In the 1960s, California was the beacon of the peace movement. As a transplant here myself, I regularly meet people who flocked to the West Coast during the Sixties and Seventies in typical Woodstock-ish fashion: load up the VW van, drive cross country, see America, and maybe smoke a little something to enlighten the senses.

It kind of seems surprising that years later, the stigma surrounding most drugs — including that devil reefer marijuana — hasn’t been lifted. In fact, it’s worse than ever.

This week alone, just south of the Ventura County line, Westlake Village officials were the target of a lawsuit because they barred a medical marijuana dispensary from operating.

Ventura said it would “consider” (read: put on the back burner) allowing a similar dispensary within city limits. From the low priority sounds of it, we know that won’t happen anytime soon. Though it’s worth noting that at least one-half of the council seems open to the idea of letting dispensaries operate here.

It would be pretty groundbreaking if it did in this rigid area. There’s been enough dissension against the idea of legal pot, in medicinal form, that the county’s main advocate for allowing medical marijuana dispensaries told me personally a few months back that he decided to stop trying because of the discouragement.

Of course, with the discouragement also comes a whole lot of interest on behalf of disabled patients of all kinds who have written letters to the editor in support of having a dispensary in their neighborhood.

The decades-long backlash against pot seems surprising to me because A. The effects of marijuana use have not been proven as sinister as the effects of tobacco, and B. Cigarette smoking is now seeing limited prohibitions across the country.

Calabasas was the progenitor, last year banning smoking just about everywhere that’s a public place. Thousand Oaks recently enacted lighter, though no less stringent guidelines, for tobacco users, and Camarillo has hinted at considering similar restrictions on smoking.

There’s been more outcry in Ventura County over the lag in allowing pot altogether than there’s been over the slow, disallowing of cigarette smoking. The paradigm, in many ways, is shifting … yet cigarette smoking and marijuana use (medical, mind you) seem to get in the way of one another.

Should we ban smoking cigarettes altogether? This columnist seems to think so:

If we did that, we wouldn’t have any more sales tax revenue from cigarettes … but then we wouldn’t be spending tax dollars on health care for people afflicted with smoking-related illnesses (because the illnesses wouldn’t happen). The ones who are ill could safely obtain medical marijuana, and presumably, the drug would still be illegal for recreational consumption. Considering the numerous ways medical MJ can be ingested, most patients probably wouldn’t even be smoking it.

It might be a pipe dream at this point, but if that pipe ever gets put to use, at least we wouldn’t have to deal with a big plume of cigarette smoke to cloud the medical marijuana debate in Ventura County.

If Oxnard's debt was edible, it'd look something like this.

If Oxnard's debt was edible, it'd look something like this.

The timing must surely have been coincidental.

Not more than a week after Gov. Schwarzenegger informed the public that the state will need to issue IOUs to its creditors and contractors if California can’t come up with enough dough soon, our very own Oxnard votes to issue bond notes to make up for $21 million that isn’t there.

It was the next best thing the city could do short of issuing an IOU, scrawled on a City of Oxnard napkin, to a developer who pulled out of a land deal at the last minute.

Now, officials are faced with millions more in debt, on top of the millions in debt they already have, and it could be decades until it’s all paid off.

By that time, this could turn into a nasty habit and Oxnard will be further in debt, issuing IOUs and emergency bond notes to pay back money that isn’t there.

If Oxnard’s debt was a sandwich, the city better go on a diet quick, because the calories are climbing fast.

Oxnard leaders are claiming that they couldn’t have seen it coming, what with housing developer Casden pulling out and asking for a refund. But the company’s contract stated they could renege at any time.

It just so happens they waited until the eleventh hour of their deadline to do so … which is practical, really. Why not wait until your allotted time is up to feel how the housing market is going? Casden acted in their best interests.

So did Oxnard, too. They did what they thought was practical. But rather than wait as Casden did, Oxnard went right to work and used the money from the deal to make capital improvements to golf courses and recreational land.

Whether or not those improvements are practical depends on how necessary they are. Is spending millions on 18-hole landscaping worth going into debt for?

It’s not when considering the Oxnard City Council ignored the developer’s “pull-out” clause, arrogantly sure the land deal was a done deal. It wasn’t, and essentially, they spent money that wasn’t there.

Sound familiar? It should, considering that we’re talking about a city who could epitomize our local example of why the economy is in such a mess. It’s not the first time Oxnard has racked up dollar signs in the red instead of the black.

We can lambast cities like Ventura or Camarillo all we want for being slowpoke and slow-growth, but at least those towns take their time to develop until the money is there. (Most of the time, anyway.)

In a way, Oxnard is its own worst enemy. Ambition, vision and drive are all good things, but they can be detrimental when trying to achieve something one can’t afford.

It happens all the time in places of employment: there could be a vision to improve and surpass the competition, but without the manpower, the resources or financial backing, a company can fall short, or even fall behind the pack.

Oxnard should take their bond issuing predicament as a lesson learned — that bigger isn’t always better, and that patience is a virtue (especially when it comes to saving money.)

Somebody get Oxnard an antacid … there’s a debt sandwich that needs to be eaten fast.

Meeting a legend

July 20, 2009

With CNN's Larry King in Oxnard, Saturday, July 18.

With CNN's Larry King in Oxnard, Saturday, July 18.

One of the best moments in my life came this weekend when I had the chance to shake hands with Larry King, host of CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

King appeared Saturday evening at the Topa Tower Club in Oxnard to promote his autobiography, “My Remarkable Journey.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone who met the journalistic legend.

I’ve seen and encountered the likes of Hollywood celebrities before, but they pale in comparison to meeting someone like King, an American institution, a dignitary, whose impact on modern media is unrivaled. This is a man who’s interviewed tens of thousands of people in his lifetime, with one of the longest running talk programs in the history of television.

Our recent interview with Mr. King can be found at this link:

It’s like the movie that gets panned and criticized to no end, yet turns out to be the sleeper hit that surprises everyone.

The Ventura City Council’s vote this week to start a pilot program aimed at easing our homeless problem was like that kind of film: something that got built up and blown out of disastrous proportions, but ending up passing with little outcry or fanfare from the public.

Why? Because misinformation can grow like a weed and make people react prematurely to things they know nothing about (but think they do).

And to our paper’s credit, it wasn’t until we sat down and published the comprehensive facts on the matter that people read it, realized it’s a practical choice to make, and decided that protesting the city council actually wasn’t necessary.

The week before, the city’s proposed program to allow homeless people designated times and places to sleep in their cars was made out by some Venturans to sound like the homeless would take over and terrorize the city with drunkenness and crime.

I was expecting mobs of people lined up outside city hall boycotting and damning the program on Monday night.

I had sat down at a Downtown Ventura Organization meeting last week and was witness to this type of thinking. I couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief to hear that some business owners truly, truly believed their livelihoods were in jeopardy, panicked over the notion of giving the homeless some extra freedoms.

It was all the more unbelievable considering I’d sat down the day before at city hall with the man in charge of the project who spelled it out for me, word for word, and described in detail what sounds like an innovative program for homeless transition.

But I suppose panic thinking could be an unchangeable part of human nature. People will always run with rumor and hearsay before getting all the facts straight. Working at a newspaper, where facts are our foundation, will make these things more evident to the journalistic eye.

Yet it all makes the downbeat response at Monday’s city council a good thing. It goes to show that once people did get the facts straight, there’s nothing to protest because the sleeping in cars project is a good idea.

Of course, getting people to admit their reactions and opinions were wrong and uninformed … well, that’s another problem no pilot program can ever solve.

One of the reasons why I went to school to study journalism is because I suck at math. Though I have great respect for the numerical process, it’s never been my strong suit. I’m one of those people who struggles with calculating the gratuity on a restaurant bill.

Yet it doesn’t take a dummy to figure out that simple ratios can sometimes make all the difference when trying to find the answer to complicated problems.

This week I’m thinking about a pilot program Ventura city officials are looking to adopt that would allow homeless people, who have a car, a safe place to sleep in their vehicles, in designated areas, for designated amounts of time.

It’s not called the “Safe Sleep” program for nothing, designed as a place for the destitute to lay their head, free of an environment of drugs, alcohol or violence.

So why are people in Ventura in such an uproar about it? For one, they doubt the security of the program and wrongly claim, through some self-perceived divine authority, that allowing homeless people to sleep in parking lots across town welcomes criminal behavior.

The same people, especially those with “interests” in the downtown’s retail future, are also worrying that our downtown parking lots will become festering grounds teeming with hundreds of  homeless people, night after night.

There seems to be a belief that if the program passes, the lot on Main and Oak, or the lot on Santa Clara and Palm, for example, will turn into overcrowded homeless campgrounds, where every space is taken, broken glass litters the pavement, drunkenness abounds and public parking for the general public is nil.

People: this is not some football game tailgate party! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that someone has done some poor math.

Take this: there are just over 100,000 people living in the City of Ventura. According to the most recent numbers, we have about 620 homeless people here. The number of homeless people looked at for this program is much, much smaller than that. Try about 15 for the pilot.

That’s the word we’ve gotten from authorities … that number is not even enough to fill up a small corner of the smallest parking lot in Downtown Ventura.

In other words, the pilot program is designed to start small to solve a very big problem.

Considering the fact that the type of homeless person city officials are seeking is the homeless person receptive to service, open to self-improvement, and maybe even embarrassed by the “Homeless” tag, makes the complaining by those opposed to the program seem all the more whiny and self-serving.

It also smacks of knee-jerk thinking, too. Critics haven’t considered that homeless people are people, too, and they sleep the same time when you and I do: the middle of the night. Which means that the program takes place at night, when you’re not parking your car downtown to begin with. Not until the next day, of course, when the lot becomes vacant again.

There hasn’t even been any confirmation that public lots will even be a part of the pilot. But of course, when a bunch of NIMBYheads voice their uninformed concerns, panic ensues over nothing.

If you’re enraged at the safe sleep program, before approaching the city council about it on Monday, do the math first. Truly take a good, critical, unselfish look at how little your life will be impacted by giving up some parking spaces to a group of grateful, homeless people.

Then, tally up the amount of money in your bank account, subtract the total amount, take away your home from the equation, and consider how you’d feel if a program came along to help you get back on your feet again … and out of your car.

If people keep neglecting state cell phone regulations, expect this to happen soon.

If people keep neglecting state cell phone regulations, expect this to happen soon.

Happy Fourth of July weekend! If you’re calling someone on your cell phone to bestow the summertime holiday cheer, you’re most likely still doing it behind the wheel, according to local cops who say people are still ignoring cell phone laws set into place a year ago today.

That’s right, on July 1, 2008, California enacted two ordinances, one barring any motorist over 18 to drive a car while holding a cell phone; and the second barring anyone under 18 from using a cell phone at all when driving. Hands-free devices are allowed.

But it hasn’t made much of a difference, or so we hear from police. They say last July they issued over 700 citations to people violating the law, and that number steadily dropped over the rest of the year. But for some bold reason, since the turn of 2009, those numbers have gone up again, and, according to reports, in March drivers along the Central Coast racked up over 900 citations.

People, we’re hanging up on the law by picking up our phones!

What I didn’t realize was the paltry fee tacked onto a cell phone-while-driving offense. Twenty bucks is hardly anything to bat an eyelash at. Even with other procedural and administrative court costs, a speeding ticket still tends to set one back a bit more. I suggest raising the price tag on the cell phone infraction to deter people from yakking away at the wheel.

The consequences are heavier than just a ticket, too. Drop your phone, take your eyes off the road to scamper around your sedan’s interior, and you end up worse than Albert Brooks did in Defending Your Life.

If the two laws were gift horses, and we’re looking them square in the mouth, could legislators someday enact a total ban on cell phones while driving? It would set back technological advancement in California, for certain.

Less dialing, more driving!