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Phaedra Strechter

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Meyers to NCRA: This is no way to run a railroad!

By Peter Seidman

After serving six years on the board of the North Coast Railroad Authority, Bernie Meyers has decided to end his tenure on the board. Meyers, a longtime critic of NCRA and its arrangement with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, presented North Coast board members with a strongly worded 4,400-word position statement outlining his thoughts about the past, present and future direction at the rail agency.

After serving six years on the board of the North Coast Railroad Authority, Bernie Meyers has decided to end his tenure on the board.

Meyers, a longtime critic of NCRA and its arrangement with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, presented North Coast board members with a strongly worded 4,400-word position statement outlining his thoughts about the past, present and future direction at the rail agency.

He also presented an extensive question-and-answer statement to board members that delineates his thoughts, mostly critical, on issues he says the rail agency has stumbled over in the past as well as faces in the future.

Meyers, a veteran of the Novato City Council who served as mayor of that town in 1995 and 2005, appeared before the Marin County Board of Supervisors this week, where he submitted copies of the position statement and the question-and-answer statement. The board acknowledged Meyers service on the rail agency with a commendation that states in part, “For six years Bernie carefully and thoroughly went through all aspects of NCRA’s budget looking out for taxpayers’ money and insisting on public review.”

That’s an understatement. It’s not unfair to characterize Meyers as a thorn in the side of the rail agency. His tenure on the board, especially in his last few years, was marked by strong criticism of the rail agency and its lease with Northwestern Pacific, an arrangement he has called “a sweetheart deal” with insufficient benefit to the public.

The supervisors will appoint another Marin resident to take Meyers’ seat on the rail agency board. Jerry Peters will remain on the board of the nine-member organization; he’s the second board member from Marin.

The California Legislature formed the North Coast Railroad Authority in 1989 as part of an effort to ensure continued viability of railroad transportation in the state. A companion bill passed both houses of the Legislature and would have provided funds to create rail transit on the proposed line, but Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed the legislation, leaving North Coast Railroad Authority as an unfunded mandate. It also left the NCRA with an idea for a railroad but no actual railroad. That didn’t make it easy to attract an operator to run actual freight.

After looking for a railroad operator, NCRA cut a deal with Northwestern Pacific in 2006. North Coast Railroad Authority agreed to a 25-year lease with Northwestern Pacific (NWP) that allows NWP to renew for up to 100 years. Meyers has called attention to the terms of the lease for years, especially the section covering payments to the rail agency: “NWP shall make annual lease payments in the amount of 20 percent of its net income, commencing the first year after NWP has generated positive net income in excess of $5 million.” Meyers says the lease arrangement lacks any meaningful oversight.

Meyers has continually called attention to the lease, which he says is lopsided in favor of Northwestern Pacific. He also points a questioning finger at the relationship between Northwestern Pacific and NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner. Meyers isn’t the only one who questions the relationship between the railroad authority and NWP. To start with, John Williams, the CEO of Northwestern Pacific, is a former executive director of NCRA. Doug Bosco, former congressman representing the North Coast, joined Williams as an investor and NWP legal counsel. Stogner worked for Bosco as an aide when Bosco was in Congress. No wrongdoing has been documented. But critics of the lease between NCRA and Northwestern Pacific still question whether the deal should have merited oversight.

Then there’s the AP story: Critics cite a 2001 piece that recounts how Gray Davis was in the governor’s office when the state funneled $60 million to reopen the Northwestern Pacific line. Shortly after the state decided to pour money into the effort, shippers, who stood the most to gain, contributed more than $60,000 to Davis’ campaign fund. Perhaps not wrongdoing—but critics say it’s an example of how influence works.

Critics also point out that in exchange for that $60 million, the rail guys agreed to produce an environmental report. Later, after two environmental groups sued, saying the EIR was inadequate, NCRA and NWP said they really didn’t have to produce an environmental report. Federal law regulates trains, they said, and trumps state environmental requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act. That case, after winding its way through the courts, is still active. A Marin Superior Court ruled in May that the two environmental groups, Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, have no standing on which to sue. The court also affirmed the doctrine that federal law supersedes state law when it comes to trains. The environmental groups have appealed.

The suit could have a major impact on the long-term success of Northwestern Pacific. The railroad currently runs a modest number of rail cars on 62 miles of track between Windsor and Napa County.

Northwestern Pacific says it wants to run from Samoa, near Arcata in the north part of the state, down through Marin and Novato and on to Schellville, where the line connects with the national freight rail system. The rail line serves mostly ranchers now, but critics say the real money is at Island Mountain in Trinity County. Between 1914 and 1930 substantial amounts of copper, silver and gold were mined there, and the area still has untold tons of valuable aggregate. Trains could haul that aggregate to market. Northwestern Pacific says it has no immediate intentions of extending its tracks north to tap Island Mountain riches, but critics just don’t believe the pronouncement. The environmental groups worry because the rail agency and NWP completed an EIR that investigated only the southern section of rail line and rehabilitating track and running trains to the north, to Island Mountain, would do severe environmental damage.

In leaving the board with his parting communications, Meyers criticized the way the North Coast Railroad Authority interacts with board members—or fails to interact. “The NCRA is run by two members of its staff, and they play their cards pretty close to their vests. The board has very little time in which to make a decision and insufficient input on which to make a decision.” As with many joint-powers agencies, the NCRA board has members that come and go. That leads to a staggered institutional memory. “As I leave the board, there are only three of us that have been there the six years that I have been there. One person on the board has been there only a few months. When I joined the board, what did I receive? A packet telling me everything that went on? No. I received the environmental consent decree [between the state and NCRA], and I received the lease. That’s it.” Meyers says an insufficient institutional memory at NCRA is a big reason why he produced the lengthy position statement as well as the question-and-answer statement.

Meyers says the time has come to leave the board after trying to make a concerted effort to produce change. “I think the NCRA should be a viable organization in charge of the shortline railroad. My being on the board didn’t seem to achieve that in the six years I was there, and certainly not in the last year or two or three. I can’t understand why another two years [the term of board members] in that position would get me any further.”

There’s always been tension between Marin and the counties to the north about differing methods of running a railroad agency and a railroad. The city of Novato sued over what it said was the inadequate environmental report because the report failed to take into account effects of running trains through town on the way to Napa County. The city and the rail guys settled after an agreement was reached about quiet zones.

The North Coast Railroad Authority needs a healthy dose of transparency, according to Meyers, a prescription not evident at the moment. In Meyers’ estimation, a poor NCRA attitude affects the public’s right to know in Marin about what happens at the rail agency. The board is supposed to hold rotating meetings in the four counties it represents. “It hasn’t met in Marin all year,” says Meyers, which shows you the disdain the board has for Marin County.”

In leaving the board, Meyers plants a suggestion of how to ensure that the arrangement between the railroad authority and Northwestern Pacific Railroad truly benefits the public—rather than just the rail guys as well as ranchers along the line who get their freight hauled. He calls on the NCRA board to ask a member of the Legislature, possibly and notably Marc Levine (who represents Marin) to ask the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee to look at NCRA and NWP and the rail line to determine if anything should change to better the public’s benefit.

An alternative, says Meyers, would be to ask for an outside independent and unbiased study “to tell [the board] if what they have set up here is fiscally prudent and whether it will redound to the public benefit or not.”

The questions-and-answer statement Meyers presented to the NCRA board and to Marin supervisors includes many other issues. Needless to say, other board members and officials at the railroad authority and NPW have views divergent from those of Meyers. Here’s a sampling of Meyers’ Q&A:

How do the lease terms compare with similar leases between state railroad entities and private operators?

Not favorably. Generally, others are for terms of between five and 20 years, with possible renewals if conditions are met. For example, a 2007 Ohio lease provides for 5-year renewals if various conditions are met, including a review of shipper satisfaction, safety, car loadings, track maintenance and financials. Then there are best practice provisions, energy efficiency provisions, and conflict-of-interest provisions.

Did NWP make some payments to NCRA besides those required by the lease?

Yes. In a side agreement to the lease, NWP agreed to pay $20,000 a month until such time as it would have to pay trackage fees under the lease, and NWP would get credit for these side agreement payments when it later was to make trackage payments. But NWP changed the agreement to end the monthly payments earlier. Later it turned the side agreement payments it had previously made into a receivable owed to it by NCRA. So over the last six years, NWP has paid about $30,000 in trackage fees to NCRA and is not paying anything now.

Was the line recently repaired?

Partially. It was rehabilitated from Lombard to Windsor, just north of Santa Rosa, about 62 miles. The work started in 2007 and was completed in 2010 (per NCRA) or 2011 (per NWP).

How much was paid for the rehab?

NCRA says it cost $68 million taxpayer dollars. Another $3 million was spent by NWP but most of that has been reimbursed with taxpayer funds.

Was the NWP money spent to cover work done after a public bidding process?

No. NWP was given a no-bid contract.

Was the NWP work completed in accordance with the initial contract price and timeframe?

No. The final cost was about three times the initial amount and instead of three months it took over a year.

Did the board audit the billing?

No. It is a sorry story. Don’t get me started.

Was that the last no-bid contract awarded to NWP?

No. NWP has been awarded a no-bid contract for the cleanup of toxics at the Ukiah Depot.

Is NCRA financially stable?

Looking at its finances, it appears to be near bankruptcy. The current budget can only be balanced by assuming that significant obligations will not be paid. Prior years’ budgets showed expenses well in excess of revenues. It has a long list of creditors with claims well in excess of NCRA’s yearly revenues.

hero and zero

by Nikki Silverstein

HERO: Chad and Carolyn Carvey gave the gift of light to boats anchored out in the Richardson Bay near Sausalito. Folks on the live-aboards don’t usually have electricity, making decorating with holiday lights difficult. The Carveys donated LED lights powered by solar energy to about 50 boats. The Sausalito Lions Club and the Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito contributed to the purchase of the lights and other local merchants donated coffee, candy and waterproof cellphone bags. The idea behind the gifts is to encourage the live-aboards to feel that they’re part of the Sausalito community. Though controversy over the floating community remains due to fire, health and pollution hazards, the Carveys want to build a bridge over those troubled waters. We hope smooth sailing continues.

ZERO: Once again, a child was brought to Marin by a pimp. Unfortunately, the pair wasn’t here to enjoy a hike through Muir Woods or take selfies at Vista Point. They traveled to a Terra Linda hotel to sell the sexual services of a 16-year-old school girl, which begs the question, who among us is buying? San Rafael police think that the child may have had sex with more than one customer. While we hold the flesh-peddler responsible for trafficking and exploiting the minor, the men that answered the Internet ad are just as culpable. Too bad we don’t have the names of the local customers, because they deserve to be outed and publicly humiliated. When a child is involved, prostitution is not a victimless crime.

 

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Do bikers, hikers and equestrians finally agree on the newly approved Open Space District Road and Trail Management Plan?




















by Peter Seidman

When county supervisors recently approved a new plan that sets policies for trail use in Marin County open space preserves, they capped a long and contentious process in a quiet meeting marked by consensus. Hard work still lies ahead.

The meeting in which the supervisors approved the new plan was the 16th public session, including workshops, notes Linda Dahl, director and general manager at Marin County Parks and Open Space. The first meeting four years ago was marked by rancorous argument and a sign that the ensuing debate wouldn’t be genteel. But as the process unfolded under the guidance of stakeholders and Dahl’s open space department, it yielded a quiet assertion that hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians could, indeed, live together. Maybe not in a rainbow world with unicorns and shafts of ethereal light falling on them, but they could find ways to live together on the county trail system.

Reaching that point of consensus “is what you dream of in conflict resolution,” Dahl says. “The breakthrough was giving people a forum to have a conversation. Giving everybody a forum where they all had to come together and they all had to listen to each other and put themselves in each other’s shoes, and then agree that there should be rules and they would live by them,” created the process that led to the consensus.

Dahl and the county faced a daunting task: Creating rules for an open space system about which hard information didn’t exist. An ironic twist to a story that started when county officials in 1971 agreed that the hillsides and ridgetops of the county should be protected by concentrating development along corridors that corresponded to main roads.

As part of the process that led to the approval of the new road and trail plan, the county conducted for the first time an inventory of the trail system and assessed the condition of the trails. The county thought it had about 170 miles of trails. Actually the inventory found about 250 miles of trails that fell into three categories.

When county residents voted to create the Open Space District in 1971 to purchase undeveloped land, the district inherited trails that ranchers had built as utilitarian connectors. The district created other sanctioned trails. And rogue users hacked some illegal trails. The road and trail plan looks at each of the three categories in a process that allows informed decisions about whether to retain a trail, improve a trail or eliminate a trail. The road and trail plan is a policy document rather than a call for specific actions.

In 2010, when the Board of Supervisors, acting as the board of the Open Space District, held a meeting to begin a review of management practices in the district, about 47.5 miles of non-system trails criss-crossed the patchwork of preserves. Mountain bikers could use 24 percent of the single-track trails and shared-use trails. Hikers and equestrians objected to any suggestion of expanding access to mountain bikers.

The battle lines drawn then were similar to the battle lines drawn in 2005, when a study of the county’s open space policies revealed that most Marin residents favored the status quo when it came to bike access.

But contention on the roads and trails had simmered for some time and showed no signs of abating. The main issue focused on hikers and equestrians who voiced concerns and complaints that mountain bikers rode too fast on shared routes, causing hazardous conditions for everyone and generally creating an unpleasant experience for hikers and equestrians. Letters to the editor decrying the bikers often appeared—and still do—in waves. The fact that most mountain bikers ride with courtesy is overshadowed by a rogue element that creates continual bad press for the bikers.

The huge irony is that in the county where mountain biking began, trail-users wanted to limit bikers from riding on roads and trails in the district. Back in the 1960s, Joe Breeze and his friends looked at their fat-tire bikes and turned their heads toward Mount Tam. The early attraction was inescapable. The boys began riding the mountain. In doing so, they created a sport and an industry that has swept across the globe. The thrills are unmistakable. But so is the impetus to get closer to nature at a slower pace, on foot and on horse and bike. The speed demons often overshadow the more causal bikers who simply enjoy riding in nature. (Breeze now is curator at the nascent Marin Museum of Bicycling in Fairfax.)

The problems of sharing trails with the minority of bikers who favor speed over contemplation came to a head when two equestrians on a single-track trail in the Indian Tree Preserve in Novato said that two boys on bikes flying around a blind curve spooked the horses. One of the riders was thrown and suffered spinal fractures. The horse she was riding bolted and wasn’t recovered until 24 hours later. The incident triggered renewed general condemnation of mountain biking. Although the two boys reportedly were about 10 or 12 years old, an age of irresponsibility, mountain bike critics used the incident to renew calls for limiting mountain bike riding.

Controlling the relatively few rogue riders always has been an issue when it comes to sharing trails. Bike groups have conducted their own outreach campaigns to educate their membership about the rules of the trails and proper etiquette. The situation is analogous to drivers on the freeway who speed wildly in the center lane—or the fast lane—and then at the last minute force their vehicles into a line leading to an exit ramp. The behavior has become common in Marin. The Highway Patrol cannot ticket all the recalcitrant drivers who show little respect for safety and etiquette. Neither can officials control all bikers who ride the roads and trails of the Open Space District. But that doesn’t mean drivers are inherently disobedient and uncaring. Neither does it mean all bikers are rogue elements. (The district has added nine rangers, and Dahl says the district can, if necessary, ticket rogue riders.)

In another irony, the challenge of sharing roads and trails in the district is exacerbated by the success the county has had in creating an open space system that’s enticing. In addition to Marin residents, people come from across the Bay Area and beyond to enjoy the road and trail system. The road and trail plan is, in part, an acknowledgement of that attraction.

Early in the process, a draft of the road and trail plan included policy implications that could have led to a strong prohibition of off-trail use for hikers. That met opposition from critics who said a large part of the attraction of the open space in the county was the ability to wander in nature. The final version allows hikers to walk off of the roads and trails—as long as they are not unaccompanied by dogs. Mountain bikers and equestrians must stay on designated routes.

The change in policy is one example of how the public process helped shape the final version of the document. “It’s a small system” that has many users, Dahl says. “They like it because they want to experience nature. If everybody does everything they want to do, there’s no nature left.” The road and trail plan sets policies the county will use to create specific standards and procedures for each of its preserves.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Dahl says. “The mandate is to let people enjoy. The big debate is how much enjoyment is too much and what’s appropriate enjoyment. That’s what this process brought us to.” When discussions started about creating the plan, the talk centered on what range of environmental pressure the county and users and residents were willing to accept. “We’ve done that” with the road and trail plan, Dahl adds.

“The process worked,” says Tom Boss of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “We went into this process knowing we were going to have a seat at the table and we weren’t going to get everything we wanted. But Director Dahl told us that [we would have a seat], and I think she honored that.” Boss says that bike advocates pushed for as many miles of trail as possible, and although the bike contingent didn’t get everything, it got “the key things we wanted.”

One of those keys includes a policy that strives for road and trail connectivity “for all trail-users.” The district will “consider one-way, uphill only, time separation and single-house or priority-use trails to achieve these ends.” Wagon Wheel Trail in Camp Tamarancho in Fairfax is a mountain bike priority trail. For 17 years the trail has been a priority route for bikes. No conflict has resulted among users, notes Vernon Huffman of Access4Bikes.

Like Boss, Huffman is pleased with the outcome of the road and trail debate. “We’ve come a long way from that first contentious meeting,” he says. The Open Space District “has done an exceptional job of listening and responding to all the different interest groups” on the way to creating “an environmental protective document. It’s pretty impressive.”

The massive growth in the sport, the lifestyle, of mountain biking has changed the demographics on the roads and trails of the district. The management plan is an attempt to recognize the changing demographic and adjust policies to accommodate the new users as well as protect the legacy users. “We are now 25 to 30 percent of the users,” Huffman says. “We’re asking for change. They are trying to accommodate it.” Above all, the road and trail plan holds safety as the paramount goal, along with environmental protection.

The bike community also succeeded in winning an adjustment of how creating new trails will affect old ones. In a draft version, the plan called for no new trail miles in the preserves. The plan delineated four zones, from the most environmentally sensitive to the most amendable to recreational use. In the most environmentally sensitive zone, if the district built a new trail, for every mile of new trail the district would eliminate two miles of old trail. In the other three zones, for every mile of trail that gets built, the district would eliminate a mile of old trail.

The calculation was based on linear miles of trail. Boss says that the bike coalition pushed for a different way to look at the trail-for-trail process. “We pointed out that removing one mile of steep fire road is going to have a greater effect than removing two or three miles of switchback trail that is much more gentle on the environment. Now, it’s the cumulative impacts rather than the linear” assessment that will decide how much trail must be removed to make way for new routes.

Although the policy document has been approved, the hard work of using the policies to create specific rules in the preserves is yet to come. Starting in a few months, the district will conduct another series of open meetings to set specific rules and standards for the preserves.

Nona Dennis of the Marin Conservation League wanted those standards in the plan. She says that without them, the document is incomplete. “The things the plan does are good,” she says, but parameters for safe design of trails should be established and included as part of the plan. (Dennis calls the road and trail plan basically a mountain bike plan.) Dahl, Boss and Huffman say that setting overall standards is too general an approach. A better way to accomplish what Dennis talks about should come as the district sets specific rules for each preserve. Setting those rules sets up the next round of debate.

Huffman adds that Access4Bikes is ready to move to other agencies in a wider push for bike access. He says that the Marin Municipal Water District is next. “No legal bike trails exist on Water District land,” he says, and that land represents “the heart of Marin.” 




Neil Young doesn't want you to know this, but he's got a heart of gold

By Greg Cahill

In Jimmy McDonough’s insightful 2002 Neil Young biography, Shakey, the iconic singer/songwriter didn’t mince words when it came to those who write about him.

“My biggest enemy is my own history,” Young told McDonough in one colorful interview. “People compare me to what I’ve done. Whenever they start writing about me, half of the f–kin’ review is about my life. Who gives a sh-t—if you’re gonna read a Neil Young review, you don’t need to know all the f–kin’ history. What the hell’s the f–kin’ deal…?”

The deal, Neil, is that –I that– is what we get paid for.

But let’s talk about the P-word.

No, not potty mouth—philanthropy.

Neil Young is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most giving souls. He has given generously of his time and money but, most important, he has helped create conduits for others to do good.

On Dec. 8, Young will perform a benefit concert to help build a new home for the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital at Mission Bay (south of AT&T Park), an organization recognized as one of the leading children’s hospitals in the world.

The new facility will be part of a 289-bed integrated hospital complex for children, women and cancer patients. Upon completion in 2014, it is hoped that the 183-bed children’s hospital will set a new world-class standard for patient- and family-centered healthcare. The hospital already has programs designed specifically for young patients, such as a 50-bed neonatal intensive care nursery, recreational therapy for recovering kids and 60 outreach clinics throughout Northern California, including Greenbrae.

Of course, this type of charity is nothing new for the two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over the years, he’s accumulated enough good karma to fill the trunk of a 1959 Lincoln Continental, just like the hybridized model that started the Nov. 9 fire at the San Carlos warehouse, which stored much of Young’s vintage cars, old guitars and assorted memorabilia.

The celebrated musician, McDonough pointed out, also is “a model-train mogul, actor, rancher and, although he’d probably be loath to admit it, a humanitarian.”

In 1985, Young—an unapologetic supporter of Ronald Reagan—along with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, co-founded Farm Aid, the nonprofit organization that assists family farmers and small-farm advocacy groups

The following year, Young and his wife, Pegi, founded the Bridge School Benefit Concerts series. The events, held at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, raise money for the South Bay namesake that assists children with severe physical impairments and complex communication problems.

He has helped raise funds and awareness for environmental causes and inner-city music programs as well as the need to increase access to low-cost AIDS drugs and support for AIDS orphans.

His single “Let’s Roll” was a tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

More recently, he convinced Tyson Foods to donate 50 tons of chicken to Gulf region food banks assisting families impacted by the BP oil spill.

Earlier this year, Young was honored as Person of the Year by MusiCares, a nonprofit that helps provide medical and emergency financial assistance to musicians and others in the music industry.

In I Shakey, the late Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt summed up Young’s charitable spirit this way: “I can read auras—pale green is trouble, boy. I know a lotta cats with green ones—most of them are dead. And there’s one that’s more golden, glowing, approaching fulfilled—that has fulfilled other people. Neil has that. Neil’s is gold. I Gold.”

Journey through the past with Greg at gcahill51@gmail.com

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Why more Marinites are opting out of childhood vaccines-and what it means for the rest of us

by Jacob Shafer

First, a confession: When my editor asked if I wanted to write a story about vaccines, my initial reaction was, “Um … not really.”

Sure—it’s an interesting topic, hot button as they come. And it’s guaranteed to generate feedback, which is what we writers are supposed to covet. But when I thought about diving into this particular debate, I felt like a kid in oversized swimming trunks teetering on the edge of the deep end, staring at the swirling water below.

Last month I wrote a column in this paper about vaccine opt-outs. According to the California Department of Public Health, some 8 percent of school-age children in Marin don’t have all, or any, of their shots. That’s almost four times the state average and more than any other Bay Area county. The column was succinct and, I thought, not terribly inflammatory. The feedback, though, came fast and furious. Vaccine skeptics (anti-vaxxers, to use the pejorative) penned angry letters; a local pediatrician weighed in with a point-by-point defense. And, naturally, my editor inquired about a follow-up. So here I am, taking the plunge.

Both of my sons got all their shots. I have no regrets. They’re healthy, happy and free of vaccine-preventable illnesses. I believe in the science of inoculation. I say all this up front because I don’t want to be accused of concealing my stance, which aligns with the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and a host of peer-reviewed studies that confirm the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
And yet I know people—educated, well-intentioned people—who swear vaccines are unnecessary or, worse, ineffective and harmful. They ignore the advice of doctors and shrug off warnings that eradicated diseases could come roaring back. They’re doing what’s best for their children, they insist, and the law is on their side.

They aren’t wrong—but does that make them right?

In 2013, there were 173 Marin-based cases of whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory illness that kills nearly 300,000 people every year worldwide. That’s about 68 cases for every 100,000 Marinites, the second-highest rate in California. Health officials draw a straight line between that and the county’s high vaccine opt-out rate, which makes sense … if you believe the whooping cough vaccine protects against whooping cough.
Not everyone does. Dr. Donald Harte, a Corte Madera chiropractor and outspoken vaccine critic, doesn’t mince words: “It’s biological common sense—you don’t put poisons in a human being, and you certainly don’t put poisons in a child, to get them healthy,” he says. “And the fact is there are poisons, specific neurotoxins, in every vaccine.”

Those neurotoxins, he argues, are responsible for a range of childhood maladies, from autism to allergies to Type 1 diabetes. Like other vaccine opponents, Dr. Harte insists that diseases like polio and measles would have simply gone away on their own as part of a natural cycle. “Vaccine lovers,” as he calls them, confuse correlation with causation. They’ve swallowed the poison along with the lie. “I call it the PMG complex—the Pharmaceutical, Medical, Governmental complex. They’re all playing with each other to garner more money and more power, and to hell with peoples’ health.”
Dr. Harte stops short of implicating individual doctors (though he does call pediatrics “the most dangerous of all the medical specialties”). “I think your average pediatrician or your average medical doctor is a good guy or gal, out there trying to do good,” he says. “I’m not saying they have any evil intent. I’m saying scientifically, they’re wrong.”

Ultimately, he argues, it’s a question of freedom. “I believe in liberty. I think people should have a right to do what they want with their kids, to have a choice.”

On the other side, some pediatricians are making a choice—the choice not to treat unvaccinated kids. Tamalpais Pediatrics, which has offices in Greenbrae and Novato, requires all patients age 2 and up to get the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine. “We have a responsibility to protect the health of all of the children in our practice, and decrease the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases,” Dr. Nelson Branco wrote in a blog post last year, explaining the policy. “We … feel strongly that vaccines save lives and that this policy protects our patients and our community from a preventable disease and all of its repercussions.”

It’s not only doctors who are worried. “I think it’s a public health emergency,” says Jeff Gizmek of San Anselmo, a father of two (fully vaccinated) daughters. Gizmek says he and his wife “were a little hesitant” with their first child and staggered the shots. By the time kid number two came around they had “wised up,” and switched to a vaccine-mandatory pediatrician. “When you are in a waiting room with six coughing children, it’s a great comfort to know that at least they are all [vaccinated] for pertussis,” he says.

Gizmek blames Marin’s high opt-out rate on the alternative medicine “woo-woo factor” and wealthy people “who think they are smarter than their own doctor” and send their children to private schools stocked with unvaccinated kids.

Specifically he mentions Sausalito’s New Village School, where only 5 percent of incoming kindergartners were fully vaccinated last year. (Contrast that with Novato’s Hamilton Elementary and its 97 percent vaccination rate.) Asked to comment, New Village emailed that vaccine opt-outs are “not a school theme.”

The concept of vaccination—using a small dose of a pathogen to kickstart the immune system and bolster its defenses—has been around for a long time. Crude forms of the smallpox vaccine were used in 17th century China, and there are references to inoculation dating back as far as 1000 B.C. French microbiologist Louis Pasteur refined the practice in the latter half of the 1800s, and in the next century vaccines would beat back an array of public health scourges: measles, smallpox, polio.

But, like the killer in a bad slasher movie, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay gone. For a vaccine to be effective, most people—usually about 85 percent of the population—have to get their shots. Some people can’t be vaccinated, either because of age or immune deficiency. Add a growing number of opt-outs and, health officials warn, we could be flirting with disaster.

Under California law, parents can refuse vaccines for their children, and send them to school, simply by signing a “personal beliefs” exemption form. A new rule requires the signature of a doctor who has “provided information to the parent or guardian regarding the benefits and risks of immunization.”
There are risks. Most side effects are mild, according to the CDC, and subside quickly. Cold and flu-like symptoms are common, while rarer, more serious reactions have been reported, including inflammation of the digestive tract, bloody urine and stool and pneumonia. (CDC says it’s unclear whether these were caused by the vaccines or not.)

What about autism? Proponents of the vaccine-autism link usually point to a 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. The study has since been retracted and was branded an “elaborate fraud” by the British Medical Journal in 2011. (At the time, Wakefield, who lost his license, told CNN he was the victim of a “ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns.”)

Dr. Harte says there’s a simple explanation for the lack of credible studies linking autism and other illnesses with vaccines: Nobody will fund them. “These studies take millions and millions of dollars and institutions,” he says. “And the institutions are invested in what’s going on.”
Steve Lamb, a San Anselmo resident who says he was injured by vaccines as a child, credits Dr. Wakefield—and others who speak out against vaccines—with “great courage and tenacity.” And, he adds, while Marin may be more supportive of vaccine opt-outs than other places, “it still requires a high degree of commitment to withstand the strong social pressures to follow the crowd.”

Near the end of my interview with Dr. Harte, I tell him that I’ve spoken to people, some very close to me, who believe in the efficacy of vaccines but worry that we’re going overboard, administering too many shots too fast. This seems to be the middle ground, I say, between the mainstream medical community and the anti-vaccine crowd.

And, I wonder, are people like Dr. Harte—with claims of a poisoned generation and vast public health coverup—preventing a less sensational, perhaps important conversation from taking place?

“Do I prevent that conversation?” Dr. Harte asks. “No. And anybody that would think that, what they’re trying to do is shut me up, while the people on the other end saying that it’s absolutely essential and we need vaccines for every single thing in the book and other things we can’t even think of, they’re OK to talk.”

Ultimately, of course, Dr. Harte, Steve Lamb and the 8 percent of Marin parents who opt-out have every right to talk. And to not vaccinate. The question is, should they? Should they be allowed to endanger public safety, as most doctors and public health officials say they are, even if they claim to be doing just the opposite?

This is the place where personal freedom and the greater good—not to mention conflicting versions of reality—collide. Where the debate, inevitably, gets messy. Where I didn’t really want to write this story, but I’m mostly glad I did.

Vaccines By The Numbers

  • 8 percent of school-age children in Marin are not fully vaccinated (nearly four times the state average)
  • 95 percent of incoming kindergartners at Sausalito’s private New Village School were unvaccinated in the 2012-’13 school year
  • 173 cases of whooping cough reported in Marin in 2013, the second-highest rate in California
  • 295,000 annual deaths from whooping cough worldwide
  • Take a cheap shot at Jacob at jacobsjottings@gmail.com.

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