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Local
Lemoore takes first step toward district-based elections

LEMOORE — With its back against the wall, so to speak, the city of Lemoore has declared its intent to have district-based elections starting in the November 2018 election.

At a specially-held Lemoore City Council meeting Wednesday evening, Council discussed transitioning from at-large elections to district-based elections for council members and voted unanimously to move forward with the process.

Lemoore currently uses an at-large election system, meaning voters from the entire city choose each member of the City Council. The candidates with the most votes are the people elected to the council seats.

A district-based election system is where the city is physically divided into separate districts, and each district has one councilmember who lives in the district and is chosen by the voters who also live in that district.

City Manager Nathan Olson said the city was planning on moving to district-based elections starting during the November 2020 election, but had to get the ball rolling a lot sooner due to some outside factors.

A staff report stated that the city received a letter in November from an attorney in Malibu who said the city’s at-large elections system violates the California Voting Rights Act and inhibits diversity within elected official positions. The letter also allegedly threatened the city with litigation if it does not voluntarily convert to district-based elections.

Mayor Ray Madrigal said Lemoore was perhaps one of the last cities to be given one of these letters, which he said attorneys have been sending to other cities throughout the state. He said not one city that has fought the demands has prevailed, citing the city of Palmdale, which spent $4.5 million on litigation.

“I think we really have our backs against the wall at this point,” Madrigal said. “I think it would be foolhardy for us to even consider fighting this any longer.”

Councilman Eddie Neal said he believed that the voters in Lemoore have a right to vote for all the council members and that whoever has the majority of votes should win; however, he didn’t want to spend the taxpayers’ money fighting for something when the city is essentially being strong-armed.

“To me, it’s risk management,” Councilman Dave Brown said, adding he didn’t think the city was up to taking on that risk.

Tom Reed, a resident of Lemoore and frequenter of council meetings, told council during public comment that his only concern would be gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of district boundary lines for political advantage.

Olson assured Reed that there would be no gerrymandering and the demographers would not know where the current councilmembers live. He also said the demographers have several options in seeking public input, including computer programs where residents can access a website and try their hand at creating a district map with boundaries.

“I think it’s important that we get enough people here to talk,” Olson said about ensuring public input. “But, Lemoore is eight-and-a-half square miles — I think it’s going to be hard to come up with more than a few maps for this town, anyways.”

Madrigal said it is a testament to the residents of Lemoore that there is already a diverse council and he sees nothing wrong with the way residents vote, but said it’s just something the city has to do. He said members will do the best they can to make sure the public has a voice and that everything is done fairly.

Councilwoman Holly Blair agreed, saying Council didn’t want to have to change the election style, but it would be the most responsible thing to do with the options they have been given.

“This is not being done because we somehow believe that this is necessary in our community. We already have a lot of good representation here, it looks very diverse,” Blair said. “We are representative of the community, but we are at a point where it will cost a lot more to kick this down the road than if we do it now.”

Blair moved to pass the resolution and declare the city’s intent to move toward district-based elections, which was passed 4-0 with Councilman Jeff Chedester absent. The cost of the process is not to exceed $50,000 and will come out of city reserves.

Because a resolution was passed, the city must now hold two public hearings within 30 days of each other, hire a demographer to draw up several map options and then hold three more public hearings before adopting a final ordinance. The entire process has to take place within 90 days.

The first two councilmembers that the change would affect are Madrigal and Chedester, whose terms are up in November 2018. Olson said the other three members would still be allowed to finish their terms, which end in 2020.


Business
AP
California pot shops roll out hoopla as sales set to start

SAN DIEGO — Live music. Free T-shirts. A "Fweedom" celebration with a mystery prize boxes worth up to $500, and a shot at a behind-the-scenes tour.

Marijuana legalization arrives Monday in California with lots of hoopla, but only a handful of cities will initially have retail outlets ready to sell recreational pot.

By Thursday afternoon, California had issued only 42 retail licenses. Another 150 applications were pending and regulators planned to work a second straight weekend to review them.

Los Angeles and San Francisco were late to approve local regulations, meaning no recreational pot shops there will open their doors Monday.

The lucky few outlets with licenses — mainly in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Palm Springs area and Santa Cruz — think they have an edge being first out of the gate.

But excitement about California joining the growing list of states and Washington, D.C., with legal recreational weed is tempered with the stresses of ensuring shelves are stocked in the face of uncertain demand.

The state issued its first 20 retail licenses two weeks ago and an additional 22 trickled out since, some for already established medical marijuana businesses that have thrived in California for two decades and will continue.

Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, said a dozen employees were vetting applications to "issue as many licenses as we can" in the coming days.

The temporary permits represent just a sliver of the thousands of licenses expected to eventually be issued for retail recreational sales. Local permits are a prerequisite for the state licenses, and many cities — including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Long Beach — have yet to issue any local rules, putting huge swaths of the state on the sidelines for opening day.

The Palm Springs area had nine of the state's first retail licenses, including seven in Cathedral City, population 54,000.

San Diego had eight. Santa Cruz and San Jose had four each and others were scattered around the San Francisco Bay Area and the state's northern reaches.

An outlet known as Caliva in San Jose is promoting the "Fweedom" celebration Monday with the prize boxes and exclusive tours of its growing areas, along with massages, acupuncture, waffle desserts and music with "mellow beats."

A county supervisor will attend a 7 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony at KindPeoples in Santa Cruz. Its chief executive, Khalil Moutawakkil, said weed has long been "a huge part" of the culture of the oceanfront college town.

Berkeley Patients Group, which opened as a medical marijuana dispensary in 1999 and has received a permit for recreational sales, expects lines around the block to mark opening day. The mayor of the city that includes the University of California, Berkeley campus is expected at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 6 a.m.

"You'll see the people who have been consumers for decades and they were for legalization back in the '60s," said Sean Luse, chief operating officer. "But you're also going to see a more mainstream group of people who were waiting for the green light."

Harborside is planning brass bands at its locations in Oakland and San Jose, with flags and T-shirts for the first 100 people in line.

A few outlets with recreational licenses are passing on the hoopla.

For them, excitement at being first out of the gate is tempered with the stresses of complying with new regulations.

Golden State Greens, with a modest storefront amid car repair shops and budget hotels in San Diego, houses a bustling business that has sold marijuana for medical purposes since 2015. It will open its doors at 7 a.m. Monday, like it does every other day of the year.

After California voters approved recreational weed last year, the shop changed its name from Point Loma Patients Consumer Cooperative, reflecting its ambitions for a broader clientele.

"We're planning for the worst and hoping for the best," said marketing director Alex Leon. "There are a lot of unknown factors but we're prepared."

Gary Cherlin, chief executive of Desert Organic Solutions Collective in North Palm Springs, received holiday news of his recreational sales permit as he devised promotional packages with hotels aimed at tourists who come for warm winters. He said being among the first shops to sell recreational pot means less competition.

"I don't know how many more are coming but they don't have a lot of time left," he said.

Mount Shasta Patients Collective, which opened three years ago in the northern part of the state as a medical dispensary, has already turned away people coming for recreational pot.

Others with medical marijuana cards have been stocking up ahead of price increases expected after recreational weed is legal.

"We'll have all hands on deck," general manager Austin Freeman said of opening day. "It could be really hectic."


Cases could open door to pension cuts for California workers

SACRAMENTO (AP) — For decades in California, a sacrosanct rule has governed public employees' pensions: Benefits promised can never be taken away.

But cases before the state Supreme Court threaten to reverse that premise and open the door to benefit cuts for workers still on the job.

The lawsuits have enormous implications for California cities, counties, schools, fire districts and other local bodies facing a sharp rise in their pension costs.

The ballooning expenses are an issue that Gov. Jerry Brown will face in his final year in office despite his earlier efforts to reform the state's pension systems and pay down massive unfunded liabilities.

His office has taken the unusual step of arguing one case itself, pushing aside Attorney General Xavier Becerra and making a forceful pitch for the Legislature's right to limit benefits.

At issue is the "California Rule," which dates to court rulings beginning in 1947. It says workers enter a contract with their employer on their first day of work, entitling them to retirement benefits that can never be diminished unless replaced with similar benefits.

It gives workers security that their retirement will be safe and predictable after a career in public service. But it also ties lawmakers' hands in responding to exploding pension costs.

It's widely accepted that retirement benefits linked to work already performed cannot be touched. But the California Rule is controversial because it prohibits even prospective changes for work the employee has not yet done.

"Lots of people in the pension community are paying attention to these cases and are really interested in what the California Supreme Court is going to do here," said Amy Monahan, a University of Minnesota professor who studies pension law.

Pension systems around the country are facing unprecedented pressures from generous benefits, severe losses during the Great Recession, mostly anemic investment earnings since, and retirees living for longer.

California's two major pension funds, which have more than $570 billion in assets between them, have enough money to pay for only about two-thirds of their anticipated costs.

As a result, both the California Public Employees Retirement System and the State Teachers Retirement System will collect billions of additional dollars from state and local governments, putting pressure on those budgets.

The pending cases stem from a Brown-backed 2012 pension reform law that sought to rein in costs and end practices viewed as abuses of the system. One of those eliminated benefits was a right to buy up to five years of credit when retirement benefits are calculated, so a person who worked 20 years would get a monthly check as if he'd worked 25 years.

Brown, in a brief filed in November, argued benefits have been handed out too generously.

"For years, self-interested parties, overly generous promises whose true costs were often shrouded by flawed actuarial analyses, and failures of public leadership had caused unsustainable public pension liabilities," his office wrote. A ruling is expected before Brown leaves office in January 2019.

The 2012 law also limited the types of income that can be used to calculate pension benefits in an attempt to limit "pension spiking," or driving up final salaries to increase payments in retirement.

A group of Marin County employees sued separately over the changes, arguing the benefits couldn't be altered. The California Court of Appeal in San Francisco disagreed in a ruling that strikes at the heart of the California Rule.

"While a public employee does have a 'vested right' to a pension, that right is only to a 'reasonable' pension — not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension," Judge James A. Richman wrote. The case is now pending at the Supreme Court.

Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a union coalition, said the Supreme Court upholding the lower-court ruling would be a "major setback" for public employees.

"If they base their decision on precedent, I don't think that there's much for the public employees to worry about," Low said. "The key will be if the Supreme Court decides to break away from decades of precedent and dozens of decisions."

Twelve states observe a variation of the California Rule, said Greg Mennis, director of the Public Sector Retirement Systems project at Pew Charitable Trusts. One of them, Colorado, has walked it back a bit, he said, requiring "clear and unmistakable intent to form a contract before pensions will be contractually protected."

A change to California's interpretation of its rule would not automatically change legal precedents in other states, but it could provide a spark for lawmakers to test changes that they previously considered unfeasible, said Monahan, the Minnesota law professor.


Local
KFUN rings in New Year with celebration

HANFORD — Despite having a year to plan for it, the last week of December tends to turn into a mad dash to decide what to do on New Year’s Eve.

That doesn’t need to be the case in Hanford, according to Rick Singleton, director of operations at local radio stations KFUN and KOOL.

This weekend, classic rock station KFUN hosts its third New Year’s Eve bash at the Hanford Civic Auditorium — where it’s booked for the next three years.

“It’s becoming such a large thing,” Singleton said. “All year long the community gives to us, so we wanted to put on this event for the community. It’s a way for people to enjoy a big blowout event without going to Fresno or Visalia.”

Classic rock station KFUN and oldies station KOOL, found at 92.5FM and 104.5FM respectively, as well as online, have been on the air in Hanford for about three years.

Singleton is grateful that the community has rallied around the nonprofit radio stations and emphasizes the organizations’ desire to want to give back to those fans through events like the New Year’s Eve gala.

The New Year will be rung in the way that music fans have been ringing it in since that fateful episode of the Ed Sullivan show aired — with the music of The Beatles.

Beatleville, a Fresno-based facsimile Fab Four, will perform a tribute set featuring multiple costume changes, ensuring that everyone’s favorite versions of John, Paul, George and Ringo will see some stage time, along with the accompanying timeless hits.

“I played a 25-second clip on the air Thursday and challenged listeners to guess if it was the original Beatles or Beatleville and out of 22 callers, we had one winner. I did it again (Wednesday) and out of 36 callers, we had one winner. That’s how good these guys are,” Singleton said.

Original rock group Renegade IV will open the show. The Valley-based band is returning to the New Year’s Eve gala by popular demand, Singleton said.

“The bands aren’t cheap and the Civic Auditorium isn’t cheap, so we’ve only been able to do this thanks to our great sponsors,” Singleton said.

The celebration, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and doesn’t stop until well after the ball drops, features a full bar and a $10 dinner buffet featuring chicken Marsala, salad, veggies and dessert.

While tickets to the event are free, they are likely to be gone by the night of the event, with over 600 having already been reserved. Tickets are available at Rock N Roll Deli, 192 W. Seventh St., Hanford, and USA Sports Apparel in the Hanford Mall.

The free tickets are available online at Eventbrite.com, where party-goers can also reserve VIP seating, which comes complete with complimentary champagne at midnight for $20, or reserve an entire table of eight for $150.

The Hanford Civic Auditorium is located at 400 N. Douty St., Hanford. For more information, visit http://kfunradio.com or call 559-639-5925.