Archive for May, 2010

A group of mostly West Marin residents calling themselves Marin Media Institute last Friday bought The Point Reyes Light from Robert I. Plotkin, who had owned it four and a half years.

Having owned The Light for 27 of its 62 years, I’ve been following the developments closely.

The paper plans to incorporate as a nonprofit with scientist Corey Goodman of Marshall as chairman of the board and journalist Mark Dowie of Inverness as vice chairman.

Tess Elliott will remain as editor, and ad director Renée Shannon has been promoted to business manager. Missy Patterson, 83, who has worked at The Light for 28 years, will continue as front-office manager.

From left: Missy Patterson shows off the new look of The Light, which once again has the Point Reyes Lighthouse in its front-page flag; editor Tess Elliott; and business manager Renée Shannon, who holds an issue with the  flag Plotkin had used.

Eighty-six contributors ponied up $350,000 to: 1) buy The Light; 2) provide two years of working capital; 3) pay for a professional appraisal; and 4) cover the the legal costs of the sale, of incorporation, and of creating a nonprofit. Goodman said the price of The Light was confidential, but based on all this, I would guess it was in the $150,000 to $175,000 range.

In The Light’s Jan. 15, 2009, issue, Plotkin wrote that although he’d paid me $500,000 for the newspaper three years earlier, he’d been trying to sell it for $275,000 but had found no takers. It would be a “financial bloodbath,” Plotkin added, but “I was prepared to discount the price even more.” The Light at the time was “losing between $5,000 and $15,000 a month,” he reported.

Across the country newspapers were losing money, Plotkin wrote, so “this is not unique to The Light, although there have been some aggravating factors, namely myself….

My sensibility is at odds with many in the community.”

Of that there was no doubt. “During the first couple of years under the last publisher,” editor Elliott wrote this week, [The Light] lost one third of its subscribers; the effects of those years continue to reverberate. Our reporters still regularly hear complaints and flat out refusals to talk.”

In an article for The Columbia Journalism Review two years ago, Jonathan Rowe of Point Reyes Station wrote: “First, there was the braggadocio and self-dramatization. Most people in his situation would lay low for a bit, speak with everyone and get a feel for the place. Instead, Plotkin came out talking.

“We read that he was going to be the ‘Che Guevara of literary revolutionary journalism.’ The Light would become The New Yorker of the West…. [However] he soon showed a gift for the irritating gesture and off-key note.”

I encountered Plotkin’s “snarkiness” (Rowe’s word) almost as soon as I sold him the paper. When I tried to background him on a land-use planning issue in February 2006, he became abusive, and we had a falling out.

Plotkin (at right) then began publishing such malicious attacks on me that columnist Jon Carroll felt moved to complain in The San Francisco Chronicle about Plotkin’s “sleazy” editing.

I had been volunteering an occasional column after the sale, but I naturally stopped when Plotkin began maligning me. Joel Hack, who owns The Bodega Bay Navigator website in Sonoma County, then invited me to submit stories, and I did.

When I sold The Light to Plotkin, I had agreed not to write for another Marin County newspaper as long as he owned all the stock in The Light. Upset that my writings were now online, Plotkin then claimed in court that a Sonoma County website is no different from a Marin County newspaper. Now-retired Judge Jack Sutro, who appeared not to understand the Internet, agreed and issued injunctions against Hack and me.

But it was a disastrous victory for Plotkin. Hack would eventually respond by launching the competing West Marin Citizen, which cut significantly into The Light’s revenues. The Citizen quickly grew in circulation while The Light’s circulation was plummeting, with many of its readers switching papers. The Citizen likewise picked up a number of Light advertisers who were unhappy with Plotkin’s editorial “sensibility.”

In getting a court to bar my writing for Hack’s website, Plotkin — to paraphrase the Book of Hosea — sewed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

As for Plotkin, how does he explain his publishing debacle? “Sadly, West Marin did not want editorial excellence,” he told The Chronicle this week. “They wanted a newspaper that would record their births, celebrate their accomplishments, and habitually congratulate them on living here.”

Last weekend, the new owners notified the press of Friday’s sale but embargoed their news release until this Thursday. Nonetheless, the moment the sale occurred, word of it spread throughout West Marin. Jeanette Pontacq of Point Reyes Station told me she returned home Friday after a month in Paris and in less than 24 hours had been filled in on most details.

Technically, The Light is now owned by The Point Reyes Light Publishing Company L3C (a low-profit limited liability company). It is incorporated in Vermont, which is common for L3Cs. That company is, in turn, owned by Marin Media Institute, which is applying for nonprofit status.

Mark Dowie (left) and Corey Goodman with the sign that once hung over The Light’s front door.

Along with Goodman and Dowie, directors of Marin Media are David Escobar of Contra Costa County, aide to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, also active in Democratic, Latino and Native American politics; Chris Dressler of Marshall, former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Women’s Voices, Women Vote; Phyllis Faber of Mill Valley,  former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Jerry Mander of Bolinas, author, former ad agency president, and founder of an anti-globalization think tank; David Miller of Inverness Park, international-development specialist; Scoop Nisker of Oakland, Spirit Rock Meditation Center teacher and former KSAN newsman; Norman Solomon of Inverness Park, journalist and political activist.

There are too many contributors to list here. Contributions ranged “from a few dollars to $50,000,” Goodman said.

The question currently on many people’s minds is what will happen to The Citizen now that The Light is being revitalized. I had hoped to see the two papers merge, but a merged operation became difficult when the new owners of The Light decided to create a nonprofit.

However, both Hack and Goodman told me this week that the option of combining the two papers “is still on the table” although nothing is likely to happen right away.

Hack (above), who is justifiably proud of what The Citizen has accomplished in a little less than three years, isn’t interested in simply selling out and walking away. His paper’s hyper-local coverage of public gatherings and West Marin commerce, along with its publishing of innumerable submissions from readers, has been popular with many residents and merchants.

The Light, in turn, has made its mark with investigative reporting ever since Elliott took full charge of its newsroom.

For the past month, some people have been saying The Citizen is about to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and go out of business, but Hack insists there is no truth to the rumor. The only money he and his wife Kathy Simmons owe is about $25,000 in state and federal income taxes, Hack said. They have filed for Chapter 13 protection, which will allow them to pay off this relatively small amount over three years without incurring additional penalties for late payments.

That’s all that’s going on, and it in no way threatens The Citizen. In fact, the state and federal governments benefit from The Citizen’s staying in business because it gives Hack a source of income to pay the back taxes.

I have friends at both papers, and I hope both have profitable futures. Most of Marin Media’s directors are known to me, and I respect them. I also have a high regard for the contributors. I’m delighted they are reinvigorating my old newspaper and wish them well.

I also hope the community continues to support The Citizen. The changes at The Light have obviously changed the dynamics between the two papers, and I would be surprised if each didn’t find its own niche — which will probably require some adapting.

The Light and The Citizen have each invited me to periodically submit columns and articles, and I’ve agreed to write for both. It’s been a long winter, but springtime has finally arrived.

Seeing the massive emergency-worker response, one could have imagined al Qaeda had struck in Point Reyes Station Friday evening. However, if there was a suicide bombing, it was a bird-brained idea.

A crowd of fire engines and sheriff’s patrolcars blocked off Mesa Road behind Wells Fargo Bank after a powerline snapped at a pole behind the Palace Market’s parking lot around 8 p.m.

The mishap blacked out Point Reyes Station and the rest of the Tomales Bay area for roughly half an hour beginning around 9 p.m. when PG&E shut off power.

It all began when a transformer blew on the pole at center. A firefighter told me that some people at the scene believe a bird flew into the transformer, but no evidence of any bird was found when Marin County firefighters arrived from two blocks away. Around town, however, the bird was being described as a turkey vulture.

The blown transformer caused a powerline to burn through, with one end of the line dropping to the ground roughly 20 feet from a car parked on Mesa Road. The line burned along the ground almost to the car (seen just right of center above) but then went into a hedge behind the bank and up past a small tree.

The line burned almost a cubic yard of hedge but did not start a major fire. The firefighter noted no water was sprayed on the shrubbery because of the electrical risk.

The broken powerline was so hot it not only burned a groove into the sidewalk, it melted the cement around it into obsidian-like glass.

Bird environmentalist Phil Nott later pointed out that one bend in the downed line went over the entrance to a “vole hole” (right), causing the sides of the hole to become “glassified.”

Virtually everyone who gets mail at the Point Reyes Station Post Office knows postal clerk Kathy Runnion of Nicasio. Most townspeople also know she heads an organization called Planned Feralhood, which uses humane methods to keep the local feral cat population under control.

Kathy in Planned Feralhood’s shelter for cats no one will adopt. Most are too old, have health problems, or have been wild too long.

At the moment, Planned Feralhood urgently needs to find a permanent home. For reasons having nothing to do with its feral cats, the shelter’s rental arrangement will end June 30, Kathy told me Sunday.

The organization’s Trap/Neuter/Return program has become a model for other communities, and it’s up to us in West Marin to make sure it survives.

Planned Feralhood has been taking care of West Marin’s feral cats for nearly eight years, and for the past four years, Kathy said, no kittens have been born in the targeted areas. Colonies that were exploding in size eight years ago are now stable and healthy, the cats living out their lives without reproducing.

Volunteer feeders help keep the colonies localized. Between these colonies and the cats in its shelter, Planned Feralhood is now taking care of an average of 75 cats a day, Kathy added.

The organization’s value is widely recognized. The Marin County Board of Supervisors has commended Planned Feralhood “for its dedication in utilizing the ‘Trap-Neuter-Return’ program in West Marin and… encourages the residents of West Marin to assist and support Planned Feralhood in its activities.”

Faced with the prospect of having to move in a matter of weeks, Planned Feralhood is desperately seeking donations to finance relocating.

I urge readers to help.

The organization would also welcome suggestions regarding a new home for its shelter. Kathy can be reached at

Along with a building, the cats need yard space that can be fenced. It’s obviously not essential, but if rental accommodations for one or two staff were available nearby, that would be icing on the cake.

The challenge of finding a new shelter and moving the cats into it in less than a month and a half seems daunting; however, with the community’s help, Planned Feralhood will be able to ensure the local feral cat population continues to be kept under control in a humane fashion. From talking with Kathy and meeting the shelter’s cats, I can guarantee all help will be greatly appreciated.

Checks should be made payable to ASCS. The Animal Sanctuary and Care Society is Planned Feralhood’s IRS 501C (3) fiscal sponsor. Please mail your tax-deductible contributions to Planned Feralhood, PO Box 502, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956.

When John Francis and his family moved from Point Reyes Station to Cape May, New Jersey, last November, he assured us we hadn’t heard the last of him. And we haven’t. Yesterday he called from Cape May to say hi and fill me in on his latest adventure.

Most long-time residents of West Marin know John’s story. For 22 years beginning in 1971, John refused to ride in motorized vehicles (largely as a reaction to a humongous oil spill at the Golden Gate).

For the first 17 of those years, he also maintained a vow of silence. His not talking caused him to listen more and kept him out of arguments over his not riding in motorized vehicles, he would later explain.

During those years, John walked across the United States. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana and a doctorate in Land Resources — with a specialty in oil spills — at the University of Wisconsin. (National Geographic last week put online John’s observations regarding the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.)

On Earth Day in 1990, John, who was in Washington, DC, at the time, started talking again, and soon afterward called me to break the news. Because I had never heard him speak before, I needed a bit of convincing before I believed it really was John on the phone.

John subsequently walked across the Amazon and down the west coast of South America to the tip of Argentina. He also walked around Antarctica a bit and north through Patagonia.

At the moment, John’s long-distance walking is again receiving public attention, this time in Australia. He’s been repeatedly interviewed by Australian television and is now frequently recognized there. Here’s what happened.

Last November, the Australian government financed a documentary, The Art of Walking — The Great Ocean Walk, which promotes a new trail along a scenic stretch of coast in Australia’s southern state of Victoria.

Katarina Witt, John Francis, and (with a spotting telescope) Shayne Neal, who owns Great Ocean Ecolodge.

To demonstrate different approaches to long-distance walking, three notable people each walked a section of the 65-mile-long, sometimes steep trail. John, who took the first section, provides a look at slow, contemplative walking.

At the beginning of his walk, John started a journal of his observations and drawings.

At the end of his section of trail, John handed the journal off to the next walker, Katarina Witt, who is better known as a figure skater.

For her, the walk was more like a sports event, and at the end of each day, she relaxed like the major athlete she is, with a massage, fine food, and wine.

Unlike John, Katarina said she does not like walking alone although that was not a problem on this hike. All the walkers were accompanied by guides and photographers.

Katarina, who was born in East Germany in December 1965, is best known as a figure skater who won gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. She is seen here in 1982 on the eve of her first European Championship.

She also won World Championships in 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988, and six consecutive European Championships from 1983 to 1988.

Katarina went on to become an Emmy-winning performer (for Carmen on Ice, 1989) and a nude model for the December 1998 issue of Playboy.

The issue is one of only two that has sold out during the 56-year history of the magazine. The other is the first issue, which had Marilyn Monroe for its centerfold.

Katarina, in turn, handed off John’s journal to Michael Milton of Australia. Michael, who lost a leg to bone cancer at the age of nine, is a celebrity is his own right.

In the 2002 Winter Paralympics, Michael won every skiing event, and in 2006, he became the fastest speed skier — disabled or not — fr0m Australia, reaching 132.76 mph during competition in France.

Michael said he took part in the walk to show that his disability does not hold him back from physically excelling.

A koala along the Great Ocean Walk. “The scenery is stunning,” John told me. “You can feel very much like you’re in California because of the eucalyptus trees.”

John noted that when he was on the trail, “I had four or five cameras following me around. Sometimes I had my own camera harness.”

You can see John’s part of The Art of Walking — The Great Ocean Walk by clicking here. The section featuring Katarina Witt can be found here. And the section featuring Michael Milton can be found here.

Because few of us in Point Reyes Station have home delivery, the post office has long been the most popular meeting spot in town. On Monday, it was the scene of one of those happy little moments that make small towns great places.

As it happens, postal worker Erin Clark, who was helping out in Point Reyes Station for a day, is a volunteer with a wildlife-rescue group, Rancho Raccoon, headed by Megan Isadore of Forest Knolls.

About a week earlier, Rancho Raccoon received four newly born raccoons that were orphaned when a building was torn down in Oakland. Erin took over raising the newborns when they were less than a week old.

Like any mother, Erin has to periodically check on her young ones, so on Monday she brought them with her when she went to work. There was no risk of the baby raccoons getting into trouble at the post office where they spent the day sleeping in a back room. At 11 days old, their eyes had not yet opened nor were their ears fully developed.

Erin is the only mother the raccoons know, so whenever she picks one up, the baby tries to suckle on her fingers.

Equally picturesque but less cuddly were 15 western pond turtles I counted Monday on two logs in a pond off Cypress Road. The small pond at Anastacio and Sue Gonzalez’s home attracts a variety of wildlife, and on warm days, these turtles emerge to sun themselves.

California’s Department of Fish and Game has designated the western pond turtle a “species of special concern.” Because some pond turtles, especially fertile females, migrate, motor vehicles periodically kill a few. Pesticide runoff, loss of habitat, and introduced predators are also reducing their numbers. Around West Marin, a major threat is from non-native bullfrogs, which eat hatchling and juvenile turtles.

Western pond turtles can be found from the Canadian border to Baja California although in the state of Washington, they almost became extinct around 1990 because of an unidentified of disease. However, they are now making a recovery there thanks to government programs.

As I started down my front steps Monday en route to the post office, I startled a young buck that was lying down, chewing its cud. The deer jumped up and started to quickly walk away, but I began talking to it in a low voice, and it stopped to look at me.

When I stayed put and kept whispering soothingly, the buck relaxed and started scratching fleas. Before long it was grazing. Not wanting to disturb the deer, I had to wait about 10 minutes until it wandered off and I could get to my car and drive into town.

Italian thistles on my hill

On Sunday I completed a two-week assault on the thistles in my field. I even removed thistles on the edge of three neighbors’ fields since one neighbor’s thistle problem quickly becomes the neighborhood’s thistle problem.

As first described in this blog April 28, a fortnight spent pulling up and cutting down thistles was exhausting and sometimes painful. Several fingers sustained battle wounds, but I expect to fully recover. As of now, I’m storing enough thistles in plastic bags to keep my green-waste container full for another month of pickups.

Eliminating thistles is, of course, a bit like eliminating spiderwebs. Every time the light changes, you spot one you previously missed. All the same, I sort of felt a sense of satisfaction Sunday evening for having persevered in this unpleasant task for two weeks.

The cable guy, Jim Townsend of Horizon Cable

I would have felt even better were it not for one screwup. My cabin is connected to one of the oldest sections of the Horizon Cable system in Point Reyes Station. It’s so old that much of the cable was originally strung along this hill’s barbed-wire fences.

Ever since buying the old system, Horizon Cable has been upgrading it. However, at one corner of my fence, a short length of cable in relatively thin conduit still dangles beside the barbed wire. On Sunday while using loppers to cut down the largest thistles, I reached into a clump and instead cut the cable.

Immediately I alerted Horizon Cable, for although I didn’t much mind not having television, not having access to the Internet was a real drag. I felt cut off from friends and family in faraway places. I couldn’t get my nightly fix of al Jazeera.

Thankfully on Monday morning, Horizon technician Jim Townsend showed up and managed to get me back online despite having to dig up some old-style fittings for my old-style section of the system. I don’t mind being on an antiquated section with part of my cable running along a barbed-wire fence. To me it symbolizes the enduring rusticity of Point Reyes Station.

A Mustang convertible ran off Highway 1 near its intersection with the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road about 8 p.m. Saturday, caving in the front end of the car. It’s an all-too-familiar accident at this location.

After overshooting a curve in the highway, the Mustang dropped into a roadside ditch and hit a speed-limit sign and a utility pole, causing driver’s side airbag to deploy. Apparently no one was seriously hurt. Residents living nearby said they saw people walking away from the scene, heading toward downtown Point Reyes Station.

When firefighters and the Highway Patrol showed up, whoever had been in the wreck was long gone.

For years, numerous northbound cars and motorcycles going too fast up Highway 1 have run off the roadway at the first curve north of downtown. Terry Sawyer, who lives nearby, told me, “This is a once a week or once every two weeks thing.” Indeed, this blog on March 15 reported on a very similar crash, which also knocked down the speed-limit sign.

The crashes “most of the time stop the car,” Sawyer said, but some vehicles manage to get back on the highway and drive off even when they’ve been damaged. One damaged Corvette made it all the way to Nicks Cove, leaving pieces of shredded tire all along the way, both Sawyer and a firefighter said.

So far no one has been killed in crashes on the curve, but a number of speeding motorcyclists have been injured when they ended up in the ditch.

Although the speed limit is only 25 mph on this stretch of highway through a residential area, Sawyer said he often has trouble pulling out of his own driveway safely. I don’t know what the solution is, but Caltrans clearly needs to do something to slow traffic heading north out of downtown.