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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Special Commentary: Davis Enterprise Fails to Cover Davis OPEN Presentation

On March 1, 2007 the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force spent over an hour and a half presenting the results of their 18 month study that culminated in their recommendation to close Valley Oak Elementary School. This presentation was thoroughly covered in the Davis Enterprise the next day.

In pursuit of equal time from the school board, the parents involved with the group Davis OPEN requesting and received 25 minutes from the school board at the March 15, 2007 meeting. That twenty five minutes became over an hour, however, not before the Task Force received another hour of time to respond to questions from the school board. But that is fine--the parents got a full opportunity from the school board to respond to the report by the Task Force. That was more than generous from the board.

Four members of the Davis OPEN group Baki Tezcan, Fred Buderi, Rick Gonzales, and Collen Connolly spoke at length to counter the findings by the Task Force.

The Davis Enterprise article by Jeff Hudson made not one single mention of this presentation in the article that they ran last night. Not one single mention.

The public relies on a newspaper to provide a balanced account of the events that take place at public meetings. The vast majority of the public neither attend these meetings nor do they watch the proceedings on television. This bestows great responsibility on the media to be the public watch dog. When the media however fails in their responsibilities to the public, through lack of balanced coverage, democracy itself is threatened.

There can be no equal time if the local newspaper does not cover events in a fair and unbiased manner. These concerns about the Davis Enterprise coverage led me to create this blog as a means to cover what the Enterprise itself will not cover.

The People's Vanguard of Davis does not attempt to replicate the work of the local evening paper. Instead of merely covering events, we cover aspects of events that the local paper can't or won't. There have been times when the Enterprise has done a reasonable job of covering events, that we have merely focused on different aspects of the events--angles that people might not normally get by merely reading the Enterprise.

There have also been times when this blog has been criticized by some because we have been too critical of the local paper. That said, this complete lack of even a mention is among the most blatant examples of biased and faulty coverage by the Enterprise. This is inexcusable. This is an insult to the efforts of dedicated citizens in this community who spent a tremendous amount of time and energy to prepare a report and for it not to even get mentioned is unbelievable.

How can the public know about the fact that task force's findings have been challenged if the local newspaper does not print it? For 99 percent of the citizens in the community--that presentation might as well have not happened.

While we have been critical of the Enterprise's coverage in the past, this omission may very well be the worst and most blatant. It is as if there was no presentation by Davis OPEN. There was no mention about several of the findings by the Task Force being contradicted and at times nullified by further information. This would have been crucial information for the public. Throw out all of the information to the public and let the public decide what is credible and what is not credible.

What was covered in the paper? The first half of the article was the board exchange that took at most five to ten minutes where they were deciding how to proceed in terms of the next meeting and whether any action should be taken or could be taken now on making a decision to forestall a decision until the fall. Then there was discussion of the interim budget, a small discussion of Kirk Trost's statement, and then a few members of the public.

This lack of coverage is mind-boggling. As our article discussed yesterday, there was a key discussion that indicated that closing Valley Oak would in fact negatively impact students and parents in terms of distance from school and ability to walk to school--which would lead to transportation problems.

The Davis OPEN members spent a good deal of time talking about budget projections and the EL program among other things. These things were in direct contradiction to the Task Force's report.

There were some who openly questioned the district as to why they were paying for two superintendents, but those people apparently did not realize how much money the past superintendent had cost the school district, to the point that paying him not to work may have been more cost effective.

But the bottom line here is an issue of fairness, it is an issue of balance, and it is a frustration that the hard work of people is not getting reported. The public is not getting the full picture here. They have heard EXTENSIVELY about the Task Force's point of view--there have been MULTIPLE articles that have covered the Task Force and their arguments.

At this meeting, the parents and community members directly involved in this issue were given a chance to respond. To make their case before the board. This should have been THE story in the Enterprise. It could have at least been mentioned in the Enterprise. But it was not. There was not one single word even mentioning the presentation. The public as a whole has no idea that such a presentation was made or that the Task Force's findings were in question. How can they make an informed decision? How can the newspaper in good conscience claim to be serving the public's needs with such a blatant failure?

For those who would like to see the presentation by Davis OPEN please click here:

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Friday, March 16, 2007

No Decision Yet on Fate of Valley Oak

Last night, the Davis Joint Unified School Board met for nearly four hours listening to more information from the Task Force, representatives of the Davis OPEN group, and the general public. In the end, given the late hour they decided to forestall a staff presentation and board comments until a special meeting on Monday, March 19, 2007.

In the meantime, critical information was presented to the board. In particular the board was given answers to question of a half-mile distance from Valley Oak. At the March 1, 2007 meeting and in the report, the Task Force presented travel distances for one mile walking distance and one and one half mile walking distance. These data showed virtually no change in the walking distance for student if Valley Oak were closed down.

However, the problem with that data is that especially for young students, one mile distance is not walkable. Indeed, the Davis OPEN group in their presentation showed that ideally, a six year old would take 44 minutes to walk a mile but only 22 minutes to walk half a mile. Moreover as we discussed last time, few people would allow their Kindergartener to third grader to walk that distance to school.

The board asked for the distances for half-mile and the results of that data show a very large difference between leaving Valley Oak open and closing it down.

In an email from Scott Torlucci of Davis Demographics & Planning, Inc. (DDP) to the Davis School Board, of 100 K-3 students who reside in the Valley Oak attendance zone and attend Valley Oak, 50 are within half a mile of Valley Oak. If Valley Oak were to close, only 2 of those 100 students would be within half a mile of an alternate school.

Of the students outside of that half mile walking distance to Valley Oak, 27 of them appear to be closer to Valley Oak than to an alternative school while 9 appear closer to an alliterative school than to Valley Oak. There are also 14 that reside on Olive Drive and are not close to any school.

The Task Force defended their findings suggesting that only around a quarter of all students live within half-mile of a school and that would impose a standard that is not used anywhere else in the district.

Unfortunately, they completely miss the point here. First of all, this data conclusively demonstrates that closing the school would have a negative impact on the specific students that attend Valley Oak regardless of the standards for the rest of the district. Second, many students at Valley Oak have transportation issues since they are Title 1 students and this close would be a larger burden on them than on students in other attendance areas going to other schools.

The Davis OPEN group was able to present their counter-proposal for a good length of time last night. They reported that 1600 people signed their petition to keep all nine elementary schools open--a figure that represents a very impressive number.

Baki Tezcan presented evidence that cast some doubt on the methodology used to come up with the projections. His presentation was impressive enough to prompt Task Force Chair Kirk Trost to come back up to clarify their findings with numbers that did not seem to match the numbers used by Tezcan.

Baki Tezcan pointed out as we did the change in the projections from December 2006 to January 2007. The key difference was the use of Mobility #3 in December to using Mobility #2 in December and that shifted the finding from a stable +/- 186 K-12 students to an approximate decline of 400.

Tezcan said that method #2 compared all students in each attendance area from year to year while method #3 had a sampling of students. He suggested that sampling was the more preferred method for projecting and that it was the Task Force rather than DDP that made that call to switch to Method #2.

Tezcan then presented three sets of projections, the third one being "October projections" based on 2005 student data. These data show an actual small increase in enrollment. Tezcan demonstrated that the projections using this methodology more closely were demonstrated by actual numbers than the preferred methodology of the Task Force. When he averaged those three studies, he found a slight increase rather than decrease in enrollment over the next few years.

He then cited Stuart Sweeney, a professor at UC Santa Barbara:
"Beyond three to five years, projections are 'not at all certain and shouldn't be portrayed as such. Forecasting is never an exact science and ultimately rests on the validity of the assumptions used to initiate the model. ... Which assumptions are the 'correct' ones can certainly be influenced by politics.'"
Rick Gonzales presented data on the EL program. His main case was that the EL program at Valley Oak was exemplary. A higher percentage of students end up graduating from the program than is the norm in the district. Moreover a number of students go from EL to GATE which is extraordinary. Finally, the programs take a total commitment by staff and students. They take two years to put into place and closing the school would put these students who are already at risk, at even greater risk.

A number of parents and past students gave very emotional testimony about how much this school and this program had helped them and that they feared it closing.

The school board now has a number of factors to consider--first whether they can even close down a school at this late date and second whether they should close down the school. While the parents in attendance give perhaps a skewed view of the numbers in the community who support this, the near unanimity of the speakers in support of Valley Oak along with the 1600 collected signatures speaks volumes for the community. The decision is now in the hands of the school board who have not heard yet from staff on a variety of issues including fiscal ones and have yet to really discuss it among themselves. Meanwhile the parents at Valley Oak, wait with baited breath.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thursday Briefs

County Supervisor's Race Coverage in the Davis Enterprise

Tuesday’s Enterprise article about who is lining up for District 4 Supervisor left out a key quote that was provided to Davis Enterprise Reporter Elisabeth Sherwin in response to her question, “Mariko, why, why, why, would [you] not run for Supervisor after serving only one term?”

Yamada's response was this:
“By the time my term ends on December 31, 2008, I will have actually served District 4 for nine years—four years as District Director and five years as Supervisor. Over the past thirty years, I have had the opportunity to work in federal service and for three California counties—Los Angeles, San Diego and Yolo. I hope to take that experience and local government perspective to the State Legislature.”
Also notably absent from that article was any quote or statement by prospective candidate and current School Board Member Jim Provenza. That absence is particularly conspicuous because all four of the other prospective candidates--John Ferrera, Bob Schelen, Richard Harris, and Erik Vink--were quoted.

It is not as though this were a timely article that had to come out on Tuesday. So why did Elisabeth Sherwin not contact Mr. Provenza?

Looming Fiscal Crisis in the City

At Tuesday's special workshop the city disclosed once again that there is a revenue shortfall. The short-term shortfall stems from a number of factor one of which is a $700,000 shortfall in revenue from parking and traffic violations. But there is a longer term revenue problem looming--one that has the city discussing new ways to tax citizens.

There is very real concern by Mayor Greenwald that we are going to end up taxing many retirees and others on fixed incomes right out of their homes in Davis.

Part of the problem that Mayor Greenwald has been very consistent in pointing out is that the city has been extremely generous with both benefits packages to employees as well as retirement benefits.

Rich Rifkin hit the nail on the head last week in his column when he pointed out that currently:
"As of now, a person needs to be with the city for only five years to obtain free medical premiums for life after he retires."
As Rifkin cites--currently Davis is paying the medical bills for 143 retired employees and that number will skyrocket in the next 10 years or so. Moreover these expenditures are paid out at the time that a person receives the benefits--there is no money set aside, which means each year, the budget will become more and more stressed by the system.

One solution that Rifkin recommends is that we increase the amount of service from five years to twenty five years in order to receive the medical retirement benefits. That would prevent future problems, but it does not fix the current problem because those under contract currently would still operate under the old system.

To her credit, Mayor Greenwald has been warning the community and her colleagues for several years about this problem, and she continues to vote against new benefits, but she is merely one vote often against four on this issue. At some point, the citizens of Davis will have to pay for these financial indiscretions.

Sunshine Week sees Federal Government Initiative Facing Veto

Democrats this week with broad bipartisanship support in Washington passed a number of bills meant to force government agencies to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests for public Documents.

In all there were four bills passed by the House--each one with 75% support or higher.

According to the Associated Press:
Aided by substantial Republican support, the Democrats approved legislation to force government agencies to be more responsive to the millions of Freedom of Information Act requests for public documents they receive every year.

The House also easily passed bills to require donors to presidential libraries to identify themselves — an issue as Bush prepares for his own library — and to reverse a 2001 Bush decision making it easier for presidents to keep their records from public scrutiny.

Finally, lawmakers approved a bill to strengthen protection for government whistle-blowers.
There is strong opposition from the White House most particularly to the Presidential records bill.

It will be interesting to see if the bipartisan support is strong enough to override the veto--the vote counts of course were sufficient, but will that Republican support hold on a veto override, that remains to be seen.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Judgement Day for Valley Oak?

Tonight it is possible that the community might know what the Davis Joint Unified Board has in store for Valley Oak Elementary School. It's also possible that when the night is finished we will not know anything more than we know already.

At this point we know there will be three "presentations." First, the school board will have an opportunity one last time to question the task force about their report. This became necessary not just out of time constraints at the meeting two weeks ago, but also and perhaps more importantly because the board only received the report hours before the meeting. Next, the Davis OPEN group will present their counter-presentation and make their best case to keep Valley Oak open. Finally, there will be a presentation by school district staff members about implementation scenarios and possible action.

There are a number of concerns that we have about the report. We have covered some of ours in past blog entries. There are three main substantive criticisms. We have already spent considerable time and energy discussing two of those criticisms--the assumption about small school being non-viable and the use of a one-mile measure as an indicator of the effects on transportation closing Valley would have.

There is a third key criticism that we have not covered nearly enough and those are questions about the overall projections that purport to demonstrate that enrollment is actually declining. In December, it was reported that enrollment projections were "stable."

On December 7, 2006 Jeff Hudson of the Davis Enterprise reported:

That's the word demographics expert Scott Torlucci used, again and again, Wednesday to characterize a new batch of enrollment projections for the Davis school district, extending through 2016.

"Stability is the name of the game in all our projections (for the Davis school district)," Torlucci told the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force, at an evening meeting that drew about two dozen interested parents, mostly from the neighborhood around Valley Oak Elementary School.
Hudson goes on to write:
Weber's projections showed enrollment dropping from 8,606 students this year to 8,218 students in 2007, then to 7,846 students in 2011, and bottoming out at 7,763 students in 2015. A loss of that many students would have far-reaching implications for the school district's finances, since schools rely on funding from the state based on the number of students enrolled.

Back in June, based partly on Weber's projections, the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force reached a preliminary recommendation to close Valley Oak Elementary. That prompted considerable concern among neighborhood residents.

But this new batch of projections from Davis Demographics presents a less gloomy picture. Torlucci outlined a scenario in which enrollment will dip a bit over the next few years, bottoming out at 8,426 students in 2010. But it would start to go up again, reaching 8,603 students in 2014 — a figure that would be a virtual tie with this year's number of 8,606.
However, by January 5, 2007 there was a different word: "declining enrollment"
The new projections — containing small refinements and changes from a draft report presented to the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force by Davis Demographics in December — show the district's enrollment heading downward slightly over the decade ahead, from an enrollment of 8,606 students in 2006, to an enrollment of 8,215 students in 2016.

Elementary school enrollment, which has been the particular focus of the task force, is projected to decline from 4,378 in 2006 to 4,143 in 2016.
I am not going to make the argument that one of these numbers are right or one of them are wrong. I simply do not know. What I will highlight is a key phrase in the second article: "small refinements." Small refinements in the way that the projections are performed lead to vastly different outcomes. So how much confidence can we have in projection numbers that are at best fragile and susceptible to very small changes in key assumptions. Most experts agree that outside of a five year period, they become increasingly unreliable. And yet we are going to close a school based on them?

Moreover, while the Task Force has pushed for an immediate decision, it is not all that clear that there is an emergency situation. Enrollment actually increased last year unexpectedly. De facto, the Task Force claims that their metric predicted that increase, but after the fact, that is highly suspect. The district is also not in financial dire straits at this time, so there is no logical reason that they could not wait until the fall to make a more informed decision based on actual fall enrollment numbers.

There are other factors that have complicated matters including the professed desire by some of the school board members in the past to delay a decision until next year anyone just out of logistical concerns if nothing else.

In addition, this will be the first meeting for the new superintendent, Richard Whitmore. The board may be reluctant to make a decision before the new superintendent has had a full opportunity to get up to speed on this issue. Given that this is not an emergency situation, it makes full sense for the board to delay its decision until Mr. Whitmore has had a chance to full deliberate and weigh in on the situation.

The suggestion has been made by some in this community that the Task Force's report speaks for itself. However, a thorough examination of three key findings, puts that into question. As we discussed in this entry, the projection numbers are based on key assumptions and small changes in those assumptions drastically alter the projections. If that is the case, how much confidence can we actually have in those projections? Should the Task Force have presented an array of possible projection scenarios and allowed the school board to decide between them? This has been a criticism in other areas as well including the assumption that there needs to be a 420 student minimum per elementary school and the assumption that a one mile distance from school was the key distance rather a half-mile distance.

In the end, one must question this report because it presented a very narrow array of options and a very narrow picture of what the effects of closing the school would.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wednesday Briefs

Board of Supervisor Speculation

With the announcement of County Supervisor Mariko Yamada for State Assembly, the dominoes are now set to fall in other directions and the focus last night turned to the County Supervisors race for district four.

The Davis Enterprise reports five possible candidates to replace Ms. Yamada:
While none has yet formally announced, there is plenty of conversation regarding five possible candidates. Indeed, Yamada is already supporting the candidacy of Jim Provenza, a member of the Davis Board of Education. The other four most frequently mentioned as possible contenders are John Ferrera, chief of staff for state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny; Bob Schelen, consultant for the Assembly speaker's office; Richard Harris, Sacramento lobbyist; and Erik Vink of The Trust for Public Land.
A quick breakdown of the field, Bob Schelen is nice guy, but I don't see him as viable. Vink, I've never heard of. Ferrera would be very formidable. Richard Harris who was a former staffer for Fazio and currently a Davis Enterprise Columnist would be formidable. And School Board Member Jim Provenza would be formidable. Harris has been a big supporter of the council majority and land development. I do not know much about Ferrera. Provenza would be a standard bearer for the progressive but he has broad support in the community and I would think at least at this point would be a front-runner depending on the decision of Ferrera and Harris. I don't see both of them running, but you never know.

Public Poorly Informed on Departure of Murphy

Nearly a week after giving David Murphy a single-person standing ovation, Bob Dunning finally realized with the help of his confederate "Bog" that in fact, David Murphy was fired.

His confederate concludes:
"My question is this: Since this decision involves elected officials and public money, why is the board allowed to mislead the public in this way? As a public body, don't they have to tell the public how they are spending the public's money? I find all this secrecy and duplicity troubling."
Now the responsible thing for Dunning to respond with is to explain that confidentiality laws preclude the School Board from discussing this issue in public. Just as the city council could not discuss the firing of Jim Antonen or Jim Hyde in public.

Instead Mr. Dunning throws fuel on the fire:
You've hit the nail on the head, Bog … David Murphy, as a private citizen, can make any kind of "confidential" deal he wants concerning his own contract and salary … but the duly elected school board has a moral obligation to let us know — in triplicate — any time it spends the public dime … we have been badly misled by this "retirement" …
We have been misled by this "retirement" because the personnel confidentiality laws do not serve the public interest. Then again, when the matter is about Mr. Dunning's friend Nick Concolino, Mr. Dunning is probably less reticent about employee confidentiality agreements.

Which leads me to my next problem... which involves two letters to the Davis Enterprise both of which question the wisdom of paying for two Superintendents, one of whom will not work.

George Warner writes:
Let's see if I have this straight. We're paying one school superintendent $168,000 for an $80,000 job and another $235,000 for sitting on his hands for a year or so.
Barbara Wochok writes:
Under a "complex settlement," nearly $300,000 in taxpayer dollars will support two superintendents during one year. One will be housed at the district office, one not.

Obviously, administrators matter more than students at Valley Oak. Taxpayer dollars are taxpayer dollars. Once again the money goes to the top, not to the classroom. How sad!
What would be nice is if the local paper instead of writing editorials about how much we will miss David Murphy, actually reported the truth about what Murphy did and why he was likely fired. We have talked about the King High debacle here several times, but do these people understand that the district lost nearly $5 million in matching funds because it failed to meet deadlines? A fact that was buried in a paragraph near the end of the editorial on Sunday. Let's see five million versus $200,000. Hmmm.... Someone want to do the math here.

The district did the only thing they could to protect tax dollars and if that means spending a couple of hundred thousand to get the district back on track for fiscal sanity, then it is money well spent and it is meant to protect money for the students.

Finally, the public needs to realize why are where we are. When the previous school board left office in November of 2005, they voted 4-1 to extend David Murphy's contract until July of 2008. Why? They knew that the new board was likely to try to get rid of Murphy. And so BJ Kline, Joan Sallee, Marty West joined Keltie Jones and extended Murphy's contract. Only Jim Provenza dissented.

The new board then had to endure several more scandals before they apparently said enough was enough and they bit the $200,000 bullet. Dunning wants to call it misleading. The public wants to complain that we are paying someone not to work. It was the right thing to do. It took courage. And the sad thing is that because of confidentiality laws, they cannot even defend themselves. Which is why having the Davis Enterprise failing to perform due diligence and report the facts in a meaningful way does this board and this community a grave disservice.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Sunshine Week: Council Majority Refuses To Broadcast Long-Range Financial Planning Workshop

Last week, as we mentioned in yesterday’s blog entry, the City of Davis passed a proclamation naming this week “Sunshine Week.” So it is with great irony that the council this week has chosen to have a joint meeting between the City Council and the Finance and Budget Commission without television broadcasting despite the availability of broadcasting equipment and the fact that this meeting was held at what would be a normal meeting time for the city council. Moreover this meeting which discussed the “Long-Range Financial Planning Workshop” met immediately after another workshop on the short-term Calendar which was broadcast on television.

Mayor Greenwald in both the televised and untelevised meetings complained about the lack of broadcasting for the long range planning meeting. The suggestion was that this was a decision made by City Manager Bill Emlen at the behest of the council majority of Stephen Souza, Ruth Asmundson, and Don Saylor. The council majority insisted that this meeting be held without television broadcast.

This leads to a question as to why this occurred. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, should be the value of the concept of transparency of government deliberation and government action. The full value of "Sunshine" is the ability of the public to view and scrutinize the actions of their elected officials. The topic of long-range financial planning is extremely valuable in its own right and the public should be as informed as possible about the planning, goals, and concerns of its elected officials.

This is a very important issue—long term financial planning. And yet, there were no non-staff and non-media members of the public at this meeting. As one of the members of the commission said, if your goal is long term stability and you want the public informed about it, then you need to bring light to the process.

Ironically one of the topics of conversations by both the members of the commission as well as the members of council was whether future meetings of the Finance and Budget Commission ought to be televised. This was mentioned even by members of the City Council who were part of the decision not to televise this particular meeting.

While in the end, there were no major bombshells at this meeting that ought to have necessitated either a directive to broadcast or not broadcast the meeting—that was the point. If you want public involvement in these meetings they have to be made accessible.

While public participation will likely remain an illusory goal the point is not to become an impediment to that participation but rather to facilitate it. As we saw with some of the problems facing the short-term economic workshop, the city is going to have to look long and hard about sources for revenue.

One key contributor to the budget shortfall hearkens back to the $700,000-plus revenue shortfall from fines collected from traffic and parking violations. The city has taken up huge capital upgrades in parking enforcement and traffic light enforcement. In addition they increased parking fines from $30 to $35, the expectation was that would lead to increased profit, instead it led to a huge budget shortfall as we have discussed in previous entries.

These types of decision are very concerning because they are the direct result of a number of poorly managed ideas. The unanswered question is now whether those capital improvements ended up costing the city a tremendous amount of revenue aside from the philosophical problem of relying once again upon violation of the law as a source of revenue.

This is clearly an issue that needs to be examined in both the short and long term. Frankly in the private sector, heads would roll over a $700,000 budget shortfall stemming from those types of decisions. In Davis City government it seems almost business as usual.

But it is with these sorts of discussions and decisions that the public ought to be involved in the process and the commission and council should be actively engaging the public in that discussion rather than discouraging it by refusing to televise it—for apparently no good reason.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Special Commentary: Enterprise Editorial Paints An Overly Rosy Picture of Superintendent Murphy's Legacy

Sunday's editorial by the Davis Enterprise, illustrates a fundamental problem with the reporting of the Enterprise--it fundamentally fails to hold public establishment officials accountable for their actions. The most concerning part of the positive editorial is that in fact, the editorial staff acknowledged the financial scandals in the schools and still wrote a very glowing piece on former Superintendent of Schools David Murphy. Do the residents of Davis who sent their kids to school and be educated in this school district deserve better than this whitewashing of what is now bordering on multiple incidents of what can only reasonably be described as sheer incompetence?

After all, we are talking in David Murphy about a person that the Davis Joint Unified School District is paying not to work, while they have hired another person to work. So why is his departure a big loss for the Davis community as the Davis Enterprise boldly states?

The Enterprise describes his strength on the academic side, "where he distinguished himself first as an innovative principal of Davis High School and then as a visionary superintendent who never lost sight of his goal: What's best for the students of Davis?"

Oh did he now? There have been longstanding complaints against Murphy for the failure to appropriately deal with issues of harassment, bullying, and racism on campus. In fact, those complaints stem back to his days as Davis High School Principal and the killing of a student, Thong Hy Huynh.

But it is more than that. There has been an utter failure to meet the needs of minority students--particularly the African-American students. The most recent incident being the resignation of Courtenay Tessler who was the adviser to the students of the Black Students Union. This was a devastating blow to the students in this organization, who relied on Ms. Tessler help and advice to them. By all accounts this was a devoted person and resource to many students in the high school.

The larger problem has been the lack of minority hires in this district. This problem falls squarely on the shoulders of the leadership and the Superintendent's office. The previous Superintendent was largely seen as a hindrance to the efforts of many to have a more diverse teaching staff in the district.

Perhaps the strangest part of the editorial however was the end where it talked about "rocky times... particularly with regard to facilities." The closing reads: "Ultimately, those issues cast a shadow over his shining record, and led the Board of Education to lose faith in him. What a loss his retirement is for the Davis community. We'll truly miss David Murphy."

I simply do not understand this sentiment. What an insult that is to the elected school board. Cast a shadow? More like eclipse the sun. We are talking about numerous and severe financial and conflict of interest problems that have literally plagued the district for the last several years.

This has been a tumultuous year for the school district with a number of different financial scandals. In November of 2006, the board halted construction on a new King High School building. Allegations were made at that time by Board Member Jim Provenza that "shoddy practices in the business office have cost us" money on the project. He further said, "I'm happy we have a new chief budget officer (Colby) and (we're) cleaning up the mess we've had in the past.

Earlier this month the project was re-approved with money from redevelopment funds. Board member Tim Taylor cast the lone, "no" vote and he too made allegations about irregularities in board money use. "For me, the issue is some financially funky stuff that's gone on to get us to this point. It has absolutely nothing to do with King High."

In addition there has been several recent financial irregularities particularly involving King High and also concerning the former deputy superintendent for business Tahir Ahad who founded an educational consulting firm while employed with the DJUSD. He in turn recruited many fellow district employees to join him at the firm all the while everyone of them continued their full time employment with the district. This "moonlighting" by senior and middle management district employees resulted in them not doing their district jobs full time yet they received full time pay.

Furthermore, the former deputy superintendent for business Tahir Ahad was allowed to do much of his district work from his home office where he actually focused most of his time on his start-up business resulting in shoddy work product for the district and causing it to lose grant monies in the millions of dollars. The new school board put an end to this and has pushed for a new and comprehensive conflict of interest code to prevent this type of conduct from ever occurring again.

It is clear that there were multiple problems in the school district many of which were the result of David Murphy, his hires, and his policies. The new school board should be the ones commended for having the fortitude and foresight to make the tough changes that will ultimately produce a better product.

If David Murphy has led the district to better academics--in a community as well-educated as Davis--I would suggest that a replacement can do so as well without the financial fiascos, without the hiring problems, without the harassment problems, without so many other problems that the public really is not aware of because unfortunately the process is veiled behind a wall of confidentiality that protects personnel from public disclosure.

I would suggest that the Davis Enterprise view this as is akin to an iceberg. We can see the tip of the problems but we cannot view their full damage. We do not know what lies beneath the surface, but we do know it was bad enough that the district was willing to swallow over $13,000 per month on an individual who is no longer employed by the school district. That alone should tell the public what they need to know and that we should not be honoring and defending this man's record.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know (What Your Government is Doing)

One of the most important values in our democratic society is our free and open access to what our government is doing. Last week the Davis City Council as prompted by Councilmember Lamar Heystek and signed into proclamation by Mayor Sue Greenwald declared this week--March 11-17, 2007 as "Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know in the City of Davis."

The proclamation declares that "freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cornerstones of all democratic societies and valued as important fundamental rights by all." Moreover that "open government is a fundamental principle for our democracy and transparency and open decision-making are essential to foster trust and confidence in our public bodies."

There is no stronger supporter of free and open government than myself. In the last year, I have made many public records requests in order to keep tabs on what our local government is doing.

Locally I have found that the city is professional and generally accommodating to public records requests. There have been some notable exceptions, but for the most part, I have been able to obtain the records I want from the city. When I haven't, there are other means by which to obtain those records as we shall hopefully see within the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, in general, government has a poor record in this regard. The public records laws in California are particularly weak. As we've discussed in recent weeks, confidentiality laws are often misused, abused, and in some cases imposed where wholly unnecessary. It is one thing to protect the privacy of rank and files workers. However, positions like police chief, city manager, superintendent of schools, among other high ranking, public positions should have much less protection. The public should have the right to know why a city has fired a police chief or city manager and why a school district has fired a superintendent.

Recently, the California courts have granted tremendous amount of protection to police officers from public disclosure of discipline and other matters that again should be public record. The California public records act specifically exempts many police proceedings such as incident reports, arrest records, and other things from public records act requirements.

As the Associated Press article that ran on the front page of the Davis Enterprise puts it: "The result: Californians might not always know if beatings or shootings by officers are ruled justified or whether those officers are disciplined or labeled as bad cops."

In fact, according to the article, public records are under fire. Currently, California Supreme Court justices "are questioning whether the public has the right to know the salaries of government employees even though they're paid with taxpayer money."

As the article declares:
"For a state with a progressive reputation, California's record on open government has left it far behind many other states. In Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Nebraska, for example, attorneys general investigate and even prosecute public officials who fail to disclose public records.

California, in fact, has retreated by some public-access measures since voters in 2004 endorsed a constitutional amendment to protect the public's right to view government documents and attend meetings.

Passage of the amendment was billed as a watershed for public access in California. Advocates said it would limit lawmakers' ability to write loopholes into law and require officials and even state judges to narrowly interpret laws that restrict the public's access to government's inner workings."
So the California Public Records Act is fairly weak at its best. It becomes even weaker because it is difficult to enforce. Theoretically, the burden of proof is on the agency to prove that they have legitimate reason to withhold disclosure of public records. However, in practice violations of the California Public Records Act are only enforced by a citizen filing suit against the public agency when they deny a request and even if the judgment is against that agency, the result is at best an order for the government to pay legal fees. This produces according to reformers, a culture where the incentive structure skews toward a withholding of information. There are no criminal penalties for failing to release the countless other public documents citizens may seek.

Unfortunately, as we celebrate Sunshine Week here in Davis as well as nationally, our right to know is underfire. There is no more paramount right of an informed electorate to have the means to monitor and scrutinize our government. There is no greater vanguard of freedom and liberty than the freedom of the press and speech. And there can be neither if the government retains the ability to keep public records in secret where no one can scrutinize them.

Later this week, I hope to have a major announcement pertaining to this issue. In the meantime, this is an issue that we should press on all future state legislators, that we need to fight and maintain open government and open access to government documents.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Monday, March 12, 2007

Disparate Treatment by the DA's Office

We have spent much time talking about both the Davis Police Department and Yolo County District Attorney's Office's over-pursuit of relatively minor cases and prosecution to the point of almost absurdity. In some of these cases, we have evidence that the deputy district attorney assigned to the case actually thought it better that the case be dropped rather than charges followed and was told that they not only had to pursue the case but obtain a conviction. These type of cases are pursued generally against people in a lower socio-economic class and minority defendants.

However, increasingly I have learned about the opposite problem--the failure of the Davis Police Department and the Yolo County District Attorney's office to pursue charges and a case against "upscale" and "affluent" defendants involved in a variety of what appear to be much more serious crimes.

While most of these stories only represent anecdotal evidence, An old professor of mine used to say data is actually many anecdotes when put together that form a systematic pattern.

A reader relates a case of road rage that happened several years ago where an individual, also a Davis resident, ended up following the person home, seeing where they lived and then speeding off. However, later that night they returned dumping a can or two of gasoline on the garage and setting the house on fire.

Only quick action by a neighbor helped alert the family to the fire and prevented it from becoming bigger and it ended up only causing superficial damage to the garage and the front of the home.

The individual described the man and his case to the police, but very little happened for over a year. Finally they had arrested a suspect. Apparently he had bragged to a friend about what he'd done, and the friend turned him in. It also turned out that he was not a nice guy. At the time of his arrest, he was on probation for having beaten up his girlfriend, and I was told by the police that he was also suspected of torching another man's car.

So of course the District Attorney's Office aggressively pursued this case like they did Buzayan's or Khalid Berny's, right? Wrong!

On the contrary, the District Attorney's office moved on this case at a glacial pace. Court dates were scheduled, subpoenas sent, vacation time from work arranged, only to have delays and postponements time after time. The Deputy District Attorney left the department and a new one took over. Shortly thereafter, the defendant pled guilty to reduced charges. Then for another eight months, the same sort of postponements and delays happened with the sentencing hearing.

Why is there such disparate treatment? Why is a person with a history and a record allowed to skate? Well, for starters, he's the member of a very wealthy and influential El Macero family.

So why is it then that the District Attorney's Office pursues some cases to the teeth--minor cases such as a man who allegedly allows his goats to run at large or a small parking lot accident resulting in $800 damage to the vehicle, but will not pursue a case of road rage that leads to arson against a perpetrator who has a history of this sort of violence? In fact, this case seems very close to the firebombing case involving another family in Davis--who happen to be gay--that the police perhaps haven't aggressively pursued.

A few years back there was a vandalism crime against a gay individual in Davis, he had eggs thrown at his vehicle and another black family's home. This was in October of 2003. By August of 2004, hate crime charges were dropped.

According to the August 18, 2004 Davis Enterprise:

"Yolo County District Attorney David Henderson appeared in court Tuesday to formally drop hate crime enhancement charges against a Davis youth accused of vandalizing the car of a local gay man and the home of a black family in an October incident.
Henderson cited insufficient evidence to prosecute the case with the hate crime enhancement. The 17-year-old still faces one felony count and five misdemeanor counts of vandalism.

Four youths reportedly shouted racist and bigoted remarks as they threw more than 120 eggs at five vehicles and one house in the early morning hours of Oct. 26. One car was owned by... an openly gay UC Davis lab assistant; another vehicle is owned by a black family. The house is owned by a black family."

A little further back from that, I know of an individual who was allegedly supplying minors, often as young as junior high school age (if not younger) with marijuana out of their home and the police would not follow through on repeated complaints from residents.

For whatever reason, the District Attorney's office over-pursues and over-prosecutes some crime but not others. This inconsistency is a bit perplexing in light of their overall refusal to drop charges in cases that clearly did not warrant charges to begin with, while failing to pursue cases that do. We have heard of cases, and in fact seen it in writing, where the District Attorney's Office or their deputy acknowledges that the reason for prosecution is because of an impending lawsuit. And yet, we also see now where the District Attorney's office fails to follow through on other seemingly more serious cases when the individuals involved may be influential citizens or the children of influential citizens. This county deserves more consistent and more common-sense law enforcement than it is getting.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Awards Ceremony Presents Us with a Time for Reflection

Several weeks ago I received an email from a group called the Dotties. It turned out that for ten years now this group has met and given out awards to the best websites in the Sacramento Northern California area. Recently with the rise of blogs, they have added blogs to their awards ceremonies. So on Thursday, I threw on a suit and gave out an award (those things by the way, weigh a ton and would serve as a good weapon against a mugging if you are an Olympic shotputter).

Mark S. Allen from Good Sacramento was the master of ceremonies. He did a very good job with a small and at times indifferent crowd. When he introduced me, he cited the blog as "bringing law enforcement together with the community." An amusing line that indicated to me that he has read the People's Vanguard.

The category I gave an award for--or at least was supposed to as the winner in my category did not show up to the event--was "Blogs and Online Categories." If there was one criticism, it would be that some of the groups were overly broad. For example, "Health Care, Biotech, Agriculture and Engineering." So we were sitting at a table with Mandarin Orange Growers who were competing against the ultimate winner, Sutter Health.

In the "Blogs" categories, MX Sponsor a site devoted to motocross sports. Highly technical in its design, and yet this would be the category that this blog might potentially compete against in the future. In fact, as they described the judging criteria--and its good criteria--they are looking at technical innovation, they are also looking as usability, and content.

The Dotties Awards Ceremony also presents us with an opportunity for reflection and to look toward the future.

This past week, the People's Vanguard of Davis passed the 50,000 hit mark since October 10, 2006 when I finally realized enough people were on the site to install a hit counter. One of the lessons I have learned is that you do not need a flashy site to get readers, in fact, this site is just a "blogger" site that I enter my writings directly into a template. It is as non-technical as it comes.

And yet as they discussed on Thursday, it meets the key threshold of a successful marketing endeavor--this blog found a niche that was badly needed by a segment of the community. I cannot go to a public event without people telling me that they read the blog--even in Sacramento. People were disparately looking for an alternative source of information and I have staked this blog's reputation on content rather than bells and whistles.

I hope as time goes on, the Dotties can begin to recognize blogs in their own right and judge them based on the information that they provide rather than the technical aspects. Blogging has become a valued addition to the fourth estate. It is a means by which to level the playing field. No longer is information confined to those with the money and resources to own a printing press. Knowledge and reporting has become unlocked. And in some cases for the good, and like all technologies, there is the potential for bad as well. The power of blogging is a constant reminder that we all must be vigilant and yet responsible.

That is not to say that this will also be just a "blogger" blog. As much as that format serves my short-term needs, I have already seen the limitations of the format. The future shall be interesting to say the least. This blog started as an outlet for my frustrations following the June 2006 primary in which it became clear that there was no accurate and reliable means to get information out to the public.

However, although this blog's growth and direction--in terms of popularity and perhaps importance--was always part of my "vision," I am not sure I ever really anticipated that it would end up being as successful as it has so far.

So the Dotties' awards gives me a good opportunity to look back at the past and thank the people who have been readers from beginning and thank those of you who will be logging on for the very first time in the coming days. It also gives me a chance to look into the future and there will be some changes coming down the pike. I will not be changing the content of this site or the information I provide. But there will be changes nonetheless and hopefully these changes allow us to continue to grow and prosper into the future.

Thank you and good day.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting