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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Commentary: Defense Charges Yolo Courthouse Collusion

Just when we thought things would slowly return to some semblance of normal, Assistant Public Defender Dean Johansson makes a surprising motion.

Johansson called for Rosenberg and every other judge in Yolo County to remove themselves from hearing the Topete case because they could not be fair and impartial. The lack of a public hearing has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the process and the bias of the court.

More shocking was his charge of judicial collusion in which the Assistant Public Defender Dean Johansson told the court that other judges had their courtrooms for half an hour in order to allow deputies to fill up this courtroom. To substantiate this allegation, the public defender's office has subpoenaed the surveillance videos from each courtroom.

As a result of this motion, Judge Rosenberg has asked the District Attorney Jeff Reisig to respond to this motion at a hearing set for July 3, 2008.

Unfortunately, there is a judicial gag order on this case, thus we cannot talk to Mr. Johansson (who as a point of full disclosure is a personal friend).

A few thoughts on this other than the single word, "wow."

The Sacramento Bee and even the Davis Enterprise has questioned whether Topete could get a fair trial in Yolo County. I agree with that sentiment, I don't think he can get a fair trial in Yolo County.

Can he prove judicial collusion? I suppose if he gets a hold of those surveillance videos from every courtroom and they show that they did indeed shut their courtrooms to allow the deputies to fill the department, he might have a point. But that probably also falls short of collusion to keep the public out which I think has to be the core of the charge. I think they would have to show intent to keep the public out rather than a move that was as a courtesy to allow deputies to attend a hearing regarding their fallen colleague.

Second point I think is a change of venue simply makes more sense. Even if you got a visiting judge to hear the case in Yolo County, you would still get courtroom security from the Yolo County Sheriff's Department. Obviously the defense believes that an out of area judge would have more scrutiny over the sheriff's in their court, but why risk that? Put the trial in another county and start anew.

As the Sacramento Bee article says this morning:
"Legal experts interviewed Friday agreed that the defense would have a tough time winning its motion. But they said recent events in the case leave little doubt that it should be moved out of Yolo County voluntarily to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Robert Weisberg, who teaches criminal law at Stanford Law School, said he doubted the public defender's office could win its effort to have every judge in Yolo removed from the case. The legal standard for removing judges is too high, he said.

"You would have a huge burden to show prejudice," Weisberg said.

However, the judge and lawyers could agree to relocate Topete's case.

"That's obviously the sensible thing to do," he said. "It should really get done and done quickly."

A move to a neighboring county could avoid future litigation and prevent any conviction from being overturned because of apparent bias, he said."
Where does this leave the case? Unfortunately in flux until next week just before the July 4 holiday.

Meanwhile Yolo County Sheriff's Deputy Jose Diaz was laid to rest on Friday with 1500 people, many of the law-enforcement officers from Northern California. Sheriff Ed Prieto posthumously award Deputy Diaz with the department's Medal of Valor for his actions which perhaps saved the life of an infant who had been abandoned in the suspect's vehicle.

From the start of this event, the most regretful aspect has been the courthouse drama overshadowing the horrific personal tragedy that occurred still less than two weeks ago. We need to have a fair and open trial if for no other reason than to honor and respect the life of Deputy Diaz who was by all accounts good and dedicated law enforcement officer and father.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Friday, June 27, 2008

Podcast of Wednesday's Vanguard Show

A lot of requests for this one. The subject was the closing of the courthouse to the media and the public. We had on two guests. One was Peter Scheer, the executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. The other was Natasha Mintzger, a Death Penalty Attorney from the ACLU in San Francisco. Mintzger was on the second half from the 35 minute mark until the end, and very interesting and engaging. A big thanks to Natalie Wormeli of the Yolo County Chapter of the ACLU for helping to set up the interview with Natasha Mintzger.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Commentary: Third and B Project On Hold For Now

I have to say up front, I think the council approved project in the neighborhood directly adjacent to the university between B and A Streets is one of the worst conceived ideas. As I have stated in the past, that neighborhood is one of my very favorite neighborhoods in the city of Davs--conveying the feel of a college town as few other areas in Davis do.

At the time of the vote, a good number of residents in the neighborhood opposed such a re-zoning believing that the character of their neighborhood would be altered by a large number of tall buildings.

However, the city council did pass the zoning change to allow the development of a series of townhouses and condominiums in this neighborhood that transitions between the university and downtown.

The first proposal under this new zoning ordinance went before the Davis Planning Commission on Wednesday evening.

This particular proposal called for the building of four, three-story buildings. It was radical enough even for the new zoning ordinance that the City planning department recommended that the planning commission deny the proposal based on its lack of conformity with the design guidelines set for the area.

The city's Historical Resources Management Commission in early June discussed the project and argued that the project did not meet specified guidelines of the area.

At the meeting on Wednesday, Mike Webb, the city's principal planner suggested that it was not necessary that the new buildings replicate the bungalow style of the existing buildings in the neighborhood. However, he also believed that this was too sharp a departure from the current neighborhood and that they would stand out. He seemed to prefer a building type that fit in while it did not regulate.

The applicant, Davis architect Marie Ogrydziak, has a choice as to how to remedy this situation. The planning commission was somewhat divided as to whether or not to allow the project to go forward. But in the end, they asked Ms. Ogrydziak to make various design changes to the project in hopes that it better meet the guidelines that were set forth by the city in cooperation with the neighborhood. The other alternative would have been for the applicant to appeal to the city and see what the city council says.

For her part, Ms. Ogrydziak seemed willing to try to make difficult changes to the roofline and trying to make it work.

The Vanguard believes that this was probably the wrong area of town to attempt this kind of remodel. Having a string of three story buildings (and there were proposals last year of up to four stories or higher) on the western edge of Central Park makes little sense.

The character of the western side of the core is too valuable to tear down the historic bungalows and put up a bunch of condominiums and townhouses. We understand the desire by the council to transition this neighborhood from the university to the downtown. One suggestion we would have would be adaptive reuse of the bungalows on B St on the western edge of the park from rental units housing students to shops and restaurants that could attract shoppers and restaurant-goers from the neighborhood as well as the rest of town. This was particularly effective for instance on the eastern edge of the park with places such as Burgers and Brew.

It is not that we oppose placing smaller and taller units around the core. It is that this does not seem the place to do it. On the eastern side of downtown and especially the PG&E yard it seems almost ideal in that you will not be destroying the existing character of the neighborhood just to the east of campus, you will not create a more boxed in feeling in the park, and yet you can achieve your goal of more housing and more housing close to the core.

That said, it is obvious that the current council majority wants to move forward with this project. As such, it is best that it as closely conforms to existing feel and design as possible. Good design and construction can produce the desired changes with a much lesser degree of alteration and intrusion as the current design produces. It is that type of compromise work that would best accomplish this goal. We look forward to seeing what a revised design would entail.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Commentary: Report on Yolo County Court Incident Leaves Much Unanswered

On Monday, a report was released that attempted to explain how it came to be that the Yolo County court building's doors were locked in an apparent effort to keep media and the general public from witnessing the arraignment of a suspect charged with killing a Sheriff's deputy on June 15.

Court Executive Officer Jim Perry issued a statement from Yolo Superior Court Presiding Judge David Rosenberg.
"In criminal proceedings, our courtrooms must, should and will operate open to the public, with appropriate security to ensure the safety of courtroom personnel and the public. The Court necessarily relies on the Yolo County Sheriff to ensure public access and to provide oversight of security to the Courthouse and courtrooms. The conclusion of this report is that the Yolo County Sheriffs Office committed two errors: (1) failure, after lunch, to ensure that the public entrance door to Department 9 was unlocked thereby denying entry to a criminal arraignment to waiting members of the public, press and family members of the defendant; (2) allowing, via side doors, members of law enforcement, as spectators, preferential entry to Department 9."
Notice that the blame gets placed squarely by the Sheriff's department. Judge Rosenberg writes:
"These failures by the Sheriffs Office are not acceptable to the Court."
At the same time that Judge Rosenberg citing the report puts blame on the Sheriff's department, he fails to acknowledge any blame he himself has in the handling the matter. Moreover he told the Sacramento Bee that he "lacked authority to take action against the deputies involved."
""They're not my employees," he said. "The ball is in the sheriff's court right now.

"I do believe the sheriff will take the appropriate action. Ed Prieto's a decent man and takes his job seriously. I trust he will do the right thing.""
Thus Judge Rosenberg basically throws the mess in the lap of Sheriff Ed Prieto. Sheriff Prieto has just lost one of his men and any criticism of his actions must necessarily be weighed against the enormity of that burden. Nevertheless, his response has been less than satisfactory as well.

On Tuesday, according again to the Sacramento Bee, Sheriff Prieto repeated the assertion that the closure of the hearing was an honest mistake and said he has no intention of punishing or reassigning the courthouse deputies responsible.

Again, I understand the strain that his department is under, but the term honest mistake does not ring true here. This was in many ways a deliberate act. They locked the public entrance door to the court room denying access to specific people notably the press and family members of the defendant. In the meantime, they allowed entrance to members of law enforcement and the victim's family. How is that anything but a deliberate act? The claim just does not ring true.

The Sacramento Bee editorial this morning writes:
"Deputies told investigators that they "just plain forgot" to unlock the doors. But as The Sacramento Bee's Hudson Sangree reports, there is a pattern here. Members of the public were regularly elbowed aside in favor of law enforcement officers during a recent capital trial involving a CHP officer murdered in Yolo. At other hearings involving a dentist accused of fondling his patients, the court held the proceeding earlier than it was scheduled, and at a second, failed to post the schedule at all."
Even if the claim that this was an honest mistake is true, perhaps this suggests that the Yolo County Sheriff's Department is too emotionally attached to this case to properly and professionally perform their duties. Perhaps this case needs to be moved to another jurisdiction. Last night on the Vanguard radio show, the two guests disagreed as to the feasibility of this. With Peter Scheer from the California First Amendment Coalition suggesting that this would not merit a move, but Natasha Mintzger a death penalty specialist with the ACLU suggesting the violation might suggest that the defendant would be able to get a fair trial.

However, this kind of benefit of the doubt really is strained by the history of not only similar incidents, but of mistakes that are skewed in one way or another to provide preference to one side over another. In the case of the accused dentist, it was the defense that was granted preferential access. In this case it was the victim and prosecution.

The biggest concern by far in this case is that no one seems to be stepping up and saying it is my fault, here is what we are going to do, and here is why it will not happen in the future. Instead you have both Judge Rosenberg and Sheriff Prieto making vague but nondescript promises that this will not happen again. Judge Rosenberg has to this point not taken any responsibility for the mistakes and has instead placed them on the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff has called them "honest mistakes" which again does not ring true, has stated he will not discipline those responsible, and has instead issued a blanked insurance that from now on, access to the court will be open and fair. But how do we get to that point? What assurances does the public have?

Transparency and accountability in government demands that someone take a far greater measure of responsibility than they have so far. Someone needs to step up and tells us why this will never occur again. There needs to be someone making a genuine and heartfelt apology.

The worst part of this incident is that we are talking about this at all. We have a young Sheriff's Deputy who was brutally murdered a week and a half ago. He was a single father of three who was due to be married in August to a single mother of five. Because of the actions of this Deputy's former colleagues, instead of focusing on the tragedy that everyone agrees on, we are dealing with the abstraction of court proceedings and the right to a fair trial by the defendant.

It seems to us that the defendant needs to be arraigned again in an open courtroom to insure that down the line this case does not get reversed on a technicality--a technicality that has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence but rather to do with mistakes made by those involved in the criminal justice system. The best way to insure justice in this case would then be to move it to another county, where there will be no lingering doubts about conflicts of interest, about preferential treatment, and the only question will be the facts that will either convict or exonerate this individual charged with committed a horrible crime.

--Doug Paul Davis reporting

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

UPDATED: Vanguard Radio Show Tonight from 6-7

Join us on the Vanguard Radio Show Tonight from 6 PM to 7 PM on KDRT 101.5 FM

Our guest will be Peter Scheer from the California First Amendment Coalition for the first part of the hour and then Natasha Mintzger from the ACLU who specializes in death penalty case.

We will be talking about the continuing controversy regarding the closure of the public to the criminal arraignment proceedings of an individual charged with the murder of a Sheriff's Deputy.

Because we will have two call-in interviews, listeners will be encouraged to text message their questions to 530.400.2512

LAFCO Votes to Enlarge Sphere of Influence

Vanguard is Concerned About the Process of the 5-0 LAFCO Vote

In a strange turn of events the evening of March 6, 2008 the Davis City Council passed a recommendation for the Sphere of Influence (SOI) that was notable in that it excluded from its sphere two controversial properties on Davis' periphery--Northwest Quadrant, Covell Village and the Nishi Property. The motion made by Lamar Heystek and seconded by Mayor Sue Greenwald passed by a strange vote of 2-1-2. Councilmembers Stephen Souza and Don Saylor, a month before the council election decided to abstain from that vote.

This was a reconsideration of a vote that had originally attempted to make the SOI extremely large. When LAFCO originally took up this item in April, they expressed concern that the size of the original SOI would invite properties not intended for development in the foreseeable future. LAFCO's report warns that adding such areas would lead to land speculation on those sites for the purpose of development.

As a result, the council revisited the issue. At the May meeting Councilmember Heystek complained about the lack of clear direction from city staff on the issue of the SOI.
"I don't see this as merely a ministerial action of the council, because personally I will speak very frankly, I don't feel that I received enough information from city staff to be able to make a decision. I understand that LAFCO has made a recommendation that certain sites be excluded, but I have not received information for our staff as to why certain sites should be included."

He continued:

"I don't understand and I haven't heard from city staff, why we have to include other areas such as the northwest quadrant, such as Covell Village, such as the Nishi site, when we know we already have Measure J, when we know we already have the pass-through agreement, and we know that those are really the strongest protections from unwarranted or undesirable development on our borders."
As Councilmember Heystek pointed out, it appears in the next five years we neither intend to expand city services into these areas nor develop in these areas--so why include them in the SOI?

As a result of that discussion, the motion to exclude the Northwest Quadrant, Covell, and Nishi was passed largely because neither Councilmember Souza nor Councilmember Saylor voted on the matter.

Flash forward to Monday at the LAFCO meeting.

The LAFCO staff recommendation rejected the Davis City Council's proposed boundaries.

This is from the LAFCO staff report:
As previously discussed, a sphere of influence under LAFCO law is a guidance document for the Commission to determine what areas are best suited for inclusion, or removal, from a city or special district. Historically, spheres of influence for cities in Yolo County have been drawn tightly; however, those lines must be drawn with the intent to meet the projected growth and service capabilities of the affected agency. The latest request by the City of Davis would not provide sufficient land within the sphere for the City to meet its own population growth projections in the coming years.

Staff believes that given existing policies, service capabilities and impacts on agricultural land, the LAFCO staff recommended sphere of influence includes the areas that are best considered for annexation over the next twenty years. The staff recommended areas that are already developed, are infill property, or have already been evaluated in previous studies. The City’s current land use policies call for controlled and well planned growth. The County’s general plan identifies itself as the protector of agricultural land. The land use policies in conjunction with the City-County Redevelopment Agreement and Davis’ Measure J provide strong adjuncts to controlled growth in the City of Davis. The staff recommended boundaries balance the need for some expansion of boundaries while addressing the need for deliberate, logical and orderly annexations.
The first map is the Davis City Council recommended Sphere of Influence:

The second map is the LAFCO staff recommendation:

The LAFCO recommendation is as follows:
a. Ten year sphere of influence:

i. City owned property: Davis Municipal Golf Course, City of Davis Park on County Road (CR) 102 (Old Landfill Site), and Davis Wastewater Treatment Plant.

ii. Urbanized properties: El Macero, Willowbank, Royal Oaks (formerly Barthel’s Mobile Home Park), Rust home site parcel, and University of California, Davis campus.

iii. Undeveloped properties: Covell Village (Hunt-Wesson) parcel, Mace Curve parcel and Nishi parcel.

b. Twenty year sphere of influence:

i. Urbanized property: Cactus Corners (CR 98 and Russell Blvd).

ii. Undeveloped property: Northwest Quadrant (north to Binning Tract subdivision, east to State Hwy 113, south to Covell Boulevard, and west to CR 99).
The LAFCO board that includes Davis City Councilmember Stephen Souza as the representative from the Davis City Council and County Supervisors Helen Thomson and Matt Rexroad, voted to pass staff recommendation 5-0.

Key Commentary Regarding the Role of Councilmember Stephen Souza's Role in This

As a member of LAFCO, Councilmember Stephen Souza has a duel role in this process. He sits on the board of LAFCO but he also needs to represent to LAFCO in this matter, the wishes of the Davis City Council. In the packet to LAFCO was presented the Davis City Council's recommended SOI.

Responding to a question from Councilmember Lamar Heystek last night, Councilmember Souza acknowledged there was not much discussion on the item at the Monday meeting. He did mention that Supervisor Rexroad had asked him about what the Davis City Council wanted. Councilmember Souza conveyed the impression at the LAFCO meeting that this is what the Davis City Council wanted and had mentioned his role on LAFCO as the reason for him abstaining from the vote.

I spoke up at the City Council, which is something I do not ordinarily do, to clarify this point.

Here are my comments:
"I wanted to raise the issue of yesterday’s LAFCO vote on the sphere of influence. I was not able to attend the meeting, however, talking to folks who did I got the impression that the message was somehow conveyed that the LAFCO staff report was what the council majority wanted. [Note: Councilmember Souza had actually acknowledged this in response to Councilmember Heystek's question]

I am a bit confused by that if it is that case, because the most recent vote that I am aware of on May 6, 2008 ended with a very different recommendation from the Davis city council.

That vote was a bit odd in that two members supported, one opposed, and two members abstained. However, it was a valid vote of the council. The motion passed and that was the recommendation ostensibly sent to LAFCO.

If that is the case, then I do not know how it could be accurate to suggest that the majority of the Davis city council wanted anything but the May 6th vote results.

As such I am very confused and would like an explanation as to how the message was apparently conveyed otherwise. And I would like to also know if the will of the council, as expressed by vote on the night of May 6th, was represented by the current LAFCO representative from this council."
Unfortunately I did not get an answer to those questions, although there was the beginning of a heated exchange, when another member of the public, Eileen Samitz, spoke during public comment in an attempt to get an answer on this issue. The Mayor [probably wisely] however cut off Councilmember Souza as he was about to respond to Ms. Samitz's comments and moved the meeting forward.

As I stated at the meeting, I believe that Councilmember Souza had every right to vote as he did, however, my concern was he somehow conveyed the impression that there was a different will of the council majority than the one reflected in the vote taken on May 6, 2008, which was the only vote on the topic and therefore should have been, despite its strange numerical nature, the reflection of the council's desires on this subject.

My concern is therefore strictly procedural here. I do not understand how the councilmember arrived at a different conclusion from Davis' own recommendation.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

School Board Opts for November 2008 Parcel Tax

Polling Shows Plausible but Difficult Battle to Get it Approved

Yesterday morning, in a special meeting, the Davis Joint Unified School Board viewed preliminary polling of focus group results for a proposed parcel tax. The findings show significant support for such a proposal of between 57% to 62%--however that support is lower than the two-thirds threshold. Moreover, both polling focus group results showed very strong currents of distrust for government accountability and fear about current state and national economic tides.

On the basis of these findings, the board by a 5-0 vote, decided to place a parcel tax on the November ballot. They will still have to work out most of the details such as the amount of the funding, the duration, and the specifics of what this parcel tax would fund.

The research was conducted by EMRC Research with assistance from local consultant, Jay Ziegler who ran the previous parcel tax.

They began with a focus group study which focused on Davis Seniors and also younger Davis voters. These individuals were considered middle voters who were neither strongly in support nor strongly opposed to a parcel tax. They were also considered persuadable on this issue.

Frankly, some of the results of the focus group study resembled the comments section of the Vanguard.

What they found was a deep distrust of local government among some of the focus group participants. Notably they do not distinguish between the performance of the City Council and that of the school district (something that we noted in fact on the campaign trail as well). They believe that the District has the incentive to continually increase the budget year to year and that any funding from a parcel tax will become part of the larger pot of funding expectations and expenditures that cannot be tracked. Accountability is a huge concern for the focus group.

These participants were aware of the state budget crisis and the local impact on schools, but were very reluctant to increase taxes locally. They want assurances that money raised in Davis stays local and is not taken by the state. They are further concerned that money raised locally would simply result in the district getting lower amounts of funding from state (they do not understand in other words how funding for schools works and that is an important component of any campaign to educate the public). What I found interesting, is that Jay Ziegler mentioned that they were more likely to pass a short-term sales tax rather than a parcel tax.

Accountability again is a key issue. They want a set of specific funding priorities that can be measured and tracked. The longer the duration of the parcel tax, the more accountability is required, since they were concerned that as time goes on voters would forget about what was promised. They want a community-led, independent assessment of the district's funding priorities and benchmarks. They would trust independent financial experts to audit the status of the parcel tax and make recommendations to the district and the public. (It should be noted that all these things were done for Measure Q already).

A final note of interest, the current parcel tax did not heavily factor into their decision about a new parcel tax. None of them knew the amount of the current parcel tax and most of the participants suggested that strong accountability would increase their support for a parcel tax regardless of the amount.

They then went through the polling results which were literally received at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon. Two things to be mindful of. The margin of error overall was plus or minus 5.7 percent. Half of the participants in the poll heard questions based on an $80 parcel tax and half heard it for $140. That means that the split sample margin is plus or minus 8! Keep that in mind when these results are discussed.

For the purposes of this discussion there are really five categories--two in the affirmative and two in the negative and one neutral or don't know--that have been combined into affirmative, negative, or don't know. The first question dealt with how much need there is for more money for the school district. 36% said there was a great need, 35% said some need, 11% did not know, 10% said little need, 8% said no need. So 71% answered in the affirmative and 18% in the negative. That shows a soft support, but there is at least a two-thirds awareness that there is a need for more money. They viewed that as a positive for the parcel tax.

Additionally 67% were concerned about funding for the Davis Schools, considerably less were concerned about funding for the county and the city. 72% said maintaining the quality of our schools should be a top priority.

The next polling result is a critical one. 31% say that taxes are already high enough and that they would vote against any tax increase. 68% were opposed to that. That number is right on the border. The pollster suggested that this number has risen across the board in the last year. She thinks this is a caution but a good indicator that a parcel tax is plausible.

66% trust DJUSD to manage tax dollars appropriately, however, at the same time 60% agree that there has been a waste of opening and closing new schools. 33% believe that the district already has enough but the money has just been mismanaged with 59% disagreeing.

So those are the generic questions. They then put a basic write up for a parcel tax including accountability stipulations. On the initial vote, neither the $80 nor the $140 would pass if the election was held today (keeping in mind the high margin of error).

The $80 sample had 62% support while the $140 had 57% support. The bottom line here is that the district will have to work to get either one of these passed. One thing that was clear from these results was that they need to determine how much they need rather than base it on polling results.

This is going to require, according to Jay Ziegler, a privately funded campaign to connect with the voters and give them reasons as to why we need this.

When they broke down the support, they found, not surprisingly that there is much stronger support from DJUSD parents as compared to non-parents. Among both non-parents and older voters, support for the $80 parcel tax is under the two-thirds threshold. On the other hand, no demographic had less than 57% support for the lower of the two. For $140, 83% of parents support passage but only 48% of non-parents. Likely voters were at 62% for the $80 and occasional voters slightly lower at 58%.

The scary statistic of the day is really the lack of basic knowledge by the voters. For example, only 45% knew that they currently paid a parcel tax while 51% did not know and 6% thought we do not currently pay a parcel tax.

Accountability is huge--they want to know where the money is spent, know that there is transparency and accountability and there was overwhelming support (76%) for having a sunset date and the district having to bring it back to the voters.

The board and the consultants went back and forth on March of 2009 versus November of 2008. The basic consensus was that November would be a tougher and more costly election given the very high turn out. The key demographic would be student voters who will come out to vote for Obama and trying to to get them to support a parcel tax.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for having it in November. The data, according to Mr. Ziegler benefits from a three to six month sustained period of public awareness about the District's budget problems. The further we get from that, the more difficult it is. Also this would allow the district to go into the 2009-2010 budget process in January knowing where they stand on money.

Richard Harris made a crucial point however about where the district's finances fall. They are starting with roughly a $1.7 million hole that was bridged temporarily by the Davis Schools Foundation. In addition, and he suggested that media reporting did not make this clear, they used about $1.2 million in carryover funds the other day to balance the budget. So realistically, the district will start next year at a $3 million deficit.

There was definitely an awareness on the part of the board about the accountability issue. There is an oversight committee for Measure Q, but it has not yet had a chance to operate and work, because Measure Q funding was just approved for the next school year. So we really have not had a chance to test the system yet.

The board did not make a determination on the amount of the parcel tax yet. However, I would guess they will go with a figure closer to an additional $140 per parcel rather than $80. It gets them to the amount of money they need and they realize that either way, getting a parcel tax passed will not be a walk in the park.

That is really the final point that needs to be made. The district knows this is not a slam dunk. The last parcel tax had very strong support from the beginning. It was largely a "get out their vote" campaign. This campaign is going to need to educate the voters during a time when many will focus on the Presidential Race. And, it will have to convince an 80 to 85 percent turnout rather than a 30 percent turnout.

What seemed clear watching this is that everyone knows this will be difficult. There is a good chance it will not pass. However, they see no other option other than cutting teachers, programs, and facilities. There was also a recognition of the voters who have serious reservations and they need to build in those accountability mechanisms.

Personally I think a November ballot measure is more risky than a March one, but I understand the rationale for going forward now.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Monday, June 23, 2008

Commentary: Yolo County Courts: Just Who is In Charge Here?

I keep coming back to this case from the Yolo County Courts mainly because there is more and more to talk about--and it becomes more alarming each time. We talked about the Davis Enterprise Op-Ed on Friday, it was a bit surprising to see the Enterprise admonish the Yolo County Courts, even on a case where they were deprived of access.

Hudson Sangree of the Sacramento Bee then had a piece yesterday that says much of the same thing in a newspaper article entitled "Yolo County has closed trials before the public."

Reading through that article one of the more interesting revelations comes from the Mark Anderson case--the Woodland dentist who was accused of fondling his female patients last October.

As Mr. Sangree describes it:
"Reporters waiting for the court's doors to open at 8:30 a.m. were surprised when defense attorney Michael Rothschild emerged, smiling, and said the proceeding was over."
In fact, there was a series of hearings that somehow the family of the accused attended but the relatives of the victims were never informed of, and the arraignment hearing was neither placed on the public calendar nor was there any other public notice.

The part that gets me is the next tidbit. These hearings were attended by Commission Janene Beronio (same person who attended last week's arraignment). When the Sacramento Bee tried to talk to Beronio, questions were referred to court Executive Officer Jim Lawyer.

When the Bee tried to talk to Jim Perry--he claimed that he could not comment about the Anderson hearings since he knew nothing about them.

So wait a second, who is in charge here? The Commissioner is refusing to talk and the guy in charge does not know anything about the hearings? That right there is scary. Who is running this show?

Who exactly is Jim Perry then? He is not a lawyer, but he does manage the court's operations.

It gets more interesting here.

Talking about the CHP trial, Jim Perry is quoted as saying:
"There were seats set aside for the media in the Stevens case. Everyone else stood in line, including law enforcement."
Not so says Hudson Sangree in his article.
"Reporters who covered the trial for weeks and stood in line say otherwise."
Mr. Sangree continues quoting Perry:
Perry also maintained that Wednesday's arraignment was public – as required by law – despite deputies' decision to prevent the defendant's family, the general public and media from attending by locking the courthouse doors.

"There was a great mistake, but the hearing stands as it was," Perry said. "Both sides, the public defender and the DA were in the courtroom. It was on the record."
Notice what Perry is now doing. On the one hand he is suggesting that the arraignment was public as required by law. On the other hand, he suggests this is a mistake, but by the same token, no laws were violated since the lawyers were in the room and a transcript is available.

Fortunately, Perry is not allowed to get away with this, at least not in the newspaper article. James Chadwick who is President of the California First Amendment Coalition and is a lawyer who represents the media was interviewed. He did not pull any punches either.

Mr. Chadwick calls Jim Perry's assertion:

"the worst kind of Orwellian doublespeak... It wasn't public if only the public that the deputy sheriffs wanted to allow in were allowed in. That's not what public means."

Yes, thank you Mr. Chadwick for calling it as you see it.

The article goes on to talk about how important it is that the arraignment is held in public. Peter Scheer also from California's First Amendment Coalition talked about the fact that in countries that do not have rules of law, they keep the public out of arraignments and such proceedings because "the initiation of criminal charges against people is arbitrary."

A mistake has been made, it does not appear to be the first time that a mistake has been made on this, heads will roll though? There will be consequences, right?

Apparently it is the Sheriff's responsibility to discipline his deputies for what happens in Yolo Court buildings.

And Sheriff Ed Prieto said that he would neither punish nor reassign those responsible for locking the public out. Nor will he identify them.

On the other hand, who does Jim Perry answer to? Is he the problem here or the scapegoat?

I get the fact that Ed Prieto just lost one of his deputies. Ed Prieto is understandably going through a very tough time. However, he is a professional, an elected public official, and he has a job to do. The public deserves a better accounting than it has gotten. Fine a mistake was made, fix it.

I have to ask again, who does Jim Perry answer to? Because it seems to me that he is dodging serious questions at least in the public realm.

All of this raises very serious issues for the Yolo County Courts. I think the accused in this case has the right to a change in venue where they can get perhaps a fairer trial. He may be guilty of everything, but he deserves at least the semblance of a transparent system.

Someone needs to seriously examine the Yolo County Court system. We have long questioned the prosecution aspect of it, but it appears the problems go beyond even that.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Commentary: Parcel Tax Discussion Time

The Davis School Board meets tomorrow morning at 9 am to discuss critical details of a proposed parcel tax. I do not know the significance of that time slot, but that's when it is scheduled to go.

The district has to do this. I know some folks think they can still cut more funding, but they cannot. They cut as much of the soft funding as they could. To get to the rest of the savings they would have to cut hard money--programs, facilities, or teachers. And while we could go around in circles, the bottom line is that some program that is helping some kid to get through and get their degree would be cut and that would have a huge detriment.

The real question at this point is how much and what form the new parcel tax should be.

For starters the district will be armed with a phone survey of several hundred Davis residents. Part of their charge was to determine the level of public support for the proposed parcel tax. The public was asked about various amounts of support ranging from 80 to 100 additional per year. The parcel tax will require a two-thirds majority for it to pass.

$80 to $100 is not going to break anyone's bank. Remember there is a way for people to opt out due to hardship.

One thing that was disappointing was I received a few calls complaining that the district was not forthcoming with information to seniors and others on how to opt out of this year's parcel tax. That is something that needs to be corrected.

Second, I think the parcel tax would be easier to pass if it were tied directly to fiscal situation of the district rather than a blanket tax. In other words, if the state cuts additional funding next year, the district could receive more in the form of parcel taxes. If it receives more funding from the state, the savings would be passed to the public.

Already included in such a parcel tax is an oversight board. Some have suggested a more independent oversight board with a more open public selection process. I am not sure how that would work at this point, but the more transparency the better.

Parcel tax passage already requires that the district lay out exactly how those funds will be spent, this has been another concern.

School Board President Sheila Allen made some interesting comments in the Davis Enterprise this morning.

The Board President suggested that "the community spoke loud and clear during the past 12 months about what their priorities are"--this in reference to the $1.7 million in donations to the Davis School Foundation.

However, I would caution here from reading too far into that. Most of that money came from parents and involved and concerned citizens. There were a number of really big donations. That does not necessarily mean that two-thirds of the public will approve a new parcel tax.

A final decision will be November of 2008 or March of 2009.

There are positives and negatives for both. Traditionally the district has relied on low turnout events for their parcel tax, believing that those low turnout elections bring out a stronger core of parents and supporters of schools.

There are two concerns expressed in the Davis Enterprise article. First that the school issue might get lost in the tremendous attention given to the Presidential election. Second there is concern about time to organize an effective campaign. There is also a cost issue associated with a larger election.

On other hand, March might prove less expensive but there is also a fear that the awareness of the fiscal plight might decline by next spring.

One thing not mentioned is that if they have an election in the Spring, that will be the fifth election in about 16 months, the electorate will be fatigued and the Presidential excitement will be open.

Personally I think they have to shoot for November. The public needs to weigh in on this in full. The public will have to be organized and mobilized.

There are a lot of issues that need to be covered first.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting