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Alec writes a column called "Outside The Box" that focuses on politics, policy, and predilections in Pacific Grove, CA. It's published every other week in PG's newspaper, The Cedar Street Times.

"Outside The Box" is reprinted here by permission. All rights are reserved, and the contents may not be copied or reused without permission of the author.

Read any or all of the articles by clicking on links to the right. Some are slightly different than the previously published versions, especially the first one (due to a publication draft mix-up), but the ones available on this page are the author's originally intended and preferred versions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


©2017 Arrowkite Media & Technology

When You Don't Like Either Choice

We all know the choice for President is historically poor. Unqualified man-child vs. corruption personified, and their highest priority seems to be the ugly slugfest. Each represents exactly the type of wealth we want to disempower.

Voices all around yell "VOTE" — from the annoying (also wealthy) spokesman who has scooped up all the commercial TV time to scold us relentlessly, to media polls suggesting our neighbors will vote in record numbers, to our own fond memories of teachers reminding us to exercise our civic duty.

I may be a lone voice out here, but I just want to make some small points before you move on:

1. Usually people vote for a choice that makes them gag only when they want to protect against an even worse choice. However, in this case, I think we all know how it will turn out.

2. The reality is that not voting for a candidate is voting — they will count the absence of votes as if it's another candidate. You'll be making your voice heard if you don't vote for either candidate.

3. Ask yourself which approach you can live with in the morning — "vote your conscience" or "vote for the lesser of two evils." This year, truly voting your conscience must mean not voting for either one.

Similarly, in our district race for U.S. Congress, neither Jimmy Panetta nor Casey Lucius are any great shakes. In the recent KSBW debate, Panetta didn't present himself well, stumbling through vague bromides and oddly unwilling to admit his position on Measure Z. Lucius was far better-spoken, and more importantly, her stated positions will be more beneficial to the citizens of the district.

However, and this is a big however, she demonstrated extremely bad judgment a few weeks ago when she appeared on TV with the pig owners. Remember that embarrassment? I was close to the case, and I certainly do. For a City Council member to try to intervene in a judicial case at all, much less the night before the hearing and without knowledge of the facts, is universally considered to be a bad practice. There is no adequate explanation. Either she was taking advantage in order to get some exposure on TV, or she was throwing her weight around for a friend. That's particularly troubling when you consider that Lucius makes a big point of decrying political connections.

I will probably vote for her anyway because this was an exception. But my point is that, despite the media's narrative, you should never, ever feel bad about not voting for a candidate you don't trust.

When In Doubt, Vote No

Last week, I encouraged you to refrain from voting for candidates you don't trust, even if that means not voting for either mainstream nominee. I suggested it's better to abstain if your conscience tells you to. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure you'll have regrets.

This week, I'm encouraging you to do the same with all the measures, especially the local ones. Unless you feel certain that a measure will be good for us, and confident no one will be hurt by it, please vote no. Or at least don't vote yes.

Four of five local measures are pitching more taxes. Hang onto your wallet! The 5% admissions tax in PG is not only opposed by the Aquarium. Any small business or tiny non-profit that charges for an event will be forced to track, pay, and account for the new tax collection. Do you really think it's wise or right to do that? TAMC wants to increase our sales tax to 9% to pay for transportation costs that our CA gas taxes once covered. Picture paying 9% extra for everything you buy across the Monterey Peninsula area. Won't that hurt more than help? The Park District wants to keep tacking $25 (plus an annual cost of living increase) onto our ever-growing property tax bill for the indefinite future. Read the eye-opening rebuttal and ask yourself — do we need to pay this? The county wants to tax marijuana businesses at such an exorbitant rate (twice on the way to market plus an annual cost of living increase) that the gang-run trade will surely continue. Isn't it self-defeating? Aren't all these taxes self-defeating?

That leaves Measure Z. I live amidst a cluster of Yes on Z signs. I'm sure these neighbors are sincere, but they're listening to the wrong leaders. Are you really going to assume all the mayors who speak against it on TV and in the Voter Guide are lying? I hope not. Measure Z is 20 pages long, which is never a good idea, and so badly conceived that the County Counsel and County Auditor both suggest lawsuits are inevitable. Read their analyses yourself. The measure is misleading (fracking, really?). And by striving to punish oil companies, it hurts a lot of residents personally, and all of us fiscally.

We should recognize that Measure Z's characteristics — misleading, badly conceived and too long, punitive, harmful to people — make it a poster child for voting no.

One thing I'm not saying is to stay home. Please go to the polls or mail in your ballot. There are so many measures that need to be voted down. And there are deserving, tough-minded candidates for our City Council who I think we need if we care about the financial survival of our city. I'm talking about Andrew Kubica, Nick Smith, and Alan Cohen. But whether you vote yes, no, or abstain on anything — be informed and vote your conscience.

Up and Running

Now that the election is over and you've had a chance to get acquainted with this column, we'll be commencing regular bi-weekly appearances. And it's about time I introduce myself:

I have been in and out of journalism for 30 years, and have lived in Pacific Grove for 14 of them. My association with Marge Ann Jameson began in late 2007 when, as editor of the Hometown Bulletin, she hired me to be the news reporter. Little more than six months later, the paper was sold and we both left. With the Cedar Street Times, I've contributed occasional Letters to the Editor and individual Commentaries. But until now, I resisted the temptation to offer ongoing commentaries in a regular column because, frankly, I don't believe that any of us want or need more opinions for opinions' sake. By themselves, they are often upsetting, rarely uplifting, and generally no more helpful than "cats, yes; dogs, no." I think we all would have gotten sick of it pretty damn fast. By the way, I love cats and dogs equally. Just sayin'.

Then why should I do this opinion column, especially about PG politics and predilections? Well, I realized it could have some value if it manages to be bigger than opinions and comes from contexts or angles that are at least unusual, hopefully interesting. My goal is to offer up thought-provoking ways to look at issues. It's always better to challenge our beliefs and assumptions than to surround them with moats and cannons, don't you think? Did I read this somewhere — that the biggest obstacle to finding the truth is being sure we've already found it?

Okay, I'm getting carried away — already. This column might be nothing more than a bi-weekly diversion for you. In any case, we're going to give it a whirl for a year. As each new one is published, I invite you to email me at AlecOTB@arrowkite.com, and let me know your thoughts and reactions. Please try to be constructive. Every so often, I'll include some of your comments in a column.

Especially as it relates to politics, I think most of us have low regard for misleading media that calls itself news, and for misleading political advertising (national and local), and for misleading columns. So I want you to know I have no hidden agenda, no interest in holding office, I'm not a surrogate or partisan, and in fact, I think we pay a heavy price for our two-party system. As you'll see, I'm independent-minded and open-minded. I consider it part of my job, even in a column like this that is not news, to distinguish between facts and opinion, to never try to disguise one as the other, and to do my very best to form opinions that flow from accurate observations and common sense, and to make the route clear.

Together, I hope we'll reach higher and keep thinking outside the box!

The Meaning of Measure P — Part 1

On one hand, Measure P lost. It would have increased city revenue by way of an admissions tax. P required only a simple majority to pass, not two-thirds, but it lost anyway. In fact, it lost with less than a quarter of the vote. Frankly, that's a huge margin of defeat.

On the other hand, the city is spending like a sailor. After building up a decent reserve fund, we've reversed course and now have a deficit budget for the first time in years. Part of the new spending is compulsory; part is by choice.

In an excellent, illuminating interview recorded last fiscal year, Mayor Bill Kampe said we were paying 25% of our general fund to CalPERS for city employee pension costs. And he said those costs would grow, referring to our payments to cover employees (now nearly 20% of safety employee salaries and 9% of others), plus our unfunded liability payment (up to $1,379,000 this fiscal year). In addition to wiping out 25% with that, we're paying $1,935,000 for self-inflicted pension obligation bonds. Last year we were ranked with the 8th highest pension debt to revenue ratio of all California cities. Whew.

With this monstrous obligation, you'd think we'd continue to hold down other expenses. But drive anywhere in town and you're likely to see street work in progress. Some is needed, but why, for example, is much of Sunset Drive being repaved for the 2nd time in about three years? In his debut interview after becoming our new city manager, Ben Harvey said, "There (were) only funds enough to cover slurry projects which seal over problems... (Instead,) an all-out overhaul, repairing, and repaving all over town is necessary… it could (cost) as much as $20 million." All-out overhaul? OMG! And sure enough, we're spending down our reserves instead of saving them for when we're in dire straits.

In 2014, CalPERS adjusted their actuarial tables, thereby jacking up employer (city) contributions enormously. And they decided to phase it in over just five years, which meant a few big yearly rate increases. Recently, PG's bill went up by more than $1 million in a single year. $1 mil! There is some good news — other than relatively minor safety rate increases, CalPERS says they'll be caught up by 2021. And thanks to Mayor Kampe and others, there'll be real pressure to keep their word — for once.

So tell me — if you expected giant rent increases, but only for five years, wouldn't you minimize discretionary expenses until afterward, especially if those increases threatened your solvency?

In two weeks, I'll focus on revenue — a much brighter subject. And of course, it's the antidote to deficit spending. Meanwhile, here's a link to Mayor Kampe's interview, which I highly recommend: insolventfilm.com/interview-with-mayor-bill-kampe.

The Meaning of Measure P — Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed the importance of PG holding down spending and building its reserve fund, at least for a few more years while CalPERS executes their plan to mushroom our debt payments. At minimum, balancing our budget is undeniably in our rational self-interest, as a city and as taxpayers.

It's kind of like losing weight. For all the ingenious new schemes, we know deep down that the only way to do it is exercise more, eat less. For a balanced budget, just spend less and bring in more. Simple. But easy? Nooo. Our pension costs are skyrocketing, generous raises are escalating all employee costs forever, and we're spending like crazy on infrastructure and more. As for boosting revenue, we'd already examined and debated every imaginable tax before City Manager Ben Harvey even arrived in PG. So why was such an ill-advised scheme as Measure P put on the ballot? Maybe councilmembers were just kidding themselves, in denial.

Here's the problem, and the meaning of Measure P: there are no new ways to raise money — not ways that work. Voters found P to be unfair to our small non-profits and businesses, not to mention the big non-profit in the corner. It also struck them as "a money grab." And yes, the voters were right. As the City Council spends more, they're more likely to believe the end justifies the means and get very grabby indeed. Soon, it'll seem like they're at war with their own constituents. Not good.

Some economists will tell you upfront — taxes are largely inefficient. Just look at "Rich States, Poor States" at alec.org (nope, not me). Taxes make things costlier. The higher they are, the more depressed the economy is. Bottom line, there's a practical limit to how much you can increase taxes.

But there is good news: a classic way to increase city revenue that actually works. If we leave our taxes the same, and instead, take urgent steps to grow community prosperity, that's the most productive, long-term way to fill city coffers. And that, in turn, allows the city to build a bigger reserve while spending more (as long as they stop jacking up expenses more than income).

In the Nov. 25th issue, the Cedar Street Times reported on a city survey authorized by our Economic Development Commission that suggested some basic steps toward fiscal health here in PG. It's packed with eye-opening insight and hope for the future. I recommend it highly for those interested in the city's well-being. Read it yourself at: cityofpacificgrove.org/sites/default/files/city-council/2016/ 11-16-2016/city-council-11-16-2016-14b-leap.pdf.

This LEAP report provides a common sense game plan that can save our city on the revenue side without sacrificing the quality of life we love. Yes, we can have our cake and eat it too — if we use our heads. More on that next time.

Imagine

I hope you've had an especially happy holiday and find yourself lifted by the spirit of the season. If you haven't had a chance to look at the report I recommended to you last time, what better way to ring in the New Year than with a loved one, a glass of brandy egg nog, and a copy of PG's LEAP report? Well, maybe not right at midnight...

Whenever you wish, you can find it online and read it, or print it out if you prefer. Last time, I had to give you a lengthy link to an obscure place on the city's website. Now, however, the city has thoughtfully placed the LEAP report in the Quick Links list right on their home page at cityofpacificgrove.org.

As I mentioned, the report is packed with eye-opening insight and hope for the future. It offers common sense solutions that can save our city on the revenue side without sacrificing the quality of life we love. Yes, we can have our cake and eat it too — if we use our heads.

Here are three teasers from the LEAP report:

1. "Small investments in promotion and in venue development would pay off big."

2. "The city has… a dedicated, engaged city staff…. However, it lacks staff dedicated to… economic development priorities."

3. "Citizens rightly want to preserve their… quality of life. However, the community has limited its own prosperity through a set of rules and regulations… clearly driving investment to Monterey, Seaside… and Carmel. Locally owned small businesses are especially hard hit… even though they too are local citizens equally dedicated to a high quality of life."

Yes, I'd say we owe it to ourselves to stop regarding business as a necessary evil in PG, or worse, as a bunch of untrustworthy enemies who will hurt the community if given the slightest leeway. They are not that. Business owners and employees are our neighbors, providing the lifeblood of our city, making life better for themselves, their families, and for all of us. In fact, businesses are us.

The report recommends that business owners attend City Council and Planning Commission meetings to advocate for a stronger business climate. I'd go further. I'd say that all of us who can envision twin paths leading together to both community preservation and business prosperity should consider becoming volunteer lobbyists. One of the great things about living in our small town is that we are welcome to email councilmembers (under "About the City" click on "Mayor & Council") and discuss issues. Anyone can take action. And making a case for a PG that thrives can make a real difference.

Happy New Year, PGers! Take a moment and just imagine our city turning around in 2017.

Winners or Losers

Happy New Year. Let's start with a little honesty. Pacific Grove cannot survive on its present course.

Our expenses will continue growing rapidly. More and more of the pie will go toward pension costs, not maintenance, not the things we want. To pay for pension costs plus the costs of what we want, we need significantly more income. We can't get that just by continuing to raise taxes because that becomes self-defeating to any economy, especially a small, highly taxed one like ours. So, in order to grow our income, we need more prosperity, more business.

However, Pacific Grove also needs to retain its character, and not just for the tourists. Virtually all residents want to maintain the peace and quiet and beauty and heritage of our old town. It's for those qualities that we live here.

So our only sensible choice is to come together to decide how we're going to accomplish both goals. But there's an obstacle. For all our good fortune, PG exhibits a particularly negative trait that has kept us in a box of our own making for a long time. I'm talking about our big streak of fatalism.

On one side, people say, "We won't even try to expand that business because the no-growth people will block it." Other folks say, "We've got to fight tooth and nail because they'll destroy this town with giant hotels and chain stores." Many believe there's no way to accomplish both goals, so we don't sit down and work out a plan. If we did, there'd be more trust in each side and in the outcome. But we just say no — no, no, no, and no. Talk about fatalism. As a result, I think the PG Economic Development Commission is seriously frustrated. And we all make ourselves miserable by squashing prosperity, hiding our agendas, and fearing the future.

There's a better way. What if we were all merrily rolling along on the same page? I know it's hard to imagine, but all we're missing is a thorough plan that everyone can live with.

A great movie mogul named Lew Wasserman once said, "there's always a deal to be made." To Lew, compromise was not another word for losing. Deal-making was not like war. It was and is cooperation, with both sides getting what they want and winning. The only losers are those who fail to make that deal. And there's certainly a deal to be made in PG — if we don't want our little city to become moribund and go bankrupt.

Here are three ideas to throw in the pot. (1) Why don't we use zoning as our primary means of compromise? In other words, let's liberalize some regulations in existing commercial zones while maintaining tough restrictions in all the residential areas. (2) Why don't we let tourism grow as it will, but put our municipal effort into small, stable, quiet businesses that won't force us to expand the number of visitors ad infinitum? (3) Why don't we do more to expand routes in and out of town? The Presidio closed down one of them, and we just said, "Damn. Okay." Time has passed. Maybe we can make a case for community health or mass safety.

These ideas are just that — ideas. In addition, there are all those in the LEAP Report available on the home page at cityofpacificgrove.org. And beyond them, there are all your ideas! Hey, it's the New Year. Anything is possible. Let's get started.

The 12-Year-Old

The events of the week since Donald Trump became President remind me of something that happened last year right here in PG, at my home.

A girl came to our door. She was maybe twelve years old with an innocent-looking face and confident demeanor. She made a pitch for money for a school project, and I thought about how effective children can be as sales people. Normally it's pretty easy for me to say no to front door soliciting, but now I found myself worrying about pushing her over the brink toward a dispirited, cynical future in which she'd drop out of school and become a bank robber. It required a deep breath and fortitude for me to say, "Thank you, but my wife and I already have our donations planned out."

Her face contorted. She looked aghast and said, "Oh wow, you're… you're… a Republican!"

This young person had searched for the nastiest epithet she could think of. My first impulse was to laugh, but I couldn't. It was too jarring to see the innocence and confidence replaced in a flash by venom. In her world, it all made sense — not getting her way… Republican… enemy… attack. All I could think about was who raised her, passing along such scorn and prejudice to a 12-year-old.

As horrifying as the new President's personal behavior has been, I'm even more dismayed by the conduct of large swaths of his opposition. Mark Twain once said, "We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is public opinion." In the case of Trump's election, there's a palpable, visceral hysteria in the people around us. The feeling is mostly fear, isn't it? And anger over the loss of the election. And truth be told, some degree of hatred for the other half of America.

And we're boxed in by that, aren't we? When we reduce the other half to labels, we take away their ability to be more than that. They can't have a good idea. They deserve our contempt and nothing more. They are not us.

During the week, young people have destroyed property and injured people. It's like the 12-year-old's little tantrum — I didn't get my way, so I'll hurt you until you give me what I want. They think their actions are justified by their anger at America, and yet the very reason their actions are unjustifiable is that we live in America. As a nation, we know that when we attack fellow citizens we sink to unacceptable levels. I think a clue to the agitators' rationale was written on one of their signs held proudly above the crowd on Inauguration Day. It read, "America has never been great."

Is that why they feel they can abandon society's standards? I hope parents will steer their children toward practicing rational discourse and tolerance — two principles of conduct held dear in our imperfect land since at least 1636, principles that indeed helped make America great.

Unusual Suspects

Nearly two weeks ago, the City Council and top staff held a strategic planning session to develop an agenda for the time between now and the next election in 2018. The meeting was open to the public, but I couldn't find it on the city's website. You probably weren't aware of it. Only about 20 observers showed up, and there were barely enough chairs, even for them.

I could only attend for the first three hours, but that's when the results of a survey were presented. It contained vital questions like, "What improvements could be made in the city?" People who'd filled it out were called "stakeholders." Their answers were intended to jumpstart the process of choosing key priorities. Did you get the questionnaire? Probably not. It was only sent to members of commissions, committees, and boards — about 65 people, of whom 43 responded.

Stakeholders? What about the other 15,000 citizens of PG? I know, the word was meant differently, but that's the point. The way it was and wasn't used should serve as a red flag. Here's why we should be concerned by the inbred nature of the survey and the planning session as a whole.

Those extremely generous city volunteers bring great value to the city, and in return, they have ample opportunity to influence the direction of PG. That's as it should be. And our elected officials work hard for us, especially considering they are paid a pittance. Listening to them speak at the meeting, I'm particularly hopeful about the newcomers, Nick Smith and Cynthia Garfield. But our leaders have virtually no access to the rest of us, except for those I call the noisemakers — the handful of usual suspects who constantly lobby against things.

You vote for individuals because you like what they say, but we all know that what they actually do in office can be completely different. In the absence of constant guidance from rank and file citizenry, their actions will be based on internal consensus and sometimes on well-hidden personal agendas. I wish we could go about our lives and let city hall do its thing, but that just won't work. It cannot be healthy when the council, staff, and volunteers are most heavily influenced by each other.

The good news is — in place of a big city's aggressive media and constant polls, tools we lack, here in this small town you can easily make your voice heard directly. But if you expect to be well represented by your city council, you need to grab that opportunity. The strategy meeting was an urgent reminder that the very people who are needed most are everyday residents with busy lives.

If you go to the "Mayor & Council" page, you can email them together or individually. Reach out to them constructively about your concerns. Tell them what you want. Stand up. If you care about what happens to PG, you are needed. Please, stand up and participate.

I Changed My Mind

Luckily, I'm not a politician. They don't get to change their minds. For the rest of us, it can be messy, but it's the only way to improve on the mistakes we make.

When short-term rentals first became a reality in PG, I was unreservedly for them. If we can have long-term rentals, we should be able to have short-term rentals, I thought. And I had reason to believe that complaints were mostly generated by a kneejerk desire to block change. Plus, STRs are a huge source of much-needed income for city hall as well as for some of our entrepreneurs.

Then one sunny day, it dawned on me. Short-term rentals are profoundly different than long-term rentals. Duh. If not, then the city wouldn't have profoundly different and separate rules governing them. The business model of STRs is much closer to hotels, motels, and B&Bs than to apartment rentals, which provide residents with essential alternatives to home ownership. Renters become a part of PG, whereas tourists come and go with no ties to the community. Again — duh.

I further realized that complaints about STRs are based on more than intoxication or noise issues. To some extent, STRs deprive residents of the traditional qualities of a neighborhood. Familiar neighbors are replaced by strangers constantly packing and unpacking their cars. Inevitably, tourists behave like someone paying to have a good time rather than someone paying to have a good home.

I'm still in favor of STRs, but now it seems forehead-smacking obvious that they should only be permitted where zoning allows offices, motels, or other commercial businesses. That's because STRs are businesses, not homes — and that is the bottom line. It means STRs in R-1 and R-2 should be phased out because the original, indispensable purpose of zoning is to provide reliable sanctuary for residents, not to use homes to expand the tourist trade. Other cities notwithstanding, PG may be breaking the law by ignoring or changing its zoning without citizen approval. And businesses need to join together and demonstrate their desire to defend PG's living standards as vigorously as everyone else — if they want residents to trust the business community. Now, some exceptions might make sense. STRs could be allowed in R-1 B-4, the dunes section where the lots are large, houses are well-separated, and everyone who moved there knew that tourists would be part of the view. Another exception could be houses adjacent to existing B&B's.

And STRs could remain just as lucrative for city hall, yet become much more palatable for residents if Type A and Type B licenses are combined into one type that allow unlimited numbers of STRs, but only in limited areas.

It's embarrassing, but admitting a mistake is better than continuing to support policy that's wrong or doesn't work. I recommend changing your mind every so often. You'll feel better for it.

The Shortfall Mystery

It's been more than two weeks since Mayor Kampe delivered his annual State of the City address to nearly 200 PGers. You can find the text on the "Mayor & Council" page of cityofpacificgrove.org. I still feel the happy glow of being reminded about our city's delights by this beloved mayor at the height of his political skill and powers. But his very lovability makes it easy to overlook the more ominous elements in his speech.

He enumerated several expansions of city income, including the 1% sales tax increase back in 2008, plus the new Measure X increase that brings your total sales tax to 9% starting next month. That's almost what tourists pay for their transient occupancy tax. And he mentioned the $1 million per year tax windfall from legalized short-term rentals and the separate funding in place for sewer upgrades. The mayor said PG has raised city service fees and would likely raise more.

On top of that, he said the city council has initiated a "surge in the maintenance budget," which means they're taking $1.4 million from our reserves for infrastructure work. He proudly stated that the city achieved a surplus and built reserves for the 9th straight year, but didn't make it clear they're now reversing those hard-fought gains and shrinking our reserves by more than 10% in this fiscal year alone.

The mayor's speech was also chock-full of new expenses — five managerial staff positions filled, ten new public safety employees hired, along with a restoration of employee healthcare, and upgraded police equipment like video cameras in vehicles. In addition to all the sewer and lesser infrastructure upgrades, there's the grey water project. And he spoke of quite a few more expenses in the near future.

Then there's the wooly mammoth in the room. Mayor Kampe pointed out that CalPERS has adopted a more realistic view of their unfunded liability, saying it's much larger. They've begun phasing in higher charges to the cities, but no one knows how big upcoming hits will be. One recent annual increase for PG went well over $1 million. In a few years, the wave will pass, but for now, this is the thing that could do us in.

I can appreciate the case for added expenses. Taken individually, they make sense. But add them together, and they aren't worth a hill of beans up against one fact: we can't afford them. You know as well as I do that the deconstruction of our reserves is not a one-time anomaly. Having tasted blood, the council will take more each year, not less. When CalPERS' bills become unaffordable, we won't have anything to fall back on. The mayor's address has left me with a big question — how does the council expect us to pay for everything?

He himself summed up by saying, "I predict a shortfall in the near term compared to our needs." No kidding! But the council said financial sustainability was a top priority two years ago, and now is a top priority for the next two years. That means they failed, but will presumably try harder. And they must. Sustainability means solvency. It means survivability. So why target that, then go backwards? The council is gobbling up all their sources of revenue while spending like never before. Frankly, that's likely to ruin PG, not fix it.

The Mayor is an extremely smart, even gifted guy. That means he has thought this through. So why doesn't it all add up? In my column's very first paragraph of the new year, I wrote, "Pacific Grove cannot survive on its present course." Now I hope you see why I said such a thing.

Privileged or Prosperous?

If my wife and I had wanted to live in a gentrified city, we would've chosen Carmel-by-the-Sea. It's comfortably refined and — please don't tell them I said this — just a bit self-satisfied. Instead, we chose Pacific Grove because its spirit is down-to-earth, and we love it.

Most people who live here hope it won't change too much. We don't want more parking lines or ugly yellow plates embedded in every corner. We cherish the imperfections — our lack of sidewalks, residents parking on the wrong side of streets. We love this independent-minded, old-fashioned, little town on the edge of the ocean — with its vibrant and economically diverse collection of unique individuals living in unique houses.

For some, however, minimizing change is not good enough. They have worked for years to prevent any change — at all costs — by blocking water development, micro-managing property owners, and more. If that sort of control exerted by a few seems appropriate to most, we can continue down that road. But ironically, those forces are exactly what bring the most change to PG and will soon turn this very real town into a make-believe town.

How? When you prevent virtually all growth and alienate business, you also disenfranchise many among us, especially the less affluent. If anything, City Hall should expand opportunity, not restrict it. It has gone to great lengths to make municipal salaries competitive, even generous, but not private-sector employment opportunities. Because of our reputation for being unfriendly to businesses, the most promising ones don't move here. As night follows day, our 2016 unemployment rate was 7.6 percent, more than two points higher than California or the nation, according to homefacts.com. It's when there is no real prosperity that working people become the working poor and the most vulnerable are squeezed out or can't afford to move in. They are supplanted by more and more residents who don't need PG incomes. And that is how our gentrification signals the kind of profound change that rips away the fabric of Pacific Grove.

In his State of the City address, Mayor Kampe referred to this place as "very privileged." Is that what we want for PG? Soon, it'll be all we have left. You have to choose — privilege or prosperity — it's going to be one or the other.

The dictionary defines prosperity as "a successful, flourishing, or thriving condition, especially in financial respects." And it requires opportunity. For example, instead of relying on nothing but tourism for our survival, let's seek and facilitate white-collar businesses that we can count on in good times and bad. Remember Digital Research? Imagine, say, half a dozen small tech companies sprinkled around PG. Only a hundred more people among 15,000 could bring outsized, ongoing economic benefit.

We have to ask what's really best for the people and future of Pacific Grove? Let's start by replacing covert intransigence with enough collective respect to tell the truth and stop assuming the other side is lying. Let's stop blocking every single bit of growth, progress, and prosperity. Let's work together to find smart solutions for PG's contradictory needs.

Now's the time. Mayor Kampe's warm speech made me think we're as close as we can be to an Era of Good Feelings in PG. So let's be privileged in one sense, not the other. Lucky, yes. Gentrified, no.

A Saga of Sweet Success — Part One

Dateline 2027: In the past ten years — since April 1, 2017, to be exact — everything has gone just right for the city of Pacific Grove.

For each of those years, this idyllic spot has never received less than 20 inches of rain, and every drop has fallen between the hours of midnight and six am. There have been no earthquakes, lightning strikes, or sewage spills. Only four burglaries took place, after which the culprit returned the valuables to their owners, then turned himself in to a police officer — who gave him a cookie. A family that lost its pet pig bought two orphaned Labradoodle puppies, gave the cutest one to their neighbors, and lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, there were two near-drownings. They befell a bride and groom during their wedding at Lover's Point. But both were saved by local good Samaritans, one of whom exclaimed, "I love tourists! I want them all to feel at home in PG!" So, the newlyweds moved into a little house on Congress and opened a nationally renowned lifeguard training school.

Ironically, the healthy rainfall totals have been unneeded because the desal plant opened ahead of schedule in 2019, and the Aquifer Storage and Recovery system worked even better than expected, and the "Pure Water" purification process was widely accepted. As a result, Pacific Grove has been drought-proof for seven years now — and thanks to our grey water recycling, we pay a lot less for municipal water than our neighbor cities. Of course, everyone pays a lot less thanks to Cal-Am having forgiven half the cost of all its improvements. Apparently, the unexpected windfall was negotiated in exchange for a guarantee that Cal Am could retain ownership for at least ten years. The usual suspects were up in arms about the deal, but no one else wanted to hear about it once they saw their new water bills. And that's why the guarantee could be honored.

During this time, Pacific Grove's number-one industry fell to second place, and yet became significantly more profitable. Our golden age of tourism began unexpectedly in 2020 when US News, Travel & Leisure, and CNN all named PG "The Most Romantic Resort Town in America" (no longer just the west). The opening of the Ritz-Bella Resort and smaller Holman Hotel had contributed to that status, and by 2022, we became the go-to place for high-end getaways. Many older motels closed or became annexed to upscale lodgings, then upgraded accordingly. By 2024, Pacific Grove had 20 percent fewer rooms, but 100 percent occupancy. Despite the snazzy rooms and sky-high room rates, visitors overwhelmingly said their favorite thing about PG was its genuine old-fashioned character.

Back in 2017, fiscal solvency was the city's biggest concern. CalPERS was confiscating more and more of PG's meager budget. All the councilmembers were throwing up their hands and saying, "there's nothing I can do." And rather than continuing to sock money away, they began spending down the city's reserve funds. These were sure signs that none of them expected things to turn out well.

How did the money issue turn out? To be continued in the next edition of this column.

A Saga of Sweet Success — Part Two

Dateline 2027: This is the second half of the story of how everything has gone just right in Pacific Grove during the last ten years. And I'm delighted to bring you the happiest ending anyone could hope for. Nope, it's not the discontinuation of the city portion of the sales tax, though that did happen in 2025. And it's not the restoration of the library to its original Carnegie design, though that was finished this year and was made possible in 2023 by the digital replacement of all image-free books. And it's not The Retreat Heritage Park, also begun in 2023, entirely financed by two anonymous donors, inspired by the development of Colonial Williamsburg, and scheduled for completion in 2033.

I ended Part One of this retrospective without telling you how the city's money issue was resolved, or if we were even able to maintain fiscal solvency. Well, ten years ago, no one would have believed what actions the City Council took in 2018. Their multi-prong approach included: a resolution to increase municipal taxes and fees, but only with sunset clauses and voter approval; a balanced budget rule limiting annual expenses to less than expected income; the formation of a separate general fund dedicated to maintaining reserves at 50% of annual expenses, with strict rules of access; establishment of ad-hoc committees to fan out and persuade other California cities to join in lobbying against CalPERS' policies, and to continue seeking cost-saving partnerships with neighboring cities. As it turns out, the Council's most dynamic decision was simply to promote business expansion in PG.

The city had an apparently unmovable reputation for hostility to businesses (and homeowners), and for imposing equivocal, byzantine ordinances on many. So onlookers were stunned when the time and cost required to deal with city regulations was cut in half within a year. Another ad-hoc committee was simultaneously formed to enlist small technology companies in moving to Pacific Grove. Word went out that the city was actively pursuing businesses and rolling out the red carpet for ones that would bring few employees and many dollars to PG. By 2023, five companies anxious to escape the Bay Area had set up shop in our city. Three thrived, one went belly up, and the fifth was bought by Apple for $3 billion, yet insisted on maintaining a headquarters in Pacific Grove. That's when technology surpassed tourism as our top industry. Combined, these businesses increased our population by a grand total of 501 souls. Glorious as it was, however, even this was not the happy ending of the last ten years.

As our fears diminished, and our prosperity grew, folks noticed a certain light-heartedness seeping into the spirit of the community. Somewhere along the line, anger faded. Political opponents and rabble-rousers started getting along, and we all stopped trying to disenfranchise each other. It was no small thing: Pacific Grove actually became carefree. So the happy ending was — we got happy.

Imagine that.

A Special Inquiry: The Thing About Reserves

On April 21, an article in the Herald provided an eye-opening picture of our City Council's robust spending plan for their upcoming annual budget. Dan Gho, the Public Works Director, was quoted as saying we'd spend close to $2 million on capital improvements. Indeed, it makes sense to spend more on needed infrastructure upgrades while we're in an economic up-cycle. So we'll be spending sewer fee money, donation money, grant money from the state and elsewhere, and of course, we'll spend our currently generous supply of city tax money. But, apparently, that's not enough.

The City Council also plans to spend down some of our city reserves again, as predicted. In PG, reserves are simply the money that's left over at the end of fiscal years. We have no separate account to hold those funds; there is no "lockbox." Spending reserves is synonymous with approving a budget deficit, which means less money is expected to come in than go out. Last year's budget deficit will likely be foiled by greater-than-expected revenue — we'll find out after June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

Regardless, I was curious why the Council would want to reverse course and spend down our savings immediately after they'd built it up with such fiscal sacrifice over the preceding seven or eight years. I emailed all of them to ask about it. Nick Smith and Cynthia Garfield failed to reply. I believe Ms. Garfield was under the weather, but Mr. Smith's unresponsiveness is disappointing considering that I reminded him about it in person and that a balanced budget was his top campaign pledge.

All the others acknowledge that we need to hold reserves. Bill Peake writes, "Reserves are needed for emergencies, large unanticipated expenditures, and cyclical downturns in revenue." Rudy Fischer explains, "Many cities and most public agencies have some reserves, and I think that is prudent. Having your own money on hand can be the cheapest way to pay for something." Ken Cuneo sums it up succinctly: "A city without reserves is in a precarious position." However, most of them want to make the point that our reserves shouldn't be "excessive," as Robert Huitt puts it. Mr. Peake comments, "There is a useful limit to reserves." But he doesn't say how to determine that limit. None of them do.

Luckily, there is a non-partisan, expert paper on this subject called "The Adoption of Reserve Policies in California Cities" (at californiacityfinance.com). At the time it was written, more than half of all listed cities held reserves that were greater than 20 percent of their annual operating budget, and about one-third were at 50 percent or more. Pacific Grove's reserves are now at 45-50 percent.

The Reserve Policies paper comes down on the side of cities that keep higher reserves, like ours. It lays out four concrete criteria and says that at very least these should be considered when formulating a reserve policy. The criteria are: cash flow needs, exposure to natural disasters (in PG: earthquakes, tsunamis, other ocean flooding), exposure to economic impacts (in PG: tourists suddenly not visiting for reasons such as disease or terrorism), and vulnerability to actions from the state (in PG: think CalPERS, Water Control Board, Coastal Commission, and the other 340 state bureaucracies). In PG, we're seriously exposed to all of these.

None of the councilmembers identify these or any factors as criteria for a "best practices" level of reserves. Frankly, they seem to pull numbers out of the air. At least Mr. Peake gives an explanation for his figure, reasoning that smaller cities like ours have less flexibility in handling unexpected fiscal changes. He says we should have reserves greater than 20 percent, "for example, 25 percent." Okay. Mr. Fischer says it should be 25-30 percent. Fine. Mr. Cuneo calls for a dollar figure that would equal 25-35 percent. Good. But the mayor doesn't want to play. When asked for a target, he only replies, "the Council set a goal of reserves at 10 percent for the general fund." Wait, a goal of 10 percent? Mr. Peake references this too, but says city policy describes 10 percent as a minimum, not a goal. Hmm. And Mr. Huitt asserts there is a minimum reserve he would never vote to spend, but instead of naming the amount, he says, "What that number is depends on many factors, including immediate economic conditions, mid-range and longer term projections, and the definition of 'genuine emergency.'" Hmmm.

What's going on here? I'll tell you what I'm reading in these murky tea leaves. On one hand, they think we should have less money just sitting there, unbudgeted and unspent. About "excessive reserves," Mr. Huitt says, "Taxpayers' money should be spent on and invested in the essential services and projects that people want and need, not held in low-interest-bearing savings accounts." Mr. Fischer adds a cogent thought: "I don't think we should be taking in a lot more money than we need to operate, because then inflation simply eats some of it away."

On the other hand, several think we should have substantially more in reserves than the current policy's baseline amount. But they haven't applied any systematic approach to formulating a policy, and as a group, seem unmotivated to reach a new, formal consensus. Implicit in several comments is that they simply don't want to settle on an amount or a policy. However, explicit in the paper's findings is that every city should have a clear, specific reserve policy.

Here's the thing: we could be hit by a terrible earthquake or storm, we could experience temporary flat-lining of the tourist trade, and it's a virtual certainty that CalPERS will hit us with one or more million-dollar increases in our bill over the next few years — they've said as much, and they've already done it once recently! As Mr. Cuneo points out, "CalPERS… tends to drop surprises on cities." But other than that, not one of them even mentions CalPERS, not until I ask about it in a follow-up to Mayor Kampe, who says, "The core issue is that reserves allow us to respond to one time unanticipated events… CalPERS will be a long-term, continuing change, not a random event."

No, sir, CalPERS will be both — clearly. The previous CalPERS bomb was the poster child for unanticipated events. The next one will be just as "random" because the year and the amount are unpredictable, based on nothing but CalPERS' internal nonsense.

One of the purposes of reserves is to give a city time to adjust to sudden major changes, whether or not the changes extend into the future. One of the points of having a formal policy is that it prevents future councils from whittling away at reserves on a whim — "We have 30 percent reserves, but we'll never need it, so let's spend some, cut back to 15 percent, maybe 7.5…." More than anyone, the members of our City Council must know how tempting that'll always be.

Right now is the time for them to raise the minimum level to a reasonable amount — now, before finalizing another budget. And wouldn't it make sense to have two different reserve funds? One holds a minimum of perhaps 33 percent, except in clearly defined emergencies when it may only be reduced by a two-thirds vote of the Council, and must be replenished within two years. The other holds maybe seven percent at the beginning and end of each fiscal year, and is to be used for cash flow fluctuations. And the most important safeguard — these reserve funds are established as separate from the general fund.

For Mayor Kampe, Robert Huitt, and any others who think we're holding too much in reserves, this would be a one-time opportunity to free up a lot of money without guilt. And it would guarantee appropriate savings for any eventuality into the future. Best of all, if they act now, no accumulation is necessary. It's already been done; the hard part is over.

If they don't act now, human nature being what it is, those existing reserves will evaporate. You know it. Everyone knows it. We'll never have another opportunity like we do now. Be patient, councilmembers, interest rates are rising, and you will get all the roads and sewers fixed.

To readers, if you agree that the only sensible choice is to put realistic reserves in a real lockbox, tell the City Council now. This is a small town. Your voice makes a difference. I'm telling you, it cannot hurt, and you might be surprised. You can send an email to them all at once if you go to CityofPacificGrove.org, click on "Mayor & Council," and look to the right. It's now or never.

Full Disclosures

Last October, I set out to write at least a year's worth of these columns. We've already passed the halfway mark, so I think it's time to reaffirm "my goal is to offer up thought-provoking ways to look at issues." I pledge again that "I have no hidden agenda, no interest in holding office, and I'm not a surrogate or partisan." I'm independent-minded and open-minded, and consider it part of my job to differentiate between facts and opinion, to never disguise one as the other, "to form opinions that flow from accurate observations and common sense, and to make the route clear." I hope I've lived up to that so far. I invite you to contact me at the email address below and let me know.

New disclosure: I'm joining the city's Economic Development Commission as an at-large member, pending appointment by Mayor Kampe and approval by the City Council. Well, maybe that won't happen, but I hope it does. I look forward to learning and participating.

While I'm at it, a related disclosure: my wife, Kim Murdock, chairs the Administrative Hearing Officers in Pacific Grove. They are unpaid, independent, quasi-judicial magistrates who hear legal appeals involving city code and ordinances. And she was the one who heard the notorious pet pig case.

Proud disclosure: I'm bragging on Kim when I tell you that the Superior Court just upheld her decision unequivocally. If you followed the story in the news, you may wonder how that could have happened. And the answer makes an important point about the media. When you read her decision (arrowkite.com/km hearing decision.pdf), you'll see a sizable disparity between what was reported in news stories and the actual facts of the case, even down to who the victims were.

Back when I introduced myself in this column, I ranted about the media. And now, frankly, I'm even more concerned about them than about our President. At least Trump can be stopped by the branches of government, but media cannot (and should not) be stopped.

When we see news organizations willfully mixing opinion and persuasion with facts, we owe it to ourselves to stop consuming those sources — especially when we agree with their opinions. To preach to the choir, as they do, hurts the choir the most. The anti-sermons lull us into abandoning thought and just hitting the same old notes. Propaganda is news's enemy, make no mistake. It creates profoundly false impressions of what's going on around us. Seek and demand real news; the truth.

Grudging disclosure: writing this column means I'm media myself — a sort of local talking head in print, a mini-pundit. In the past, I've asked you to distinguish between local newsmakers and noisemakers, the latter being those who seek influence without getting hired or elected to important positions. As a class, they tend to take shortcuts. Many are outright liars and damage our community. They hold no power, but do hold sway. At election time, they're more likely to mislead you than newsmakers are. So, my most painful disclosure is — this column makes me a noisemaker, too. All I can say is listen and choose carefully. Choose those you trust, and for God's sake, ignore those who play on your emotions. Mark Twain said, "We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking."

Now Gimme Money, That's What I Want — First Verse

Out of the blue, I heard a PG lady exclaim, "We should pay higher taxes." I was taken aback because I'd never actually heard anyone say that before. And yet, I wonder how many of you agree. Not that it matters, because we lucky souls are likely to get steeper taxes, like it or not. Our taxes have been rising inexorably, even on a percentage basis, and that rise won't just continue, it will accelerate.

Here's why, at least in Pacific Grove. Our City Council does more to expand municipal programs (creating expenditures) than they do to support citizens' prosperity and businesses (creating revenue). Just look at what they usually discuss in council meetings. And if our cute little government's expenditures exceed its revenue stream, that means more money goes out than comes in. And that, in turn, infuses our leaders with a certain fervor to separate us from more of our money.

Beware, our city and local agencies can get sneaky. They keep playing the same tricks on us and expecting us to fall for them. For one thing, they charge as many different types of taxes (and "fees") under as many different names as possible. That way, they squeeze every possible dime out of us, and we don't see what a huge bite they take. For another, they stop funding things — like roads, for example — then announce our byways are in dire need, and we must save them by paying a new tax. Like in a shell game, we don't notice the money that previously paid for roads has vanished. Poof.

Most of our councilmembers are unassuming, nice, quiet people. Too quiet. And that's another trick. For instance, they work really hard to avoid discussing what we'll do if CalPERS tacks another million or two on our annual bill. All they say — unanimously, by the way — is that the state's to blame. Why make a point of that? Not only to divert public wrath. See, when the bill comes due, they'll be able to say it's out of their hands and we have no choice but to pay up. Oh, and we'll need higher taxes for that. Our councilmembers may not be hardened politicians, but believe me, they learn very quickly. And yes, the state's largely to blame — but if PG's unprepared, that will not be the state's fault.

More and more of our lives are run by bureaucracies, whether It's PG's Community and Economic Development Department, or any of the nearly 350 different bureaucracies at the state level. Unlike politicians, they don't answer to the voters. Or even to the politicians. They are not representative government. Not long ago, a 70 percent majority of voters wanted Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to shut down, but couldn't make it happen. The people's rights were truly trampled. And to top it off, MPWMD hit us with a large tax (excuse me, fee). Gotcha! They imagine they're indispensable and must go on exerting their power at all costs. But at all costs to us, not them.

Do you really think all this works? It may disturb you, but I submit that every effort by local agencies to raise more money hurts our community. I mean every single effort. Next time, my case.

Now Gimme Money, That's What I Want — Second Verse

Last time, I told you about a PG lady saying, "We should pay higher taxes." Because our City Council and other local agencies would love to make her wish come true, I promised to argue for this premise: every single effort by local agencies to raise more money hurts our community.

Kiplinger lists California as the least tax-friendly state in the country. And that doesn't take into account our higher local sales tax and big fees tacked onto big utility bills. Taxes hurt. More taxes hurt more. City Councils hellbent on finding new ways to raise tax revenue will hurt you the most.

Example one: short-term rentals infesting our residentially-zoned neighborhoods are PG's poster children for city overreach and dollars-over-sense — bringing major revenue for the city, major misery for residents. The consequences may soon bite all of us on our you-know-whats. Stay tuned.

Example two: Measure P deserves harsh criticism — driven by apparent desperation to expand revenue, the City Manager and Council displayed arrogance and ignorance in trying to tax admissions. It was defeated by a huge margin, but if passed, it would have effectively put an end to small events put on by small organizations. As it was, it caused plenty of turmoil, anger, and fear.

Example three: parking tickets used to be about preventing real abuse. Fewer officers provided the right balance. Now, PG enforcement has become LA-style revenue enhancement. That's why we have more painted lines, more parking meters, and a fleet of meter carts. As of June 1, they handed out 1,990 parking tickets year-to-date. Last year at the same time, that number was 877. Coming soon — we'll hate the parking enforcement officers and they'll hate us.

Example four: our taxes once paid for city oversight of home improvement, but they passed more pervasive rules, then declared them too expensive to enforce. Now any homeowner engaged in home improvement pays steep add-on fees. And nothing is more insidious for Pacific Grove.

Several years ago, I bought a new front door. The city charged $100 for the privilege. Recently, I inquired about fixing my front steps. Apparently, the fee schedule is so complex they couldn't explain it. So, I gave a sample cost of $500 and was told they'd tack on $177. That's 35 percent. I grew up in New York where the mafia charged less protection money. But it's worse than legalized larceny. We all see the decaying houses where owners don't have the wherewithal to take on the city. Our historic and non-historic homes can be protected at less cost, with less micro-management.

Succeed or fail, every effort to increase taxes leads to costly political battles and lasting distrust. Every tax increase diverts a bigger percentage of our community's means away from families, small businesses, and their investors and redirects it into inefficient, overpriced use and misuse by city bureaucrats. Nastiest of all, and most contrary to our values, every tax makes life hardest for the least affluent among us.

In a recent email, reader Ross Cowart described his situation: "We came back to our home town to live out our senior years. We can't really afford to live here, but we do without in order to be home."

The very definition of gentrification is to force people to choose between living in their hometown and living within their means. I ask you, and I ask the lady who believes in higher taxes, is this really what you want? To embrace higher taxes is to embrace indulgent spending, to spend indulgently is to gentrify, and to gentrify is to lose the soul of PG.

Thrive!

While we talk about problems with our city government, the private sector is doing really well. Most of the shops are full again; most office space is taken. The tourist trade is booming and so is business in general. There's ample reason to enjoy this summer!

I've been ranting lately about the need to set aside reserves that total much more than our currently required 10 percent of the annual budget, and in fact, more than the 10-20 percent that budgeteer Dave Culver recently described as adequate. I've made that case, not because I think things are dire, but because things could get dire in a hurry. CalPERS could increase their annual bill by another $1.2 million, as they did a couple of years ago. We could be hit by the kind of 6.0 earthquake that struck Napa three years ago. The initial damage estimate was $362 million. Of course, Sacramento and Washington would help, but having $6-7 million in reserves would make a big difference when we'd need it most. The thing is, we have the money available now, thanks to our upbeat economy and the City Council's past frugality, so now is the time to put it in a piggy bank. By the way, that would leave $3-4 million of surplus funds for councilmembers to spend on roads and sewers anytime.

So why don't they create a reserve fund? I've come to the unpleasant conclusion that most, if not all, councilmembers operate on this principle: first you increase expenses, then you arrange to pay for them, and when you find yourself short of funds, you reach out for more tax money by raising the specter of terminating our most cherished budget items — always couched in terms of "saving" those items with a much-needed tax. And that's how you guarantee payment of unrelated newer bills.

Occasionally, however, the Council encounters a fly in the ointment, as it did when the people voted down Measure P. But then councilmembers simply feel they must use more alarmist language next time. We usually buy into it, and that's why our taxes go up. I predict you'll see the next increase expressed in a new way — a $400 parcel tax added to your property tax bill or your landlord's bill. Sound good?

If the city is so determined to keep expanding their expenses and our taxes, they should at least turn to the only truly beneficial form of revenue enhancement: supporting business growth. And step one should be to remove the $3,000 cap on business license taxes. Wait, what? Yes, it seems counterintuitive, but it would accomplish two things: (1) tax equality for smaller businesses who now pay a bigger percentage simply because they're below the cap; (2) businesses will find the city suddenly playing on the same team when potential tax revenue is uncapped, thereby motivating PG to do all it can to help business thrive. Maybe the city will start by giving a free license to start-ups for their first year or two. As Economic Development Commission Chairman Alan Cohen pointed out to me, that one easy step would send a new and very business-friendly message to potential PG entrepreneurs.

Prosperity is a healthy aim that benefits the whole community, and it's a source of joy for anyone. We're on the upside of the economic curve right now, so it's the perfect time for PG to do more to ensure that its people will always thrive. On that note, have a happy and fun 4th of July!

The Power of the Players

Lately, I've had reason to reflect on the relationship between PG's leaders and its residents. And I'm afraid both sides tend to be dysfunctional poster-children for passive-aggressive behavior. Like gophers, upset always lurks beneath the surface just waiting to pop up again. Our critical issues and not-so-critical issues never seem to away. People often accept those piles of turmoil and stress as unavoidable features of reality in PG.

If residents and leaders were a disaffected couple, what would a marriage counselor tell them is the most essential prerequisite for a healthy relationship? You know there's only one answer, so all together now — it's communication.

Residents, if you find yourself grumbling to friends about the city, then why not grumble to the City Council?! You may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. But even if you see no direct results, there's a broader benefit: those in power become more responsive to constituents if they hear from them a lot. Whereas, if council and staff are left alone in a room together for any length of time, literally or figuratively, they start listening to each other instead of the public. That's never good.

It's easy to email any or all by going to cityofpacificgrove.org, hovering over "About the City," and clicking on "Mayor & Council." To the right, you'll see the email link. As long as your message is rational, based on evidence, and offers constructive criticism, you'll fulfill your civic duty.

Leaders, you're almost always nice to us, even when one of us isn't nice to you. And that's sweet, though some of you really should refrain from insulting people behind their backs. It makes your emphasis on courtesy look hypocritical. And beyond that, the truth of your response is more important than its appearance. I recently suggested to a reader that he take his complaint to you, but he replied in this heartbreaking manner: "I personally believe that to be a waste of time…. I have seen many a pat on the head with a promise that all concerns will be looked into."

It takes courage and patience for a leader to be upfront with constituents, but the rewards are great. Leaders, I see you respond politely, even at length, yet too often superficially, sometimes patronizingly. Even when pushed, you seldom reveal the heart of the matter. It's better to engage constituents in partnership by answering their reasoning and evidence with your own — in agreement or not. Rule of thumb: say what you're hiding. Two big outcomes: (1) your constituents will recognize the difference and remember your respect, and (2) dialogues will provide opportunities for you to test the soundness of your position. It's tempting to assume a constituent's argument will collapse with lame words like, "I just don't agree." But pursue it and you'll sometimes find it's you who's on shaky ground. The difference is, your constituent can only argue. You pass laws and impact lives.

In fact, holding power means you are likely to expand regulations and exert more control over your constituents. But the more you try to micromanage them, the more you dismiss their concerns, the less they'll take responsibility, the less they'll want to participate, the more they'll turn away, disenfranchised. That's when upset pops up again like gophers.

On the May 7 edition of "60 Minutes," championship Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Madden said, "I believe the more freedom we give our players, the greater respect and discipline we get in return. Thus, we get a better player."

We're all players and partners in building the quality of life we want in Pacific Grove.

Reinventing The Intersection

You wouldn't think that highway engineers would evolve into bureaucrats, would you? When I say bureaucrats, I mean public servants who are given control of some government function, but whose job is not dependent on voters, and whose agenda will therefore inevitably diverge from the best interests of the people they ostensibly serve. Often that divergence is driven by money — the bigger their budget, the more income and power they tend to acquire personally. Who wouldn't love that?

But of course, in order to get the money and power, they have to sell their ever-more expensive projects based on the notion of serving the public good. Bureaucrats often become primo salespeople.

I think our new roundabout is a great example. First, The Transportation Agency for Monterey County declared that the intersection of the Holman Highway and Route 1 needed improvement. Yup, it's always best to start a pitch with an undeniable premise. Then TAMC announced that their chosen solution was the least expensive. Not inexpensive, mind you, just less exorbitant than their other schemes — so they could claim it as a benefit. Instead, they could have properly separated and extended the right turn lanes and put the traffic light on a smart timer that reads the time and traffic in each direction. Much cheaper, simpler, easier. But no, they wanted something clever and hot. Oooh, maybe something European! Have you ever observed a traffic circle in Paris or Rome? They're certainly fast — those people drive like maniacs. Statistics say they're safer — maybe because repairs cost less, or fewer accidents get reported. Who knows. We do know that in the US, the only people really comfortable with roundabouts are thrill seekers and bureaucrats.

The shape of our roundabout is as advertised, but if you watch it in action, you'll realize it's essentially a very pricey intersection with the traffic light removed. Maybe it's marginally faster, at least while locals stay away from it. Maybe it'll be slightly safer for a while, but that's only because locals and tourists both are forced to negotiate it in full-on survival mode. And that's my point for today: as highway engineers join the bureaucracy game, they increasingly force people to do things they don't want to do.

Take Central west of David, where PG pats itself on the back for recent changes that are "calming" traffic. Bureaucratic euphemisms are the worst — they seem to mean something, yet hide what they do mean. "Calming" sounds wonderful, right? But "making congested" would be more accurate. More engines idling longer. More people late. More impatience and anger. That's the ground truth.

And less safety. Because for all their expensive work, PG failed to do what was really needed — to install a traffic light at Central and Eardley that would run in sync with the one at David. Between the endlessly lost tourists stuck on Eardley, and locals in a hurry to get through on Central, and the constant stream of pedestrians crossing both, a tragic occurrence is just a matter of time.

And tragedy is bound to happen at the roundabout. By the way, that too is a euphemism. The word roundabout more accurately describes the circuitous route we will have to take if there's an accident at the traffic circle. Wouldn't it be sadly ironic if our first case of mangled vehicles blocking traffic for hours in all directions actually happened during Car Week? Let's avoid that — drive carefully, okay? Oh, and don't drive angry.

Nob Hill: A Grateful Homage

I just learned that our Nob Hill will be closing and that Raleys, the corporate owner, will retreat northward to its stronghold. I can't tell you how sad that makes me. Our Nob Hill is exceptionally well run, with super friendly employees. It's the only place I've ever found where grocery shopping is actually a joy every week.

When we moved in together, my wife and I divvied up household chores, and from that time forth, grocery shopping has been my bailiwick. I've experienced the good, bad, and ugly. When we lived in L.A., Gelson's was the best, but it was also the most expensive and too far away. So I settled into Ralphs, which wasn't great, but less frustrating than the nearby Lucky (which became Albertson's), Safeway (which was horrible), Vons (which Safeway bought), or Pavilions (which was Vons, but pricier).

When we moved up here, I was surprised by how much better Albertson's was than the one back in Santa Monica. But by 2007, it had been taken over by Save Mart, and my shopping habits began to evolve. At first, I went to Save Mart weekly. But I had to go elsewhere so often (for goods they'd run out of or discontinued) that I decided to add Nob Hill on a regular basis, but still just once every two weeks because I believed it was more expensive. But the more I shopped there, the more I realized that only some things cost more. Many others were actually cheaper — most produce, for example. Plus, they introduced an amazingly robust rewards program. As Save Mart became increasingly irritating, I switched to Nob Hill every week, Save Mart only every other week. Finally, I was only buying items at Save Mart that were always cheaper there — which were fewer and fewer, by the way.

Changes continued. Coming full circle, Save Mart changed its name to Lucky, though it's still unlucky enough to be owned by Save Mart. To be fair, it has gotten better. Most of the hostile employees are gone. Their goods and prices are not in such a constant state of flux anymore. However, we find ourselves getting more stuff from Trader Joe's. We still ignore Safeway, mostly because old habits die hard. Of course, guess who'll be moving into the Nob Hill space. Yeah, Safeway. Why do they do that? Why cannibalize their own store on Forest Hill?

Same question for Starbucks, while we're at it. Gotta wonder if some people in both the private and public sectors really know what they're doing. Despite the current economic boom and our painfully escalating gentrification, businesses keep leaving Pacific Grove. So we're left with fewer choices and higher prices. Why?

Regardless, one thing has not changed. Our Nob Hill has remained the best grocery store ever. They almost never engage in product churn. They almost always have what I want. If not, someone will go in the back, and amazingly, often find it. You never hear the tired buck-passing excuses. Each employee cares about the quality of their work and store. I feel that many of them are friends. Every time I leave with my groceries, I leave happy. Thank you, Nob Hill, for the reminder that it's always people — individuals — who make the difference at a company.

Safeway claims they'll keep many of the Nob Hill employees. I hope so, though it might mean I have to shop at Safeway. Hrrumph.

A Special Report: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I hope that you, faithful readers, will be okay with this — I'm going to take a hiatus from the column in order to focus full-time on writing a novel. The mindsets necessary for each are polar opposites, and something's got to give. In the beginning, I promised to write "Outside the Box" for at least a year, so I still owe you about three months' worth. My plan is to resume next summer and continue through October or longer.

When I started the column, I thought I'd be writing about many separate topics. But lately, it's become clear that most issues in PG are branches of a single tree — the money tree. For example, two otherwise unrelated controversies, both offshoots of the City Council's urgent appetite for spending money: their resistance to establishing an adequately funded, prudently controlled reserve fund, and their opposition to giving up the tax revenue from short-term rentals in strictly residential areas.

So I'm going to take one more stab at the heart of our problems in PG and take a position that I believe all sides must embrace if Pacific Grove is to be truly healthy.

PG's paradox: on one hand, the city itself plus many residents want and need more prosperity and income, but on the other, some of us fight growth because we're fearful that newcomers and unrestrained business will overwhelm us like weeds in a garden. Those opposing views have produced conflict, deprivation, and low-grade misery in PG for decades. We are one very conflicted town.

There's a seriously false premise at work — that allowing real business growth in any amount and any form is bad and must be prevented at all costs. I'm here to tell you that's an unexamined, reactionary, blanket view, and it's what keeps us locked in our cage and falling behind. However, those who hold that view have two strong justifications for it. One is that we must avoid losing our small-town character. Indeed, but if virtually everyone fiercely agrees, why create a war? It's important to see the causal link between PG's longtime broad resistance to business and the persistence of our municipal melancholy. Prosperity is a generator of the peace and quiet we crave. It's a natural source of joy. And it's an integral part of any healthy small town's character. Now, the second justification for zero growth — opponents can't be trusted to compromise. Well, here's an idea: make agreements enforceable, be the first to keep your own word, and stop sabotaging others. We must stop feuding against one cause or the other, and start supporting both.

Why? Because if both sides join together, there really is a fundamental way to thrive to our heart's content while retaining the character of our town. And this is not intended to be another flowery but meaningless vision. It's time to get real and specific. What exactly will we do?

I've mentioned it before, and I believe this concept is the key. Let's call it "Purpose Districts," meaning the use of zoning to create districts with unique purpose profiles. Of course, we already have distinct rules for each zone, but we can more clearly differentiate those rules to strictly safeguard residential areas while easing restrictions in the commercial districts. We have to start by going back to our core document, our General Plan, equivalent to a constitution. We would rewrite the parts that pertain to zoning, then adjust our zoning codes accordingly, but without betraying previous intent. For example, if we want to create affordable housing (once water is freed up), the most appropriate way will be to encourage new and denser construction in Del Monte Park. It's already zoned for that.

We must have a General Plan we can honor rather than work around. In an earlier column, I proposed limiting STRs to areas that are zoned commercially or have always had outsized and obvious tourist traffic. The city's current efforts to compromise the numbers or times, yet still uphold STR permits in purely residential areas, will only continue to betray trust and leave both sides unsatisfied.

What about our commercial districts? As long as PG's anti-business reputation remains fixed, prospective newcomers will find reasons to decline to move here. We'll always have tourism, but we badly need to be diversified. So why not encourage rather than discourage other types of business? Break and replace our reputation? Become known as business-friendly? That's all it will take to solve our economic problems. Vibrant local business provides maximum revenue in the most natural, painless way. So we should allow franchises, provided they're suitably designed, because franchises serve as tent-poles that draw more customers into our tent, and yes, even into our competing local businesses — it's part of what's called the clustering phenomenon. And we should allow pubs and music, but only where the noise won't disturb residents. And the city can easily offer new business incentives. If we bring energy and action to the PG business scene, that will get the attention of entrepreneurs. However, let's do it while maintaining moderation in all things…

So I'm not talking about trying to attract giant corporations or industrial manufacturers. Only small companies with lean staffs are positioned to suddenly become worth a lot more than the sum of their parts. We should be the "Shark Tank" of small coastal towns.

I'm not talking about jamming our streets with new arrivals — the other fear of no-growthers. As soon as the desal plant comes online, a mere three percent increase in population would make all the difference in our prosperity level if these are people coming to work for successful new outfits. The city can always manage growth by limiting new construction.

And I'm not talking about allowing five-story monoliths to be constructed, but we can and should ease our restrictions so outdated mid-century buildings can be replaced with architecture that actually fits in better. The beautiful mixed-use building on the north side of Lighthouse between 14th and 15th is one such example. There are plenty of spots for a few more like that.

Despite the one-upmanship and back-stabbing that typically accompanies our disputes, I think it's important to remember that the majority of players — whether it's those who sit on the council or those who fight city hall — are motivated by the same deep passion for PG that you feel. That's what we share with our enemies. On either side, the angriest are angry because they love the town and its potential. Yes, we must always be vigilant, follow the money, and watch for simple, dumb mistakes that can be terribly destructive. But remember — those mistakes that hurt us are nevertheless born of the human condition. Let's come together and find agreement. Let's turn things around and have a city that really works. Let's do Purpose Districts.

This might be a good time to give me your feedback — so it can sink in (knock wood) between now and next summer. I'm open to criticism just as much as compliments, and I welcome your emails at the address below. While you're at it, I hope those of you who are fired up by my columns will email councilmembers to lend your support. In fact, I hope all of you will keep tabs on your City Council and remind them who's in charge by letting them know your views. Meanwhile, I wish you peace, prosperity, and joy in PG.