You can lead people to their newspaper, but you can’t make them read it
How ironic. On the eve of Earth Day, concerned citizens pleaded with the Winters City Council last week to change its plans to bulldoze the last wild patch of land along the Putah Creek Nature Park trail and the council essentially said “thank you (not so much) for sharing that with us.” If you want to see the heron, otter and beaver that live there, don’t wait too long.
Two council members, Pierre Neu and Woody Fridae, genuinely listened to public comments and expressed an interest in exploring a compromise. However, Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and Councilmember Harold Anderson were staunchly opposed to any changes to the creek plan, and Councilmember Wade Cowan seemed to lean toward agreement. So, on an informal split vote, the public’s wishes were denied. As for the animals living there? Pish posh, they’ll just move on. And, those who endorse the destruction of the wild patch insist that when everything’s all finished, the animals will return. I asked Tim Caro, UC Davis professor of wildlife biology, his opinion on that.
“There is no scientific basis for this point of view,” replied Caro. “In general, the more you clear (sanitize) riverine habitat, the less biodiversity you will find there and in the water next to it. Furthermore, dredging and bulldozing will frighten animals away. They may return to this area or they may not.”
Eh, so the animals don’t come back, and that includes that piebald beaver that’s so rare, state Fish & Wildlife personnel have never even heard of one. Who cares. We have a park to build!
Yay, Earth Day!
At the meeting, Fridae asked City Manager John Donlevy why no one from the creek project attended or commented. Donlevy stared at his desktop and didn’t answer, and the conversation bounced along to the next comment. I think I know why: True dialogue was never intended. The item appeared last-minute on the agenda as a hollow gesture — a hoop reluctantly jumped through. Corroborating evidence: Although the creek item was promised to appear on that agenda, when it arrived for publication in the Express, it wasn’t. Merely an oversight? I’m highly skeptical. I think city staff wanted as little attention given to this topic as possible.
All that said, would the inclusion of the creek item on the published agenda actually have mattered? Would others have shown up to speak? My inner pessimist says “no.” Evidence: There was a letter to the editor from concerned citizens in last week’s Express regarding a downtown hotel that will be built without any additional parking being added. City Hall’s parking lot will be dedicated to the hotel, and the people parking there now will simply have to park elsewhere, like a game of musical parking spaces.
But: We ran a front page story about this in the Express last fall, with a headline something like “No new parking for downtown hotel.” Not a peep of protest. I pointed this out to one of the letter-signers. She replied, “Oh, I never read the Express.”
Sadly, there wasn’t a wall nearby for me to go bang my head against slowly.
Similarly, on a Facebook thread of disappointment about the impending destruction of the wild patch, one person asked, “Why didn’t I hear about this before?” I posted, “I wrote two columns about it… *sigh*.” The person replied, “I don’t read the Express.”
It would be easy to just snap, “Read the newspaper, dammit!” But there’s a complicating factor: The Express only comes out once per week, well before the required 72-hour notice to post council agendas. So, I must nip city staff’s heels to turn in whatever’s on the agenda so far every Tuesday at the last possible moment, while going to press. The agenda they provide is skeletal at best. Had the creek item appeared on the agenda, it likely would’ve said “Putah Creek Nature Park Phase Three.” Show that to 100 Winters residents on the street, and they’ll shrug. It means nothing to them. But “Scheduled bulldozing of Putah Creek habitat” would.
As for hotel parking, the published planning commission agenda probably included a cryptic “Downtown hotel project,” followed by legal gibberish that might as well read “ee-I-eeh-I-oh.” Had it said “Waiver of additional parking for downtown hotel project,” those letter-writers might have paid attention. Which is just what city staff doesn’t want. My jaded personal opinion is that agendas submitted to the Express are carefully gleaned of any information that might tweak the public’s interest, because the public is a nuisance.
If I’m wrong, I challenge city staff to submit clearly stated, informative agenda items, not legalese like “First reading of CEQA section 2510 mitigation regarding temporary master plan for parcel 9977.” If an average person can’t fathom the words, in my opinion, it is intentional obfuscation.
That said, it won’t make any difference if I faithfully publish clearly worded upcoming agendas if nobody reads them. When people say they can’t be bothered to read their only weekly newsletter, the Express, and then freak out because they aren’t being informed about what’s going on in town… all I can do is toss my hands in the air.
A guy stormed into the office awhile back, furious about the new library breaking ground on high school property.
“Why wasn’t the public notified?” he bellowed.
I led him over to our back issues, and counted eight front page stories about the library plans. Eight! What do I need to do? Knock on every door in town and personally inform people about what’s going on?
I am doing my part. I put the news right under your nose. City staff are doing their part, but only the bare minimum required by law. The city council is well-intended, but should lean harder on city staff to distribute information in a more meaningful, transparent fashion. The public? Aside from the relative few who actually pay attention, people, you are the weakest link. If you can’t be bothered to read your local newspaper, you don’t get to complain.