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

NO NYHOFF, NOW WHAT?

My tomato plants are going crazy this year. I blame it on the mulch I purchased in American Canyon last winter. This has nothing to do with today’s topic, I just wanted to brag. Drop on by, I will make coffee and show you my garden.

Greg Nyhoff is gone and with him another $600,000 of our tax money. Do not blame him. And do not blame the City Council. As the saying goes, “We have only ourselves to blame.” And by WE, I definitely included myself. While I have taken time away from our missives, I do believe in some small way that these writings have been able to attract attention to certain aspects of our City government that needed it. One of those things was the close–to-the-chest card playing style of our now former City Manager. He ran his city on narrow gauge rails, rarely veering off on a siding unless WE pushed hard enough. But, that’s how a Democracy is supposed to work, right?  Recently on Facebook, I saw a straw poll asking if it is time for a Strong Mayor initiative in Vallejo. (A debate that I will leave for another time.) Of the few respondents, a clear majority favored it. A strong mayor? What would that really change?

In my personal life I have for many years espoused the philosophy of personal responsibility. Too many stories of spilt coffee in laps and of people falling off the tops of ladders. Combine that with the joke/adage; “It shouldn’t be called common sense, it doesn’t seem that common to me,” has made me a believer in it, personal responsibility that is. When I wake up in the morning, if I want a cup of coffee then I have to make it myself. If I spill it on a tender spot and burn myself, well, that is my fault. I mean, who would I blame? The water company for providing the fresh water I used to brew my coffee? The company who manufactured my electric kettle that accurately boils that water to the limits prescribed by the laws of physics: 212 degrees F? Perhaps I should sue Fabrice for making his coffee taste so good that I decided to purchase a pound and make the brew myself? Who should I blame for tripping over my dog and splashing my bare feet? (This question answers itself.)

Before I go further I want to acknowledge the efforts of all of those who spoke out against the LNG plant and the Orcem cement factory. These are two things that our City did not, and does not, need. These were good fights which employed the democratic process to its fullest. Ad hoc committees were formed, careful research was done and cogent arguments were made. This allowed the proper information to be made public and a rational decision to be made. Those indeed were heady times. Times when the will of the people was heard. But . . . while we do indeed have the right of free speech, were are not immune from its consequences. We have proven that, as a group, we can effectively change the course our City. We spoke, and the world listened. So did developers and so did Greg Nyhoff.

Did your mother ever tell you this? “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all.”  Do me the smallest of favors and right now ask yourself this next question honestly. When someone tells you, “You should do this or you should do that,” how do you feel? Do you feel like it is constructive criticism? Do you feel like it is coming from a good place? Or does it feel like that particular someone does not know the whole story and in fact their comments have become so tiresome that you ignore them entirely and actually seek to avoid that person in the future?

Well guess what, our former City Manager figured this out and did just that; he just ignored us. He did it because he had a job to do. He did it because sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. He was given a directive by our council to bring development to Vallejo. We may not like the fact that we are not getting a grocery store in South Vallejo but he did not break any laws in recommending that development. He provided his solution to our growth problem and stuck to it. That was what he was hired to do. (FYI, we do have a directive from the State to increase housing in Vallejo. It is a real thing and we have very little to say about it at this level.)

Now in my opinion he took it a little too far. Were I, and other members of the Planning Commission, lied to at times? Most definitely. Were our comments, the ones that did not align with staff recommendations, ignored? Absolutely. But he figured out that if he presented complete packages to the Commission for an up or down vote only, that he could push through his agenda. This is how he was able to attract developers. This was his way of bringing much needed growth to our City.  As for lying? I personally was told that because I was a Commissioner, that I could not attend regular Economic Development meetings for GVRD because there might be information that could possibly influence my role on the Commission. A former assistant City Attorney later shared with me that since the meetings are open to public agencies and not just City of Vallejo employees; it is not subject to work product protections. At first I was upset. Then it hit me. It was time for me to get out of the way. It was then that I decided to resign the Commission. I did it, because my protestations were getting in the way of Vallejo’s success, not moving us forward.

We have a City Manager form of government. The City Manager is the boss. They are the ones responsible for our growth. WE, you and me, are not always helping. Yes we should shine the light on illegal and unethical behavior. But it is my very strong opinion that we should listen to, and hear, the advice of Lee Iacocca: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Here is the hard part. Complaining is not leading, it is not following, nor is it getting out of the way.  Leading is joining a committee and learning about the topic. I mean really learning. Extracurricular studying and everything.  Leading is supporting our underfunded and overtaxed City staff. Leading is bringing solutions, not problems to the table. Real solutions, not just internet articles that say how some city across the country fired their entire police department and started over. Rather, it means researching exactly what happened. What were the costs? Financial, societal and emotional. How was it achieved?  When and how was success measured?  Our words have impact. These words I write today will nudge the conversation, ever so slightly, but nudge it they will.

We have such a wealth of wisdom and intelligence in our City and I love speaking with each and every one of you. Your insights and experience are needed. I openly ask you, if you have a solution; write it down. And take more than the 1000 words I do when sharing my thoughts with you. Become the expert. Make Vallejo better because of it.

Personal responsibility. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Lead, follow or get out of the way.  Be the change you want to see in the world.  Ask not what . . .

Until the next time,

Tommy Judt

p.s. I am currently studying our drought problem, developing relationships and working on a solution to restore our natural watersheds in a way that reduces carbon, controls flooding, topsoil erosion and recharges California’s aquifers. In my spare time I am also opening a coffee shop in Berkeley. How about you?

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

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

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

When you can say nothing?

I am at a loss today. I know that I must write, must share my thinking, my grief and my outrage. I know that because I am a white man and will be heard, that I must make sure that I am heard. But where do I begin? What can I say that would even come close to easing the pain of over a half millennia of subjugation? Whatever could I, ever say?

A pithy story about how I was pulled over by the police for speeding and had to go to traffic court, pay a small fine and go home as if nothing happened at all; if anything, shows my life to be as fully removed from this reality as it could be. The hard truth I swallow is that I will never know what it feels like to be a person of color in this country. I will never experience real existential fear, not even when Time comes calling for me. I can never know the humiliation and basic disrespect of life that is shown to the people of color whom I call friends and colleagues. I live in the very same world, the very same town; yet the two, mine . . . and theirs, exist separately together, without any apparent incongruence; yet totally divided.

I like to think of myself as a good person. I work hard at treating my dogs well and I am proud that I recycle regularly. Saving the earth and all that. But in writing these words, I picture myself a tall, white ostrich with his head fully buried in the sand. “If I do not know about it, I am not responsible for it,” or so my inner mantra chants. “This one is too big for me,” my body aches in sentiment. “What could I possibly say that would ever make a difference?”  I will share with you what I know. My fear is that it will be a pitiful palliative for this massive world of hurt that we are living in.

Bias. Intrinsic bias. Tribal and confirmation biases. Here is one place where we can look together. Evolution is a bitch. She rewards fear and not trust. Early humans who were not afraid of predators were easily killed. Those who survived, our fore-parents, did so because of their fear. That fear was handed down over a thousand generations, to us. Imagine our luck. We speak of it with great regularity. We call it our fight or flight response. Those more enlightened have added a third term for us to consider. They say fight, flight or make friends. Unfortunately making friends comes with risk, pain and potential death. So say the genes of our ancestors.

This fear evolved in what is now commonly known as Tribal Bias. Our evolution has taught us to be wary of those who do not look like us. This is a base instinct and can be over written, yet it exists in all of us. I imagine, and I have not studied this part so I speak with minimal authority here, because I have seen children of different colors playing easily together that the pain of prejudice finds nourishment in the anxiety of puberty. The time in life when testosterone and fear are palpable in their bitterness. It is this time that the desire to be accepted by one group almost always requires that we disparage another.

Confirmation bias. Here is one of my favorites. Not because I like it so, but because it is, and always will be, the most insidious of them all. Confirmation bias is hard to spot in oneself. Take this inane example. My mother always chastised me for never picking up my toys. I, on the other hand, said that I did indeed pick them up with regularity. Now never means that not once did I pick them up. This of course was not true. I believe that most times I did and sometimes I did not. Now here is confirmation bias. My mother believed that I never did. Here opinion was reinforced every time she found a toy not put away. On the times she did not see toys left out, her mind paid no attention to it at all. There was no confirmation of her opinion. My experience was the opposite. I knew that I put the toys away. There were times when I was not finished playing, when I did not put them away. My confirmation bias remembered only the times I did put them away. The things we focus on are the things we recall and hold emotions, memories and opinions about.

The painful real life example would be: If I believed that people of color were responsible for all crime, then every time I saw it reported as such on the news, or heard someone speak about it this way, my bias for this belief would be confirmed. If I heard or saw anything different, my mind would not register it. This is what is happening in our society today. We have let our tribal fear, coupled with confirmation bias, direct and dictate our policing behaviors. I believe it to be that simple. The question begging to be answered: How do you change a specieal lifetime of evolution? (I am going with the make friends part knowing just exactly how risky it is.)

I would like to say just one thing about the violence we are now experiencing. It is a symptom, not the cause.  Like the inflammation and pain that comes with a raging infection, the violence we are living through may either be treated or let run its course. I am not wise enough to address this question, for it is left to better women and men than me.  What I do know is that we need to work on digging out the source of the infection. The cause of this unrest. We need to collectively remove our heads from the sand and see exactly what is happening in the bright light of day and remove those individuals who seek to create and feed this festering national illness simply out of pubescent fear.

I do not know the answer. This is one that we must all seek together. I hope that knowing some of the why may help to lead us in the best direction.

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

JUNIOR

In a story that I once heard, a new joint chief of staff was appointed to lead our military. There was a reception following the swearing in ceremony that was well attended. After the event the new chief of staff met in a small room with the surviving, retired chiefs of staff. The new chief said, “This is an elite club, isn’t it?”  To which the eldest retired chief replied, “Yes, and you’re the junior member.”

 

This is how my first turn on the dais started. Continue reading “JUNIOR”