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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Sen. Abel Maldonado's unpopularity campaign continues, Santa Cruz progressives challenge to Coonerty's UCSC deal, city smoking ban wafts into view and the Umbrella Man makes an appearance after a long absence.

Now Accepting Friends

Let's hope Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) has reconnected with some old high school friends on Facebook. They might be the only people who will talk to him anymore.

Two weeks ago the senator, whose 15th District runs from Santa Barbara County to Los Gatos, alienated pretty much everybody on both sides of the aisle by refusing to vote for the state budget until he'd extracted a concession on open primaries. The concept, which would in theory favor moderate candidates, is a staple of reformers throughout the state, but Maldonado managed to irritate even potential supporters with his grandstanding

To wit: former District 27 Assemblyman Fred Keeley criticized Maldo's horse-trading tactics in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Ever the diplomat, Maldonado shot back that it was just "sour grapes" for Keeley, who was redistricted out of a political career when the gerrymandered wonder that is District 15 was created. "This is why we need an open primary," Maldonado told reporter Kurtis Alexander, "so we can keep extremists like Mr. Keeley from coming to Sacramento."

But wait! Keeley now works for the reform group California Forward, which supports open primaries.

"Abel ignored that," says John Laird, who succeeded Keeley in the Legislature. "It was the age-old political tactic of trying to ignore the truth in the charge by tearing down the speaker. The fact is, if you give your vote in the Legislature in exchange for anything, that's not legal."

One of Maldonado's other booby prizes from the last hours of negotiations is the $1 million he demanded be cut from the budget for furniture for the "plush" office of state Controller John Chiang. In press releases and interviews, Maldonado waxed outraged about spending money on such "pet projects." And by golly, Nūz got grumpy too, envisioning mahogany desks and Tiffany lamps ordered by a bunch of fat cats for their state offices.

The facts are a little less outrageous: steel cubicles for 741 employees who, it was decided in 2006, should be moved from a prime location in downtown Sacramento to cheaper office space (30 percent cheaper) in the east part of town. That year the controller signed a 10-year lease with the new landlord. And now, without furniture, the state is leasing two offices, the cheaper of them empty. Documents from Chiang's office show a savings of $250,000 a year in the new location.

That's $1.5 million between now and 2016, more than enough to offset the $1 million in savings from "new office furniture." But hey, what's a half-million between friends? Unless, of course, you don't have any left.

Old Guard Reappears

The hard-fought agreement allowing UCSC to expand its north campus and the city of Santa Cruz to have some say in it was a hallmark of Councilmember Ryan Coonerty's tenure as mayor. So it's no surprise that there was some extra tension in the air when a group of powerful locals challenged the agreement's validity, pointing to the city's scant water supply and the university's growing water demands as reasons for backing out of it.

Led by longtime progressive and former county Supervisor Gary Patton, and including former Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt, the Community Water Coalition let its demands be known at the Feb. 24 council meeting.

"This is a critically dry year and we're facing a growing water problem," said Patton, who also drafted a scathing letter to the council. "Please withdraw the application in which the city itself is leading the charge to make a major new water commitment to the university."

The discussion began after Santa Cruz's water conservation manager, Toby Goddard, presented the city's Water Shortage Contingency Plan and explained that the city would attempt to cut back 5 to 15 percent of its water use due to California's ongoing drought. The CWC contended that any plans to require water rationing should first consider the millions of extra gallons expected to be pumped to new UCSC dorms and research centers.

"We need to maximize the community involvement in any decisions regarding water use," said Patton. "As a council you should at least honor the spirit of Measure J."

Patton's invoking of Measure J is nothing new in the fight against university expansion. The law, which was passed overwhelmingly by Santa Cruz voters in 2006, requires the city to obtain a majority vote by residents before enacting any expansion of its water service area. Regardless, under the 2008 land-use agreement, Santa Cruz cannot oppose UCSC's application to the Local Area Formation Commission, which annexes new land into the city limits and affords rights to the city's water. This seeming double standard came to a boil Tuesday when Coonerty flatly denied any breach of the law.

"The university contends that they are a state agency and they're not bound by LAFCO," said Coonerty. "One of the beauties of the [land-use] contract was that the university agreed they would go to LAFCO. We wouldn't want to lose that. And the agreement has always been consistent with Measure J."

A handful of other residents echoed Patton's concerns at the microphone, but after 40 minutes, Mayor Cynthia Mathews put the kibosh on the comments.

"We're not in a position to act on anything being discussed," she said. "We can take up the discussion at the next meeting, once [the topic] has actually been scheduled."

After the meeting, Patton said his group would be ready.

"I think we have legitimate demands," he said. "Ryan's statement that the [land-use] agreement is consistent with Measure J is completely false. We'll be back next meeting."

That's March 10--and Nūz will be waiting with bated breath to see how things progress between the city's progressive old guard and a new generation of city leaders.

Butts Trashed

What was billed as a "community meeting" at the Santa Cruz Police Station last Tuesday, Feb. 24, quickly morphed into a support group for people who hate smoking when it became clear that all 14 attendees were stogie-phobic.

"You're selling ice to the Eskimos, here," said Ronald Hughes, who wore a "Smoking Is Beyond Rude" T-shirt to the meeting.

"We moved here for clean air," said Eliot Guernsey, who complained that his new neighbors smoke so much that it routinely wafts into his house. "It's so ironic."

"Everywhere you go you get assaulted," his wife, Katy, agreed.

Talk of a city smoking ban, which could potentially designate an entire parcel of downtown Santa Cruz completely smoke-free, began in earnest after the county earned a D in the American Lung Association's State of Tobacco Control Report Card released in January. The grade is based on passage of new laws that include outdoor smoking bans and cigarette taxes, and though Santa Cruz already has many anti-smoking laws such as bans in bars or in some parks, the ALA is looking for progress towards total smoke-freedom. Cities like Berkeley--which bans smoking within 20 feet of buildings open to the public--and Davis--which bans smoking in a litany of outdoor locations from public events to entryways to outdoor seating areas--both received higher grades. Belmont is another "gold-standard" city, with the passage of its new ban on smoking in multilevel apartments.

Though a Santa Cruz ban is in its earliest infancy, it already has strong support from Councilmembers Ryan Coonerty and Don Lane, the latter of whom attended the meeting.

"There is no timeline [for the ban, but hopefully] in the next couple of months," Lane told the eager meeting attendees, "the downtown businesses are one of the places we hope will overcome their hesitation."

Historically, cities considering various smoking bans have heard loud opposition from businesses who fear a ban will hurt their bottom line, and an opinion poll two years ago showed Santa Cruz business owners are no different. But Laurie Lang, senior health education for Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency, is amassing an arsenal of scientific studies to prove that locals have nothing to lose and everything to gain with a smoking ban.

"It's more than just keeping customers. There are hidden costs--insurance premiums, cleaning and maintenance. Productivity is lower in smokers," said Lang. "A little bit of education will go a long way."

Lang also arranged for HOPE Services, the once-daily cleanup crew that picks up garbage and sweeps downtown, to collect every cigarette butt found. After about nine cumulative hours of cleanup, the group amassed a 26-pound ball of butts, which Lang says proves that smoking is more of a public nuisance than a boon for businesses. Lang and the HSA will present their arguments to the Santa Cruz Downtown Business Association and other business organizations in mid-March.

Lang also stressed that aside from impact on business and failing report card grades, the most important thing about the ban is that secondhand smoke--even outdoors--has been shown in studies to be unhealthy. Among her arsenal is a paper on the city of Pueblo, Colo., whose incidence of heart attacks dropped 41 percent after they enacted a smoking ban in 2003. "It's more than annoying, it's a health hazard." said Lang. "My mother died from emphysema. She'd still be here if she hadn't smoked."

She also pointed out that there is no secret conspiracy theory here--HSA really does want to force smokers to quit. "The more bans we have on smoking, the more tired people will get of finding ways to smoke, the more of them will quit," she said.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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