Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Let's Talk Gangs

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 8:13 PM

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Tonight's city council meeting had it all: grandstanding, fireworks, hyperbole, backtracking and bickering.

What it didn't have, unfortunately, was any substantial clarification on gang-related crime.

Some may remember what started this discussion: Robert Edmonds' Bohemian cover story on the admitted inability of the Santa Rosa Police Department to report accurate gang crime statistics—even as the department was receiving millions of taxpayer dollars for gang prevention from Measure O, which required a "standard statistical reporting format" for "gang-related criminal data."

As editor, I was proud to run the story. I was also glad to see Kevin McCallum bring it to a wide audience on the front page of the Press Democrat this past Sunday. But what I really looked forward to was SRPD Chief Tom Schwedhelm's report on the matter to the city council tonight.

I like Schwedhelm. The fact that he agreed to sit down and answer tough questions from Edmonds, who's worked on police accountability issues for years, speaks volumes. As he himself said tonight, "We're being very transparent about this. There are other communities where this would never see the light of day."

As such, Schwedhelm has openly admitted that the department doesn't have accurate gang crime data, and for this he cites budget cuts and lack of officer training. Mostly, though, he's chalked it up to a change in the "reporting and methodology" for gang-related crime. That's the key reason, according to the department, that in documents supplied to Edmonds (and later, to city council members), gang crimes in Santa Rosa appear to have jumped a whopping 346 percent in the past five years.

Despite repeated requests from Edmonds, Schwedhelm didn't supply details. After the story ran in the Bohemian, however, this item popped up on tonight's council agenda: "GANG CRIME STATISTICS AND REPORTING METHODOLOGY UPDATE."

Here's the update, then. I went to tonight's meeting, and in his presentation, Schwedhelm reported that the department had "broadened" their statistical reporting, thus causing the alarming jump in reported gang statistics. But how broad was "broad," I wondered? When it came time for Schwedhelm's grand reveal on the overhead projector, the department's much-touted "new" definition of a "gang-related incident"—instead of a gang-related crime—read as follows:

“A gang-related incident is defined as an incident where there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual who is involved with the incident has been or is currently associated with criminal gang activity, or where the totality of the circumstances indicates that the incident is consistent with criminal street gang activity.”

Now, call me crazy, but to me that sounds a lot like saying "A gang-related incident is what we say is a gang-related incident." Which is not really saying anything at all.

So there are a few things I'd like to see.

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After the presentation, and after Gary Wysocky and Ernesto Olivares traded some lively barbs ("I resent that," "I take offense to you," etc.), the public comment portion of the meeting finally included several mentions of what no one likes talking about: race. So with concern to racial profiling, I'd like to see some specific criteria on exactly how the department designates an incident as "gang-related," and what evidence the department uses to designate an individual as a gang member. Something like this, perhaps, which is a document showing how the department once identified gang members. Really, read it.

I'd like to know why the department has now decided to include "incidents" in gang statistics, which has sharply raised the statistics for gang activity in Santa Rosa, and I'd like to hear some concrete examples of situations that might constitute an "incident" as opposed to a crime.

I'd like to know more about Schwedhelm's twice-repeated statement tonight that "We don't track individuals, we track incidents." That seems to directly contradict the department's stated goal of identifying individuals that have been or are currently associated with criminal gang activity. Furthermore, I'd like to know if, like the majority of law enforcement agencies in the state, the SRPD works with CalGang, a statewide "intelligence database targeting specifically members of criminal street gangs, tracking their descriptions, tattoos, criminal associates, locations, vehicles, fi's, criminal histories and activities."

I'd like to know how often the police department and Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force receive additional outside funding in the form of grants, and if their chances of receiving grants are increased by doing just this—demonstrating higher statistical gang activity in Santa Rosa.

Mostly, though, I'd like to know where this all leads.

We can talk about statistics and funding all we want, but here's where my cynical side kicks in. I hate my cynical side, but here's what it's telling me: no matter what the statistics say, the police department can always make a case for more funding. If gang-crime statistics are down, they can say "We're doing a great job, here's the proof, keep giving us money." If the gang-crime statistics are up, they can say "There's a huge problem here in Santa Rosa, we need more money."

Then my positive side kicks in and says that the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force is truly doing a lot of good work with after-school programs and community festivals, even though they allowed children in South Park to play with semiautomatic weapons as part of "Gang Awareness Week," which I think is deplorable. (They also publicly boasted about banning "Snitches Get Stitches" shirts from being sold at the Santa Rosa Plaza, which I think is just kind of funny, actually.)

Then I think about all the anecdotal evidence, which is what the SRPD and Olivares prefer to talk about in the absence of hard statistics. Except the anecdotes I hear are a little different. The former gang members who can't get off the gang database. The kids who commit misdemeanors, like writing graffiti, which then get unfairly upgraded to felonies because the police say it's "gang-related." The times my wife has called the police reporting gang fights at her work, only to wait 45 minutes for officers to arrive. The friends I have living in Roseland who say the gang problem is blown way out of proportion as a political fear tactic. The officer who disfigured a woman when he crashed into her truck driving 100mph in response to a call about some kids at the DMV wearing baggy clothes. The guy from South Park who talked at tonight's meeting, who said the only authority figure that ever helped him avoid gang life was a school counselor, and the only thing Measure O ever did was cycle a bunch of his friends through jail and juvenile hall. There are hundreds of other stories.

At any rate, Measure O doesn't expire until 2026, so there's going to be plenty more years of Santa Rosa taxpayer money going to gang prevention. But always remember: it's our sales tax increase that we voted for—it's our money, really—and because of that, we have a right to be able to ask questions and expect clear answers about its effectiveness. And we definitely have a say in how the money is spent.

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PG&E Hacks Trees Again

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 11:44 AM

A hacked redwood tree outside a house in Southwest Santa Rosa
  • Alma Shaw
  • A hacked redwood tree outside a house in Southwest Santa Rosa

Last year, in the article Hack Job, we wrote about concerns over the implementation of PG&E's reliability pruning program. Critics like Forestville tree service company owner Darryl Sukovitzen accused the new "trimming regime" of being irresponsible and corrupt, and arborists and homeowners shared stories of trees being cut within an inch of their life, without regard for the health of the tree or the safety of homes below.

Nevertheless, a PG&E spokesperson told us that all of the company's pruning is performed within International Society of Arboriculture guidelines.

According to an article in today's Press Democrat, though, the power company is at again, planning to cut down thousands of trees under high-voltage power lines across Sonoma County. They say it'll protect the local power grid from blackouts. Those who live near the trees says that the plan goes way too far, taking out oaks and oleanders that don't necessarily pose a threat.

Could this be a case of putting a financial bottom line over the preservation of the trees?

For more, see Save Our Sonoma Trees, an organization fighting the tree-cutting.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

So Where Does Petaluma Councilmember Chris Albertson Live, Really?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 4:38 PM

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In January of 2011, Chris Albertson was sworn in as a member of the Petaluma City Council. But public records show that for 2011, Albertson took a California homeowners’ property tax exemption for a house in Santa Barbara, 360 miles south of City Hall.

Here's the problem with that.

Candidates for city council must be registered to vote at a Petaluma address, according to Sonoma County Assessor and Registrar of Voters Janice Atkinson. When I got in touch with her, she affirmed that “it is a requirement that a person register at the address that s/he considers to be her domicile.”

“Domicile” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “place of a person’s permanent residence, which he or she leaves only temporarily.”

So is it kosher for Albertson to take a tax deduction for his “principal place of residence” in Santa Barbara while holding elective office in Petaluma? Can he have one domicile for tax purposes, and another domicile for voting?

Albertson rents a home in Petaluma. But public records show that he and his spouse, Marilyn Albertson, are joined in a living trust that owns 2211 Sycamore Canyon Road in Santa Barbara. They’ve owned the house for decades. In 2011, as in prior years, the Albertsons declared to the Santa Barbara County Assessor that they are eligible for the homeowner’s tax deduction because the house is their “principal place of residence.” The exemption knocks $7,000 off the assessed value of the home for property tax purposes. (Currently, Zillow estimates the house to be worth $1.22 million.)

I asked Atkinson to clarify the issue. She explained that a person could “accept employment in one county and to avoid commuting establish a residence in another county. However, this person considers the second residence to be temporary. S/he has every intention of returning to his or her original residence, and continues to consider it to be his or her domicile.”

It makes sense that Albertson might still consider Santa Barbara home—he served with the Santa Barbara Fire Department for 28 years. But in 2001, he was hired as the fire chief of Petaluma, where, according to his campaign biography, “Marilyn and I made many lasting friendships.” Albertson retired as chief in 2008 on a public pension, and he successfully ran for city council two years later.

(During Albertson’s campaign, supported by the Argus-Courier and the North Coast Builders Exchange, he favored making public employee retirement plans less cushy for public employees hired in the future, while safeguarding benefits for currently retired public employees. But we digress. Back to Atkinson.)

Atkinson says that although her office does not check the authenticity of voter registrations, “If there is sufficient evidence to cause concern that someone has registered to vote at an address that is not his or her domicile, the Registrar of Voters may forward information to the Secretary of State’s Voter Fraud Division for investigation.” Of course, while Albertson’s domicile for voter registration may be perfectly acceptable for holding elective office, there does remain the thorny question of domicile for the tax deduction. Or vice versa.

Atkinson says that in California statutes, “the concept of domicile is somewhat fuzzy, but it needs to be, as there are many different situations. I hope this clarifies the situation.”

Oxford defines clarity as “lack of ambiguity.” So, I called upon Albertson himself, hoping for some unambiguous clarification.

He acknowledged that his family does indeed take the tax deduction in Santa Barbara. “My wife and I have a long distance relationship,” he explained. “She lives in Santa Barbara, and I live in Petaluma, and it’s none of your business.”

Or is it?

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stage Review: 'The Fantasticks' at Spreckels Center

Despite some musical glitches, 'The Fantasticks' glows with charm

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 11:00 AM

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From the moment the audience enters the room for Spreckels Theatre Company’s shiny new production of Jones & Schmidt’s beloved The Fantasticks, theatergoers are plunged into the celebrated play’s sweetly surreal, amiably over-the-top romantic world. Romping across the splendidly spare set—little more than a raised platform and a large, mysterious wooden trunk—is the Mute, the musical’s silent co-narrator, played with impressive physical charm and commitment by Denise Elia. Skipping, dancing, pantomiming and playing, she sets the tone for what is to come: an agreeably stripped-down, highly fairy-tailish examination of young love and the hard knocks of life.

Directed by Matthew Teague Miller, this production—in the intimate Condiotti theater—enhances much of what is good about this often difficult-to-stage, 1960 show, all while de-emphasizing those elements that some audiences have found to be sadly dated or in poor taste. I have to admit, though I’ve always loved the music of The Fantasticks, with songs like "Try to Remember," "Soon It’s Gonna Rain," and "Never Say No," I’ve never seen a production that meets the heightened expectations raised by the show’s shimmering reputation. It played for an astounding 42 years off Broadway, and has become a staple of community theaters and college theater arts programs for decades.

Despite the fact that, in many ways, The Fantasticks is exactly the kind of show I would normally fall in love with, I’ve been consistently disappointed. The good news is, with the graceful direction of Miller, a cast perfectly suited to their characters, and a clever series of changes, the dramatic and romantic aspects of this production absolutely pop right off the stage. In so intimate a setting, the silly-lovely dialogue seems immediate and real, and the chemistry between the actors had me writing the words “sweet,” “charming” and “very pretty” in my notebook.

The co-narrator character El Gallo, often played as a charlatan from start to finish, is here allowed to start the play as a truly decent guy, with actor Steven Shear dropping the oft-used goofball accent to sing "Try to Remember" with so much sincerity and straight-to-the-heart simplicity, few will be able to resist feeling melted into love-story mode right out of the gate. That story follows The Girl (Adria Swan) and The Boy (Gabriel Stephens), coaxed into falling in love by their fake-feuding fathers. The young lovers leapfrog through a plot involving a pretend abduction—described in much cruder terms in the original production—longing, disappointment, broken hearts, wisdom gained, and love rekindled.

If only the musical side of this production stacked up to everything else. Accompanied by musical director Lucas Sherman—who carries the show on his capable back as the sole accompanist, on a baby grand in the corner of the stage—the problems include an uneven range of singing strength among the cast, some of the singing drop-dead-great, some, um, not so, with harmonies that had me writing the words “yikes” and “ouch” next to all those other nice words I’d already written. When the singing is fine, even exceptional, the fact that no mikes are used makes it extremely hard to hear all of the lyrics, many of which are drowned out by the piano, despite Sherman’s heroic attempts to keep the music beneath the singer’s voices.

And so, my quest to finally see a production of The Fantasticks that lives up to its legend continues. Till then, despite its problems, the elegant and mostly-lovely Spreckels show is easily the best, most genuinely affecting production of this beloved musical I’ve seen.

The Fantasticks runs through Feb. 19 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Visit www.spreckelsonline.com for information.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

How Long Had Alberto Contador Been Doping?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2012 at 9:48 AM

This morning's announcement that Alberto Contador has been stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title raises all kinds of questions, but the one most people are asking is: if the allegations are true, then how long had he been doping?

On hearing the news I immediately thought of this video, shot in 2009 and posted to YouTube, of Team Astana training for the Tour of California on Pine Flat Road outside of Geyserville. Pine Flat is the toughest, most aggressive road in Sonoma County, especially up at the top, where after 12 miles of unforgiving climbing the road gets very, very steep—that's where this video was filmed.

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Notice in the video how far ahead Contador is of everyone else—including teammates Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong. Notice his easygoing smile. I've talked to cyclists about this video, and they liken Contador's ascent to an "escalator" or a "motorcycle." Watch:

Still not convinced? For an article about Sonoma County's toughest cycling roads, it was told to me that on a separate day of training, Team Astana started back up Pine Flat Road, went halfway up, changed their minds and turned around.

Like many, I used to be completely impressed by feats of physicality like this. I used to be proud to show people this video—Look! Contador killing it on Pine Flat, right in our backyard!

But after the test results and today's news, well, it's hard not to feel duped.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

There Are Already 100 People In Line For Pliny the Younger at Russian River Brewing Co.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Its 1996 and Spice Girls tickets are going on sa... oh, no, wait, its the Pliny the Younger release!
  • Jake Bayless
  • It's 1996 and Spice Girls tickets are going on sa... oh, no, wait, it's the Pliny the Younger release!

Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing Co. releases its 2012 Pliny the Younger today at 11am, and already, two hours before the opening pour, there are 100 people in line.

Via Boho pal Jake Bayless comes the photo above, showing that indeed, rabid passion for the consistently top-rated beer has not waned. Especially since this is merely a case of "firsties"—the judicious way in which Russian River rolls out the beer over the next two weeks, everyone (locally, at least) should be able to glug their share. From their site:

Younger will be served in a 10 ounce glass for the same price as last year and the year before- still a good deal! As you probably already know, there will be no growlers or bottles, as usual. . .

There will be a certain number of kegs allotted each day for 14 days, wrapping up 2 weeks of Younger on February 16th. . . . Last year we had a line out front everyday for 2 solid weeks, rain or shine! On the weekends (particularly the first weekend) the wait was up to 3 hours. And sometimes you could walk right in.

Kudos to RRBC for enacting measures that detract reselling the beer on eBay—the only way to take the beer off-site is in your stomach. Everyone else, get on down there in the next couple weeks! But take your time. After all, it sucks to be last in line.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Facebook Grafitti Artist to Make $200m on IPO

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 12:51 AM

Here's today's bonkers tidbit from a story about Facebook's impending IPO in the New York Times: In 2005, street artist David Choe painted some murals in Facebook's offices and was offered, as compensation, his choice of either a few thousand dollars or meager 0.1 percent of the company's stock.

He thought the idea of Facebook was "ridiculous." But he chose the stock.

And now he's expected to make $200 million when Facebook goes public.

Learn your lesson from Al Jolson, folks, who allegedly turned down a stock offer of 25-percent ownership in Warner Bros. to make The Jazz Singer, instead accepting $75,000. Take the stock!

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