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10.08.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

District 1 supe candidates take potshots over crime, animal researcher protection bill passes and 911 tax proponents in Watsonville and the county hope to learn from Santa Cruz's hard lessons.

Tough Talk in District 1

The same Saturday morning that the Sentinel published an opinion piece on public safety by District 1 supervisor candidate John Leopold, he and his opponent Betty Danner met in the Capitola City Council Chambers to debate one another on a variety of issues in front of few dozen of the district's roughly 30,000 residents.

Leopold, whose commentary called for increased law enforcement coverage, illustrated the point that morning with an anecdote from one his neighborhood walks on Koopman Avenue, which had been hit hard by vandals hours before. Graffiti was splashed across garage doors, cars and mailboxes. "It took two hours to get the deputy sheriff out there," said Leopold. "You don't have to be a smart criminal to know you're less likely to be found out if there's less coverage."

While the candidates differ on their stances and political style, public safety is one issue on which both would like voters to believe they stand strong. Danner is clearly the law enforcement candidate, distinguished by her former role as director of the Santa Cruz County Criminal Justice Council; she's endorsed by the Santa Cruz district attorney, former and current county sheriffs, the Watsonville chief of police and the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff's Association. So when she read Leopold's editorial Saturday morning, she was none too pleased. "I was surprised. It's like, what? He has no background in law enforcement, he has no law enforcement endorsements," she says. "I'm surprised it was printed."

In the Sentinel, Leopold addresses the chronically understaffed Sheriff's Department, which has the sole responsibility for protecting unincorporated District 1, and compares the situation to neighboring Santa Cruz, which has its own Police Department. "On a regular night," writes Leopold, "while Live Oak and Soquel might have three or four deputies on patrol, residents in the city of Santa Cruz have twice as many police officers on duty." He points out that while Santa Cruz crime is being effectively reined in, bursts of violence and graffiti are happening in District 1 with increasing frequency.

Danner says Leopold is playing on people's fears and downplaying the sheriff's effectiveness. "I believe that this article is politics at its worst. Saying that one is claiming success and the other is reeling--I think you need to be careful about the sensitivity of making statements like that," says Danner. "This article gives a sense of anxiousness to the residents. It gives a sense that the sheriff is inadequate."

Leopold says Danner is just trying to spin his remarks to distract voters from the real issue. "I walked door-to-door, and people want better police coverage. I'm just pointing out what's going on. I'm advocating more resources for the officers," he says. "Betty's just trying to spark a problem that doesn't exist. It's kind of sad."

As to Danner's calling his article "irresponsible" and "bad for morale," Leopold responds, "I think mandatory overtime for three years might be a morale problem."

Sheriff Steve Robbins acknowledges that staffing has been a problem for the county in the last five or six years, since the baby boomers began to retire and the surrounding counties were increasingly able to offer deputies higher salaries and lower housing prices. Coinciding with the dwindling deputy candidates, Robbins has also seen the amount of gang-related activity and graffiti in District 1 increase. "We discovered there was a whole gang of youngsters, 13 to 17, being manipulated by older gang members," he says. "Gang members in prison direct things and eventually it filters out into little old Santa Cruz County. It's a territorial battle."

He says much of the graffiti that residents are noticing, such as the number 13 or 14, and in red or blue, is rival gang symbols rather than the work of more innocuous taggers. But due to staff shortages, the Sheriff's Department spends the bulk of its time just fielding calls, and does not have the resources to follow up with anti-graffiti or gang task forces as it once did in better times.

At present, Robbins says the county is down 20 deputies but has nine people going through a 16-week training program and 10 in police academy. With a full staff, there could potentially be seven to eight officers in the district at any given time, whereas today that number can be as low as three.

Though he agrees with Leopold's call for additional staff, he admits he was a bit troubled by the tenor of the article. "It portrayed things correctly, that we need more help, but I don't want to add to the public's sense of insecurity and say things are out of control, because they're not," he says. "People are feeling insecure enough as it is."

Prop. 6 Targets Gangs

Californians are divided about spending more on crime. Divided enough that in a state in which nearly every anti-crime ballot measure has comfortably won, a recent Field Poll found more than half of state residents said they would slash prison spending first to balance the state budget.

That ambivalence certainly surfaces in any conversation regarding Proposition 6, informally known as "The Safe Neighborhoods Act."

Prop. 6, which adds 10 years to the prison sentences given felons who later carry weapons in public, also targets gang offenders who commit further violent felonies. It requires gang members to register with the state for five years following discharge from prison, mandates GPS tracking for several types of felons and increases sentences for meth makers and dealers, witness tamperers and even repeat graffiti violators. Its total cost is around $700 million, some of which it redirects from current state law enforcement programs. About $384 million of it is new. And local and regional reaction is highly mixed.

Take, for example, the view of O.T. Quintero, assistant director of community-support agency Barrios Unidos. The organization doesn't endorse or oppose candidates or initiatives, but as an individual, Quintero has strong feelings. "What this proposition does is make the prison system the primary system for prevention, intervention and rehabilitation in dealing with crime in America," he says. Why the entire nation? "Because what we create here sets the bar for the rest of America."

Quintero's objections range from the financial to the causal. "Looking at cost analysis, it costs more to provide incarceration than prevention," he says, adding, "Massive incarceration simply, basically creates more violent individuals."

Nick Warner, legislative director of the California State Sheriff's Association and (like all 58 elected sheriffs) a Prop. 6 advocate, says he finds views like Quintero's "really disheartening to hear. Proposition 6," he says, "is very balanced--the vast majority of the funds go into prevention."

Warner stresses that $50 million alone is aimed at improving adult and juvenile probation programs, now weighed down by up to 400-to-1 client-to-officer caseloads. More is directed to parolee mentoring "so they don't just get released and drift." The measure imposes no new mandatory minimum sentences; it only gives judges additional discretion.

Capt. Steve Clark of the city of Santa Cruz Police Department sees both sides. While the department hasn't taken an official position on Prop. 6, he personally says, "I don't know that it's a panacea; once mandates are laid out, we have to meet those mandates, and they sometimes become ... unfunded."

Clark has no doubt that the proposition is well meant. "There are valid concerns that drive it," he says. "But are [these] the right tools? I don't know."

Researcher Protections Tightened

With Gov. Schwarzenegger's signature still wet on the recently passed amendments to the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, researchers at UCSC and animal right activists at the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are sounding off about the law's implications.

The amendments were pushed through the state Assembly and Senate as an "urgent bill" and became law with the governor's John Hancock on Sept. 28. This tidy bit of legislation closes loopholes from 1992's original Animal Enterprise Protection Act and makes it a misdemeanor to publish the personal information of researchers or their families with the intent to harm them. The law also makes it a misdemeanor to trespass onto a researcher's property with the objective of hindering their work. It comes on the heels of the Aug. 2 attacks on two UCSC researchers' homes, one of whom was in the house with his children during the attacks.

"We're all delighted that it passed," says UCSC Vice Chancellor of Research Bruce Margon. "But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking illegal violence is solved. A determined violent criminal will often find a way one way or another to commit a crime. The real protection comes from a whole set of tools. This is one. One of other tools, one that's perhaps most important, is the community deciding that research on biomedical issues is a great thing and that violence is not an expression of free speech."

Jerry Vlasak, spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which has ties to the ALF, agrees with Margon that the law will not stop extremist violence, but says it will be the removal of all animals from test labs that will protect researchers from violence--not the law.

"What this law doesn't do is anything to protect animals that are being abused at UCSC," says Vlasak. "The law is aimed at above-ground activists, not the underground activists. I think it's unfortunate that society won't protect these animals so activists have to take time out of their busy schedules to protect them with direct action."

The 411 on the 911

With last month's embarrassing defeat of Santa Cruz's Measure T still fresh in their minds, Santa Cruz County and Watsonville officials are holding their breath in hopes that the similar Measures B and C are approved when ballots are counted Nov. 4.

Measure B aims to add funds to the Santa Cruz County Emergency Communications Center by extending the current tax on phone lines to include cell phones for customers who live in the unincorporated areas of Santa Cruz County. The $1.47-per-month county tax currently charged on land lines would stay the same, but if Measure B is approved it would also be tacked on to each cell phone line.

Unlike Measure T, Measure B has a cap of $7.35 per household and exemptions for seniors 62 and older and for Lifeline customers. The extra cash generated from the tax would be directed into the county's general fund, but leaders are promising to use the money only for 911 call center expenses and to meet required federal upgrades of emergency radio systems.

Sheriff Robbins calls the tax "vital to the county's emergency response infrastructure" and says he's confident the tax is better crafted than the doomed Measure T.

"I'm hopeful that people will see this an essential service," says Robbins. "We have distinctions [from Measure T]. It's' a lower rate, it's a more equitable tax, there is a cap and there are exemptions. The tax is limited to $7.35, which is less than price of a take-and-bake pizza."

Others, like Santa Cruz County Libertarian Party chairman Patrick Dugan, say the county is misleading voters by asking for more than it needs and not seeking the two-thirds vote needed for special taxes.

"The 911 call program has a history of being funded by the federal government," Dugan says. "If this is such a worthy program, and we believe it is, they should be able to get the two-thirds vote. As it stands, this money could go anywhere and we could never see it again."

In Watsonville, Measure C is being sold in the same way as Measure B, as a phone line tax that would benefit 911 services. And like Measure B, it would take the existing land line tax of $2.05 per month and extend it to cover cell phones for customers in Watsonville. But unlike the county's measure, Measure C has no cap on the amount that can be charged to each household and no exceptions for the elderly. The city did, however, recently pass a resolution that offers rebates for homes with more than one land line and businesses with more than seven, but the rebates are not automatic and must be obtained by completing an annual request form available at Watsonville City Hall and on their website.

Nick Bulaich, a carpenter and a resident of Watsonville, is calling the city's push for Measure C "a dishonest campaign of scare tactics." Like Dugan, he doesn't trust the city to use general fund money for specific programs.

"The city is implying that this money is for the 911 center, and that's absolutely false," says Bulaich. "How is it that for years and years they had funding for this and now all of a sudden they need a special tax to fund 911 services?"

Watsonville City Manager Carlos Palacios defends the measure and says the city has a "proven track record of using the fee only for 911 services," and that if the measure fails, drastic cuts will have to be made in other parts of the city's budget.

"It's very, very difficult to get two-thirds of people to agree on anything, but this funding is critical. That's why it's a general fund tax," says Palacios. "Our 911 center is one of the best in the country, and in order to keep it that way we need this funding."


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