Political Fix (7 April, 2016)

Why are Walnut Trees in Political Fix?

Visalia City Council just voted April 4 to appropriate $105,000 to plant walnut trees in the city’s Scenic Corridor. This is in addition to the $58,000 that has already been spent. There are very good reasons to plant walnut trees in Visalia’s Scenic Corridor and there are some very good reasons not to plant them on this parcel. But that’s not why this issue landed in Political Fix. It landed in this column because, first, we ran out of space in the paper, and second, the process by which the decision came about made me mad.

First let’s put to bed the arguments for and against planting the trees that were originally presented publically March 21.

The Scenic Corridor was established to maintain the agriculture roots of Visalia and to create an attractive entrance into the city. On a beautiful spring day, I almost see what Councilmember Greg Collins sees, but for the rest of the year, it just another highway interchange with commercial buildings, houses and some sad looking oak trees.

The parcel in question is 17 acres that the city owns on the north side of Highway 198 in the general area of Hillsdale Avenue and Preston Street. Six of those acres lay in the 200-foot conservation setback which is the Scenic Corridor. Councilmember Collins said that the initial plan was to put in ornamental landscaping in the setback which is very expensive to maintain. Conversely, planting walnut trees would provide the city a revenue stream. Then, after 25 or 30 years for the life of the trees, the property would be even more valuable. The city could then revisit the subject of selling the 11 acres that are not part of the Scenic Corridor.

Councilman Warren Gubler’s argument against planting walnut trees was that it would take 15 years to see a return on the city’s $177,000 investment, and that the rate of return was small. In addition he said, “This is not our core purpose as a city, to be farmers.” The property is surrounded on two sides by residential and as part of the General Plan the city could easily rezone it as such. Residential property sells for $70,000 to $100,000 an acre and ag land sells for $30,000 an acre. “So planting walnut trees is a step backwards,” said Mr. Gubler.

“This is a million dollar asset being mishandled. We should not be asking residents to pay more taxes when the city is sitting on a parcel that has been labeled as excess property and should be sold.”

At the end of the discussion the vote was 3-2 against appropriating the $105,000 to plant the trees. Mr. Collins and Mayor Steve Nelsen voted in favor and councilmembers Link, Gulber and Shuklian voted against.

Mayor Nelsen inquired how the city could vote against planting the trees when a contract with a farmer has already been signed and $58,000 has already been spent. To which Mike Olmos, Visalia City Manager, responded that the council had made the decision to plant the trees during closed session last year and that actually “the appropriation of money has to happen in a public setting.”

Hmmm. What’s that you say? A public setting?

The question for me wasn’t if we plant walnuts, ornamental plants or an opium field. The question became why was $58,000 appropriated to level the land, put in irrigation and buy the trees before it was discussed publicly?

To make matters worse, at the next meeting on March 28, Councilmember Bob Link changed his vote from against planting the trees to “yes.” He did not vote in favor of planting the trees because of a change of heart, but because he didn’t want the city to lose its initial $58,000 investment – money that should not have been appropriated in the first place without public discussion.

To make matters even worse, everything had been decided in closed session in a June 1, 2015 meeting. The first time public discussion happened on March 21, of what would add up to be $177,000 of taxpayer money, the item was buried on page 7 of the mid-term budget report and discussed during a work session where few if any public ever attend.

Closed session is used when the council needs to discuss a real estate transaction, legal action or personnel issue. Technically, planting the walnut trees qualified but it certainly wasn’t necessary. Just because an item qualifies to be put on the closed session agenda does not mean that city staff or the council should do it.

The only reason this issue came to light was through Mr. Gubler’s insistence. He was not pleased that the decisions were being made behind closed doors, which also prevented him from discussing it. This is an example of the “Government knowing better than the private sector, and I don’t believe that is true,” he said.

Open up Your Wallet, the Government is Coming

Talking about taxes, when the Visalia City Council was debating putting a sales tax measure on the ballot it knew that it would have lots of competition. The Kaweah Delta Health Care District has to float a bond measure to pay for earthquake retrofitting, and College of Sequoia’s was also considering putting a bond on the ballot. Tulare Regional Medical Center needs to put up a bond measure on the ballot to finish its tower.

I was curious to see if the four entities would collude somehow and separate the measures between the June and November ballots so the voting public wouldn’t freak out. That ended up to not be necessary as COS did not pursue a bond measure and TRMC has not yet started the paperwork. TRMC sorely needs the money to finish the hospital’s tower–it looks finished, but is actually just a shell. But no TRMC bond has a chance of passing until they get a hospital board the citizens of Tulare can trust and which will be transparent and be good money managers.

The resulting election still means that Visalians are getting a double whammy to their pocket books. A measure to increase sales tax in Visalia by a half cent will be on the November ballot. The new tax only needs to pass with 50% of the vote.

The Kaweah Delta Health Care District decided to try its luck with a mail-in ballot called Measure H. Ballots for Measure H were to be mailed out April 4 and need to be mailed back in May 3. Measure H needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

I’m Sorry, I Must Have Misunderstood

By the time the 50 states and six territories have all voted in their primaries, Republicans will have cast 30 million votes. What weight will the people’s voice carry in picking the Republican Presidential nominee?

Apparently none.

The Republican Convention rules concerning picking a nominee will not be settled until the current delegates are seated at the convention. Once the delegates are seated they vote on a set of rules that dictate how the convention will pick the Republican Presidential nominee. Until that time, no one knows what those criteria will be. This means that Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz, Mr. Kasich, or even Mr. Romney could be chosen as the Republican Presidential Candidate.

It is a forgotten fact that, in the end, it is the convention delegates who award a candidate the nomination for president. There is no law that says delegates can’t do whatever they want, given that a majority of them vote to do it. Depending on how the rules are written for the Republican Convention in Cleveland, the delegates could deny the front runner the nomination.

While the anti-Trump campaign has been working double time to ensure he does not get the 1237 delegates needed to get the nomination, Mr. Trump says that riots will erupt if the Republican establishment does not follow the will of the voters

But none of this hyperbole seems to matter.

In a report from the Brookings Institute it said, “When there are deep splits inside the Party, accompanied by a wide-spread belief that the front-runner coming into the convention is weak and almost sure to lose in November, convention rules start going out the window.”

How could that be when in 2012 a presidential nominee had to have won eight states to even be considered for the nomination?

That was 2012. This is 2016.

A member of the rules committee for the Republican convention told CNBC that “political parties, not voters, choose their presidential nominees. The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination. That’s the conflict here,”

This is true. In 1952, Governor of California, Earl Warren, didn’t even participate in the primaries but was the chosen candidate of the California delegation to the Republican convention. My grandmother, Florence Doe, was a delegate at that convention and cast her first “test” ballot for Gov. Warren, along with the entire California delegation. He was the third highest vote getter on the straw vote but at the last minute instructed his delegates to vote for General Ike Eisenhower. The delegates obliged and Gen. Eisenhower won the nomination.

In those days it was well understood that king makers and The Party picked the nominee – not the voters. In fact, the voters don’t even pick the delegates. The party picks them also.

To take it further, voters don’t even choose their president. President Bush never did win the popular vote. He was president because he won the electoral vote. Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 election, and Senator John Kerry won the popular vote in 2004.

One person, one vote doesn’t hold for the United States Congress either. The Democrats won a million more votes than Republicans, but because of gerrymandering, Republicans won more house seats and now are the majority. It was a strategy they worked on since the 2010 census to get as many local Republicans elected as possible so they could redraw the congressional districts in Republicans’ favor.

So if the American voter doesn’t pick the delegates, the presidential nominee or the president, where does that leave United States Democracy?

Why do we bother holding primaries?

“That’s a very good question,” said a member of the Republican Rules Committee.

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