Subtext of Foster vs. NC City Council to ponder

Is there a subtext to Nevada City Treasurer George Foster resigning? George comes from the right, and the Council comes from the left. Whatever; this is America.

But too often around here, nonpartisan issues become partisan ones — and personal, from some past incidents. (Foster was first appointed by ex-Mayor Steve Cottrell.) I see both sides, but why can’t we just agree to disagree and move on?

It’s often denied, but as a former colleague used to joke: “The politics are so nasty around here, because the stakes are so small.” No kidding. I see it all the time — on most all the elected or appointed “non partisan” bodies in our county.

In this case, residents like us, who are  just hoping Nevada City is run right (with a recent track record of gross incompetence), are caught in the middle.

George ran a business and is a longtime “three-digit address” homeowner: Why not welcome his expertise? What does an opinion cost us? The council has the final word.

Meanwhile, more and more of the city gets boarded up: Stonehouse, Dos Banditos (as previously reported), Broad Street Furnishings, and so on up the street.

When will we dispense with drama and just join hands to tackle the “big rocks”? The stakes are a lot higher nowadays than small-town politics of yesteryear.

“Pension spiking”: Is fox guarding the hen house?

Note: With George Foster resigning as Nevada City’s treasurer late Friday, I’m repeating this post from 3/1. It seems even more relevant to ponder now:

images8Pension spiking is the proverbial *golden* spike.

It refers to cases where public sector workers get big raises in the years immediately before retirement to get larger pensions than otherwise.

“This inflates the pension payments to the retirees and, upon retirement of the ’spikee,’ transfers the burden of making payments from the employee’s employer to a public pension fund,” as Wikipedia points out. “This practice is considered a significant contributor to the high cost of public sector pensions.”

Though some states have passed laws to make it more difficult, pension spiking still is commonplace.

Does it happen in our neck of the woods? You bet it does. In our case, a shrinking, small population — and tax base — make our share of the burden worse.

I worry about abuses of pension spiking because of the conflicts of interest inherent in a small town: People who are the “watchdogs” of other people also are their friends. Too often, arm’s length relationships are back slapping ones.

Unlike double dipping — drawing a government pension for one job while also working in the government at another — we can better control pension spiking without passing new laws.

This is all the more reason to have a citizen financial oversight group, such as the one that Nevada City is proposing to disband. With a lot of retired business people and CPAs around, the expertise can’t hurt.

It also could help City Hall continue to recoup from its reputation for being “asleep at the wheel,” which it was. All the meetings are public, and the council has the final word.

We need to work collectively to wring out the excesses of government. We can’t afford it.

Craigslist sued for sex ads — again

Craigslist was sued Thursday for its sex ads — this time from the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Department.

Erotic ad on Craigslist
Erotic ad on Craigslist

“Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation,” the Sheriff’s Office said Thursday, according to sfgate.com. “Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they’re being pimped on Craigslist.”

Craigslist issued its own statement: “Misuse of Craigslist to facilitate criminal activity is unacceptable, and we continue to work diligently to prevent it,” the statement said. “Misuse of the site is exceptionally rare compared to how much the site is used for legal purposes. Regardless, any misuse of the site is not tolerated on Craigslist.”

Being curious, I clicked on the Sacramento’s Craiglist under “massage” or “erotic” and “services.” I don’t know what was legal and what was not, but the ads were colorful.

Some Internet content is being monetized, that’s for sure.

(photo from blognetnews.com)

‘Yoo-hoo,’ are we in a depression yet?

images2A full year passed before the government declared we were officially in a “recession.” Gee, thanks for the heads up.

This got me to thinking: Do you think we are in a depression now? I do.

Big-name companies are almost penny stocks: GE trades for less than the price of a toaster, General Motors trades for less than the price of a spark plug, and Citigroup trades for less than the price of an ATM fee.

The stock market is at a 12-year low; I’m exchanging greetings with friends from that era (at the S.F. Chronicle) on Facebook, a sign of the times. We’re all in our late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Others have died.

The government is spending billions of dollars to bail out AIG, Citicorp and GM, and we’re coming to accept that these once-stalwart businesses are “yesterday’s lettuce.”

In short, we are dealing with systemic issues, not cyclical ones. We are dealing with issues — high leverage on Wall Street, runaway government spending and consumer debt — that we should have dealt with years ago.

For people in our ’40s, like my wife and I, the downturn has defined the rest of our life. “Be frugal,” we are learning, just like our depression-era parents.

Others, the retirees who define the demographics in our area, don’t have enough time left to recoup their losses. Their “nest eggs” are cracked, and many of their children will fend for themselves, rather than inherit some money or real estate.

“This is a time for the history books,”  Jim Coons of Coons Advisors, a financial consultant, told The Associated Press.

Around here, storefronts in our historic downtowns go vacant like clockwork. I keep track on Mill Street as I shuttle my son to school each day.

In Nevada City, my hometown, the building where the Stonehouse, Dos Banditos and Broad Street Furnishings used to be are vacant. Other stores are cutting back their hours.

In both downtowns, the “whisper campaign” is that a slew more businesses are wondering when they will have to shut down. Stay tuned.

Up in our “industrial” area, businesses are closing or cutting back. Our high-tech gem, Grass Valley Group, is on the block.

Foreclosures are on the rise throughout the area, including some from our most notable civic and government leaders.

The unemployment rate is much higher than the stated figure, because many of our out-of-work people (real-estate agents, “consultants,” etc.) don’t qualify for unemployment.

In short, we’re in a depression. We won’t know that for sure for a while, when the government releases “official” figures.

Let’s hope that at that point  we can look back on the carnage with a sense of relief that it’s ending. Don’t get too excited, though: This time around, I don’t expect a quick snap back.

Group forms on Facebook to shape local economy

Here’s a cool scoop: Some of the area’s most enterprising youths have teamed up to launch a group on Facebook that focuses on economic development.

They include the children of some of the area’s most successful business people — from Sierra Star Vineyard to Sierra Foothill Construction — as well as Grass Valley businessman and planning commissioner Rey Johnson as a board member.

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Hi Yo!

Grass Valley City Council member Yolanda Cookson also is a member. Check out the cool photo of her and her husband.

Called “The Exchange,” this is “a group of peers collaborating on the social network and economic development of western Nevada County.” 

Hooray!  The people who represent our future are getting together to help shape it. I’m all for it!

“Exchange” formed from the group of youths who have been meeting informally as part of the county Economic Resource Council’s “bring them home campaign.”

It is targeting young people to help make the county more viable. Facebook is a good way to get their message out to other youths too.

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Me, my son and "Thinker"

Their page on Facebook is here. I’m a Facebook member, so I asked to join the group. It’s open to all. Here’s my Facebook photo (my son and I and “The Thinker” at the Rodin Museum in Paris, aka Larry, Moe and Curly).

Small newspapers losing legal ad $$$ to Web

images1The Vail Daily, a sister paper of The Union, just received some bad news: Vail’s town government has decided to post the full text of laws on its own Web site, instead of the newspaper, to cut costs.

The switch will save the town $20,000, not exactly chump change.

Needless to say, the Vail Daily’s publisher, Steve Pope, is opposed. Pope said is “unreasonable to expect that the common person” will regularly visit the town’s Web site, whereas most local residents scan his newspaper, according to the Summit News.

If more cities bypass newspapers for legal notices (and this is not the only example), it will be another blow to small-town papers, whose legal ads are about all that’s generating revenue gains in the deepening recession.

Here’s some background about the concern by Steve Outing, a friend and former colleague of mine at the S.F. Chronicle and a new media expert.

The town of Vail should reconsider its policy, in the interest of transparency. Or perhaps officials could advertise the town’s Web site in the Vail Daily’s online edition, directing people to the notices.

In hindsight, the Vail Daily also could have offered a rate cut before it came to this. I hear a lot of complaints from government agencies and nonprofits, which feel “captive” in the legal notice process. Now there’s an alternative.

What’s Terry McAteer up to in Inyo County?

A blast from the past. Our longtime schools superintendent Terry McAteer is up to his eyeballs in Inyo County, where he now runs the schools there. Terry is launching a community reads program and coping with the same budget crisis on his side of the Sierra:

Inyo's outdoor science school
Inyo's outdoor science school

•Terry M. described the cuts to the state schools’ budget as “grim” and “shameful,” with “dire consequenses,” as the Inyo Register reported.

As with our area, the Inyo County schools face a March 15 deadline to notify teachers of layoffs. The schools are one of the county’s largest employers.

•Terry has launched the county’s first community reads program, which he also helped initiate here. “The concept behind the Community Reads program is to celebrate reading one book as an entire community,” he told the paper.

The book is “Farwell to Manzanar,” about the Japanese American War Relocation Camp on Highway 395, south of Bishop — a good choice. You should read the book and visit the camp if you haven’t. It’s a sad side of our history.

• Terry also has backed a newly passed truancy ordinance where students in Bishop who ditch school can wind up in court, with fines of up to $300 and up to 36 hours of community service.

“So many people talk about raising the bar when it comes to education … I want to raise the bar from the bottom up, to bring up that bottom 5 to 10 percent,” he told the paper.

Keep it up!

(photo from school district)