Petaluma Politics–Too Broke To Fix?

Much has been written about the divisive & dysfunctional nature of California politics. Two recent newspaper columns touched on the current state of  local politics–Don Bennett’s Argus Column of August 23, 2009 and Pete Golis’ Press Democrat column of July 19, 2009. 

Of course, political divides exist in Petaluma and they are well known–growth vs. no growth (or smart growth vs “development by right”), Big Box vs. Eggcentric, East Side vs. West Side, etc. etc. 

I used to rail against these “divides” and berate those who contributed to them.  Frankly, to do so was  naive.  My only defense–weak though it may be– is that I thought we should reach a certain plateau of common understanding in our public dialogue. 

Achievement of a “common understanding” or consensus is extremely rare–decisions are made by those with sufficient votes to prevail.  There is nothing new in all of this. The fact is that political and social “divides” are hard wired into our Western Cultural DNA. Moreover, thay have not always been resolved by elections or decisions by our elected representatives.

A few brief examples…

  • A President who ordered law enforcement officials to arrest and imprison all who disagreed with him. ( No, not George W. Bush–John Adams. )
  • A President who openly ignored a Supreme Court decision. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • A Congressman (Griswold) who assaulted another House Member (Lyons) on the House floor with a cane–”Griswold was laying on blows with all his might…on the head, shoulder & arms of Lyon.”
  • Gadfly videos on CaliforniaCItyNews where you can witness City government meetings populated with ranting and raving members of the public as well as council members sometimes resisting arrest as they are dragged off the dais.  
  • On a personal note, I recall an instance where I dodged a haymaker punch by an Illinois legislator who took umbrage at a tax question.

The reality of our history is one of constant political conflict–and conflict that frequently includes abuse of power, personal attacks, and sometimes physical assault. This has occurred and occurs at all levels of government. 

At this point, a quote from the Golis column is in order:

The tribalism of our politics is now all-too-familiar. We don’t elect people who think first of what’s best for the common good. We elect people who are pro-business or slow-growth, who side with public employees unions or who oppose new taxes.

Then we are surprised that when these people are thrown together, they can’t find common ground to solve problems before they morph into one crisis and then another and another.

People who are not invested in state and local politics often find that it is irrelevant to their lives – because it is irrelevant to their lives.

Hometown governments are being gutted. A record number of housing foreclosures is devastating neighborhoods and families. Local business are going broke. Thousands of local people can’t find the work they need to support their families.

And what’s going on in local government? The Petaluma City Council is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Planning Commission, and the Healdsburg City Council is taking a firm stand against Starbuck’s.”

Granted, Golis presents a grim view of the situation.  In my opinion, he is pretty close to the mark.  However, his assessment that people find local politics to be “irrelevant to their lives” does need some expansion.  Granted they may perceive politics as irrelevant. But they are witnessing the impact nonetheless… 

August 13 2009 Download 006fountains-online-0051August 13 2009 Download 003

In Closing

Are our local divides so great that they can’t be bridged? 

 Is Petaluma too broke to fix? 

  • I submit that the answers are “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second question. 
  • In short, nothing is broken. It is just politics as usual–at all levels of government from Petaluma through Sacramento all the way to Washington D.C–And it was ever thus.

In our hierarchical world, it is difficult, if not impossible, for institutions at the bottom of the institutional pyramid to be better than those at the top. Or put another way, excrement always flows downhill.

Lucchesi’s Still & Stagnant Waters–Redux

On July 12, I published photos and comments on the sorry conditions around our Community Center and the Lucchesi Pond. (Click Here)

On July 25, I noticed that the fountains were finally in operation after being out of service since last winter…Publication1

I can also report that the level of duck & goose poop on the sidewalks has once again been reduced to “manageable” levels.  Ducks & geese being what they are, there is always going to be some poop for pedestrians to navigate.

Huzzahs to the City for bringing this to pass in these tough budget times!

However, the pond is going to require ongoing maintenance and that will be a challenge in the months ahead.  The debris & algae build up is significant…

Fountains Online 005Fountains Online 002

Obviously, the challenge is still before us…

E-Cycling (Electronics Recycling)

The recent City sponsored recycling event on July 18 & 19 at the Community Center rounded up a considerable inventory of obsolete or broken e-gear.  All manner of  cell phones, computers, monitors & televisions were hauled in for recycling.

According to Jan Rice of Universal Waste Management (Web Site) well over 400 people came through the lines.

 According to Jan… 

  • “We filled 8 trucks for a Total  estimated 50,000- 60,000 lbs of E-waste.”
  • “35 pallets of CRT’s were collected at an average of 1000 lbs each- so we collected 35,000 lbs of CRT (tv’s and monitors) which is nearly 10,000 lbs MORE than our last event-in January!!!!!!”
  • “I think the MOST important thing to note is that nothing is shipped to LAND-FILLS. “

Jluly 18 2009 003

In addition, the recycling event also added clothing/textiles/shoes as items that would be accepted for recycling.

Jan reports that:

  • “Over 7,200,000,000 lbs of Clothing, Textiles, etc. were dumped in landfills last year. (based on EPA estimates) which is absolutely HORRIBLE. All of the textile, clothing, etc. we collect is recycled.” 
  • “We take everything back to our facility where it is separated.  What can be “Re-Used” will be donated or sold for re-use. There is  material that cannot be re-used, for hygiene reasons, damage, etc. It will be recycled in a process that is similar to paper recycling which is basically soaked until the materials start to break down to fibers so that they can then be re-made into new product… like stuffing for futons, for example…or non-toxic insulation for houses and things like that.” 
All in all a very successful operation. Congratulations to those who made it possible and to all those who took the time to bring the items for recycling!
In closing, there might have been a bit of confusion as to the nature of the event. It was  for Recycling–Not Unicycling…
Super Unicycle Collage

Free Petaluma!

No, I am not suggesting in the title that Petaluma is in need of liberation. I use “free” in the sense that there are a number of events one can attend without an admission fee.  In these recessionary times, every little bit helps.

For example, in July there was the Petaluma Art & Garden Show…Collage 1July 2009 004July 2009 005

And then there was the recent “Classic Wings & Wheels” at the Petaluma Airport.

First, a sample of the Wings…Collage 1Collage 2

Finally, a sample of the Wheels…Collage 3

Instituto Vino Advice–Part I

Tristan E. Isolde, our Director of Cheap & Trashy Personal Counseling brought an interesting letter to our attention.  The author of the letter was seeking guidance on how to deal with friends who were, for lack of a better phrase, decidedly cheap.


TO: Internationale Instituto De Vino Wino, Petaluma, California

We have dissed pals who consistently serve the cheapest wine to be found on earth.  Here’s their new low – AND IT IS ABSOLUTELY TRUE!

For my husband’s birthday they brought a lavishly wrapped bottle (these are the same folks with the $80 nitrogen rig to preserve $3 wine) and made much of toasting the occasion with champagne.  I feared the worst, but this was beyond my wildest fears – a $4 unchilled bottle of  sparkling wine!  It may be banned in CA – it’s used motor oil with injected carbonation.  

They are assuredly NOT financially strapped, and this was not a joke gift, so I turn to the Instituto – my husband is pissed off and insulted, while I take a more sanguine view (it’s good for stain removal.) 

  • Are these people insane?
  • How can they be stopped? 
  • Who should they be reported to? 

What retaliation does the Instituto suggest?  Can these people be extraterrestrials?  Please consider flying Vinnie  or your enforcer, Sumo Cum Laude “Big Fish” Sashimi here on an emergency basis to “talk” some sense into these two. 


Vino Blues, New York City



Dear Vino Blues:

After several emergency meetings and many bottles of vin ordinaire, the entire staff of the Instituto  reached a  consensus (VERY unusual for this group)  to respond to some of your questions.

1. You say they paid $4 for an “unchilled bottle of  sparkling wine.” 

They paid $4 TOO much 

2.  You say it was ” lavishly wrapped.” 

Unless it was wrapped in the Mona Lisa–IMPOSSIBLE!!! 

3. You say it’s used motor oil with injected carbonation. 

Send them a case of 10W40. Suggest that they serve it at room temperature–as in an igloo in Nome, Alaska.  Tell them it has a body you can “cut with a knife.” 

In the alternative, give them a bottle of  sparkling cider.  If you can’t find one (We don’t know why you would normally want to do so), the Instituto will gladly provide a bottle for this worthy purpose.

As to the remaining questions in your letter, rest assured that the entire staff is locked in the wine cellar working up further suggestions to aid you in your time of need. 

We will be in touch with you shortly!


Tristan E. Isolde

Director of Cheap & Trashy Personal Counseling

Lucchesi’s Still & Stagnant Waters…


Petaluma’s Lucchesi Park and Community Center have endured many public indignities over recent years

  • Abandoned shopping carts
  • Graffiti (gang & hate tags)
  • Homeless camps
  • Trash
  • Vandalism

Much of this blight continues to this day as evidenced in these photos taken during the week of July 12…

Composite July 2009 Lucchesi

Fortunately, the good efforts of various volunteers and City staff have helped keep the worst manifestations of our urban blight in check.

Unfortunately, recent cuts in the City Budget necessitated by the ongoing financial crisis have reduced the ability to keep up.  For example, the build up of debris and duck doo doo is becoming quite noticeable…

Lucchesi July 13 2009 033


Graffiti, shopping carts, trash and duck doo doo notwithstanding, there is a far more serious problem lurking beneath the waters in Lucchesi

The fountains in Lucchesi have not been operating for months.  Presumably, they are broken or are not being operated to save money. 

Whatever the reason, the waters are now showing the effects.  Artificial ponds or lakes require aeration and maintenance to keep the algae under control.  The fountains were not merely ornamental. They provided the necessary aeration.

Without the fountains, we are now presented with a large stagnant body of water full of algae…

Lucchesi July 13 2009 001

The consequences are quite visible…

Lucchesi July 13 2009 036Lucchesi July 13 2009 022Lucchesi July 13 2009 009

To see more of the rapid deterioration, view a photo album by Clicking Here When it opens, select the full screen option for the “best” viewing experience.


The budget crisis has set the stage for an unfortunate but inevitable change in Lucchesi

As the stagnation continues, I suspect odors may start wafting off the now dead waters. In a few more months the algae build-up may reach the point where visitors can walk on water.

On a more serious note…

  • Will the pond become a public health hazard? 
  • Is the pond already a public health hazard? 

We are going to have to come to terms with what to do about the pond.  If there is no money to run the fountains and to maintain the pond, then I am afraid it is time to do what some have wanted for a long time—drain it.

Doing nothing is no longer an option…


For an update on the status of the fountains, Click Here.

Internet-Libel vs. Free Speech

There are many liability issues surrounding Internet postings whether they be blogs, tweets, posts in a discussion forum, or comments to articles on Petaluma 360 or the Press Democrat… 
  • Free speech?
  • Appropriate speech?
  • Legal liability for the author (anonymous or not) of the posted words–whether they be in a forum or in a blog?
  • Liability issues for the owner of the web site?


Screen Names–John Hancock vs. “BIG JOHN” 

Newspaper articles, blogs, and letters to the editor are published with the name of the author or reporter.

In the Internet world, anonymous posting or the use of screen names has become a standard in public discourse. As such, even I have done so on various websites over the years. Screen names are particularly useful on financial or investing websites where one does not necessarily want to attract unwanted contacts from various sales people or pesky reporters.

Pro & Con

The general use of Internet screen names is not without some controversy…

  • Supporters of screen names argue that they promote candor and allow people to express a point of view without fear of personal retribution or physical assault.
  •  Opponents of screen names argue that they facilitate false rumors and libel. Others argue that they promote or encourage bullying and name calling, not to mention the use of “crude” language.

Both sides have good cases.

I have a natural bias of wanting to know the author of anything I read and believe that people should put their name behind their words. For example, can anyone imagine John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence as BIGJOHN?

On the other hand, there is a good case for anonymity in certain instances.

  1. Allowing people to register and post under a screen name does facilitate more open discussion even though this means that sometimes you will get the bad with the good.
  2. As one acquaintance recently put it: “In modern society very few folks participate in public discussions of issues. It just isn’t part of the culture. I think that anonymous postings contribute to folks offering knee jerk reactions rather than more thoughtful comments. On the other hand, if you required everyone to put their names on postings then it would be harder to gauge the temperature of the community.”

Newspaper Websites Are A Business

Practically speaking, allowing the public to use screen names facilitates traffic on these websites and thus helps sustain them as a business model. To put it bluntly, they must be able to sell advertising–and that means page hits.

MY WORKING CONCLUSION–One I did not think I would come to as I started looking into this subject…

Use of screen names is not per se objectionable.

How you act behind the screen name (i.e. what you write) is an entirely different question. You are ultimately responsible for what you say whether as “Big John” or John Hancock.


If the website is moderated, some of the coarser elements of public dialogue should be weeded out.

In my opinion, a moderated website must temper excesses in language and personal attacks if for no other reason than to avoid driving away “customers” who do not care to be exposed to it. On some websites I am familiar with, I have seen some posts disappear quite quickly–in a manner of a few hours in some cases.

The question is whether the “moderating” or “monitoring” of these websites is more form than reality.



The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California has an excellent comprehensive policy governing the content of postings to its website. Therefore, I do not have to expend “mental calories” deliberating on what a policy should be.

User Policy as set forth in the Online Agreement

Section 3 of the Press Democrat Member Agreement clearly outlines the user policy for the website: “Like any community…chats and message boards flourish only when our Members feel welcome and safe.” “Active discussions” are encouraged but users should be “courteous” and not post…”libelous, obscene, pornographic, abusive, or otherwise illegal material.”

In addition, the agreement stresses the following rules of behavior and language…

  • “Debate, but don’t attack. In a community full of opinions and preferences, people always disagree.”
  • “You agree not to use language that abuses or discriminates on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc.”
  • “Hate speech of any kind is grounds for immediate and permanent suspension of access to all or part of the Service.”

User Policy as set forth in screen advisories

The user policy is further reinforced by screen advisories on both  the Press Democrat and Petaluma 360 websites that comments and posts are subject to approval by a moderator.

The screen advisories also caution posters to be “…respectful of the feelings of others who may be personally involved in these news stories.”…or to “… be courteous and respectful. Avoid expletives, false statements, veiled or overt threats and personal attacks. Stay on topic.”


Frequently, many online forums have degenerated into the online equivalent of a street fight or a bar room brawl. There is a pattern emerging of the regular use of invectives, personal insults and attacks. If allowed to continue it will, at the very least, drive people away from the site. However, I foresee other potential serious consequences if there is not an effort to prevent it..

It should be noted that there is an irony present in that moderated websites run the risk of generating liability for the owner of the site by the simple fact that they are moderated sites. On the other hand, it is my opinion that if the moderators make a good faith effort to regulate posts and are consistent in doing so, then the risk is small.

As a user, if you notice posts that do not seem to comply with a website’s user agreement, report it to the administrator. Engaging in a “discussion” with the author of such posts is not a very productive experience as it only serves to encourage escalation.


For purposes of this article, think of “Free Speech” as a large ocean with two shores, or boundaries if you will. For convenience, I will call them the Criminal Liability Shore and the Civil Liability Shore…

  • On the Criminal Liability Shore, you will find several prohibitions against “incitement” with the classic example being that of Oliver Wendell Homes–You can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Updating Holmes, you had better not exercise your “Right of Free Speech” by saying “bomb” at an airport, unless you enjoy the prospect of suffering significant and swift consequences.
  • On the “Civil Liability” shore, you will find numerous restrictions and potential litigation on what you can say or write due to trademark and copyright laws. In addition, there are the classic twin specters of defamation claims and potential libel suits.

In between the two shores, there is a vast ocean of unrestricted speech–ideas, criticism, argument, advocacy, complaints, general ranting, etc. The contents of this ocean are only regulated by…

  • Social convention–e.g. there are certain things one should not say at a wedding or an office party…or in some bars after midnight…

or by

  • Contract or agreement–such as a website user agreement…

In the online world, you have the ability to exercise your right to free speech on any number of news websites that permit blogs or public postings to news stories, online forums or other message boards.

However, I hope I have established that there is no absolute right to say or write anything you want without risking litigation or other consequences…even on the Internet.

As a user of such websites (including Petaluma 360 or, you should be aware that these sites have user agreements dictating that the author of any blog, post, or comment is responsible for its content.


Defamation (Libel & Slander) is an extremely complex legal topic. Almost every word used to describe the parameters of defamation is a term of art with a mountain of case law behind each word or phrase…publication, distribution, retraction, trade or business libel, malice, actual malice, intent, negligence, etc.

  • From a practical standpoint, not every disparaging, critical, negative, or derogatory statement constitutes legal defamation. By case law, public figures and elected officials must endure even more than the average person, as they must prove “actual malice” in the publishing of an alleged defamatory statement.
  • Even if defamation is proven, proving up damages is not always an easy task.

In my opinion, most (if not all) of the risks of potential defamation claims can be avoided by the use of a little common sense and common courtesy when posting on a public forum. A practical guide to follow is the one contained in the Press Democrat User Agreement.

Now, for those who want to push the limits–and, in my opinion, they know when they are crossing the line–I suggest they read the next section.


Screen names are not a protection against discovery

There is a belief by some that you can say anything under a screen name and never be held accountable if a person or a business suspects a criminal or civil law has been broken and decides to pursue the case in court.

The practice of allowing the use of screen names is not an implied permission to engage in defamatory language or to violate the terms of a website’s user agreement. You do so at your own risk.

In my opinion, if there is litigation generated by an anonymous posting or series of posts, a newspaper website is going to give you up in a New York minute.

Think about it…before you post your next brilliant “flame” for all the world to see…