Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- April 10-23, 2005

This page includes posts from April 10-23, 2005 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

April 21, 2005
Blogging break

I'm taking a blogging break for a bit, and plan to be back here in a week or so.

Thanks again for your patronage, and take a look at some of the back issues here in the meantime.

April 20, 2005
Color me skeptical

One sometimes reads a crime story that just makes one say, "Gee, I dunno--that doesn't sound quite right."

I had that reaction when reading a News-Journal story tonight about a Wilmington woman charged with felony manslaughter in the stabbing death of her live-in boyfriend.

Frankly, her initial explanation left something to be desired:

She called 911 and said ďthe victim had run into the knife,Ē according to court records.

The woman is now in custody, perhaps in part because someone whose story is that lame simply shouldn't be allowed to roam free.

April 19, 2005
Somebodyís marketing staff could use a little help

On occasion folks ask me why I donít have a comments section for this blog. 

The answerís pretty simple.

During the weekdays at least, writing for Sneaking Suspicions is something I can only do at home, in the early morning or in the evenings. From what Iíve seen at othersí sites, comment sections need far more constant care and attention than I can devote to the task.

On the other hand, itís easy to email any comments to me, and ever since the site first went public Iíve also provided an address for snail mail on the home page.

Letís just say the Nassau Post Office is not normally overwhelmed by the mailings that are sent to Box 88, 19969.

Occasionally Iíll be sent an advertisement or two, including one I received today from Overture, a Yahoo! Company that specializes in search engine advertising.

However, it looks like the gang in Overtureís marketing group could use a little help.

Hereís the address they used:

Terry McCauliffe
Sneaking Suspicions

Just so weíre clear here, this site is not the new home of the former head of the Democratic National Committee.

Iím at a complete loss to figure out how Overture put McCauliffe's name on my blog address, but I can certainly say it didnít leave the best of impressions.

April 17, 2005
A kindred spirit

I realize that most folks are just happy that April 15 has come and gone, and they're probably in no mood to talk about taxes.

Even so, it was nice to read about a kindred spirit on an aspect of tax policy where most political leaders would rather chew nails than do anything substantive.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been suggesting that there's a real need for a general change in how the state's three counties assess properties for tax purposes.

Reassessments are rarely done here, and there's little or no political will to do them.

The situation is now simply ridiculous. Sussex County hasn't done a reassessment since 1974. Kent County's not as bad, but only by comparison. It completed its last reassessment in 1986. New Castle County's no better, with its last reassessment also dating back to the 1980s.

New buildings are valued as if they were built in those years, and the probabilities of a skewed estimate go higher with every passing year. Whole neighborhoods have experienced major shifts in relative property value compared to other portions of the state, and yet their parcels' assessed values remain locked in a fantasy tax world.

County officials may say that they don't have the money to do the reassessing, but years ago they turned down the State's offer to pay for the costs of a full reassessment.

And it's not as if anyone is suggesting that the overall property tax burden in Delaware is too high and will be even worse after reassessment. Nonetheless, inflation's effect on land and building values over 20-30 years is just far too extensive over that period to go without making sure that all properties are taxed using a defensible, common set of values, which the current do-nothing arrangement surely is not.

Perhaps the county governments need a different incentive, which is where Dr. Bob Smith may contribute toward a change of heart, however unwilling.

As the story notes, Dr. Smith is the superintendent of the Milford School District, one of the few such districts that crosses county lines. Schools also depend on property taxes for the local portion of their revenues, and Milford SD has to struggle with adjusting its own tax rates to accommodate the wildly different values for similar properties, depending on whether they are in the northern (Kent) or southern (Sussex) part of the district.

Smith is actually using the word "lawsuit" to help folks understand the problem and one potential solution.

For the county officials, that word may prove to be the most useful synonym for what they really desire: "cover".

As in, "Gee, we really don't want to do this reassessment, but that nasty old vice-chancellor ordered it, so we have to."

Naturally, it would be preferable for local government officials to recognize they have a big problem with how they do the people's business, and then do the right thing without any prodding from others.

On the other hand, if it takes a court order to calm their political fears and make them do what they should have been doing all along, well then, that's just the kind of practical solution I can support.

Thanks, Dr. Bob.

April 15, 2005
Red light appeals

This morning I handled the first set of appeals from the citations issued by the state under its red light video camera enforcement system.

Delaware's scheme is set up as a civil process, with no points assessed against the drivers. If found responsible, or if they simply agree with the photographic evidence provided on the citation, the drivers must pay $75. Unsuccessful appeals cost the driver an additional $30 or so.

Five drivers' appeals were grouped together for the hearings, but one driver gave up after watching her video shortly before the courtroom proceedings began.

The witnesses included a computer expert who described the program's data elements, architecture, and security arrangements. The DelDOT program manager for the red light project then testified about the yellow phase signal timing, which by law cannot be shorter than what is set by the Department's Traffic Section, using the Delaware edition of the Uniform Manual on Traffic Control Devices (For those interested, see 21 Del.C. Section 4101(d)(1).

In these four cases, the yellow time either matched or extended beyond those limits.

The final witness was a state police employee (a retired Dover police officer, BTW), whose new job is to watch the videos sent by the vendor, confirm that the violation is legitimate, and then present the videotape replay of the violation.

The drivers were not exactly pleased with the results of their appeals, but the evidence was fairly compelling. As one of the appellants said simply, "I'm screwed."

This is a three-year pilot program for DelDOT, and the Department will assess the accident data and other information about the system's operation during this period. Only two intersections outside city limits are fully operational at this point, but the remaining 8 locations will soon be up and running.

Thus far the program hasn't generated the same kind of political controversy that has plagued video enforcement schemes in other jurisdictions. The Department knows that a rigorously conservative approach to issuing the citations will blunt one frequent avenue of attack, and a similar approach to the yellow signal phase timing should also help.

April 15, 2005
Update on beaching and moaning about access

Early in this site's existence, I wrote a longish post about a long-running battle between entertainment mogul David Geffen and the California Coastal Commission.

In the early 1980s, Geffen promised to grant beach access rights to the general public as a condition for approval of his building plans for a beachfront property in Malibu.

He tried to avoid fulfilling this obligation, and spent years fighting to break the deal he made.

Today's LAT reported that Geffen finally gave up the battle. He's turned over the keys to two gates that control the improved pathway to the beach.

According to the newspaper story, Geffen must still resolve his legal obligations to pay the government's attorney's fees and costs, as well as a tidy sum in daily fines he was apparently accruing for each day he failed to follow a court's orders to open up the access point.

Geffen's original deal was similar to the one set aside in 1987 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, discussed in the prior post. However, the Nollan decision didn't apply to dedication agreements that pre-dated it, so Geffen couldn't take advantage of that famous takings decision.

What I wrote about this case three years ago is still true:

The controversy brings to the fore several interesting policy considerations.

First, the Nollan case tightened the requirement to link a permit condition to the purposes behind the permit itself. This case and a few others forced governments to face the prospect of paying for what they desire on behalf of all their citizens, including the use of the power of eminent domain.

Second, even if the conditions are legally permissible, the nagging questions of security and maintenance must be faced, or the area will fall victim to the familiar tragedy of the commons.

Third, if you make a deal with the government concerning your property, you should expect to be held to your bargain. Someone on the other side of the issue may be more than happy to make sure you do.

Unfortunately, Geffen spent a lot of money and effort rediscovering these truths, and will be spending quite a bit more before it's all over.

April 14, 2005
The local newspaper

I'm going to send Jeff Jarvis a copy of our local newspaper.

It's sounds almost exactly like the kind of model publication he describes today in an interesting, lengthy post.

Jarvis suggests that a local newspaper can thrive by cutting out those parts of the paper's offerings that are better produced elsewhere:

Imagine a newspaper that is only local news -- no sports, no business, little or no entertainment, and commodity national and international news treated as the I-saw-that-already commodity it is: only local news.

The Cape Gazette doesn't go quite as far as Jarvis suggests, but it's close.

The distinction depends in part on what one considers local news.

In the Cape Region, a major tourist and recreation destination, local entertainment information is certainly part of the news. Both the locals and the constant flow of new visitors want to know what's going on at all of the places where people gather to watch live music, eat in some of the state's best restaurants, and otherwise enjoy the area's diversions. The Gazette's entertainment section keeps its focus local, and is a very popular part of the paper's coverage.

There are no major sports teams in the area, and the closest minor league baseball team is an hour away. Instead, the Cape Henlopen School District's sports teams are the center of local attention, and typically provide five or six tabloid-sized pages of news that the community definitely wants. As the paper's golf columnist, I'm sure I could be called biased on this part of the subject, but it's still true.

Jarvis suggests that classified ads are better handled in some other fashion than the norm. I think he's right. The Gazette runs reader-submitted classifieds for free for two weeks, and these freebies are surrounded by dozens of paid-for ads. Together the classifieds took up 20 pages of the 144-page edition that ran on April 8, for example.

Does the Gazette's local news model work? Yes.

Last year the paper switched from a weekly edition to a twice-weekly format, in part because folks were complaining that the Friday edition was becoming too big.

Several other newspapers would believe that's a nice problem to have, compared to their current woes.

The Gazette's editor and publisher (the co-owners) split up the production cycle, and now run a smaller edition on Tuesdays. This mid-week edition tends to be about 44-48 pages long, reducing the size of the Friday edition to an average of 140-156 pages or so. This move also helped spread out the weekly workload demand on the staff.

The paper's circulation has increased, and, by the way, so has the paper's staff.

From everything I've seen and observed at the Cape Gazette since I first started writing their golf column six years ago, I'd say Jarvis is right on the money about the best way for local newspapers to remain viable journalistic enterprises.

It's the same model that the Gazette and similar local newspapers have been following for a long time.

April 14, 2005
So that's it

It's been real busy at work this week. In addition, the hours not spent representing the State's interests have been only marginally less active, so I haven't had a lot of time for blogging.

Even when I wanted to post something, however, our internet connections were fitful at best, especially during the evenings when I usually write my golf column and the blog essays.

It turned out we weren't alone in having web access troubles. The folks at Comcast went public this afternoon:

Comcast's high-speed Internet customers nationwide have suffered Web and e-mail problems since last week, the company said Thursday.

The intermittent nature of the problem made it difficult to pinpoint how many of Comcast's nearly 7 million broadband customers have been affected, Comcast spokeswoman Jeanne Russo said.***

The latest service disruption started about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and ended shortly after midnight. Customers experienced similar problems last Thursday and during a three-hour period Tuesday starting around 6:30 p.m.

Russo said the problems have been confined to the evening hours.

''Throughout most of the day it doesn't seem to be a problem,'' she said.

So that's it, then. The only time I could devote to blogging was also the same time my service provider was plagued with problems it couldn't readily solve.

Tomorrow's work includes my first set of red light camera appeals, so maybe there'll be something to post about that experience tomorrow night.

If I can make the connection, that is.

April 12, 2005
Didn't really need the excitement

Near accidents are strange things.

You can see what's going on, but for some reason it's just not registering that you're in grave danger and that you need to do something about it.

Until suddenly you decide that what you're seeing is really happening before your eyes, and you begin to react to the threat.

The ride to work this morning was uneventful for the first 35 miles or so. I drove through the traffic light at Little Heaven and was about a half-mile above that point when I saw a dark-colored sedan in the southbound lanes, moving a bit erratically from one lane to the next.

All at once the car lurched into the median strip, heading for me while I was in the left hand northbound lane.

My first thoughts began with "What the h...?," because it just looked so odd. It took a while longer for me to appreciate the danger, and then I started braking and trying to figure out if I should stay in the left lane, move to the median, or shift to the right lane. For a second or two, it frankly looked like there were no good options.

Then the car turned a bit away from that initial heading and shot across both lanes, just missing me and another car in the right lane next to me. It ran down the side slope and came to a stop in the ditch.

I pulled over and stopped in the median strip, while a few other cars pulled off to the right shoulder. I started calling 911, and then saw one of DelDOT's Traffic Section managers park his SUV. He activated his flashing lights and was speaking into a microphone, so I turned off my cell phone and started walking over to the ditched car.

At that point a State Trooper came by in the southbound lanes, turned on his lights, and made a quick U-turn

Another passerby was talking to the driver, who appeared more stunned than anything else. I asked him if he was alright, and he said he was. The trooper then approached the vehicle, and I decided to leave.

I contacted the Traffic manager later and asked him what happened. He said the driver's story was that he'd hit a patch of dirt and lost control of his car. He also said that other witnesses said the man was driving aggressively and lost it while overcorrecting for a swerve.

I don't think any of us driving north this morning really needed the extra excitement this man caused us. I'm just glad no one was killed or injured.

April 11, 2005
Horticulture fans

I really enjoyed watching the beautiful landscaping during the past weekend.

The golf was pretty good, too.

When Tiger Woods sank that improbable birdie chip on the 16th hole, I was sure I knew what was going through Chris DiMarco's mind at that very moment--sometimes there are signs from on high that this is not going to be your day, and here's your sign.

It also appears that there's a huge market for fans of green grass horticulture out there:

Tiger Woods' victory at the Masters was good news for CBS. The network's overnight ratings for coverage of Sunday's final round were a 10.3 with a 21 share.

That was up 41 percent from Phil Mickelson's thrilling victory last year (7.3 with an 18) and the highest since Woods' last victory at Augusta in 2001 (12.9 with a 27 share), when he became the first golfer to hold all four major titles at the same time.

When the competition is this intense, and the surroundings are this beautiful, it's easy to understand why the ratings jumped as high as they did.

Congratulations to Mr. Woods and Mr. DiMarco.


Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969


Home Page
Table of Essays
Table of Essays 2004
Table of Essays 2003
Table of Essays 2002
Links to the Weekly Archives

Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.

That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.

© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2005