Saturday, June 27, 2015

About Arnold Field ...

On Tuesday, Sonoma Valley's school board heard from some City residents with concerns that construction at the combined SVHS/Adele Harrison/Prestwood Elementary campus would hurt their property values. This is (of course) a common situation whenever a school district builds the regular improvements and expansions that their educational mission requires.  I think most everyone has sympathy for the neighbors' concerns. But empirical research shows that their fears aren't backed by the facts. Chris Neilson and Seth Zimmerman demonstrated (in their increasingly-widely cited research) that neighborhood school construction actually improves property values. "[B]y six years after building occupancy, school construction increases reading scores by 0.15 standard deviations relative to the year before building occupancy ... school construction raised home prices in affected neighborhoods by roughly 10%, and led to increased public school enrollment."

The proposed sports complex, in particular, has alarmed some nearby homeowners, who focused their concerns on the stadium. But the research, again, supports the District. Larissa Davies, a United Kingdom based researcher into the subject, conducted a thorough review of the US and UK literature on the impact of football and soccer stadia. Her internationally recognized study found that "proposals to locate stadia in urban areas often prompt a negative reaction from local communities, fearing a decline in property prices ... in contrast to this widely held belief, sports stadia can actually enhance the value of residential property ... stadia also contribute indirectly to property value through the creation of pride, confidence and enhanced image of an area."

Arnold Field
180 1st St. West, Sonoma, CA 95476
Image courtesy Google Pedometer

service available at
The neighbors did have an alternative proposal.  In listening to the different speakers, I noted that they brought up more than once the argument that Arnold Field was a fine alternative to a high school stadium.  On the surface, that argument looks good, but as a person who's been involved with the nonprofit that administers the field, and having played on it quite a bit myself, I know that the (generally undiscussed) truth is that Arnold Field isn't long enough to play football on safely, and it isn't in compliance with the law. A football field must be 360 feet long, surrounded by a further safety buffer of 15 feet. As the attached picture (created using Google Pedometer) shows, the length from fence-to-fence at Arnold Field is 116.3 meters, which amounts to ten feet short of the required space for the safety buffer.  The cramped quarters leave no space for accessible routes alongside the playing surface, a DSA requirement for California school facilities.

Spaulding Field
309 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095
Image courtesy Google Pedometer

service available at
The safe and legal way to deal with that situation is a non-regulation size field; UCLA's practice field is a good example.  Rather than unsafely stretch the playing surface to a fence, the UCLA Athletics Department shortened the football practice field adjacent to Pauley Pavilion by 20 yards (a careful observer of the Google Pedometer image on the right will note there are no 40 yard lines).  By doing so, the University preserved the buffers and accessible routes required by statute. It would be great if Sonoma had the kind of alternative UCLA has to playing on their practice field, but the Dragons can't simply decamp like the Bruins to the Rose Bowl on Game Day.

But length isn't the only problem posed by Arnold Field. The baseball locker rooms at Arnold are probably too small for baseball; they're clearly inadequate for football. The beautiful, pristine baseball outfield often gets churned into a mudscape during football season, and to be back at its best for spring, it needs rest from December until mid-March, preventing women's soccer from relying on it for winter practice. Arnold Field has no track, and doesn't have space for one to be installed. And the location itself, which might have been helpful in Sonoma's railroad days, when adjacency to a Depot could have aided traveling teams, is a hindrance today, when 1st St W jams with traffic after home football games, adding to the already-unmanageable traffic congestion around the Plaza.

Meanwhile, SVUSD has specific requirements for a variety of sports that are consistent with its mission to ensure healthy minds in healthy bodies. California (and the nation) faces a physical education crisis.  Sonoma High's track is in such dilapidated condition that home meets had to be held at away locations this past spring. Women's soccer, whose schedule is planned to be moved to winter, will require a lighted field for play purposes, one that, practically, must be field turf given the sloppy, unplayable condition of grass fields in January and February.  Sonoma High's football team, meanwhile, still needs a safe and statutorily-compliant home field.

There have been some suggestions that SVUSD could "take over" Arnold Field and improve the facilities. That presents a lot of problems.  California educational facilities have higher than normal construction standards, just like hospitals and police stations.  State regulations prescribe that particular elements (things as mundane as the layout and size of walkways) conform to those standards. Bringing the facility into compliance would be far more expensive than moving a fence or building locker rooms, even if the baseball constituency would agree to replace the grass field with turf. And all that presupposes the property could be taken into trust as an educational facility in cooperation with the County.

The truth is that Arnold Field is a great baseball field. Mario Alioto, and all of the baseball supporters and boosters, have maintained it as a labor of love. Their hard work has caused the community to over-rely on the facility, and sometimes to over-use it. Arnold Field should be dedicated to baseball–a move that would be in keeping with the long term trend away from multipurpose civic stadiums to those dedicated to a specific use, from the San Jose Earthquakes amazing new Avaya Stadium, to the jewel that AT&T Park has become along the waterfront in San Francisco.

Arnold Field is a historical facility, steeped in the memories made there.  But physically, it is a product of another time. Easing the pressure on the facility will allow site-specific baseball improvements to be made, enhancing the experience for Sonoma's high school baseball team, as well as the Little League, Babe Ruth, and now the Stompers that call it home.  It will avoid the potentially serious legal liability the District, the County, and even the City could all face by allowing use to continue at a field we know doesn't meet contemporary safety guidelines.  It will mitigate traffic on and around the Square, and will ensure the women's soccer team will play in the appropriate facilities our Lady Dragons deserve.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Restorative Justice, and the Sonoma County Teen Court.

It must have been the fall of 1992.  There was an article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, talking about Sonoma County's new diversion program for the juvenile courts. They were looking for teenage volunteers, to serve as attorneys.  The cases would be real, referred by different local police departments. A meeting was set a few weeks out, and there was a phone number for more information.

About 30 high school students showed up. We heard from a panel of court officials and criminal defense attorneys. All of the accused were misdemeanor defendants, and they had to admit guilt to participate in the program in the first place. The goal was to attempt to reintegrate them into the community, while sending a message about unacceptable behavior. Our job would be to explain, to the jury of teenagers, what had happened, after piecing together a police report and hearing from the client.

I was a typical over-scheduled accelerated student in high school, with honors and AP courses, football practices, and play rehearsals, so the time commitment mattered.  But the program held my attention.  The teen court illuminated the fabric of the lives of the families working their way through the system, for the parents would usually come to court, too. So many of the situations I encountered cried out for more effective social services and, above all else, for empowering schools so that the courts wouldn't be called in so often to pick up the pieces.

Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility
Photo available at
The hearings were in a courtroom at Sonoma County's Main Adult Detention Facility (jail). I must have handled at least 50 cases before heading to college. Most ended with the defendant making restitution and doing some community service, including sitting on a later-convened teen court jury. The program successfully reduced recidivism–the data I've seen indicated the rate was substantially lower than normal.  Further, the impact on the lives of the volunteer teenagers is revealing; a number of them (I think, actually, all) went on to complete law school and become attorneys.

The program went on for some time after I graduated from high school. About a decade later it became a victim of budget cuts, back when things were so bad Santa Rosa had to turn off streetlights to save money. But the restorative justice principles that the system embodied have only become more relevant in education and in juvenile justice since.  Teen courts like Sonoma County's promote accountability and community protection, but they also foster the development of competency in the defendants, a point that deserves special attention.

About a year ago I taught a class with one of the Sonoma County Superior Court judges at our Juvenile Hall, for the toughest kids in the system.  The last question of the 90 minute session was the most poignant.  The guy looked like he might have been 16, and he was clearly bright as hell.  He was very specific with us. He wanted to know if a felony conviction as a juvenile would, when he became an adult, prevent him from becoming an attorney.

For that young man understanding and mastering the principles of justice represented something special.  It was power, but also it seemed to signify achievement. The aspirational element that is so often the motivating spark to commence a legal education was clearly there. The emphatic reply he received from us was that it was wide open for him.

And that is the final element I choose to illustrate what the Sonoma County Teen Court was all about. For teen courts are special because they require the defendants to then participate in the system as jurors. It causes them to witness the functioning of the court as a person responsible for the wielding of power, rather than just as a defendant, feeling confused and helpless when subject to it.

Dyan Foster
Photo available at
This is at the core of restorative justice-that the system should help reweave the fabric of the community torn by the transgression, rather than focus only on punitive retaliation. In a smaller way, when those defendants served, they took a certain amount of ownership of the system. Like the young man in juvenile hall, they developed an understanding of the importance of justice, something particularly clear to those who have once been judged themselves.

I hear that, possibly, the program may be restored by the County. On the merits, I'm in favor. But quite apart from whether that decision is made one way or the other, as readers of this blog are doubtless aware, as a lawyer, education sits at the center of my practice. The kernel of that comes from the Sonoma County Teen Court, and a 17-year old version of me, who as a teen attorney was trying to understand how people's lives had caused them to bump into the police, and how more effective education could have helped so many avoid such problems in the first place. And for that, I owe a continuing debt of thanks to  Dyan Foster and Routes for Youth, who made the program possible.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

@SVUSD1 @svhsdragons 2015-16 Budget "Best 3 Year Projection in Years."

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District had the first read of its 2015-16 budget on Tuesday night, presented by John Bartolome, the District's Chief Business Official.  John, for those of you who don't know him, is a graduate of Purdue University, helps out faithfully with the Sonoma Valley High School Wrestling Team, and apparently is one hell of a golfer.  He also had the chance, with this budget, to give Sonoma Valley Unified some of the best budget news it has ever had. I got the video courtesy of SVTV, which is very much appreciated. The video runs about 20 minutes, but I recommend it to anyone interested in a succinct picture of how things now look after the past half-decade of cuts.
John does a very nice job of explaining what's taking place; there's some terminology that can be confusing. To make sure nobody gets lost, LCFF stands for "Local Control Funding Formula," which is the new (reformed) method of financing public schools in California.  It was supposed to be phased in to its planned level through 2021–that is, schools weren't planned to be fully funded in California for another half a decade.  But, given the improvement in California's budget, school funding under LCFF has reached 70% of the 2021 figure. 

There's some discussion of deficit spending.  The district "planned" to run a deficit in the last year, and has done so for several years; that was due probably to the conservative projections made on funding.  When the local economy takes it in the teeth, that's what reserves are, of course, for, and the level of State funding has gotten to the point where the budget is essentially balanced as of 2017-18, which is a very significant change from years past.

There's also some discussion in the presentation of the concept of "Basic Aid," which is a special system under the line of legislative responses to Serrano v. Priest that allows some Districts to receive more funding than others due to their very high levels of property tax received.  During the most recent economic mess, State funding fell so low that Sonoma Valley actually became a Basic Aid district–which is expected to end in the next year.  Not a bad thing, as John points out, but instead more of a sign of the consequences of an economic recovery (... or of another speculative bubble). 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Fall of Measure A, and Roadway Congestion Pricing.

In the wake of the defeat of Sonoma County's Measure A yesterday, I started thinking about what other alternatives are available to mitigate Sonoma County's roadway issues.  As many of the readers of this blog are aware, Measure A was a quarter-cent sales tax in Sonoma County intended to fund pavement improvements.  The stories in the press before the election focused on the low quality of Sonoma County's roads, and indeed there's ample evidence of the problem. Sonoma County is generally considered to have the worst Pavement Condition Index of any county in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's saying something, as the region isn't known for the quality of its roadways.

However, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' proposed solution, a sales tax, always seemed strange to me from a policy standpoint. Sales taxes are regressive, and aren't closely tied to the use of the roadways. Gas taxes have historically been used to fund maintenance (let alone improvement) because the use of the roads was (loosely) tied to the amount of tax paid. Of course, that system in the United States has been failing for decades. Improved fuel economy has delinked miles travelled from the amount of tax paid. But there's also another problem with fuel taxes. 

That problem turns on the primary complaint of voters when it comes to matters such as these.  It isn't actually the quality of the roadways. Instead, it's typically roadway congestion. For, as no less an authority than Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert has noted, "[d]riving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."  So, while charging users for miles driven isn't a bad solution, charging them for driving those miles at the most congested times in the highest traffic areas is generally best. It provides revenue to improve the roads not based on the damage done to the road, but instead on the inconvenience imposed on all the other voters for inefficient timing of one's travel of the right-of-way. 

I concede, without argument, that, for the moment, for Sonoma County, trying to introduce a comprehensive system of congestion charges is asking too much. While Sonoma Valley's per-square-foot real estate prices may be approaching those of London or Singapore, that doesn't means the voters are yet ready for Zurich or Stockholm style road pricing. But there is lower hanging fruit whose benefits could be substantial.

 Highway 37/121 Juncture
Heavy Traffic in dark black
Take, for instance, the junction of Highways 37 and 121 in the southeastern corner of Sonoma County. As many are aware, the traffic in the afternoon heading from Sonoma County into Solano County, where 37 shrinks from two lanes to one, produces epic traffic jams. The problem isn't inter-Sonoma County traffic– instead it's the commuters trying to reach Solano County. For residents of Sonoma Valley returning home from San Francisco, it's a regular annoyance. For a tourist destination like the City of Sonoma, it's a foot on their economic windpipe. The Press Democrat has reported on the problem before, and motorists have even started petitions asking for help with the situation.

The nasty congestion at 37 is a classic example of the overuse of a public good (a free highway). Since each driver need not pay any fee to use the roadway, commuters over-exploit Highway 37. Each motorist gets a small benefit from traveling the road, and many are motivated to maximize their use by traveling it every workday, becoming reliant on it. Yet the costs of their use are imposed on the residents of Sonoma County, whose use (and the use of their tourists) is less (often, much less) intense.  Pretty frequently, the problem snowballs around 3 PM, until the resource collapses, in the form of a traffic nightmare. 

The irony of all this is that the builders of the roadway were well aware of these kinds of problems.  Indeed, Highway 37 was originally built as the "Sears Point Toll Road," managed by the Golden Gate Ferry. The imposition of tolls is an obvious solution to the tragedy of the commons–frequent users pay a higher price.  But when the State of California purchased the roadway in 1938, the tolls were eliminated. 

Now, that was probably a decent idea during the Great Depression. Collecting tolls in that era was much more disruptive than billing the FasTrak equipped cars of today, and spending on roads to improve the general welfare was politically uncontroversial. But the technical problems of toll billing have long been resolved, as the improvement in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge heading into San Francisco since mandatory electronic toll collection began in March of 2013 illustrates. And the overall impact of congestion charges worldwide has been positive, from London to Singapore.
Toll Monitoring Station, Singapore. 
Photo Courtesy Michele Simoni

User fees imposed on Highway 37 from Sonoma to Vallejo (a step toll is preferred) would improve the ability of tourists to reach upvalley destinations in a timely fashion. Such a solution is consistent with the history of the roadway. It helps resolve the primary concern of the voters, congestion, while avoiding politically impractical roadway expansion.  It provides revenue to resolve the pressing policy problem, roadway maintenance. And it promotes efficient use of a public good. At a stroke, it uses technology to help resolve a series of different thorny problems. 

This kind of a solution isn't limited to the junction of 37 and 121. The politics of such a solution at  San Antonio Creek are somewhat different (the commuters causing congestion there are residents of the County, those at 37/121 generally are not).  But if the remedy proves practical at Sears Point, there are other locations where such congestion pricing would make a great deal of sense (for instance, upon entering Sonoma Valley ...).  

Before yesterday's vote, congestion pricing in Sonoma County was largely a mere gedankenexperiment.   But after the failure of Measure A, it's another matter entirely.  As Ernest Rutherford was fond of saying, "[w]e've got no money, so we've got to think." In that vein, I suggest it is going to have to be creativity, then, rather than higher taxes, that Sonoma County will have to rely upon to resolve its long term traffic problems.