Saturday, September 13, 2008


Council Candidate Whitburn Denounces New 301 University Project

Developer Claims Absolute Right to Build on Site Without Community Approval

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Flanked by about 20 community activists as well as city attorney Mike Aguirre, District 3 City Council candidate Stephen Whitburn called a press conference September 7 to denounce the latest incarnation of the controversial 301 University high-rise tower. Held in the parking lot of a mini-mall at 4th and University, one block away from the site of the proposed development, Whitburn and two community activists, John Taylor of Save Hillcrest and Nancy Moors of the Hillcrest Town Council and Hillcrest Business Association, said the new proposal for two separate towers on the site would add to Hillcrest’s already notorious traffic congestion and destroy the village-like character of the neighborhood.

The original 301 University project was proposed in 2006 and approved by the San Diego City Council on an 8-1 vote, with District 6 Councilmember Donna Frye the only vote against it. However, a group called Friends of San Diego sued the city in state court to block the project on the ground that no environmental impact report had been done on it and it would forever change the character of Hillcrest. San Diego County Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn agreed, and issued an order blocking the project from going forward.

“The people of Hillcrest fought successfully against the proposal for a huge 15-story building that would tower over everything in this neighborhood and make the traffic even worse,” Whitburn said in his press conference. “So what do [the developers] do? They propose two buildings that are even bigger, and the city government says that the neighborhood here, and the people who live here, have no say in the matter. Well, the people of this neighborhood have every right to have a say in this matter, and that’s going to start here today.”

The original proposal was for a 150-foot building; the new plans are for two towers on the same site, one 195 feet tall and the other 170 feet tall. Developer Bruce Lightenberger of La Jolla Pacific and its subsidiary, Urban Properties (UP), Inc., told Zenger’s that the project had been redesigned and made taller to reduce its “massing” on the site, so there would be a “punch hole” — a space — between the two buildings instead of a single frontage taking up the whole block. He also said that the new proposal would actually be smaller than the old one, even though it would be taller.

Whitburn argued that Judge Quinn’s decision meant that she agreed “that the project had not been given a proper environmental review; [that the city] had not had a chance to look at the traffic impacts of the project and how it would change the very character of the community of Hillcrest and the surrounding neighborhoods. The judge sent the developer, at that time, back to the drawing board. He told them to do a proper environmental review, and he ordered the city to pay the community’s legal bills.”

When Zenger’s associate editor Leo E. Laurence interviewed Lightenberger two years ago on the original project, he was openly contemptuous of the argument that his project would change the character of the Hillcrest area. Lightenberger said that an 83-year-old woman who’d complained that future generations would never know of the small-scale, pedestrian-friendly ambience Hillcrest had once had if his project was built was “absolutely right. We can go back to the Indians and say, ‘Gee, we’re sorry we’ve changed your neighborhood.’ The time has come and we are ready to go up.”

This time around, Lightenberger was less in-your-face but equally emphatic that the current character of the surrounding blocks isn’t a legitimate issue for the city to consider when approving his project. “It depends on what you define as ‘neighborhood,’” he said. “If you look at the five, six or seven blocks around the area, there are tall and massive buildings in the area.”

Lightenberger said he is having an environmental impact review done on the project, but that the other parts of the 2007 court ruling don’t apply to him or his companies because they weren’t parties to the action — Friends of San Diego sued the city, not the developer — and because this is an entirely new project with nothing in common with the old one except that it’s designed for the same site. In fact, Lightenberger said that because his project fits in with the current zoning for the area, the city has to let him build it regardless of what the neighborhood activists say.

Nor does the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) passed on July 8 by the San Diego City Council to put a temporary (2 1/2-year) moratorium on high-rise projects in Hillcrest pending an update of the Hillcrest community plan, stop his project, Lightenberger argued. The ordinance restricts new buildings in the Hillcrest/Uptown neighborhoods to 65 feet and in Mission Hills to 50 feet. “It clearly states,” said John Taylor of Save Hillcrest at Whitburn’s press conference, “that no permits or applications [for buildings taller than that] shall be issued after July 29. And this developer submitted an application on August 21.”

Not so fast, said Lightenberger. “We’re grandfathered in,” he claimed. His argument is that the IHO didn’t become effective until one month after its final approval by the city — which was August 29, eight days after he submitted his application. “One of the reasons we submitted it when we did was to protect our rights as a property owner,” Lightenberger told Zenger’s. “There’s a 200-foot height limit [under the previous community plan] and we have certain rights as a property owner, and that is why we proceeded with the building design with this ministerial process.”

The word “ministerial” usually means that the property owner has an absolute right to proceed with the project, and the city has no discretion over whether or not it goes forward — and that, Lightenberger said, is exactly the claim he and his companies are making. “We submitted this to the Building Department rather than the Planning Department. There are no deviations or variances. We are in compliance with the zoning for the property.”

Lightenberger is also confident that even if the community files a lawsuit to block his new project, he’ll win. He cited a precedent for a project called Los Arbalitos at 6th and Upas, whose developer prevailed in a community lawsuit at trial and won again on appeal.

During his press conference, Whitburn noted that unlike the previous 301 University proposal, the new project offers no public parking. It was the prospect of additional parking in the neighborhood that persuaded the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) to endorse the original 301 University in 2006 — breaking ranks with the Uptown Planners, the city-credential neighborhood planning group for Hillcrest and its surrounding neighborhoods, who opposed it from the get-go.

Asked why the new proposal doesn’t include community parking where the old one did, Lightenberger said, “That was one thing I thought we had worked with the community on, and it came back in our face. By adding that [community parking], it added three stories to the design — and the community came back against us on that” [the total height of the building].

Lightenberger was also asked about the economics of his project and why he considers it feasible in the current housing-market bust. “We certainly think the market is going to change,” he said. “This project isn’t going to close units in 2 1/2 years at the minimum, probably closer to three years after we get documentation from the Building Department, and two more years for construction. I wouldn’t want these units on the market now, but we think the market will change.”

According to Lightenberger, the project will still contain commercial space on the ground floor of each building and residential units above — but the residences will be rental units, not condos as in the original project.

At his press conference, Whitburn focused less on the developer and more on the city. “How is it, I ask, that our city government thinks it’s O.K. for La Jolla Pacific Development to submit new projects that exceed the height limits in Hillcrest even before the height limits have taken effect?” he said. “How long have the city bureaucrats known that these developers were once again going to thumb their noses at the residents and the people of this neighborhood?”

Whitburn tied in his opposition to the new incarnation of 301 University to his City Council campaign, and in particular his call for the Council to pass a “Neighborhood Right to Know” law, requiring that neighborhoods receive word of future development plans in time to mount an effective community response and be in on the permit process from the beginning. “Let’s work together to make sure that whatever is built here complies with the new height limit; that the public is involved in the process; that any new project makes this neighborhood better … and that our city government is working for the people,” Whitburn said.


Whitburn, Gloria Debate at Hillcrest Town Council

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Stephen Whitburn, Todd Gloria

San Diego District 3 City Council candidates Stephen Whitburn and Todd Gloria held a debate September 9 at the Hillcrest Town Council meeting in the Joyce Beers Community Center. Moderated by Town Council co-organizer John Taylor, the debate was mostly low-keyed and civil. Gloria stressed his history of public service — he’s never held a job other than in government service — and his status as a third-generation San Diegan, while Whitburn pointed to his experience as a journalist and his knowledge of local politics in other cities where he’s lived as his main qualifications for the job.

Not surprisingly, given both the responsibilities of the City Council and the purpose of a neighborhood organization like the Hillcrest Town Council (whose membership is restricted to people who actually live in Hillcrest), the main issues were land use, public safety and the city’s infrastructure. Whitburn pointed out that he had just taken a leadership role against the latest incarnation of the 301 University development, which was approved by the current City Council but blocked by a federal judge in a case filed by neighborhood activists, many of them Town Council members.

“We had a news conference at 4th and University [one block away from the site of the proposed development] on Sunday [September 7] to protest this project and the fact that they’re doing this without community input and without abiding by the 65’ height limit.” The City Council passed an Interim Height Ordinance [IHO] temporarily restricting the height of new buildings in Hillcrest to 65’ pending adoption of a new master plan for the area. The ordinance passed on July 29 and the application to build the latest version of 301 University was filed on August 21 — but the developer, Bruce Lightenberger of La Jolla Pacific Development and Urban Properties (UP), Inc., claims his project is “grandfathered in” because the IHO didn’t legally take effect until 30 days after it was enacted.

Whitburn noted that the original 301 University project called for a single 150’ tower on the site — and the new project is for “two towers, one at 193’ and one at 170’.” Claiming that this project, if built, will add to the “wall-to-wall” traffic already plaguing the heart of Hillcrest, Whitburn promised, “I will be the City Councilmember who will stand up and take leadership for the neighborhoods. I have a broad range of experience in different cities. I’ve been a journalist for years and I think we need outside experience. I’ve seen how government can work for the cities and the neighborhoods.”

Gloria, who got to make his opening speech before Whitburn, said he was running for the City Council because “everything is upside down” — crime in San Diego is up while the size of the police force is down; gas prices are up and public transit is being cut back. He claimed that his long history of working for local politicians — he’s been on the staff of U.S. Congressmember Susan Davis for eight years and for three of those years has served on the San Diego Housing Commission — and his family ties to San Diego (“I live on Wilson Avenue in City Heights, where my mom grew up,” he said) — gave him “the knowledge for solutions” to the city’s problems.

Moderator Taylor decided to let the audience drive the debate with its questions, and the first one he got was from a member who asked the candidates to endorse an elaborate proposal to prevent San Diego City Councilmembers from receiving raises larger than those for rank-and-file city workers, and to require any raises larger than that to be approved by public vote. Whitburn said he didn’t think the Councilmembers deserved a raise at all, and Gloria said Council pay should be “linked to other measures of performance: do we complete a budget on time, and is it balanced? The performance standards should be different from those for rank-and-file city workers.”

Gloria got hit with several questions from Whitburn supporters regarding the contributions he’s received from developers, including Kerri Downing and Casey Tanaka of Coronado, who are fighting a development-control ordinance in their home city. Gloria said he thought they gave to his campaign because as a Congressional staff member he’d worked with them on federal issues affecting Coronado, and said that people who attack him for taking money from developers aren’t considering “the context of those contributions.”

According to Gloria, only 19 percent of his total campaign contributions have come from developers, and nobody is giving him enough money to affect his decision-making anyway. “I have 1,200 individual donors and I’m not going to check with all 1,200 of them every time I do something,” he said. “My answers don’t change depending on what group I’m speaking to. Those folks support me, but so do a lot of teachers, biotech executives and others. I’ll take any legal contributions. My fourth-grade teacher and the secretary of my high school gave to me. I am not hiding my contributions.”

Following that question, affordable housing advocate Ann Wilson asked both candidates, but especially Whitburn, how they would seek to build more affordable housing in District 3 — where, Wilson pointed out, no new rental apartment building has been built in the last 10 years. “My opponent has said that our district has taken its fair share, and new affordable housing should be built in other parts of the city,” Whitburn charged. He said that as a member of the North Park Planning Commission he’d supported an affordable development on the 3500 block of Florida Street which is now under construction, but he’d voted against a second building for the same area “because of neighborhood concerns about too much density, and whether we want an entire corridor of affordable housing in one area.”

“It’s easy to talk about supporting affordable housing and hard to get it done,” said Gloria. “As a member of the San Diego Housing Commission, I’ve helped build or rehabilitate 2,000 units. I’m the guy who knows how to build it.” Gloria charged that in opposing that second development on Florida Street, Whitburn had yielded to “some community people [who] said we had ‘too much’ affordable housing. The reality is you either have a market-rate project or an affordable-housing project. Anyone can build a building. The question is the subsidies.” Gloria said he wanted “to play the role” incumbent Councilmember Toni Atkins has played on the affordable-housing issue.

Asked by veteran political activist John Lockhart about the differences between them, Gloria said, “The Voice of San Diego said we’d vote the same 100 out of 100 times. The question is who’s going to lead? I was born and raised in this community, and know it like the back of my hand. … I’ve been really clear on my priorities: public safety, infrastructure and transit. District 3 has 100-year-old neighborhoods. Transit works in District 3, but we’re fighting to maintain the transit we have.”

“I don’t think we would vote the same 100 percent of the time,” Whitburn replied. “I would have stood with the neighborhood against the Kensington Terrace development, and he would have voted with the developer. I voted against the second Florida Street project and he’s indicated tonight he’d vote for it. I’ve worked as a journalist and in the non-profit sector, and been a union member. My opponent has worked in government all eight years since he’s been out of college. I’ve covered government in different cities and seen how other cities allow people to control development. The developers and lobbyists obviously see a difference, because most of their contributions have gone to my opponent.”

Asked about crime in general, and specifically about how they would control so-called “quality of life” offenses like prostitution and graffiti, Whitburn said, “We pay a lot of taxes that go downtown and pay for sports teams and developers. If we took all the money we mismanage and used it for core services, you’d be surprised at how much we’d have to assign to gang task forces and graffiti removal.”

Gloria cited his wide range of endorsements from individuals and agencies involved in law enforcement and said, “This is a personal issue for me. We have to make recruitment and retention of police officers a major priority, and get back to the community policing efforts that used to be a priority in the 1990’s.” According to Gloria, when the city began its financial meltdown earlier this decade, police resources were shifted from crime prevention efforts to get more officers out on patrol, and many of the police storefronts in Hillcrest and City Heights were closed to save money — and that’s a decision he’d like to reverse.

Asked about the city’s financial mismanagement, Gloria cited the Southeast Development Corporation (SEDC) scandal — the agency’s chair, he explained, received “millions of dollars in pay beyond what she was supposed to get” — and said the problem was that no one read the agency’s audits that could have alerted them to the problem. He claimed that his experience at the Housing Commission studying financial statements gave him a “value-add” — a term he used fairly often through the evening — “a skill set that will help. I know how to read audits and am more likely to catch them. Who is holding people accountable? Who is providing oversight?”

“It sounds great to say one is going to provide oversight, but the problem with SEDC and CCDC [the Centre City Development Corporation, the agency in charge of redeveloping downtown] is they were deliberately set up to avoid accountability and City Council oversight. We need to fold SEDC and CCDC into the main city redevelopment agency.” Whitburn also called on his audience to be wary of “City Councilmembers who have taken contributions from, and are influenced by, people who have business before the city,” and said the Council should be suspicious of deals involving the private sector that are billed as saving the city money but usually end up costing more instead.

A Gloria supporter in the audience — who’s a journalist herself — bluntly told Whitburn, “You’re a reporter. You don’t really have the experience.” Whitburn said that being a journalist meant covering a wide range of issues, and he’s had the experience of writing about city government in two very different cities: Albany, New York, which he said is largely controlled by an old-line political machine; and Madison, Wisconsin, which he described as a city whose collegial, consensus-building style of decision-making is one he’d like to see San Diego emulate.

“My job [as a reporter] was to take a very complex set of discussions and boil them down to community information relevant to the public,” Whitburn said. “I think I’ve gained insight into a wide variety of issues. I’ve worked as an apartment manager and as a news director, managing people and budgets. My current job is with the American Red Cross, working to persuade people to donate blood. My expertise is not all in government.” [Ironically, under Red Cross guidelines neither Whitburn nor Gloria are eligible to donate blood themselves because they’re both Gay men.]

Gloria joked that he wanted the City Council to get its journalist representation from District 7 — where former Channel 10 newscaster Marti Emerald is running against April Boling, whose history of government staff experience is ironically far closer to Gloria’s own than is her opponent’s. “I’ve worked in government, but not all in one form,” he said. “I’ve worked with all different people, including 675,000 constituents with Congressmember Davis. I’ve worked with all these communities. I know your issues better than anyone else. I haven’t managed an apartment complex, but I have served on the audit committee of a $275 million agency. I think public service is a noble calling and I’m proud of the time I’ve spent there.”

Zenger’s Associate Editor Launches “Hillcrest Blog”

http://blogbythelion.blogspot.com

Zenger’s journalist Leo E. Laurence has launched a new blog covering the Hillcrest neighborhood: http://blogbythelion.blogspot.com “This will cover stories, commentary and news analysis of events and people in Hillcrest, with particular emphasis on the neighborhood’s Gay Community,” says Laurence. It will be updated daily.

He is an active member of the Society of Professional Journalists (and a member of its National Committee on Diversity), CCNMA — Latino Journalists of California and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

For other Zenger’s content on the Web, see the official Zenger’s blog at http://zengersmag.blogspot.com and Mark Gabrish Conlan’s blog on movies old and new, http://moviemagg.blogspot.com

Photo credit: David Poller

Friday, September 05, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Well, they’re over. The 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions are history, and John McCain and Barack Obama can at last proclaim themselves as the actual, not merely “presumed,” nominees of America’s two major parties — the only major parties we’ve had since 1856 or are likely to have in the foreseeable future, barring the emergence of a party-building candidate with H. Ross Perot’s bankroll and considerably more perseverance. It’s a measure of how quaint the traditions of American politics have become that Labor Day, which was traditionally considered the start of a presidential campaign season, was this year the starting date of the Republican convention — and that McCain and Obama had been running against each other as the informal choices of their parties for at least three months before that.

The most amazing story to come out of either party’s convention and final nomination process is the selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential choice. Vice-presidential selections used to mean a good deal more than they do now. From the 1830’s — when public conventions replaced the private caucuses that had previously picked the parties’ presidential candidates — to the 1960’s, running mates were usually chosen to “balance” the ticket ideologically and/or to secure support in a major state or region where the presidential candidate was thought to be weak. Now one suspects most presidential nominees regard the choice of a running mate less as “Who’s going to help me the most?” and more “Who’s going to hurt me the least?”

This year, Obama and McCain both picked their vice-presidents in the opposite way from what one would have predicted based on how they ran their campaigns for the nominations in the first place. Obama went the Dick Cheney route and picked Joe Biden, who’s been a U.S. Senator since Obama was 12, who voted for the war in Iraq and who would win approval from Democratic moderates and media pundits as adding “experience” and “gravitas” to the ticket. McCain went the Dan Quayle route, picking a young, little-known firebrand with appeal to the radical-Right base of his party — and he went one better , seizing on what he felt would be an opportunity to pick up the votes of disaffected Democratic women still upset over Hillary Clinton’s loss to Obama by picking a woman of his own.

In terms of bringing the Republican party together and reconciling the radical-Right’s firebrands to McCain’s nomination, his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as a running mate was a smashing success. Throughout the week of the Republican convention, delegate after delegate cited Palin’s hard-line stance against allowing abortion under virtually any circumstance as something that was making them proud to be Republicans again and getting them excited about McCain’s candidacy instead of just dutifully supporting him as the lesser of two evils. James Dobson of Focus on the Family — probably the most powerful leader of today’s radical Christian Right — who earlier in the year had darkly hinted of supporting an independent candidate if McCain was the Republican nominee, enthusiastically endorsed McCain and said Palin had made the difference.

Palin’s firebrand speech to the convention on September 3 indicated that she’s going to be an attack dog for McCain the way Richard Nixon was for Dwight Eisenhower, Spiro Agnew was for Nixon, Bob Dole was for Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle was for George H. W. Bush. The chants of “Drill, baby, drill!” that punctuated her speech kept reminding me of what I’d written a month before on the drill-o-mania that seems to be the Republicans’ entire energy platform: “Not only do the drill-o-maniacs ignore the environmental carnage that their strategy would ensure — not only the direct damage from oil spills but the increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions — they positively seem to revel in it.” Palin is getting partially deserved credit for raising Alaska’s tax “take” from the oil and gas industry — which seems to supply virtually their entire economy — though in fact she was content to sponsor a mild increase and the Democrats in the Alaska legislature had to push her to agree to a bigger one. But her overall approach to energy — and that of her party — is “Damn the environment, full speed ahead!”

As an inducement to disaffected Democratic women supposedly eager to vote for a ticket with a woman on it, however, Palin is proving a big flop. As Gloria Steinem put it in the Los Angeles Times, “Palin shares nothing but a chromosome” with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hillary Clinton herself asked her supporters on the floor of the Democratic convention whether it was just about her or whether it was about the issues. She didn’t come right out and say that any Democratic woman stupid enough to vote for McCain just out of a hissy-fit that Obama had beaten a woman would likely be giving McCain the opportunity to appoint the two hard-Right Supreme Court justices needed to overturn Roe v. Wade, but virtually everyone in that room knew that’s what she meant.

And make no mistake about it: it was Palin’s hard-line opposition to virtually all abortions — as dramatized in her private life by her decision to carry her fifth pregnancy to term even after her doctors warned her that the baby would have Down syndrome — that got her the nod to run with McCain. If “conservative woman” had been the only criterion, there would have been far better choices available — like Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison or North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, both far more qualified than Palin to become president if the 72-year-old war-injured cancer survivor croaks in office. But apparently neither Hutchison, Dole nor some of the other Republican women mentioned (like Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) were anti-choice enough for the rabid Republican Right.

From my point of view, Palin’s selection was the best piece of political news I’d heard in months. In what was shaping up to be a Democratic year, on the eve of the conventions McCain had pulled to within two points of Obama — a statistical tie — in the polls. I’d spent months worrying that the Democrats might have already pissed away the presidency this year by making their front-runners an African-American and a woman in a country still too racist and too sexist to elect either. I’d listened with awe at the cool efficiency of the Republican media party as it went after Obama with its usual precision and aplomb, dredging up figures like Rev. Jeremiah Wright and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayres to bolster their contention that Obama was a radical socialist and closet Muslim (how they could attack Obama’s Christian minister and still claim he was “really” a Muslim is pretty breathtaking in itself, reminiscent of the Nazi contention that the Jews were the masterminds of both international capitalism and the communist movement out to destroy it) whose mad schemes would bankrupt the country (as if the Republicans haven’t done a great job of that already!) and have us all speaking Arabic and praying to Mecca.

Then Sarah Palin got her 15 minutes of fame — and the soap opera began. She turned out to be so vindictive that she demanded the firing of Mike Wooten, the Alaska state trooper who had dared to divorce her sister — and when Alaska commissioner of public safety Walter Monegan refused, she fired him too. It also came out that, despite her ferocious support of abstinence-only sex education [though the Los Angeles Times reported on September 6 that her public statements during the 2006 campaign for governor of Alaska were inconsistent: she was abstinence-only in a questionnaire but suggested she'd support education about condoms and other contraceptives during a debate in Juneau], she’d been unable to teach that lesson to her 17-year-old daughter Bristol, who had inconveniently got herself pregnant by a boy she’d been dating for some time but hadn’t got round to marrying yet. (Score another one for “traditional family values.”)

And while Palin’s supporters have made a big to-do about her confronting the corrupt Alaska Republican establishment in general and Senator Ted Stevens — now under indictment — in particular, it turned out that she’d been as enthusiastic about using Stevens’ clout to get federal earmarks for her little town of Wasilla (population 6,715) as anyone else, down to hiring a former Stevens staff member as her city’s lobbyist. Three of Palin’s earmark request made it onto John McCain’s annual lists of the worst ones in the country. It also turned out that, to paraphrase John Kerry, Palin was for Stevens’ infamous “bridge to nowhere” before she was against it — and when she cancelled it, did she return the money to the federal government? No-o-o-o-o; she simply said she was going to keep it and think of other things to spend it on in Alaska.

Contrary to a lot of progressives’ wishful thinking, John McCain is still the likely winner of this year’s presidential election. His “maverick” reputation, though tarnished by the abject fealty he’s shown to the craziest elements in his party (in his convention speech he didn’t once mention the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill he co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy, killed by hard-line Republicans and the xenophobes of talk radio; or the campaign finance reform bill he and progressive Democratic Senator Russ Feingold got passed), remains stubbornly indestructible. He’s got a compelling personal story — I got the impression you weren’t allowed to speak at the Republican convention unless you mentioned McCain’s five years in a POW camp in Hanoi — and it was fascinating to hear the Republicans questioning how a mere legislator, author and “community organizer” (a term they pronounced with the familiar talk-radio sneer) could possibly go up against a War Hero, when four years ago they had sung exactly the opposite song.

McCain remains the likely winner because the Republican party has not only built up an amazing media infrastructure — there are two corporate media parties in this country, one essentially a propaganda arm of the Republican party and the other trapped in a corporate-mandated “objectivity” that allows expression of Right and center views but keeps out the Left — but because they’ve honed negative campaigning to a scientific skill. For all the talk about the “genius” of Karl Rove, he didn’t do anything that Lee Atwater hadn’t done before him, who hadn’t done anything that H. R. Haldeman hadn’t done before him, who hadn’t done anything that Murray Chotiner — Richard Nixon’s first political consultant and the man who pioneered the all-out negative campaigns we’ve become all too familiar with since — hadn’t done before him.

The recipe from the Republican convention is the same old Chotiner/Haldeman/Atwater/Rove one that got Nixon and both Bushes into the White House: solidify your support among the radical-Right base and neutralize the other candidate’s appeal by relentlessly demonizing him, turning him from a moderately appealing alternative into a swamp thing who’d be lucky to get his mother’s vote. In his review of Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland in the September 1-8 edition of The Nation, Thomas J. Sugrue wrote, “The [George] McGovern my classmates sent to resounding defeat in 1972 … was not a real man. He was a spectral creation of the politics of polarization.”

The Republican propaganda machine had done an excellent job of “spectralizing” Barack Obama (as they did with Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry) well before he got the nomination, so much so that just after McCain gave his acceptance speech CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck was able to do an entire hour-long show with four, count ’em, four authors who’d written best-selling books trashing Obama on flimsy, if not downright inaccurate, factual grounds. The “case” against Obama is he’s too elitist, he’s too weird, his name sounds too strange, he’s an outsider, he’s not really “one of us” — a strategy Republicans have used successfully against white Democrats but which will be even more effective against Obama because, while avoiding an overtly racist appeal, it “hooks” the latent racism of many Americans who buy into it and really think it means, “He’s too Black.”

I’d been dreading this fall’s campaign because I had a sinking feeling that McCain was just going to keep building on his own and his party’s propaganda machine’s momentum, broadening his lead in the polls week by week until he won the election in a 1972-sized blowout. Then he derailed his own machine by signing on to a relentlessly Right-wing platform that contradicts much of his public record, including an all-punishment immigration plank that had veteran radical-Right activist Phyllis Schlafly expressing almost orgasmic joy when Roger Hedgecock interviewed her on the convention floor — and by picking an ill-vetted, not-ready-for-prime-time running mate and setting her loose on the nation with a speech that made her sound more like Rush Limbaugh in drag than someone Americans might actually want one 72-year-old cancer survivor’s heartbeat away from the presidency.

My hope is that the Republican party has finally overreached itself and become too crazy, too relentlessly reactionary, too out of touch with the economic realities of a country in which their policies have made the rich immensely richer, sped the destruction of the middle class and virtually destroyed America’s industrial base. When McCain accepted the Republican nomination September 4, he told a few sad stories and mentioned a few workers’ names but all he had to offer people who’ve lost their jobs due to the de-industrialization of America was, “We’ll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower-paid one while they receive retraining.” (Admittedly, that’s about all Bill Clinton ever offered them, too.)

My fear is that the power of the Republican propaganda machine and the long tradition by which Americans have celebrated individual self-reliance and raised free-market capitalism to a virtual state religion has shifted the American balance of political power so far to the
Right that McCain’s nostrums will seem like everyday wisdom even to the people who are suffering the most from them. My fear is that John Mitchell’s prediction as manager of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign that “we’re going to move this country so far to the Right you won’t recognize it” has been so totally fulfilled that no Democrat can espouse even vaguely progressive ideas and still win the presidency.

And if that’s the case, then we ourselves are largely to blame for it. Both Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 ran as moderates. They didn’t plan to govern as progressives: they were pushed into doing so by the massive social movements of their times. In Roosevelt’s era those movements were organized labor, unemployed workers and veterans, and, most importantly of all, powerful and genuinely mass-based socialist and communist organizations that made liberal capitalists fear for the survival of their system if it didn’t reform. In Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s era, the mass movements were civil-rights organizations — first of African-Americans and then the movements of women, Latinos, other people of color (and, later, Queer people and people with disabilities) and the anti-war movement.

No such mass progressive or Left movements exist in the U.S. today — and the most important task of what shattered remnants of the U.S. Left still exist is to (re-)create them. That’s why people who don’t like working with the Democratic Party and don’t feel they can do so and still maintain faith with themselves and their consciences should be working outside the electoral system altogether rather than wasting their time running alternative political parties and fielding candidates doomed to miniscule vote percentages. The stark truth is that the radical Right has not only had its usual advantages over the radical Left — access to major corporate funding and publicity in the corporate media -— but they’ve consistently out-organized us as well. Until that changes, all progressives are going to get from presidential politics are a string of Republican presidents each more viciously hard-line radical-Right than the last, occasionally broken by a Clintonesque center-Right Democrat who offers only a slightly kinder, slightly gentler oppression in the name of “the Market.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008



It’s More than Nuclear Issues, Native Americans Tell Activists

U.S.-Indian Conflict about Concepts of Property, Christian Supremacism

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Ian Zabarte, Steven Newcomb

The August 29 “Matters of Controversy” program sponsored by the Peace and Democracy Action Group at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest was billed as about Native American activism against nuclear weapons testing and waste disposal on Native American lands in Nevada. But speakers Ian Zabarte, foreign minister of the legally independent Western Shoshone nation whose territory covers much of the state of Nevada, and professor Steven Newcomb, author of a provocative new book called Pagans in the Promised Land, turned the meeting into a history lesson, tracing the U.S. oppression of so-called “Indians” back over 500 years to Columbus’s explorations and the papal bulls issued by the pope at the time, Alexander VI, who argued that both the people and the land of the western hemisphere were fair game for exploitation by the Christians of western Europe.

Zabarte began by explaining the Shoshones’ concept of land ownership, which is that land belongs to the tribe as a whole and not to individual property owners. “We cannot sell our land out from under our brothers and sisters and cousins,” he explained. “Nuclear weapons test sites have been created on our lands by force and trespass.” According to Zabarte, the U.S. claims ownership of the Shoshones’ land by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the 1846-1848 Mexican war — but, he said, all this treaty did was fix the new boundary between the U.S. and Mexico after the U.S. conquered and occupied nearly half of Mexico’s territory (the current states of California, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas). Zabarte pointed out that the treaty itself provided that neither the U.S. nor Mexico could keep Indians off their traditional tribal lands.

According to Zabarte, the cataclysmic events that affected the U.S. between 1848 and 1863 shaped U.S. relations with the Shoshone and enabled his tribe to get — at least on paper — the best deal any Native Americans ever got from the U.S. government. In 1857 the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada, keeping the western gold rush going after it had started petering out in California. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln took office as president and the U.S. Civil War started. The same year, Congress organized the Nevada Territory, but its founding document “specified that it would not include or infringe on the rights of Indians until the tribes themselves should signify their assent.”

Because of its need for money and resources to fight the Civil War, the U.S. was actually in a highly weak position when it dealt with the Shoshones in the early 1860’s, Zabarte said. At the start of the war, gold from California and Nevada had to be sent to San Francisco and from there shipped down the Pacific coast to Panama, carried over land through the Panamanian jungle (the Panama Canal wasn’t opened until 1914), then shipped again up the Atlantic coast to Washington, D.C., New York and other eastern cities. When one such ship, the U.S.S. Central America, sank 200 miles off the Carolina coast in 1857 and took down $100 million in gold (which wasn’t recovered until the wreck was discovered in 1989), it “caused the first stock-market crash in U.S. history,” Zabarte said.

Therefore, he said, when the U.S. government and the Shoshone Nation negotiated the Treaty of Ruby Valley in 1863, it was the Shoshone who had the U.S. over a barrel — not the other way around — Zabarte explained. The U.S. needed the gold from the Comstock Lode and a way to send it to the east over land instead of the roundabout and dangerous sea route. Zabarte described the 1863 treaty as an alliance, not a sign of conquest as most other U.S. “treaties” with Native American tribes were. The treaty, he said, “does not cede land to the U.S.” Instead, it gives the U.S. the right to use Shoshone land and provided “that the U.S. pay us $5,000 per year for 20 years” — payments, Zabarte added, that were never made. What’s more, after the war the U.S. acted as if it now owned the Shoshone land, moving its people there and extracting its resources.

Things got worse for the Shoshone in the 1950’s, when the U.S. chose Nevada as the site of nuclear weapons tests. Now the American government’s actions were not only taking away the Shoshones’ lands but directly threatening their survival, Zabarte said. “The U.S. has conducted 154 nuclear tests on Shoshone land,” he explained. “Sub-critical weapons tests continue. Every underground test leaks radioactivity. … Since I was 18 I have been dealing with nuclear issues. I saw my family dying. Nuclear weapons testing was killing my people, and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They were in denial. I started hearing the stories and I was mad. Something had to be done, and the first thing we had to do was change ourselves from victims to fighters.”

At least part of the problem for the Shoshone was that their population was too small to conduct the usual scientific tests “to prove a causal relationship between radiation and disease,” Zabarte explained. Instead, he said, “we talked about the things our people saw: the flash, the mushroom clouds, and several hours later the fallout. Our lifestyle forces us to eat the food in our garden, wild food, the game that we hunt. We burn deadwood for our homes and sweats, and [by doing so] we create an exposure pattern unique to our people. When we kill a deer we eat the whole animal, including the thyroid where radioactive iodine-131 concentrates.” Zabarte said the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) used a “sheepherder’s model” to estimate the extent to which the Shoshone were being exposed to radiation from the tests, “and we had to create our own model,” under which the iodine-131 exposure of adults was seven to 15 times greater than DoE estimates, while for youths it was 15 to 30 times greater and for fetuses in utero it was 30 to 60 times greater.

As if living on ground zero for the U.S.’s nuclear weapons tests wasn’t bad enough, in the 1970’s the U.S. government began to look at Yucca Mountain, located on Shoshone land, as one of the sites to dump all America’s high-level nuclear waste. In 1987 the U.S. Congress officially fixed Yucca Mountain as the site for the nuclear waste dump in the U.S. — and Zabarte got involved in the campaign against it. What incensed him the most was the so-called “cultural resources” studies commissioned by the Department of Energy and carried out by the University of Michigan under a concept called “cultural triage.”

The word “triage” was first coined by the French military in World War I to decide which wounded soldiers should be treated by medical units. They divided the wounded into three groups: those who would survive even if they weren’t treated, those who would die even if they were treated, and those for whom treatment might make the difference. The term is still used in medicine — virtually all hospitals have “triage units” and “triage nurses” to staff them and make those to-treat-or-not-to-treat decisions — but, as Zabarte noted, it’s been extended to the cultural field as well.

“The U.S. is acting as broker for the commercial nuclear industry and determining which parts of my culture can and can’t be saved for the needs of the nuclear industry,” Zabarte said. “This is genocide, and it’s being conducted by the U.S. I have an obligation to explain this issue so you can confront your government. What nation signs treaties with smaller nations, violates their borders and conducts itself this way? I’m addressing this to Americans first because our futures are inextricably linked. I don’t want the U.S. out of my country.” Zabarte concluded his presentation by saying that, rather than wiping out traditional Native American culture, the U.S. should be looking towards it as a model for the “more sustainable ways of living” we need to adopt to avoid future energy and environmental crises.

Newcomb’s talk was largely an attempt to answer Zabarte’s question — why would the United States systematically break its treaties with its indigenous people and treat them as second-class citizens? He found his answer in 10 years of extensive research into a surprising source: the laws and decrees promulgated by the Vatican and the empires of Spain and Portugal in the early years after Christopher Columbus (whose last name, he noted, came from the same Latin root as the word “colonize”) made his so-called “discovery” of America in 1492. Indeed, he traced it even farther back than that, to the Old Testament and in particular those notorious passages (particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy) in which God actually orders the Israelites to commit genocide against the Philistines, Canaanites and other indigenous people of the Middle East who were in the way of their colonial ambitions.

“The [U.S.] federal Indian system finds much of its basis in the 1493 Papal Bull of Pope Alexander VI, which divided the world between Spain and Portugal and invited the monarchs of Aragon and Castile [the Christian kingdoms in northern Spain who drove out the Muslim Moors and created the modern Spanish nation] to ‘seek dominion over any lands, discovered and undiscovered,’ that were ‘not in temporal possession of Christian rulers.’” Discussing the meaning of the world “dominion” in this context, Newcomb explained, “It meant to subjugate, to force to pay tribute, to force into submission; to tame, to break the spirit of; to cultivate, colonize and filter out impunities. The fundamental focus is mining everything: people, land, resources, anything that will create more wealth for the principalities that govern the world. The Bull says, ‘All good things proceed from Him’” — a claim of divine sanction for imperialism and genocide — “and the Latin word for ‘government’ used in the document is ‘dominaciones.’”

What this meant in practice is that anyone who wasn’t a duly baptized Christian was not in fact human at all — and therefore their persons, their lands, their resources and anything else they had was fair game for their properly “Christian” conquerors. Newcomb cited the writings of Francis Lieber, a scholar who researched the legal bases for Christian imperialism and discussed a doctrine called terra nulles. “The term,” Newcomb explained, “means ‘null and void’ and refers to people who are pagan, heathen or unbaptized, and therefore they did not have legal existence under the laws of Christendom.”

According to Newcomb, this doctrine that non-Christians were not really “persons” and therefore their rights did not have to be respected got written into American law by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1823 decision of Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh. Native Americans weren’t parties on either side of this case, which turned on which white landowners were entitled to thousands of acres of land in Illinois: the ones who had purchased it from the Indian tribes who were occupying it when Illinois was “discovered” or the ones who had bought it from the U.S. government after Illinois became a state in 1818. Actually, as Newcomb points out in his book, the case was a sham — the parties’ landholdings weren’t anywhere near each other and the attorneys for one side hired the attorneys for the other — but the decision, written by the great Chief Justice John Marshall, was a sweeping declaration that Indians had no property rights that Christian whites were obliged to respect.

“On the discovery of this immense continent,” Marshall wrote for a unanimous Court in his Johnson opinion, “the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them [the Indians] as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy.” According to Newcomb, Marshall didn’t specifically claim the Papal Bull of 1493 as a precedent for his decision, but he did cite a decree of English King Henry VII to the explorer John Cabot in 1496 “to discover countries then unknown to Christian people, and to take possession of them in the name of the king of England … thus asserting a right to take possession, not-withstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.”

According to Newcomb, the doctrine that, because they weren’t Christians, native Americans weren’t really people and therefore had no rights Christian whites were required to respect has been the guiding principle of all American law about Indians ever since. “The U.S. entered into a treaty with the Shoshone in 1863,” Newcomb explained, “but under the Johnson decision of 1823 they assume these are simply open public lands and the U.S. can stage nuclear tests and dump nuclear waste there with impunity.” Newcomb added that as recently as August 2001, at the United Nations Commission on the Elimination of Racial Discord hearings in South Africa, “certain committee members asked U.S. representatives how they interpreted the 1863 treaty. They said they interpreted it in the light of Johnson v. M’Intosh.”

Newcomb cited one particularly convoluted ruling by the Indian Claims Commission, a quasi-judicial U.S. government agency, in 1923 that is claimed as the basis for the idea that the U.S. government “owns” Yucca Mountain and therefore can dump nuclear waste there without the Shoshone having any say in the matter. “It is clearly on Shoshone land,” he explained, “but the Indian Claims Commission ruled it had been taken by ‘gradual encroachment.’ One of the most interesting things about that is that ‘encroachment’ means ‘trespassing.’ When assistant U.S. attorney general John O’Connell made his argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, he was asked how the Shoshone lost their land, He answered that they had never had ‘fee title’ but just the right to ‘roam and wander,’ and [they lost those rights] once mines, ranches, telegraph lines and railroads were established. But all these were explicitly permitted in the 1863 treaty, and the commissioners made a corrupt ‘decision’ and now it’s called ‘the law.’”

The bottom line for both Zabarte and Newcomb is that not only are non-native Americans the beneficiaries of genocide against the Indians, the genocide is still going on — and until the American people face up to it, use their rights as citizens of a republic to demand that it stop, and make amends, in Newcomb’s words, “this will not be corrected and will always be out of balance.”
Compass’s Troilus and Cressida: Flawed but Worth Seeing

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Whatever has made Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida one of his most neglected plays — according to the program, the current production (running through October 5 at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest) is the first in San Diego in 34 years — it certainly isn’t any flaw in the writing. The intense, poetic language of Troilus and Cressida is every bit as good as that in Shakespeare’s well-known plays, and the characterizations are just as rich and multi-dimensional. Ironically, in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare did to a work by a classic author — Homer’s The Iliad — the same thing Tom Stoppard did to Shakespeare in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: he re-imagined an acknowledged masterwork of another era by telling its story from the point of view of two of its minor characters.

Troilus and Cressida begins and ends where The Iliad does: it begins with the Greek hero Achilles (Gerard Maxwell) withdrawing from active participation in the Trojan War in a jealous hissy-fit over blows to his imagined “honor” and ends with him returning to the fray and killing the Trojan prince Hector (Scott Amiotte). But the title characters are vastly inflated from their relatively minor roles in the original story. Troilus (Michael Zlotnik) is one of the youngest of Trojan king Priam’s 19 children and, in the 1960’s slogan, would rather make love than war. The person he’d rather make love to than fight is Cressida (Brenna Foley), daughter of a Trojan nobleman, who’s initially resistant to his charms and makes it clear she’d rather have Hector. (Hector’s wife Andromache doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s script.) Eventually, prodded by her uncle Pandarus (George Weinberg-Harter), the two get together, but even though they’re on the same side in the war the events around them screw up their relationship much the way they did for Shakespeare’s far better-known pair of star-crossed teenage lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Along with the sheer beauty of the language, Troilus and Cressida bears another of Shakespeare’s hallmarks: his decided skepticism towards “honor” and all the martial virtues. The Greek siege of Troy was supposed to be a quick little war and instead it morphed into a 10-year quagmire (sound familiar?), and Shakespeare seems far more moved by the carnage and waste on both sides than the heroic virtues the Greeks and their cultural descendants, the Romans, found in this story. Troilus and Cressida is a quirky play, utterly fascinating and best enjoyed if you go in knowing the basic outlines of the story but not the specifics of Shakespeare’s “spin” on it.

Compass’s production is directed by Welton Jones, who until his retirement in 2001 was the theatre critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune for 35 years. (He still writes online reviews for www.sandiego.com.) Given the old adage that those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t do or teach become critics, no doubt there’s a certain curiosity factor about how a man who spent most of his adult life telling other San Diego theatre people what they were doing right or wrong with their productions would handle one of his own. The answer: mostly quite well, though with a few failings that make the production less enjoyable than it might have been otherwise.

Aided by a genuinely talented cast, Jones certainly solves the biggest problem any modern company has when doing Shakespeare: getting us to believe that the actors really talk like that all the time. Aided by two of his cast members, Amiotte and Michael Nieto — who are credited with fight choreography — Jones stages effective action sequences and, even in the romantic portions of the story, he keeps the actors moving and doesn’t allow the production to become dull. On the down side is the overacting he lets some of the supporting players get away with; Adam Parker, in the role of the all-purpose Greek sidekick Thersites, cackles all the way through as if he’s auditioning to take over the role of the Joker in the next Batman movie, and Weinberg-Harter — who mostly plays Pandarus as an ancient forerunner of the befuddled Polonius in Hamlet — also starts cackling towards the end.

But the main problem with this production lies in the limited size of the cast available to Compass and the resulting need of every actor in it except Brenna Foley to double. Quite a few of the cast members play both Greeks and Trojans, and one really has to listen carefully to the dialogue to figure out which they’re supposed to be in any given scene. Zlotnik, playing both Troilus and Achilles’ boy-toy Patroclus (and it’s a measure of Shakespeare’s sophistication that he doesn’t beat around the Gay bush; he makes it clear exactly what their relationship is), has it the easiest because as Troilus he wears a tunic and cloak, while as Patroclus he’s naked above the waist. (This is also quite entertaining for the straight women and Gay men in the audience!) The other actors — especially Amiotte, who in terms of star charisma is probably the strongest cast member — sometimes confuse us when they’re obliged to make quick changes in their identity without time to change costumes or otherwise differentiate between the characters they’re playing.

Even when the two parts an actor is playing are the same nationality, conflicts sometime arise. Heavy-set “bear” type Gerard Maxwell plays both Achilles and Ajax, a half-Greek, half-Trojan who signed on with the Greek army as a mercenary. He plays them both in the same dirty grey tunic and the only differentiation is that as Ajax he wears an eye patch and speaks in a slower voice that suggests that Ajax has a lower I.Q. Maxwell is really too old to be playing Achilles — it would probably have been better if he had played Ulysses and younger, hunkier Michael Nieto (who acquits himself well, if somewhat indistinguishably, as Ulysses and Aeneas, the voices of reason on both sides) had been the prima donna hero — and as Ajax he’s better but can’t hold a candle to Lawrence Brown’s force-of-nature reading of the same character in a different play (by Sophocles) at the same theatre, in its former “6th @ Penn” identity, nearly three years ago.

Among the performers, Brenna Foley stands out. She plays Cressida as neither ardent lover nor wanton slut, but a sort of vapid Valley Girl willing to adapt herself to whatever situation she finds herself in while maintaining at least a little independence in an age that treated women as possessions of their men. The only other woman is Laura Kaplan, who plays both the Trojan princess Cassandra and Helen, wife of King Menelaus (Edward Eigner) of Greece, who left him for the Trojan prince Paris (Adam Parker, who’s a good deal more tolerable in this role than he is as Thersites but still seems miscast) and thereby started the war. Though wearing the same dress for each role, she manages to change her posture and voice, doing a far better job at distinguishing between her two characters than most of the men.

Besides being fun to look at (especially as the bare-chested Patroclus), Zlotnik is fine as Troilus, especially strong in the final scene when his character has to undergo a wrenching transformation. Eigner plays both rival kings, Menelaus and Priam, as well as narrating the prologue (one of Shakespeare’s odd little apologias for the play he’s about to present). Weinberg-Harter plays both Pandarus (as whom he’s mostly amusing if a bit too fussbudgety) and Greek commander Agamemnon (an underwritten character who’s vastly more important in most tellings of the story).

The physical production is surprisingly impressive for Compass, with solid and reasonably convincing set designs by Christian Lopez and convincing arms and armor by Mexican artist Armando Muñoz-Garcia. (The swords are made of metal instead of wood, and they clank against each other satisfyingly in the climactic battle scene even though the racket makes it hard to hear the dialogue.) Shelly Williams’ costumes are convincing and Roger Henderson’s lighting design is effective even if it tends a bit too much towards the dark side. Hollace Jones is credited as “musical coordinator,” but the music, such as it is, is just a lot of banging on kettledrums, blowing on a conch shell to simulate a trumpet, and a few shakes of a tambourine when the script mentions one — the sort of scoring for a classical drama hilariously ridiculed in the 1953 film The Band Wagon.

Despite its flaws, the Compass production of Troilus and Cressida is well worth seeing — and not just because you might have to wait 34 more years before any San Diego company does it again. Even on a community-theatre budget with too few actors to fill out the cast, the play is effective and deals with issues all too meaningful today — war, sex, egomaniacal politicians and the problems the military’s so-called “code of honor” causes for the rest of us (especially relevant in a Presidential election year in which one of the major-party nominees is a fourth-generation military man). Overall it’s a well-done staging that lets Shakespeare’s script, convincingly edited by Welton Jones and George Weinberg-Harter, make its points.

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, by William Shakespeare, Aug. 28-Oct. 5 at Compass Theatre (formerly 6th @ Penn), 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances Thurs., Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Tickets/info: (619) 688-9210 or www.compasstheatre.com

PHIL JOHNSON and MIKE SEARS:

The Brains (?) Behind Nemesis Speak

interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If you were lucky enough to get down to Compass Theatre at 6th and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest between August 8 and 24, you would have seen an hilarious show called Nemesis, written by Phil Johnson and Mike Sears and starring — you guessed it — Phil Johnson and Mike Sears. They played two men, Peazel Hunnicutt (Johnson) and Mickey Sticke (Sears), who meet on what their creators describe as the worst job in the world — gluing salt crystals to the outsides of pretzels — at Mother Pickel’s Decent Pretzels in Appalachia. When one of them does the other out of a promotion, they form a life-long hatred that endures even as one of them becomes an Enron-style CEO and then President of the U.S., while the other commands a space station and wrestles with a recalcitrant wheelchair.

There’s a third performer in the piece, Terri Park, who appears as all the women they exploit financially and sexually; and for the Compass production they got a first-rate director, Cynthia Stokes, who usually stages operas old (she’s scheduled to do Madama Butterfly in Philadelphia and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in San Diego) and new (Margaret Garner for Opera Carolina, Murder at the Opera — which she co-wrote — in Houston and a long-term collaboration with composer Richard Danielpour). But Johnson and Sears are the prime focus, and when they sat for a Zenger’s interview after their August 22 performance they revealed the same streak of madcap humor off-stage as they’d shown on-stage.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you just start with a little of your background, and how you got into theatre?

Phil Johnson: I’m Phil Johnson. I’m the funny one. And this one over here is Mike Sears.

Mike Sears: Yes.

Johnson: He’s very talkative. Mike is a New York actor. I’ve done stuff all over, some in New York. But I’ve been in San Diego about 10 years.

Sears: I’ve been here about four, four and a half.

Johnson: He’s loving it.

Sears: I’m loving it.

Johnson: We met while doing a play — not a very good play — but we thought, “We could write a better play!” So we decided to do this.

Sears: We started about two years ago. We did it at the Actors’ Alliance festival.

Johnson: We did? We did very well at the festival.

Sears: But it was just the first scene, the pretzel scene.

Johnson: We kind of won that festival, which was nice, so we decided to flesh it out and finish it.

Sears: We did two readings over about a year, and Cynthia Stokes, who’s our wonderful director and dramaturge —

Johnson: Yes, we have a very fancy director. She’s with the San Diego Opera and the La Jolla Playhouse right now, and she’s very, very smart. We don’t know why she’s doing our show, but we have a great time, the three of us all together.

Sears: And Terri.

Johnson: And Terri, who’s a brilliant actress. We’re very lucky.

Zenger’s: How did you get the idea for the show?

Johnson: How did we get the idea?

Sears: I don’t know. I think you called me and said you had an idea about two men who —

Johnson: — hunt each other down through the years, and hate each other forever. We just started writing scenes that worked off our chemistry, which is very 12-year-old boy-like. Then the plot just kind of came up. We thought of the worst job possible: gluing salt on pretzels in a pretzel factory in Appalachia. Then it just got bigger, like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Zenger’s: Why did you call it Nemesis?

Johnson: Nemesis — what else could it be?

Sears: Why did we call it that — was it going to be anything else? I don’t think so.

Johnson: The name came pretty early, because we kept realizing that in all of the scenes we kept having this back-and-forth attitude, like we were constantly picking at each other. Nemesis seemed the perfect word to make it sound operatic, to overdramatize something that was really ridiculous and childish.

Zenger’s: So where does it go from here?

Johnson: Well, we hope to do it —

Sears: Broadway!

Johnson: Broadway, baby! Don’t forget it!

Sears: Our intention is to take it to L.A. This whole experience here really is an extended preview of sorts. Once we finish, we’ll go back and do some rewrites. There are things we’ll cut, there are some moments we’ll revamp, but in terms of props, costumes, set, lights, sound, we really needed to see if it worked, if there was an audience for the show or if it was just poo.

Johnson: Yeah, poo. That explains it.

Sears: But if there was indeed an audience, which we found that there is, then our intention is, like I said, to do rewrites, to take the changes that we learned from doing it for an audience, and then we’d like to do it in L.A. in the spring, spring or winter.

Johnson: Right. We even did this set, thinking about future productions, so the whole thing folds down and packs up. But, like Mike said, we had to see if it would work. The parts of it, those sections which we call the montage sections, where we quickly go all over the world very quickly, they were only ideas on paper and we had no idea if they would work. And they seemed to work.

Sears: And the Jazzy [electric wheelchair], the thing with the Jazzy.

Johnson: We didn’t know if the thing with the wheelchair would work. But it’s coming along. I’m coaching Mike. I’m hoping his performance will get better, but he doesn’t listen to me.

Sears: Yeah, I don’t listen to him.

Zenger’s: I was trying to trace your influences. Some of it reminded me of the “Mama’s Family” skits on the Carol Burnett Show. Some of it of Mel Brooks. Some of it — particularly the bloody rag around your head — of Monty Python.

Sears: I would say the Carol Burnett Show, Monty Python —

Johnson: The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Sears: Urinetown, that musical. We were interested, too, in wordplay. We paid a lot of attention to the words that we chose, trying to actually use language within a skit, rather than just throwing words around.

Johnson: The whole world was fantastic. It was just an outrageous world, everything about it.

Sears: And we wanted to heighten the language. Because the physical world was heightened, the situations were heightened, we wanted to choose heightened language as well. We also talked about Zoolander, Ben Stiller movies, Will Ferrell. The Hudsucker Proxy was a big influence.

CHRIS BRICKER:

Activist Works to Pass Proposition 7 for His Family’s Future

interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Two rival initiatives to encourage the use of renewable energy will appear on the November 4 election ballot in California. One, Proposition 10, would require California to spend at least $5 billion on direct subsidies to renewable-energy businesses and consumers. The other, Proposition 7, is an attempt to strengthen existing requirements under California law for utilities to start providing power from renewable energy sources by a particular date.

According to the language of the initiative itself, Proposition 7 “will put California on the path to energy independence by requiring all electric utilities to purchase 50 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources like solar and wind by 2025. Right now, over 22 percent of California’s greenhouse gases comes from electricity generation but around 10 percent of California’s electricity comes from solar and clean energy sources, leaving Californians vulnerable to high energy costs, to political instability in the Middle East, and to being held hostage by big oil companies.”

Chris Bricker is a local activist and organizer for Proposition 7. He requested an interview with Zenger’s and discussed the virtues of Proposition 7, the role of large utility companies in a renewable-energy future, and the folly of the Right’s current “Drill Here, Drill Now” campaign to prioritize maximum exploitation of America’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves as an alternative both to foreign oil and renewable energy.

Zenger’s: Could you tell me what Proposition 7 is, what it would do, and why you think it’s a good idea?

Bricker: First, I think I should tell you a quick story about why I got involved with it. About two years ago, I was talking to my stepson. When he was growing up, I was working as a representative for the hospitality union. I had odd hours, which was a good thing and a bad thing. I could be hanging out for his water polo games and his soccer games and all the rest of that stuff. But I wasn’t home at night all that much, and of course on the weekends I had to work at night because that’s where I made my money.

Recently, my stepson — coincidentally, his name is Chris — and I had an opportunity for a one-on-one conversation. I said, “You know, Chris, sometimes I feel really bad that I wasn’t able to spend normal parts of the week with you, like other dads did.” He said, “Dad, I’ve got to tell you something, and I want you to remember this. I wouldn’t be who I am today, what I am today, if it hadn’t been for what you had exposed me to, and the new things that you had introduced me to, and helping me to think outside the box.” I was floored. That was the most wonderful compliment, I think, that a father could ever have from his son or his daughter.

Now he’s a teacher, and his wife is a teacher, and they have two kids. They teach at the high school up in Bishop, California, and when I go up there to visit them — in fact, I was up there about three or four weeks ago, right around the time of the fires up in Yosemite — I look at their two kids, and say to myself, “He’s going to be a good dad. They’re going to be great parents of these kids, and they’re going to introduce them to a lot of things that are sort of handed down by tradition, so to speak.” But one of the things that they’re going to need to do is to make sure that the environment in which they live is survivable, as if it were a legacy that we were all leaving for the generations to come. So when I had an opportunity to organize for Proposition 7, that really stuck in my mind.

What Proposition 7 does is put pressure on the big utility providers to reach a 50 percent alternative energy capacity by 2025. Right now, there’s legislation on the books for 33 percent by 2020. But it has too many loopholes. The utilities could ignore the renewable requirements and instead accept the penalty fines as just a cost of doing business. There’s no teeth in the current law, nothing that enables us to be able to put pressure on utilities to be able to meet those benchmarks. All we’re asking is for the utilities to take half of what we pay for energy and make it alternative energy sources: biomass, ocean and water, solar, and wind.

In order to do this, there has to be a climate for people to be able to invest in these projects. There are approximately 25 million acres of desert land in California that have an average of 300 days out of the year where this precious and free energy source comes to us by sunlight. We would propose energy conservation zones in the desert, where these hybrid alternative-energy complexes could be built; and, in order to encourage investment from bankers and other people who are interested in investing in these projects, we would not only put the permit process on the fast track, we would also have the contracts be long-term 20-year contracts.

The estimate is that this initiative will create around 371, 000 jobs throughout the state, and that doesn’t count the jobs that are created in order to maintain these facilities once they’re built. This initiative also provides that environmental concerns must be met before any project moves forward. That’s not part of the fast-track process.

In the 1880’s we were putting about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Currently there’s about 380 parts per million going into the atmosphere, and we’re reaching the tipping point. If we continue at that rate for the next 10 years, we’ll reach the point of no return. We have an opportunity to reverse that, just by doing this, to bring that back to 350 parts per million. California is the 17th largest polluter in the world, and there’s no reason why we can’t be leaders not only to other states, but also to the rest of the world, in solving that problem and becoming 100 percent alternative-energy dependent.

We’re faced with opposition, I have to tell you. About three weeks ago, the big utilities poured approximately $21 to $22 million into a campaign to defeat this proposition. They had an ad campaign that was ready to start. However, we took them to court because there were four issues that we sued them on, that we considered to be false information. Three of the issues, the court agreed that that was true. And on the remaining issue, which had to do with whether or not energy providers of 30,000 megawatts or less would be included in the mandate, even though we had a preponderance of evidence, the judge decided he would leave it up to vigorous debate.

Zenger’s: One question that immediately occurs to me is that isn’t this an approach that is really locking us into the idea of getting our power from large utility companies, whether or not that’s the most efficient way of using alternative energy? The people I’ve talked to who are pushing alternative energy say that the great thing about it is that, to a large extent, individuals could own their own power and wouldn’t need utility companies, which is why they’re putting so much money into fighting this. Your approach seems to be an attempt to reconcile the utility companies to the alternative energy future by leaving them a key role in delivering power.

Bricker: The utilities are the big elephants in the room. They are there. They exist. Their motives and their future need to be addressed. They’re just not going to go off into the sunset. You have to have a means of transmitting power once it’s produced. It’s great for people that can afford it to be able to be self-sustaining in their homes, whether it be rooftop solar or all the rest of that stuff. But what about all of us who might live in an apartment?

When you stop to think about it, it takes about 14 years in the permitting process to bring a nuclear power plant on line, and almost as long for a fossil-fuel plant. But it takes five years to bring one of these hybrid alternative-energy resources on line. And if takes 300,000 years for nuclear waste to dissipate, what was the longest civilization that ever existed? What are we supposed to do, leave a note for the next civilization, right?

Zenger’s: Could you explain the difference between Proposition 7 and Proposition 10? I mean, just this morning I downloaded both of them and I’m not sure myself which one of these is which.

Bricker: Ours, the “Solar and Clean Energy Act,” doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything, This [Proposition 10] looks to me like it would be in the form of a bond issue of some sort. With Proposition 7, you’re looking at 42 pages of science and art, state of the art, future thinking. A lot of what the big utilities will address has already been legislated. It’s not something that we put into the act. We’re putting in six or seven pages of changes that actually put teeth into the process. And it’s important for people to know that.

Zenger’s: Getting back to the utilities, I remember for the last issue just before the primary election, I had to look up material relating to the Sunrise Powerlink proposed by SDG&E. It was a frustrating experience because on their Web site, you went through pages and pages of all this stuff about how it was going to be wonderful for alternative energy, it was going to bring all this alternative energy into SDG&E’s service area, and it took a lot of plowing through their site just to find the basics of where it starts, where it stops and how long is it, which is what I needed for my article. Isn’t an initiative like this just going to encourage more boondoggles like that?

Bricker: No, because, first of all, a lot of what was going to come through that Sunrise Powerlink, aside from the debate as to where it was going to be laid out, was going to come from dirty power in Mexico. Anything having to do with transmission lines, or plans that are in the works, have already been budgeted by the big utilities and are in the permitting process. The question is what kind of energy are you going to be sending across those lines, not whether or not they’re going to exist, because they are going to exist.

The Sunrise Powerlink fiasco was a whole other thing. There was a genuine effort to disseminate misinformation in order to win a public mandate or public pressure to put this Sunrise Powerlink where they wanted to put it.

Zenger’s: So what in your initiative would prevent either a project like the Sunrise Powerlink or the “this is going to be great for alternative energy” propaganda used to sell it?

Bricker: You’ve got to realize that the big utility companies are purchasing this power. They’re not building it. Any existing power plant has a shelf life before it has to be either torn down, redesigned or refurbished. So the whole idea is ultimately to rid ourselves of our dependency on anything having to do with fossil-fuel production or nuclear production.

Zenger’s: In other words, as the existing coal and gas and nuke plants wear out, the idea behind your initiative is it would either encourage or compel the power producers to build alternative, renewable sources.

Bricker: Sure, and if you’re just looking at it from a sheer market point of view, the market will follow. Twenty years from now, the big utilities will be hopping on [the renewables bandwagon] just in order to sell their service. Also, in the initiative there’s a cap on what the utilities would be allowed to charge the consumer [to finance the changeover], and it’s around 3 percent. That could be an additional cost to the consumer, but it’s likely that it won’t, because the state of the art in this field is changing every six months. Amazing discoveries. And all this is going to do — in addition to everything else — is fuel that R&D, fuel that investment and discovery even more, and accelerate it. But we have to address the big elephant in the room, in addition to everything else. And it’s not being done.

Zenger’s: One thing that I’ve noticed is that we’re in the middle of a really incredible propaganda campaign away from environmental restrictions, away from alternative energy. You have just about every program on talk radio, the entire Right-wing media infrastructure, saying, “The reason gasoline is at $4 a gallon is those pesky environmentalists won’t let us drill the petroleum we have in the United States. We have to take out all of our oil, we have to take out all our gas, we have to take out all our coal, we have to develop nuclear power to the max. This is the only way we can get energy costs again, and it’s all these pesky environmentalists who are keeping us from doing that.” Given that political climate, what do you think are the chances of something like this passing?

Bricker: Let me tell you what happened. Our people did a poll in which ixty-eight percent of the population of California favors what we’re doing. They even did a poll when they beat up on themselves on purpose, in the form in which they asked the questions, and it only changed the point margin by one to five points, depending on the issue discussed and the issue that was asked. So right now — and one of the reasons why Big Power is really paranoid about this, and they’ve dumped so much money into this and come up with so many falsities and half-truths — is that they want to try as best they can to change the thinking of the public in terms of what the public really, inherently knows what must be done.

You know as well as I do how long it would take to get an insignificant amount of oil [from domestic sources] on line, and how much that would really ultimately effect the cost at the gas tank. The answer is getting Detroit off its ass — like it should have done after the last gas crisis in the 1970’s — and come up with some meaningful solutions to transportation.

Zenger’s: That certainly doesn’t sound like the polls I’m reading, which say that 70-plus percent of Americans — and, at this point, for the first time in years, a majority of Californians — are telling pollsters that they want to see offshore drilling, and they don’t care whether or not it’s in environmentally sensitive areas. It sounds very much to me like this country is really on a gasoline “jones,” and they’re going to their pushers. They’re not saying, “Cut us back.” They’re saying, “Get us more.”

Bricker: However, I would venture to say that if you were to ask them what would be better — if you were to ask them what they thought about coming up with a plan that would make them independent of fossil fuel you would see that 68 percent margin going in that direction. Offshore drilling, opening the oil reserves in Alaska, and all the rest of that stuff is not the answer. That isn’t where we should be putting our energy or our direction. In the amount of time for all of that fuel to come on line, and with the comparably insignificant difference as to what it would make in terms of what something would cost, it’s better for us to take that energy and to take the direction so we would take the same amount of effort it would take to drill, and put it into solutions for our future and for our kids’ future.

The difference between biomass and fossil fuel is that biomass balances itself out because it’s putting oxygen into the atmosphere, and when it decays it’s providing energy. But with fossil fuel, you’re taking stuff that never did that. It’s sitting in the belly of our earth, and it’s stuff that, once it’s burned, has no countervailing effect whatsoever. It just burns and dumps crap into the atmosphere. What more can I say?

Zenger’s: Well, there’s the other argument that I’ve heard that’s part of this propaganda campaign that says, “You want electric cars? You’ve got to build nukes to produce the electricity to make the cars go.”

Bricker: Why should that be an argument? There’s a fallacy there. I’m not getting the logic. Building a nuclear power plant in order to provide the energy it takes to power a car. We’re still going to have to be able to produce something. Eleven square miles of alternative energy-producing lands in the desert would provide our energy needs for the entire state. Plus, under these conditions, create over 371,000 additional jobs — at prevailing wages, I must add, because that’s in the initiative as well — plus all of the staff that it takes in order to maintain these things over their lifetime. That’s in addition to those 371,000 jobs. And the citizen doesn’t pay anything in taxes to do this.

Zenger’s: It seems like a lot of alternative-energy proposals get twisted in rather intriguing ways before they’re seriously considered. We were told for decades that you could extract ethanol from just about any form of plant material, and what’s the big proposal to do it? Take corn out of the food market and turn that into ethanol.

Bricker: Right, when you’ve got things like algae and switchgrass, that are prolific beyond imagination, that can be used in biomass.

Zenger’s: I mean, the original promise of ethanol was that farmers were going to be able to take the stuff they threw away at the harvest and turn that into energy.

Bricker: Right, or even thinking in terms of sugar cane husks, corn husks and all of that stuff as a source. But still, we don’t have to invade our food supply in order to make this happen. And in my own opinion, I think it’s criminal to speculate on our food supply.

Zenger’s: We live in a free-market age in which we speculate on everything. In fact, one columnist in the Los Angeles Times admitted that authorizing offshore drilling throughout both coasts wouldn’t bring more gas on the market for 10 to 20 years. But he argued that the speculators in oil futures would see that as a sign that we were getting serious about increasing energy, and they would bid the price down. Therefore it would lower the price of gasoline immediately even though none of the gas from the oil so drilled would reach the market in decades, and that that’s why we should do it.

Bricker: There’s some reasoning, huh?

Zenger’s: If people want to help, whom do they contact?

Bricker: The first thing they do is go to the Web site, www.yeson7.net. They can contact me directly at cbricker@yeson7.net. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over a period of time over this.

Handicapped Senior Citizen Bicycles Cross-Country … on Oxygen

story and photo by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Frequently, seniors with emphysema from smoking, who constantly need oxygen, hobble around town dragging an oxygen tank and with tubes in their nose, acting like they have one foot in the grave.

But a 65-year-old Wyoming retired historian/photographer who regularly needs oxygen is proving that morbid scene is not necessary.

Mark Junge of Cheyenne has white hair, but on August 12 he appeared as fit as a teenager in San Diego’s Embarcadero Park behind the Convention Center with his specially equipped $6,000 bicycle.

Junge had just completed a 650-mile ride from San Francisco to the Tijuana border, clocking nearly 7,200 miles on four, long-distance trips in four years.

“I went from San Francisco to New York City, a 3,500 mile trip in 2004.

“The next ride we (including his wife, Ardath) went from Times Square, followed the New England coast into the maritime provinces and ended at Cape Spear, Newfoundland; the furthest point east on the North American continent for 1,785 miles,” he explained in an interview.

His wife drives a support vehicle, but doesn’t accompany Junge on the road. She arranges motels, publicity, does laundry, etc.

“Last year, we went from San Francisco to Vancouver for 1,250 miles under the same idea, to bring awareness to COPD” (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, frequently brought on by smoking). The American Lung Association (ALA) says 21 million Americans have chronic lung diseases (COPD), with 34 million expected in five years, according to updated figures from Ross Porter, the ALA’s Director of Communications in San Diego.

“This year, we went 650 miles from San Francisco to Tijuana,” he reported.

The trip cost about $6,000 and was sponsored by SeQual Technologies of San Diego. They pro-vided the senior-citizen bicyclist with a portable “concentrator” device, which was strapped to the rear luggage carrier of his bicycle.

Unlike tanks of oxygen that have a limited life and have to be replaced, the SeQual “concentrator” chemically takes in air (79 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen) and converts it into a supply of en-riched oxygen using a small portable battery.

The “concentrator” can be taken aboard airplanes, but oxygen tanks cannot. Depending on a doctor’s prescription, the SeQual “concentrator” is covered by Medicare, according to the company’s founding principal, Jim Bixby.

The San Diego-manufactured SeQual concentrator “is portable and allows people to remove themselves from their assisted-living quarters and get out and reclaim their lives,” Junge explained.

“I met so many of the most interesting people (on his four rides), and that makes these trips so fantastic. For example, at the beach in Santa Barbara, I talked with one homeless man who is an ex-CBS news correspondent who had worked with Dan Rather. He was making money by (artistically) burning designs onto logs (found on the beach) with a powerful magnifying glass and the sun and welder’s goggles. He was very articulate,” the retired Wyoming historian with five published books on Wyoming history and photography said.

He rides a “Trek” touring bike made out of steel to go long distances, with specialized “Arma-dillo” tires that are extra tough. “I’ve gone 3,500 miles on those,” he said.

He is disabled because of blood clots in his lungs, which prevent them from taking oxygen from the air and putting it into his bloodstream. That’s why he needs to breathe pure oxygen.

But he rides his bicycle to stay lively.

“If you give your heart and lungs a workout, the rest of your body – including your brain – are going to function much better,” he explained.

He thinks assisted-living homes should add rigorous workouts to their facilities.

“If you had an assisted-living facility with real workout equipment, including weight training, a pool, a hot tub and a sauna they could tell their residents, ‘We will give you a break on your rent each month if you simply take our exercise program.’

“The retirement home benefits because they have permanent residents for a longer period of time. There’s such a large turnover (as inactive seniors rapidly die off). One of the reasons they die is be-cause they are not active,” he added.

More information about COPD is available at www.californialung.org or by calling (619) 549-2793. World cyclist Junge can be reached at junges@bresnan.net.

For comment, contact Leo Laurence at leopowerhere@msn.com, or at (619) 757-4909. Additional material by Leo E. Laurence is available online at http://blogbythelion.blogspot.com/


Community Leader Accused of Practicing Law Without a License

Leo Wilson at Center of Hillcrest Business Association Controversy

story and photos by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Scott Crowder and Nancy Moors.

Popular community activist Leo Wilson is being accused of practicing law without a license, involving a heated controversy over the balloting on by-laws revisions for the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA).

Wilson has long been a major part of community life in the Hillcrest and Park West/Banker’s Hill communities. Many believe him to be an attorney.

The controversy involves the balloting on proposed changes to the by-laws of the HBA, an organiza-tion with an annual budget of nearly a third of a million dollars, according to its financial records.

The HBA has long operated with a board of directors of 15 members, as required by its by-laws. Written in 1983, those by-laws state that they may be amended only by a majority vote of its full membership.

Back in 1990, the board voted to increase its size to 20. After it was pointed out to them that only the members could increase the size of the board, the board nonetheless took three more votes on its own in 2007 to authorize the increase from 15 to 20 board members. Those last three votes occurred when the HBA was under investigation by the district attorney’s office for alleged state Brown Act violations.

John Stump, then the HBA’s attorney, convinced them that their action was appropriate.

“That’s when I decided we were going to shop for a new corporate counsel, which we (now) have,” said long-time HBA board member Scott Crowder (Mondo Condo Corp.).

The current controversy involving balloting is that the HBA has 1250 members, according to Simon. However, they rarely get more than two or three people to attend board meetings, other than board members.

The board then asked popular community activist Leo Wilson to advise them.

They decided to conduct the balloting by mail because the organization didn’t expect to get the required 626 members to an annual membership meeting. They also hired people to take the ballots around to HBA members in person.

However, the HBA may again be violating the state’s Brown Act. The California Attorney Gen-eral’s office says, “This office has long disapproved secret ballots in open meetings and the casting of mail ballots (emphasis added).”

Who Can Vote?

Additionally, just who is a member for purposes of voting?

“It’s a big organization,” says Crowder. “When you have a vote, you have to set a ‘record date’ to determine who is eligible to vote as of a certain date. That date is critical to the vote (under the state’s Corporation’s Code).

“They (the HBA board) didn’t establish a record date,” Crowder explained.

When Crowder tried to raise these important issues of law at the HBA’s August 19 board meeting, vice president Nancy Moors, who was chairing the meeting, cut him off. Crowder challenged the chair’s ruling.

Moors didn’t know Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure and asked for a second on the challenge, even though none is required. The challenge failed, and Crowder’s questions on his nu-merous legal challenges involving the disputed balloting were silenced.

“This is all petty junior high school stuff,” Crowder said during an interview. “All this would have been caught if we had the advice of legitimate legal counsel.”

Even Wilson seemed confused about the ‘record date’ issue at the August 19 board meeting.

“First he (Wilson) said it was June 30,” Crowder reported. “Then he said it was May 1. Finally, he said June 30.”

“They (the board and Wilson) are using an official list (of members) from the city that is dated two weeks after the ballots were mailed. They mailed out ballots before they knew who was eligible to vote,” Crowder argued.

“They crossed off people who have gone out of business, but were in business as of the ‘record date’ (and are therefore eligible to vote). They are also giving ballots to businesses that have joined after the ‘record date.’

“The ‘record date’ (required by state law) means nothing to them,” Crowder added. “They are just trying to get as many ballots as then can.

“They are going to count them at a board meeting (in September), not a membership meeting. That is invalid because they are again violating their own by-laws,” Crowder explained.

The one-page ballot lists three basic changes to the HBA’s by-laws.

One changes the number of directors “shall be not less than 15 or more than 21. The Board of Directors shall fix the exact number of Directors, within these limits.”

A second item on the ballot involves the quorum at annual meetings, changing it from a majority of the membership to “three percent … present or in person or by written or electronic proxy.”

A third change says the HBA’s by-laws may be “amended or repealed” upon a 2/3 vote of the Board of Directors, with subsequent approval by three percent of the membership.” It doesn’t say when that approval must be provided.

“Also, the state’s Corporations Code says (a member) should be able to vote aye or nay on each item (on a ballot), separately. These three (ballot) items are not inter-related or interdependent. This is absolutely against (state law),” Crowder said.

The ballot says “members who have not submitted a mail ballot by (September 9) may vote in per-son at the meeting,” which is only a board meeting.

“This is not true,” Crowder says. “It is not a membership meeting,” as required by the by-laws. “How can a member vote at a board meeting? (The September 9 board meeting) is not a regular or spe-cial, noticed, membership meeting.

“I was told (by board member Robert Grinchuk, a member of the By-laws Committee who de-posed Crowder as chair) that I should direct my legal objections to Leo Wilson, which I cannot do, by law,” Crowder added.

“Board members need to review fiduciary responsibility and reliance on professionals,” Crowder wrote in a recent e-mail.

If the HBA’s balloting proceeds as planned, any member could file a lawsuit challenging the results.

Wilson’s Predicament

Leo Wilson is caught in the middle of these growing controversies involving the HBA’s challenged balloting.

“I understand these people (the HBA directors) don’t like each other, but I’ve known everybody. But I got caught in the bad politics of that board and it angers me,” Wilson said.

Many people have long believed that Wilson is a practicing attorney.

HBA executive director “Warren (Simon) argued with me (recently) and said, ‘He is an attorney. I said he is not’,” Crowder reported.

“He (Wilson) is taking money (for legal advice). I’ve seen it on the monthly ledgers, so I know he’s getting paid something. $400 (so far) this year,” Crowder explained.

It is also reported that Wilson received payments for consulting fees from the Maintenance Assess-ment District in Hillcrest.

Wilson explained that he is not practicing law because he has AIDS and is a long-time survivor.

Records of the State Bar of California, however, reveal a “resignation with charges pending” on December 25, 1992.

Wilson had also been “ordered inactive” on May 5, 1992.

“My intentions are directed at the (HBA) board, not Leo Wilson,” said Crowder. “I like him. They (HBA board) continue to do stupid stuff, like holding committee meetings without notifying the public or even other board members.

“There are (HBA) committees with delegated authority of the board, so they are subject to Brown Act requirements. They have to publish an agenda and their minutes. Some do neither.

“You don’t even know who the committee members are. The standard is, anybody who shows up at a committee meeting is a voting member of that committee. There’s no accountability,” Crowder charged.

“Why is it that the members don’t rise up in indignation and throw these rascals out and properly change their by-laws?”

Treasurer’s Authority

If all these HBA problems were not enough, it has been learned that the organization’s treasurer, Cecilia Moreno, owner of the Crest Café, now has single-signature authority to spend HBA money. The organization had $329,646.72 of tax money in the bank as of June 30, according to its records.

Normally, checks of an organization of this size require two signatures to be valid.

Banking regulations have changed in the past few years with the advent of Internet banking. That gave Moreno single-signature rights to the HBA’s internet accounts.

A representative of California Bank & Trust, where some HBA money is located, said “there is no verification done beyond providing the pertinent account numbers” when using single-signature authority transactions.

As a result, assistant executive director Harrison reportedly refused to follow the instructions of two HBA board members to set up internet banking, though it was done anyway.

For comment, contact Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at leopowerhere@msn.com. Additional material by Leo E. Laurence is available online at http://blogbythelion.blogspot.com/