by Jack McCurdy
We are in a media revolution. This revolution is marked by the decline and disappearance of conventional mainstream media - they provide the kind of news coverage that often failed to ask questions and seek answers. The new media are aimed at serving the public interest and informing residents about issues that affect them directly and as personally as can be imagined.
The old media newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are mostly being replaced by internet websites - so far. Most are independent, uninfluenced by advertisers and corporate interests, and motivated solely by their dedication to reporting news developments regardless of the consequences. They practice critical journalism. This is the belief of contemporary media scholars, such as Robert McChesney, author of "The Political Economy of the Media," (a compilation of his, and of many others, research, analyses, and history who see the paradigm change taking place in our media culture).
What Janice Peters--and many others--do not understand is that we on the Central Coast have new media in our midst: the Cal Coast News, New Times and the Slo Coast Journal. Together these publications represent the paradigm change locally. For the first time, literally, local media are seeking to tell the full story about all issues that affect our communities. The public is used to media that report actions-- much like minutes transcribed by the city clerk--if they report it at all - without posing any questions about those actions or reporting contrary views. The defect of that kind of coverage is that it fails to report critically-important information that can only be obtained by pursuing, questioning, and probing.
Who suffers if questions are not asked? In this case, Morro Bay residents, who are deprived of their opportunities to be informed and to weigh in on issues that directly affect them. This lack of knowledge about what is going on in their government is their loss--potentially losses of invaluable assets like health, well-being, and the value of their assets like real estate properties.
Having their performance scrutinized as a matter of course is all new to our local government officials. But many residents have become aware and have lauded the Journal for its new vision. They realize the need to know what is occurring in their community and sense what they have been missing when presented with critical reporting. Mayor Peters' lack of understanding explains how she could mistake articles based on facts with what she calls "opinion pieces." The truth is, no one accused the staff of trying to "bamboozle our residents" and "ruin our city." Facts were reported, and that is all. She has never experienced the local reporting of facts that present a different side of the story than what the City Council and staff project.
To set the record straight, I did not criticize Bruce Ambo, as is alleged, in either article written about him having been placed on administrative leave and resigning. I wrote in the first article that "Ambo led the city staff's effort last summer to convince the City Council to establish a redevelopment program under the City." He did, as a matter of record, and it fell within his responsibility as public services director of the city.
Since I was not here at the time, I do not know if the City Council instructed the staff, specifically Ambo as public services director, to "pursue" formation of a redevelopment agency or whether simply to investigate the idea. Certainly the Council approved the recommendation, presumably Ambo's, to employ Urban Futures, Inc., to conduct a feasibility study of forming the redevelopment agency, a major first step. The study forecast revenue to the city of between $313,000 to $246,000 annually, on average, over the projected 45-year life of the redevelopment agency. Whether those were net or gross revenues was not made clear. But either way, it is a far cry from the revenue needed to fund "such infrastructure amenities" as replacing sewer pipes and storm drains and funding the low-income housing units that Peters alluded to. Ambo, by the way, provided the Council with other projected revenues of $39.7 million or $822,000 averaged annually. A member of the Council discovered that the estimate of $39.7 million was a "mistake."
Also, under Ambo's direction, the staff provided the public with unclear, confusing, and sometimes erroneous information about city meetings on redevelopment. No mention was made in public notices about the final hearing that was held by the Council on July 13, during which the Council and Peters voted 4-1 to postpone consideration after being informed of those facts. No one ever contested those facts.
Peters suggests the redevelopment process should have been allowed to proceed "to the point of determining whether Morro Bay had sufficient blighted areas for an RDA to be successful."
The feasibility study, for all intents and purposes, had already made that determination a foregone conclusion. It contained specific criteria to be used for identifying blighted properties (which included such things as overgrown yards, old cars parked in driveways, cracked fences, and walls of houses that needed paint). Under these criteria, a virtually unlimited number of properties would qualify as blighted. Also included were maps of potential areas where properties that met those criteria were located, specific properties identified by parcel numbers as blighted under those criteria, and even pictures of properties with blighted conditions under those criteria.
Residents didn't feel they needed to wait to "let the process proceed." It had proceeded far enough to see a clear outline, despite, by the way, no one from the City ever describing how the redevelopment process would work --specifically what would happen if a property were designated by the agency as blighted. "What would come next?" was asked. There were never any satisfying answers. There was, however, a standing answer from staff: all that information will come later after the redevelopment agency is in place.
Peters also charged that I and others "claimed" redevelopment "was a ploy by staff to use eminent domain on private homes," meaning to seize properties for redevelopment. This is false.
What we did point out was that eminent domain could be used under the redevelopment agency to seize homes ultimately designated as blighted. This would not necessarily be done by this sitting Council, whose members had pledged not to authorize eminent domain as members of a redevelopment agency board. But what if some future Council that was not bound by such a commitment? No one among the Council or staff denied that could happen somewhere down the road? What she calls "fear-mongering" is, in reality, irrefutable fact of what owners of properties in Morro Bay could possibly face.
Ultimately, a majority of the Council did vote against proceeding with redevelopment, losing "the potential City benefits it could have funded"--benefits that were never identified, never documented, and never explained to residents. Was it because the benefits were never there or was it because of staff's inability or unwillingness to communicate all these essentials to residents? Residents are entitled to be told of the benefits of a program their city is enacting. Informing them is the right thing to do, regardless of whether the facts are complimentary for staff or not.
Morro Bay Library's Program Room
On another matter, Peters claimed that I had complained that the city did not want to relinquish control over the Morro Bay Library's Program Room "because staff does not want to 'give up control over a city facility and power in the community.' " What was actually said is, "Some close to the controversy believe that the city staff has been most responsible in not wanting to give up control over a city facility and power in the community." That is the opinion of well-informed people who I quoted--not my opinion. Their opinion became known from, again, asking a question: "Why would the city be so intent on maintaining control of a part of the library that the lease showed it has no legal jurisdiction over?"
She argues that "the room was always intended for shared library and public use." But, as I pointed out to the Council and to Peters--the "dominant and prevailing lease (of the library to the Friends of the Library from the city) states that "LESSEE (Friends of the Library) shall use the real property only for the purpose of maintaining and operating a public library . . . AND FOR NO OTHER PURPOSE." (My emphasis.) No one ever challenged that reading of the lease.
It is true that upon its opening in 1985, the new permanent library had a surplus of room, having moved from very cramped storefront quarters, and it was decided that a large room--the Program Room--could be used for meetings of outside groups as needed, even though it was not specifically provided for in the lease. Also, that was before the Community Center was built, which provided significant new space for meetings. But, now that the library and its patrons believe the Program Room is needed for library services, the lease gives the library an indisputable right to exercise that perogative. The lease refutes her claim that "the room was always intended for shared and public use."
As a practical matter, there are numerous convenient, alternative meeting places in town for organizations that had been using the Program Room for their meetings. This is based on a survey that some Friends of the Library members conducted. The fact is, the Council must have concurred with my facts. They agreed, in closed session on February 22, to relinquish city control over the Program Room. If no one had questioned the city's contention that the Program Room was needed for outside meetings and the city was legally entitled to jurisdiction over the room, the public--and other members of the Council--might never have had an opportunity to learn the facts, which have resulted in more space in the library being made available for residents using the library.
I want to thank Mayor Peters for this opportunity to illustrate how questions that produce facts can better protect all of us.
It is the Journal's policy to allow responses and rebuttals to articles to be published in the next month's issue.
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