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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

An Indy media conference heads to town, Highway 1 widening is dealt a severe blow, the county and affordable housing advocates head to court again, Nuz gets the scoop on the state budget, and more.

The Indy 200

A group of 200 or so media reformers, anti-corporate activists and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists will descend on the UCSC Inn Jan. 25-27 to see if they can't ditch corporate news for good. The participants—including antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and anti-corporate author Naomi Klein—intend to form a network of independent journalists, activists and corporate whistleblowers who can loosen the stranglehold that corporate news has on public discourse, if not get rid of the left wing's reliance on corporate news altogether. 'Publicizing Truths with Consequence, ' which will also feature actor Ed Asner and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, is being co-sponsored by Project Censored, which is run by Sonoma State sociology professor Peter Phillips.

"Media reform is fine, and I've been to those conferences, but we're beyond media reform," says Phillips, referring to efforts to prevent media consolidation. "We need independent, alternative systems of news and information. We're thinking if there are independent sources out there we could draw on, we wouldn't have to rely on corporate media at all."

In other words, if the group could put reporters on the ground in places like Iraq, or network with independent reporters already there, such as Dahr Jamail, then there would be no need to get the raw facts of the story from corporate sources like AP or Reuters.

The conference is invitation-only; Nūz's seems to have been lost in the mail. Organizers stress that this is a strategy session for established experts, where the groundwork will be laid to create a "master narrative" of corporate malfeasance. This master narrative will most likely be produced initially on a website, where various pre-approved independent news sources will be able to contribute and collaborate.

"These systems could utilize the Internet," suggest Phillips. "And then regionally link into local indy-media-type people who are doing the same sorts of things, so that you could get all the news you needed literally from a source that had RSS feeds from a number of trustworthy news sources."

Anti-corporate conspiracy theorists will also be well represented. David Kubiak, a conference organizer from Half Moon Bay, believes the U.S. government, not radical Islamists, flew planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11. He also taught media studies at Japan's Ritsumeikan University and is a veteran of the media reform movement.

"Media reform conferences initially only attracted a few hundred people, but now we have several thousand," he says. "We think that the chorus is now large enough that instead of preaching to it, we can begin organizing it and make some substantial differences to the way information is reported and distributed, so the people are really informed as to what is going on.

"Look at all the resources we have around the country," says Kubiak, pointing to independent investigative journalists reporting on corporate pollution, election fraud and the like. "If we link these sources together, we can create an alternative nervous system for the country."

Long and Winding Road

The persistent optimism of Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) executive director George Dondero and his staff is being challenged yet again. The Santa Cruz County Business Council, a longtime backer of efforts to widen Highway 1, unexpectedly pulled its support of a sales tax increase that would pay for widening and a number of other projects in a 55-8 email vote in early January.

An undeterred Dondero assures Nūz his department will remain vigilant in its efforts to find money to fix up the county's congested transit infrastructure. "This is still alive," Dondero says with conviction. "Just because one organization gave up doesn't mean this is dead in the water."

The council was widely considered a stable source of revenue to fund a campaign supporting the half-cent sales tax increase the RTC is trying to get on the November 2008 ballot. The tax increase would fund $600 million of transit improvements, including highway widening and train service, if it receives the approval of two-thirds of the voters.

With environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, vowing to organize a substantial opposition to the tax measure, the push to convince two-thirds of the voters that another tax increase is a good thing may need more than lawn signs. In other words, the RTC is going to need serious money.

So far, the RTC has spent $560,000 on the Transportation Funding Task Force (TFTF) that met to hammer out the details of the tax measure.

The vote by the Business Council shows that, even among supporters of the widening effort, there is disagreement regarding tactics. Craig French, director of RedTree Properties and a member of the council, believes that the results of a recent poll of likely voters spell bad news for the measure. French advocates waiting for a more favorable political climate.

"A majority of those on the Business Council support widening the highway," says French. "[However], maybe this wasn't the most appropriate election."

The poll, completed by EMC Research last October, found that 38 percent of voters would vote against any new tax increase—enough to kill it on the ballot.

Jeff Majors, the development project manager of Barry Swenson Builders, was one of the eight who voted to support the measure. Majors, who sat on the TFTF, was mystified as to why others on the council pulled out so suddenly. He compares the reversal unfavorably to the actions of alternative transportation activists like the Campaign for Sensible Transportation, which turned against the measure because it included highway widening.

"Here they finally have something they've been wanting for all these years, and they chose now to get a little cheap," he says.

The RTC seems undismayed by the setback. In an act of courage or foolhardiness, depending on your perspective, at its Jan. 10 meeting it voted to go forward with the tax measure.

Pick Up the Pace

The ongoing struggle over naming specific affordable housing sites in the unincorporated county, first reported by Nūz in December 2006, intensified last week as an organization that has already won an affordable housing suit against the county returned to court again to push the process.

California Rural Legal Assistance filed a follow-up court complaint on Thursday, Jan. 10, characterizing the county's attitude toward finding affordable sites as one of "defiance" and "obstinacy" and saying its impact "extends throughout the region."

The current planning period, CRLA points out, began on Dec. 1, 2002. CRLA first filed suit over inaction in July 2004 and won in July 2006, and the state granted the county provisional certification of its housing element the following November. It did so, however, with a strict condition: that the county "must be diligent" and carry out its program to identify specific sites for higher-density housing "not later than June 29, 2007."

Six months after the deadline, the county has failed to identify any more sites.

And so here we are, in January 2008, the lawsuit says, and no sites have been pinned down. And while the county has placed a moratorium on building at lower density on the most likely sites, that's not sufficient because there almost always turns out to be a problem with some part or another of a building site. While this is going on, other potential sites could be developed at lower density or for other purposes and thus be lost as multifamily housing sites. So the rezoning of sites to higher density needs to happen now and the court needs to order it.

Sound like a heavy argument? It sure is: "All four copies probably weighed 25 pounds," says Gretchen Regenhardt, directing attorney of the regional CRLA, given that the filing had to contain copies of the county housing element, past court orders, correspondence and numerous supporting documents. "I had to carry it into the courthouse in a box."

The box also contained two requests for relief. First, that the court once again "order compliance" with state housing law's requirement, and second, that the court order the county to meet "within 15 days" with CRLA to settle the matter.

County Planning Director Tom Burns sees the new CRLA court filing as discontinuous. "The earlier case," Burns told Nūz, "was whether we had an adequate housing element or not, and at this point, and they're now trying to expand that, from our perspective, into the nuances of how the approved housing element is being implemented."

Regenhardt disagrees. "We're not trying to punish the county. We're just trying to get housing built for low-income people."

An End to the Agony

UCSC students aren't the only ones who take a break for the winter holidays. Employees of the family-operated Tacos Morenos on Water Street also take a few weeks off to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labors. This is no doubt a much-welcome break for the hardworking staff, but for regular customers it is a tragedy ranking just below the last scene from Hamlet.

Yet, like bluebirds welcoming the first dew of spring with song, there must be a ritual to mark the end of such a period of darkness. Tacos Morenos devotee Nick Torres and a few of his friends decided last year to initiate such a ritual by welcoming back their favorite Mexican chefs with an old-fashioned campout. Why let Star Wars fanatics have all the fun?

Torres and five of his friends brought out their lawn chairs and patience to the popular restaurant on the evening of Jan. 13. Once they were set up, they waited until the taco shop opened for business the next morning. Then it was time for some much-awaited breakfast. Attendance is up from last year, when only four devotees showed up.

"That place pretty much has a huge following," says Torres. "Everyone is always raving about it and wishing they were open when they aren't. A lot of people drive by honking at us, so we know we have support."

The State of Taxes

Talk about silver lining. With last week's announcement of painful state budget cuts, Democrats in Sacramento see an opportunity to overturn what they see as an untenable moratorium on new taxes—and our own 27th District Assemblyman John Laird may lead the way.

Laird is considering taking his budget show on the road throughout the state as he did three years ago in a bid to drum up public support for raising taxes. He added that without action, California will run out of cash in March.

"There are two bottom lines," said Laird, who chairs the lower house Budget Committee. "People in California have been getting a level of service that's higher than what they've been paying for. We raise revenues, make cuts or a combination of the two. Period."

State Sen. Joe Simitian said the long-delayed moment to challenge the unpopular idea of new taxes has arrived. "Are we prepared to pull the rug over again on the subject of additional revenue?" he asked. "I don't think this is the year."

The state lawmakers' comments came at their Jan. 11 legislative meeting with city officials, and the day after Gov. Schwarzenegger announced $14 billion in spending cuts to balance a $141 billion budget.

The cuts will bite deeply into health care for the poor and ax their dental care altogether; reduce educational spending by $4 billion, or $650 per student; release 30,000 prisoners (mostly drug offenders) early and close 48 state parks. Locally, five beaches—Natural Bridges, New Brighton, Manresa, Seacliff and Sunset—would lose lifeguard staffing.

"I never thought about lifeguards as a luxury item, but that's the proposal," said Simitian, a champion of state parks. Laird explained some of the nuances of the state budget to the audience of two dozen or so that remained after the rowdy and well-attended first part of the meeting—the portion on the light brown apple moth spray issue—came to an end.

First, he said, California's revenue mechanism is structurally flawed. Its main revenue source is too volatile; 80 percent of state funding comes from income and sales taxes, which swing wildly in response to economic stimuli. In good times, the state is flush; a slight downturn and revenue dwindles rapidly. "They over- and underperform," Laird said of the two taxes.

Second, he said, Schwarzenegger's reduction in the vehicle license fee in 2004 resulted in loss of revenue that would have totaled $5 billion this year—yet at the same time, voters have forbidden lawmakers from declaring emergencies and taking money from the transportation fund. "So we took out revenue but locked in the expenditure," he said.

Of course, whether the governor agrees to raise taxes is another subject altogether.

"What does the governor really think about the issue?" asked Simitian, laying out his guesses. "He could be simply opposed. He could be strategically playing this and would rather see the Democratic legislators take the heat for 'forcing' additional revenue, and he could be genuinely undecided. I don't think I know the answer."

Laird added that at the Jan. 10 press conference, Schwarzenegger had ducked a direct question about whether he would raise taxes, quipping, "I don't steal other people's lines," which Nūz takes to be a reference to the first President Bush's infamous "No new taxes" declaration.

So what will happen? It all depends on what the voters are willing to support—hence Laird's plan to hit the highway with his budget show. "The question is, over the next six months, how does the conversation with the people of California end up?" he said.

Intelligent Design

The move to turn Santa Cruz into a world-class design center takes its first baby steps this Friday, Jan. 18, with the launch at Plantronics of the Santa Cruz Design Innovation Center.

The center, the brainchild of business leaders and Santa Cruz Economic Development Director Jeremy Neuner, is intended to help convert some of Santa Cruz's strengths—namely its creativity and proximity to Silicon Valley—into an economic engine.

The event includes speeches by Santa Cruz Councilman and Design Center chairman Ed Porter, Plantronics CEO Ken Kannappan and Plantronics' vice president of Corporate Design Darrin Caddes, who oversees a team of 20 at the company's Harvey West-area offices.

"When we talk about world-class design work happening here in town, they're a great example—but only one example," says Neuner, citing also skateboard makers NHS, O'Neill and Santa Cruz Bicycles.

The keynote speaker will be BMW Automotive Design director Chris Chapman, a former colleague of Caddes. Neuner says the center is just getting started. "Getting those people together for the first time is what this is about. The idea is, create a community first—networking opportunities, seminars and lectures."

The Design Center launch event is Friday, Jan. 18, at 5pm at Plantronics Headquarters, 345 Encinal St., Santa Cruz. Event is open to the public; RSVP at

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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