To borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead: What a long strange trip it’s been.
Friday, my last day at the Sentinel, closed the book nearly 13 years of writing about the good and the bad, the interesting and the important in local news, including the last year covering Hanford politics and the Hanford City Council.
I’ve enjoyed highlighting important issues, profiling great people and encouraging civic engagement.
But it’s also been frustrating to see the dysfunctional aspects of Hanford government and city leadership.
When you’re a reporter, you do your best to quash your opinions in an effort to fairly represent all sides in a debate.
It isn’t an easy thing to do. You sit through meetings, you observe and you bite your tongue.
Reporters are generally passionate people with strong opinions about how things should go.
I’m no exception.
Now that I can speak freely, here are my top three recommendations for promoting the general welfare of Hanford.
Get rid of archaic zoning restrictions
City Council members David Ayers and Martin Devine are beholden to narrow interests that are obsessed with downtown but seem largely uninterested in the welfare of Hanford as a whole.
Everybody knows that Hanford has high unemployment and needs new development, so you’d think City Council members would allow businesses to locate in areas of the city where they are most likely to succeed, right?
You’d think that Ayers and Devine, who are registered Republicans elected by conservative voters, would lean toward market-friendly policies that maximize individual freedom, right?
When the council voted on a general plan overhaul in April, Ayers and Devine basically forced the City Council into a compromise that bans a whole range of businesses – including furniture stores like Ashley and Mor and most medical, professional, dental and optometric services – from locating along 12th Avenue, in the Hanford Mall or in the new Costco shopping center.
Clovis and Visalia, which have vibrant downtown areas, don't have such restrictions.
Hanford Mall officials and Costco center representatives have made it clear that the restrictions hamstring their ability to attract new tenants in a challenging time for brick-and-mortar retail centers nationwide.
With Councilwoman Sue Sorensen recusing herself from the vote, and with Councilmen Justin Mendes and Francisco Ramirez defending free market policies, the compromise was necessary to avoid a 2-2 deadlock that would have held up the entire general plan overhaul and ground the city to a halt.
Sorensen, a business owner, could have been the tiebreaker on the side of free-market policies if she hadn't recused herself after alleging a personal conflict of interest.
Build an indoor recreation center
It’s time for residents to show up to City Council meetings and say it loud and clear: Hanford needs an indoor recreation center.
Years ago, Lemoore leaders had the foresight to open an awesome indoor facility that is now used by everybody from indoor soccer leagues to seniors seeking to stay in shape.
The Hanford City Council should show some pride, step up to the plate and follow Lemoore’s lead.
Officials in Hanford have already identified the area around The Plunge, including the vacant former Goodwill site, as a promising location.
Knock down the old fire station next to The Plunge, convert it into parking space, develop the former Goodwill property into an indoor facility and turn the whole block into a centrally-located recreation hub.
There’s only one catch: The city needs to raise money to do it.
To do so, the City Council should sell the vacant 18 acres next to Hidden Valley Park to a residential home developer.
Council members should not allow themselves to be intimidated by the self-centered crowd demanding the expansion of Hidden Valley Park.
According to the city’s own park policies, other areas of the city, such as in south Hanford, don’t have enough park space, while the residents around Hidden Valley Park already do.
In any case, with air pollution worsening and average temperatures increasing, an indoor, climate-controlled, year-round recreation facility just makes good sense.
So sell the land, combine the proceeds with parks and recreation impact fees, survey Hanford residents to see what they want and build it.
Hanford residents across the board – youth in particular – will benefit.
Hold City Council members accountable for poor leadership
On some key decisions, I’ve seen City Council members cave in to small groups of protesters rather than act in the interests of the city as a whole.
Case in point: A cell phone tower proposed last year for Hidden Valley Park.
The tower, disguised to look like a tree, would have taken minimal park space and would have improved cell phone service not only for private calls, but also for 911 and other emergency response calls, including calls to police and calls between police officers and dispatch.
But after a small group of residents living near the park objected, a majority of the council members caved in.
They caved in despite a plea from Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever, who told the council that police calls and Wi-Fi often get dropped in north Hanford and that the tower would help significantly.
The vote was 3-2, with Ayers, Ramirez and then-Councilman Russ Curry voting to kill the tower.
Mendes and then-Councilman Gary Pannett voted for the tower.
Here’s another instance of this cave-in-to-a-narrow-group phenomenon, except this one had a happier ending.
In March, a majority of the council told city staff to find $1 million in the city budget to renovate the Bastille, the former county jail in Civic Park that has nostalgic, sentimental value for some but serves no other useful purpose.
The direction from council came after a small group of Hanford residents with an emotional attachment to the empty building asked the city to spend the money.
Council members directed staff to come up with the cash despite the fact that the city doesn’t have money lying around that already hasn’t been allocated for other uses.
News of the council’s plans riled up what I like to call the silent majority: average Hanford taxpayers who don’t typically show up to City Council meetings because they are too busy going about their lives.
When the $1 million renovation proposal came up for a vote a few weeks later, members of the silent majority showed up to the meeting and stood up to the narrow interest group demanding the renovation.
"We citizens don't care how [the Bastille] makes you feel," Hanford resident Lee Wisecarver told the council. "The city has bigger issues it needs to fix."
After hearing from Wisecarver and others, the council wisely reversed itself, and the misguided plan to blow $1 million of precious taxpayer dollars on the Bastille died a welcome death.