Changing of the guard: The latest reign of trial and error at the Berkeley Daily Planet has come to a close. After more than a year at the helm of the start-up paper, editor Judith Scherr bid readers adieu in her column last week, saying she planned to go write a book on (what else?) Berkeley. To her credit, Scherr eschewed the media's typical Bezerkeley coverage. On her watch, the paper has reported civic issues with a straight face and occasionally broken stories that went on to become fodder in the national media, such as the recent flap over the Boy Scouts. Of course, the new publication also suffered growing pains under Scherr, who cringed when 7 Days revealed that the Planet had reprinted press releases verbatim and presented them as news stories.
And while the Planet has become must reading for Berkeley politicos, the city's moderates have griped about Scherr's alleged love for lefties like Councilman Kriss Worthington. The accusations are mostly unfair and probably are fallout from Scherr's activist past, in which she once rubbed elbows with the Marxist group, Line of March.
If anything, the Planet has been far gentler to public officials than its sister paper, the feisty Palo Alto Daily News, which helped inspire Atherton's police chief to retire after reporting that he had been using a state crime computer to check out acquaintances and business associates. The Planet, by comparison, often reads more like minutes from council and commission meetings. Nonetheless, perceptions are perceptions and moderates such as Polly Armstrong say good riddance to Scherr. "I think it's potentially good for the city that Judith is leaving," Armstrong uncharitably opined, "because she was such an unqualified and enthusiastic supporter of Kriss Worthington and his agenda that the opinions of the rest of the council had trouble finding a place in the paper. I hope whoever replaces her is more interested in reporting all the things going on instead of making the front page an outreach program for Kriss Worthington and other extremists."
Asked to respond, Scherr retorted, "People on the left say similar things. They say why aren't you a progressive paper? Well, we don't take positions. ... We're reflecting whatever is going on in Berkeley."
Worthington chuckled at the idea that the Planet was his personal mouthpiece. "I believe they have quoted Shirley Dean more than they quoted Kriss Worthington," he said. Of course, that could be because she's the mayor and he's not.
One intriguing postscript: The day after Scherr announced her departure, the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Dave Danforth, the so-called father of the micro-daily. The story quoted Danforth boasting that all of his micro-papers have turned a profit within "nine months to three years." Except for one: The Daily Planet.
Victimless crime department: Last week we reported on the saga of Christopher Barfield, who in September was released erroneously by the Martinez County Jail and then prosecuted for "escape," a third-strike felony carrying an automatic sentence of 25 years in state prison. The 21-year-old, briefly in jail because of some missed probation appointments for two minor robberies he committed three years ago, was mistaken by jailers for his brother Desmond, who was in the same jail over an unrelated matter and due to be released for lack of evidence.
When we went to press last week, Barfield had refused the district attorney's offer to plead guilty in exchange for 16 months' prison time. But on Friday morning, a new deputy DA made Barfield a better offer -- plead guilty, get both previous strikes wiped out, and get out of jail in 90 days.
Contra Costa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Sequiera, who took over as the new supervisor of "strikes" cases on January 1, said he felt differently about the case than his predecessor. "I just felt the equities weren't good," he said on Friday. "The sheriff's department made a mistake. When Christ was on the mount, he resisted temptation; but I don't know if a three-striker who's given a chance to get out of jail could."
Barfield's brother Michael said he hoped that something good might come of it all. "Maybe Chris learned his lesson," Michael said. "Maybe everybody learned their lesson, goin' through this."
Ghost-town showdown: The evening of January 11 capped a busy week for Oakland's two mayoral candidates. Having debated one another twice in the previous five days, incumbent Jerry Brown and former City Councilmember Wilson Riles Jr. sat down in the KQED studios and traded barbs live on TV, in a special program of This Week in Northern California. Despite moderator Belva Davis gentle admonitions, the two candidates went to work on each other as soon as the cameras were rolling. Brown began by extolling the virtues of his first administration: crime at a thirty-year low, new housing construction, and the recycling of fifty percent of the city's waste. Riles replied by attributing the drop in crime to a national phenomenon, and claimed that Brown hasn't done a thing to secure and expand the city's stock of affordable housing.
Chronicle columnist and This Week regular Phil Matier riffed on Riles' complaint about affordability and asked how a city could possibly improve its fortunes without a rise in the cost of living. "I'm not saying let's stop development at all," Riles answered. "I'm saying raise the limited resources that the city has, and the energy and creativity of city staff that ought to be focused on serving the needs of people who live in Oakland ... so that when my kids want to live in Oakland, they can find a house at a reasonable rate." After Brown claimed that he was working to end the phenomenon of downtown emptying out after five, Riles got his back up: "This is not about making [downtown] a ghost town!" "It was a ghost town for most of the time you were there!" Brown retorted.
But the best exchange came after Davis took e-mail questions from city residents. One voter claimed that Brown had reneged on his pledge not to run for a second term -- a pledge that Brown apparently never made; it seems entirely appropriate that e-mail was the medium for the one spurious claim of the night. But KTVU correspondent Rand Shandobil took advantage of the moment to grill Brown on the persistent rumors that he's planning a run for Barbara Boxers Senate seat in the middle of his second term. "If reelected, will you stay for a full term?"
"That's my intention," Brown said.
"Is that a promise? Because there's all kinds of rumors about you running for the Senate in two years."
"Well, the Senate is not available."
Attaboy, Jerry. Keep those options open.
Baby Brigade on the march: Oakland's Parkway Theater wants to expand its operations by reopening the neglected Cerrito Theater on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito. If Parkway owners Catherine and Kyle Fischer have their way, their unique combo of second-run movies, "Thrillville" cult films, comfortable living-room-style seating, beer, wine, and fast food -- not to mention the theater's popular "Baby Brigade" shows for infants and their parents -- would move into the Cerrito, a dusty former neighborhood cinema last used as a furniture warehouse, sometime next fall after they restore it. Backers of the plan say that will turn the moribund stretch of San Pablo just north of El Cerrito Plaza into an entertainment magnet. But first there's the question of who's going to pay for the Cerrito's estimated half-million-dollar upgrade, and a crucial city council vote next week. Catherine Fischer has her fingers crossed. "I don't want to say too much because I don't want to jeopardize the deal," she said from her office at the Parkway. But if the plan is okayed, expect a tasteful mini-plex with at least two screens and the same "picture-pub-pizza" concept that has gained the Parkway coast-to-coast publicity and a dedicated following since it opened on a similarly dilapidated stretch of Oakland's Park Avenue in 1997.
State-sponsored terrorism: Spotted: a vendor selling prints of the Confederate battle flag at the Ashby flea market. The flags bore the inscription: "made in Pakistan."News & Notes
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