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

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.

I AM BIASED

I like Robert McConnell. For those of you who do not know of him Robert McConnell is one of Vallejo’s City Council Members. I like him for a couple of reasons. One being his willingness to engage and respond to citizens whether in person, by email or on the phone. Another is his ability to make the Aloha shirt accepted as formal wear. Continue reading “I AM BIASED”