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?

FOOD DESERTS: CAN WE AFFORD ANYTHING ELSE?

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

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

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

Planning Commission Emails

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

South Vallejo Food Desert Demographics

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

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

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

Robert.McConnell@cityofvallejo.net

Tina.Arriola@cityofvallejo.net

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

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

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just below that, on the next page, is:

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

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

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

Until the next time,

Tommy Judt

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

OOGA CHUKA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

WISHING TOMORROW WAS YESTERDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Tommy Judt (aka Butthead)

MONDAY, MONDAY

Can’t touch that day.

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Tommy Judt