of thousand of dollars were spent without the public knowing by whom and on whom until after the election.
I don’t pretend to be a reporter; I’ve got other things to do with my life. I’m simply an observer of the local scene and commentator on questions that pique my curiosity. I’ll leave it to others – The Times-Herald ? – to do the investigative reporting…to uncover the facts and connect the dots. That said, here are just a few such issues that you too might have questions about:
3. Public Access TV. Under the terms of its contract with the city, Comcast is obligated to provide Vallejo a Public, Educational, Government (PEG) cable station controlled and operated by an independent board (i.e., not the city government station on channel 15). For year’s the city government has dragged its feet on getting such a station on the air (Rumor has it, the mayor an independent political voice on the local airwaves.). I raised this issue during last year’s election and was told by the mayor and Mr. Davis that the money was there and plans underway to equip a studio at Jesse Bethel High School. Then, on January 17, Assistant City Manager Mary Hill announced that the contract to do so would be signed by the city and the Vallejo Unified School District in sixty days (i.e., on March 20). Well that was a month ago, and now there are rumors going around that not only is our public access station back in limbo but that there will be cutbacks at the channel 15, including, I hear, the ever helpful Bob Raymond. What gives? I thought the City Council had allocated $18,000 on February 3 to hire the Sacramento-based Buske Group to get this ball rolling. Did I miss something? Please tell me I’m wrong? Ms. Hill? Mr. Giuliani?
4. Avian Glen. Last November 18, the city council approved issuance by California Statewide Communities Development Authority of tax exempt bonds to finance construction of 87 apartments at 200 Avian Drive (near Columbus and Springs Road). The “owners,” we were told, would be the “Affirmed Housing Group” (aka “Vallejo Family Housing Partners, L.P”). In response to my questions, Vallejo Housing Manager Gary Truelsen subsequently informed me in writing that the property was a vacant lot and that individual owners remained to be determined. Having driven the length of Avian Drive three times and finding no #200 nor any vacant lots, I went to the Planning Department and pulled the plat map and ownership data for the property in question. The owner is listed as Richard B. Brosius, and the property supposedly contains four multi-family units. What gives?
I understand that Vallejo got some $4.1 million from the state in February to create affordable housing and that the money would be earmarked for the Avian Glen project. I understand, moreover, that, with this addition, the pot of money available for the construction of such housing now stands at $17 million. Sure we have to fulfill our Buchongo Agreement obligations for affordable housing, but I have the sinking feeling that unnamed property owners, developers, real estate agents, and lawyers are milking that agreement for all its worth. But, then, I’m the suspicious sort.
Those suspicions are increased by the December 31 Buchongo Agreement annual report which states that, while “the Redevelopment Agency appears to be on schedule to meet the terms” of the agreement, “there are obstacles that one developer, Affirmed Housing Group, still needs to overcome in order for its project to be completed. One main obstacle is securing adequate financing.” Does the $4.1 million from the state obviate that obstacle? If so, I assume the individuals comprising the Affirmed Housing Group have now been determined. Who are they?
5. Funding the Chamber of Commerce. For years the city had been dumping half a million dollars into the coffers of the Chamber of Commerce and its joined-at-the-head clone the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Last year, in already darkening budget times, the Council, cut that $500,000 line item modestly. The Bobbsy Twins howled, and the Council caved, instituting a $1 a room tourism tax with the entire anticipated $300,000 windfall earmarked for the Chamber and Convention and Visitors Bureau, thus increasing their take to $600,000 a year.
Or is it about $750,000. On December 10 last the Council “awarded” the Chamber another $148,000 under a performance-based contract to recruit new businesses to Vallejo. To their credit Council Members Pamela Pitts and Tony Pearsall insisted that they wanted to see concrete performance indicators in the Chamber’s next annual report. They asked the right questions: How many businesses, how many, visitors, how many jobs – specifically, really – do we owe to guys on Florida Street?
6. Lennar on Mare Island. Keep your eye on Mare Island. Lennar, aided and assisted by city officials, chiefly Brian Dolan, is preparing a plan that would demolish nearly half the historic buildings on the island and ravage the integrity of this national treasure. A high gloss is put on the plan in the winter 2004 edition of Lennar Mare Island’s glossy multi-color “Progress Report.” In a front page article entitled “Building on History,” Lennar divides the island’s structures into three categories – “City Landmarks,” “Contributors” which are “individually significant and of good integrity,” and “Components” that lack “historic and architectural significance.” The latter would be demolished. And so would 219 of the 392 “Contributors” which Lennar deems “repetitive.” What do they propose putting in their place? A kitschy mish-mash of homes reminiscent of the tacky Thomas Kincade development at Hiddenbrooke and a major thoroughfare with a huge traffic at St. Peter’s Chapel, all completely out of tune with the historic and architectural character of the island. “Building on History” may be the most accurate description of what Lennar is getting ready to do – tear down our history, pave it over, and build ticky tackys on its grave.
The Architectural Heritage and Landmarks Commission is up in arms and some members are close to resigning in despair. What gives Mr. Dolan?
7. The Waterfront. Keep an eye also on the plans for developing the waterfront. At the February 24 Council meeting the citizens won a major victory. The Callahan-DeSilva Group scaled back its proposal for developing the waterfront. More importantly, the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) will be revised an recirculated in June. It will include as alternative a plan by the St. Vincent’s Neighborhood Association (SVHNA) and another by Gary Cloutier which would preserve the entire west side of Mare Island Way as public open space. Kudos are due not just to Gary but also to Joanne Schively and the SVHNA and VCPR, whose persistent efforts on this score have won a signal victory. BZ!
8. 500 Pound Gorillas. To be sure, there are far bigger issues looming on Vallejo’s horizon, those 500 pound gorillas casting their huge shadows on our budget and our quality of life. They are the trickle down shortfalls from the tax cutters in Washington and Sacramento who are sucking the life blood out of local communities like ours, taking money from schools, public safety, and community-based self-help organizations.
I assure you I am not unaware of the statewide budget crisis that so handicaps our city governments and our schools. We are all also acutely aware of the incredible incompetency of the people running the Vallejo Unified School District and the Greater Vallejo Recreation District that have compounded the problem and so particularly impacted our young people. Those, however, are incompetencies that require separate, fuller attention.
Lest you leave with the impression that I’m a crusty old curmudgeon (I prefer “crone.” Look it up.), let me assure you that I enjoy life, especially now that spring is here. Let me assure you, too, that Vallejo is a wonderful city full of wonderful people who don’t get thanked often enough for all the joy they bring into our lives. Here are just a few events and people we should be thankful for:
1. Flyway Festival. This annual February event on Mare Island dedicated to the island’s natural treasures gets better and better every year thanks to the hard work of Myrna Hayes and a hearty band of volunteers.
2. Daffodil High Tea. Myrna was but one of the guys and gals on the steering committee that organized the 4th annual Daffodil High Tea March 20-21 which raises funds for the preservation of historic St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island. Other steering committee members are Barbara and Harold Thompson, Joan Hale, Marty Jewett, Patricia Soule, Rose Utterback, Barbara Wankum, and, of course, Chaplain Wallace Whatley. The group, now associated with Arc Ecology, a San Francisco non-profit, is currently focused on saving the chapel’s 29 stained glass windows.
3. Cave Elementary. As the T-H put it this week, east Vallejo’s Cave Elementary proves “that we may be down but not out when it comes to public education.” Congratulations to Principal Paula Tschida, and all the teachers, parents, and, above all, students, who, by winning this year’s California Distinguished School Award, proved we can do it. Kudos are also in order for Wardlaw Elementary School for winning a prestigious honorable mention in the same statewide competition.
4. Tony Pearsall. What refreshing addition to the Council…serious, fair, good questions, good votes. Keep up the good work, Tony.
5. Timmy’s Rainbow of Hope. Lesa Fitzpatrick, my pharmacist and friend at Long’s Gateway Plaza, lost her 7-year-old son Timmy to pediatric brain cancer in 2001. That could have been the end of a sad story. But Lesa, her husband Tim, Timmy’s brother Austin (now 8), and Timmy’s classmates at St. Dominic’s School in Benicia wouldn’t let it end that way. They formed Timmy’s Rainbow of Hope Foundation for Pediatric Brain Cancer and started selling colorful calendars with his classmates pictures of “Heaven Through the Eyes of a Child.” In 2002 and 2003 sales of the calendars raised $30, 000 which was presented to UCSF Medical Center. Hell of a legacy, those visions of Heaven! Next time you’re in a Long’s, look for the calendar’s. And if it’s Gateway Plaza, say “Hi!” to Lesa. She done good!
6. Foster Hicks’ Class. Those of us who follow Council proceedings have learned to admire the presence most every Tuesday evening of Foster Hicks’ Hogan High civics class. They give us all hope for the future.
7. Roy Weigel. Roy’s another fixture at Council meetings, preparing detailed notes on the proceedings for posting on vallejocpr.org. It is up within 24 hours and has earned a reputation as the transcript of public record.
8. Listen & Be Heard. That’s the name of a great little weekly published by Martha Cinader and Tony Mims, the same folks who are your regular hosts at Rafael’s that funky and ever-lively venue for poetry and music at the corner of Nebraska and Sonoma. The paper – free at Muggs’ and lots of other places around town – full of poetry and news of our cultural scene. And Rafael’s? Drop in some night. It’s the in place.
9. Rick Wells. Congratulations to young Rick for his “good timing” in landing that job at the Chamber of Commerce. I’m glad he’s a fan of Vallejo and considering moving here. Granted, it’s not Newport Beach or Napa, but it’s a great place to live.
10. 349th Quartermasters Company, California National Guard. “Our” Guardsmen came home this week. They, too, have done good, and we’re glad to have them back. In many ways, Vallejo is an “All-American City” sans title. The four-page red, white, and blue and yellowed-ribboned “Welcome Home” in Thursday’s T-H proved just how home down and unabashedly honest this city can be. We should enjoy the glow that comes from that sense of community. I pray “our” soldiers enjoy their families this weekend and forever.
11. Sgt. Elmer Krause, U.S. Army Reserve. “Red-haired, freckle-faced Elmer Krause,” who, according to the S.F. Chronicle, “got into plenty of shenanigans while growing up in Vallejo,” will not get to enjoy his family, his wife Diane, his son Jonathan, age 9. He was killed Easter weekend in an ambush west of Baghdad. He, too, did good. Won’t you do something good for young Jonathan. Send a few bucks to: Jonathan G. Krause, Minor Account, c/o Debbie Wright, First National Bank, P.O. Box 176, Seagrove, NC 27341.
That’s all folks. Thanks for reading this far. I hope you’ve found it worthwhile and look forward to your comments. Now that we’re caught up, I promise shorter reads in the future – some on Vallejo, some on the national and international scene. There’s a lot going on out there.
Pray for Peace,
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
Posted by Vicki at 08:48 PM | Comments (1)