VOICE OF DISSENSION

“You know the problem with you people . . .” the speaker, an appointed Vallejo official with whom I was having a spirited discussion concerning one of my published opinions, let his voice trail off. After a few seconds his tone changed and he admitted that the public sharing of this type of information was how problems in government were uncovered. My opinion piece was critical of an expensive decision made by his board and in truth it just plain felt like he did not like his decisions being questioned.

Sometime later I sent him this quote from James Baldwin:  “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.”

He responded: “It is interesting to me how different it sounds now, as I sit in a position of making policy, from how it sounded when I was solely effected by policy. It is an important lesson to remember.”

Our country was founded by debate. Our legal system is specifically designed to encourage debate. Our judicial system requires advocates to argue for both the Proponent and Opponent, of any action. These to be heard and decided by third parties. Whether they be judges or jury. We often, if not always, pair words like: Pro and Con, Back and Forth, Profit and Loss, the latter most often followed by . . . wait for it . . . the word: Analysis. Debate, honest debate, good debate requires research, critical thinking, logical reasoning, empathy and a certain quality of articulation.

The voice of dissension, plays a critical role in our democratic society. I can relate to being resistant to having my decisions questioned. As a business owner, I am the one who carries the legal and financial risk of the decisions made. There are times when those, whom I may feel do not have the same knowledge or experience that I do, make comments on my business practices and it, well, can ruffle my feathers. Quick story: A man wanted to start a new church in a neighborhood that he recently moved into. One Saturday he set about walking his neighborhood at large, knocking on doors and asking, “Do you go to church?” To those who said yes he merely thanked them and said goodbye. When he came across someone who said no, he asked one simple question, “What is the reason why you do not attend church?” He was openly looking for negative feedback, Ways that he could improve the church going experience for these people. Eventually his church became the largest in Southern California. The lesson: seek out opposition to your thinking.

Scott Page, professor at University of Michigan in complex studies, political science and economics makes a simple statement. I paraphrase: “Every decision is made better with more input/information.” Not some, every decision is made better, if only incrementally.

Our own form of City government only allows Council Members and appointed officials to ask questions, clarifying questions, of staff, not to direct them. By asking thoughtful, researched, clarifying questions a public official can either support the other side’s argument or expose its weaknesses.  The very nature of the questions should help guide the presenter, should they choose not to ignore them. (The challenge I had on the Planning Commission was that sometimes my questions would not be answered accurately or completely. This caused strife between the staff and myself. I too felt that sometimes they did not like their decisions being questioned by a citizen.)

The voice of dissension comes in many forms: A citizen standing nervously in front of Council sharing their thoughts; a council member asking questions that essentially asks the staff to explain their reasoning, like showing your work on a math test. What is the logic path you followed to make this decision? ; a public protest whether it be silent or vociferous; a vote at the ballot box, which is coming soon for us in Vallejo; or an Op/Ed piece written in the local media. Each has its place. Each is indispensable in our form of government.

While I can empathize with how uncomfortable it may be to have our decisions questioned, I suggest we, as a community, begin to adopt a feeling of gratitude when someone cares enough, sometimes at the risk of their reputation, to share contrary feedback. The decisions we make as a community will be better for the inclusion.

With Gratitude,

Tommy Judt

ACCESS TO JUSTICE

We have a problem here in Vallejo, and for all my time talking, conversing and pondering I have come to a considered realization: It is nobody’s fault.  That is right, it’s nobody’s fault. In this particular case we cannot even blame ourselves.  To steal a line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here, is a failure to communicate.”  (Tell me, did you use the Southern accent like I did when you read that line to yourself?) I do not blame our elected officials for reducing the amount of time, or the number of people who may speak at public meetings. I do not blame them for attempting other methods like reading previously submitted comments. And I do not find fault with the additional measures designed to silence a public speaker whose comments a Council-member might find personally offensive.

I do not find fault with staff for the way they organize and manage the agenda. I do not find fault with their desire to present information fully and professionally leading to long presentations. And I do not blame them solely for meetings that run into the wee hours of the morning.

All that being written, each of these items I mentioned presents a real and nearly insurmountable barrier for Vallejo’s citizens in our Access to Justice. Let me explain my thinking. As Robert McConnell just wrote in his Op Ed piece, the City has business to do, and in his opinion, staff should not be cancelling Council meetings. Without public meetings we have no place nor time for the public to express their opinions.  All the while, decisions are still being made.  By limiting the time each speaker has to comment on an Agenda item, which are often very complex and cannot be fully addressed in just 3 minutes, our Access to Justice is reduced.  When the number of public speakers is limited, due to time constraints, the number of thoughtful and considered opinions is limited, our Access to Justice is reduced. By cancelling public meetings, our Access to Justice is reduced.

I asked the Mayor if he knew the reason why Council only has 2 meetings a month. He responded telling me of a decision made by the former City Manager Dan Keene, most likely in conjunction with the Mayor and Council, to reduce the number of meetings from almost every week to only twice a month. The reason given to me is that staff viewed the weekly meetings as excessive since they would need to wait, sometimes long hours, in chambers or in their offices until their item was called.

My study of Social Sciences, during the past 5 – 6 years, has lead me to understand that it is not staff’s fault for not wanting to wait long hours to speak in a meeting. Personally I do not go to Council meetings because they are so long that I cannot physically stay awake nor get enough sleep afterwards to work the next day. So by limiting the time and number of speakers, and having extremely long meetings, it seems to me that only the truly hardened will tough it out, get to the meeting early enough to sign up to speak, then wait all night to do so. And I do not blame the speakers for being frustrated and pointed with their comments after having to negotiate all of the barriers before them. I do not blame citizens who would like to make positive or centrist comments for not having the staying power, or will, to navigate this maze. And I certainly do not blame staff or Council for becoming inured to commentators who seem to constantly complain. Even the most open official, and I find that mostly all of our staff and Council-members will give me some time when I ask, is bound to be colored by apathy after only ever hearing negative feedback. We are all only human.

To close, I place blame on the way and manner we hold our public conversation. It is a system which has been handed down for hundreds of years and like most things and systems, could be made better by new, innovative and disruptive thinking.  Over the next few weeks I will attempt to share some of my ideas and approaches as to ways that we can legally adjust and change the manner and methods we employ to speak to each other, in a public way.

With Gratitude,

Tommy Judt

NEW SALES TAX? – LET’S CONNECT THE DOTS

The City of Vallejo is planning to place a measure on the ballot this November to increase the sales tax in Vallejo by .0875%.  There hope is to raise $18 million ostensibly for road repair. Now if this money was only for road repair, right here is where I would end sharing my opinion. I would tell you that I support it. The Mayor recently stated, if we want nice things we have to pay for them and I agree with him. Here is the thing, just like Measure G these monies are not just for road repair. The wording of the resolution puts the monies into the General Fund to be used . . . however.

One reason given for this language is a General Fund tax measure only needs 50.1% of the votes to pass. A specific tax spending measure needs 60%+ (I am not sure of the exact percentage.) So the argument is that the Measure will have a better chance of passing if it is a General Fund Tax.

Well, I do not trust them, even with oversight, to spend these monies just on road repair. They will just get mixed together with everything else and I predict we will still have potholes.

Help me connect the dots here:

  1. The City needs more money but turned down a $9 million cash offer for North Mare Island and took $3 million instead.
  2. Last year Sales Tax income locally grew by $4million+ due to overall economy growth coming out of the pandemic.
    • As a business person, if I need to raise revenue I have the choice of doing more business, depending on capacity, or raising prices. And we have more capacity in Vallejo. Our local businesses could easily do more business. Raising prices will inevitably influence some people to shop elsewhere reducing projected income. According to the last census, 75% of Vallejoans make $75,000 or less per year. By raising the Sales and Use Tax they make it more expensive to live in Vallejo.
    • The City Council every year states that Economic Development is a primary goal. It seems to me if Staff seriously focused on this Council goal that we might not need to raise the tax rate. If we could increase business in Vallejo by 20%, and this is not an unreasonable business goal since the General Lift in the economy gave us a 10% increase, then our tax income would increase by about $8 million. Not to mention the extra money available to be spent locally by these business owners.

Speaking of spending locally, here is the first area that the City could focus on. We all know that spending money locally benefits everyone in the City. Why does not the City have a year round Buy Local program operated in conjunction with our separate Chambers of Commerce?

It is up to you to decide. I agree, if we want nice things we have to pay for them. For me, it all comes down to a matter of trust. I think that staff should focus first on the Council’s Economic Development Goal rather than trying to raise prices. I know our local businesses would appreciate it.

With Gratitude,

Tommy Judt

THE RULE OF 3

400 Mare Island Way may be the best place to put a police station . . . I just don’t know.

Simply put, The Rule of 3 is a writing rule: Use 3 adjectives to describe an object for a stronger impression. But if you take a minute to look around you will see the rule of 3 in many places.  We have 3 strikes and 3 outs in baseball. The punt in football is 3 points. Hockey has 3 periods. Even basketball has a 3 point shot. Isaac Newton developed the 3 Laws of Physics.  In math we use x, y and z to define 3 dimensions. So many sayings, that we are familiar with, employ the rule of 3.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Red, white and blue

Vini, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)

Snap, crackle, pop

Baseball, hot dogs and apple pie

Tall, dark and handsome (Okay, I had to throw that one in there)

You get the picture. You see our minds work in a very particular way. We are able to process some information quickly, while other information takes more time and concentration. Take driving for example. Do you remember when you first started driving how unsure and awkward you were? And your driving showed it? You were concentrating because there was so much information to process. But after a while you were able to assimilate all that information rather quickly. (Stop lights, pedestrians, other cars, etc.) Driving on the freeway, once scary became routine.  This is because your brain evolved to survive, by being able to process a certain amount of information at one time while still being able to have a conversation with the person next to you.

A similar thing happens with Decision Making. Our brains have developed an affinity for 3’s. To start, if you are given only one choice, it becomes a yes or no decision. It is binary and meant to capitalize on your fear of loss. (If you choose no, you fear that you could be losing out.) This is the technique of someone wanting to appear to give you control. It actually does the opposite. The odds are in the other person’s favor that you will choose yes out of this fear.  Better is when you are given a choice between two similar things. We all know this as compare and contrast; apples to apples, as it were. Here is a choice where we have relative information to compare giving us a better understanding of what is available and what may be at stake. (This holds the hidden 3rd choice of saying no to both.)

Having 3 choices is best. 3 because our minds can easily hold that many options in our thinking at one time without having to concentrate too much. Like driving and talking. In this decision making scenario we get 3 sets to Compare and Contrast. (1 vs. 2, 2 vs. 3, and 3 vs.1) Here is where apples to apples could prove to show: Apples vs. Apples vs. Oranges. From 3 choices we can begin to form decision groups. Option 1 is better for this but Option 2 is better for that. While Option 3 includes the best parts of 1 and the savings of 2. Think of it like this. Only some people can ride a unicycle. It takes a lot of experience to do it and even more to do it well. Many more people can ride a bicycle, Why? Because we now have 2 points to support us. We do not have to worry so much about falling backward or forwards, just side to side.  Most, if not all of us, can ride a tricycle for the same reason that milking stools have 3 legs, as it is still stable on an uneven surface.  Our minds, our bodies, our lives revolve around the rule of 3. Some people even call it the Golden Rule

What we have now is better that what we were first given. A relative choice between 2 locations for the new Vallejo Police Station.  What would be best is if the City Council would take a beat and authorize a feasibility study of a 3rd location. Granted it will cost another $100,000 plus but in my mind, in order to make the best decision, and more importantly, earn back our trust, we need to see three real apples to apples to apples choices. It is just due diligence.

400 Mare Island Way may turn out to be the best location for Vallejo, I just do not know. We are not a resource rich city which affords us very few choices. But we can still afford to consider 3 options. That much I do know. Giving Council, and the public, the opportunity to review 3 choices is the least we can do to preserve any sense of an open and transparent conversation.

Please email to our City staff and council with the subject line: We Want 3 Choices.  Then ask them to please consider a 3rd option because the least we can afford is proper due diligence.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

Robert.McConnell@cityofvallejo.net                                  Mike.Malone@cityofvallejo.net

Rozzana.Verder-Aliga@cityofvallejo.net                              Gillian.Hayes@cityofvallejo.net

Tina.Arriola@cityofvallejo.net                                             Terrance.Davis@cityofvallejo.net

Hakeem.Brown@cityofvallejo.net                                       Katy.Miessner@cityofvallejo.net

Pippin.Dew@cityofvallejo.net                                             Mina.Diaz@cityofvallejo.net

WHAT IS ON THE AGENDA?

We screwed up. We let this happen. We let control of the public conversation, the agenda, move from the Mayor and the Council to the city manager and their staff. In one simple little line of our Municipal Code, we signed over democratic representation. That line?

VM2 2.02.240 – PREPARATION AND POSTING

The city manager or designee shall prepare and furnish to each councilmember and to the city attorney, and to such other persons as the council may designate, a written agenda for the regular meetings.

The city manager, or designee, not the Mayor nor the Council we elected. Staff controls the public conversation. Have you noticed that since this was passed with the Laws of Decorum that our meeting have run longer and been more contentious? I suggest that because the Mayor, our elected representative, cannot even require a meeting with the city manager according to our code. Imagine that, staff is not required to take a meeting with our elected representatives. That gives them all the power. Like placing multi-million dollar appropriations on the Consent Calendar along with 32 other items.

My question to you is: Have you given up on our elected officials actually having the authority to make a change, any change? Because they do not now. AND, more to the point, what are you going to do about it?

Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

GVRD ASKS: WHAT’S THE PLAN?

I overheard a conversation last week where one person advocated shipping all of the homeless people to the middle of the desert and letting them die.

Homelessness is a crisis of humanity. It is not my opinion, it is the truth. It is also a topic that GVRD is humanely and delicately trying to address in their new 10 Year Master Plan (YMP.) Our challenge of homelessness has literally spilled out into the streets, alleys, freeway underpasses and off ramps. There are also campers in the park. At my time with GVRD, our out-of-door neighbors were always met with kindness. Camping is a thing in our parks and some people report that they are not comfortable bringing their families to these facilities. I do not disagree. I also do not know the answer. But I have some thoughts, and I bet you do as well.  And this is the point. GVRD is asking for us to weigh in on their monumental undertaking of drafting a plan to cover their operation and growth for the next 10 years.

Did you know that the number of school age children as decreased in Vallejo since the last 10 YMP was drafted? At the same time the population has slightly increased. Who makes up this changing demographic? How can GVRD best serve them? These too are questions that our beloved parks department is asking us to weigh in on.

I recently had lunch with non-other than Vallejo’s own Mark Lampkin. Mark has given his time over the years to referee youth sports. In this conversation he shared with me his approach toward guiding young people with the decisions they make on the court and connecting them to real life when possible. Mark is actively using sports, the idea of a team and sportsman-like-behavior, as we all hope they are being employed. Sports and recreation can be beneficial by filling a young person’s extracurricular time. I am impressed and overwhelmed with parents and kids that maintain multiple after school activities. Good for them. But I am exhausted just writing about it. Far different than the foot loose childhood I lead as a young man. In ending our conversation Mark said something to me that, well, just stuck. He said, “Sports is just an extension of school.”  The conversation finished with the agreement that school cannot be responsible for all of a child’s education. It takes a village to raise a child and Mark’s point is a valid one.  GVRD has been successful with providing some after school programs. I would like to see them do more.

We have a sentimental history of being a working class community. Our roots, developed in the rich soil of Mare Island’s heyday, are those of skilled labor. Welders, carpenters, machinists, et al. While those jobs have left us a new type of industrial manufacturing has taken hold in Vallejo: Industrial Arts. What if GVRD expanded its after school programs to cover Industrial Arts? How might that provide basic knowledge, training and experience to young welders, carpenters or burgeoning artists?   I plan on telling them my opinion on the what-and-how of it.

Even more pragmatically, how does this change in demographic, combined with the City’s plans for growth, change how we plan for parks going forward? The State legislates no less than 3, nor more than 5, acres of new parklands, per 1000 new residents, are to be required of a developer under the Quimby Act. (Cal. Govt Code 66477)  Counting just the acres under GVRD stewardship, Vallejo currently possess 7 acres per 1000 residents. This is far above the minimum and does not include the open space or parks managed by the City.  While I am very much in favor of open space and parkland and am thrilled to have been associated with this fine organization, we must also consider that funding for GVRD is tight. Maintenance costs are high and ever increasing. In order to preserve the sustainability of GVRD and acknowledging the demand for new development, would it be such a bad idea to openly and critically evaluate all of these properties to ensure that they are providing real value to the community?  Would not this information then be useful to the Planning Commission so that they may evaluate this requirement with each new development?

As mentioned, sustainability must be considered, but not just fiscal sustainability. GVRD is entrusted with some of our most prized resources when it comes to doing our part counter the effects of climate change. Trees are the foremost of hot topics when discussing the mitigation of current climate trends. Vallejo is blessed with many trees and could always use more. In their agreement with the City, Vallejo provided GVRD at no charge, with over 700,000 gallons of water last year. Some of this water goes to facilities like Dan Foley Cultural Center, to the Vallejo Community Center, or even to fill those lovely new pools we have at Castlewood Park. The remainder, the bulk of this super clean drinking water goes to water the lawns. And we have lots of public lawns. Now please do not pick on GVRD. We have asked them to give us green spaces. But green means water, gallons of it. Think about it a moment, that does not mean that we have to use fresh drinking water. The lawns at Dan Foley are currently irrigated with waters from Lake Chabot. Blue Rock Springs Park is watered from, well, Blue Rock Springs.  The governor has recently signed a bill into law which will provide grant money for regional solutions to water conservation and management. Question: What would happen if Vallejo Flood and Wastewater provided tertiary cleaning of water coming through their facility and made it available for irrigation? A logistics challenge for sure but that is what the regional grant is all about. Or, could GVRD, and the school district for that matter, install wells on their properties in order to keep the grass green and growing? I tell you, we have a very high water table here in Vallejo. It is already September and the low spot in my backyard still has standing water.  This is a real untapped resource. (Pun intended.)

The comment period is open into October and GVRD would really like to hear your thoughts. Please take time to look it over and share your thoughts. Our parks depend on it.

The draft document can be found at: https://www.gvrd.org/about-us/10-year-master-plan/

GVRD has asked to please send your thoughts to: publicforum@gvrd.org

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

OMBUDSMAN

I live along the freeway, on the west side of town. My house was built in ’42 and my great aunt purchased it in ’46. She passed in 2002. That is when I got the place. Two bedrooms, 1 bath, fireplace and hardwood floors. Basic war era Vallejo. I have a few fond memories of visiting my aunt here. Once I asked if we could light a fire in the fireplace. We did not have one at home. Or I would come see the garden that my grandfather put in. My aunt has a huge backyard. Oh, I guess it is mine now. Still I enjoyed coming by over the years to help her prune and pick the fig tree that I write so much about. Afterwards we would sit in the kitchen eating a baloney sandwich with cup of coffee. In retrospect, I did not visit her as much as I could have, should have, would have if I knew then . . .

Along the backside of my property is a sound wall separating I-80 and my yard. In some dark corner of my mind, I imagined cars or big trucks plunging through and knocking the wall down. The wall was actually built in my Aunt’s time. Prior to the 1970’s the freeway was lined with Eucalyptus trees and cyclone fencing. A more attractive alternative but not nearly as manageable nor sound protecting as the solid block wall. Well, roughly 2 years ago someone did come off the freeway and hit the wall. Only moved one small block. Nothing to worry about. A few months later, another. Put a decent sized hole. Big enough for my head.  Shortly thereafter, an entire car came rushing through. Big hole. But like a set of Ginsu knives, this story keeps on giving. A week or so after that . . . you guessed it. Another set of holes side by side. 4 hits within a matter of months.

Well, just like Humpty Dumpty, the King’s Men (CalTrans), came in to put the wall right again. All I needed to do was to negotiate access for their work crews to enter my property and make repairs from my side of the wall.  Much safer and presumably less expensive as they did not have to work at night nor shut down the adjacent off ramp while they completed the repairs.  Quick FYI: There is an abandoned easement on my property in favor of CalTrans. Old drainage stuff from before the sound wall was built which literally stopped any water from flowing on to my property. A little backstory. The last time I tried to talk with CalTrans about this easement they wanted to sell it to me for $120,000. Yup, an easement that they do not need. One that they abandoned the minute the sound wall was built. So, in this negotiation, I offered them a ten foot wide swath along the property line as free, permanent access. Which is super fine with me since PG&E, cable and the phone company already have the same access rights. Let me say this again: FREE. No charge to the State. No taxpayer money spent.

My job went into a dark hole the moment I presented this offer and would not allow access until they agreed.

Then came the pandemic and the attorney in charge of this negotiation told me that a majority of his staff got pulled away and retrained for Covid monitoring. My job would have to wait.  Now for the most part I consider myself a good citizen. I keep my front yard tidy, I pick up trash on my street, I have cut back on my water usage in this time of drought, and I endeavor to respectfully engage with my elected and hired City officials. So I waited. I would call or email every month or so. Still on hold I would hear. Finally early this summer I sent documentation that I had received over a decade ago from the State, stating that they no longer needed the easement. My negotiating counterpart said he would start the process of verifying this document. But that I needed an actual job number before he could officially move it farther forward. (He could have told me this a year before.)  I asked repeatedly for him to please help connect me with the proper department since once a Service Request is made, there is no direct way to follow up with the Maintenance Department. 6 months and 6 requests later I came to the realization that the stonewall at CalTrans was much stronger than the block wall laying in my backyard. I needed help.

I was loathe to write these emails, since I hate asking for personal favors, but in the end it turned out to be the only way to get the process going. I wrote to the Mayor, the head of Public Works, and my County Supervisor. Asking for them to please, just find out what is going on. The initial feedback they got was basically more stonewall but, my email did get forwarded to our State Representative and Senator’s offices. Within a week an engineering crew was onsite surveying the damage. I will keep you informed of the progress.

All of this is to share the idea of considering an Office of Ombudsman for the City of Vallejo. Last time I wrote about how the City Council is basically a volunteer council and that their time is stretched between their regular full time jobs and their full time council duties. When asked, almost every Councilperson has found at least a few minutes to speak with me, or to reply to my emails, even when . . . actually, especially when we disagree. It is this one thing that prompted me to publicly thank them.

This last week there was a lot of commentary on a new ruling by City Council to end commentary from any individual that a Councilmember found to be personally offensive.  My first reaction is to try and understand why the Council would feel that this is a necessary tool. Honestly, I too would become disheartened if the majority of the comments I heard where harsh critiques of my work and a number of those became personal attacks. Do not get me wrong, I am 100% for accountability but only through civil discourse. These are our neighbors.

To close, what if there was an Office of Ombudsman which say had a staff of three? What if they reported only to the Council and were available to field all of the thoughts, comments or suggestions that we the citizens made? How might it work if they then divided those comments by voting district and directed the comments to the specific councilperson? Or could connect to our State or regional representatives to help with a specific problem?

Please comment and add your thoughts. Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

SOMETIMES I FORGET

I am far from perfect. I would suggest the joke about asking my ex-wife but . . . 

It dawned on me this morning that I take this privilege of writing to you about my experiences with the City for granted. We, you and I, do share a common experience as citizens but I also realize that I have been afforded a greater level of access due only to the generosity of the members of the City Council.

We have a bit of a messed up system here in Vallejo. By my estimation, our form of government works great, for a city half our size. Our City Council, although paid a small sum, is by all means a volunteer body. The amount of money that each council person makes is merely a token and in no way comes close to minimum wage for the number of hours they put in.  There is a joke that makes the rounds every now and then that members of the US Congress should make minimum wage then they would understand our troubles as workers. Well, our Council does just that. And I know firsthand that they do understand.

Each and every one needs to work, outside of their Council duties, to earn a living just to afford to stay in Vallejo. A friend reminded me a short while ago that most, if not all, of us came to Vallejo because it is more affordable. So what does it tell you about our Councilmembers who are willing to work their regular jobs then, work full time at trying to make our City a better place? And yes, I know for a fact that each and every one of them works hard for us, very hard. They come together, each with different experience, knowledge base and passion. Each wanting to move Vallejo forward. Each representing a different approach to problem solving. Each working professionally on our behalf.

I write to each of them with some frequency, privately sharing my thoughts. In those emails I try to remember to sincerely thank them for taking the time to read my email and consider my thoughts. I also try, each time, to thank them for their service. Reading back on my last few posts I seem to have forgotten to thank them publicly. I apologize. We have real challenges in Vallejo but we also have our successes. Ones unheralded, or quieted, under the din of complaining or self-indulgent essays like my own.

Our council deserves our thanks and support. I may not always agree with their opinions or approach but that is how it is supposed to be. We are meant to disagree, then publicly debate items. I write these essays hoping to provoke conversation knowing that I am most certainly not 100% right about anything. I look forward to reading comments that disagree with me or prove me wrong. At the same time, if all I heard was how wrong I was, or what a terrible job I was doing, I too would become disheartened.

Lately I have been commenting on how City staff is just doing the job that is being asked of them. What I have forgotten is to mention that the City Council is just doing the job they believe we ask of them. In one email to the Council I mentioned that the way our former City Manager changed the way that the Planning Commission did business, did two things:

  1. It moved development projects ahead more completely and is ultimately less frustrating for developers. This equals a faster project development. Arguably this is what all of us in Vallejo want: Growth.
  2. It removes opportunity for community and commissioner input. Our system is designed to hear from the community, and citizens were allowed to share their thoughts even though making changes, to projects, from the dais was not often done.

I also shared an old saying which goes like this:

              If you want to go fast, go alone.  (Less community involvement)

If you want to go far, go together. (More community involvement)

I will be perfectly honest with you. I do not know which approach is best for Vallejo. I do not truly understand all the complexities that we face as a community. I try to share my truth each time I write but I have the luxury of doing so with a cup of Fabrice’s coffee to keep me warm, sitting in my lovely little house which is kept safe by the efforts of our Council and staff. Our City Council gives so much of their time and effort in order to make Vallejo a better and safer place to live. We have asked them to do  many things which oftentimes require them to consider extremely opposite positions.  I believe that we should have a say in the development of our town. Together we drafted the General Plan as a guideline. But, and this is a big but, we do not own the property. The developers do. We can say that we want a grocery store but would putting a grocery store in be profitable?  Developers are like us, they need to make a profit to live. In the end, the way we move forward as a City, big “C” City, is up to Council.  We may not always agree with their decisions but I do know that they do not make them capriciously.

I apologize again to the City Council if I have ever offended you with my remarks, or seemed to have taken lightly your commitment to our community. I am truly grateful that you serve on our behalf and are willing to listen to our comments, however harsh they may sound.

I will try to take my own advice moving forward and offer only constructive, well researched information for your consideration. (As succinctly as possible.)

Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

IT’S FIGGY TIME AGAIN

Finally! Finally we are having enough warm days in a row for my fig tree to ripen. I did a little preseason pruning with hopes of improving the yield and quality this year. The jury is still out on that one, but . . . the few figs that I have been able to glean are sweet, soft and succulent. There is another reason why I like fig season. I get another chance to visit my ex-wife. As I have written before, we had our disagreements but those always seemed to melt away when the figs finally ripened. Our personal favorite use for them was in Burnt Fig Ice Cream. Homemade. Yeah baby! This year I look forward to bringing her a large bagful of them, hugging her just a little longer than I would a dear friend, and lingering our goodbye way past the uncomfortable stage.  I like my ex-wife. Helluva woman. Just can’t live with her.

I wanted to write today in response to Anne Cardwell’s statement that she was leaving because Vallejo possesses a vocal minority which she feels is demoralizing staff. But unfortunately I have no story to share with you here. My public service albeit brief, was magnificently informative. Sitting on the Planning Commission offered me the opportunity to literally Hear people. That was my job, at each Public Hearing.  The concept of packaging a development project completely with no opportunity for adjustment or change well . . . never set well with me. That was the way of our previous City Manager. He changed the rules so that neither citizen nor commissioner’s voice would have any real opportunity to change the outcome.

Now granted, when I was a young waiter and cook, many of us often mused that our jobs would be so much easier without any customers. Almost all of us can relate to those uncomfortable feelings we get hearing the many pieces of unsolicited advice we receive right in the middle of a project. My initial reaction is to get my hackles up. “This is my project!” my inner voice says . . . sometimes my outer voice too.  I am opening a new coffee shop, did I tell you already? In Berkeley, on Telegraph at Ashby, across from the Whole Foods and around the corner from Alta Bates Hospital. I am very excited. I have been planning this for years. I honestly believe that I have taken almost every variable into consideration.  What I am really looking forward to is the challenge of proving myself. Here is a better one for you. Do you know what I am really looking forward to? I am looking forward to unsolicited advice. Yup, those pesky suggestions wrapped in the politest of terms, “May I offer an observation?” To which I look forward to responding, “Wow, I see your point. Let me think how I might be able to include that.”

Scott Page, Professor of Complexity, Social Science, and Management at the University of Michigan, and author of Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better GroupsFirmsSchools, and Societies tells us that, and I paraphrase, “The more input you receive, the better solution you will have . . . always.” It was not until I was passionately interrupted many times by a very bright woman that I began to realize that she was not intending on being rude. Not at all. What I realized is that she was just passionate about the topic that we were discussing. What I initially felt was lack of caring on her part was actually a compliment when I realized that my thoughts were inspiring hers. Her thoughts then inspired me and our conversation blossomed.

Look, public service is hard, just ask anyone in retail. And there will always be trolls. Why?

“Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.  . . . but we can benefit from the informed opinion of others.” Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize Winner, author of Thinking Fast and Slow.

For those of us who choose to share our opinions freely, it is incumbent on us to be informed and more importantly, to remember that others can mistake our passionate love of sharing for rude behavior.

As for City staff, I know that you work very hard and are just trying to do the job that Council has asked of you.  But you made the decision to work retail . . . Retail Politics. Complaints come with the territory and hopefully you too will be able get to a place where you can say, “Wow, I see your point. Let me think how I might be able to include that.” Why? Because we need you.

Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

p.s. Love me some figgy season.

UNDERDOG

I have heard this said in a few different ways since I was a teenager. Knute Rockne put it like this, “Hire the player, not the position.”  Basically, find the right person for the job and teach them how to do it. In Culinary School a common adage among the chef instructors was, “Don’t hire the expensive experienced chef; hire the hungry sous chef who will work hard to prove himself.”  Both of these sayings have been going through my mind ever since the Mayor recently asked us to share our thoughts on hiring a new City Manager.

Like me, many of you have noticed the changes that came about with the beginning of our former CM’s tenure. First, there was an expensive rebuild of our Council Chambers so that the CM could sit up on the dais. Second came the laws of decorum that kept any commissioner or Councilperson from speaking with a member of the public who addressed the body. Next came the control of the agenda that shifted from the appointed and elected officials to staff. Finally, the emergency declaration which the last CM used to renegotiate with our friends on Mare Island.  Each step systematically cutting out the voice of the public; whether it be first person or through our elected Councilmembers.  The pandemic must have seemed like a gift to our former CM.  Meetings moved to Zoom and shortly thereafter only written comments would be accepted to be read quietly by the members. A rule which has literally silenced our voices.

To be honest, I have missed writing to you but I felt that I needed to develop some perspective on what was happening in our City government. My experience on the Planning Commission left me confused. I was appointed by the City Council yet everything about the process was directed by the CM and staff. Training, and most noticeably the-lack-there-of, was the responsibility of staff. Much to my surprise, I was not even given a Welcome packet. Anything that might explain our particular governing process. I admittedly stubbed my toes many times . . . publicly. I do not believe this to be an oversight. The process as it stands is being manipulated to limit public input both from citizens as well as Commissioners. And it is legal. It is legal because there are no rules to the contrary.  Rules that can only be changed by the City Council. Question: How can the City Council even consider a rule change when the CM has control over the agenda?

Back to the start. It is my opinion that we need a City Manager who is the right person for the job, here in Vallejo. We are a very active and intelligent group of people who take seriously our role in the governing of our town. It is said that our outspoken nature which stopped the LNG plant and Orcem are keeping developers away. I think it is keeping the opportunists who wish to exploit Vallejo away with bad development. To my knowledge we have never had a publicly open discussion with property developers who see Vallejo as we do.  (This might be an interesting topic for the Economic Viability Commission to study, should staff ever let them meet again.)

What we need to do is to hire a less seasoned City Manager. One who is hungry to prove themselves. One who is willing to take his lead from the Council and include public opinion in Public Policy.  Let us face it, Vallejo does not have enough money to keep hiring expensive CM’s who are able to negotiate large golden parachutes. We just do not.  What we need is someone who is willing to let the Commissions and the Council do their job. What we need is a City Manager who is willing to realize that they do not hold all the answers. One who does not believe that they alone know how to fix our problems. One who will not openly, or even privately, say, “They trust us.”

I urge you to write to the City Council with your opinions about this matter. Tell them if you agree with me or not. Let them see both sides of the argument and then decide from an informed position. In any event, we cannot afford another Nyhoff. We need a new CM who is willing to build their reputation with ours. What we need is an underdog, like us.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt