KAZU Blog: Three bidders for <i>Monterey County Herald</i>

Monterey, CA – There appear to be at least three groups eyeing the Monterey County Herald.

The local paper was put on the auction block once again earlier this month when The McClatchy Co. announced it would sell 12 of the 32 papers it had just agreed to acquire from Knight Ridder.

Bids on the 12 papers, including the Herald, San Jose Mercury News and the East San Francisco Bay Area's Contra Costa Times closed at 5pm Tuesday, and three groups have clearly expressed an interest:

1) MediaNews, a private, Denver-based newspaper company run by William Dean Singleton. MediaNews has a bad reputation in journalism circles for sharply cutting costs at papers like the Oakland Tribune, and Herald employees are very nervous about the possibility of working for Singleton. But two recent profiles, one in the Mercury News and one in the San Francisco Chronicle, suggest that reputation may be overblown.

2) An alliance between the Newspaper Guild and Yucaipa Cos. The Guild represents workers at eight of the 12 Knight Ridder papers McClatchy is reselling, including the Mercury News and the Herald. Yucaipa is a Southern California worker-friendly private equity fund run by powerful financier and major Democratic donor Ron Burkle. This is clearly the bid Herald staffers and the journalism community would like to see succeed. Here's a recent Mercury News profile of Yucaipa.

3) A group of local investors led by Pacific Grove developer Nader Agha. Agha likes to make a lot of noise and grab headlines; to wit, he recently floated the idea of buying the failing Natividad Medical Center in Salinas from Monterey County, and he's the leading financial backer in the Pajaro-Sunny Mesa desalination plant proposal (in competition with California-American Water). There's a profile of Agha in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times.

But MediaNews may have a clear advantage over the other two bids. The Mercury News reports that McClatchy may only consider initial bids from companies that participated in the original Knight Ridder bidding process. MediaNews did; the Guild and Agha did not. The Guild has announced it'll make an offer anyway, and a person familiar with Agha's effort said they'll continue to press forward as well.


Why NPR's Amos Came to Monterey

So you heard KAZU's interview with NPR's Deborah Amos and wondered when the story that brought her to Monterey would air?

Well, in case you missed it, it was the top story on Monday's All Things Considered. You can listen to it here.


General Plan Battle Heats Up

The battle over the Monterey County General Plan keeps getting crazier and crazier. Just when you thought the Board of Supervisors had no legal choice but to place the controlled-growth measure in the June primary ballot, they voted 3-to-2 to keep it off the ballot. Opponents say the initiative is fatally flawed because it conflicts with state law. Supporters immediately said they'd sue to force the county to let residents vote in June.

In the meantime, the vitriol is reaching Washington, DC levels. The three-supervisor majority - Fernando Armenta (1st district), Butch Lindley (3rd) and Jerry Smith (4th) - "hijacked democracy," said a clearly angry Chris Fitz of LandWatch Monterey County. Armenta said referendum supporters were trying to "hijack the community."

Initiative supporters at Tuesday night's meeting hissed and booed at criticism from opponents, according to reports in the Herald and Californian. Opponents accused supporters of "classist suppression" (another Armenta quote) and elitism.

Either way, the fact remains that 15,000 Monterey County registered voters signed a referendum to put this initiative on the ballot, and supervisors rejected it.

Is this legal? That's what I'm trying to find out. Stay tuned...

Behind the Story: Armenta's Comments

Two things first district supervisor Fernando Armenta told me in an interview Wednesday caught my attention, but didn't make it into my report.

First, Armenta predicted a court will, in fact, declare the Board's vote illegal, and make the county put the initiative on the ballot. So why'd he cast a vote he thinks will be declared illegal? (His answer: Because there's always the chance the court will rule in the Board's favor.)

Second, Armenta pointed out that the LandWatch folks have only met with him once in the five year's he's served on the Board. "That was [former LandWatch executive director] Gary Patton in my first year, when Gary came in with another staff member and said, 'We need an affordable housing champion in East Salinas.' And at that time, I ... didn't have the slightest clue in terms of what a general plan was. And so they found me to be naive and uneducated and a real prime innocent target" (emphasis added).

I wasn't around here five years ago, so I don't know what the political environment was like back then. But if a newly-elected county supervisor didn't know what the General Plan was, things must have been a lot less controversial than they are today...


People-Watching on the "Farr Side"
MONTEREY, CA (2006-02-12)

People-watching is a journalist's guilty pleasure, and it's not by any means restricted to Washington, DC.

For example, when Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero announced her candidacy for Simon Salinas's assembly seat last month, the Monterey County Herald's Joe Livernois noticed that only one of the two candidates to replace her was there. The Salinas Valley Chamber of Commere's Dennis Donahue stood right behind Caballero. City Councilwoman Maria Giuriato was conspicuous in her absence.

But at Sunday night's Friends of Farr fundraiser at the Monterey Hyatt, it was Caballero whose absence was conspicuous.

It seemed like every local elected official was there - major and minor, city and county, Santa Cruz and Monterey, Democrats and maybe even some Republicans. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta headlined the event. (Pelosi also met with the media; KAZU's interview is posted on our news page.)

But while Caballero's Democratic primary opponent, Watsonville City Councilwoman Ana Ventura Phares, was there, Caballero herself was not. Invited but out of town, says Farr campaign manager Plasha Will.

And it's the second major event Caballero has missed in the last month. When Gov. Schwarzenegger came to town a few weeks back, he held a private meeting with local city and county officials to discuss his strategic growth plan (i.e. bond measures) and answer questions about state government. I saw every peninsula mayor and a couple of supervisors exit the meeting, but not Caballero, mayor of what's by far the largest city anywhere near here.

But, as the old saying goes, another great story dies from over-checking. Caballero's campaign consultant, Rick Rivas, had an explanation for each absence. The governor's schedule is set notoriously late (the email from his press office announcing his visit to Monterey was sent out at 5:15pm the day before), and by the time the details were set, Caballero had another obligation with her (other) day job, the Salinas community organization Partners for Peace. As for the Farr dinner on Sunday, Caballero was off visiting her daughter, who had just had a baby.

So sorry to ruin your fun, political junkies. You can now spend your day at the water cooler trying to figure out why Santa Cruz City Councilman Mike Rotkin was standing alone at the door greeting each person as they came in.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Nancy Pelosi apparently rates three secret service members.


Jury Journal
MONTEREY, CA (2006-01-27)

Ever wondered what it's like to serve on a jury? I recently spent a few days as a juror for a civil trial. The case was originally expected to last up to a month, so I started keeping a journal. But the two sides settled just a few days into the trial, thus bringing the journal to an abrupt end. Here'd what I wrote up until it ended:

Wednesday, January 18, 2006: Jury selection
I won't lie. I don't want to serve on a jury. I'm in the middle of three stories, and who knows when I'll get to finish them - they'll probably be old news by the time I get them on the air. I'll have to reschedule interviews, cover air shifts when I can - early mornings and late afternoons, in addition to all those hours spent in court - and saddle everyone else at the station with extra work. As the pledge drive approaches, no less.

You'd think that a news reporter who's the son of two lawyers, one a trial lawyer, would get kicked out (the polite term is excused; the legal term is peremptorily challenged ). But no, counsel had bigger fish to fry. Like the woman from Prunedale who jumped at every opportunity to express a pre-conceived opinion about each aspect of the case. Frankly, she said, she would try to be an impartial juror, but, she was quick to add, how could it not affect her somehow? And then there was the guy who actually drove past the accident that led to the civil case while the vehicles were still on the scene. He neatly slipped in that he had formed an impression of the incident just from driving past that would affect his judgment in the case. Yeah, they were sent home.

I, on the other hand, didn't see any way out. Sure, I could have stretched the truth a bit, expressed an opinion I might have about damages in civil cases, for example. But when it's your job every day to put aside your opinions to practice journalism, why should it be any more difficult to put aside your opinions to serve on a jury? And despite everything I just said about how much of a pain it'd be for me and the station if I missed a month of work, everyone else would face their own problems. Why am I any different?

So now I'm Juror Number Nine, and I feel like bringing a copy of John Grisham's Runaway Jury to the courtroom tomorrow, just to see how everyone reacts. If it were a criminal trial, I suppose I could wear a Death to Tookie or Save Tookie t-shirt and get tossed off the jury. Since it's a civil case, maybe I could tape dollar signs to my shirt, or bring along a bumper sticker from ATRA, the American Tort Reform Association. But I digress.

I haven't had much of a chance to get to know the other jurors, but I'm clearly the youngest. It's truly a cross-section of American society - especially in as diverse a location as Monterey County. Different ages, cultures, backgrounds and educations, just as a jury should be.

If there's a silver lining to getting caught up in this whole debacle, it's that there's a lot I can learn from witnessing the justice system from the inside. On the other hand, the journalist in me wants to tell the story, and I don't like the idea of not getting my thoughts out in one way or another for the one thing consuming my mind for the next month. So to avoid that whole contempt of court thing, I figure I'll keep this journal, where I'll let my mind do its wandering each night after the trial. Maybe I'll learn something. Or maybe you will. Whoever you are.

Thursday, January 19, 2006: Opening statements and the first three witnesses
So I rented Runaway Jury today - the movie, not the book - and I'm thinking twice about bringing the book to court, even as a joke. I forgot how strong the plot's message was. It's a civil suit by a widow for major damages in the death of her husband. In the book, it's he died from smoking too many cigarettes; in the movie, an unbalanced former employee shot 11 people. Both the book and movie end with a huge verdict for the plaintiff, playing on the reader's (or viewer's) sympathy. If I bring the book in, a good-natured joke might get taken the wrong way.

Speaking of Runaway Jury (and Twelve Angry Men, for that matter) you know how, in those movies, the jury gets a room? We get the hallway - at least until deliberation time, anyway. We get to stand outside the courtroom and wait until it's our turn to go in. Sure, we're allowed to go downstairs to the snack bar - consisting of a couple of vending machines. But none of those vending machines has bottled water, which is all we're allowed to consume in the court room.

In other words, suppose we've forgotten to bring some water to court, and we're thirsty. We have 15-minute breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon. That means we have 15 minutes to chug a soda (or some sketchy-looking coffee drink from a machine that spits out coffee). But then we're stuck in a courtroom for the couple of hours, unable to stand up (let alone leave the courtroom to use the bathroom) without delaying the trial and getting everyone mad.

And another thing - the courtroom's stuffier than the KAZU studios, and anyone who's been to the station knows that's saying a lot. I thought it was just having 50 prospective jurors in court yesterday, but it was almost as bad today. So tomorrow I'm going short-sleeved. Hope Judge Dauphine (pronounced DOH-fih-nay) doesn't mind.

As for the jury itself, I've spoken with a few of them, and everyone's nice so far. There are (at least) two teachers in my group; there are also several middle-aged and elderly women. One of them told me she loves NPR and listens to KAZU all the time.

There's already two jurors I've spoken with who live in Salinas, which makes me a) baffled at county inefficiency, since they got stuck commuting to Monterey when they live in the county seat, and b) very happy I didn't get sent to King City, an hour south of Salinas on 101. It's a solid reminder that even though I'm stuck leaving a job I enjoy to sit in a stuffy, fluorescent-lighted courtroom all day, hey, it could be a lot worse.

So far, I haven't seen any juror speak up enough or show a strong enough personality to be an obvious candidate for foreman (foreperson?). If I were older, I'd volunteer when the time comes, but unless someone nominates me, I'll keep to the pack. But I'll definitely be interested to see who steps up and takes a leadership role. People-watching at its best.

The case itself is a typical civil suit for damages following a traffic accident. Three men were driving south on 101 at 156 in Prunedale when a produce truck going from 156 to 101 ran a stop sign (at 20 mph), skidded out of control from the acceleration lane onto the freeway, flipped over and landed on top of the car they were driving. That car, a Chevy, was crushed, along with those inside it. One died; the other two were injured, saved by the CHP officers and fire fighters who responded to the scene. The two survivors appear to be healed and moving on with their lives, though one claims to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSP). The man who died, Dr. Basilio Rojas, left behind his wife Maria and twin 6-year-olds in Mexico.

Maria Gonzalez de Rojas, the twins and the two survivors are the plaintiffs. The wife is at the trial, as are the two survivors. The kids will show up when the time comes for them to take the stand (as the prosecution tries to pull the heartstrings of us jurors, no doubt). The produce truck driver and the company that owned the truck, Smart Transportation, are the defendants. Neither of them has been at the trial yet, yesterday or today.

There are two plaintiffs' lawyers and three for the defendants. So far, the plaintiffs seem more prepared than the defendants - or perhaps that just means they're more experienced, which is certainly possible. In a case like this, you'll get lawyers working on contingency for the plaintiffs - they only get paid if they win - so you'll get upper-echelon lawyers who smell a big verdict. And the verdict could certainly be a big one: The plaintiffs are asking for more than a million dollars in economic damages alone, while the defendants say the damages - if there are any at all - only compute to about half that much.

An awkward moment during the plaintiff's opening statement: One of the two lawyers, Thomas Griffin, paused regularly for dramatic effect, especially when describing the gory details and the effects on the victim's family. His voice cracked at times and he seemed to have trouble containing himself. I thought it was insincere and tacky; it made him look bad and could hurt his case, depending on how many jurors felt it the way I did (I can put it aside and focus on the facts and law, but I don't have to like him). The argument's stronger without Griffin - who never knew the victim - acting like he, too, was hurt in the accident.

The defense's opening statement was shorter, but not very good. The attorney who spoke, Charles Thompson, tried to start with philosophical statements about balancing the facts and making sure to give both sides a fair shot and keep an open mind until deliberations. Duh. That's what juries do. Is your case so borderline you feel the need to make this the jury's first impression? And it doesn't help when the other side's lawyers object to that argument, and the judge rules it inappropriate for opening statements because it doesn't address the evidence. Duh again. This is what they're getting paid for?

Oh, and the most ridiculous thing I heard today came during the defense's opening argument. Apparently, the truck driver was trying to head from Marina to New York and was searching for I-80. So why exactly did he go from 156 East to 101 South? Did this guy know where he was going at all? And if he just realized he was going the wrong way, could that have contributed to the crash? And am I allowed to even consider a theory like this prior to closing arguments, or am I doing exactly what the defense told (or tried to tell) us not to in its opening statement?

After that, we took a break and then picked up with testimony from three CHP officers. Nothing too remarkable here, except the skid marks on the offramp seem to indicate that it didn't swerve out of its way to avoid a car - the theory the defense mentioned in its opening statement.

Hmmm two pages in a journal on three hours of opening statements and witness testimony. It's gonna be a loooooong trial....

Friday, January 20, 2006: Four more witnesses and the reading of a deposition
It wasn't a particularly long day (10:30-noon, 1:30-4:30 with a break at 3) nor was it any more boring than I expect the other days to be. In fact, I think we're making pretty good progress. (I say we in the same sense sports fans say it when referring to their team; just as they aren't on the field, I have no say in how fast the trial goes. And ya know, I think sports fans who use we have issues. But I'm using we here anyway. So there.) Best I can tell, two more plaintiffs, the victim's children and presumably a couple of experts remain before the plaintiffs rest their case. That means if we're lucky, the defense could start calling witnesses sometime Wednesday finish by the middle of the next week and the trial could last just two and a half weeks. I'm not sure we (the jury, this time) can hope for anything better.

There was nothing particularly remarkable in court today. First, a fourth CHP officer wrapped up the law enforcement testimony. Then a paid accident consultant skilled in interpreting black box data tried to spell out what happened to the car and the truck. The content of his testimony didn't really hold my attention, but I did notice one thing: This guy clearly knew what he was doing on the witness stand. He directed his answers not to the lawyers but to the jury, looking and speaking straight at us.

After lunch, we heard from the person driving the car directly behind the Chevy that got crushed, a Prunedale woman who jumped on her breaks in the nick of time. She testified she stopped a car length away from the rear of the truck. There was nothing that Chevy could do, she said, to avoid the accident. Counsel later read the deposition of the lady's daughter, who was in the car with her mom at the time; the only thing that stood out was the daughter's statement that the truck was pretty much driving sideways - across 101 - rather than turning south. But it was the end of the day by then, and I suspect I missed something.

One of the other defense attorneys, a young lawyer named Melanie Risby, showed her inexperience while cross-examining the lady from Prunedale. The second plaintiff's attorney, Fred Ebey, clearly tried to rattle her by frequently objecting to Risby's questions - especially while Risby tried to refer to previous testimony in the woman's deposition. Risby didn't respond particularly well. She didn't appear too nervous, so I don't think it was her first time in court, but she didn't seem ready for prime time either. Which is fine, I suppose, since this trial is definitely not prime time. But when you forget to ask the witness whether she had any conversations with plaintiff's counsel before testifying today, forcing you to slip the question in after redirect examination, that can't be too good.

We also heard this afternoon from Dr. Miguel Gortari, who was sitting in back when the car got crushed. He's a native of Uruguay, a veterinarian and speaks English pretty well. He seemed like a decent man. He described himself as a Christian and referred to the accident as a chance for a fresh start in life, a second chance. How that second chance includes going after large sums of money, I'm not sure. But without knowing the law that applies here, I don't think he's in line to collect very much; probably just reimbursement for modest medical bills for his hand and face and the wages he lost while recovering.

Defense attorney Thompson made me roll my eyes a bit when he started cross-examination. He introduced himself to Dr. Gortari, since they hadn't met, and walked up to the stand to shake hands. Then, he smoothly said, as long as he was up there, could Dr. Gortari show him (and the jury) the hand that got glass shards caught in it? I think his point was that the hand wasn't ruined; there were two scars and they've pretty much healed, although Gortari's pinky isn't quite right and his grip strength won't fully return. There was nothing wrong with showing us the hand, but he could have made a better impression if he hadn't tried to be Mr. Slick Lawyer.

My other thoughts from the day are completely random and have nothing to do with the case:
-- The jury chairs are the most comfortable ones in the courtroom (except, presumably, the judge's chair, which we can't see from where we sit). But the chairs are too high off the ground; five of the 12 jurors need boxes so their feet don't dangle.
-- We were all waiting outside the courtroom after lunch at 1:30 when the bailiff came out and informed us that there'd be a brief delay for a few moments. Not until he went back into the courtroom did it occur to me to say Objection! Vague! I brought it up and the jurors laughed. When the bailiff came back a few minutes later, I told him I should have said that. He laughed and told us to get used to it.
-- Several jurors brought up the fact that we weren't used to 90-minute lunches and had trouble filling the time. One of the teachers said she usually gets no more than half an hour each day. Makes me think I take my hour-long lunch break for granted...
-- When I told my mom I was Juror #9, she said I should walk around saying Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine like John Lennon does on the White Album in Revolution #9. The distressing thing is, I wish I had thought of that first...

Oh, and by the way, I wore a short-sleeved polo shirt and jeans today, and no one complained.

Monday, January 23, 2006: Parties settle, jurors dismissed
Okay, so first off, I'm writing this Tuesday night, not Monday. A funny thing happened once I got off the jury - I had a lot of work to catch up on. (Imagine that!) I finished writing a news story last night, so I'm closing out the journal tonight.

Anyway, the headline gave it away, but here's what happened. The bailiff, stonefaced, called us into the courtroom at 9am sharp Monday. The first thing I noticed was that not all of the lawyers were present - only one of the two plaintiffs' attorneys and two of the three from the defense. Then I noticed the lead plaintiff, Maria Gonzales de Rojas, looked like she'd been crying; her twin children were sitting next to her. Why, when she hadn't cried during opening statements or any of the testimony, would she cry this morning, right before court started?

The answer became apparent as soon as Judge Dauphine took her seat on the bench. The two sides started talking Friday afternoon and came to a settlement over the weekend, she told us. Thanks to our participation as jurors, the great system of justice could run its course. It had, the parties had settled, and therefore, we were released.

So that was it. Just like that. I looked around at the other jurors, who were surprised and happy at the same time. Guess that explained why two of the five lawyers were gone, as well as the expression on Ms. Gonzalez de Rojas's face.

Outside the courtroom, the lawyers waited to ask us some questions. I hung around out because I had my own questions. A couple of them were about the case, but the biggest one was how, exactly, did a news reporter whose parents are both lawyers get put on the jury? I didn't get a chance to ask the plaintiffs' lawyers, but I asked defense attorney Dave Lynch. "We ran out of challenges," he said simply, adding that he also thought that I'd be fair and pay attention. He said I seemed to be paying more attention than most of the jurors, which means either I put on a pretty good act or everyone else was fast asleep the whole time. But hey, I'll take the compliment.

One juror asked how much the settlement was for. Defense attorney Charles Thompson said he wasn't allowed to answer that question. Imagine my surprise when Tuesday's Monterey County Herald had the amount - $4.5 million - in the headline. (I was also surprised by how long the story was - must've been a slow news day. The reporter, George Sanchez, not only figured out which case I was on simply from my telling him I was serving on a multi-week civil trial in Monterey that started Thursday, but wrote far more about the story than I found out from a day and a half in the jury box - and he never once set foot inside the courtroom.)

And after talking with the defense attorneys and other jurors for a few more minutes, I said goodbye to the two jurors I had spoken more than a few words to ... and drove away. It's too bad I didn't get to know the rest of the jury better, especially since I probably won't see any of them again. Who knows what would have gone on in that jury room? Which side would we have delivered a verdict to?

I have mixed feelings about the settlement. I'm definitely glad I don't have to sit in court all day for the next few weeks, and I've never been happier to go to work than I was Monday morning. But once you start something, you kind of like to finish it. A book or movie, for example. And while the trial was certainly boring at times, I've got my journalistic curiosity (some would say nosiness ) to satisfy. In other words, what's the point of getting stuck on a jury, sitting through court for a couple days, if you don't get the whole jury experience? I'm disappointed I didn't get to deliberate with the other jurors and hand down a verdict. Any verdict. It's got to be a pretty weighty moment, sitting in a room with 11 other people - all peers, none more important than anyone else - with the justice system in our hands. Seems like it's something everyone should experience, if only to know what it's like if we're ever on the other end of things.

It's all so anti-climactic.

Kind of like this journal.