Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Chowchilla police chief joins Madera sheriff’s race

Chowchilla police Chief Jay Varney announced plans Wednesday to run for Madera County sheriff next November.

Varney, who has 30 years experience in law enforcement, is seeking the post currently held by John Anderson, who plans to retire next year.

He joins Madera County Undersheriff Michael Salvador, retired California Highway Patrol Sgt. Dennis Fairbanks and Fresno police Sgt. Greg Noll in the campaign to replace Anderson.

Jay Varney

Varney, 52, says he began his law enforcement career in Dallas where he rose to sergeant and led a felony team. He moved back to his hometown of Lansing, Mich., in 1993 where he reached lieutenant.

He became chief of the Chowchilla Police Department in 2004. The department has 17 sworn officers, two reserves and six community service officers.

In addition to being police chief, Varney also was named city administrator from July 2009 to April 2011.

Chowchilla has a population of about 18,500 that includes two state prisons.

Varney’s work as city administrator, he said, makes him uniquely qualified to serve as sheriff: “I have worked in just about every kind of environment. I am still excited about law enforcement and about being a leader.”

Varney has a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree in criminology from Fresno State.

He serves as a licensed presenter for Pointman Leadership Institute and has traveled internationally training others in leadership and integrity.

Varney and his wife, Amy, live in Chowchilla, and have two children.

Nothing simple about property buys for high-speed rail route

A conceptual view of a high-speed train running through the Valley.

Monday’s story about efforts by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to acquire property, and the resulting displacement of businesses along the route in the Fresno and Madera areas such as Angelo’s Drive In or Keith’s Automotive, struck a chord among readers who interrupted their Labor Day weekend to leave me phone messages and send a few emails.

It seems to underscore the complexity of the process involved in securing land for public works projects, including right of way for big ones like the controversial high-speed train project. There are two big factors at the heart of the issue:

  • People who own businesses, farms and homes in the path of the railroad route have not only invested their money, but their effort and their sweat, into something that stands to be swept away, if and when the project is built; and
  • They’re feeling a little pushed around by the process, and in some cases insulted by offers that don’t reflect what they believe their property and business is worth — that is, they don’t think it is what the lawyers call “just compensation.”

No wonder property owners, homeowners and affected businesses can find themselves confused and angry. But here’s some info that we weren’t able to work into Monday’s story.

The story reported that the rail authority has, as of last week, made more than 120 formal written offers to owners of land along the proposed railroad route in Fresno and Madera counties. Those written offers are based on appraisals done by consultants to the rail agency. You can see a copy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s parcel-by-parcel right of way plan here (warning: it’s a large file!). The right of way plan has been incorporated into the agency’s contract with Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, the contracting consortium hired to design and build the first 29-mile section of the system in Fresno and Madera. You can find an interactive, clickable map of parcels identified by the rail authority as those likely to be needed earliest (by the end of September) here.

When the authority makes a written offer to a property owner, it triggers a complex process in which “most property owners probably are not aware of what the law provides in terms of compensation for an impacted business owner,” said Anthony Leones, an eminent-domain attorney for Miller Star Regalia, a Bay Area law firm that prepared a newsletter about high-speed rail and land issues.

“What a business owner needs to do when they get an offer is, first of all, understand that the offer may not be inclusive of all their potential damages,” Leones said. “A business can be damaged in a lot of ways, even if they’re only taking a portion of the property. … For businesses, the situation is a lot more complex and they should understand that the initial offer is not a final offer, and they don’t have to accept it.”

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Public can see foothill conservancy this month

Bee photographer Diana Baldrica took this shot of wildflowers on a table top mountain in the conservancy.

A reader asked a good question after reading my story on the Sierra Foothill Conservancy: “A milestone for wildflowers,cow pies and flat-top mountains.”

“How can I see this place?” the reader asked.

The conservancy has two opportunities this month — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 13 at the McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 27 at the Ewell Fine Gold Creek Preserve. Directions are on the links.

Public access is always an important issue, because people want to see natural treasures. The open public days give people that opportunity.

Valley rural water problems are clear in state report

Deep in a state report on dirty drinking water, an important and revealing statistic went unnoticed by the media last week.

Of the 772,883 Californians relying solely on compromised groundwater, about 400,000 are in the San Joaquin Valley.

We’re talking about water systems that have violated standards, leaving people with no option except buying bottled drinking water during those times. About half of the people suffering this problem in California are right here in the Valley.

The report was done for the legislators by the State Water Resources Control Board as part of Assembly Bill 2222, which required the water board to look at statewide problems and assess the financial resources to help fix them.

The  report looks at all of California, but the Valley is in a spotlight here.

Naturally occurring arsenic was the biggest offender among the contaminants. But nitrates — attributable to activities by people — was second.

The Valley has a widespread problem with nitrates, which a University of California study last year traced to fertilizers and animal waste in agriculture.

In Kern County alone, there were 55 violations of water standards between 2002 and 2010 — the highest number in the state.

Tulare County followed with 31. Madera County had 22, Fresno County 15 and Stanislaus County 14. Very few other counties in California even had 10 violations.

Here’s another telling point that nobody reported.

“There are 89 community water systems in Los Angeles County that serve approximately 8.4 million people. However, only 11 percent of that population is solely reliant on a contaminated groundwater source.

“In contrast, Tulare County has 41 community water systems that rely on contaminated groundwater source that serve approximately 205,000 people. Sole reliance on groundwater for these communities stands at 99 percent.”

I’m looking at the percentages here, not the raw numbers. Southern California has larger numbers, but it also attracts more money to fix the problem. Dirty water is cleaned up.

As I mentioned earlier, the Valley has more people drinking water from a system with actual violations.

How are the problems being addressed? The report said some water systems were not receiving or even actively seeking money — most of them in the Valley. They are in Kern, Stanislaus, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Tulare counties.

Fresno County updates its vote count; little is changed in races

Fresno County on Friday did its first vote-count update since Tuesday’s election, and not much has changed.

Everybody who was leading on election night is still leading, and no challengers have significantly closed any gaps.

For instance, on election night Republican challenger Mitt Romney had 50.72% of the vote and President Barack Obama was at 47.13%. Now, Romney is at 50.37% and Obama at 47.45%. That means Obama has shaved about two-thirds of a percentage point off of Romney’s initial lead.

Fresno County counted 19,000 absentee ballots and has 78,000 still to count. Of those, around 54,000 are absentee, and the rest provisional.

“It’s going to take us days,” Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said.

In Tulare County, around 20,000 absentee and 10,000 provisional ballots remain to be counted, and in Kings, it is 1,500 provisional ballots.

Madera County doesn’t do updates until it completes its count, but Clerk Rebecca Martinez said Friday that around 4850 ballots remain to be counted. Almost half are provisional, with the rest absentee ballots.

The race to watch in Madera County is the District 3 supervisorial race to replace incumbent Ronn Dominici, who chose not to seek re-election after 12 years on the board.

On election night, just eight votes separated Madera City Council Member Gary Svanda and businessman Rick Farinelli, with Svanda holding the slight lead.

Martinez said District 3 has 1,041 absentee ballots and 545 provisional ballots to count.

Political Notebook: New PAC tries to boost Whelan in 16th Congressional District battle

It’s pretty clear that Fresno Republican Brian Whelan wanted to reach the top level in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program.

The designation would have given his campaign to unseat incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Costa in the 16th Congressional District some legitimacy — and, likely, money. With just 12 days until the election, it looks like Whelan will fall a rung short on the Young Guns ladder.

But it appears that there is one organization trying to help Whelan.

The Central Valley Independent PAC was formed Oct. 9 and on Wednesday reported to the Federal Election Commission that it had raised $130,000.

But there must be more cash where that came from because the Central Valley Independent PAC has bought around $200,000 in television time on KFSN (Channel 30), KSEE (Channel 24) and KGPE (Channel 47).

It has formed a Twitter account as well as a website — http://centralvalleyindependentpac.com — but as with so many other independent expenditure groups these days, exact details on the group are hard to find.

The only contributor, according to the Federal Election Commission’s website, is Double B Land Company, which lists an address of 5200 N. Palm Ave., Suite 310, in Fresno.

That is also the address of West Hills Financial LLC, which lists Brad Gleason as its president. Gleason, who also looks to be a farmer and has ties to the Valley’s pistachio industry, is listed on Whelan’s campaign website as an endorser.

He’s also donated close to $5,000 to Whelan’s campaign, as has Gregorio Jacobo, who is listed as executive ranch manager for West Hills Farm Services, which shares a website with West Hills Financial.

The PAC’s treasurer is listed as Ross Allen, and has a Coalinga post-office box. The PO Box number is also tied to Turk Station LLC, which has Allen listed on the Secretary of State’s website as its agent for service of process. Turk Station is listed as a hunting lodge and ranch that also offers wild boar hunts, though it is unclear if the Coalinga-area business is still open.

Neither Gleason or Allen could be reached for comment.

Congressional campaigns aren’t supposed to coordinate their activities with any independent groups such as the Central Valley Independent PAC, but there’s no doubt the question for Whelan is: can the television ads and website help? And, with thousands of people already having voted, are the ads hitting the airwaves too late?