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Posts published in March 2009

The outlier

When it comes to voting in Washington state, the peculiar county is not oft-maligned King, but rather Pierce County - the only one of 39 where voting at physical polls can still be done. (Mail voting is optional.) All others vote, as Oregon does, by mail.

The Washington House has now passed - on a close vote, 54-43 - House Bill 1572, which would convert Washington to an all-mail-vote state, and do two other things: "Changes precinct sizes to not more than 2,000 active registered voters effective 2012. Allows the appointment of four precinct committee officers in precincts that have 2,000 or more active registered voters."

The Pierce County delegation was split, by the way. And the Tacoma News Tribune has an amusing sidelight: "George Walk, Pierce County lobbyist, told me that earlier this session he had to testify both for and against the bill when it was in committee. County Executive Pat McCarthy was in favor of all-mail voting (she’s the former election chief for the county) but the County Council was against it."

It's in the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee now, awaiting action there.

Spending it

Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter has released his proposal on what to do with the federal stimulus money. There's nothing especially stunning in it - even the convergence with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's proposed school cuts seems of a piece.

He takes it to the legislature tomorrow, at which point lawmakers may (may) start cranking back up to speed.

What you get most out of the proposal is how little discretion the states really have in spending the money. The billions requested by state agencies, local governments and others - the non-state requests alone ran to $5.6 billion - were so far beyond what could be gotten as to be, maybe, a little sad. Guess you can't blame them for asking, but . . .

A stadium that crosses the line

Lents

Lents Field visualization

There's a longish list of public-backed sports arena proposals around the Northwest we've thought might be fine ideas as private facilities, not so good as business ventures essentially backed by the taxpayers. So the first reaction here, when Merritt Paulson (owner of the Portland Beavers and Timbers and - should this be a red flag? - the son of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) proposed a partnership with the city to turn downtown Portland's PGE park into a major league soccer field, was skepticism.

We'd have to say at this point it remains a difficult call, and the hard time that three of the five Portland council members had with it seems entirely reasonable. The 3-2 vote was indicative of how close a call this could be.

Mayor Sam Adams and Council member Randy Leonard, and others around town not least including the Oregonian, have been on a hard push for the project. (Of the three other council members, only Dan Saltzman joined Leonard and the mayor to push it through.) The O's editorial arguing in favor pointed out that Seattle and Vancouver (B.C.) appear likely to have major league soccer teams, as part of a sport that seems to be expanding, and Portland could benefit from being part of that - "If the Portland city commissioners say goodbye to this deal, in effect, they'll be consigning Portland, nationally, to the nosebleed seats."

Such arguments sound wonderful if there's enough private support in town for the entertainment facility, but why should non-soccer fans be on the hook? Well, the advocates make a better-than-usual case for that. Some of that relates to an infusion of money and jobs at a time those things are much needed. The area around the PGE field could use a little rehab, and a fresh major league operation might do that; there is some urban development and geographic logic to this. (Paulson also has agreed to fork over directly a substantial chunk of the implementation costs; much of the rest would be made up through ticket and other fees.) But it also centers around the city's very limited liability: "In the unlikely event that Major League Soccer foundered, Paulson and his family company would make payments on the city's loans. Not only are they willing to backstop the deal, they're willing to absorb a hefty dose of cost overruns," says the Oregonian. Sounds almost as if what the city is really being asked to do is not a lot more than acting as a low-risk co-signer.

That's not quite all, of course. Willamette Week has a series of countering points, noting for example that many of the financial projections for the project come from Paulson's court - not from an independent city review - and that several other cities have dropped out of the race for major league soccer. Several of those are points worth more serious address.

This will take a while to get done, if something else doesn't slow or stop the process. It bears a close look. Albeit, a hopeful one.

One day at a time

How sad is this headline from KIRO-TV on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Staff at the newspaper have been told that Wednesday's paper won't be the last one."

We're now past 60 days from the point on January 9 when Hearst, owner of the P-I, said it would keep the paper printing for 60 more days pending either a sale of the paper (which never looked likely) or conversion to online-only.

There will be a Wednesday print edition. Will Thursday print? Hearst isn't saying. So it's a day to day matter now.

So, apparently, is the digital conversion. The new Publicola site, which seems to have the best reportage on the situation, is suggesting that Hearst wants to try the digital approach and has been approaching 20 or so staffers to gauge interest. However, the pay and benefits package apparently has been mediocre, and evidently few of the paper's people have agreed to sign on. And that drama goes on.

After the next day or two, that drama may in fact be what keeps the P-I in print, for however much longer that may be.

Wide open spaces

seattle

Seattle office central

The Slog's headline - a sorta invitation for Wal-Mart to shack up in Seattle - was just snark, but the post's content was worth some attention: Abruptly, there's a whole lot of empty office space in Seattle.

The Slog: "As the [Daily Journal of Commerce] reports today, owners of the 12-story 1st and Stewart Building are placing the property up for sale at the same time two new downtown office buildings are staking real-estate signs. In addition, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building and Seattle Tower were recently put on the market. Meanwhile, other office buildings, like the WaMu Center, are clearing out their tenants. Companies that had planned to expand into new downtown spaces, including Microsoft and Starbucks, are retreating to their headquarters. And more lanky office towers are in the works downtown. In short, the inventory of commercial office space grossly exceeds the demand for offices. We’ve probably got 10 years of inventory that will sit empty."

A cautionary note: There are some apples and oranges here; some of these buildings (like the 1st and Stewart) are pretty well leased up, and sale of the building won't change that. Still, the vacancies in many large-scale office spaces are becoming massive.

Where is all that likely to lead? On its face, it seems to suggest some whole new direction for the downtown Seattle area, which has upscaled and gentrified almost to the point (in some places) of unrecognizability in recent years. How can that continue when the area is floating in "For Lease" signs all over the place?

The effort will be made. Or will Seattle return, a bit, to elements of its grungier past?

140 characters, and more

Highly amusing post on the Portland Mercury blog about Twitter, and its holdouts. Sample (responding to several recent pieces in the Oregonian): "I love articles which amount to a middle-aged person shaking their head in bemusement, making jokes straight out of Zits comic strip, as they look over some young person's shoulder and glimpse their confusing new lifestyle."

At 140 characters per tweet, Twitter obviously has its limitations. But as a means for basic linkage, it has unusual advantages. One big one may be its capacity for hot links, which allows bloggers, news media and others to post a lot more than what they had for lunch. Use it right, and you can develop an excellent, rapid-fire news wire through a Twitter account. A lot of people seem to be doing that already.

Examples? For our purposes, there are useful follows - instant updates - from a large collection of Northwest news organizations such as the Seattle Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, KIRO-TV (Seattle), the Yakima Herald Republic, KTVB-TV (Boise), TVW (Washington), the Oregonian (several feeds), the Portland Mercury, KGW-TV (Portland), the Tacoma News Tribune, the Boise Idaho Statesman, Idaho Public Broadcasting, the Idaho Business Review and the Boise Weekly. Even the New York Times - we run through all of those and more. And from quite a few individuals at those organizations (such varied feeds as Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman and Jenni Hogan at KIRO-TV. Official feeds from the White House and Supreme Court down through a batch of local governments (even a feed offering regular updates on the amount of the national debt). And various political people, elected (see our recent post on that) and otherwise, and people with al kinds of perspectives, some of them pretty well informed. A whole lot of these posts, of course, come with links offering more information elsewhere.

Sneer if you must. But if you can parse through the options with some care, Twitter actually makes for a pretty good intermediary news source.

Definition

At the end of a Horse's Ass post on the failure of a piece of consumer protection legislation in the Washington legislature - it may be dominated by Democrats, who are presumed to be in favor of such measures, but this outcome is hardly unusual there - blogger Jon DeVore came up with a priceless definition of Democrats:

". . . a circular firing squad of cats who won’t be herded towards a gun safety class where free tuna is being served."

Second string on deck

We've suspected for a while that the top-tier Republican possibilities for governor, former Senator Gordon Smith and current Representative Greg Walden, wouldn't go for it.

From an Oregonian story on the Republican Dorchester Conference, held this weekend at Seaside, come growing indications that seems about right.

About Smith, close associate Dan Lavey is quoted, "He's focused on the future, but the future has more to do with pea picking and the law firm than it does with politics." That sounds pretty clear.

And the story says, "Walden says the seniority he's built up in Congress and the lopsided voter registration edge Democrats hold over Republicans give him pause as he looks at a run for governor. He says he won't decide right away." You don't have to parse that too hard to get the drift.

No real specific indications from the Dorchester - this said from a distance, but with such information as is available - of active efforts as yet underway for GOP candidates for governor. Our best guess, for the moment, remains state Senator Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point. But the field is looking fairly open.

Profiteering by radar

The whole area of profiteering from law enforcement is an ugly arena bound to get uglier before it clears up. From private prisons to speed traps (profiteering even without a private organization involved), it's a distortion - money becomes the driving force, not public safety. Anyone who tells you otherwise is conning you.

That profiteering - in this case by private companies - from red-light and other some traffic violations - is what a new Oregon bill is going after: The profit-sharing between cities and the companies they hire to install radar cameras tracking stop-light violations.

Senator Alan Bates, D-Ashland, was quoted: "They should be about deterring traffic accidents and not making money. I have asked departments around the state to send me information to see if they are making streets safer."

Intersection cameras, carefully used, may in fact improve safety somewhat. But when they're set up as they are now in many jurisdictions - in which private companies get a slice (often somewhere around half) of the fines paid by people who run red lights and such - what happens is that there's suddenly an influential force for enforcing some laws rather than others, for the essential reason that one type of enforcement makes money, and others don't. So much for a professional attitude toward "to protect and to serve."

And of a sudden, we have profit profit depending on finding people guilty of offenses. That ought to send a little chill up even the most cautious of drivers.

We'll see where this one goes.

Following up: Lincoln County Chatter

Last August we blogged about a newspaper aftermath in a small town, on the border of ever being able to support a small weekly. Shoshone, Idaho, population around 1,300 in a county not terribly larger, long was home to the Lincoln County Journal. Along with a bunch of other weeklies in the area, it was shut down last year by its owner, Lee Enterprises.

The editor, Marsha Hiatt, may have lost the paycheck but she refused to quit. She started a news blog, the Lincoln County Chatter, and got it off to a promising start last summer.

And now? A few days ago, she sent a mail saying "the blog is still going strong - almost 5,000 hits a month. I have branched out and now have a photo blog and government blog as well. In November I was also elected as Commissioner in my county - the only Democrat elected in the Magic Valley region of Southern Idaho. Just thought I'd let you know - we're still kickin' over here in Idaho."

Today, responding to a query back, she adds:

. . . the blog followers are - for the most part - hugely supportive. This effort is successful because of them and the information they send into the blog. We also have readers all over the country and in many other countries - mostly people who grew up in this area or have family here. (This is astonding to me because our county is less than 5,000 in population). It really has turned into a very fulfilling and full-time hobby. On a political note, I have learned a great deal about what's important in this community and how people view the world. Though I may not always like, or agree with, what they send me I still think it's important to know where their heads are.
Again, thanks. I'm truly proud of what this has turned into.

There may be hope yet beyond newspapers.