Sunday, November 26, 2006

Redevelopment money to remove poor people:

Poor people say "Thank you for removing me."

That's what's likely to happen. If I were these people, I'd be a little nervous.

I find the comments from the people in the mobile home park to be incongruous and hard to explain. If I offend, I'm sorry, but this has to be said: People -- Don't you realize the city is trying to throw you out of your homes?

The city spends "redevelopment" money on an area to "spruce it up" because the city is trying to make the land more valuable. The increased property values, in theory, are supposed to cause property taxes to increase, paying back the redevelopment loans (bonds) . Yes, it's a crazy way to fund something, but that's another story.

There's a plus side and a minus side to increasing property values. It's great if you are one of the ones who owns property there. It may increase in value, giving you a windfall. On the other side of the coin, if you rent a space in a pre-fab home park, you could see either one of two things:

  • Either your rent will skyrocket
  • Or, the whole place will be sold to some commercial interest and you'll be just told to leave.

Notice I didn't say "that might occur" if the property values rise. I said it will occur because that is what must occur because of economics.

It's hard to make the argument that it would be better if we left the place "run down." That sounds like the argument I'm making. I don't know the answer to that. But the point is that the Moffat Boulevard redecorations serve someone's interest. The city's, big developers, commercial interests, real estate agents, and others. Bascially everyone except the people living in the mobile homes interviewed for The Record article! If I were one of those people, I'd want it left just as it is. A sidewalk might be nice, but if it means being thrown out of my home... I think I'd rather deal with some puddles on the road than either have the rent doubled or tripled or be homeless entirely.

There's also something odd in the statements about the actual usefulness of the "sidewalks." It can't possibly be to reduce the traffic hazard. The Tidewater Bikeway runs right along the railroad tracks on Moffat. You don't have to be on a bicycle to use the bike trail, you can walk or roll in a wheelchair, jog or whatever. If there's one place in Manteca that actually doesn't need a sidewalk (for utility reasons) it's Moffat Blvd. They already have the world's best walkway there. All the talk about having to walk by the side of the road and the hazards is just nonsense, why people would make those comments is hard to explain. The bike trail is right there in front of that mobile home park. It couldn't be any closer. So I don't get it.

Why isn't ordinary tax money being used for these "improvements?" Why is it necessary to borrow money? There's something odd going on. And what is also odd is that here, the redevelopment money is being used to reduce so-called "affordable housing." It's a great example, in a perverse sort of way, of how government works against itself. The redevelopment money is supposed to be used to increase "affordable" housing, and here, the same program is being used to decrease "affordable" housing.

Except that the people being thrown out of their homes don't know it yet. And they seem to be thanking the city for finally, after all these years, coming in and making it impossible for them to continue to live there. It's like they are saying "it's about time the city did something to make the place too expensive for me to live!" Unbelievable.

The best case scenario is that the redecorations will do nothing, and just be a big waste of redevelopment money. That would be the best case for the poor people in the mobile home park. Because if the area does "take off" with commercial development, well, pack your bags. Just ask the people in that little mobile home park on Main Street near Sutter. If you can that is, they may be gone already.

Notes from the cutting edge of democracy.

Here are my notes from Election Day (finally):

The day starts early, before 0600 and ends about 15 hours later. If you are lucky.

When we arrived in the morning, we found the electronic voting machines had been stored overnight at the church. (This does sort of contradict the warning not to ever let the machines out of our sight because a "hacker" can spoil the election if he can get to just one machine to insert the "bad code.") We set them up and started them up. Most of them booted up. The hardest part is that "printer" add on. That thing is the flimsiest hunk of plastic ever. It looks like if it were used every day it would last a week. One of the printers didn't work over in the other precinct we were sharing the room with. More about that later.

The training class we attended (prior to election day) was almost fully occupied by instruction and practice in booting up and feeding paper into the electronic voting machines. Very little about the actual process of voting or how to safeguard the integrity of the process.
Note the following from the California Constitution:


SEC. 7. Voting shall be secret.

Photo at right shows the polling place on Election Day. Note the con-spicuous non-secret nature of the voting process.

It was like voting on a public stage!

There were also pressure groups "hanging around" almost all day. For example, there were firemen in uniform there, and there was a group that called itself the "labor alliance" I think there. The labor union people were passing out donuts and sort of loudly proclaiming they were there. Sort of keeping an eye on things. Making sure you vote the right way? Who knows.

The voting officials were also hanging around "helping" people vote. Now, I trust them, but how can we say if everyone "trusts" them? The important thing is do you feel your vote is secret, not just if it is or not. Particularly if you are voting against a popular measure or for an unpopular candidate?

These darn electronic machines are an abomination to the voting process. Not only was your vote completely "non-secret" with interested groups looking over your shoulder, but there were also long delays. It took "forever" (about 5 minutes or so on average) to vote the extraordinarily long ballot.

At one point, we were instructed to give up on the machines and accept paper ballots and put them in a specially marked envelope. Except that there were no paper ballots available, so we had people cut the sample ballots out of the sample ballot booklet and submit that as their vote. Ugh!

"The printout is just ... fluff"

If you find assurance in the "voter verified paper trail," take note of what the field inspector told me. We were checking how much paper was left in the machines toward the end of the day. She said "all we care about is the computer chips. Just submit those chips at the end of the day. Do the best you can. Don't worry about the printouts, the paper is .... just ...(she searched for the word)... I don't know if anyone ever looks at them, they are just tossed." She added, "Yeah, they are just fluff." She said something about how they were put there to give the voter a better feeling about the voting machines, but they don't actually have any purpose.

Unfortunately, I don't think she was exaggerating. There are published reports that suggest that the paper rolls are meaningless. Not only is it prohibitively impractical to even attempt to decipher the paper rolls, but also, there's no authority in the law that tells us what to do if the paper disagrees with the computer memory chip! Think about that, if there's no authority to re-count anything with the paper votes, why bother with it? It's just the illusion of security!

There was one machine with a balky printer over in the other precinct (there were three precincts in the room shown) and it didn't bother anyone to vote on the machine even though the paper printer wasn't working right. The computer chip is all that counts!

There were some nice parts of the day. The polls workers are all pretty interesting people. And our "inspector" brought enough food and coffee to set up a buffet. Including fresh fruits, pineapples, finger sandwiches and a cheese ball. And then there was that ride over to deliver the memory card ballots. The commentary from the inspector was pretty amusing, but probably not suitable for print. hehe.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Milton Friedman on government, freedom and doing good.

In case you don't have ten hours to spare watching Free to Choose, here is the 30 minute version. This is a fascinating discussion where Milton Friedman explains the basics of what it means to be free and what dangers we are facing in the future.

Click here to view Milton Friedman on google video.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, economist, dies aged 94

If you haven't read "Free to Choose" or watched the ten part video, now is as good a time as any. It will change your life.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Our "sacred trust" violated

The election is finally over -- was everyone else as tired of it as I was? Measure M passed and the Democrats are in control of the House and Senate again. Most disappointing to me is that Proposition 90 failed.

Our phone has been ringing for weeks with political phone calls urging us to vote one way or the other. I heard from Governor Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood and Ben Stein, among others. The amount of printed propaganda that arrived daily in our mailbox was astounding. We were bombarded by campaign ads on TV, every one of them misleading and meant to confuse. We've been categorized, identified and targeted by high-priced "consultants" whose job it is to determine what misinformation or outright lies can they tell to make people vote the way they want them to vote.

The worst propaganda is spread by backers of propositions where the ultimate prize is lots of money. Most people are so confused and overwhelmed by the amount of information and pure crap torpedoed at them that they either tune out the political process completely and don't vote, or they try to find a source they trust to give them a true accounting of what they are being asked to vote on. Many people turn to their local newspaper to guide them through the maze of propositions and candidates. They trust them to tell the truth. They give them their "sacred trust," to use a phrase recently printed in a local newspaper.

Two newspapers that people, including me, expect to be honest and accurate in their reporting have failed to do their editorial duty. The Record (Stockton) reported the amount of the Measure M sales tax increase as being 10 times less than it actually is, not just once but twice (the second time in their "voter guide") and they did not immediately correct the error. They printed a letter I wrote but edited out an important part. I understand the need to edit letters for length, clarity or appropriateness. The part I object to being edited was the removal of a question about whether Stockton would benefit from Manteca raising its sales tax (Stockton's is 8%, Manteca's is 8.25%). I think it's a valid question to ask when Stockton is telling the citizens of Manteca that they should raise their own sales tax and there is a perceived conflict of interest. I lost a lot of respect for The Record after this election. I expected more from them.

As for the Manteca Pravda, er, Manteca Bulletin, I became disillusioned with them long ago. Comrade, er, Editor Wyatt, as chief purveyor of government propaganda, has never met a city tax or project he didn't like and he isn't above using his power as editor of the city's only daily newspaper to manipulate public opinion and print deliberately misleading figures. As an example, Thursday's headline boldly and inaccurately proclaimed the city's new sales tax to be -- ta da! 8 cents! It's either deliberate or it's incompetence.

You know, this is beneath me. I'm sure Mr. Wyatt is a nice guy, I don't know him personally. To be honest, I don't expect a lot out of the Pravda, uh, Bulletin. I could put up with all the rah rah about the city and how great everything is, but for God's sake, HIRE A COPY EDITOR! and while you're at it, get some journalistic integrity! Oh, I'm sorry, that was harsh. I guess it's the editor in me and being held to high standards while I worked for CNN, but it just drives me nuts to read the Pravda, er, Bulletin, and see obvious misspellings, grammatical errors and inaccuracies EVERY DAY. If you can't afford to hire a copy editor, at least use your spell-checker!

CNN had some very specific rules regarding what was printed on their website or what went out over the air. One rule that should be a no-brainer was that every fact had to be verified, every figure checked. If it couldn't be verified by a credible source, it didn't get printed or aired. Numbers and names were double-checked, nothing was assumed or left to someone's memory. There was a strict rule about no statements or quotes from anonymous sources, no anonymous "letters to the editor." If you wanted your opinion printed or aired, you had to give your name. A very practical rule was that nothing got published without "two sets of eyes" proofreading the copy. I don't care how good you are, you should never be the only one proofreading your own stuff.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Manteca Bulletin is "full of it"

Check out the headline in today's Manteca Bulletin. Notice anything odd? They are loudly proclaiming in the headline that the sales tax will go to "8 percent!" This is wrong, the sales tax will be 8.25 percent.

If it were just the headline, you might be able to excuse it because of space limitations or a simple error. But check out the text of the article. It repeats the "8 percent" thing a few times. And the accompanying graphic/chart says the same thing. And, those numbers aren't even close. Here's what the chart should read:

  • 5 1/4 cent State of California[1]

  • 1/2 cent, local government "mental health" and health fund.

  • 1/2 cent local public safety (for Manteca's police and fire, administered by the state and county)

  • 1 cent, City of Manteca general fund (for police and fire and other government functions)

  • 1/2 cent, Measure K (1/3 for fixing the roads, 2/3 for social meddling programs)

  • 1/2 cent, Measure M presumably for police and fire or other purposes as determined by the City Council.

For a grand total of 8 1/4 cents for each dollar you spend on taxable things.

Notice there are now three separate sales taxes that pay for police and fire protection. Sure, those are important functions, but why does it cost so much? And did you notice how, if you get all your knowledge from reading the Manteca Bulletin you wouldn't know about that "other" 1/2 cent public safety tax. They sure didn't mention anything about the two other taxes that are supposed to pay for public safety when they were campaigning for the new tax to "save the police and fire," that's for sure. And they still aren't mentioning it. I wonder if they don't want people to feel betrayed while the thoughts of the election are still fresh in their minds.

The same might be true for the purposeful understating the level of the tax as "8 percent." I wonder if some people were confused and thought the tax was only going to be raised to 8 percent instead of 8.25 percent? Who knows what people said when they called Grandma Millie[2] from the city's phone bank on Election Day? Pure speculation of course, but were some people told it was just 8 percent and it was to save the police and fire? I'm sure they wouldn't purposely lie, but maybe some people were confused a little and if they thought it was just 8 percent, well who's to correct 'em? Just get out there and vote! After all, it's to save your children from the bad man who want to cut the funding for the police and fire departments and let something bad happen to your children.[3]

Never mind the fact that there's already a general sales tax for police and fire and another special sales tax for police and fire already being collected (and other taxes too).

Which leads us to the front page of the Manteca Bulletin. All speculation aside, one thing we can know for certain is that someone wants to hide the fact that tax is really going to be 8.25 percent. Maybe it's the editor of the paper, maybe the city official interviewed, maybe the campaigners, who knows who -- but it's someone -- because that kind of "error" doesn't just happen. Not when it's mentioned throughout the article and in the graphic. And not when we've just had months of arguing about imposing the new Measure M tax. And not when the city official being interviewed isn't just anyone down there at city hall, but none other than the City Finance Director. The Finance Director doesn't know what the sales tax is?

OK, I guess technically we can't know that someone wants to hide something. If the paper claims it was just an error, or two or three, then I'll retract that statement and simply pronounce the newspaper "the dumbest newspaper on earth."


Note 1: I combined three different state taxes for simplicity, the point is they all go to the state, not the local government.
Note 2: This is a reference to the now infamous audio tape of Enron traders who laughed about sticking it to "Grandma Millie" in California. Sorry if there really is a Grandma Millie.
Note 3: I do have some evidence that police personnel were making defamatory statements about me, but for "reasons" we won't go into that at this point.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election Day

It's morning in Manteca. It had rained during the night and it was still overcast and drizzling, but the sun has peeked out and there is a great rainbow visible. I picked up a newspaper at the local convenience store, the clerk gave me the usual "have a nice day!" I grumbled back "Not likely. But thanks for the nice thought."

Thank you, everyone who supported the cause for more government accountability and opposed the tax increase. When you champion unpopular causes, you don't often see clear victories.

You might be surprised that I think we did put the issue before the voters. We made our arguments, we had plenty of press coverage, and some was fair coverage too. We made our case in letters and articles and in the semi-official "arguments" in the voter guide. We can't simply say we were steamrolled by the big money juggernaut, although having a boatload of money to pay various "civic groups" sure does help. We may have the facts and logic on our side, but the voters rejected our arguments. Maybe for some very pragmatic reasons.

You can see from the overall election results, the idea that voters simply saunter up to the Diebold machine and punch buttons based on guesses or pure emotional appeal isn't entirely true. That's just not supported by what occurs on election day, and yesterday was no exception. For example, voters rejected the emotional appeal to tax the "big oil companies" and to tax cigarettes more, and the so called "clean money" argument was rejected, despite powerful spending. Another bright spot in an otherwise depressing election was that proposition 90 was approved. There's no more complex issue than eminent domain and the concepts of governmental virtual "takings" and yet the voters were able to separate fact from hype in spite of the big money spending on scare tactics about it being "a taxpayer trap!" All this suggests, to me, that the voters do think about the issues carefully.

Added 2:17 pm: The latest returns are showing prop 90 being disapproved, even though "" is still showing it passing. Maybe I need to revise my thinking a little and just say, at the risk of offending, what has to be said - the people need to educate themselves a little more and start thinking for themselves a little more and listen less to the self interested "experts."

Nevertheless, it would be easy to say that Manteca was simply swayed by emotional appeals from paid support groups, but maybe that's not the whole story. It's also possible that the voters of Manteca made a hard but practical decision. After all, the mayor all but said "if you don't want any more police and fire protection, fine, then don't vote for the tax increase!" And no matter how wrong he is, he's still the mayor! It's possible people don't want to fight for things they need for the next four years. Also, just about everyone is aware that the city has been trying to get some kind of new tax approved for the last few years. They tried a parcel tax, and a sales tax, and talked about a phone tax and complained about the repeal of the utility tax, increased taxes on new homes ("developer fees"), hiked business license taxes ("fees"), a motel room tax, etc...and etc.. It's possible that the voters simply said "enough" of the arguing, and realized that "they," the city, are never going to quit trying to get some new tax passed -- and, if we have to have a new tax, at least a sales tax is better than those other taxes. Most people view a sales tax as the more "fair" than other taxes, maybe because we at least have some control over how much we spend to buy things.

Of course, this logic is sort of based on the questionable belief that if we "give them a sales tax" that will somehow satisfy government's insatiable appetite for more money. But at least it's a nice thought.

So, coupled with the emotional appeal, the mayor and council's threats to stop funding police and fire, the voters probably made what could be seen as, under all the circumstances, a "wise" choice of the lesser of various evils. Somehow we survived when the sales tax was raised from 2.5 percent to 7.75 percent in small increments each time, and I guess we will survive with 8.25 percent.

If anything, the lesson is that it's not enough to just concentrate on taxing, the collection of money -- but rather, we should redouble our efforts on the control of the other side of the equation, government spending. Unless spending is controlled, it's almost fruitless to try to control taxation.

I should have known the anti-tax movement in Manteca was in trouble. I had a while back I had a chat with a friend who was describing his trip to Montana. He remarked how amazing it was there and described a visit to a burger joint. He said how it astounded him when he gave the clerk too much money, and the clerk returned it. He said "I'm used to, you know, just throwing in an extra dollar for the tax. But there was no tax!" He waxed on about what a wondrous land this was, where, amazingly, you just pay for what the thing costs! And everything was so much less expensive, and how we don't realize how we're just conditioned to throw in an extra dollar for everything here in California..." All that sounded good. But then I remarked, "and they are trying to raise that tax, too!" But he retorted immediately, with no sense of irony apparently, "but that's a 'good tax' -- it's for the police and fire." Like I said, I should have known it was an uphill battle. My friend was right, we are sort of conditioned to accept things. By the way, do I have to mention this? The fellow is employed by the City of Manteca.

Oh, that reminds me, I have to write about my experience as a "poll worker" ... and don't worry, I'll find some other unpopular cause to champion.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

City finds lost law book

In the encyclopedia under "beating a dead horse" there will probably be a reference to this discussion. But, it's the No on M committee's policy to respond to every question. As painful as it is to go over this issue again, here goes. Don't blame me. The city manager decided to put this on the agenda for the city council meeting Monday night, the evening before Election Day!

I'll just cut to the bottom line. Measure M can be changed at any time after the election. The money promised to be spent only on "police and fire" can be spent on anything.

The city disputes this, they say there's some law somewhere that says something. (I'm not being vague, this is what the city officials say -- that there's a law, but they just can't remember where it is or find it). And that just because Measure M says, in plain English, it can be amended in any way (except increasing the tax rate) by The City Council of the City of Manteca, "with no vote of the people" that doesn't mean that. Even though Measure M says it in plain English in 3.09.120(B).

A lot us (me, the papers, etc) have been asking the city "where is this law? I'd like to read it." And, to make a long story short, the city just can't find it. Or they never say. Or something. Not just me, others have asked "where is this law?" So far, no answers. Well, technically, we've gotten answers, but every time we ask, we get a different answer that turns out to be wrong, we ask again, we get a different answer. You get the idea.

So on Monday's agenda, the City Manager plans to submit a report saying that he finally found the law they have been "looking for." Drum roll please... they say it's in Government Code 53724(e). That section says that the money from a special tax has to be spent on whatever the ordinance says it has to be spent on, and nothing else.

There's no surprise here. We agree with that. That is nothing new. And that's not the issue.

The issue isn't "does the ordinance have to be followed?" The issue is "can the ordinance be changed?"

All laws can be changed It's just a question of "how." Everything from the speed limit on the highway to the U.S. Constitution can be changed. But lets just talk about referendum in California like Measure M. Most referendum passed by the voters can only be changed by another vote of the people. That's how, say, proposition 13 would work. If we decided to change prop 13, we would have to have a vote. Because that's the process. The legislature can not change it. That's how most referendum work. I emphasize, "most."

Most referendum are hard to change, it requires a vote. Measure M is very easy to change, all it requires is the City Council to say so. And that's it.

According to state law, (E.C. 9217) if the ordinance says it can be changed then it doesn't have to go to a vote. That's the case with Measure M. It's in 3.09.120(B). It says the City Council of the City of Manteca is authorized to make any changes. Except they can't raise the rate of the tax. That's the only exception.

Nothing in G.C. 53724 changes that.