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New TUD board majority hurting its own cause

Voters put the new Tuolumne Utilities District board majority in office in November’s election as a backlash against a board-approved rate increase and over-generous district employee compensation.

The voter frustration was well-placed. But a wishy washy board, perhaps overly fawning of staff, has been replaced by something just as bad or maybe worse: an inflexible, micromanaging and, in some cases mean spirited, majority. 

Consolidation: Schools should get down to business

School boards and administrators are fond of comparing their operations to the business world’s.

In fact, a well-worn argument equating school district superintendents to corporate CEOs has been applied for years to justify jaw-dropping six-figure salaries, outsized pensions, and a bevy of fringe benefits.


Denial: A river that runs through Yosemite NP

“The health of our visitors is our paramount concern and we are making every effort to notify and inform our visitors of any potential illness...” 

— Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park superintendent (Aug. 27 press release)

Yosemite National Park officials this week vowed they have strived for transparency in dealing with a hantavirus outbreak at the park, which has sickened four people and killed two others.

But, reporting by The Union Democrat has found, the process has been far more opaque.

In fact, delays in informing the public could have put some park visitors staying at Curry Village in harm’s way during the first and, particularly, the second week of August.

Why this would happen is anyone’s guess.

We found:

• Park and health officials in “late July” knew a 49-year-old Southern California woman had possibly contracted the rodent-borne virus at Curry Village in June. Experts determined the connection was too tenuous to make an announcement. A state epidemiologist said a single case wasn’t unusual enough.

• About a week later, Aug. 9, state health officials were investigating the first case at the park when they learned of a second hantavirus case also possibly involving a June stay at Curry Village. That victim, a 36-year-old Alameda County man, died July 31.

• By Aug. 10, the Curry Village-hantavirus connection had been more firmly established. Yet, apparently due to disagreements among park and health officials about timing the news’ release, still another week passed before word got out.

• The state Public Health Department finally issued an Aug. 16 statement confirming the first two cases and their connection to Curry Village.

While news reports two weeks after the fact may have reached many visitors or potential visitors, still another two weeks passed before the park began to directly contact people — that is, via email — who’d stayed at the park between June and August of the possibility of hantavirus exposure. Those emails started going out the night of Monday, Aug. 27.

The delays are inexcusable and could have put visitors in the first and second weeks of August in harm’s way.

How many is anyone’s guess — but the park says it has contacted 2,900 June to August guests of the cabins.

Park officials insist they have been forthright and transparent from Day 1. But that hardly seems true.

One could blame the creaking wheels of bureaucracy, or the difficulties in making the connections, for the delay, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either.

Rather, the situation reflects park officials’ reluctance to inform the public of “bad” news — like climbers falling to their deaths, tourists plummeting down waterfalls, or people drowning in high, fast moving rivers.

(They do breathlessly report the “good,” like groundbreakings or free admission days).

We’ve argued with little success that — beside the abstract idea that the public has a right to know what goes on in a National Park — valuable lessons can be learned by informing the public of such tragedies. Lessons like: Don’t dangle over waterfalls, beware of high rivers, climbing can be dangerous, be leery of deer-mouse droppings, etc.

We fear such a lesson, turned on its head, could arrive at park officials’ doorstep in coming days: That an early- to mid-August Curry camper, denied the ability to make an informed decision about whether to lodge at the Village, becomes ill or dies.

What gives with Summerville board’s Watson fixation?

Summerville Union High School District trustees are scheduled Wednesday to vote on an athletic department policy shift that defies common sense and needs better explanation.

It would limit the number of varsity sports overseen by 25-year Summerville PE teacher Ben Watson, who is head coach of the Bears’ football, basketball and softball teams.

Talk of the policy change, spearheaded by Trustees Dave Marquez and Bret Taylor, has wasted hours over the past few board meetings. The last, on Aug. 8, also drew a concert of concerned parents and student athletes supportive of Watson.

All this talk at a time when the district is facing possibly crippling state budget cuts and is asking voters to pass an $8 million property-tax-funded bond in November to pay for facility renovations and repairs.

Marquez and Taylor claim Watson is spread too thinly.

Watson himself, though, has made no such complaints.

In fact, he has earned Mother Lode League Coach (or Co-Coach) of the Year honors in football, basketball and softball. 

Under Watson’s guidance, Summerville’s varsity football team, which is small by division standards, has been to the postseason in three of the past four years. In 2009, the Bears won the MLL title and were victorious in a playoff game for the first time in school history.

The Bears softball team is a perennial fighter and has captured three MLL titles under Watson’s tutelage.

Spread too thinly?

Marquez and Taylor seem to have other motives or insights which haven’t adequately been explained.

Wednesday’s meeting would be a good place to specify why this policy change is needed.

Keep the discussion brief, though, as there are far more-pressing matters that need to be addressed.


The Summerville Board of Trustees meets at 6:30 p.m. in the campus library.

Salvage the wreckage of the State Parks debacle

Scores of state parks —  including local landmarks Railtown 1897, Columbia and Big Trees — have labored over the past two years under budget cuts and the threat of closure due to California’s overspending.

Then, last week, came a big revelation: The State Parks Department is sitting on $54 million in untapped funds — more than double the amount cut from the department in last year’s budget. 

That would seem like good news. Gov. Jerry Brown spun it as such Wednesday, quipping at a news conference, “Hallelujah. More money is better than less money.”

But just the opposite is true.

The money was squirreled away in a pair of accounts — $20.4 million in a reserve fund and $33.5 million in fees collected from off-highway vehicle users. Its existence was revealed following a newspaper investigation concerning $271,000 in unauthorized vacation buyouts for Parks Department employees.

Embarrassed and disgraced, the Parks Department Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her deputy Michael Harris was fired.

The scandal’s implications, however, are far broader and deeper than the money involved.

It first begs the question of what other cash is squirreled away in various hidden accounts, unbeknownst to our government leaders, lawmakers sand bean counters. Heck — the State Parks Department accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s annual spending. Most goes to schools, prisons, pensions and health care.

A broader accounting is needed.

As for the 150 year old State Parks Department, the scandal’s implications are deeper.

That hidden $54 million, at this point, can apparently be appropriated by the state for any reason and so would be lost to State Parks funding.

More critically, the department has damaged its credibility with its base of support — the public that values open spaces, recreation and the preservation of historical landmarks. And this bungled $54 million accounting mistake further erodes Californians’ confidence in the general competence, transparency and honesty of state government.

When Railtown was on the chopping block earlier this month, community members in Tuolumne County rallied around a host of efforts to save the park — an expanded visitor-lodging tax that failed at the polls in June (Measure C) and private fundraising efforts that generated tens of thousands of dollars to keep operations going.

The generosity and public-spirited role of the Sonora Area Foundation in providing a $75,000 matching grant to help save Railtown was an important and welcome donation. Yet how frustrating and annoying it must be to the SAF board to make this kind of sizable gift — while $54 million in state park funds lay hidden away, unused and unreported. 

In addition to the SAF, the coordination, energy and ticket-selling effort by five local Rotary clubs to raise $75,000 in matching funds — and the wonderful support from local residents in buying those tickets or making outright personal donations was a terrific show of public support for Railtown.

Most all of them must feel betrayed by the bureaucrats in Sacramento. And they are rightfully angry. 

This same scenario played out in other communities statewide as well.

Coleman, Harris and possibly others in the department shouldn’t get off so easy.

The Attorney General and Finance Department are investigating. The Legislature should do likewise.

Any possible criminal or civil wrongdoing should be prosecuted vigorously.

The next action that Gov. Brown should undertake is to restore the $54 million back to the State Parks operating fund. Beyond that, the legislature should “fast-track” a proposed law — that has bi-partisan support — to allow taxpayers to deduct the cost of state park passes from their state income tax and offer state commemorative license plates for sale. All of these new funds would be used for park maintenance and operations.

The State of California can salvage the wreckage of this scandal by restoring all 270 parks to a solid financial footing. 

Pendley’s credibility continues to erode

“It is better to deserve honors and not have them, than to have honors and not deserve them.”

— Mark Twain

The Columbia Elementary School District board announced in May that Superintendent John Pendley will be leaving. But not anytime soon.

June primary delivers decisive wins, close races, disappointment

The recent primary election produced some interesting storylines across the board. There were some genuine surprises; several races “too close to call”; and a disappointing vote — from our perspective — on Measure C.

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