Thursday, September 27, 2007

Talking back!

Here I give the city council (actually sitting as The Redevelopment Agency) a piece of my mind. As if I can spare it. We touched on three topics. Two of my comments have been subjects of discussion in the local newspaper. So here are the comments, edited slightly for clarity:

The first issue was the council/rda (the people I'm addressing) wanted to spend $60,000 to hire some guy or "consultant" or "guru" to analyze the city and "bring in" better restaurants and hotels. That's where the comment about "the free market" comes from -- it's the free market that determines what restaurant moves in.

The next thing I'm scoffing at is there was some discussion that our "fast food" to "grocery store" ratio is off kilter and that's why everyone is so fat. So there was talk that they should give preferential treatment to food sellers who claim their stuff is "healthy" and we should keep out the evil McDonald's and things like that. "Because of the obesity epidemic." I didn't really have the time or inclination to explain why this "crazy talk."

Next, and it's worth waiting for, I compare the council to the queen's court where they grant special favors to people they like. In this case, developers with lots of money....

Which leads to the last point, they appropriated $150,000 of your tax money to be given to some special people to "help them" buy houses (down payment assistance/gift). I have as much compassion as the next guy, but I ask, "where's my house?" How can we justify taking money from the hard working poor people of Manteca to give it to some selected special people so they can buy a house?

The part that's really infuriating is that while they are pretending to be "compassionate" and "helping people" buy houses (using your money), everything else they do hurts people by making houses more expensive to buy. It takes years to go through "the process" and get permission to build something on your own land. Only a rich corporation with a team of lawyers and consultants can afford to do that. And for that privilege, the city charges a plethora of special fees. It adds up to about $60,000 for each new home. Even though the taxes on new homes are called "development fees" and they make it sound like it's paid "by the developers" it's not. The tax, I'm sorry, "fee" is paid by the new home buyer. And now they want to use tax money to "help people" pay this tax fee in the form of that "assistance program" mentioned above.

What I'm saying. in other words, is that if the city didn't charge an extra $60,000 per house, that would help people a hell of a lot more than this "special program" that gives a few certain special lucky people "up to $50,000" to buy a new home using your money.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Manteca checkpoint not so voluntary

The Manteca Bulletin reports that the Manteca police set up two checkpoints in the city in the hopes of finding drunk drivers. From the sound of the article (click on the headline to read article), the clever Manteca PD wasn't going to let anyone slip past them. Most of the arrests, interrogations, DUI tests and seizure of vehicles seems to have taken place by chasing and stopping people who turned off the road before going through the checkpoint.

The article tells us one guy turned right onto a side road before the checkpoint, and thought he would escape the iron grip of the law, but intrepid police officers knew this trick all too well, and were hiding in the side streets for just such a thing. I forget what eventually happened to the motorists, you'll have to read the article...

It all sounds great except for one little thing. Actually, they aren't supposed to do that. The police aren't "allowed to" stop a car just because the driver decides not to go through the checkpoint. Don't believe it? Read on...

DUI checkpoints have been subject to debate for years. The debate was sort of settled in the early '90's when The U.S. Supreme Court, somehow, found the checkpoints didn't necessarily violate a citizen's 4th amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. So long as the checkpoint is "voluntary." And "voluntary" means you don't have to go through the checkpoint, they have to put up signs letting you know a checkpoint is up ahead, and if you turn off and decide to exercise your right not to be interrogated and searched, they can't chase you. Because it's your right, you can't grab someone off the street for simply exercising their rights Well, in Manteca, "can't" is relative apparently.

Specifically: First, it went to the California Supreme Court in 1987. (Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1321 , 743 P.2d 1299; 241 Cal.Rptr. 42). Here, the court looked at the procedures being used, and decided so long as these rules were followed, the checkpoint was legal:

A sign announcing the checkpoint was posted sufficiently in advance of the checkpoint location to permit motorists to turn aside, and under the operational guidelines no motorist was to be stopped merely for choosing to avoid the checkpoint.

and ...

Checkpoint personnel were specifically instructed
that drivers were not to be stopped merely for avoiding the checkpoint.
fn. 5 The road sign announcing the checkpoint was placed sufficiently in advance of the checkpoint that motorists could choose to avoid the checkpoint.


FN 5. Cars avoiding the checkpoint would be stopped, however, if in avoiding the checkpoint the driver did anything unlawful, or exhibited obvious signs of impairment.

So, if you blast through the checkpoint with tires screeching or you make a sliding U-turn like you're filming Dukes of Hazard II, then they can chase you and stop you. (And should chase you. I want to be clear -- I'm not arguing for our rights because I have any love for drunken drivers.)

Here's where it gets interesting. In 1990, the Dept. of Transportation issued some instructions for police departments on how to conduct DUI checkpoints, and that same rule noted above, and the same exception appears. This is from DOT HS 807 656, also known with the catchy title The Use of Sobriety Checkpoints for Impaired Driving Enforcement, published in 1990. And it says, on page A-3:

  • A motorist who wishes to avoid the checkpoint by legally turning before enterning the checkpoint area should be allowed to do so unless a traffic violation(s) is observed or probable cause exists to take other action. The act of avoiding a sobriety checkpoint does not consititute grounds for a stop.
Not to nit pick too much, but extra points for spelling in that last quote.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

California Economic Summit

Great Minds meet to discuss how to "cultivate job growth through innovation, entrepreneurship...."

Yesterday the important people (and you know who they are) met for a series of talks and panel discussions on the future of "economic development" in the San Joaquin Valley of California. I wasn't expecting to find a libertarian tea party, but I was surprised by the level of talk that revolved around protectionism, heavy handed government meddling and economic shortsightedness. Particularly because some of the presentations were billed with names like "unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit." It was more like unleashing the power of government to protect entrenched interests!

After some introductory remarks about the "entrepreneurial spirit" and the wealth of the area by Congressman McNerney, the mayor of Stockton gave a few remarks.

Mayor Chavez held up the recent decision of the City of Stockton to deny Wal-Mart permission to build a new larger store in the city as an example of the wonderful things the city was doing to help the poor people of the area. He repeated the theme that "we won't be bullied or intimidated by Wal-Mart" and said something about the "threat" of Wal-Mart. He ended with "we won't let Stockton be known as 'the discount city!'" Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but it didn't seem to me that the crowd responded very positively to the thought of an outright ban on Wal-Mart.

The question in my mind is "what power does Wal-Mart have?" How can Wal-Mart threaten anyone or intimidate? The mayor's comments are 180 degrees from reality. Wal-Mart can't force anyone to shop at their stores, they don't have the power to make anyone do anything. Wal-Mart, like every other store, has to rely on persuasion to try to entice a free person to shop there. Contrast that with the threats from Wal-Mart's competitors. The competitors organize "grass roots" efforts through threats and intimidation, they make anti-Wal~Mart websites and even an anti-Wal~Mart movie. The labor unions, who depend on Wal~Mart's competitors, threaten political leaders with promises of organizing against elected leaders unless they exercise governmental power to force people to shop at their stores. In other words, it's the labor unions and competitors who tell the political leaders "either keep out Wal~Mart or you won't be elected again."

So, I ask, who is intimidating whom? Who is the bully here? It isn't even the labor unions or the activists; they may act like bullies and talk like bullies, but really, the labor unions and the activists have no power to stop anyone from shopping anywhere. No, only the government is the real bully here. The government is acting as the codependent enabler for the bullying activists and labor unions by stopping people from shopping where they prefer and by stopping a successful legitimate business from operating. Only the government has that sort of power. That's what's so insulting about the mayor's comments.

Next, the panel on "unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit" spoke. One of the panelists, a member of the "winegrape commission," complained about the terrible effects of cheap wine from Australia "coming in." The irony seemed to be lost on most people. No one questioned why the entrepreneurial spirit of the Australian winemakers is suddenly a bad thing if it competes with the members of my group.

I was waiting, maybe foolishly, for the next panel on "Encouraging 'Smart Growth'" to explain or at least make some argument why so-called "smart growth" is better than non-smart growth, but I was disappointed. The issue of "smart growth" is a book in itself, but in a nutshell, it's a set of mandates designed to keep the moderately successful people away from good places to live, and to reserve the best land and homes for the truly deserving super-wealthy. All others are directed by government policy to live in high rise apartments (high density) next to bus lines that take them to their government designated "power centers" or "employment centers" (to achieve the government mandated jobs/homes "balance"). So called "smart growth" is really an incredible set of principles, you should look it up on Google. The last time these principles were used was in the Soviet Union.

The idea that many of the government leaders seemed to fully embrace, without discussion or debate or thoughtful consideration, the collectivistic principles promoted by this "smart growth" group is frightening.

One of the principles mentioned a few times was how we have to "preserve agriculture" because it's such an important part of our economy. Sounds fine, except that if a farm is making money, why does the law need to command someone to "keep farming?" No one ever answered that question. Made me think of the ideal of the simple pastoral people promoted by both Thomas Jefferson and the communist Chinese.

After the break, we heard a stirring lecture on the benefits of "renewable" energy. Which was sort of great until they started explaining how all these fantastic technologies -- bio-diesel, wind and solar power -- need government "help" or tax money. If someone can make a device that creates electric power, won't people buy it? That's the fallacy that panel was trying to sell us on. In other words, what they weren't saying was that "we can make power that is not as good, and costs more than what we have now -- but we have a sincere belief that people should buy our product even though they don't want to -- and we would like the government to force people to buy our product." (Presumably, because people are too stupid to know what is good for them?)

Lastly, the panel on education told us how much better the schools are doing than in 1999. There were some stats provided that I haven't evaluated. So who knows, maybe student performance has improved slightly since the dismal nadir of '99. I sort of got the impression that it got so bad that Johnny couldn't count to four back then, but today he can count to seven, so it's a "great improvement."

The Dean of Workforce and Economic Development at Delta College defended, after a question, the "nurse lottery system" where people are accepted in the nursing program by a roll of the dice. She explained this wasn't as bad as it sounded and not just anyone can apply. All the applicants have to be "good enough." It was heartening to know that the sick and elderly would be cared for not by people who are the best qualified, but don't worry, mom's nurse is "good enough." I can see that in a new slogan: "San Joaquin, the land where most critical medical people are probably good enough."

I wish I could have asked a question of that last panel, but they yammered so long they ran the clock out on questioning. But I was impressed by the comments of John Solis, Director of the Workforce Investment Board. He told us how hard it was to find jobs for young people and that he hears how they don't have the skills or work ethic. My question would have been something like this: "Mr Solis, if a Fortune 500 company wanted to expand their operations in Stockton and hire 800 people, with a large number of those jobs being offered to anyone who wants to work hard and be paid a fair wage, wouldn't that help young people get a start in the working world? And what if that company comes from Bentonville, Arkansas?