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Calif. commute times rank 10th longest in US

November 1, 2012, 12:05 AM | Joanna Lin, California Watch

Mai Le/Flickr Commuters use public transit in San Francisco more than anywhere else in the state. 

Californians rank 10th in the country for having the longest commute times, taking an average of 26.9 minutes to travel to work, recently released census data show.

Workers in the state spent 10.4 minutes more getting to work than did workers in North Dakota, which reported the quickest commutes in the 2009-11 American Community Survey. Commuters in Maryland had the longest commute times to work at 31.8 minutes.

On average, Americans spent 23.7 minutes getting to work. More than three-quarters of them drove alone to their jobs, nearly 1 in 10 carpooled and 5 percent took public transportation. Californians were less likely to drive alone – about 73 percent did – and were more likely to carpool (11.4 percent) or ride public transit (5.2 percent).

Californians' commuting habits have not changed much in recent years. They drive, carpool and ride public transit at about the same rates they reported in the 2006-8 American Community Survey, and their journeys to work are about the same duration...

Contractors among biggest donors to BART board campaigns

November 1, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Stephen Rees/Flickr

Construction companies are pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the race for the Bay Area Rapid Transit board in an effort to unseat incumbent Director Lynette Sweet.

The construction firms accuse Sweet of meddling in bids for BART construction work and are backing 25-year-old Zakhary Mallett, who until recently was a UC Berkeley graduate student. Sweet’s backers counter that she is being punished for standing up to BART contractors who shortchange and discriminate against minority subcontractors.

The heated contest underscores a fact that often goes unnoticed by the 400,000 daily BART riders: One of the transit agency’s main functions is handing out billions of dollars in contracts for construction, track repair and new BART cars. This year alone, the transit agency has awarded $2 billion in contracts. The board’s elections and policies often are shaped by contractors who have a financial interest in the outcome.

In the upcoming election, 44 percent of the money donated to the 13 candidates vying for five open seats on the BART board has come from companies or employees of companies that have done – or want to do – business with BART, according to an analysis by The Bay Citizen. Another 14 percent of all donations are coming from unions, including some that soon will be...

Cyclist turned to sport to avoid drugs, but ended up doping

October 31, 2012, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams and Matt Smith, California Watch

Tim Moreillon/Flickr Cyclist David Zabriskie in 2010 

For fans and officials alike, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s dossier on cyclist Lance Armstrong was dispiriting. It detailed how one of the greatest stars in cycling history had used banned drugs for years and systematically lied to cover it up.

The agency's evidence file became public Oct. 10 and didn't contain much that was new to Armstrong's fans or detractors. The exception was one disturbing narrative – the tragic personal story of a lanky Utah native specializing in solo races against the clock.

Before the files became public, claims that Armstrong’s blood tests exhibited unusual chemistry, consistent with possible doping, had been reported elsewhere, including by California Watch. Former teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis had gone on national television to describe how they used banned drugs with Armstrong...

New environmental curriculum corrects plastic bag information

October 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

skynesher/istockphoto.com

The state’s Environmental Protection Agency finalized a revision of a controversial K-12 environmental curriculum on plastic bags Friday.

California Watch reported last year that whole sections of an 11th-grade teachers' edition guide for a new curriculum had been lifted almost verbatim from comments and suggestions submitted by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical and plastics industry trade group.

That investigation spurred politicians and state regulators to demand an examination into how the controversial text was compiled and changed, and whether industry bias was present.

State schools chief Tom Torlakson issued a statement saying his office would work with Cal/EPA to examine the material and identify areas “where further review may be warranted.”

 

And state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, also called for an investigation, to which Cal/EPA responded by saying it would review the chapter.

The new text provides more updated statistics on plastic bag consumption and recycling rates, many of which were provided by California Watch in its story on the...

Special visas for crime victims surge in Oakland

October 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen

Courtesy of Linda Mendoza Linda Mendoza, 22, applied for a U visa for crime victims after her East Oakland salon was robbed at gunpoint. 

Linda Mendoza says her life began changing for the better the day she was robbed at gunpoint.

In 2010, Mendoza had just opened her beauty salon on International Boulevard in East Oakland when three men walked through the door, pointed a gun at her pregnant belly and demanded cash.

The event left her shaken. Mendoza, a Mexican national who had lived in Oakland since she was 4, packed up her salon and moved away from her childhood neighborhood. But the 22-year-old said the crime also produced a gift: Last year, she was granted temporary residency in the United States.

Mendoza applied for a U visa through an immigration program that gives victims of serious crimes temporary residency status in exchange for cooperation in catching the perpetrators.

Nationwide, immigration authorities have seen a substantial increase in U visa applications. In the Bay Area, the Oakland Police Department has seen the number of visas for immigrant victims skyrocket.

In 2007, the Oakland department processed three applications. In 2011, it processed 502...

Calif. privacy groups oppose cellphone surveillance device

October 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

jtrout/Flickr.com

FBI investigators used a court order authorizing access to cellphone customer data to quietly deploy a powerful surveillance technology known as “stingrays,” privacy groups contend in a new court filing [PDF] that claims the devices are overly invasive.

Your cellphone can be singled out by its international mobile subscriber identity, or IMSI, which then makes it possible to secretly determine your whereabouts using stingray devices, also known as IMSI catchers. The law enforcement tool troubles security experts and civil libertarians alike because it mimics cellphone towers. Stingrays track the locations of mobile devices, including those that are not targeted but are nearby.

IMSI catchers can also be adjusted to capture the content of communications, although the government claims that was not done in this case.

An expert in 2010 showed spectators at a technology conference in Las Vegas that IMSI catchers could be built at home for as little as $1,500, exposing a potential weakness in cellphone security. Thirty cellphones in the room reportedly attempted to connect to his do-it-yourself tower, and anyone in the room who made a call while...

Money from secret donors flows to congressional races

October 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

Kativ/istockphoto.com

While Gov. Jerry Brown cries foul over $11 million in unidentified money that recently infused the state ballot measure fight, federal races in California and around the country are awash in secret money, too.

Advocacy groups that don't disclose donors have dumped more than $200 million into the presidential and congressional races this season, according to the Sunlight Foundation, and that's only the fraction of their activities that they had to report publicly.

When an obscure Arizona group called Americans for Responsible Leadership gave $11 million to defeat the governor's tax measure and support an initiative that would weaken the political clout of unions, Brown called it illegal. The state Fair Political Practices Commission filed a lawsuit Thursday under new state rules to force the group to provide records on the mystery donation.

Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, said her agency will scrutinize big donations from other untransparent groups as well, though her authority doesn't cover federal races...

Doctors group, state watchdog reach patient care settlement deal

October 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

BrianAJackson/istockphoto.com

The state’s managed care watchdog has reached a settlement agreement with a Los Angeles physicians group that was accused of allowing business executives to decide whether patients get requested medical care.

The Department of Managed Care reached the agreement earlier this month with Accountable Health Care IPA, a firm that contracts with larger insurers such as Anthem Blue Cross and L.A. Care to manage primary care for 160,000 Los Angeles County residents.

Accountable agreed to pay a monitor who will report to state overseers and have “direct and unfettered access” to company employees and records. The firm also agreed to donate $500,000 to a nonprofit that serves the uninsured.

The company has also agreed to assign case managers to work with patients who the monitor determines had care denied, delayed or canceled by unqualified Accountable employees. State laws say that patient care decisions should only be made by doctors or other licensed health professionals who are “competent to evaluate the specific clinical issues.”...

SF supervisor seeks more privacy for Clipper card users

October 25, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Scott James/The Bay Citizen

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos has introduced a resolution urging the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and state Legislature to strengthen privacy protections for Clipper card users.

The transportation commission, which administers the transit card, also has begun re-examining why personal data is stored for seven years after a Clipper card account is closed.

The supervisor’s resolution and the commission’s self-examination come after The Bay Citizen, sister site of California Watch, reported earlier this month that a customer’s personal data and Clipper card travel record can be stored for as long as seven years and that the transportation commission had received three search warrants or subpoenas for customers’ personal travel information since the card was introduced in 2010.

“We have a lot of people in the Bay Area who use public transportation to get to events where they exercise their free speech,” Avalos told The Bay Citizen on Wednesday. “The worry is that people would feel that how they move around could get tracked and that could have a chilling effect on free speech.”...

Treasure Island sites safe from radiation, health officials say

October 25, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen

Michael Short/The Bay Citizen A fenced-off residential area on Treasure Island warns of possible radioactivity left behind by the U.S. Navy. 

State health officials have declared day care and youth centers, ballfields, some residential backyards and other sites on Treasure Island safe from radiation in response to fears about the area’s nuclear past.

The surveys taken from 24 publically accessible locations were not part of the Navy’s scheduled cleanup program, but were prompted by public concern about exposure to radioactivity on the former Treasure Island Naval Station...

Students support, but don't always eat, new school lunches

October 24, 2012, 12:05 AM | Joanna Lin, California Watch

Joanna Lin/California Watch Students pick up food during lunch at Harte Elementary School in Long Beach. 

In a taste test of new lunch items last year at the Long Beach Unified School District, the "fiesta salad" received a nearly 73 percent approval rating. One student even declared that the dish of pinto beans, cilantro, corn, tomatoes and cayenne pepper was "better than McDonald's." Yet the salad was a flop when the district put it on the menu this year.

Long Beach Unified isn't the only district in California dealing with lunchtime trial and error. In an effort to feed kids healthier foods, new federal nutrition standards require schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, regulate calories, and emphasize whole grains, among other changes.

A new statewide survey shows that while students overwhelmingly support the new nutrition standards, most are tossing the foods they don't like. About 40 percent of students say they eat school lunches in their entirety, according to the survey commissioned by The California Endowment, which provides funding to a number of media organizations,...

In search of quality teachers, charter network trains its own

October 24, 2012, 12:05 AM | Lillian Mongeau, The Hechinger Report

Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report Mentor Amy Youngman helps resident teacher-in-training Danny Shapiro plan for his next week of teaching. 

Amy Youngman’s seventh- and eighth-grade humanities students had left for the day. Other than some shouts from the after-school program in the courtyard, all was quiet in her second-floor classroom here.

Youngman’s day of teaching at Oakland’s ERES Academy – part of the Aspire charter school network – wasn’t over, though.

Nor was Danny Shapiro’s day of learning. Shapiro, not 13 but 30, is learning to be a teacher. Youngman, three years younger than Shapiro but with six years of teaching already under her belt, is his mentor.

“Highs and lows?” Youngman asked Shapiro across the wide table that served as her desk...

Survey: Drinking water compliance eludes some California schools

October 23, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

Courtesy of Turlock Unified School District Students at Turlock High School can get water at two state-of-the-art hydration stations in the cafeteria. 

Since the start of the 2010 school year, thirsty students at Turlock High School can visit a “hydration station,” a state-of-the-art drinking fountain that provides filtered and chilled water. 

The high-tech fountain, which has also filled nearly 9,000 water bottles at Turlock High, south of Modesto, is part of the district’s effort to comply with recently passed state and federal laws that require free, fresh water to be served at schools wherever meals are served or eaten.

Proponents of these laws said that the requirement promotes improved learning. “Research shows that kids that are healthy and hydrated learn better and miss less school,” said Michael Danzik, nutrition education consultant with the California Department of Education.

There are also health benefits to the requirement, said Stephen Onufrak of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. "Providing access to free drinking water is a strategy to support healthy drink choices among children,” he wrote in an email...

Bay Area startups await crowdfunding rules

October 23, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Drange, The Bay Citizen

401kcalculator.org/Flickr

How much online advertising is too much?

That’s one of the questions before the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as it finalizes regulations to let companies to raise money from investors through crowdfunding.

The advertising regulations are one of a slew of issues the SEC must address in order to implement the federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which includes a provision that will allow startups to raise money by selling shares to investors through websites known as funding portals.

The JOBS Act, signed by President Barack Obama in April, attempts to adapt the popular idea of Internet crowdfunding to the sophisticated business of selling securities.

The SEC’s rules are eagerly awaited by some high-tech and financial startups in the Bay Area, which would be able to sell shares without restrictions enacted over the years to protect naïve investors from throwing their money away.

Currently, crowdfunding websites are limited to rewards-based models like Kickstarter, where people can donate money in exchange for goods. An individual soliciting donations to support the production of a documentary, for example, might give free copies of the finished product to investors...

Binge drinking may cause more harm than daily imbibing

October 22, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

calispera/Flickr Binge drinking causes more damage to the brain than steady, moderate drinking, according to a new study. 

The pattern of knocking back a few drinks every few days, followed by days of no drinking, can cause more brain damage in rats than drinking moderately every day, say scientists from The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

And the damage caused to the prefrontal cortex sets up a cycle of craving more and more alcohol during the dry periods, so over-drinking occurs when finally given the opportunity to drink. This is, in part, the result of damage that disrupts the processes that normally inhibit reckless behavior.

“Believe me, I’m not saying people should drink every day and have unlimited access to alcohol,” said Olivier George, lead researcher on the study and senior staff scientist at Scripps. “We’re just saying that binge drinking can cause a lot of damage.”

George, a neuropharmacologist, was looking at the differences in behavior, brain function and physiology in rats exposed to unlimited amounts of alcohol and those that could drink only on...

Plans for busy SF bus line catch many riders unawares

October 22, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Big changes are coming to San Francisco’s most heavily traveled and historic bus line – but few people know about them, according to a new survey of transit passengers.

Plans to install two separated bus-only lanes on Geary Boulevard to speed up the 38-Geary line have been in the works for years and are now advancing slowly toward reality. But of 600 riders surveyed this summer, 57 percent had not heard about the project, according to the results released earlier this month by the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, a group that advocates for Muni riders.

San Francisco County Transportation Authority planners say that the bus rapid transit project would transform the line that carries 50,000 riders a day, the most in the system, into something more like a train. With a dedicated bus lane in each direction, low-floor buses would arrive at more regular intervals to carry passengers between the quiet west side of the city and downtown. It’s scheduled to open in 2019...

Hearst Castle waived event fees as nearby parks struggled

October 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Stephanie Snyder, California Watch

Jayson Mellon/The Tribune, San Luis Obispo At some private events, guests may swim in the famed Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. 

While nearly 70 of California’s state parks fought to escape closure from budget cuts, the crown jewel of the park system – Hearst Castle – waived $611,000 in private event fees over the last decade for select individuals and organizations, including the politically connected.

Hearst Castle, the lavish 165-room estate on a San Simeon hill overlooking the Pacific coast and Highway 1, has been the venue of choice for 125 events since 2002, ranging from weddings to fundraisers, birthday bashes to cocktail parties.

Most of the excused events were hosted by local partnerships, but politics also played a role in deciding who had to pay full price and who didn’t, said Nick Franco, superintendent for the state Department of Parks and Recreation's San Luis Obispo Coast District.

More than a fifth of the total – $124,450 – was waived for the birthday party of former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and a charity race led by Maria Shriver while she was California's first lady. The race benefited an international nonprofit,...

Medical board revokes license of prolific opioid prescriber

October 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Michael Short/California Watch Edward Manougian was one of the state’s most prolific prescribers of opioid painkillers. 

The state medical board has revoked the license of an East Bay physician who prescribed high amounts of narcotic pain medications to indigent patients, three of whom died while under his care.

Administrative Law Judge Mary-Margaret Anderson concluded that Edward Manougian, 83, prescribed excessive amounts and did little to monitor possible medication abuse or sales on the streets.

“With blinders firmly in place, he conducted his practice in accordance with his own idiosyncratic views and methods, in disregard of the safety of his patients and the public health,” Anderson wrote in a proposed decision adopted last Friday by the state’s medical board.

Manougian declined to comment in detail about the decision, only saying, “What you put out was total lies, and everybody who knows me knows it’s a total lie.”

In July, California Watch examined the medical board's administrative court case against Manougian, who was one of the state’s most prolific prescribers of opioid painkillers to low-income...

Historic SF law library in jeopardy if city can’t find new site

October 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

tlegend/Shutterstock

Robert L. Ferris, an estate-planning attorney, says the documents he has accessed through the San Francisco Law Library have helped him handle cases for nearly two decades.

But he might be on his own next year when the War Memorial Veterans Building, which houses the historic library, closes for renovation in May.

“The law library is a resource that I’ve relied on for years,” Ferris said. “The reason my office is located where it is is because the courts are close and the library is close.”

City and county officials are required to provide space for the library and fund its operation, but a new location has not been secured.

Former State Bar President Jon Streeter is among more than 700 lawyers, legal groups, students, judges and others who sent a letter in May urging Mayor Ed Lee and county supervisors to find a new home for the library...

GOP activist leads Ariz. group pouring millions into Calif. ballot fight

October 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

AlexKalina/istockphoto.com

The Arizona group that dumped $11 million into California's ballot measure melee this week is led by a Republican activist who calls labor unions "the parasite that is killing our jobs."

Robert Graham, a candidate for Arizona Republican Party chairman, heads Americans for Responsible Leadership, a little-known group that delivered $11 million to a committee fighting a tax increase on November's ballot and supporting a measure that would weaken the political clout of unions. The money will either go toward opposing Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure, or supporting Proposition 32, which would ban the use of payroll-deducted dues for political purposes.

Americans for Responsible Leadership was formed last year by three Arizona businessmen, including Graham. The other directors are Eric Wnuck, who ran an unsuccessful campaign in the Republican primary in a 2010 congressional race, and Steve Nickolas, a bottled water entrepreneur....

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