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Contributed by Arianne Wing 

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Rabobank building could be declared surplus property

HANFORD — In a change of tune from the beginning of the year, a majority of the Hanford City Council now seem willing to discuss the option of declaring the Rabobank building as surplus property.

At the Nov. 21 meeting, City Attorney Bob Dowd said in a 3-2 closed session vote, Council decided to begin the process of looking into declaring the city-owned Rabobank building as surplus.

Dowd clarified Tuesday that the building has not been declared surplus yet, council has only asked that staff look into the process and take the information back to them at a later meeting.

Dowd said the two councilmembers who voted against looking into the matter expressed they were comfortable maintaining the status quo, which is Rabobank continuing to lease the building.

“At this point, I see no reason to sell it,” said Hanford Mayor David Ayers. “It’s not costing us any money, it’s making us a little money — not much, but we’re making a little.”

Hanford City Manager Darrel Pyle said he was not sure off the top of his head how much money the Rabobank building brings to Hanford annually, nor how much the city pays to keep up the maintenance.

Ayers said he considers himself a preservationist and wants to preserve historical downtown buildings, especially if the city has the money needed to maintain those buildings.

If anything, Ayers said the building could be used for future expansion of city services if need be.

“We’re not saving money by eliminating a building that’s costing us nothing to maintain,” Ayers said.

Vice Mayor Sue Sorensen, however, said she is a proponent in minimizing the amount of properties the city’s owns. She said she believes it is not part of the city’s role to own property that competes with local businesses.

Sorensen said now is the right time to have this discussion because the building is well-maintained and could possibly bring in a decent amount of revenue.

Pyle said the last appraisal of the building came in at $860,000. He said the proceeds could be used for any general governmental purpose, including renovations of other city properties, like the Old Courthouse or Bastille.

The Old Courthouse is in need of a new heating and air conditioning unit, which could cost the city around $500,000. Previous estimates to renovate the Bastille were close to $1 million.

If the Rabobank building was to be declared surplus and sold, Sorensen said the revenue could be used to improve those buildings and make them more usable.

After the annual expense to maintain the Rabobank building, Sorensen said the actual income the city receives from the lease on the building is very little.

“We have to be fiscally responsible and make good use of taxpayer money,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen said she knows some people will be worried about preserving historical buildings, but said part of the agreement can be to make sure its appearance is maintained.

Councilmen Martin Devine and Francisco Ramirez could not be reached for comment, while Councilman Justin Mendes deferred to Dowd and Pyle.

At previous City Council meetings, Mendes had pitched the idea of selling city assets like the vacant land next to Hidden Valley Park and the Rabobank building to pay for the Bastille's renovation, but couldn’t get two other council members to agree with him at the time.

Pyle said the next steps include a discussion and possible vote on whether Council wants to declare the building as surplus.

Pyle said if a property were to be declared surplus, staff would notify other public entities that the building could be made available to them to purchase.

If other public entities do not respond with interest in acquiring the building, Pyle said Council may choose to sell it to a private party or company, or they may choose to do nothing and just keep it.

Post story on failed sting is valuable journalism lesson

NEW YORK — With a thwarted sting and dueling videos, the clash between the Washington Post and conservative advocates Project Veritas led University of Minnesota professor Jane Kirtley to toss aside the intended topic for her media ethics class on Tuesday.

The news was irresistible.

The Post's story Monday that exposed the group's attempt at deception, along with the newspaper's earlier work on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, is valuable beyond the classroom as an illustration of how journalism works at a time "fake news" has become part of the lexicon, she said.

"This is how good journalists do their jobs and how they don't get taken in by hoaxes," said Kirtley, an expert in media law in Minnesota. "It's such an important lesson."

The Post described how a woman affiliated with Project Veritas, a group that has used disguises and hidden cameras to uncover supposed liberal bias among journalists, sought to convince Post reporters that she had been impregnated by Moore when she was 15 and had an abortion — all of which was false.

Detail by detail, the newspaper outlined how it began to doubt Jaime Phillips' story, all before anything was printed. She told a Post reporter that she had spent only a summer in Alabama decades ago, but her mobile phone had an Alabama area code. The company where she claimed to work had no record of her. Finally, a researcher located a Web page under the woman's name seeking money to move to New York for a job in the conservative media movement.

She was later spotted by Post reporters walking into the New York office of Project Veritas.

Suddenly, the newspaper had a much different story.

"It was such an amazing piece of journalism," said Dan Kennedy, a professor at Northeastern University. "One can only imagine the world of hurt we'd all be in journalism if the Post had been taken in" by the ruse, he said.

Instead, Project Veritas and its controversial leader, James O'Keefe, were exposed in an act that "does nothing but hurt the cause of conservative journalism," said Brent Bozell, founder of Media Research Center, one of the longest-running organizations critical of liberal bias in the media.

Bozell called it a "shameful" act of deceit, an effort at entrapment through misleading means.

"If this was a liberal, we'd all be screaming from the highest rooftops," Bozell said. "Let's be honest."

Asked to comment on Bozell's statement, Project Veritas spokesman Stephen Gordon said: "We have no response. Watch our next video."

Project Veritas and the Post released dramatically different videos of an encounter between O'Keefe and Post reporter Aaron C. Davis, who had come to the organization's headquarters to interview him about Williams. O'Keefe asked questions about two "sting" videos featuring Post employees, which Davis said he was not aware of. Davis repeatedly asked O'Keefe if Williams worked for Project Veritas, and O'Keefe ignored the questions — exchanges that were edited out of the video released by Veritas.

Shortly after the Post story was posted, O'Keefe sent a fundraising letters to his supporters noting that after months of work, "our investigative journalist embedded within the organization had their cover blown."

His group also released videos of the two Post employees, reporter Dan Lamothe and Joey Marburger, director of products, involved in a conversation with an offscreen questioner about the newspaper. Lamothe talked about how much coverage President Donald Trump received, while Marburger discussed Post owner Jeff Bezos' role in the newspaper's slogan, "Democracy Dies in Darkness."

A Post spokeswoman had no comment on the videos Tuesday.

Like Kirtley in Minnesota, Northeastern's Kennedy has spent time with his classes going line-by-line through one of the Post's stories — in this case, the Nov. 9 investigation that detailed the experiences of four women who said they were teenagers when Moore, then in his 30s, dated them. In one case that allegedly involved sexual contact, the girl was 14 years old.

The Post explained in meticulous detail how it came upon the story when a reporter who was writing about Moore's supporters was told about then-prosecutor Moore's involvement with teenagers. Six times the Post interviewed Leigh Corfman, the woman who alleged the encounter when she was 14. Reporters spoke to her mother and friends from that time — in all 30 people who said they knew Moore between 1977 and 1982. Election records were checked to confirm none of the women donated to Moore opponents. Corfman's history was checked through public records, revealing she'd filed for bankruptcy three times and was once charged with a misdemeanor for selling a beer to a minor.

While Moore and his supporters have complained about the story and questioned the Post's motives, the story has proven airtight factually, Kennedy said.

"Good journalists don't just take information that is given to them at face value," Kirtley said. "They question it. They check it. They go behind the scenes. Things don't drop into your lap, and I think that's how some people think journalists work."

The stories pull back the veil on how reporters work — for those who want to see, the professors said.

"The true believers will never really grapple with what the Post did," Kennedy said. "These are the times we live in. It's very dispiriting."

GOP shoves tax overhaul ahead; shutdown still a threat

WASHINGTON — Republicans held together and shoved their signature tax overhaul a crucial step ahead Tuesday as wavering GOP senators showed a growing openness. But its fate remained uncertain, and a planned White House summit aimed at averting a government shutdown was derailed when President Donald Trump savaged top Democrats and declared on Twitter, "I don't see a deal!"

"It's time to stop tweeting and start leading," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer retorted after he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rebuffed the budget meeting with Trump and top Republicans.

Trump lunched with GOP senators at the Capitol and declared it a "love fest," as he had his previous closed-doors visit. But the day underscored the party's yearlong problem of unifying behind key legislation — even a bill slashing corporate taxes and cutting personal taxes that's a paramount party goal.

Tuesday's developments also emphasized the leverage Democrats have as Congress faces a deadline a week from Friday for passing legislation to keep federal agencies open while leaders seek a longer-term budget deal. Republicans lack the votes to pass the short-term legislation without Democratic support.

In a party-line 12-11 vote, the Senate Budget Committee managed to advance the tax measure to the full Senate as a pair of wavering Republicans — Wisconsin's Ron Johnson and Tennessee's Bob Corker — fell into line, at least for the moment. In more good news for the GOP, moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said it was a "fair assumption" that she was likelier to support the bill after saying Trump agreed to make property taxes up to $10,000 deductible instead of eliminating that break entirely.

But the fate of the legislation remained uncertain as it headed toward debate by the full Senate, which Republicans control by a slender 52-48. GOP leaders can afford just two defectors, and a half dozen or more in their party have been uncommitted. They include some wanting bigger tax breaks for many businesses but others cringing over the $1.4 trillion — or more — that the measure is projected to add to budget deficits over the next decade.

"It's a challenging exercise," conceded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He compared it to "sitting there with a Rubik's Cube and trying to get to 50" votes, a tie that Vice President Mike Pence would break.

Corker, who's all but broken with Trump over the president's behavior in office, is among a handful of Republicans uneasy over the mountains of red ink the tax measure is expected to produce. He said he was encouraged by discussions with the White House and party leaders to include a mechanism — details still unknown — to automatically trigger tax increases if specified, annual economic growth targets aren't met.

"I think we're getting to a very good place on the deficit issue," Corker said.

But other Republicans are wary of backing legislation that would hold the hammer of potential future tax increases over voters' heads.

"I am not going to vote to automatically implement tax increases on the American people. If I do that, consider me drunk," said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana.

Collins said she'd also won agreement that before completing the tax measure, Congress would approve legislation restoring federal payments to health insurers that Trump scuttled last month. That bill has had bipartisan support, but it's unclear if Democrats would back it amid partisan battling over the tax bill.

McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., met with Trump at the White House despite the top Democrats' no-shows. Trump highlighted their absence by appearing before reporters flanked by two empty chairs bearing Schumer's and Pelosi's names.

Trump said Democrats would be to blame for any shutdown, despite GOP domination of government.

"If it happens it's going to be over illegals pouring into the country, crime pouring into the country, no border wall, which everyone wants," he said. He also said North Korea's launch of a ballistic missile on Wednesday should prompt Democrats to renew negotiations over the spending legislation, which includes Pentagon funding.

"But probably they won't because nothing to them is important other than raising taxes," Trump said.

Trump repeated those claims Tuesday night on Twitter, writing that Democrats "can't now threaten a shutdown to get their demands."

Democrats noted that in May, Trump tweeted the country "needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!" In a tweet of her own Tuesday, Pelosi said Trump's "verbal abuse will no longer be tolerated," adding in reference to the empty-chairs show, "Poor Ryan and McConnell relegated to props. Sad!"

A temporary spending bill expires Dec. 8 and another is needed to prevent a government shutdown. Hurricane aid to help Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is also expected to be included in that measure, as well as renewed financing for a children's health program that serves more than 8 million low-income children.

Democrats are also pressing for legislative protections for immigrants known as "Dreamers." Conservative Republicans object to including that issue in the crush of year-end business. But GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida joined Democrats in saying he won't vote for the spending bill unless the immigrant issue is resolved.

Big California dam's new spillway already has cracks in it
Big California dam's new spillway already has cracks in it

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Small cracks have appeared in a new concrete spillway at Oroville Dam, a development state officials say was expected but an engineering expert says could lead to serious safety issues.

In a previously undisclosed October letter, federal regulators asked Department of Water Resources officials to explain the hairline cracks on the dam's new massive concrete flood-control chute, KQED radio of San Francisco reported Tuesday.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also asked water officials what, if any, steps might be required to address the issue.

In February, authorities ordered nearly 200,000 people downstream of the dam to evacuate when both spillways suddenly began crumbling. The feared uncontrolled releases of water over the dam did not occur, and authorities allowed residents to return to their homes within days.

State officials say emergency and subsequent repairs of the 770-foot dam have so far cost at least $640 million but not all costs have been identified yet.

In their response to federal regulators, California water officials said in November that the state's efforts to build a more durable spillway caused the cracks, which were anticipated.

"The hairline cracks are a result of some of the design elements included to restrain the slabs and produce a robust and durable structure," the letter read, adding that the cracking "was anticipated and is not expected to affect the integrity of the slabs."

The evidence for and reasoning behind DWR's statements about the cause of the cracking is not available for independent assessment, the station reported.

University of California civil engineering professor Robert Bea, a veteran analyst of structure failures, said cracking in high-strength reinforced concrete structures is never expected.

The cracking "develops paths for water to reach the steel elements embedded in the concrete and accelerate corrosion," Bea wrote in an email. "Such corrosion was responsible for the degradation and ultimate failure of the steel reinforcing in parts of the original gated spillway."