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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Santa Cruz braces for a cycling-related lawsuit, People Power wins a temporary restraining order in the Mission Hill alleyway squabble, Santa Cruz lawmakers raise eyebrows at governor's plans for the Delta, and Sen. Simitian loses his place at the Budget Committee table.

Cycle Case

Every day semis and SUVs roar up Mission Street with a ferocity that could send shivers down the spine of even the most hardened bicyclist. In this concrete jungle of distracted commuters, stoned students and gaping potholes, no two-wheeled pedal-masher is ever truly safe. This unfortunate reality has been a fact of life for decades, but now the parents of deceased cyclist John Myslin are ramping up to hold the city government accountable in court.

Myslin, a history teacher at Pacific Collegiate School, was killed last August when he was cut off by a semi truck at Mission and Bay. The fatal accident proves the city of Santa Cruz acted irresponsibly by not providing room for bicyclists on its streets, or so says Myslin family attorney David Dibble.

"We allege all sorts of things about the city not providing adequate resources for bicyclists in that area," says Dibble.

It'll be a while before those allegations are aired before a judge; Dibble legally has to wait for the claim slips he sent out to the city to be rejected and sent back to him (the city rejected the claim on Feb. 26). But it is quite certain that the case will go to Santa Cruz County Superior Court sometime this year. And while the dollar figure the family will be suing for has not yet been determined, it is shaping up to be quite a lawyer fest. Dibble plans to rope the County of Santa Cruz, the State of California, the truck driver and the driver's employer, Randazzo Co., into the lawsuit as well.

Santa Cruz City Attorney John Barisone thinks the city will be legally protected from any litigation related to Myslin's death. Barisone argues, in effect, that the road is none of the city's business.

"Right now they're just threatening to sue any entity that could potentially be involved, because that's what is normally done at the discovery stage of a lawsuit," says Barisone. "But the accident actually occurred on Mission Street, which is technically part of Highway 1 [a state-controlled highway], and that is Caltrans' responsibility. It's not the city's responsibility."

Even if the city does get caught up in the lawsuit, it will have a sizeable stockpile of facts it can cite to defend its bicycle-friendly street cred. To start off with, the nationwide League of American Bicyclists recently identified Santa Cruz as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation.

There are also concrete actions the city can point to, such as the recently completed Soquel Avenue-to-Capitola Avenue bike-only turn lane and renewed efforts to build a bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the San Lorenzo River.

While these pedal-friendly improvements have not technically been "in the area" of Myslin's untimely demise, the city has looked more deeply into the safety of Mission Street over the past few months. Shortly after news of Myslin's death spread to City Hall, the City Council directed public works officials to draw up plans for making the Mission Street corridor safer for cyclists--including a proposal to make King Street a bike-only route.

Some bicycle advocates believe more can be done. Ecology Action transportation program director Piet Canin was uncomfortable commenting on the lawsuit itself, but said he hopes the tragedy of Myslin's death can be transformed into a coordinated effort to make the unforgiving Mission Street a little safer for all involved.

"From this tragedy, hopefully, improvements can come," says Canin. "The question now is: How do we move forward and bring the different entities together--including Caltrans, the city, truck companies, cyclist education organizations and the cyclists themselves--to provide safe transportation corridors?"

Fencing Match

An alleyway that connects School Street and High Street near Mission Plaza will remain open to the public for the time being, thanks to a restraining order that will prevent a property owner from putting up a fence to block it off--something he's been trying to do for a year.

On Monday, Feb. 25, landlord John Mahoney hired the Abacherlie Fence Company to construct a new metal fence across the alley. The workers left the job undone when People Power president Micah Posner and some neighbors confronted them.

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Posner went to court seeking a restraining order and received one from retired Justice Harry Brauer, who was filling in for Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick. It will prevent anyone from building a fence in the alleyway for 15 days, or until March 12, the day the case goes to court. It's the latest development in an argument over public space that has been fought since February 2007, when Mahoney, whose permanent residence is in Redway, bought the rights to the alleyway adjacent to his house and boarded it up at both ends, claiming that criminals in the alleyway were bothering his tenants.

Neighbors fond of the shortcut, however, objected. Informal meetings between neighbors and Mahoney went nowhere; mediation didn't help, either. Finally someone tore down the fence. Mahoney put it back up. And then in January activists with People Power cut it down a final time.

Posner and his attorney, Gary Redenbacher, maintain the walkway is a public easement, owing to the fact that it's been in use for so long, and that therefore the fence is a public nuisance. According to this logic, tearing down the fence is legal.

Mahoney did not respond to phone calls by presstime, but has said in the past that he strongly disagrees with Posner. He says that he bought the rights to the alley fairly and insists that he has a good reason for boarding it up.

Last week Posner said the path must remain open for the good of the neighborhood. He added that he didn't want to go to court but is ready to fight.

"The fence goes up and down," he said. "It's got to stop at some point."

Delta Water Lines

The troubled Sacramento Delta has been a central front in California's water wars for decades, but on the week of Feb. 25 the stakes were raised to a new level by the always showy Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a move that some say was intended to shake up deadlocked legislative negotiations on California's water shortage, the governator threatened to begin planning for a new pipeline that would bypass the delta and funnel water directly from the Sacramento River to Central and Southern California.

As it now stands, the Sacramento River runs into the northern portion of the delta; water is pumped out at the delta's south end for delivery to approximately two-thirds of the state. By instead routing the river around the eastern border of the brackish delta, proponents of the pipeline claim water quality will be improved, fewer fish will be killed in the southern pumps and untainted water deliveries will be ensured to the Central Valley's lucrative and thirsty agribusiness sector. The pipeline idea received renewed interest after an August 2007 court order substantially cut the amount of water state officials could pump from the delta on the grounds that it was endangering the tiny delta smelt.

It's a brash move by Schwarzenegger, especially considering one of his appointees, Secretary for Resources Mike Chrisman, has announced he doesn't think he legally needs the legislature to approve the bypass. Santa Cruz area legislators and activists were certainly taken aback by the sudden announcement, and many are calling for patience as negotiations continue on a more comprehensive Delta plan.

Former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton, who now works as legal counsel for the pro-environment Planning and Conservation League, believes the governor is taking a cue from his Hollywood days by proposing a much more dramatic project than he actually intends to pursue.

"The governor is basically taking the position that 'I'm the governor, I can do what I want.' Of course, that isn't really true," says Patton. "He has been known to do things like this to get a rise out of people so they will come around and compromise with him, resulting in a solution that is much more reasonable that what he initially suggests. In a way, the governor is just jousting; the Legislature controls the money, so he can't really be serious."

It's a reasonable theory. After all, Schwarzenegger hasn't set anything in stone yet, and he has already involved the Legislature in the decision. The action that caused so much anxiety among water warriors was a simple budget request put in to the legislative branch from the Department of Water Resources (DWR), an agency that is technically under Schwarzenegger's guidance. In the budget request, the DWR asked for $1.4 million to hire eight new staff members to draw up and file the paperwork needed to build a pipeline around the delta. So, already the governor is at the mercy of lawmakers who control the purse strings.

Nevertheless, the request drew immediate criticism from water activists because it seemed to undermine ongoing water negotiations, in which a delta bypass pipeline was being considered as part of a more comprehensive update to California water infrastructure. These negotiations, however, have come to what Patton calls "a logjam" as Republicans continue to demand that three new dams be built and Democrats insist on funding water conservation efforts instead.

One of the chief proponents of a more comprehensive delta solution is Santa Cruz's own representative in the upper chamber of the state House, Sen. Joe Simitian. He says he supports building a bypass pipeline in principle, but that the delta problem can't realistically be solved without comprehensive ecological restoration as well. Last year, he introduced a bill that would encourage the state to pursue this comprehensive approach.

"You have to be very delicate when dealing with this issue," Simitian warns. "Any proposal that is going to be successful needs to have at least three components. First off, there must be assurances that we won't be shipping Northern California's water willy-nilly to Southern California. Secondly, there must be efforts that will reverse and not further the ecological damage that has been done to the delta. And lastly, there must be assurances that the water gets to its destination safely and cleanly. So, do I think this involves an alternative conveyance in some form? Yes, but you have to look at these things as a whole."

The proposal coming out of Schwarzenegger's administration doesn't fit the bill, according to Simitian.

"This latest proposal is a big business effort that doesn't address the environmental concerns or the concerns of Northern Californian water users," he says. "If history has shown us anything, it's that you can't strong-arm your way into something this complex."

Simitian Reprimanded

Speaking of strong-arming, on Feb. 25 the state Senate leadership yanked away Simitian's seat on the Budget Committee over a disagreement on education funding. It seems that the outspoken lawmaker, who sat on the Education Subcommittee, ran afoul of Sen. Don Perata and the other pooh-bahs in a Feb. 13 meeting when he dared to suggest reducing next year's benchmark funding levels for education by $400 million.

Granted, on the surface this looks evil--taking away money from the innocent children and all--but the pragmatic Simitian says he was trying to avoid something much worse: the complete abandonment of minimum standards for education funding.

"I said what I said because I wanted to avoid a Prop. 98 suspension," Simitian told Nūz, referring to the law that guarantees minimum funding levels for schools. "What I said is, 'Look, if we suspend Prop. 98 it will mean less money for kids; number two, I don't think the governor knows how he will restore funding next year; and number three, like most bad habits, once you do it it's easier to do it again.'"

The precedent for ditching Prop. 98 was set in the budget-crisis year of 2004, which deepened Simitian's concern. "I worry that if the state suspends 98 for a second time in four years, it won't be worth the paper it's printed on."

Simitian's approach might have worked out better for the kiddies in the end, but the Senate leadership apparently lacks the cajones to explain anything that complex to voters. In any event, Simitian's little rebellion seems to have touched a nerve; the initial punishment was severe and unrelated to the infraction. On Feb. 15, two days after the dust-up, the San Jose Mercury News reported that he'd been stripped of his chairmanship of the Environmental Quality Committee.

"It was a little ambiguous what the status was, for a while there," Simitian says drily. He isn't telling just how things got sorted out (Nūz would dearly love to know), and he's taking a stoic perspective on it all.

"Long story short, it was my choice to speak my mind," he says. "And choices have consequences."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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