Lodi News-Sentinel: Some options for trimming Lodi City Council costs
Is compensation for the Lodi City Council outrageous? No. Should it be trimmed? Absolutely.
Our recent series on council pay and compensation by reporter Katie Nelson was an eye-opener. We're sure many citizens and taxpayers were not aware that the costs associated with the council have risen steadily over the years, driven in large measure by the soaring costs of health insurance.
Tally up the stipends, pension contributions and various insurance coverages, and the amount is substantial: $128,000 in 2012.
Nelson's work also showed some council members travel regularly out of town, mainly to conferences. Those costs are, with a few exceptions, borne by the taxpayers. Moreover, no one approves those travel expenses; council members are pretty much free to go where they wish, with no oversight.
Council costs have crept upward across California, not just in Lodi. Yet they aren't often or easily revealed — or explained.
We should stop here and acknowledge that city officials were quite responsive to our requests for financial data.
Deciphering the information, though, proved quite a challenge.
One payment of $5,908 to Councilman Alan Nakanishi, for example, was especially difficult to unravel. It had apparently been reported to us in error and efforts to explain it were never entirely clear.
This is an area that needs more sunshine, and more simplicity.
It is also an area where some nipping and tucking is overdue. Our suggestions:
—Let's keep the stipend of $860 per month per council member. That's reasonable and reflects limits imposed by state law based on a city's population. We know and appreciate that some council members put in many hours each week, and for them council duty may rival a full-time job. Traditionally, and for most members, though, serving on the council has been a part-time position. The stipend, and little more, should suffice.
—Drop pension eligibility for council members. As far as we could determine, only one council member is drawing a pension based on her service, and it is modest. But the contributions of roughly $2,000 to CalPERS per year per eligible council member by the city add up over time. Should council service, driven by a sense of laudable civic spirit, really equal a pension? We're among those who don't believe so.
—A major driver of council costs is health insurance. These costs are both variable and substantial. If we as a city continue to pay them to the council, we agree with Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce: Coverage should be limited to the council member individually and not family members. That limits the city's exposure and provides a rough equity of compensation.
—Under city policy, council members are each allotted a travel budget of $2,900 per year. There are no real checks and balances on this travel, and there should be.
Who would review and approve these expenses? That's admittedly a challenge. It is unfair to ask a council appointee to cast a critical eye on the spending of, in effect, a boss.
So why not let the council's true bosses, the taxpayers, take a look at this spending? Why not post all council travel expense reports online and include at least of summary of them in council agendas?
As our reporting showed, the cost of council is substantial. As city leaders, especially during times that remain economically challenging, council members have the opportunity — if not the obligation — to set a financially responsible example.
Sacramento Bee: Border Patrol rightly restricts use of deadly force by agents
Crossing into the U.S. illegally is not a capital crime. Yet since 2010, some 20 people have been fatally shot by Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The head of the Border Patrol has taken the correct and necessary step of making clear to his agents that using deadly force should be a last resort. On Friday, Chief Michael Fisher ordered agents not to step in front of moving vehicles in order to open fire, and not to shoot at fleeing vehicles. He also directed agents to seek cover or move away from rock throwers, and not to shoot unless in imminent danger.
No doubt, agents should be able to protect themselves or the public. But it's also clear that more intensive training is needed to make sure this reasonable policy is followed.
The new rules bring the patrol more in line with the nation's major law enforcement departments. The changes come after scrutiny from civil rights groups and the Mexican government, and follow eye-opening reports a week earlier by Tim Johnson of McClatchy's foreign staff and by the Los Angeles Times.
Johnson reported that in some of the border killings, there are serious questions whether deadly force was really required. Critics also say the patrol has resisted adopting safeguards on the use of lethal force and has weakened training standards, Johnson reported.
The Los Angeles Times disclosed details of a report by independent law enforcement experts, who found that agents had deliberately stepped into the path of vehicles to justify shooting at drivers and had fired at rock throwers on the Mexican side of the border — and that the patrol had rejected restrictions on the use of deadly force in those situations. The review, by the highly respected Police Executive Research Forum, also criticized the patrol for not diligently investigating shooting incidents.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which commissioned the report, sought to keep it under wraps, submitting only a watered-down summary to congressional committees, the Times said. Until Friday, federal officials had refused to release the policy covering when agents are empowered to use deadly force.
Those are troubling lapses of transparency and accountability for an agency that has grown dramatically in recent years, to some 21,700 agents.
New Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson deserves praise — not flak from the agents' union — for pushing the Border Patrol to issue the new use-of-force guidelines and to make them public.
Securing the border is crucial. Given political realities, it's a prerequisite before the long overdue and comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system can move forward. But the border can't be a killing zone.
Santa Cruz Sentinel: Carbon tax not best way to offset cap-and-trade gas price volatility
The weather is warming up and so are gas prices.
Drivers seem to be putting more miles on their vehicles, which is part of the reason prices are quickly jumping, up 28 cents a gallon statewide from a month ago. In Santa Cruz County, the average price of a gallon of gasoline this month is $3.78, up 22 cents from last month. The average for Northern California is higher, at $3.84.
To keep this in perspective, gas prices are still 26 cents a gallon cheaper than a year ago. Moreover, prices typically go up during the spring, peaking in the summer months.
But Californians face another looming price hike at the gas pump from the state's greenhouse gas-reduction law. The law already is being felt in the industrial sector, which has paid out more than $1.5 billion in pollution permit fees. Starting next year it will also affect fuel distributors, who will be in the same cap-and-trade marketplace as utilities and big manufacturers.
The oil industry predicts this will lead to price increases of at least 12 cents a gallon immediately. State regulators counter by saying say any price spikes could vary widely, from barely noticeable to double-digits.
The potential spike in gasoline prices is behind a proposal by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that the state should nix the plan to put fuel producers under the cap-and-trade provisions, and instead institute a 15-cent-per-gallon "carbon tax." Steinberg says his tax would create stable pricing, while still cutting down on gasoline consumption as prices rise.
Cap-and-trade sets a limit, or cap, on emissions of greenhouse gases and requires companies to pay for each ton of pollution they emit. The price is determined in a state-run allowance auction on which companies buy permits to emit greenhouse gases. Companies that cut emissions below the cap can sell leftover pollution permits to companies that need additional allowances. This provides an incentive to reduce emissions, and the money raised goes to programs to further reduce pollution and energy use.
Cap-and-trade is the central tenet of AB 32, the state's greenhouse gas reduction law passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.
The California Air Resources Board, which oversees cap-and-trade, projects no noticeable increase in gas costs after Jan. 1.
Under Steinberg's proposal, introduced in the Legislature as SB 1156, the tax would rise to 24 cents a gallon by 2020 and more than 40 cents a gallon by 2029. About three quarters of the estimated $3.6 billion raised by Steinberg's carbon tax would go back to households earning less than $75,000 a year in the form of a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit.
The legislative prospects for Steinberg's tax proposal, especially during an election year, are unlikely. But the oil industry likes his plan.
The law's author, Democratic Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills, said projections of price spikes are "worst-case scenarios and scare tactics" developed by oil companies that found an unlikely ally in the Senate leader. She said she believes Steinberg wants to use the money raised by a carbon tax to fund tax breaks for low- and middle-income families, but that oil companies want to get out from under the cap and still pass on higher costs to motorists.
The biggest problem with Steinberg's proposal is it comes too late in the game. According to UC-Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein, removing transportation fuels from the auctions at this point would be nearly impossible.
Still, he says he could support a carbon tax in the future, even though he doesn't think the current program will lead to wild fluctuations in gas prices. But that doesn't mean there aren't risks of price spikes -- particularly if demand for emissions credits was to increase more than expected. Borenstein thinks the air board could set a price ceiling on emissions permits to dampen volatility fears and that the Legislature could still decide to re-direct auction proceeds to help poorer Californians, from programs to reduce energy use and pollution.
Good ideas and more realistic than Steinberg's tax proposal.
U-T San Diego: Deadly force along the U.S.-Mexico border
The chief of the U.S. Border Patrol issued a memo late last week on the use of deadly force by agents.
Everyone involved said there was nothing new in the memo, that it merely represented a restatement of existing policy. But it was nevertheless welcome. A renewed emphasis on the policy will hopefully serve to reduce the sometimes deadly results of clashes with civilians along the dangerous frontier between the United States and Mexico.
The memo from Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher specifically says agents "shall not discharge firearms" in response to rock-throwing civilians. Instead, the agents should seek cover or retreat a safe distance.
It also instructed agents not to block moving vehicles with their bodies and not to fire weapons at moving vehicles unless there is a "reasonable belief" that the vehicle is being used as deadly force against an agent or someone else.
That the border is a dangerous place is undeniable. Fisher told reporters there have been 1,713 rock-throwing assaults against agents just since 2010. Agents responded with deadly force 43 times, resulting in 10 civilian deaths, according to Fisher. Other media reports put the death toll as high as 19 in that time.
Maybe the existing policy was followed in each of those 43 incidents of deadly force. Maybe those deaths could not have been avoided. But reminding agents of just what the policy is can only help.
San Luis Obispo Tribune: Dead sheep deserved better than this
Nothing says spring on the Central Coast like a herd of cute woolly sheep placidly munching greens on a hillside.
But, hey, these critters aren't just there for looks. Sheep have important business to do, keeping all that vegetation in check, especially in creek beds and other sensitive habitats where mechanized equipment isn't allowed.
The least we can do is treat them well, which is why it was a shock to see the gruesome photos and video of several dead sheep that a Heritage Ranch couple spotted while they were out hiking near Nacimiento Lake last weekend.
We aren't experts in animal husbandry, so we won't opine on whether criminal charges should be brought against the owner of these pathetic-looking animals.
That'll be up to authorities — the sheriff's office and district attorney's office.
But it doesn't take an animal science degree to question the wisdom of shearing sheep just before a heavy rainstorm, especially since forecasters gave us all ample warning of what was coming.
It's also disturbing that so many sheep — 25 of 700 — died over roughly the same time period, leading to speculation that the animals succumbed to hypothermia.
Whatever the criminal investigation concludes, it's obvious that these animals suffered, and for that, those responsible for their welfare get pelted with a flock of sheepskin-covered brickbats for shirking their duty.
Santa Maria Times: Pop quiz concerning education
How do we improve California's public schools?
Ask that question in a chamber full of lawmakers, and the answer might go something like — do a better job of teaching.
Ask a teacher, and the answer might go something like — spend more tax dollars on public education.
Ask a dozen hard-working taxpayers, and the answer might go something like — how should we know?
Making our public schools better may be a complicated issue, but not for the California Education Coalition, a group of school board members, education administrators and unions. For them, it's not at all complicated. Just spend more on public schools.
That was the message delivered recently to the state Senate budget subcommittee by representatives from the Education Coalition. They were quite forthright in sharing their opinion with lawmakers, and it boiled down to this:
If California wants to be among the ranks of the 10 states that spend the most on public education, lawmakers — which means taxpayers — would somehow have to spend $36 billion more each year than is now spent annually on K-12 public schools.
Experts reckon this state is spending about $10,000 per student per year, which seems a princely sum — until you learn that's about $6,000 per student per year less than the average of the 10 top-spending states. New York state, for example, is spending just less than $20,000 per student per year on K-12 public schools.
Many people, especially many of those aforementioned hard-working taxpayers, remain doubtful that throwing money at education will solve the problem of lack-luster student performance. California has been spending more and more on public education through the years, only to see this state's academic rankings continue to drop. California public school students were once among the nation's elite, but these days are below average in almost every academic discipline.
We don't have the answer to that question of how to improve public education. We only know it must be done.
For proof of that, one need travel no further than the nearest state prison. California's prison system is seriously overcrowded, to such an extent that the federal government has stepped in to mandate change. Yet, we keep throwing tax money at the prison system.
In fact, if you really want a tough question, how about this — why does California spend about $60,000 a year to house a convicted felon, but only about $10,000 a year to teach kids things they need to know that could conceivably keep them away from a life of crime?
Just in an intuitive sense, it would seem to be far more practical to spend the money up front, teaching children to read, write and add, than at the dead end of a state prison.
So, perhaps it turns out to be an issue of priorities, and California's priorities seem to be more than a little confused. Is it possible that any thinking Californian would rather spend $60,000 a year warehousing an inmate, than $10,000 a year educating a child?
Still, throwing money at public education's deficiencies hasn't solved the problem. So, what should we do?
The best place to start would be to rewrite the state's massive education code, which is outdated and no longer works. And we need to be more involved in supporting and helping community schools. A greater citizen participation could be a magic potion, and maybe educators wouldn't feel like they're working in a vacuum.
This is important, and we need to talk about it.