- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

July 15

Mercury News & East Bay Times on legislation creating smog-check program for trucks and buses:

The honesty system often doesn’t work.

That’s why California lawmakers should implement a smog-check program for heavy-duty trucks and buses like we already have for cars. Without loopholes. And without delays.

Pass the test or get off the road. It should be that simple. The state’s air quality and the health of our residents are at stake.

Currently, most vehicles under 14,000 pounds that are model year 1976 or newer must undergo an inspection every two years to ensure the exhaust does not exceed legal limits.

We all know the drill. You get the notice in the mail when it’s time to renew your auto registration. Take it down to the smog-check station for the test. And if the car passes, you’re usually done in about 30 minutes.

But, amazingly, there’s no similar program for heavy-duty trucks and buses to ensure they are in compliance with the state’s emission standards, which were updated in 2010.

Instead, the state relies on self-inspections by truck owners and random field inspections by staff of the state Air Resources Board at border crossings, CHP weigh stations, fleet facilities and randomly selected roadside locations.

That’s not enough. According to an analysis by the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, heavy-duty diesel vehicles are one of the largest sources of air pollution in California.

“Even with modern emissions controls and on-board diagnostics monitoring systems,” according to the analysis, “heavy-duty diesel vehicles are responsible for the majority of on-road mobile source emissions due, in part, to broken emissions-related components.”

The air board’s roadside inspections found that 11% of trucks had an illuminated check-engine light. In other words, if it’s broken, it doesn’t get fixed. The honesty system isn’t working.

Senate Bill 210, by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, would change that. The Senate has passed the legislation; so should the Assembly. It directs the air board, working with the Department of Motor Vehicles, to develop a pilot smog-check inspection program with the goal of eventually expanding it statewide.

Like with cars, truck owners would not be able to renew their registrations until their vehicles passed smog-check inspections. The system would also provide a mechanism for out-of-state owners of heavy-duty vehicles to establish compliance before entering California. All told, an estimated 1 million vehicles would be inspected annually.

However, as the Assembly analysis notes, there’s no timeline for the air board to conduct its pilot program. That must be completed before the state can roll out inspections statewide. Lawmakers should set deadlines to ensure there’s no bureaucratic foot-dragging.

Similarly, there is no limit on the number of citations that can be issued to vehicles that violate the inspection program regulations. That’s unacceptable. Penalties must be sufficient to ensure compliance.

For, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that some truck owners won’t do it on their own.


July 15

Los Angeles Times on California’s bail system:

Bail was set at a stunning $25 million for Naason Joaquin Garcia after he was arrested last month at Los Angeles International Airport on charges of human trafficking and forcing children to perform sex acts. The presumably unattainable amount was sure to keep him behind bars for however long it takes to get him to trial.

Or was it? Joaquin Garcia is leader of La Luz del Mundo, a church with as many as a million enthusiastic followers who consider him the most recent apostle of Jesus Christ. Maybe his devotees could raise that kind of money after all, or at least 8% to 12% of it to pay a bail bond agent, who would pledge the rest. And if they did, and if he was released, wouldn’t Joaquin Garcia just flee to his home and church headquarters in Mexico rather than hang around L.A. to be prosecuted?

So California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra asked to double the amount, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed. Bail is now at a record-setting $50 million. At least for now, Joaquin Garcia isn’t going anywhere.

For George Tyndall, bail was initially set at $2.1 million, so he wasn’t going anywhere either. Tyndall is the former USC gynecologist accused of sexually assaulting patients at the student health center. On Tuesday a judge reduced the amount to $1.6 million - a still-hefty sum, but one that Tyndall may be able to meet by putting up his condo as collateral.

He may well be guilty, and perhaps Joaquin Garcia is too - but that’s got nothing to do with whether they ought to be in or out of jail before trial.

The whole point of money bail is that accused criminals are supposed to be able to pay it. Presumed innocent until proven guilty, they’re supposed to get out before trial in order to participate fully in their own defense. And then, the theory goes, they won’t run away because they won’t want to lose their money (or their house or their car or whatever other collateral they put up).

In practice, however, setting money bail amounts has become a ruse for keeping defendants locked up, either because judges believe they will flee no matter how much money is at stake - or perhaps because prosecutors want to squeeze a guilty plea out of them in exchange for their freedom.

But if a judge has sufficient evidence that Joaquin Garcia is truly a high risk to flee, the right response is not to set impossibly high bail. It’s to deny him release on bail at any level.

Likewise, Tyndall shouldn’t be released if there’s enough evidence that he’s a danger to flee or hurt someone. But if there’s little or no such evidence, he should get out without posting any bail at all, no matter how wicked his alleged crimes and no matter how his accusers feel about it.

It would be bad enough if it were just the rich and notorious who were slapped with huge bail amounts. But the even more insidious problem with money bail is that it generally discriminates against the poor. Perhaps Joaquin Garcia and Tyndall will be able to raise all that money. But how about Kristen Gotangco, whose bail was set at $600,000 after she was arrested on an animal cruelty charge for allegedly hoarding 78 cats?

Why was it so important to keep her in jail before trial? It can’t be the only way to protect the neighborhood felines. Gotangco sounds like a woman in need of serious help, not someone who’s likely to flee the jurisdiction in order to hoard cats in some other country. Any amount of money bail for such a person is excessive.

Decisions about whether to release an accused criminal before trial should be based on the risk that the person will flee or hurt someone while awaiting his or her day in court. They should not be based on the public’s feelings about the crime, and certainly not on the defendant’s wealth or poverty.

The state Supreme Court is to decide later this year whether to ban money bail in all cases in which defendants can’t afford it. In about 15 months, California voters are to decide whether to finally scrap money bail in this state altogether. Until then, we live with an absurd system that calculates justice and public safety by the amount of money the defendant can beg, borrow or otherwise fork over.


July 12

San Francisco Chronicle on oversight of utility’s power shut-off program:

After the deadly wildfires of the past two years, PG&E has announced that it will expand its program of precautionary power shut-offs to its entire Northern California service area. The company’s power lines have been blamed for sparking numerous fires over the past several years, including the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed nearly the entire Butte County town of Paradise.

PG&E is right to reconsider the reach of its power shut-off program.

California has a history of fires sparked by power lines. During high wind conditions, tree branches can also knock down lines into brush, causing great danger.

When there’s extreme danger, a utility’s decision to proactively shut down the power supply can prevent fires.

But power shut-offs, particularly extended ones, come with their own dangers.

Driving is dangerous when traffic lights don’t work. Seniors and people with serious medical problems are highly vulnerable without access to power.

Local water agencies have also raised alarms about the expansion of the shut-off program, because they rely on power to draw from their water supplies and run their sewage treatment facilities. Many have been scrambling, because not all of them have enough power from backup generators to carry them through a multiday power shut-off.

“It’s critical that we have water available for customers and for firefighters and other emergency responders,” said Andrea Pook, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

The district has ordered additional backup generators to expand its capacity in the event of a multiday power shut-off, but they won’t arrive until early August.

Until then, it’s relying on careful operational management - and an assist from its customers - to get through power shutoffs that could last up to five days.

“We’ve asked PG&E to provide us with maps and a list of facilities and accounts that will be affected by (power shut-offs), so that we can make operational decisions,” Pook said.

In the event of a shut-off, East Bay MUD will also top off its reservoirs and ask residential customers to cut down on their water use.

The decision to shut off power is held solely by the state’s three investor-owned utilities - PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric.

While the California Public Utilities Commission has strengthened public notification requirements for the shut-offs, it doesn’t provide a final check on any utility’s decision to institute a power shut-off.

Contacted for comment, PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said the company understands that shut-offs are serious events, and that it takes all steps to ensure each one is necessary.

“We understand that public officials are concerned, and that’s why we’re in conversation with local officials so they understand the parameters of the program,” Smith said. “But there are risks to keeping the power on in high-fire-threat conditions. This is a public safety issue, and shutoffs may be necessary in terms of public safety.”

Despite the company’s reassurances, some local officials are skeptical of leaving the sole responsibility for shut-off decisions in the company’s hands.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that PG&E knew hundreds of miles of its power lines were outdated and at risk of failure, with potentially catastrophic wildfire consequence.

In response, the federal judge overseeing PG&E’s probation - based on the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that left eight people dead - has demanded that the company respond to all of the charges in the report. Did we mention that PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January?

Given both PG&E’s track record and the high stakes of extended power shut-offs, some skepticism is warranted.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has called for a public agency, like the California Independent System Operator, to be in charge of making choices about precautionary power shut-offs.

Depending on how this summer’s first shut-offs proceed, it’s an idea the state Legislature should seriously consider.

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