WATER WATER EVERYWHERE

It was the early 70’s. I was probably no more than 10 years old. It was December, I remember that, because I wanted to go down to Whitefront to finish my holiday shopping. It was a Saturday and the only way I had of traveling the 4 miles there and back was by bicycle. Back then it was not a problem. Kids were riding their bikes everywhere. The only thing different about this day was the rain, and by rain I mean downpour. Constant. Incessant. Over the top rain. The kind of rain where the manhole at the bottom of a steep hill blew off and the plume of water went 6 plus feet in the air, kind of rain. I waited until it lightened up but that was just a ploy. Old man Thunderstorm caught me just a few minutes later and laid into me like my parochial school teachers did when I tried out those new words Bobby taught me in class.  I can still see the rain, buckets of it running down the street. It was the most water I had ever seen in one place at any one time. Before or since.

I am writing about rain and water again because it is the most endangered resource we have in the West. Many of you have read about how dry the Colorado River is before it finishes its run to Mexico. Complex negotiations by competing water authorities from the headwaters in Northern Colorado on through to Lake Mead and Las Vegas; and beyond. Most of you have seen Chinatown, the movie, with Jack Nicholson, which tells a fictional tale about the water wars in the early 20th century that led to the construction of the Hoover Dam. (Actually, I think that I will re-watch that today.) The water you see, was needed so that Los Angeles could grow. Water for construction. Water for businesses. Water for new homes.

There is one conversation, here in Vallejo, where I think everyone will agree with me on the topic. The topic of growth. I say that most of us want it here. We want to see Vallejo flourish. We want new investment. We all want our condition to improve. Well, as we have seen with Los Angeles, we need water to grow. That idea may seem a little big to get our collective arms around it at first so let me share another old adage I picked up at Culinary School.

A working man, after putting in extra effort on at work, received a well-deserved bonus. He and his wife were saving for a house so he put the bulk of it towards a down payment but kept a little for a treat. He had never before been able to take his wife out to a fancy restaurant so they made plans for the coming Saturday night. After seating, the man looked over the menu for the most expensive item he could find. It was a 32 ounce steak with all the trimmings. His wife, knowing that her husband traditionally did not overstuff himself asked, “Honey, how are you going to eat such a large steak?”

“One bite at a time.”

We have a water problem here in the West that we need to take a bite out of. We have designed laws that reflect the kind of thunderstorms I experienced as a youth. In a recent conversation with a water engineer at The Solano County Water Agency (SCWA), my conversational compatriot shared this thought. “It is like we consider water a bad thing. All we do is make plans to get rid of it.”  Consider the phrase, ‘100 Year Flood.’  It is an important concept in planning and building in managing heavy water runoff from 100 year storm events.  We have all seen the damage that flooding can do on TV. Mudslides, standing water, molding drywall, and the occasional member of the livestock family stuck in a tree.

That can still happen in California, when we have a monstrous rain event; and we should still consider the effects it will have. But instead of treating water like a bad thing, I say we treat it like our working man’s bonus, with a slight adaption of the adage. Put some in savings and order up a big steak. You may also be aware of is how our farmers have been pumping more and more ground water to irrigate crops. This, surprisingly, has caused the Central Valley to sink by measurable inches over the past decade.  We have been spending our savings. UC Davis has been studying how to recharge these underground aquifers. Putting water back into our savings account. This is one of the trimmings on the big steak that I am talking about.

Where is all this going Tom? In Vallejo we own our water. We own a number of lakes outright with water rights to Lake Berryessa and, I think, the Delta. We also have our own waste water treatment plant. The place where we send all of our bad water.  This unique situation of controlling our own water was put in place when the Navy was in town. They, the Navy, new how vital a resource water is to their operations. So they helped establish water security for Vallejo. Our own Chinatown story, kinda, well, maybe not so dramatic. But they did put us in a position to manage our growth. Today’s drought, along with the current pandemic, has put us in a unique position. One where we have money to spend on water infrastructure improvement. Sexy right? I mean I got goosebumps just writing that sentence. NOT!

It may not be interesting and it is certainly not sexy; but at least it is expensive! Vallejo has received a grant from the Federal Government through the American Rescue Plan Act. Thanks to efforts from our Congressman Mike Thompson, Vallejo received about $26 million dollars in a onetime grant.  The first round of staff recommendations are going to council soon representing half, or about $13 million.  City staff member Felicia Flores has been in charge of community outreach on ways to spend this money, and has done a tremendous job. She has been both responsive and kind with the few questions and suggestions that I have sent to her.

In addition, the State Government is providing matching grant funding for use in Regional Water Security Issues. The drought has prompted our legislature to draft a grant bill to fund water infrastructure improvements on a regional level. More information can be found here if you are interested: Regional Water Management Grant.

My suggestion here is to get COV Water, Flood and Waste Water, both GVRD and the School District (both who consume extremely large amounts of water for irrigation,) and the SCWA to form either a Joint Powers Authority or a 2 x 2 Commission to meet and move forward on supplying funding, developing policy and enacting improvements to:

  • Provide clean recycled water for irrigation of our parks and public lands. (Reducing demand on fresh water.)
  • Considering well water for irrigating public lands. (Here in Vallejo we are so close to the bay that our water table usually stays pretty high. And since we do not have major farming here in town, using this water would not produce the same effects as the Central Valley.)
  • Consider permaculture practices on public lands that promote groundwater recharge instead of forcing water into our overtaxed storm water system.
  • Promote rain water retention practices in our residential neighborhoods to also lessen the storm water runoff.

I have placed my idea here on the City of Vallejo website. Please, please, let us take the first bite of this big steak together. Please take a minute and vote for greater water security. REGIONAL WATER SECURITY

Until Next time,

Tommy Judt

GVRD ASKS: WHAT’S THE PLAN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

OMBUDSMAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please comment and add your thoughts. Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

SOMETIMES I FORGET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also shared an old saying which goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time,

Tommy Judt

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

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)

THE MAYOR OF WHO-VILLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next time,

Thomas Judt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Tommy Judt

OH OH BAM-BI-NO’S

There came that one day when I just, no longer wanted to be an auto mechanic. My hands were constantly stained with grease and grime, I worked in an environment full of VOC’s and I have no doubt that smelling gasoline and solvents, all day, every day, did nothing to help my personality. Even though I had a union job, making good money, I quit. Wait for it. To become a bartender.  Little did I know, that one decision who forever change the course of my life and provide me opportunities to see the parts of the globe I honestly did not know existed.

I chose not to go to college straight out of high school. Being bullied in grade school, I opted for the rebellious teenage mantel during high school. I proudly graduated with a C average. Straight A’s in auto shop, D’s in every other course. (These were the years when one would not be failed out of high school.) Back then it was as acceptable to enter the Trades as it was to attend college. You could also pay for college, live, eat and have a few beers on minimum wage job back then too. (I’ll save the social commentary for the next election.)

I was fortunate enough that my father offered to pay for my tuition at a 9 month trade school in Phoenix Arizona, called Universal Technical Institute. Deciding to wait until September to start classes, missing the heat of summer turned out to be a wise idea, I packed up my belongings in an old steamer trunk and took the family car, now mine, through the desert into the Great State of Arizona.

“Living on the road my friends, was meant to keep me free and clean.”

All was well and good. I got a job, sharpening saw blades. Having always been handy, this seemed an appropriate manner in which to earn my living. I rented my first apartment and experienced my first roommate. Oddly enough, he and I shared the exact same birthdate. Same date, same year. Cheers to you Keith. Now to set the stage a tiny bit more. I had recently spent the last few seasons working at the Renaissance Faire. For those of you born later than I was, consider it the Burning Man of my time. Hippies, marijuana and communal showers. Everything a teenage boy needed to . . . well . . . be a teenage boy.

I made dear friends at the Ren Faire, many I still have today. All were my senior. So imagine coming from a smoke enhanced, communal hippie setting only to find yourself into an anxious group of turgid (Yes I know what turgid means and I mean it here.) 18 year old men. I felt, and was, most certainly out of place. What I needed was to find, my safe place. Enter Gina and the Statler Lounge. At that time in Arizona the drinking age was 19 and I was 18. While this was mildly problematic I thank Gina for never carding me. The Statler Lounge was the first place where I learned that you could lose money playing pool. That there were many kinds of mixed drinks, other than the Highballs and Gimlets that my parents enjoyed, and that some people could be very nice.

Gina was the bartender. She was old, 40 I think. Back in those days you could run a tab.  The very first night I drank more than I could afford. I was embarrassed and asked to pay it the following week. Which I did. I was shy at the bar but kept coming back every week on Friday night needing a safe place of my own. I never ran my tab that high again and only ever ordered 2 drinks even though I wanted more. Gina taught me about tipping and I started to feel like I fit in. Gina, it turns out, was from San Francisco. She recognized the Bay in me and took me under her wing. About 4 or 5 Fridays into our relationship Gina made me a deal. She promised to rip up my tab if I would do just one thing for her. Near the end of the night she needed help carrying out the beer from the back room to the bar to restock the refrigerators. The cart was too heavy for her to manage easily. My job on Friday nights became this: Drink for free; bring the beer from the back.  I had my safe place. When I finished my technical tenure, I was proud of what I had learned and was ready to return to the City by the Bay. Even before I left I missed Gina. I miss her and the Statler Lounge today where I had become a regular. And yes, I miss the free drinks. Yukon Jack and grapefruit juice, if you must know.

Last week I popped into our newest Italian restaurant in town: Bambino’s at 301 Georgia At. Does it remind me of the Statler Lounge? Not really. It more reminds me of a little bar and Italian restaurant that I worked for in Rodeo. That was my first job as a bartender after a few years working as an auto mechanic. That place had the Statler Lounge feel and great Italian food to boot in a family friendly environment. It was that job that sent me to my next where I ended up managing restaurants, then to culinary school, then abroad cooking on motion pictures.

Bambino’s is that kind of family friendly restaurant. The evening I went, I saw a few of my Vallejo friends enjoying dinner in there as well. The food was well prepared, their cooks obviously skilled at their craft.  I chose the Chicken Marsala. The chicken was tender covered in a light mushroom sauce. The dish was served with an expertly blanched bit of broccoli that served as the perfect foil to the rich chicken sauce. That and glass of Chianti had me saying ‘Per Piacere’ for more.

I am happy that we have another place in town.

May each meal bring you joy and every companion, happiness.

Tommy Judt