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So Many Monsters

Column by Loretta Redd

newswanThe swan has long been a symbol of tranquility and harmony, though ancient beliefs created the darker metaphorical phrase, “swan song,” about the Mute Swan, who is silent all of its life until moments before it dies, when it sings a beautiful melody.

I was listening to an old Annie Lennox song , “No More ‘I Love You’s,” and the lyrics on language and monsters seem to have taken up residence in my brain. Though she sings about broken hearts and broken dreams, I find there really ARE “sooo many monsters” these days. They reside nearby in Murrieta, California, or in Isla Vista, or Newtown, and in countries and on continents like Russia or Afghanistan, in Iraq, Israel, or across Africa.

Seems like they’re everywhere, and proliferating.

People have always done despicable things to one another. Evil, like kindness, remains a part of our nature, so I’m not sure what combination recently pushed me over the edge. It could be having our brains filled with the darkest of images, the most heinous of crimes, the most insane of conflicts and boldest of lies delivered on a constant feed of cable channels, web sites and headlines.

Civility has become an anomaly.

My nephew and family visited recently from North Carolina. Over the eight days, I came to truly appreciate two things: first, just how hard it is to be a good parent and secondly, how difficult it is to protect a child’s innocence. My nephew is relatively religious, though not an ‘in-your-face’ sort of extreme; they choose to home school their four and seven year old, and are pretty vigilant about what television or computer images they get to watch.

The kids were well-behaved and rarely aggressive toward each other, but on those occasions, their mother responded with a simple question: “Did you do that with love in your heart?”

No preaching, no shaming, no reference to the bible- just a question for reflection which was surprisingly effective on them, as well as on me. Although my intention as a columnist has always been to stir thought and find solutions, I began to wonder if maybe the “monsters” hadn’t invaded my psyche after a decade of opinion pieces which criticized, judged and sometimes mocked others.

I want to appreciate those of you who have read and responded, whether from the early days of News Press, or columns in the Daily Sound, or here at the Santa Barbara View and Sentinel. You have challenged, informed and educated me over the years. But I find the ‘dark side’ of commentary is coloring my world. Continue Reading →

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Dry Silt and Hot Air

Column by Loretta Redd

Asking hot air-filled floatation devises we refer to as “elected officials” to rise together and resolve a challenge by applying practical and long range solutions is sheer folly.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious why the words “successful” and “government” rarely appear in the same sentence. Common sense solutions are unachievable, especially when they involve multiple layers of bureaucracy.

Assuming Congresswoman Lois Capps wants to win her race in November, here is a daring feat, that if she can pull it off, will endear her to every thirsty voter now paying increasing water rates in order to reduce consumption.

It won’t be easy. It may not be quick, and it isn’t a ‘forever’ solution, but it will help ensure that the quantity of water available in our area is significantly increased. It’s also far from a new idea, as you will read as I quote frequently from the May, 1987 City of Santa Barbara report entitled, “GIBRALTAR LAKE RESTORATION PROJECT.”

The Gibraltar Lake Desiltation Project (proposed 1977, funded in 1978) report was submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Clean Lakes Program” almost three decades ago, and had the process been continued, we would not be in the water crisis we find ourselves today.

Here's their Executive Summary:
The reclamation program was proposed by the City of Santa Barbara in May 1977 to the U. S., Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Lakes Program. A Clean Lake EPA Grant to restore Gibraltar Lake was awarded to the City of Santa Barbara on May 15, 1978. This Funding and desiltation method of Gibraltar Lake was the first of its kind in the United States.

Within three years from the initial construction of the desiltation project, approximately 445 acre-feet of wet silt had been dredged from the lake at a total cost of $4,197,316.84.

Gibraltar Lake is a 273.6 acre reservoir located within the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains about seven miles north of Santa Barbara City. The reservoir provides an average of 35% of the City's drinking water supply in conjunction with the other supply sources such as Lake Cachuma 53%, and the City's 12% ground water source.

The lake's water capacity has been decreasing since the completion of the Gibraltar Dam in 1920 and subsequent enlargement in 1948, because of siltation. The reservoir formed by the damming of the Santa Ynez River had an initial maximum capacity of 14,500 acre-feet and a subsequent capacity of 22,500 acre-feet in 1948. The lake's last capacity measurement in 1986 was reported to be reduced to about 8,241 acre-feet or 37% of the total volume of 22,500 acre-feet. Over this 66 year period between 1920 through 1986, 14,259 acre-feet of silt entered Gibraltar Lake at an average rate of 216 acre-feet of silt per year.

The purpose of the Gibraltar Lake Restoration Project was to safely attempt to reclaim a portion of the reservoir's lost water capacity. The construction and dredging operations took nearly three years to complete. The actual project length satisfied the proposed 36 months originally stated in the Federal Assistance Application. EPA and representative of the Federal Government are to receive "thanks" from the citizens of Santa Barbara for participating in this grant. The purpose of the "Clean Lakes" grant has been fulfilled and this report is documentation of that participation between the agencies (EPA and the City of Santa Barbara).

A cubic yard of silt typically displaces 200 gallons of water.

I’m neither a mathematician nor a geologist, but two things seem rather obvious: first, we certainly could use the additional storage capacity in today’s Lake Gibraltar for when future rain falls, and secondly, I imagine dry dirt due to the drought conditions is far easier to remove than wet silt, though I envision the truckers dressed in white hazard suits, the dump trucks requiring union drivers and an Environmental Defense League escort.

The challenges remain numerous. How many various governmental entities would it take (this sounds like a riddle…) to approve a road being cut to allow the heavy moving equipment ingress and egress to the lake bed?

And, what do we do with all that ‘silt?‘ I am fairly certain some environmental elitist will declare it unsafe to reuse, even though it should make some of the best top-soil additive imaginable for our Central Coast farmers.

From the time of the proposal in 1977 until now, much has changed in Washington, in California and in Santa Barbara…and yet little has changed in government. Can Congresswoman Capps work with State Senator Jackson, Assemblyman Williams and Mayor Schneider to pull off this miracle or will they, too, remain blather-filled floatation devices more focused on the problem than on the solution?

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Mailing Money

Column by Loretta Redd

With a story that begins in 1792, I’m not sure I’ll get to all the details in one brief article.  But if you don’t mind speed dating through the history of our Postal Service, we’ll at least hit the high points.

It was President George Washington who first recognized the importance of postal delivery;  he understood that mail enabled anyone access to information, especially in rural areas.   Our forward thinking President made the Post Office a Cabinet level department, naming Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General.

Roughly fifty years later, Congress granted the Post Office a monopoly for delivery.  By 1860, parcel post service was instituted and mailboxes were installed, for which Hallmark card recipients should be eternally grateful.

What I didn’t know, and few of us recall, is that the Postal Service also operated as a banking system.  Following the financial panic and bank closures of the 1900′s, the Postal Service began allowing citizens to open small savings accounts, as well as make check withdrawals.

By the end of WW II, the Post Office had over $4 million in accounts, and more than $3 billion in deposits.  These financial services, mostly used by low to moderate income Americans, were offered through the postal system from 1911 until 1967.

And they could be again.

bankMassachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, has proposed the reinstitution of the post office bank, “If the Postal Service offered basic banking services–nothing fancy, just basic bill paying, check cashing and small-dollar loans– then it could provide affordable financial services for underserved families, and, at the same time, shore up its own financial footing.”

Our mail delivery system has weathered some difficult challenges over its history, including Congress which seems to have systematically ravaged any efficacy and efficiency from today’s USPS.  The inscription on the New York post office building may read:  “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from swift completion of their appointed rounds,” but it didn’t take Congressional greed into account.

The post office came close to collapsing under its own success in the mid 1960′s, given the volume and demands of mail service.  Unfortunately, the Postal Department was not allowed to make investments or to borrow money for infrastructure.

With the 1971 Postal Reorganization Act, Congress abolished the United States Postal Department and created an independent agency, called the United States Postal Service.  The “new” USPS was to be based more on a corporate model:

” The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people…”

Unfortunately, Congress did not see fit to reestablish the banking portion, but did leave the post office open to stiff competition from private industry in other areas, like package delivery, copying services and ‘payday’ check cashing .

An article in the Nation cites a discussion paper by the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs,  “The essential characteristic distinguishing postal financial services from the private banking sector is the obligation and capacity of the postal system to serve the entire spectrum of the national population, unlike conventional private banks, which allocate their institutional resources to service the sectors of the population they deem most profitable.”

The United States was not the only country to offer banking services through the postal system.  Other nations such as China, Japan and Germany still do, most with very lucrative assets.

Most of today’s challenges to the fiscal soundness of the United States Postal Service are due to Congressional meddling and “oversight.”  In 2001 the General Accounting Office discovered a piggy bank…the USPS had overfunded its pension obligation by more than $80 billion.

In a sane world, the USPS would be allowed to use this overage to pay down debt, invest in technology and expand services,” writes an investigator in the Huffington Post.  But since the Post Office is part of the Federal  budget  the capacity to use the overfunded money for investment would in effect, raise the deficit, so it was held for other services.

Elaine Kamarck of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government summed the post office conundrum up this way, “Congress wants it to be self-sufficient, but doesn’t want it to make money.”

What could have been a boon for the USPS in the age of e-commerce, Congress would not allow discounts for parcel shipping.  Lobbyists for alternative delivery and mail services, such as FedEx or Mailboxes, Etc, have continually used financial influence to decimate proprietary postal services.

It would seem, then, that Congress strongly favors competition with the private sector…well, until it comes to the banking industry and their well-heeled lobbyists.  Restoring the Post Office bank would compete with banks, and take away from the very profitable “payday” check cashing companies.

“Yes,” you say, “but their customers are high risk, irresponsible low-life, so they have to charge more.”  A Pew Charitable  Foundation study found that separated or divorced women, ages 25-44 with incomes under $40,000 were the least able to secure normal forms of credit or to qualify for standard banking services.

So, single women are largest users, or ‘victims’ of these services that have a finance charge of $14.99 to cash a $100 check, which is an APR of 390.8%.  That’s a lot of dollars with President Washington’s face printed on them.

Senator Warren’s legislation will not only return stability to the USPS, it will pressure the predatory practices of these check cashing companies, give ‘big banks’ some competition, and be a pathway to pride and fiscal responsibility for millions of Americans.

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Gunning for Retirement

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

PensionsWhy is the word “pension” so often preceded by the term, “unsustainable” these days?

Nothing is “unsustainable” in either private investment or in public funding…it just mean we pay a whole lot more.

There are two camps of retirement funding, Public and Private.  The private 401k plans have “defined contributions,” and the public employee pension plan has “defined benefits.”   Each seems to think the other is the devil incarnate, and both are up to their eyeballs in greed, political favoritism and questionable investment returns.

And, by the way, the “public” (that’s you and me) is on the hook for both of them.

pdf-logo

Summary of Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013 and Related Changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Law

The anti-public pension campaign is gaining strength in the media and in the courtrooms, and for good reason.  Whereas public service once denoted hard work, dedication and civic mindedness,  paying lower wages but with the promise of a guaranteed pension, today’s government employees have been painted as mostly lazy, overpaid grifters living on the public dole.

We often hear about “generous retirement packages” of the six-figure variety, attributable to union greed and worker ‘entitlement.’  The fault and inequity among public servants, however, lies mostly at the feet of our elected representatives.

Mathew Brouillett, president of Common Wealth Foundation, states, “Pension benefits have been used as a political football.  Politicians are able to make promises today that they hope they can pay for tomorrow, hoping tomorrow never comes.  Deals between union and politicians have left teachers, cops, firemen caught in the middle and demonized because public opinion has turned against generous benefit packages.”

I admit to being a little tired of the golden trilogy of teachers/fire/police to invoke public sentiment for higher wages and retirement, because they represent only a small proportion of government retirees.  But Mr. Brouillett has a point:  there is little equanimity among public sector retirement packages, with shameful evidence of political sell out.

As an example, in the State of California prison guards can retire seven years earlier than teachers, with benefits that are 77% higher.  Forget the logic of better paid, higher quality teachers resulting in fewer people in prison, apparently the image of iron bars and handcuffs is a more powerful motivator in Sacramento than chalk board and dunce caps.

Conservative groups continue to vilify those in government service, apparently with growing success.  While strategically working to get pension reform on State ballots, they’ve mounted a very interesting campaign of “educating” Judges on retirement benefit law.  A symposium in Charleston, South Carolina, hosted by George Mason University and paid for by various corporate interests, offered continuing education units to sitting judges on “The Economics and Law of Public Pension Reform.”

At the same time, those wanting to reduce employee and union benefit packages deflect attention from lavish payouts to corporate executives, from the uncertainty of future Wall Street investment returns, from the cost of the bank failures of 2007, and especially from the $80 billion in annual corporate subsidies and tax breaks.

I don’t know which is more offensive…pension spiking or corporate bail outs.  But I know that whether the money comes from increasing taxes and decreasing services, or increasing prices and decreasing oversight, neither system has our financial interest at heart and both look to lawmakers to make them money.

“Sustainability” apparently has less to do with labor these days than it has to do with lobbying.

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Ms. Winfrey, Turn That Verdant Green to Gold

Dear Ms. Winfrey,

Perhaps during a recent take-off or landing in your private jet, you might have glanced out the window and noticed how ‘golden’ our region has become.  Unfortunately, this time  California gold doesn’t refer to rocks along the riverbeds, but rather the dried and parched hillsides throughout our State.

Oprah-Winfrey-House-Pic-e1312872793628

Oprah Winfrey’s 42 acre estate

Let me be clear…I fault no one for their success and wealth; especially a woman of color who has built her empire through diligence and determination, and has become an icon of integrity for many.

You may have noticed Santa Barbara is a unique place.  Perhaps that ‘s why you selected it for a place to call “home.”  Montecito, our tiny little enclave community, is an interesting hodgepodge of souls and saviors, wouldn’t you agree?  Your neighbors are tree-huggers and oil Barons, they are college students and corporate moguls, tiny houses and rambling residences.  It is a place where the fallen live next to the rising, and where people are mostly left unbothered, regardless of their celebrity status or bank account.

We like you, and we want you to stay.  But we also want you to respect us.

In case you haven’t heard, Santa Barbara and Montecito are in a pretty severe drought, and it isn’t expected to get better before it gets worse.  Simply put, the only people using more water than you to keep their landscape looking like Oregon are the pot growers hiding in the Los Padres forest.

I have every respect for your capacity to pay ‘whatever’ it costs to sprinkle your lawn; it’s just that we can’t make more water, regardless of what it costs per acre foot.  There’s a caveat, I suppose, as it’s rumored that Birnam Woods home owners association has authorized an obscene amount of money to ‘purchase’ a well in Carpinteria and truck its water up to their golf course…so maybe some people can make water when the price is right.

Unfortunately, our groundwater isn’t able to recharge in many places, due to the rise in demand such as this.  Santa Barbara is spending millions to retrofit pumps able to suck up the puddles left in Lake Cachuma, and crank up the desalination contraption. So using all that water to keep your 42 acres green, seems a little un-neighborly.

Trees are ancient creatures and expensive- many were here before us, and I’d vote to try and keep them alive.  Plants and shrubs might be next down on the vegetation list, as they can be very costly and their pollen in necessary to bees and hummingbirds, while their flowers and seeds support other life.

But grass?  Sorry, Ms. Winfrey, time to turn that verdant green to gold, and set an example for your neighbors in Montecito (even though they can’t see past the gates.)   When a private home with a part-time owner uses more water each month than the entire Four Seasons Biltmore hotel in high season and almost double that of Westmont College, we have what I might call an ‘issue.’   Long showers are one thing, but seventy-five percent of your water use is for outdoor irrigation.

I don’t really think of you as an “I’ll do as I please” type of billionaire in the ranks of Madoff, Sterling or Koch.  You’ve done global-wide good with your wealth; you’ve inspired millions of young people, and you’ve become a ‘brand’ aligned with hard work and smart investment.

So, I’m going to assume being the largest water consumer in most of Santa Barbara county is simply an oversight on your part, and that you really do care about your community.  If you wouldn’t mind asking your ground crew to cut the irrigation back a little, we’d all be deeply grateful.

“If it’s yellow let it mellow,” only has to apply to your lawn…at least for now.

Appreciatively,

Your neighbors and friends

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Get Real about Representation

Column by Loretta Redd

DistrictElections3A lot of money is about to be spent fixing a problem that doesn’t really exist in Santa Barbara.  The proposed action won’t remedy the concern, and could well create a more contentious and still unresponsive city council.

The prevailing logic concludes this unnecessary remedy is cheaper than a law suit.  Welcome to the less than burning issue of District Elections… or some other form of selecting candidates for City Council.

Santa Barbara is a Charter city, and as such, has more autonomy than “general law” cities which have to follow state provisions for municipalities.  Of California’s 482 cities, only 121 are governed by Charter.

Our City Charter provides for the size of the council, the fact that the mayor has no more authority than other council members, that the City Manager is granted significant powers, that there are maximum salaries for council members, restrictions on land-use, how the city spends money, pay scales and such.

In other cities throughout California, there have been challenges to citywide elections by the ACLU and other local groups based on the premise that “at-large” elections don’t adequately reflect the demographics of the city, and has resulted in a failure to elect a racially diverse city council.

Clearly, that is the case in Santa Barbara…if…and it’s a big IF…the method of electing our council members is the real reason we have had so few minority representatives.

With demographics of 38 percent Hispanic/Latino, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent African American and 54 percent white in Santa Barbara, there can be no doubt we do not have proportional Council representation based on race.  But should race be the basis for redistricting, or should population numbers be the driver as it is in some cities.

Many municipalities having changed their voting methods from at-large to other systems, have done so in order to create a ‘climate of inclusion.’  Perhaps registration to vote and participation would increase if the candidates better reflected the racial makeup of the city…but the actual ballots cast for perennial candidate Cruzito Cruz or Megan Diaz Alley for instance,  are contrary to this logic.

Will minorities be better represented with “proportional representation?”  Regardless of the method of election, one must ask how minorities are being underserved in our city.  When I attended the public forum recently at the Faulker room, the most consistent complaint from minority speakers was that their elected officials were non-responsive.

In my opinion, Council member non-responsiveness has little if anything to do with race, which is why district elections may result in even greater disappointment.  A greater challenge to elected officials is the sheer volume of questions, comments, complaints, suggestions and requests they receive daily- most by email.

Don’t expect them to admit to this…after all, they are your ‘representatives,’ and it would sound whining and unprofessional to admit that there is no possible way to answer every comment received.

With the help of office staff assigned to assist each council member, they attempt to prioritize, respond and follow up on public inquiries, but I am certain there are times it is a daunting task.   Ask yourself how much time you spend responding to emails or texts each day and multiply that by a thousand or so…

This issue has only gotten worse, as the City offices increasingly hide behind electronic mail and voicemail messages.  All corporations and governments do this now; usually in the name of “efficiency,” it remains a great way to dodge the public and control the message.  Whereas one brief call to a city staff person might answer any number of questions, now the resident must find their way through the rabbit hole of contacts and leave print or voice messages in the ‘void.’

Irritating? Absolutely.  But the truth is, electronic systems are cheaper than hired personnel, so I don’t see the Information Technology department of the City diminishing in scope any time soon.

But with this dependence on IT, we have created an unrealistic expectation of immediacy, which may be increasing our sense of being denied adequate ‘representation’ and ‘responsiveness’ from our council.

There is also a hurdle of language.  It is fairly easy to translate electronically from Spanish to English and vice-versa, but nuance and immediacy can be lost.  Do we have any Spanish speakers on council? I don’t think so, but it would make sense if we did.

Ultimately, our City will be forced into changing its method of electing Council representatives.  That is pretty much a given.  But, whether having a representative ‘speak’ and ‘act’ for a single district will result in more responsiveness waits to be seen.  I imagine it could increase the likelihood of a ‘call back,’ or face-to-face meeting, and it may create a better bridge of language and culture but it will also result in greater competition for budget dollars, and for services from city staff.

Perhaps District or Cumulative or Ranked Choice voting ‘success’ looks like this:  a greater proportional voter turn-out,  resulting in a more diverse City Council with an even greater volume of complaints from their constituents.   November elections ought to be interesting.

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A Salute to Newsprint

Weekly Column by Loretta Redd

newspaperAlthough the practice may sound ancient to those born the digital age, I still delight in reading local, daily newspapers wherever I visit. More than once, it was the contents of the ‘local rag’ which helped persuade me to make a town or city my permanent home. Such was the case in Santa Barbara twenty years ago.

In those days, the News Press was a true reflection of the wider community, mixed with a world of diverse information imported from other newsrooms and perspectives. Our local paper offered a kaleidoscope of sources and perspectives; they imported articles from the Boston Globe, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, McClatchey, Associated Press and others.

Sadly, many of those originating news outlets have gone out of business. Unless it is available on a large scale, anyone still publishing a tangible paper today is not doing so to make a profit. Santa Barbara proved how difficult launching a daily paper can be, judging from the fast demise of the Daily Sound.

And while the News-Press remains a source of local, national and world news, things are noticeably different. Despite the use of ‘filler’ advertising for places like Cottage Hospital, using oversized photos, laudatory centerfold pages like Nursing Appreciation Week, and occasionally running the same article more than once in the same paper, the content is shrinking.

But content is expensive. You either have to pay someone to write news articles, (in this case, News Press “Staff Writers” or “Correspondents”) or you pay to download articles written by other sources and newsrooms. Neither are cheap.

Two major shifts have occurred in the world of ‘journalism.’ First, is the rapid rise of digital media, far cheaper than print, and where the readers are in control of the content. And second, is the noticeable increase in conservative sources for articles and newsfeed.

The reader used to be a passive consumer of information, unless one took the time to compose and send a letter to the editor. Nowadays, the reader can comment instantaneously, driving the level of interest, and determining whether a ‘story’ becomes a multi-day thread or simply a one-time appearance.

What was once described as a “liberal media” has today tilted far to the right. In an intentional and very effective long range plan, conservatives have created what I call a “loop of legitimacy.” Research or information comes from a conservative educational institution or “think tank.” The story then appears in a “legitimate” publication like the Washington Times, which is owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Once in print, it is fed to cable news channels like, FOX, One America News or other fundamentalist Christian or Catholic outlet. It is then discussed on the radio airwaves of the ‘talking heads,’ and back to print again.

Editorial and personal opinion used to appear only in sections designated as such, but today, almost every article is suspect. Objective journalism no long sells. Such reporting is factual, unslanted, cool and informative. Yet we have become addicted to being titillated, alarmed, moved or outraged, because that’s what keeps us reading, watching or listening.

The effort to combat the “liberal press” is impressive and effective, even though uber-republican Bill Kristol admitted, “The whole idea of the liberal media was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures,” and E.J. Dionne sites 203 major institutions that tilt “well to the right” in ideology, bringing a “…constant pressure to avoid even the pale hint of liberalism.”

Democracy needs journalism, and journalism needs objective reporting.

In addition to facts, I believe it’s a very good thing to have vastly different perspectives presented to readers or listeners. I appreciate our local paper in their waning, but still viable attempt to download different sources for articles. “Facts” or objective journalism is getting harder to find, as “news outlets,” with increasing competition for audience and income, have grown more ideological and extreme in their reporting.

Our local print paper may be slipping to the right, but it is likely following the interests and allegiances of its readers demographics. Older people tend to become more conservative for numerous reasons; physical and sensory frailty, financial uncertainty, less exposure to education, and social partners who are like-minded .

But whether you receive your information, or news online or in print, is less important than resisting the urge to find a mirror of your own thinking and be lulled into believing the world agrees with you.

The days of print newspaper may be waning, but it is difficult to find the same cornucopia of community connections and perspective in any single source media today. The News Press is a rare, though dying breed.

Even as I appear here in digital format, I admit to wishing the newspaper was not a ‘threatened species.” But my encouragement is not so much the platform of what you read, but rather the diversity. True objectivity is unobtainable because everything we read or hear is colored by our own experience…even more reason to stay open to more than one perspective.

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M is for Money

Weekly Column by Loretta Redd

In 1911, California began allowing ordinary citizens to create statutory and constitutional law via local and State initiatives. Since that time, voters have seen any number of propositions make their way to our ballots- some daring, some dumb.

meaIn Santa Barbara County this election, we have Measure M.

When newly elected, 4th District Supervisor, Peter Adam suggested to the Board of Supes that the county should be required to maintain infrastructure at current levels before expending other discretionary funds, he was voted down handily. At the budget meeting last June, Mr. Adam proposed adding $8.5 million to the maintenance fund in order to cut the county’s reported $300 million backlog of deferred projects on roads, parks and public buildings. The Board instead approved a paltry $2 million for road repair. (see Capital Budget Deferred Maintenance pdf)

Supervisor Janet Wolf suggested to her ‘freshman’ colleague that he collect signatures and put the maintenance Measure on the 2014 ballot if he felt so strongly…a recommendation I imagine she deeply regrets at this moment, because Mr. Adam managed to do just that, to the tune of 13,000 signatures.

Mrs. Wolf’s current opponent, former police officer Roger Aceves, weighed in on Measure M on Noozhawk, saying he was “not going to make a decision until he hears from everyone.” Not sure when that will be….

Supervisor Adam’s fiscal conservatism should come as no surprise to anyone who read his political literature when he ran for office. He is simply being true to his statement on the campaign website, “…my great frustration with the ever-expanding role, reach and cost of government propelled me to join the race for supervisor.”

Mr. Adam’s philosophy is that the county has not been meeting predetermined obligations, and must be forced to do so. Suddenly, the other Supervisors and the County Auditor are panicking because Measure M “takes a hatchet to the budget” with projected catastrophic consequences.

Of our $800 million County budget, only one-quarter ($200m) is considered “discretionary.”  And of that $200 million, more than sixty percent goes to public safety coffers. That doesn’t leave much dinero to spread across other areas of real need, such as health and human services, community resources, and other programs.

Though it is completely untrue that Measure M would raise taxes simply by its passage, it does hog-tie more of the County budget. Continuing to fund the Public Safety collective at current levels (pdf file, click here) would indeed reduce the dollars for social service and other community programs. In order to meet those obligations, taxes or fees would have to be raised. But note to the naive: our County taxes will eventually be raised, regardless.

So, the real question for the voters is… what are your priorities?

A secondary issue is the source of political pressures on budgetary decision-making of our elected officials. Should the Sheriff’s department budget be six times greater than the District Attorney, twelve times larger than the Public Defender, twice the fire and more than twice the cost of the Probation Department?

I think back to the recent Deltopia confrontation in Isla Vista… On camera, at least, it appeared that our Sheriff’s department was better equipped than the Ukrainian army. Did we really need all of the weaponry, armored vehicles and ‘black ops’ outfits to quell this unfortunately predictable, alcohol-infused, adolescent insanity? Maybe. Maybe all that equipment came from grants and didn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. No one got killed in Isla Vista and property damage was minimal…so maybe it’s all worth it. But the invoice for the Sheriff’s management of that debacle is yet to come due.

What Peter Adam has done is to illuminate the reality of budget pressures. Potholes don’t help Supervisors get elected; people do. Salaries and benefits-always the biggest line items, are also the hardest to contain, because groups like SEIU and law enforcement unions help to ensure candidate success.

To give credit, Supervisors and department heads have eliminated hundreds of positions and have reduced expenditures over the past years. While they all should be appreciated for at least trying to live ‘within their budget,’ no one has a clue of how to eliminate our unfunded liabilities.

The fact that Measure M constrains the limited discretionary funding is perhaps dangerous. I’m glad I don’t have to choose between social services and closing parks; though sometimes I think if more money went to mental health services, less money would be needed for jails and law enforcement.

And I wonder if the $17 million projected annual cost of operations for the new North County jail will be declared as “catastrophic” to the budget, as Mr. Adam’s additional $6 million for maintenance costs is currently described?

Measure M is probably not the solution. But what Mr. Adam has done for us is to turn a very bright light on the questionable prioritizing of our County budget. He dares to suggest we shouldn’t be proposing new programs until the existing ones can either be funded or eliminated. Unfunded liabilities don’t bust your axle the way a pothole does on a county road, but they’re even more dangerous, because every citizen will have to ‘drive’ over them eventually. If the Board of Supervisors- current and past- had taken their fiscal responsibility seriously, Measure M would never have been on the ballot. It’s a risky way to manage a county…

Daring or dumb, you get to decide.

Comments { 8 }

WORMs

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

Every community has them… WORMs.

White Old Rich Men, who reach such an astronomical level of wealth and power they self-destruct into a heap of pubescent insecurity and immorality.

LA Times run ads celebrating Mr Sterling over the past year

Los Angeles Times ran ads celebrating Mr. Sterling

Currently, we have The Donalds. On the West Coast, billionaire developer and LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, has set a new low bar for duplicitous generosity and Cro-Magnon social behavior, while on the East Coast, we have Donald Trump, the comb-over conservative whose fantasies of political relevance are exceeded only by his bombastic ego.

Mr. Trump, whose third wife is 23 years his junior, was asked to comment on Mr. Sterling’s current “situation.” Trump declared that Mr. Sterling had probably been “set up” by his girlfriend.

Why does an owner of a mostly African American basketball team, who has lived 80 years and amassed $1.8 billion perform his own frontal lobotomy by demanding that his girlfriend stop being seen in public “with the likes of Magic Johnson,” and even more offensive references to black Jews in Israel.

Who pushed the “RECORD” button is hardly the issue. Something happens to WORMs when they reach a certain age and bank account… they begin to believe they are appealing because no one will tell them otherwise.

Santa Barbara has had its share of nasty old coots on the Montecito 5-star philanthropy circuit. There have been WORMs who try to sneak a French kiss, or ‘cop a feel’ of an unsuspecting female during wine-stoked fund raisers at the Coral Casino or Bacara Ballroom. Wives politely look the other way, while women who may describe the offenders as ‘pigs’ in private, simply try to keep their distance when greetings occur.

But for the most part, Santa Barbara seems to inspire gentlemanly behavior, of the Towbes variety. As much as local society page writers go all a twitter with their “Pip Pips” and “Ta Ta”s, when a gen-u-ine celebrity crosses the county line, we locals tend to remain rather unimpressed by salacious displays of wealth.

The only thing local philanthropist Michael Towbes has in common with Sterling and Trump, is his occupation as a real estate developer. We have some very wealthy men in our city, though unlike The Donalds, they don’t purchase newspaper centerfolds for the egoistic self-promotion of their questionably motivated generosity.

Donald Sterling is pitiful, though I don’t pity him in the least.

Santa Barbara, with its liberal heart and small town appreciation for common decency, should continue to eschew the “big City” vibe so prevalent in Los Angeles.

But if, as rumor has it, a younger developer by the name of Rick Caruso ends up buying the LA Clippers, I trust he will resist the urge to blow himself up… at least until he’s developed the Miramar property.  Otherwise, it may be the early WORM that gets the ‘bird.’

Ferguson Flyer

Ferguson Flyer

In what is coincidental timing, there is a fascinating symposium by Karen Ferguson on the history of African American philanthropy in America…May 1st and 2nd, 4:00 at UCSB’s McCune Conference Center.

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Can’t Break this Habit

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

Brent and Bruce Reichard, owners of the Habit on lower State Street,  know a lot about burgers, but policing, social work and sanitation were outside of their expertise until they decided to reclaim the block where the restaurant is located.

Realizing their food service and ‘captive’ audience of patio diners was contributing to the growing number of young urban drifters in front, drunks and drug sales in back, and trash and cups in the streets, they did what successful entrepreneurs always do: they found a solution.

IMG_4124Gone, today, are the vacuous vagabonds of urban yoachers,  gone are those who used the garden circle as their urinal, who shot-up in the shadows of back alleys, and others who fished out empty cups to bilk “free” refills from the soda machines.

It’s what can happen when all of the ‘gatekeepers’  trade keys and share the combination to unlock the doors of possibility.

First the brothers found a local advisor with knowledge of the area and connections to various groups, both enforcement and non-profit types.  Then they called a series of meetings with the interested parties and created action items.

Rather than creating another program to rescue those on the street, rather than bemoaning that nothing had ever worked before, rather than complaining about how slow government was to react, or fearing their actions might be considered police brutality, they focused on their one block of State Street.  What was the source of the problem, what made this an inviting block for misbehavior, what were the liabilities and limits of their authority, and who can make things happen?

photo 1Spontaneous solutions began to fly like synergistic popcorn…the guys from the parking garage recommended fencing the circle, which would let the greenery grow and dissuade its use as a porta-potty.  Signs were erected  that the dark alleyway between Blush, Dargan’s and the Habit was under camera surveillance (why not, they’re everywhere from traffic lights to ATMs) to reduce the drug commerce occurring there.

Then the artist who installed the brick “wall” in front of the Habit was invited to consider a new, more visible and artistically appreciated location…though for now, it remains encircled with yellow construction tape.  Artistic expression yes, but I doubt the creator envisioned  his work  as the Greyhound bus stop bench it had become.
habitrs
trashThe garbage cans, once easily accessed by poachers and pigeons, sidewalk sitters and seagulls, have been replaced with those at Lake Tahoe, where trash attracts 500 pound black bears as customers.  These new trash containers require the contortion of Cirque du Soleil to successfully excavate a drink cup.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, the Habit is no longer in-habit-ed.  Without heavy-handed police presence or sidewalk bouncers, without Council declarations or new ordinances, without denying anyone’s civil rights, this small group of dedicated citizens, business owners, and organizations formed a tiny army of determination and took back their block of State Street.

It would appear those lost souls who had helped create an environment of intimidation and illegal behavior have completely dispersed, not just moved to the next block.  But if  they re-congregate, there’s now a menu of delicious action items the Reichard brothers have helped create for other business owners to select from.

And for those still on the street, there may be a job at the Habit waiting, whenever you decide to seek the programs that are available to get cleaned up, and back to work.  They’d love to have you…we all would.

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Setting a Low Bar

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

The confluence of power and politics dates back to the beginning of governments.   Money is power, of course;  it pays for the means to influence the decision-making of a voter or a legislator.

I don’t know of a single person who thinks there isn’t enough money spent on campaigns.  I don’t know anyone who thinks the obscene and growing contribution amounts are good for our Democracy.  I don’t know any individual who thinks money guarantees the most qualified and capable candidate will win.

Unfortunately,  I also don’t know a single person who believes they have any hope of changing the system.

But we do.

Campaign-FinanceAt least locally.  While the Supreme Court eviscerates any hope of campaign finance limitations, billionaire Sheldon Adleson has Republican candidates genuflecting before him in the very Capital of Greed, Las Vegas, and three California Democratic legislators are pink-slipped for bribery, we still have the right, the authority and perhaps the imperative to ‘course correct’ in our own backyard.

If indeed, all politics are local- I want some of you brighter, better schooled readers who live with the anxiety that our democracy really is slipping through our fingertips, to put a measure on the ballot somehow limiting the amount of money raised for a City Council election.

Placing limits on a donor’s “freedom of expression” sounds reasonable to most, until it thwarts our preferred candidate’s advantage. But if we capped the amount of money that could be raised for a Council seat, then our local influence peddlers, (be they Montecito millionaires or Milpas migrants, local land developers or public unions) would  be neutralized or neutered, depending on your perspective.

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SANTA BARBARA MUNICIPAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN DISCLOSURE ORDINANCE

Every city in California has its own campaign finance ordinances, and no two are alike.  Limits vary in individual contributions, campaign caps, aggregate giving, reporting periods, disclosure and other factors.  www.fppc.ca.gov True, the State of California writes the overarching campaign laws, though I wouldn’t credit Sacramento with being the paragon of integrity these days.

Finance comes down to fear.

Running for office is terrifying.  Being a candidate for public office is as vulnerable as it is egoistic, as strategic as it is idealistic.  Appearing before throngs (one hopes) of mostly strangers- some of whom believe in you, and some who are hostile to your beliefs- is tough.  And all the while, you’re trying to say something that gets them to write you a check.

This last election sent at least two City Council candidates into 6 figure contribution-land…and for what?  A 35% voter turnout and the privilege of looking down the barrel of our $400,000,000 UN-funded liability of retirement costs and unpaid for projects.

The next City Council election is stirring into action those who felt left out of the money game and believe district elections will magically guarantee them better representation.  They’re wrong, of course, because it will only increase influence peddling and set geographical ‘districts’ at war with one another.

The City has a public portal for Campaign Finance Disclosure where you can search any candidate’s name or filing number, and view every contribution made.  It can only tell part of the story, as some corporate and union monies are ‘bundled’ so the individual check writers and smaller donors are not identified.    There are also contributions from groups you’ve never heard of,  like the Peace Officers Research Association of California,  who write checks  for a couple of grand at a time. Why would they do that if they weren’t hoping to “buy” favor, or perhaps return it to those who may have served their interests (i.e, salaries) in other elections.

I admit, I’m frustrated.  Trying to figure out a way to have financial integrity in the political process, even on a small scale like Santa Barbara city, is daunting.

Our last Council election, where more than $300,000 was raised and spent, succeeded  in having one-third of those registered to vote even bother to stamp and return their envelope, I’d say there wasn’t much ‘bang for the buck.’

The City of Santa Barbara already has an ordinance called the Voluntary Expenditure Ceiling,  inviting each candidate to agree to a $50,000 cap.  The only sure way to convince those running for office to agree to the Expenditure Ceiling, is by pledging  to vote only for those who do.

Adopting the Voluntary Expenditure Ceiling for our next City Council election is having a standard of elections higher than that of our nation’s capital.  Unfortunately, that isn’t setting a very high bar, but it is a clear and easy place to start.

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Punks, Drunks & Skunks

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

Here we go again…front page “headline news” that transients are causing downtown businesses to lose money and citizens to stay home, while visitors get accosted by various ‘urban travelers’ and inebriated fools.   Of course asking the city government for “action” is about as fruitful as asking the marketing magicians at Visit Santa Barbara to even admit there’s a problem in paradise.

What I hear from Council is, “We tried to do something but it didn’t work.”   All I hear from the hotel industry is, “We don’t want to alarm our visitors.”  And the predictable police response is, “We need more officers.”

Final AG LogoIn reality, what the city ‘tried’ with their “Change for Change” was a poorly planned, underfunded and mismanaged mess of voluntary participation from a few businesses who ended up with nothing to show for their efforts but graffiti etched on their windows, and a miserly amount of “change” collected and sent to the Mother of all financial black holes, Casa Esperanza.

The police reluctantly admit that getting out of their cars and onto the sidewalks results in reduced criminal activity.  But in truth, is hauling off the drunk or deranged  the best use of our professional police force, especially when there isn’t anywhere to send a transient who is ‘disturbing the peace’  and less than 20 inpatient beds for the mentally ill?

One irresponsible, unrestrained or brain-addled individual can create a lasting image of downtown Santa Barbara as an unsafe and unsavory destination, just as a car-flattened or ‘deflated’ skunk can affect an entire neighborhood.

Councilman Rowse admonishes me (Letter to the Editor, July 8, 2013) that none of my prior recommendations will work, like using “giving meters” on the streets to collect coins from those wanting to help the less fortunate.  However, in addition to Atlanta, he can now check out Denver, Orlando, Nashville, Vancouver, San Francisco, Springfield, Miami and Washington DC, where they are successfully installed and proliferating.

Rowse’s accurate reflection that “we cannot legislate or arrest our way out of the problem” and that “all homeless are not panhandlers and all panhandlers are not homeless,” continues to be true; but for all the headaches this problem is causing, I can’t believe there aren’t better answers.

So, I’ll risk another idea for the Council, police, Downtown Organization or Visit Santa Barbara to shoot down.  But it comes with a warning:  it is proving very successful in tourist-centric places like Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Florida…  and no, I’m not referring to the Florida’s concealed carry permit.

It is a take-off on an Ambassador program.  I know we have organizations conducting various forms of ‘ambassador’ work already, from Santa Barbara City College for foreign students, to greeters at the airport and Downtown Organization volunteers directing our cruise ship ‘boat people’ around town.

So, call them “State Street Saviors” or whatever you wish.  The point is, they are an radio-carrying, unarmed but trained, smiling, uniformed force of sufficient number to have an impact.  And they’re volunteers… or at least they’re not unionized.

I understand why the Council would prefer more cops on the streets, but cops are very expensive.

When it comes to police in Santa Barbara, we hire the best because we pay the best, and it is a relatively low risk town in terms of physical danger.  We have a fairly small force to cover our geographic area, but ‘deadly force’ crime here is minimal, even in areas of concentrated  populations.

For a variety of reasons, I’m not holding my breath for the kind of shoe leather you see at State Street bar closing hour, when Santa Barbara’s finest have to scoop up our twenty-somethings and get them home to Chancellor Yang or off to bed without killing themselves or someone else.

Plus, having  too many police can send the wrong message.  I’d be interested to know what the average lifetime salary, bonus, plus retirement’ cost of just one Santa Barbara police officer would be.   We could likely hire a dozen part-time security guards, or train, motivate and maintain a cadre of volunteers for that price.

I would imagine our officers in blue would be thrilled to not have to spend hours on processing drunks and punks, only to see them back on the street within 48 hours.  Surely, the Downtown Organization street cleaners would appreciate having fewer bodily functions, cigarette butts and skunky garbage to hose down from our red brick sidewalks every morning.  And maybe- just maybe- the Visit Santa Barbara tourism crew would feel a bit more genuine in their representation of our town as “The American Riviera” if visitors felt safe, welcomed and wanted.

Before readers slap the label of insensitive, indulged Caucasian liberal on my forehead, I want to offer these facts: the use of “downtown ambassadors” can also provide a link to services for those living on the streets, and help keep them safe as well.  The smiles and helpful attitudes of these volunteers could go a long way to making everyone feel safer, not just the tourists or Saks Fifth Avenue shoppers.

Giving meters, a genuine ‘force’ of helpful, authorized security personnel in high traffic areas, and a Downtown Organization and Restaurant and Lodging Association with the guts to request public information in all hotel rooms and restaurants that giving money to panhandlers is actually harmful and will likely result in their arrest or hospitalization, would be a start.

dontfeedCouncilman Rowse correctly acknowledged we need more than a “don’t feed the bears” approach to public education, but another try at a combined effort might help the drunks into treatment, the punks into better behavior and the skunks…well, I’ll have to leave that to other creative minds.

Comments { 37 }

Crazy for Reagan

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

With the Young America’s Foundation on State Street, and the Reagan Library not far down the road, there is a concentration of those who revere old Ronnie as some sort of past Presidential god.  I, on the other hand, would like him to come back to earth so I could walk him through Pershing Park or into the waiting room of Cottage Hospital at 3:00 in the morning, and show him the chaos and broken lives he helped create.

While Reagan was imploring Mr. Gorbachav to “Tear down these walls,” he was busy destroying the last vestiges of our nation’s psychiatric safety net.  And we have paid dearly for it ever since.

In a recent Mother Jones article, author Mac McClelland reminds us that over a half million people lived in mental institutions back in the 1950′s– that’s one in every 300 citizens.  Those were the days when a psychiatrist could lock you away for good, when families used ‘insane asylums’ to dispose of troubled teens or  troubling wives.

By the 1970′s activists, therapists and politicians demanded that we deinstitutionalize our population, dropping the number of people ‘held’ in psychiatric facilities to a fourth of what they had been.  Proponents of citizens rights, with their social and legal efforts to protect people from misapplied “imprisonment’  in mental institutions, were well-intentioned.

But their vision was never implemented, because state and national government proceeded to divert the funding for mental health to other projects.  “Today, there is one public psychiatric bed per 7,200 people,” writes McClelland, “the same ratio as in 1850.”

A joint commission of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association declared in 1961 that the mentally ill would be better  served  if they were integrated into society, where they could live in their communities in transitional facilities, or even to at home with appropriate psychiatric support.

In 1963, Congress passed a law funding that intention.  Unfortunately, more than one psychiatric patient “flew over the Cuckoo’s nest” as states quickly downsized their hospitals and closed facilities.  It was far too rapid a change for communities to absorb those whom had been hospitalized,  were in crisis, or needed mental health support to find a workable safely net.

“Between the Vietnam war, political crisis and economic strain of the times, the money never came.”  Fortunately, in 1980 thanks to President Carter,  the Mental Health Systems Act was passed in order to bridge the gap of funding.

And that’s where the Gipper comes riding in; not to save the day, but to gut the Mental Health Act less than one year later by reducing Federal spending for mental  health to almost half.

Once again, the onus of caring for the mentally ill was shifted to financially strapped states and local governments.  Even though Reagan took a bullet at the hands of a psychologically deranged John Hinkley, Jr., the President failed to promote better care and oversight of those with mental illness or addictions.

The result is what you see on our streets and parks today, along with the lost lives at the hands of those suffering from psychotic disorders who end up with delusional plots in their heads and loaded guns in their hands.   Indeed, we continue to reap what Reagan and other federal budgetary saviors helped to sow…the destruction of the mental illness treatment system.

“Collectively, states have cut $4.5 billion in public mental health since 2009,” writes McClelland.  Today, that leaves close to two million mentally ill people housed in the same place they were in the 1800′s: prison.

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Health Management Associates Report on Inpatient Services

Sadly, that trend continues to be played out in our own back yard, where the number of acute psychiatric beds for Santa Barbara County (less than 20) is minuscule in comparison to the numbers  incarcerated in our jails and prisons.

Instead of discussing the construction of a new “North County” jail, we should be demanding the construction of a group of dedicated facilities for inpatient psychiatric, addiction or dual-diagnosis patients.  Unfortunately, the prisons and various law enforcement groups are represented by unions who have both collective bargaining power and political election muscle.

The costs of deinstitutionalization in this nation may well reach the trillions, when considering the private and public costs of mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.  But this is about far more than budgets…it is about public safety, family security, and community conscience.

As Reagan’s shameful legacy has taught us, willful neglect hasn’t served anyone well.

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Red-Ink Drip Factor

Weekly Column by Loretta Redd

On this weekend’s political talk show programs, when asked why Vladimir Putin dared to increase his presence in the Ukraine, the answer basically was, “Because he can.”

water-rates-increaseIt may be a far stretch from the Black Sea of the Baltic to the Santa Barbara Water Resources department, but the news of yet another rate hike left me to wonder if it isn’t also, “Because they can.”

In July 2013, the Water Department released its Rate Study and “multi-year financial Plan and water rate structure that:

  • promotes water conservation
  • provides revenue stability
  • ensures customers pay their proportionate share of costs
  • is fair and equitable, and
  • is based on cost of service principles, as required by Proposition 218

The structure of rate charges for water and water-related services is complicated by its ever-changing categories and tiers of allocation.  The charges vary based on amount of use, type of use, delivery pipe size, residential or commercial or agricultural.  What is consistent, however, is the upwards direction of each of our utility bills.

In that July 2013 study, the residential rate was listed as $39.21, set to increase to $40.78.  In the Finance Committee meeting happening this Tuesday, our Water Resources folks plan to ask for yet another raise, to $43.00.  I imagine the staff report will contain bureaucratic language like “appropriate means of recovering additional costs related to water services,” “infrastructure improvement,” or that often used,  “customer related service costs.”

Funny, how the red ink never seems to suffer from a drought.

“Water rates must cover the costs of all of the operations of providing water to the City water customers,” according the City’s current web page.  But if “City water costs are mostly fixed,” and “purchasing the water itself is actually only a very small part of the budget,” then why do they need to raise rates every time they appear before Council?

Their answer,  according to this on-line missive, is “inflation.” My definition of their “inflation” has more to do with salaries and benefits, than the cost of purchasing state water, or materials and supplies.

I really want to know why didn’t the Water Resources department and the hundreds of other regional water “experts” didn’t sound the alarm- and I mean alarm- earlier about the drought?  Everybody from grandma to the gophers knew we were in trouble, but we continued to be assured it was far too soon to panic, or be told to meaningfully conserve.

I begin to feel like a conspiracy theorist when I read quotes like this from the City’s current water rate increase justification, “If the City is not able to meet all our customers’ water demands with its current water supplies and through the efforts of its customers conserving water, more expensive water sources will have to be developed.  Any new supply would significantly increase overall City water costs, which would cause a far greater increase to the City’s water rates.”

Supply and demand makes sense whether we’re talking about H2O or salaries and benefits…trouble is, they both result in higher costs to consumers.

Would the Council or Finance Committee find it beneficial to have a twenty-year historical review of just one consistent water related item?  That period of time would take us back through the last drought, as well as through time of plenty, when reservoirs were spilling over.  Would a twenty year salary and benefit chart be helpful as well, or are we to believe this increase is only about pipes and meters?

I don’t want to pick on any Water Resources department staff, whose competency and professionalism are not in question.  I just can’t understand why water rates have to be (1)so complicated, (2) always heading upward, (3) seemingly more tied to compensation than production.

I do hold elected officials responsible when they seem to be about as effective in holding down costs, as Obama in getting Putin to roll back his tanks.

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A Cause in Search of a Reason

Weekly column by Loretta Redd

When you’re up to your arse in alligators, it’s difficult to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp…,” – or so goes the 1970′s take on an ancient proverb.

DistrictElections3The issue of District versus At-Large elections for City Council representation has found, yet again, a disparate group of activists.  Strange bedfellows they are, when Cruzito Cruz and Lanny Ebenstein, who have little in common except to have been losers in prior races for City Council, stand together on this ‘voting rights’ issue.

Cruzito is a regular name on the candidate list, showing up on ballots since at least 2005, though never finishing higher than next to last place.  I absolutely give him credit for running for office, but wonder if he doesn’t deflect from serious concerns of Latino residents.  Mr. Cruz’ thoughtful, but longwinded philosophical missives with inventive language (“equalitarianism,” for example) have left voters scratching their heads, rather than their ballots.

Lanny is a libertarian wild-card.  Standing among this group of mostly Latinos for representational government, is the same guy Pat Morrison described (LA Times, Oct 2011) as the guy who, “…wants you to vote to kneecap the state’s public workers union by banning their right to collective bargaining.”  I’m not sure how that would square with Ceasar Chavez or Delores Huerta, but economists are masters of the art of justification.

There is talk of bringing a lawsuit, a la pro-bono attorney Barry Capello, against the City of Santa Barbara to force a city-wide vote on changing the way elections are structured.  Capello might not want get paid, but it is certain to cost the City a bundle.

District elections, or Wards, are based on proportional representation, and supposedly offer minorities a greater voice in government.

Our current City Charter calls for “At-Large” elections, meaning that regardless of where a candidate might live within the City limits, the entire registered electorate can choose to vote for them.   Once elected, they are to represent all of the citizens of the city, not just those in their geographical area.

In 1991, the “Committee for District Elections” was formed in Santa Barbara.  At that time, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration Project conducted research into the possibility of voting rights lawsuits.  None came.

The challenge of representation has been around a very long time. From a 1999 News-Press article written by Barney Brantingham,  “the issue is not whether a Latino could ever be elected, but whether the at-large system ‘impermissibly dilutes the votes of Hispanics.’”

Santa Barbara’s percentage of Latino voters (roughly 33%) hasn’t changed much in over twenty years.  Unfortunately, neither has the misguided perception that by creating districts of mostly Hispanic residents, the appropriations from City coffers,  or projects and priorities will change in their favor.

Measure S, the defeated push for District Elections back in 1991, quoted its leader as saying, “…one thing learned from the Measure S effort is that the Latino community cannot rely on much support from the city’s liberal, environmental ‘elitist’ leaders who oppose district elections…What they want is a Hispanic theme park…They are good at manipulating the working class.”

No one believes that quote would be the case today.  The Latino population of Santa Barbara is a vibrant cross-section of every economic, educational and social strata, and  I see absolutely no proof that the current At-Large system of voting has watered down the voting powers of its minorities.

District versus At Large voting is a spurious cause, and there’s no reason for it.

But here are two collateral changes which could have a far more positive impact on Latino representation and for the overall health of our City Council elections:

FIRST, place a cap on the amount of money that any candidate can raise for City Council.  Nothing keeps a group underrepresented more than the skyrocketing cost of elections.

One of the justifications for district elections, is that it is less expensive to run in a single neighborhood, than to have to cover the entire city.  But here’s the truth…candidates typically (or should) spend their time and dollars in the precincts with the largest concentration of people who consistently cast their ballot.

Why do the folks in San Roque, for example,  get inundated by campaign literature, telephone calls, actual candidates or their poll workers?  Because when you look at the precinct map of the City and the percentage of voters from prior elections in each precinct, you’re just wasting shoe leather and burning contribution dollars to go places where your time won’t pay off.  Just ask Jason Nelson, who claimed he visited 10,000 homes,  and still placed close to the bottom of the field.

Money influences elections, folks, and it won’t be a bit different if we have districts or not.  In fact, districts or wards have the reputation of encouraging spending not only for the seat, but also after election.  Levels of spending, resulting in debt and taxes, are significantly higher in cities where district representatives have power than in at-large cities.

From the pork in Washington, DC, to the favoritism in Chicago, district representation rarely has the intended result, but almost always has the unintended consequence of a higher cost of government, and acrimonious competition for limited City resources.

SECONDLY, districts can create further marginalization of minorities.  The paradoxical result of having “Latino” representatives, is that the other members of the Council may not feel that they need to pay attention to the issues they bring forward.  It also underscores the “us/them” dividing of community.

In our current system, every Councilmember including the Mayor, is responsible to every citizen.  Santa Barbarans of Hispanic heritage are living in every precinct of this city, so what better way to be represented?

If this yet-again formed “District Election Committee” truly believes there’s “stagnation in our neighborhoods” and underrepresentation on Council,  por favor, don’t waste your money (or the City’s money) on lawsuits trying to force District Elections.

Instead, take all that organizing effectiveness,  energy and income and do just two things: (1) get every eligible voter in this city registered and (2) make sure every registered voter casts their ballot.

You won’t capture front page headlines for your cause, but you most certainly will change the outcome of the next election…and the rest of us won’t end up paying the poachers to go alligator hunting.

Comments { 24 }