- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Feb. 14

The Press Democrat on fighting forests fires with fire:

Californians love the Sierra forests too much. We’ve been loving our trees to death for a century, and changing course will require everyone to think differently about forest management. An independent government oversight committee has produced a plan and a needed slap of reality.

The scars of last year’s fires are still raw, especially in this part of the state. But we can’t let that stop us from re-examining a century of policies that has left 129 million dead trees in the Sierra and wildlands susceptible to major fires, especially after years of drought, warm weather and insect infestations have provided ample fuel.

Humans also helped prep forests for fire. Because we love our forests, we’ve protected them. When there’s been a fire, firefighters contained it and put it out.

It turns out that wasn’t always the best thing we could do. Decades of fire suppression allowed forest density to increase dangerously. A century ago, forests in the Sierra Nevada had 50 to 80 trees per acre. Today, there are some places with 300 to 400, according to UC Berkeley’s Center for Forestry. Similar patterns are plain in many other forests across the state.

Those ancient, less-dense forests could tolerate periodic fires. In fact, lightning-sparked blazes were part of the natural forest life cycle. When trees are packed closely together, however, fires burn hotter and can spread more easily.

Those fires in today’s forests are bad in all sorts of ways. There are the obvious losses of wilderness, habitat, property and life. Less obvious are the effects on air and water. Smoke and biodegrading remnants release carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases into the air. Exposed soil, meanwhile, can end in landslides and erodes into reservoirs and waterways, costing millions to clean up.

The Little Hoover Commission, an independent government oversight body, spells all this out in its new report, “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada.” The researchers offer hope, too.

Local, state and federal land managers must collaborate on sustainable, long-term forest health. Indeed, federal buy-in will be especially important because the U.S. government owns more than half of the forestland in the state. Private stakeholders and forest owners also must be at the table.

Fire suppression needs to be better balanced with restoration. That will mean using controlled burns and letting some fires burn uncontrolled - literally fighting fire with fire. It also will require logging, something that environmentalists often reflexively oppose. It can’t be the sort of nearly unregulated cutting that congressional Republicans and the timber industry desire, but there’s opportunity for profit in public-private partnerships.

The Little Hoover Commission’s report urges modernizing the timber industry by investing in sawmills that can process smaller and dead trees and in energy programs that burn brush to generate power. Scientists can direct harvests to areas that will help the forest first and the profit margin second.

Underlying all this needs to be public awareness and education. Spending millions to restore forests could be a tough sell to taxpayers when the benefits to wilderness, waterways, wildlife and climate lie in the future. Moreover, the public simply needs to know what’s going on. People need to understand that fire isn’t inherently bad, a lesson that may take time to learn after last year’s disaster.

But it took generations for California’s forests to decline into their present state, and restoring them will take time too. The Little Hoover Commission report could help guide the way.


Feb. 14

Los Angeles Times on pressing prisons and jails to violate the 4th Amendment not being a part of ICE’s job description:

One of the tools in the federal government’s immigration enforcement kit is the detainer - a written request by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to a state prison or local jail to hold a person suspected of being in the country illegally for up to 48 hours beyond his or her scheduled release. ICE makes the requests to give immigration agents time to go pick up the person for possible deportation.

But, as a federal judge recently told the federal government - again - holding someone without charge or a court order violates the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure.

The most recent decision came in a lawsuit over the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s involvement in the Secure Communities program, which the Obama administration created and then abandoned, but which the Trump administration has revived. (The county no longer takes part in Secure Communities.) Under the program, local jails cooperate with ICE in identifying people held in county jails who might be in the country illegally, and then hold those inmates for up to 48 hours if ICE sends a detainer requesting it.

That is wrong. Anti-immigration folks tend to stuff their fingers in their ears when this part of the issue comes up, but every person physically present in the U.S. enjoys the protections of the Constitution regardless of immigration status. A tourist accused of shoplifting is entitled to the same due process rights as an American citizen, including access to a government-paid lawyer if the accused can’t afford one. Neither a citizen nor an immigrant should be incarcerated if there are no charges against them.

Immigration law is primarily a civil matter, not a criminal matter. Although it is a crime to sneak into the U.S. without permission, simply being here without a visa or other document is not a criminal act. Notably, many undocumented immigrants enter the country legally but then never leave, a violation of civil codes. And local police do not have the authority to jail someone over a suspected civil violation. A detainer letter from ICE is a nonbinding request and falls far short of the authority a court order. So every time a local jail or state prison honors an ICE detainer that is not based on an arrest warrant or court order and fails to release an inmate who has qualified for bail or served out a court-imposed sentence, local officials violate the inmate’s constitutional rights.

The federal government knows this, and local governments should too, because violating constitutional rights is not just wrong, it’s expensive for taxpayers. A 2014 ruling in Oregon cost Clackamas County $30,100 plus Maria Miranda-Olivares’ legal costs because the county jail, honoring an ICE detainer, refused to let her sister post $500 bail set by a county judge. (Miranda-Olivares was accused of violating a restraining order.) In 2014, Utah’s Salt Lake County paid former inmate Enrique Uroza $75,000 to settle a lawsuit after the sheriff, acting on an immigration detainer, refused to release Uroza even though the defendant had posted bail on an unrelated criminal charge. Again, the prolonged detention the result of a criminal accusation, but because of the civil immigration request, which has no legal force. In fact, there have been at least 14 such cases since 2011, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

We’d hope the government would learn from these decisions - or that the courts would issue an injunction that could be enforced nationwide - and stop such blatant violations of the 4th Amendment. This is not part of the so-called “sanctuary city” policies the Trump administration likes to complain about. No person, regardless of legal status, should be deprived of freedom purely on the say-so of a government agency.

It should also be noted that a number of people jailed under ICE detainers are, in fact, U.S. citizens or people living here with permission. NPR reported that from 2007 to 2017, about 700 U.S. citizens were held in jails or prisons after their release dates because ICE investigators misidentified them as noncitizens without legal status (another 820 were picked up elsewhere and held in immigration detention centers until they could prove their citizenship). Ending the use of warrantless detainers would help reduce that.


Feb. 13

The Modesto Bee on public pension nightmare getting worse:

There’s a quiet crisis underway, and the sooner we recognize it the better. The state’s public employee retirement system, which includes most city workers, is not going to be able to cover all its pension obligations. As more workers retire, member cities will have to raise taxes or cut services - or both - to pay the difference.

The League of California Cities reported this month that most member cities expect pension costs to jump by at least 50 percent by 2024-25. Pension payments - now about 11 percent of most city general fund budgets - will eat up about 16 percent by then. That doesn’t include higher retiree health care costs. We could see some cities going bankrupt, as Stockton and San Bernardino did in 2012.

Modesto expects pension costs to peak in 2028-29 at $54.6 million. Fortunately, the city is already considering various options. Unfortunately, there are no good ones.

The league is telling cities to consider local sales tax measures and to negotiate with labor unions to force current employees to pay more into pension plans. Modesto is considering a special fund or a one-time payment to CalPERS.

Others are counting on a court ruling to reduce pension costs for those still working. Gov. Jerry Brown wants the state Supreme Court to end the “California rule,” which prevents state and local governments from reducing pension benefits for current workers without compensating them in other ways.

Unions and management retirees will fight any attempt to cut benefits. And it will be difficult to tell people who have based retirement plans on the “certainty” of a pension that they might have to wait. But it’s also difficult to ask taxpayers to be sympathetic after learning that CalPERS pays more than 30 retirees in excess of $300,000 a year, with two topping $500,000 each year, according to Transparentccalifornia.com.

Yes, it’s easy to blame public-employee unions. In 1999, they convinced Gov. Gray Davis and the legislature that retirement benefits for public safety employees could be expanded - and retirement age reduced - at no cost. How? By counting on rising pension fund investment returns to cover it all. Right behind the unions came the professional associations made up of managers, demanding (and getting) the same unrealistic deals.

Despite a return 11.2 percent last year, returns were often much lower - like the 0.6 in 2016. Far more frequently, investment returns failed to meet CalPERS’ outsized expectations, leaving a hole on balance sheets. Local governments are required to fill those funding holes for their employees.

Jerry Brown saw it coming in 2012 and enacted reforms that lowered pension formulas and required employees to pay more into their retirement accounts. But the changes apply only to those hired after Dec. 31, 2012, so real savings won’t kick in for another 20 years - and only if a union-backed lawsuit doesn’t kill them.

It also helps that in 2016 CalPERS lowered its expected return rates to more realistic figures. But that doesn’t help the 451 California cities that are looking up from the bottom of those pension holes.

Bolting CalPERS won’t work. The city of Loyalton tried in 2013, but was assessed a $1.6 million exit fee - more than its annual budget.

Many counties are at least a little better off. Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin are among 20 whose retirement programs are not tied to CalPERS.

The worst is yet to come. As the federal government goes deeper into debt, a downturn is inevitable. When that happens, what will cities do? They’ll cut. Deeply.


Feb. 13

The San Diego Union-Tribune on bill to ban tackle football until high school:

Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, have introduced legislation that would ban organized tackle football in California until high school. This will certainly draw ferocious pushback from football fans, those who think government shouldn’t micromanage family decisions and the vast majority of adults who enjoyed playing the sport growing up and didn’t end up with brain damage. But in a nation in which more than 2 million kids play in youth football leagues, the lawmakers have identified a genuine public health issue that demands attention.

The case of Tyler Cornell illustrates why. His mother, Jo Cornell of Rancho Bernardo, is one of two California mothers suing the Pop Warner youth football organization. Her son loved football, but Cornell believes that the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found in his brain after he became depressed and committed suicide at age 25 contributed to his death. He played football from when he was 8 to 17 but was never diagnosed with a concussion, a sign that the cumulative effects of the brain being jarred by relatively minor hits can wreak the same long-term harm as tackles involving savage blows to the head. Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, the neurologist for the University of Michigan’s sports programs, suggests brain damage may be a significant but little-appreciated factor limiting cognitive development among children. And evidence isn’t just anecdotal. A Wake Forest School of Medicine study of the brains of 8- to 13-year-old boys who played football - none of whom suffered concussions - found changes associated with brain injuries.

This is not to say ban football now and forever. It’s to say that for all the newfound awareness about concussions - leading to protocols being established from leagues for 5-year-olds to the NFL - coaches, parents and players still need to understand the risks better. Even if Gonzalez Fletcher’s and McCarty’s bill never advances out of committee, if it promotes a better understanding of youth brain injuries, than it will have had a positive effect.


Feb. 11

Santa Cruz Sentinel on there being no place to hide for California politicians:

Apparently, it’s a two-way whistle.

The dizzying cavalcade of sexual harassment allegations toppling the rich and powerful seemed to reach epic proportions last week when the California assemblywoman who was one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement herself was swept up in the maelstrom.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, announced Friday that she was taking a voluntary unpaid leave after being accused by a male former legislative aide of unwanted sexual touching and groping.

Garcia has become nationally prominent for co-authoring a bill to provide whistleblower protections for legislative employees who come forward about sexual harassment. She also called for accused male lawmakers to step down - and said she would not work with them.

Garcia and 146 other women signed a letter in October drawing attention to problems in Sacramento and she joined other women lawmakers wearing all black on the Senate and Assembly floors at a #MeToo protest at Hollywood’s Golden Globes ceremony in January.

But Garcia herself is the subject of a legislative inquiry after Daniel Fierro said Thursday that Garcia cornered him at a legislative softball game in 2014, began stroking his back, squeezed his posterior and attempted to grab his crotch before he extricated himself.

Politico, meanwhile, reported a second incident involving an unnamed Sacramento lobbyist, who said Garcia cornered him at a fundraiser in 2017, made a graphic sexual proposal and tried to grab his crotch. Both men said Garcia appeared intoxicated during the incidents.

Garcia said Friday she is “certain I did not engage in the behavior I am accused of.” That denial was much stronger than an earlier one where she confirmed she attended the 2014 softball game but said she had “zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior and such behavior is inconsistent with my values.”

The climate of revelations also has spilled over into the race among prominent Democrats and one Republican to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown. A woman who had a 2007 extramarital affair with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom came forward last week to say she was “doubtful” the relationship was “sexual harassment” but was more a function of a drinking problem she had at the time.

Garcia and other lawmakers had earlier this month finally put an end to absurd whistleblower protections for politicians accused of sexual harassment. Similar bills had for years died in legislative committees. But that was before the parade of allegations cascaded through the hallways of the Capitol late last year and before #MeToo became a national movement to end the culture of silence.

The legislation sponsored (again) by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, and signed by Gov. Brown last week, makes it against state law to retaliate against employees of the Legislature who blow the whistle on either elected officials or other state government employees with “a good faith allegation” about possible violations of both state law and the legislative code of conduct. While the governor’s office and the state judiciary already offer such protections, members of the Legislature were previously exempt from the law. The state Senate also has passed a bill that extends whistleblower protections to lobbyists and other citizens and requires the Legislature to maintain records about allegations of sexual harassment for 12 years.

In addition, the Legislature has finally been releasing records about sexual harassment by legislators and their staffers, documents that showed complaints against a number of current legislators, including Democratic state Sens. Tony Mendoza and Bob Hertzberg and Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen, who also is running for governor. The records also showed substantiated complaints against two former Democratic legislators and settlement payouts.

The hurricane of revelations might seem like a rush to judgment, but what’s really happening is a long overdue lifting of a veil of secrecy that protected harassers and abusers.

Because if politicians’ boorish and abusive behavior is no longer protected from voters, then they’ll have every motivation to stop.

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