TIME Tech

The Class War Is Back On in San Francisco

San Francisco Google bus
Residents protests rising evictions and rents in San Francisco by blocking two private shuttles transporting tech workers from their homes in San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley on Jan. 21 2014. Katy Steinmetz—TIME

A City Hall hearing on a transportation pilot program quickly devolved into heated arguments about buses that shuttle Google employees to work, and whether they symbolize efficiency or inequality

On Tuesday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, an 11-member outfit that runs the city, sat through a marathon, eight-hour hearing in a high-ceilinged room at City Hall. The central issue of that hearing—an appeal for an environmental review of a transportation pilot program—was soporific on the surface. But the pilot program at issue was the city’s regulation of private shuttles, known colloquially as “Google buses,” and discussions of air quality quickly gave way to heated arguments about class warfare.

Citizens have long been complaining about private shuttles that use public bus stops without paying or being ticketed, particularly the imposing, double-decker coaches that pick up tech workers in San Francisco and ferry them to jobs at big tech firms in Silicon Valley. For angry citizens whose public buses might be blocked or delayed by these vehicles, the private shuttles have become symbols of a two-tiered system in San Francisco—one in which the wealthy are given breaks and the poor are displaced. “I have a problem with the arrogance of tech companies who have captured our bus stops,” said a union worker who spoke during the hours of public comments on Tuesday. “You’re going to make cuts to programs for the poorest families in this city, and these Google people stroll in and out like they’re royalty. And I’m sick of it.”

Among the dozens who took turns in front of the microphone—some leveling disrespectful epithets at the supervisors, others giving sarcastic speeches, and many trying to find a middle ground—were some “Google people” and other tech workers who are often lumped into a stereotyped “them” by residents angry about changes Silicon Valley wealth is spurring in the city. “I don’t know how this has become an engineering or tech issue,” said an engineer, noting that many of his colleagues have lived in the city for decades. “Let’s talk about affordability, transportation. I would love to talk about all those things, but how about [people critical of tech workers] first admit that we are part of the local community as well. Until then, they can take their Tea Party tactics and go bully another minority … We pay atrocious rents just like you do.”

In an attempt to appease the public, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority recently presented a plan to start regulating the private shuttles, charging them $1 per stop to recoup their costs. (A state law limits them from charging more than their outlays for this type of program.) The pilot program, set to start this summer, was exempted from being given an environmental review but labor unions and community groups appealed that decision, arguing that the environmental impact of the shuttles—from noise pollution to the displacement effect of increasing the value of apartments near the stops—must be calculated. The city’s transit authority and planning department countered that the project isn’t introducing a fleet of shuttles; it’s gathering data on how the city might regulate shuttles that are already operating, and that regulation has negligible environmental impact.

While some supervisors quizzed city attorneys and transportation officials even-handedly, trying to work out all the legal nuances of the state law and case law, others came to the meeting with a clear line of questioning in mind. Supervisor Scott Wiener engaged in a heated back and forth with the lawyer arguing in favor of the environmental review, Richard Drury, pointing out that of the private shuttles currently operating, an estimated 80% transport riders within the city, to schools and hospitals as well as tech firms, while only 20% take riders out of town—yet their case focuses only on those 20%.

“It’s your position that it’s only the fact that tech workers are living here that is causing gentrification and it’s only the tech shuttles that are causing the noise, bike, pedestrian and cancer problems. I don’t understand that,” Wiener said, suggesting that the appeal wasn’t really about environmental issues. Drury argued that physical differences in the shuttles, like their size, and the way they use streets partly account for their focus on that 20%. Wiener also emphasized how many cars the shuttles keep off the road, before more tech workers testified to their dependence on the shuttles during public comments.

Other supervisors threw Drury softballs so he could expand on the potential damages of the “pirate private shuttles.” But as the matter came to a vote, many supervisors emphasized that the decision before them was about the environmental impact study alone, not about whether they liked the pilot program and even less about how they felt about private shuttles in general. With one supervisor absent by the time the vote finally took place around 10:30 p.m., the appeal failed 8-2, meaning the pilot program can go forward as planned.

Right before the vote, Supervisor Jane Kim—who voted against the appeal—explained that she had many doubts about the pilot program and suggested another path of recourse might have a greater impact. “It may be,” she said, “that this is an issue that is more appropriate for the ballot.” And with the appeal lost, critics of the private shuttle program are likely giving that avenue a closer look.

TIME Accident

Rescuers End Search for Man Swept Into Sea During Baptism

Rescuers ended the search for 43-year-old Benito Flores early Monday

California rescuers stopped searching Monday for a man who was swept off to sea during a weekend baptism.

Benito Flores was helping his cousin perform a baptism Sunday when he was dragged into the Pacific Ocean, the Associated Press reports. Two others were reportedly pulled into the ocean by strong waves, but they managed to return to shore.

A local fire captain said Monday it’s unlikely the 43-year-old Flores could have survived longer than 30 minutes in the cold water. The U.S. Coast Guard does not plan to resume the search.

[AP]

TIME Natural Disasters

Magnitude 5.1 Earthquake Strikes Los Angeles

California Earthquake
A car sits overturned on a highway in the Carbon Canyon area of Brea, Calif., March 28, 2014, after hitting a rock slide caused by an earthquake. Kevin Warn—AP

The magnitude-5.1 quake, which occurred Friday at around 9:09 p.m. Pacific Time, burst water mains and caused Disneyland to halt rides as a precaution. It was followed by a 4.1-magnitude aftershock on Saturday afternoon

Updated 6:08 PM ET

A magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck Los Angeles Friday evening, breaking water mains in a local community and rattling neighborhoods in Southern California.

The earthquake struck at 9:09 p.m. Pacific Time on Friday, centering about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles near La Habra, Reuters reports. No injuries or substantial structural damage were reported.

A 4.1-magnitude aftershock was reported Saturday afternoon, according to the AP.

The quake was felt between Palm Springs in the east and Ventura County to the north, prompting Disneyland to halt park rides as a precaution. Several water mains in Fullerton ruptured, spilling water into the streets.

Friday night’s earthquake is the second major tremor to hit the area in two weeks, after a recent magnitude 4.4 quake hit north of Los Angeles.

[Reuters]

TIME corruption

FBI Says Calif. Senator Took Bribes From Undercover Agents

State Senator Leland Yee allegedly accepted at least $42,800 in cash and campaign contributions in exchange for favors

California State Senator Leland Yee accepted bribes from undercover FBI agents in exchange for specific favors, the FBI said in a court document released Wednesday.

Yee was arrested Wednesday in a series of raids in northern California. He was charged along with a campaign aide with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, the Associated Press reports.

Yee is alleged to have accepted bribes in the form of cash and campaign contributions in exchange for helping clients get contracts, making connections, and influencing legislation. The FBI says the bribes began in 2011.

[AP]

TIME California

California DMV Warns of Possible Credit Card Hack

The state's department of motor vehicles cautioned residents who paid for its services with a credit card to keep an eye on their statements for any unusual activity following a potential security breach

Police say someone may have breached the credit card processing services at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, according to the DMV’s website.

The state DMV advised anyone who has renewed their driver’s license in California using a credit card to keep a close eye on their statements for unusual activity. It said there is no evidence of a direct breach of the DMV’s computer system, and said it would closely monitor all website traffic and credit card transactions.

“Out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of protecting the sensitive information of California drivers, the DMV has opened an investigation into any potential security breach in conjunction with state and federal law enforcement,” a post on the DMV site reads.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the breach may cover transactions made between Aug. 2, 2013, and Jan. 31, 2014. It wasn’t clear how many customers might have been affected.

TIME tragedy

California Teen Dies Saving Girlfriend From Oncoming Train

Train Accident
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a train accident near Earl Yorton Field Friday, March 21, 2014 in Marysville. Chris Kaufman—AP

The young couple, who took a detour along some train tracks, were en route to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance when the teenage boy shoved his girlfriend out of the way of a rushing train at the last moment

A California teenager was in critical condition Sunday, after her boyfriend died pushing her out of the direct path of an oncoming train.

Mickayla Friend, 16, of Marysville, Calif., was on the way to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance with her boyfriend, whose identity authorities have not released, when the couple took a detour along some train tracks to pick up food before the event, KCRA Sacramento reports.

Authorities say the couple were walking south along the tracks when a train approached behind them. The conductor sounded a warning horn and engaged emergency brakes but not in time.

“The engineer was on the horn,” said Sean Stark, who witnessed the incident. “Then finally, they both looked back at the same time.” Friend’s male companion died after being struck by the train.

“They would have both been underneath that train if he didn’t push her out of the way at the last second,” Stark said.

Union Pacific Railroad and the Marysville Police Department are investigating the incident.

[KCRA]

TIME Transportation

People in California Are Using Their Cars Less

A new California Department of Transportation report shows that walking, biking, and public transportation trips have more than doubled since 2000.

California residents, long known for taking to the freeways, have dramatically reduced their dependency on cars, according to a new report.

The report by the California Department of Transportation indicates that almost 23 percent of California household trips are made by walking, biking, or using public transportation, more than double the rate in 2000. The results are driven by what the department calls a “dramatic increase” in walking trips, which have jumped from about eight percent to about sixteen percent of household trips. Still, the vast majority of trips are still in cars, vans, and trucks.

It’s “a shift with real benefits for public health that also cuts greenhouse gases and smog-forming pollution,” Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, said in a statement.

The study surveyed more than 42,000 households and nearly 109,000 Californians. The information is a cause of celebration for environmentalists who have seen mixed trends nationwide, as the number of car miles driven annually peaked about a decade ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. But congestion has risen recently due to the recovering economy.

TIME

America’s Most Miserable City Emerges from Bankruptcy

Stockton
Pedestrians ride their bicycles along the street in Stockton, California, U.S., on June 14, 2012. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

But at what cost?

Until Detroit, Stockton, Calif. was the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city, which hopes to emerge from Chapter 9 this spring, has struggled with all sorts of problems in the wake of the subprime crisis—a housing collapse, nosebleed unemployment (it’s still 15.9 % in the city and 13.2 % in the surrounding county), and a mass exodus of firemen, cops and other city service people as the local government struggled with how they could make the budgetary numbers work while still paying gold-plated health care and pension plans to retirees. Stockton did do major cutting in its public sector healthcare benefits, which represented the bulk of its under-funded entitlements. But it’s still left spending 17-18 % of its budget on entitlements like pensions – a number many experts believe is unsustainable. City officials say further cuts just aren’t on the table. “The idea that we’d even look at pension reform meant we started loosing police,” says Elbert H. Holman, Jr., a Stockton council member. “If we’d have eliminated or serious cut pensions, we’d have been devastated as a city.”

As it is, the loss of 400 police officers over four years to nearby cities in better economic shape resulted in a radical increase in crime, and a record number of homicides, 71 in a city of 300,000, in 2012. Reporting in Stockton yesterday, I got an up close and personal look at how desperate things still are thanks to the loss of basic city services. While visiting a tent city of homeless people under Highway 4, one of many in Stockton, my handbag was stolen. Fortunately, two of the tent city residents chased down the perpetrator and got my purse back. “We’re not bad people here,” said Abdul Solo, aged 67, one of those who helped. “We’re just trying to live, stay clean, stay out of trouble.”

That’s a tough job in Stockton, where stories of long-term unemployment and continuing fallout from the housing crisis are still rife (two tent city residents told me they’d lost their homes in the subprime crisis). Nearly every restaurant in the city, mainly fast food joints and small family owned eateries, has a sign like the one at the local McDonalds, which reads, “Service may be refused: this is not a hangout or a shelter.” Indeed, there are few shelters in the city – non profits, rather than the city, support them; paying for care for the homeless is yet another thing that Stockton can’t afford as it tries to craft a budget that will allow it to emerge from bankruptcy without further cuts in retiree benefits. Highway 4’s tent city residents shower and clean their clothes at St. Mary’s, a local Catholic Church. A few blocks away, at the First Presbyterian Church, passers-by are admonished to “give up complaining– and embrace gratitude.”

That’s a message that some city fathers are pushing, too. There are many reasons why Stockton was one of the hardest hit American cities in the Great Recession – a housing bubble, debt spending on white elephant projects (like a downtown arena which is rarely full), fiscal mismanagement, and unrealistic pension return expectations and under-funding during boom times all played a part. The local council understandably wants to move past all that and showcase good news in the city – the Google barge pulled up in Stockton’s port the other day (although nobody seems to know why, exactly); housing prices in nicer areas are starting to go up; crime is down this year from last; the city is convinced that its budgetary math will hold and allow it to emerge from bankruptcy, even as it begins hiring 120 new cops, which was a condition of the recent tax hike that the city was able to pass. But a number of citizens are skeptical. “Stockton’s emergence from bankruptcy will be short-lived under the current exit plan if the pension liability (the city’s largest debt) is not reduced, “ says Dave Renison, president of the San Joaquin Taxpayers Association. “In five short years (2005 to 2010) public pension benefits in California grew at nearly three times that of the private sector.” The fact that statewide pension reform initiatives have so far been torpedoed, “leaves us doing the job for ourselves.”

Mayor Anthony Silva, an energetic and reform minded 39-year-old Republican and former social worker who took office 14 months ago with a mandate to turn the city around, agrees that pensions have been a huge economic drag on the city, but says that “no city can take on pension reform on its own.” Indeed, the fact that 90 % of Californian cities are under the CALPERS system makes it easy for service workers to just leave cities that attempt pension reform and go elsewhere. Mayor Silva is instead focusing his efforts on trying to push economic development in the city, which has the potential to be a bigger logistical hub, as well as trying to find solutions to the increasing bifurcation in a town where preserving the status quo for city workers makes it hard to spend on the most vulnerable. “I’d like to find a way to put some of the homeless to work refurbishing abandoned buildings,” says the mayor, who plans to petition Washington for federal redevelopment money to help Stockton get back on its feet. And despite city council pressure to put the pension issue on the back burner, he says he’d been willing to work with other mayors at a state level to come up with reform ideas. “It’s kind of basic,” says Silva. “You don’t spend what you don’t have.” Tomorrow, I’ll blog about San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s ideas about statewide pension reform.

TIME climate change

A Tale of Two Winters

Winter ice on Lake Michigan on Chicago
The winter was brutal in Midwestern cities like Chicago Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you lived east of the Rockies, you froze this winter. But the other side of the country experienced unusual warmth—and sometimes record-high temperatures

As I write this in New York, it’s 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-3.9 Celsius)—about 21 F degrees below normal for Mar. 13—and frankly, we’re all sick of this. For much of the eastern half of the country, 2013-14 has been the winter that will never end. And now the numbers are in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and we’re mostly right: It’s been very cold. But probably not as cold as you think.

The average temperature for the continental U.S. from December to February was 31.3 F (-0.4 C), 1.0 F (0.55 C) below the 20th century norm. That’s hardly record-breaking—it’s only the 34th coldest winter in recorded U.S. history—but it’s a lot colder than last winter, where the average temperature was 34.3 F (1.3 C), which helps explain why it felt so frigid. Even so, the continental U.S. experienced a colder winter as recently as 2009-2010, well before anyone had heard of the term “polar vortex,” and back when only hurricanes—not snowstorms—were given names.

How cold you were this winter depended largely on where you were in the U.S. If you lived east of the Rockies—home to significantly more than half the U.S. population and sometimes, it seems, virtually all the U.S. media—you experienced below-average temperatures. Midwesterners had it particularly bad—most of the area north of the Ohio River was 7 to 15 F (4 to 8 C) below normal, which helps explain why at their peak in early March 91% of the Great Lakes were frozen over. It was nasty for the Northeast as well, where temperatures were largely cooler than normal, especially in the western regions near the lakes (pity the citizens of Erie, Pennsylvania, where temperatures were nearly 5 F, or 2.75 C, below normal for the winter.) From Washington D.C. to Caribou, Maine, it seems that not a single town in the Northeast had above-normal temperatures this winter.

That wasn’t the case in the West, though. California—already in an incredibly severe drought—had the warmest winter on record, with average temperatures of 48.0 F (8.9 C), some 4.4 F (2.2 C) above the 20th century average and nearly 1 F (0.55 C) hotter than the previous warmest winter, in 1980-81. That’s a reminder of just how big the U.S. is, and how variable weather can be—which brings us to climate change. Scientists are going to have fun figuring out just what was behind phenomena like the polar vortex (one theory is that higher temperatures in the Arctic could impact the jet stream, allowing colder Canadian air to sweep down to the East). But a nasty winter in New York City no more disproves climate change than an all-time hot winter in California clinches the case for global warming. Climate change is a global phenomenon and a long-term one, which is why icy temperatures along the East Coast in January are a lot less important than the fact that the global land and ocean surface average temperature for January was 1.17 F (0.65 C) above the 20th century norm, which made it the fourth-warmest January on record globally.

Barring even weirder weather, winter should finally be giving way to spring even in the coldest states in the U.S.—finally. But with scientists warning of a possible El Nino later this year—which usually brings hotter temperatures—we may end up looking back on the polar vortex with fondness as the dog days of August drag on. Maybe.

TIME Marijuana

Medical Marijuana: California Bill Would Provide More Oversight

Pot Prices Double as Colorado Retailers Roll Out Green Carpet
THC in marijuana triggers the olfactory senses. Bloomberg —Getty Images

Doctors issuing more than 100 recommendations per year would be investigated

A bill introduced by a California state senator would bring some clarity to the hazy medical marijuana industry in the state, which has operated without much oversight for nearly two decades, since California voters legalized the substance in 1996.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Lou Correa, an Orange County-area Democrat, would require the state’s Department of Public Health to license growers and dispensaries. It would prohibit non-organic pesticides in cultivation, mandate strict security measures at grow-houses and shops, and institute a system of “quality assurance.”

An investigation carried out by the Denver Post this week shows how common it is for dispensary customers to get less than they paid for; testing a popular brand of edible products, independent firms found 0.37 and 0.28 milligrams of psychoactive component THC in chocolate bars that promised to pack 100 milligrams.

The bill would also crack down on doctors who are writing recommendations for marijuana more freely than they should; any doctor giving out more than 100 in a year would be subject to an audit by the state medical board, and all doctors wanting to write recommendations would go through mandatory training.

The Associated Press reports that the bill was conceived by California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities, as a countermeasure to the vague law passed in 1996 that sprouted a multi-billion dollar industry.

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