FOOD DESERTS: CAN WE AFFORD ANYTHING ELSE?

“I guess we can grandfather you in,” said Mike Pendergast. Occasionally I bump into Mike in the morning when we are walking our dogs. This particular morning he introduced me to his friend Barney. Barney asked if I was a Vallejoan. I told him about my grandparents coming here in the 40’s, yada, yada. So Mike, grandfathered me in  . . . literally. Mike is a good touchstone for me. He always share his thoughtful approach in our conversations about the challenges in Vallejo.

Mark Lampkin in another such friend to me. Of the many things I like about Mark, one is that he is unafraid to have an open discussion about the state of our politics, the South Vallejo Food Desert or the challenges faced by our melanin challenged friends. (A term I recently learned from Levar Burton on a podcast shared by Mark.) Mark stopped by for a quick socially distant visit just yesterday. Chatting with both he and Mike nudged me to write to you again today.

In a trifecta of conversations, Don Osborne and his husband Kevin dropped by for a quick garden tour. Kevin, a proper gardener, maintains a lush decorative garden and shared with me some narcissus bulbs. (What are you saying to me Kevin?) Both lovely men, I enjoy their company tremendously. The conversation leaned to the recertifying of Crown Hill Materials small concrete plant on Broadway. After Don shared his concerns I found myself pulled to the center of the argument once again.  You see, concrete is the most ubiquitous building material there is. It starts out as liquid and can conform to almost any shape we can form. It has a predictable strength, durability and cost. It’s cheap by comparison to most everything else. We actually need it, I said. Don raised his concerns about the health of the neighbors down wind. He is not wrong. But, just like the homeless challenges we have, better to deal with them here than outlaw it and send them to some other neighborhood. What we can do Don, I said, is require them to maintain a best practices training with their staff for managing the dusts a pollutants. Every industry has them. In fact, a quick search on Google returned dozens of documents.  I suppose we could ask the members of the Planning Commission to require Crown Hills to enact a Best Practices program.  But it will take a number of us to make this change, so why not send them a note?

Planning Commission Emails

This South Vallejo food desert thing has my head spinning though. The US Government has determined that South Vallejo is considered a food desert. (I will attach a link below.)  Last time I wrote I asked, has anyone spoken to Grocery Outlet? Taking my own advice, I reached out to them. I even sent them some demographic data showing that the South Vallejo location was as good, if not better, than the Admiral Callaghan location. They politely declined saying that the downtown Grocery Outlet is within 2 miles of the development so they could not put in a new store. Undetered, I reached out to Sprouts. Sent them even more detailed information. They responded politely in the vaguest manner I could imagine. What’s Up, I asked myself. Why are grocery stores not interested?  Must be the economics. Digging a little further I found a 2019 news article from NYU. “What Really Happens When a Grocery store Opens in a Food Desert.”  You tell me what you think.

South Vallejo Food Desert Demographics

Now I am not dissuaded. Looking closely at it, it seems like a One-and-Done deal. If we can get a developer to build a 15,000 to 20,000 square foot shell, we would not need have to deal with this ever again. Development can continue in South Vallejo with only the normal requirements. While I am thankful that you, my gentle readers, consider the thoughts I put down on this page influential, unfortunately I do not have that same ability to get a grocery chain to consider this great location.  Back to Mike. Mike shared with me the great coup Vallejo got when Marine World moved here from Redwood City. He said, it was Mayor Curtola who did some serious lobbying to get them up here.

While the economics of a grocery store in that particular location of South Vallejo are uncertain to me I call upon our Mayor Robert McConnell and Councilperson Arriola to reach out on our behalf and find out if the economics work or not. Can a grocery store make a profit in that location?  And here’s the thing, so what if they have to recuse themselves from an upcoming vote? If they truly dug in and got some answers there is no law that says that they could not report their findings to the remainder of the Council when considering the appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision.  

I know that the Mayor and the Councilperson work long hours, read hundreds, if not thousands of pages each month in service to our City. I truly thank them for their efforts. But right now, we need someone other than staff, to find out the whole truth for us. I will send them this essay, will you send them your thoughts? Here are their emails.

Robert.McConnell@cityofvallejo.net

Tina.Arriola@cityofvallejo.net

Quick question: If their efforts are not enough. If what we need is a community commitment, a real showing of support. If all it took was 1000 people investing $500 each into a legal entity. A chance to make a real difference in Vallejo. Would you turn down the opportunity to make your city a better place?

I will not, I will invest. Because I am a Vallejoan.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

So many years ago now, I removed the lawn in my front yard. At the time I was reading a lot about food insecurity, food deserts, and front yard gardens. Had I waited a year or so I could have gotten some money to take the lawn out and replace it with drought resistant plantings because of, well, the drought. “Excuse me, Mister Water Company, is it too late to apply for that money?”  In its place I built a number of planting beds which are now teaming with asparagus, blueberries, strawberries, my prized heirloom tomatoes and no less than 7 fruit trees.

Honestly, I built these boxes and planted food as a gesture of protest. At that time there were a number of articles of people all over the United States creating these architecturally designed, downright beautiful, front yard food gardens. I mean they were lush and green and a jewel of gardening. They were built from attractive, sustainable materials, sculpted over arches in a pleasing food topiary kind of way. Heck, I wish I had 1/10th that level of skill and motivation. Those front yards were beautiful.  Only one thing. Their Cities told them they could not have them. There was actually an ordinance forbidding the planting of food in the front yards. So much for a Fee Simple Title to your own land. 

I did a little research and it turns out that Vallejo has no written restriction. So planting boxes went in, plants grew up and every spring my neighbors stop and talk to me about how they love my garden. You know, I was actually spoiling for a fight with the City. I wanted someone to tell me that I could not plant food in my front yard. I wanted them to tell me that it drove down property values. That all of our front yards needed to be the same. “Go ahead, make me!” ran through my head in my imaginary argument with the Planning Commission. (Perhaps this is where I got the bug.)

Right around this time a couple of realities were starting to show themselves publicly. One was the conversation of food deserts and how our community planning process needed to change. The other was growing number of homeless encampments under freeway overpasses. For the last 20 odd years I have been in construction. I retired from catering on motion picture sets as it became harder and harder for me to put in 12, 14, 16 hour days; 6 days a week. Thankfully my union president signed my application for my contractor’s license and I immediately went about cleaning gutters, fixing broken pipes and replacing window panes until I built a business doing custom remodels, eventually restoring Craftsman and Victorian homes. Even though I had achieved a certain amount of success as a contractor I still considered myself a foodie at heart. Driving to one particular job in Berkeley I noticed a row of tents under the overpass at Gilman Avenue. Every day, a different person would sit in a chair next to the stop sign at the bottom of the exit, accepting any sort of handout. I had heard that giving money to people in rough conditions like this, most often went toward substances to be abused. So instead of handing over cash, I would make a double bag lunch, every day consisting of 2 sandwiches, 2 pieces of fruit, 2 packages of cookies and some bottles of water.  Just a few days into doing this, one of the stop sign attendees told me how much they liked my sandwiches. Especially the tuna! (FYI) I had money to give them but this way felt better.

Around that same time a man in Los Angeles, Ron Finley – The Gansta Gardener, started planting food in the strips of land between the sidewalk and the street all over his neighborhood.  The City told him to pay for a permit for each strip or stop. He refused. The debate about food deserts and bodegas was really flaring at this time. So much attention and pressure came to bear on the LA City council that they voted to allow food to be planted in those strips without permit, thanks, in part, to his efforts. NEWS ARTICLE  I remember reading a story he told where he came out in the evening to tend to one of his strip gardens and found a woman harvesting food. She was embarrassed and apologetic for stealing his food. He simply told her, “It is there for you to take.”

Recently a new development for South Vallejo came before our Planning Commission. 132 units Residential Only, no grocery store. Wow. Did you know that the search term “food” can be found no less than 58 times in our General Plan? 2040 GENERAL PLAN It is often found next to or nearby terms such as, healthy, organic, or food desert.  On page 3-3, of the General Plan, the first, the very first policy item POLICY CP-1.1 literally states:

Retail Food Sources. Strive to ensure that all households in Vallejo have easy access to retail sources of affordable healthy food, including organic options, such as fullservice grocery stores, ethnic food markets, produce markets, and convenience stores.

Just below that, on the next page, is:

Action CP-1.1B Update City regulations and explore incentives to attract a full service grocery store to South Vallejo and to any other identified “food deserts.”

In the arguments made that night at the PC, the developer and City staff were correct. The Business/Light Residential zoning for that area does allow for Residential Only based on a finding of compatibility. The PC voted 5 -1 that it was compatible. They were not wrong. It is what our laws allow and developers should have a reasonable expectation that we will abide by our own laws.  One thing though, caught my attention. The developer discussed the profitability of the project, and rightly so. He stated, “That if he had a grocery store that would sign a 30 year lease then he would build the commercial space for them.”  I was about to say to you, ”I wonder?” But I do not wonder. Since it was not required by our General Plan nor our Planning Code, he did not even bother to find a commercial partner. I cannot blame him. Our laws did not require that component.

What to do . . ?  Enact ACTION CP-1.1B and update our City regulations. WE, the citizens, need to remove or more closely define:  The Business/Limited Residential zoning definition, and ensure that the new Planning Code requires developments of a certain density to prove that they made a Good Faith Effort to find a commercial partner. I mean, did any one even talk to Grocery Outlet?

Until the next time,

Tommy Judt

p.s. Driving by those people on Gilman street everyday had a real impact on my life. So much so I had a tattoo placed on my right forearm because I knew, I was just one ladder fall away from joining them.  “but for the grace of God”  I, like you, believe that I am my brother’s keeper. Feel free to reach out to me to help organize a General Plan Amendment.

OOGA CHUKA

Hello again. I missed you. This morning you came to mind so with my third cup of coffee I wanted to reach out and catch up, if that is okay. I wanted to tell you about a time in my teenage years, a bit about the Renaissance Faire and my dear estranged friend DV. Trust me, this is all about food and absolutely nothing at all to do with the communal showers at the Faire. Unfortunately I am afraid you are not old enough to hear those stories. Actually, neither am I.

To begin, I was raised in the 60’s and 70’s. Undoubtedly an era for some of the best music ever. Do not believe me? Just listen to the Guardians of the Galaxy station on Pandora. In fact I have got a little “Ooga Chuka” playing right now.  For those of you who remember, and those who were not there then, these were the days of rock and roll at the beach or by the lake. A time when crochet bikinis and short, short cut of blue jeans, LEVIS, were all the rage.  A place were Dancing in the Moonlight was taken literally. When keggers were the scene and the popo did not show up sometime after midnight because . . . well . . . kids will be kids.

Back then it was the height of cool to have a Holly carburetor, Hooker headers and a Pioneer car stereo blasting your favorite mix tape. To have your own car as a teenager was not merely a symbol of freedom but one of social status. Most of us drove mom’s car, when our grades were good enough. Some had a clunker (a hoopty the kids call it now-a-days.) But a few, a chosen few, had Mustangs, Camaros, 442s, the occasional Road Runner or the ever elusive Corvette.  (My mind took a mini vacation just now, thinking what it might be like to own a ’57 Vette. Route 66 for all you old timers.)

Back then parties were held almost every weekend at someone’s house. The ubiquitous songs to be played were always: You’re Still a Young Man – Tower of Power and 25 or 6 to 4 – Chicago. Slow dancing was all we could think of and you could tell just how much a girl liked you by how close she would dance with you. Ah, those were simpler times for sure.  With Marvin Gaye playing in the background a few of us would huddle around the table filled with veggie sticks, Ruffles potato chips and the ever popular Lipton Onion Soup sour cream dip. Yes, I was a foodie back then too. The difference being, my teenage body could handle all that sugar and cholesterol at a rate undefinable by modern calculus. Unlike today, where it can be easily charted on a graph, handwritten on the back of an envelope. Basically an arrow pointing straight up.

Norman Greenbaum – Spirit in the Sky is just now playing.

High school seems to be the place where you find your group. For me it was the theater geeks who were closely aligned with the music nerds. Funny, unafraid, filled with talent and potential. Painfully awkward were our daylight encounters. It was not until the lights were turned off that we dared be close, let alone kiss. But I stray. I promised talk of the Ren Faire and my old pal DV. Stagecraft was the class I took, and it was there I met Pamela June, teacher and head of the theater department. One day Pam and I were sitting on the edge of the stage and she began chatting about performing in the Ren Faire and shared a few pictures. I knew in an instant that this was for me. Being a kind and sharing person, she organized a group of us hyperly (Shakespeare made up his own words, so can I) energized students and introduced us at Court. This formidable gaggle of giggling goof-offs soon became the servant caste to the actors who portrayed the Lords and Ladies of the Faire. Here is where I met DV. DV was larger than life and sang with a group of men, all of whom happen to be my dearest of friends to this day. Now I have never developed a singing voice and therefore was never really in the In Crowd, but DV and I developed a friendship and passion around and for food.

DV lived in Oakland, and driving mom’s car I would pop over to his house where we would drink Pabst before Pabst was a thing, and whip up a meal on his old Wedgewood stove. DV was a big fan of the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child and therefore was the first experimental cook I had chance to meet. Throughout the term of our friendship we consumed many, many volumes of alcohol and whipped up a plethora of treats for ourselves and friends who would happen to drop by. Back then, that’s what you did. You just dropped by. One favorite dish, we made, of mine was Hush Puppies, deep fried, with a garlic clove finger pushed into each one. Trust me on this, you want to try it yourself. The other was a constant attempt to make the best Firehouse Chili we could. Burnt tongues and many cans of beer later, we mutually decide to forgo that experiment. Come on ice cream.

DV, to close this story, is solely responsible for my trying Thai, Burmese, good Chinese, real French food and of course Middle Eastern cooking. The latter is the whole point of this exercise. For my long absent friends, I have found the next wonderfully amazing little Middle Eastern food joint in Vallejo. Newly open, never a line (so far.)  A food truck in the parking lot at the corner of Broadway and Nebraska, just down the street from the old Plunge and across from the tire store. It is a smartly appointed food truck. Easy to find I promise you, as the header banner above reaches out to you with the words: KABOB – GYRO-FALAFEL- HAMBURGER. The name of the place is: RUMI KABAB Halel. The owner Serdar Besir, is a kind man whose who goes by the name of ‘Joe.’  A true chef in every sense of the word, his preparations are sweet, savory and mouthwatering all at the same time. I have tried both the lamb and falafel gyros and I swear that I will be back for more.  Do drop in and please tell him that Tommy Judt sent you. You will not regret it. Oh! Ask him about his baklava – to die for.

Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

WISHING TOMORROW WAS YESTERDAY

We met online, as you do, and traded a few short emails before scheduling a face to face. The first meeting is always fraught, either you hit it off right away or you don’t. You see, for a while there I subscribed to one online dating site or another. First it was on Yahoo, which was 20 years ago and how I met my wife. Later I tried Match and had a few “dates.” It was on Plenty of Fish where I found Suzanne. Now I used to suggest meeting for coffee so that my soon to be new acquaintance would feel safe, until a female friend of mine asked, what my “conversion” rate was with coffee versus an adult beverage. Of course it was zero. So I asked Suzanne where we might meet for a drink and we did.

It is funny the things that you remember about a person. Suzanne was friendly, open, talkative and an amazing chef. She was very proud of this last fact and had all the chops to back it up. I, as you know, attended culinary school, managed large restaurants, and even catered in remote locations for motion picture crews. I too had chops.  At this time I had chosen not to include my culinary past in my profile because, well, I seemed to be getting a lot of attention from women who wanted to start their own catering business. My 40th birthday had come and gone and, while I did make some money working for Hollywood, there was not too much money to be had in restaurants and my body could no longer take the 12 to 14 hour days which movie sets require. By the time I met Suzanne I was well established as a contractor, working only 8 hours a day, and cooking only happened on holidays, or when I needed to lose weight.

As we sipped our drinks and began sharing the stories we like people to hear, Suzanne proudly told me about her career choice, the classes she taught and about her favorite recipes. While I came to love Suzanne, that woman could hold up her end of the conversation and then some. Finally she looked at me and asked what I did before becoming a contractor. The look on her face when I told her was priceless. She had her back to the bar, with both elbows resting on the edge looking out into the dining room. When I shared my previous career choice, slack jawed she turned to me and uttered only one word, “What?” We laughed about that for years. While at first she was intimidated to cook with me, it turned out she was much more talented in the kitchen than I ever was. Although, I did impress her with my Chicken Marsala. (In this case it was not coffee nor wine which sealed the deal. It was my moment as an impresario in the kitchen, which solidified our connection.)

One never knows how another person will effect one’s life. Suzanne’s cooking always made mine tastier. Her conversation always drove boredom from my house. Waking up beside her always gave me peace and yet one singular thing she did changed my life in a way that no one before, or after, has ever done. She told me about a book. A book so thick and dense and rich with so many mysteries of life that I became lost in it and chased every single, little reference it made down each and every rabbit hole that they offered. It taught me how to close read, to carry more than one thought in my head at a time, and how we humans make decisions. It cracked, a part of, the code of life for me. Jesus! What a gift.  The book is entitled, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ and I owe my life to Suzanne for sharing it with me.

Her energy and inspiration prompted me to write my first blog tomfoolcookery.com. Here you will find my poor, initial attempts at writing. Again, Suzanne was a much better writer than I could ever hope to be. Still, she said that she loved my blogs and encouraged me to try new foods and recipes. And so, our relationship was born. We spent the next 4 years together, on and off. The off part was my fault. While her book suggestion started me down a path of travel in my life, I had not walked far enough along it to truly appreciate the gift which was Suzanne. Still, we remained friends over the years and in-and-around birthdays we made a point to spend time sharing a good meal.

That one book lead me to the next, and the next, and even still more.  That one book focused my thinking, gave me the confidence to try writing and opened the world for me. As some of you have noted, I tend toward non-fiction in my reading choices. Only when an author can catch me in the first two pages do I bothered to flip to the third. A part of me is jaded and views some non-fiction as, well, improbable.  The meat for me, in a good story, is that the idea the author is sharing just might happen . . . to me. While I did work at the Renaissance Faire, back in the 70’s, I did not develop a taste for pure fantasy. Reenactment sure, but fantasies, furries and cosplay do not page turners make for me. (I do not think I even made a good reference there, it is that far beyond me.)

Suzanne on the other hand was real. More real and alive than any two other people I have ever known. Not a mean bone in her body and always happy to see . . . everyone. Suzanne was in her mid-50’s when she passed away from cancer last weekend. For the last few months we texted almost every day. Sometimes a simple Hello or XO. Other times a “What’s up buttercup?” Or, when I was feeling that she needed to be distracted, I would send my personal favorite. “What’s up butthead?” We were close like that.  Her last few weeks in the hospital were focused on getting her home to her own bed. I did what I could and helped assemble the special things she needed to stay there comfortably. I had hoped to speak with her one more time to tell her how she had changed my life. She died the night before she was to leave.

I heard once on the radio show With a Perspective, a man telling of his father’s decline in health. In the middle somewhere, the author coined a phrase more poignant than any I had heard before, or since for that matter. He said, “My father now measures his life by losses as opposed to gains.” This last weekend I lost . . . no . . . the world lost more than it knows. Suzanne wrote a couple of blogs which I enjoyed, and yes, she is still a better writer than I ever hope to be. This is the link to her cooking blog cookingbythebay.com and then to the blog where she dedicated herself to helping others with their cancer sillystupidcancer.com.  This week, I measure my life with one more loss. The scales of living are tipping more than I want and still less than they will. My life would not be my life had I not met Suzanne.  She was a warrior, she was the storm. Perhaps, in her blogs, you might come to know her too, and maybe, just maybe, she might change your life too.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt (aka Butthead)

MONDAY, MONDAY

Can’t touch that day.

I have come to the stark realization that I am odd. (Many who know me just said,”Duh” in their heads.) The oddness I refer to today, Monday, well is . . . I like Mondays! In 1966 the Easy Beats, out of Australia, recorded a hit single, I’ve Got Friday On My Mind. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the local radio stations would play this every Friday afternoon, right around closing time. Everyone where I worked would boisterously to sing along. Even my boss sometimes.

Later on, after the new millennium ushered in with a whisper, that Friday Friday song was replaced with the Bob Marley cover of the Sublime hit – Smoke Two Joints. Smoke Two Joints would be played precisely at 5 p.m. on either KSAN or KFOG, I can never remember. I do remember going to the pub right after work and singing along with every other glad-to-be-off-work-for-the-week pub crawler.

My father told me that the eagle flies on Friday. A few of my disgruntled coworkers would say the eagle takes a shit on Friday. I will assure you now that the attitude difference between my father and my coworkers is the exact reason why my father exalted Fridays and the others did not. I too have always welcomed, and will continue to welcome, Fridays; not only for the soar of the eagle, the foam on my suds, and the occasional chorus of Puff the Magic Dragon; but for the comradery of my friends and loved ones.  The deep relaxation of not having to perform at work, to be able to wear clean clothes (the workman’s woe), and then either race off, or sit back, to relax.

Yes Fridays are good, but to me . . . Mondays are better. Some of you have noticed that I like to enjoy a cup of coffee, wine, or whiskey with a book and a meal.  Some of those have noticed that my choice of reading material is a far stretch from bodice rippers and just shy of the Federalist Papers. (Some of which I have read.) It seems to me that my wiring may a bit different, some (I) might call it odd.  The thing that I like about the books I read is how they challenge the very basic premises of life. These authors with their books, if I allow them, throw bare my implicit biases. I mean totally rip off the fuzzy warm comforters which have protected my misjudgments lo these many decades. I will stop the boring here and just say, that I may have chosen the long route but have saved myself tens of thousands in therapy costs.  Conclusion: Better to smoke two joints on a Friday and just chill out. On Mondays? A pot of coffee and a shave, a crisp fresh shirt, and a world full of opportunity.

No real point to today’s story. I just wanted to say hello and good Monday to you.  The world awaits us. What shall we bring her today?

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

SOME CALL ME RUGGED

Lisa Lees gave me that name when I was helping Nicole Hodge getting ready to open Provisions. You see, at that time there were three Tom’s that came around: Nicole’s dad, a bright and funny man, Tom the Father; Tom Pezzuto, the landlord, another bright and kind man, Talking Tom; then there was me, the capable contractor, Rugged Tom. Even before Nicole and I started dating, I would be greeted daily with a text “GMR”, Good Morning Rugged. For almost three years, since right about the time I first started writing this blog, I was called Rugged on a daily basis. As Provisions grew and Nicole and I became more serious, I came to self-identify as . . . well . . . Rugged. Sometimes I would forget myself and tell people that was my name. Those times were quickly followed by a head tilt and a wry joke about my parents not liking me or some such thing.

While my time with Nicole was enjoyable, not all things are meant to last. Still, I enjoyed my new name and my GMR texts. Our friendship was fully cemented by then and even though we were no longer a couple, I still visited Provisions on a regular basis. I helped out when I could and often times enjoyed morning coffee with our lady proprietress.  Once again, the forever constant in the universe, change, came along and Nicole found a new close companion. I will admit, it took some time for me to come to grips with this eventuality. Determined not to have our friendship end badly, or at all, we two committed to talking through everything promising complete honesty. Now I do miss my morning coffees with my friend Nicole, but this was to be the way of the world. My life moved on and every stage of grief swept through me until something hit me not so long ago, and it hit me hard. I had not only lost my morning companion, I had lost something even more dear. I had lost my dream, and with it my identity. You see, while Nicole is absolutely to credit for the success of Provisions, I was there at the start, I helped along the way and after a fashion, it became my child too. The thought of it all, and the loss of it all, caught me up short. The last few years you have known me for my writing but also as a part of that lovely little downtown café. Hmm . . .

Paula McConnell wrote an interesting editorial the other day and it was printed in the Times Herald. I was not able to read the entire article as, for some reason, I am not always able to log in to my TH account and so articles, sometimes, quickly disappear. What I did read referred to the infamous piece by Herb Cain saying, Please Don’t Call It Frisco. Mrs. McConnell went on to make a very good point about feeling proud and just calling our town Vallejo. It may seem odd that I am agreeing with her since I entitled my blog the VTown Social Club. It seems that Paula finds the term VTown less respectful, less formal. While I miss being called Rugged, I do agree that there are times when the sound of my full name is appropriate in more formal circles. As I write this I remember how, in the 70’s and 80’s, my employers would ask that I call them by their first names and not their title and surname as my parents had instructed me.  I found this level of familiarity odd in an employment situation yet that is what the boss requested. Honestly, I feel now that the level of familiarity my employer was trying to impart may have been counterproductive. He was not one of the guys and some distance may have made it easier overall to do business.

What little I read of Mrs. McConnell’s piece made me think that she too was referring to a lost formality. That perhaps we in Vallejo are too familiar. I chose to use VTown in my title not to be disrespectful of past Vallejo. Rather I chose it in an effort to embrace the new Vallejo: VTown.  I had an enjoyable conversation with Justin Saroyan the other day. A longtime resident and former GVRD employee, Justin made a comment just as our time was coming to an end. I will paraphrase. He said, “With the Navy gone, Vallejo doesn’t know who it is.”  My draw visibly dropped. Justin had hit the nail on the head. Paula McConnell sees it too. Vallejo has lost its identity.  Mrs. McConnell fondly remembers the days when Vallejo had respect. When we were a Navy town. Those of us who embrace VTown as our moniker see Vallejo for what she could be: A town of artists, cafés, music and architecture. A place to be that has shaken of its rough and ready reputation.

As I feel that I have lost my identity, as Provisions and I are less a part of each other’s lives, I feel strongly that we Vallejoans have not reached the final stage of grief with our breakup from the Navy. We have not yet decided who we are as a community, or how we present ourselves to the world.  We gather, we drink, we eat good food and listen to amazing music while enjoying world class art and yet, to date, this has all just been a distraction. The time after a breakup when you go to bars, or friends set you up on blind dates. So it has been with us and developers. They come for a bit, try to make it work, and many get frustrated because . . . Vallejo still has baggage. We are not really ready to meet someone new because we have not fully accepted that our future does not wholly lie in the fate of Mare Island.  

Vallejo, VTown; we are no longer a Navy town. Neither are we Nimitz-ville or a suburb of Southern Land. What, and who, we are we must still decide. We point fingers at the police, the City Council and even the City Manager. Perhaps some of that is appropriate but in that thinking, a critical part of the equation is missing: Us. We the people. We gave the police the power they wield. We have given the City Council permission to give the City Manager the emergency powers he is using. We are responsible for not knowing who we are and no one else is going to help us figure it out. But they will take advantage of it.

Sometimes I am too rugged. You may not agree with everything I say here or feel that my interpretation is too . . . too. But whether you see me as Thomas, Tom, Tommy or Rugged; I still am trying to decide who I am after a life’s dream came to an end. Knowing that this is a truth for one man, how can we ignore the very possibility that for Vallejo a dream identity came to an end and that, perhaps, after almost 40 years, it is time to set aside our distractions and work together as proud Vallejoans who are a little VTown after hours.

Until the next time,

Tommy “I will always call myself Rugged” Judt

THE MAYOR OF WHO-VILLE

So for those of you who do not know, I have recently resigned my appointment to the Planning Commission. Now I believe that you are due an explanation since it was just last year I was asking for your support. For you to know my thinking I feel that I must set the stage a bit first.

Upon being appointed to the Planning Commission, I was sworn in and immediately took my seat on the dais. The minutes were read, the calendar approved, the agenda items listed and we were off to the races. There were a few conversations with the chair, who directed me to other city’s websites, to learn what it was to be a Planning Commissioner. I read, and took the test for, the Code of Ethics . . . twice. I sat through a Brown Act lecture, then reread the material again so that I really understood it. (Or thought that I did.) I even went onto the League of Cities website to read more about Planning Commissions in general. Here’s the thing, none of it helped me. You see, here in Vallejo we do things differently. So with no real training, and in my rugged way, I jumped in with both feet wanting to be a productive part of the process. To lend my experience with construction, as well as my studies in Decision Making. It turns out that being a true skeptic helps a lot. Fast forward a year later, the new Chair tells me in a private conversation that I am developing a reputation for being a trouble maker. Hmm . . . I want to be of service but arguing from the dais is not the reputation that I want. I choose to be of a more quiet service to our community and that is why I resigned. Also, I do not agree with how limited Commissioners, and Council Members, are right now.

Some of you may have heard of the Laws of Decorum that were passed with regards to some Commissioner’s bad behavior.  All in all this is not a bad sentiment. But as with all good laws a little something extra was thrown in . . . for good measure. Previous to the passage of this law any Council Member, or Commissioner, could add items to the public agenda for discussion. Seems about right. Elected officials, and their appointees, should be able to direct the public discussion in response to requests for their neighbors. Well, because we do things differently in Vallejo that is no longer the case. With the passage of this ordinance, the City Manager now controls the agenda, not only for the City Council but for all of the Commissions as well. Let this sink in. The next mayor you elect has no authority to direct the public conversation. And with it taking 4 votes to remove the City Manager, this is not going to change anytime soon.

A quick example of how this effected the Planning Commission is this:  On a discussion about when Commissioners receive answers to their written questions, (we oftentimes get them by email barely an hour before the meeting, not enough time to fully digest nor respond,) a majority of the Commissioners voted for a rule change to allow more time. Our request is then to be presented to the City Council for their consideration. Now this exact process is specifically written into this new ordinance. Here is the thing.  The City Manager refused to place it on the Council Agenda.  We Commissioners have no recourse so, even though we followed the law, the City Manager blocked our majority vote.

“What does this all have to do with the upcoming Mayoral and Council election?” you ask.

I know, like, and respect Hakeem Brown. We have had a few substantial conversations and I find him to have a bright and curious mind. Over the last two years he has shown himself a committed Council Member willing to serve our community. In this short time, he has sought out knowledge by attending multiple City Council conferences throughout the State and Country. His desire to learn about his job is admirable. Of the conversations he and I have had, we have agreed on somethings and disagreed on others. This is exactly how it is supposed to be. A healthy difference of opinion is what makes our form of government work. The thing is, I wish he had more experience. I want his voice on our City Council, but I feel hard pressed to consider him for Mayor with only 2 years of governing experience.

Robert McConnell, on the other hand, spent numerous years on the Planning Commission and another 8 years as a Council Member. He served in the military, studied law and is a practicing bankruptcy attorney. What does this mean for Vallejo though? It means that not only does he have the experience with the process of governing, and I assure you it is all about the process, he has an expert knowledge of how laws are written, read, interpreted and often misinterpreted. He also has an expert knowledge of financial management and is often the lone voice recommending greater conservatism in budgeting discussions. There is another bankruptcy looming for Vallejo, make no mistake about it, and with it our collective livelihoods. With this knowledge, I am just not comfortable giving the top elected job to someone with little experience and no real knowledge of how the system, the Law, works. No matter how much respect I have for him as a person.

Council Member Brown, your voice is needed now more than ever. I am glad you hold a seat on our Council and wish you to do so for at least another 4 years. Your commitment to learning the system will undoubtedly only add to your qualifications.

This being said, I endorse ROBERT McCONNELL for Mayor of Vallejo. His lifetime of legal experience, combined with his decades long commitment to the City of Vallejo, make him easily the best person to correct the mis-directions in the way our local ordinances have been written. His presence, on all the committees, that the Mayor sits on throughout the County, will bring reassurance to our municipal neighbors that Vallejo is headed in the right direction. His command of fiscal management techniques and law is arguably the most important skill set we could ask for in a candidate.

This election can change the way America, and Vallejo, are administered in the years to come. Please consider my words.

Until the next time,

Thomas Judt

G . . . WHAT AM I MISSING?LET’S MEASURE

This morning I read Measure G. Sounds good. More money for emergency services, police training, blah, blah, blah . . . Oh! And youth services. (Wait, did GVRD suddenly stop offering Youth Services?)

Only, that’s not what Measure G says. Measure G is a general tax not a special tax; which means, that these monies go directly into the General Fund and may be spent any way the City Council, I mean the City Manager, wants to spend them. That is it. These monies are NOT dedicated to more emergency services, not required to clean up public spaces, and while perhaps intended, are not mandated to help the homeless.  Now hoodwinked may be too strong a word; I think it is more like, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

The following is directly quoted from the Measure G Resolution passed by Council July 29, 2020:

WHEREAS, the tax provided for by the proposed Ordinance shall be enacted solely to raise revenue for general purposes, and shall be placed into the City’s General Fund, and is not intended for regulation;  . . .   (Author added emphasis.)

There are two things around this topic that I know to be true:

  1. I do not want to pay higher taxes. The reason I live in Vallejo is the same reason you do: I can afford a good life here.
  2. We need to raise our taxes. It’s the same, it’s the same, it’s the same. Ever since the Navy left we have not figured out how to raise money and now we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Bankruptcy behind us, bankruptcy before us, into the valley of Receivership rode the City of Vallejo. We need to tax ourselves more.

“But Tom,” you ask, “if we need higher taxes why vote no on Measure G?”

This is a very fair question which I will attempt to briefly unpack for you. Those of you who have watched the West Wing have undoubtedly heard Toby Ziegler say how a Sales Tax is a regressive tax; it unfairly burdens those at the bottom of the income ladder. Newsflash: Most of Vallejo is at the bottom of the income ladder.  One councilperson, whose opinion I respect greatly, told me that, “Over 200,000 people travel through Vallejo every day. They should pay for their share of the services.” Now a couple of things about this statement is true:

  1. People who come from out of town to shop so indeed spend more money per capita than do local shoppers which does result in more sales tax collected. But only if we give them a reason to shop here. (Example: If I live down the street from the grocery, I may just pop down for a gallon of milk. If I choose to travel to Benicia and visit the Raley’s there, I will spend more money because each trip takes me so much more time and I do not wish to waste the trip.)
  2. 200,000 people do indeed travel through Vallejo every day; although, they do not so much all stop and shop here. (What we really need is to develop reasons for them to stop and shop here. We need to work on our place making like Mare Island Brewery and Nicole Hodge’s Provisions. If only I knew someone on the Planning Commission.)

FYI: Currently 27% of our budget comes from sales tax. When people are shopping here, things are booming for the City budget. If we add the $12M more, that this tax will supposedly raise, that would bring the adjusted percentage to 34%. If you do not believe that Vallejo is drowning, and we are; by adding this level of dependency on the health of the economy, without the monies specifically going the services you want, well it is like swimming in shark infested waters. Now swimming with sharks is fine, if you can afford to feed them. But what happens when the supply of fish is gone . . . With this type of Transaction and Use tax as an anchor around our feet even the joke of out swimming your buddy becomes impossible.

It was on 12 years ago when we entered the Great Recession (GR). Now there is a significant difference between that event and what is happening now. The GR was a failure of the mortgage banking industry. When adjustable rate loans started, well, adjusting; people could no longer afford housing. Credit scores were ruined and my house alone dropped to a quarter of its previous high in value.  Because of this Vallejo lost not only property tax but sales tax revenue too; and the economy, in total, nearly ground to a halt. That bit has now sorted itself out and mortgage rates are at an all-time low. Housing is in demand and home values are remaining strong. Why? Because this time the economy has slowed, not because people cannot afford to keep their homes but because we are not allowed to go out and spend money. Monies which return as sales tax to the City.

Many of you voted for Measure K which is a special parcel tax that funds Capital Improvements, part time help and some Recreation programs for GVRD. While GVRD is reeling from the loss of income it receives from the fees that it would normally charge for rentals or programs; Measure K monies are keeping their ship upright and sailing. Why? Because this type of tax is not dependent on the economy. This money is collected by the county every year and held for GVRD to use as it sees fit; within the restrictions of Measure K that you, and GVRD, agreed to when voting for it. Now a parcel tax would increase the rent of renters in Vallejo true, but, more importantly, it spreads the cost to not only residential parcels but non-residential ones as well. A much stronger, more dependable tax base.

Vallejo, the truth is, if we want nice things we have to pay for it. If we want more mental health services and programs like CAHOOTS, we have to pay for it. But not this way. What good is a sales tax when no one is out shopping and spending money? What sense can you make of a strategy that is entirely dependent on a proven weak leg of the economy; local consumerism?  Voting for Measure G only make Vallejo more vulnerable in the future. Let us instead write a new Special Parcel Tax that gives us the exact services that we want with a funding source infinitely more dependable.

Please, Vote NO on Measure G. With that I ask everyone who is willing, let us get together to write a new measure that will guarantee funding for public safety.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

I CAN NO LONGER HOLD MY BREATH

The words you are about to read, the very ones that are just now marking my thoughts upon this paper, will most probably end our relationship. I have been overly hesitant to write them, they are not what you want to hear but, and I hate to use the word but, but I do not hear anyone else saying them. I know many fine people in this town of ours. Women and men whom I respect more and more with each passing conversation. People who give of themselves to, and care more about, this town than many I have ever known. Our town. Many of you will unfriend me, as a number have done in the past when my writings unsettled their quiet state of single-mindedness.  Many nights I sit in quiet contemplation of the knowledge that I will lose people, many whom I wish to keep close, when I share the following which I know to be true.

Many years ago, when my business started to take off and passed the point when I needed a payroll service to help with managing my books, I met a man who represented the payroll company, a Republican, one whom I liked, yet we shared a passionate disagreement on almost all things political. He and I would agree to meet upon occasion, share a beer and discuss the ways we each viewed the world differently. On this one particular occasion, when “W” was the President and the wars in Iran and Afghanistan were still escalating, we met for a drink and ended up speaking about . . . The Surge. The Surge was the common moniker which described increasing the number of soldiers in the battlefield. The argument was that there were simply just not enough bodies in place to keep the peace.

I, not approving of W’s war, argued that it made no sense to send more troops to war. The basic objective was already achieved and that we should leave the area as quickly as possible and stop telling people around the world what to do. My bar side companion argued, what did it matter?  Let’s give him the troops and see what happens.  It turns out that my argument that day was wrong, but moreover, his was right.  The surge made a difference.  Within a matter of weeks the entire region was stabilized and the process of a quiet, orderly state building could take place.  In other words:

  1. Iraq was a violent and unsafe country.
  2. There were not enough soldiers to maintain peace.
  3. Violence was significantly reduced when more soldiers were deployed in Iraq.

For the record there are a couple of facts that I would like to state.  Understanding theses fact, reading them and truly knowing them is all of our responsibility. I imagine that they will unsettle you as they unsettle me:

  1. Vallejo has violent crime. Please let me repeat that. Vallejo has violent crime. 
  2. Vallejo does not have enough patrol officers.
  3. Violence in Vallejo will be significantly reduced with more patrol officers.

This next part will cause me to lose even more friends and followers. It speaks to the way that our police department chooses to respond to these violent crimes.  I will openly admit that I have not studied police science nor am I an expert on law enforcement. I need be neither to know that 2 bullets will stop a person and 64 are way too many. I am of course referring to the shooting of Willie McCoy.  The facts:

  1. Willie McCoy had a gun.
  2. He was asleep in his car.
  3. One or two officers could have easily covered him while the others set up the perimeter.

These facts are bare bones. They have been neither washed nor sanitized.  I do not need to be a law enforcement expert to know these 3 statements to be true.

The reason that multiple police officers stood pointing their guns at a sleeping Willie McCoy is because that was what they were trained to do.  If you see a weapon, draw yours. If the suspect moves toward the weapon, fire. Actually, as I write this, it seems a reasonable but, far too simplistic, response.  In my heart I know, it cannot just be this.  I have written the following before, and I still stand by the statement: We, the citizens of America, have asked our police departments to protect us and WE have given them the authority, and mission, to do so with this level of violence. It all began with the Patriot Act and every Use of Force decision handed down by the courts, both Superior and Supreme alike since then.  If the suspect refuses a police officer’s command, the police officer may put his hands on the suspect.  If the police officer is fearful for their life, they may use lethal force.  While I understand and admit that this is legal, it cannot be the end of the discussion.

When I attended a Use of Force seminar put on by the Vallejo Police Department, I came away with one vary clear thought: When confronted with a volatile situation, draw your weapon.  This is not the only way, but this is the way that our group was shown how the VPD is trained. Command and Control. Order the suspect to comply, if they don’t, restrain them or shoot them if necessary.  All the simulations I was shown that day focused on using our weapons to deal with the situation.  99% of police interactions with the public do not involve weapons. The challenge that we have in Vallejo is that the 1% that do involve weapons tend to end very badly here.  The two part solution to this is:

  1. Hire more patrol officers.
  2. Replace VPD’s existing training officer and their approach.

More officers in the field will allow more bodies to respond to a situation and provide the overwhelming force needed to control the situation and most likely not require weapons fire to be exchanged. It allows our police department to be more places in the City at the same time. An amended, and improved, approach to training will provide all of our officers with greater Tactical Negotiation skills that rely more on understanding human nature and less on lethal force as the final arbiter.

I will miss you when you unfriend me but I must repeat to you before you go that Vallejo needs BOTH of these things. We need more armed patrol officers. We need to replace our existing training officer and methodology.

Until next time, I hope,

Tommy Judt

CAN VALLEJO LEAD?

I once had an employer who was an excellent manager.  They had been with the company for many years, knew all the owner’s systems, took time to speak with every employee, never upset anyone, and pretty much mirrored what previous managers before them had done. It was one of the most stressful two years of my life. Change was unheard of. The same chicken dish that was placed on the menu 20 years before was still there. The menus were hard printed which, no doubt, reassured my boss as change was nearly impossible.  The only variable were the daily specials and that was left for the cooks to decide.  I remember watching that boss walk through the hot line, with tasting spoons, knowing full well they did not have any clue what the dishes should taste like. They were just going through the motions.  (It was at this point that I decided, if I were to continue in the restaurant business, that I would have to go to culinary school.) The thing missing though, that undefinable quality, that X factor of a true leader; was not present in this very good manager. That X factor, is the ability to take measured, thoughtful risks and it is what sets leaders apart.

I have found that I am attracted to the curious mind. The kind of mind that keeps asking questions. I especially like it when people look both forward and backwards and ask, how might things be better than they are right now?  A great thrill of mine is to stumble upon that random conversation which either breaks down, or gels, an opinion that has been rolling around inside my head trying to find its way out. I recently had just such a conversation the other day, sitting in Vallejo’s new parklet, with one of Vallejo’s thought leaders. Chatting about nothing and everything, our musings turned to Government versus Private sector management style. To me it comes down to the concept of Control versus Influence.  Let me provide an example: Here in Vallejo we recently passed an ordinance about the dumping of trash. Seems straightforward enough: You dump trash, we fine you and/or send you to jail. (Fear of loss is known to be 3 times the motivator than the possibility of gain.)   But here is where it falls apart for me.

  1. Vallejo spends 1 million dollars a year picking up trash.
  2. Recology gives each homeowner in Vallejo free bulk trash pickups. (Did you know this?)
  3. Recology will also give a limited number of bulk trash pickups to apartment dwellers. (I would bet that you did not know this.)
  4. My first lesson in Economics: Trash is an economic bad. One has to pay to take it away.
  5. Many of our neighbors do not have much money nor an access to a vehicle in order to take bulk items to the dumps.
  6. Vallejo’s free trash dump day on Mare Island has cars and trucks lined up for blocks.
  7. Logical Conclusion: Leave the trash on the street, the City workers (job security) will pick it up. (This option also removes the shame associated with not having enough money to take the trash to the dump.)
  8. Someone needs to witness this bad behavior and report it. No witness = an ineffective control.

What if? What if the City spent that million dollars working to influence good behavior rather than to control and punish bad behavior?  What if the City held free trash dumps on a monthly basis? What if they located these temporary dumpster sites in 4 to 6 places around town? What if it took some of that million dollars and offered jobs to whomever wanted to pick up trash throughout the City. I am not sure if you have noticed but the California Redemption Value (CRV) tax that each of us spends on bottles and cans is working. All of us have seen people collecting cans and bottles and turning them in for cash money. What if we did that for trash?  What if we used that million dollars to make it easier for people to do the right thing?  Dump the trash in appropriate places and pay them to go out and pick it up? 

Let’s compare styles:

The first: Write a law and punish, is an example of how Government seeks to control through the use of force.

The second: Reward good behavior, or at the least remove the shame of poverty, by making dumping free and accessible to those without the means to haul their own trash away and paying people to pick it up and bring it in. The CRV law influenced and rewarded good behavior; and helped clean up our streets too!

Follow up on this thought: If we are so keen on making laws, why don’t we require landlords to notify their tenants of their right to a free dumpster, and make them provide Recology’s information?  I personally have noticed that apartment dwellers seem to have more of a challenge managing the disposal of bulk items.

So here it is in a nutshell.  We have a City Manager’s office and the City Council.  The City Manager should be a good manager; the Council should lead.  Leading means taking risks. Thoughtful, measured risks. Leading relies on the ability to see problems where many perceive that none exist; and to make changes, no matter how uncomfortable that may be in the minute. Leading means taking the path less traveled and installing a parklet, solving a problem that no one else knew existed until the solution was present.

Dear City Council,

The budget before you mirrors budgets that you have seen before. There is no risk if you vote to keep it as it is presented. Neither is there growth. Nothing will change, if you choose not to change anything. We will never have the homeless services that our City, Police Department included, need unless you use the voice we gave you and change the budget. (By the way, new stimulus monies have been placed in the CDBG for homeless issues. These monies could fund the outreach and support services that both the Police Department and the Citizens of Vallejo want.)

In looking back and looking forward, I am reminded once again of what Winston Churchill said when asked to cut funding to the arts and social programs, “Then what are we fighting for?)

I ask each of you to be more than a good manager mirroring the motions of the leaders before. I ask you to use your voice to influence Vallejo’s future by creating an environment that reduces shame and influences good behavior rather than seeking to control. I ask you to fund for social services that support the mission of the police, but not for more police officers and equipment. I ask you to fund those things that keep Vallejo vibrant and unique.  I ask you to lead especially now that times are tough. I ask you to lead.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt