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Border agency looks to expand drone fleet

November 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Andrew Becker, California Watch

U.S. Customs and Border Protection A U.S. Customs and Border Protection unmanned aircraft, or drone. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection last month received its latest unmanned aircraft, but it’s a new sole-source contract that could approach a half-billion dollars that offers the latest insight into the agency’s vision for its controversial eyes-in-the-sky drone program.

The border agency has locked in a five-year deal with a San Diego-area aeronautical company estimated to be worth as much as $443 million, according to a document posted Nov. 1 on the federal government contracting opportunities website. An estimated $237 million of that would buy up to 14 drones and related equipment. Whether Customs and Border Protection will actually get the money to spend is another question.

Congress hasn’t appropriated funding beyond the 10th drone the agency just received, which will fly from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the agency hasn’t asked for any more for the 2013 fiscal year...

Win for environmental law is loss for Wal-Mart

November 16, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

Courtesy of Wal-Mart

A state appellate court has dealt a blow to Wal-Mart’s strategy of using petition drives to push through approval of new superstores while avoiding California’s environmental law.

In a cookie-cutter pattern documented by California Watch, the mega-retailer bankrolled local signature-gathering efforts to build superstores or repeal restrictions on big-box stores in five California cities last year. Once 15 percent of local voters signed the petitions, city councils had to either approve the projects or hold a special election, which can be costly. Wal-Mart then urged cities to approve the petition rather than send it to voters, angering some officials who felt bullied.

Wal-Mart has said the strategy is necessary to avoid politically motivated lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Voter-approved ballot measures that stem from petitions are exempt from environmental review and protected from CEQA lawsuits. Wal-Mart argued that when a city approves one of its petitions without an election, the project would be protected, too.

But in a strongly worded opinion, a three-judge appellate panel ruled late last month that the landmark environmental law still applies...

Homeland Security office OKs efforts to monitor threats via social media

November 15, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

Brian Lane Winfield Moore/Flickr

A little-known privacy office in the Department of Homeland Security has given its stamp of approval to an ongoing initiative aimed at monitoring social media sites for emerging threats.

Congress created the department’s privacy office in 2003 to review major initiatives and databases and make certain those initiatives respected the rights of Americans, while also enabling homeland security officials to better collect and share information about possible terrorism and criminal suspects.

The department first began experimenting with the possibility of social media monitoring in 2010 with pilot programs that targeted public reactions to the earthquake in Haiti, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The privacy office has since conducted compliance reviews every six months, with the most recent assessment [PDF] published last week.

Although the pilot programs were narrow in focus, privacy and civil liberties groups have long worried that the department’s monitoring would expand to all online speech with no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred...

For-profit Career Education Corp. to close 23 campuses

November 13, 2012, 12:05 AM | Erica Perez, California Watch

alejandrophotography/istockphoto.com

For-profit college giant Career Education Corp. announced that it will close 23 of its 90 campuses and eliminate 900 jobs after the company reported a net loss this quarter of $33 million and a 23 percent drop in new student enrollment.

The company, which owns six campuses in California, has not said which of its campuses will close, but stated in a disclosure to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it wants to invest in campuses that have the strongest likelihood of delivering solid job placement rates for students and are the most efficient.

The company has not yet notified the campuses that will close but will begin to in the next 30 days, Chief Financial Officer Colleen O’Sullivan said in a conference call Friday.

In California, Career Education runs the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, the International Academy of Design & Technology in Sacramento, the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and Ventura, and two Le Cordon Bleu campuses in Los Angeles and Sacramento...

San Francisco to track bedbugs' trails

November 13, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski, The Bay Citizen

jareynolds/Shutterstock.com

San Francisco bedbugs: Stand up and be counted.

That is the message from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approved an ordinance last week that aims to give the city a more accurate picture of where the pests lurk.

Exterminators will now be required to report to the Department of Public Health about the number of units that they treat for bedbugs each month. While they won’t have to include the address of the infested apartments or hotels, they will be required to identify each unit’s census tract to help chart the bugs’ distribution around the city.

“From a public health point of view, it’s very important to be able to target your resources, and this will give us a chance to do this,” said Karen Cohn, a program manager at the department’s Environmental Health section.

While the bedbug population has increased nationally in recent years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city of San Francisco does not have reliable data on the persistent pests’ prevalence here...

Goodwill pushes for greater regulation of donation boxes

November 12, 2012, 11:25 AM | Kendall Taggart, California Watch

Kendall Taggart/California Watch A USAgain donation box in Oakland 

Local Goodwill chapters recently lost their fight for stronger state regulation of donation boxes when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have required organizations to get written consent before putting boxes on private property.

But in cities and counties across the country, Goodwills are pushing for municipal and state regulation – and often winning. Local chapters have argued that donation boxes divert money from the community and contribute to blight. 

Goodwill chapters have helped pass legislation in several states, including New Jersey and Michigan.

The Goodwill Industries International headquarters in Maryland provides support to community-based Goodwill agencies seeking regulation, but it is not seeking legislation nationwide, said Lauren Lawson, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.

Two years ago, California Council of Goodwill Industries successfully pushed for state legislation that required owners of a donation box to clearly display information about whether it was a for-profit or nonprofit organization.

As collection bins become an increasingly common phenomenon, local officials are stepping in with ordinances and fees. Berkeley, Sacramento and San Pablo, for example, have already placed restrictions on donation boxes....

Some DMV voter registrations fall through cracks, registrars say

November 12, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

plherrera/istockphoto.com

Jonathan Eldridge wanted to vote for president.

The Santa Rosa resident had registered to vote – or so he thought – at a Department of Motor Vehicles office several months ago. But when he called the Sonoma County registrar last week to find out why he hadn’t received any ballot information, Eldridge was told there was no record of his registration.

Eldridge's only option was to come to the registrar's office, apply for a last-minute court order allowing him to vote and hope that a judge would approve it. 

"I was appalled," said Eldridge, 44, who works for a computer forensics company. "I was like, 'How can someone deny me the right to vote?' I couldn’t believe it."

County registrars are all too familiar with the problem. They say every year, they hear from a smattering of frustrated citizens who tried to register at the DMV, only to find themselves ineligible to vote. Sonoma County had 25 applications for court orders to vote this year. Santa Cruz County had about 60, mostly from people who tried to register at DMV offices.

 

There have been problems since the federal "motor voter" law took effect in 1995, requiring the DMV and other agencies to offer applications, said Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County's clerk and registrar.

Pellerin's motto, she said, is: "You...

Domestic violence survey finds shift in attitudes, awareness

November 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

dem10/istockphoto.com

A new survey of Californians' attitudes on domestic violence found that the vast majority of respondents believe that the abuse can happen to anyone, and 66 percent said that they have a friend or family member who has been a victim.

The survey is a rare measure of public attitudes and awareness toward domestic violence among adults in the state.

It was conducted by San Francisco polling firm Tulchin Research and was funded by the Blue Shield of California Foundation. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish with 900 randomly selected adults who were called on cellphones and landlines. The findings were released to California Watch this week.

Victim advocates said that the results of the survey illustrate a marked shift in public opinion and awareness of the topic in recent decades.

 

Thirty years ago, domestic violence “was not an issue that people would talk about or that people felt was a serious problem,” said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, a national anti-violence organization that receives funding from the Blue Shield of California Foundation. “For most people, they thought that if it happened at all, it happened someplace else.”...

Air Force ships Calif. radioactive waste to Idaho landfill

November 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, California Watch

A Periam Photograph/Shutterstock

After California regulators refused to allow the U.S. Air Force to label residue from radioactive aircraft instruments as “naturally occurring” – declaring it unsuitable for a Bakersfield-area dump – the military turned to Idaho with the same story.

There, military officials met with success. The Air Force is now sending radioactive waste from Sacramento County’s McClellan Air Force Base to a Grand View, Idaho, hazardous waste landfill.

This solution involved a bit of legal semantics rejected in California despite 10 months of Air Force lobbying: The military claimed radium dust left over from glow-in-the-dark aircraft instruments actually was naturally occurring, putting it the same relatively lax regulatory category as mine tailings, according to government memos obtained by California Watch through a public records request.

Larry Morgan, a health physicist with the California Department of Public Health, disagreed with that characterization. Radioactive paint does not “meet the definition” of naturally occurring waste, he wrote in a September 2011 memo.

The Idaho facility’s permit allows it to accept materials defined as natural without notifying state regulators...

Facebook gives cash to N. Calif. town over traffic concerns

November 8, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Drange, The Bay Citizen

Noah Berger/For The Bay Citizen Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park 

Facebook’s move to Menlo Park late last year has created a small windfall for one of the richest communities on the Peninsula.

The town of Atherton, a wealthy enclave near the new Facebook campus, received $350,000 from the social media giant last month to allay its concerns over increased traffic.

Now the question for the town of 7,000 people is what to do with the cash.

“We’re not in a big hurry to spend the money,” said Atherton Mayor Bill Widmer. “We have a number of issues we’re looking at.”

The payment is the smallest Facebook has made to appease its new hometown and neighboring communities.

 

East Palo Alto, one of the poorest cities in the region, received $650,000 from Facebook to compensate for increased congestion on its streets.

Menlo Park, meanwhile, received $1.1 million to finance street improvements and other projects to handle the thousands of employees working at the new location.

Facebook also will pay Menlo Park at least $8.5 million over the next 10 years to offset the loss of local sales taxes formerly generated by Sun Microsystems, the computer software company that used to occupy the space Facebook now calls home. Menlo Park does not levy a sales tax on...

Winners, losers emerge in frenzied spending on state initiatives

November 7, 2012, 1:24 PM | Lance Williams, California Watch

Neon Tommy/Flickr Molly Munger donated $44.1 million to pass Proposition 38, a measure to raise taxes for public education. The initiative failed.

Multimillionaire activists, big labor unions and major corporations combined to pump more than $363 million into political fights over 11 propositions on Tuesday’s state ballot, a California Watch analysis shows.

That’s about $20 in political spending for each of California’s 18.2 million registered voters.

By law, state ballot initiatives are exempt from the tough donation limits that otherwise apply in California elections.

In contests over proposed tax increases, car insurance rates, criminal justice reforms and political spending by labor unions, donors with deep pockets took full advantage.

Forty-seven donors – individuals, companies and political committees – donated more than $1 million apiece on initiative campaigns, a review of campaign finance data provided by MapLight.org shows.

Seven donors each gave $11 million or more...

Medical board steps up investigations of fake doctors

November 7, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Lisa S./Shutterstock.com

The state medical board has investigated a mounting number of people posing as doctors and offering risky treatments, including a San Francisco man who performed liposuction while smoking a cigar and a San Diego woman who sickened a patient with lengthy IV infusion treatments.

The Medical Board of California reported that its unit that investigates lay people posing as medical professionals, called Operation Safe Medicine, sent 61 cases to prosecutors for review for the fiscal year ending in June, up from 31 cases the year before.

The numbers were released Friday in the Sunset Review Report, a comprehensive review of medical board operations over recent years. The report, which is issued when the board’s charter is set to be renewed by lawmakers, calls for more staff to launch a Northern California unit in addition to the existing six-person Southern California Operation Safe Medicine team.

“The Board believes that the OSM Unit is imperative in order to protect the public from the actions of unlicensed practitioners,” Jennifer Simoes, the medical board's chief of legislation, said in a statement. “OSM staff has the specialized training and expertise necessary to address the continued proliferation of unlicensed cases.”...

Unspent bonds cost state millions in interest payments

November 7, 2012, 12:01 AM | Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

selensergen/Shutterstock.com

Some California agencies and departments have been slow to distribute proceeds from bond sales for local projects, costing the state at least $49 million in interest each year even as it has struggled to address chronic budget shortfalls.

As of June, according to the most recent figures available, the state was holding on to about $7 billion from the sale of general obligation bonds, according to a report by the California State Auditor. A little less than half of that amount was from bonds that had been idle for more than two years, the report noted.  

State officials acknowledged they could do more to reduce the interest payments, most of which are covered by the state’s operating budget.

“I don’t think there is any question that the responsible agencies could be doing a better job getting money out the door,” said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for the state treasurer’s office, adding: “Obviously, there is more work to be done.”

Since taking office in January last year, Gov. Jerry Brown has significantly reduced the volume of unspent bonds that he inherited from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger...

Meth vaccine shows promise in early testing

November 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Bien Stephenson/Flickr Researchers are developing a vaccine to thwart meth addiction. 

Considered one of the most widely abused and addictive recreational drugs, researchers may be one step closer to knocking down the destructive pull of methamphetamine.

A team of scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla has developed a vaccine that appears to protect against meth intoxication in laboratory animals.

The next step will be to see if it works in people, too.

“This is an early-stage study, but its results are comparable to those for other drug vaccines that have gone to clinical trials,” said Michael Taffe, a Scripps researcher with the institute’s Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders.

The study was released online last week in the journal Biological Psychiatry...

Community college bucks trend on naming rights

November 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Erica Perez, California Watch

uvw916a/Flickr Three Stages at Folsom Lake College will be renamed the Harris Center for the Arts, after the Los Rios Community College District's former chancellor. 

Cash-strapped colleges seem to take every opportunity to rustle up funding from donors for naming rights – College of the Desert recently named two buildings after two different donors, and City College of San Francisco even attempted in 2009 to get donors to sponsor individual classes.

But the Los Rios Community College District is bucking the trend. The Board of Trustees voted in August to honor outgoing district Chancellor Brice Harris by naming the district's performing arts center after him – for free. That has some community leaders balking at what they say are lost opportunities...

Fewer felons eligible to serve sentences in county jails

November 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Michael Montgomery, California Watch

Dawn Endico/Flickr

As California struggles to meet a court-ordered reduction of its prison population, newly released figures show corrections officials overstated the number of low-level offenders eligible to be diverted to local jurisdictions as part of Gov. Jerry Brown's public safety realignment plan.

At issue are inmates who were being sent to state prisons for parole and other technical violations and became eligible to serve their sentences in county jails after Oct. 1, 2011.

Corrections officials long have argued that the churn of low-level felons in and out of state prisons was a major factor in overcrowding. Closing the revolving door to prison by sending those offenders to county jails instead – as envisioned under realignment – would be a major element in resolving the crisis, they said.

Speaking at a media event at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in March, Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate put the figure at 47,000 offenders who had served terms of 90 days or less in 2011. 

“Those guys were just going through our system so quickly, but they were keeping those beds full and crowding our system,” he said...

Bay Area nonprofits defend some tax breaks for the wealthy

November 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Amy Julia Harris, The Bay Citizen

PinkTag/istockphoto.com

They help drug addicts in the Tenderloin, feed hungry children and aid struggling public schools. They’re also big fans of tax breaks for America’s millionaires.

Bay Area nonprofits, which often advocate for some of the neediest Americans, are finding themselves the unlikely defenders of a politically unpopular stance: keeping some tax loopholes for the rich.

“It’s a paradox,” said Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, a coalition of more than 1,600 charities. “The nonprofit sector, which roots for the underdog, supports tax breaks to the wealthy because charitable deductions help us.”

Tax policy has been a hot topic in this year’s presidential campaign, with both candidates floating proposals to broaden the tax base by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

While Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been vague on specifics, he has said he wants to limit the wealthiest taxpayers’ deductions, which could directly affect charities’ bottom lines. In the Oct. 3 presidential debate, he proposed putting a $25,000 or $50,000 cap on all itemized deductions.

President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal pushed for capping the charitable deduction at 28 percent for taxpayers at the highest marginal income rate. Those are individuals whose annual income is greater than $...

Soda tax would boost health of Latinos, blacks, study says

November 4, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

RTimages/Shutterstock

A tax on soda would carry the greatest health benefits for black and Latino Californians, who face the highest risks of diabetes and heart disease, according to recent research findings.

The study found that if a penny-per-ounce tax was applied to soda, cuts in consumption would result in an 8 percent decline in diabetes cases among blacks and Latinos. The statewide reduction in new diabetes cases is projected at 3 to 5.6 percent, according to researchers from UC San Francisco, Columbia University and Oregon State University, who released their findings at last week's American Public Health Association annual meeting in San Francisco.

The study was unveiled as a sugar-sweetened beverage tax faces votes in El Monte, in Los Angeles County, and Richmond, in the Bay Area. A statewide excise tax was proposed but died in the California Legislature in 2010.

Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said he has visited Richmond to urge support for the measure. He said he heard residents speak of loved ones who’ve been affected by diabetes complications – such as limb amputations...

Food companies fight 'genetically modified' label measure

November 2, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

mary_thompson/Flickr

The companies that make those candy bars leftover from Halloween don’t want Californians to be spooked by scary tales of “Frankenfoods.”

The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA and Mars Inc. – makers of such trick-or-treat favorites as Butterfinger, Kit Kat and Snickers bars – gave a combined $367,000 last month to oppose Proposition 37, which would require labeling of genetically modified foods. They are just a few of the major food and biotechnology companies that have poured more than $44 million into the fight against Prop. 37, according to campaign finance tracker MapLight.org...

Soda industry pours millions into campaign to defeat Richmond tax

November 2, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Drange, The Bay Citizen

Rex Sorgatz/Flickr

The beverage industry has spent nearly $2.5 million to crush a soda tax ballot measure in Richmond, records show, in a costly bid to keep the idea of taxing sugary drinks from spreading nationwide.

“This is basically a battleground in a national debate," said Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for the campaign against Richmond’s Measure N. "The consequence might be that other cities follow suit.”

The measure on Tuesday’s ballot aims to reduce obesity in Richmond by placing a penny-per-ounce tax on businesses that sell sugar-sweetened beverages. The measure would raise an estimated $3 million a year, which local officials have promised to spend on youth athletic and health programs.

If voters approve the measure, Richmond could become the first city in the country to impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, including soda, chocolate milk and so-called energy drinks such as Red Bull.

A similar measure is on the ballot in the Southern California city of El Monte. As of last week, the industry had contributed nearly $1.3 million to defeat that measure, much of it for advertisements targeting ethnic communities...

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