Jeff Pelline: Wouldn’t an e-mail have sufficed? |

Jeff Pelline: Wouldn’t an e-mail have sufficed?

I thought we were in the throes a budget crisis here in California, but I’d never know it by opening my mail in the office.

When I returned Friday from a business trip to Reno, a large DHL Express box was on my desk. I opened it and found an elaborate package wrapped in bright blue confetti.

The Hollywood-themed package included a bucket filled with popcorn, bright red stars, admission tickets and color posters.

Having covered technology for years, I was used to receiving this kind of package from the likes of Microsoft, Apple or Google (once I received a pogo stick in the go-go days). It wasn’t too effective, but it was on their dime.

As it turned out, this latest package – labeled “tchotchke” by many journalists – was sent to me courtesy of California’s taxpayers. Oh, I mean Caltrans.

Caltrans’ elaborate invitation was for an event on Friday, May 25 at the Office of the Secretary of State in Sacramento to provide information about the “2007 Construction Season Rollout.” Three color posters touted more than a dozen projects, such as the “I-5 ‘boat section’ improvement project.”

The color posters also promoted Caltrans officials themselves: “Directed by Will Kempton and the California Department of Transportation and produced by District 3 Director Jody Jones.” At least it gave credit where credit is due: “Starring the men and women of Caltrans District 3 and its contractors.”

The posters also mentioned Caltrans’ “Slow for the Cone Zone” safety campaign.

Come on, people. Just send a media advisory via e-mail, like the hospital or police department does. We routinely cover road closures and major Caltrans projects. Why do we need to call attention to Caltrans director Will Kempton in this information? It’s worse than naming roadways and other public-works projects after politicians and public officials – a practice that is out of control.

“I’m glad it got your attention,” Mark Dinger, the chief of Caltrans District 3 office of public information and graphic services, told me, when I called him about the confetti and popcorn package.

He said it’s hard to drum up media interest in Caltrans summer construction project plan and didn’t think about my reaction.

Dinger said it cost less than $500 in mailing and materials to send the information to less than 50 reporters and editors. It also cost staff time to assemble the packages, he conceded, but couldn’t estimate how much. He has eight people on his PIO and graphics staff.

According to Dinger, it was more cost efficient than outsourcing the project to an outside P.R. firm – no doubt about that.

This isn’t the only example of government sending tchotchkes to journalists. This week we also received a hot pad in the mail to promote a public health initiative to highlight “the critical health issues that impact low-income Californians.” Why? It was a “hot topic” related to nutrition, a spokeswoman explained to me.

This seemed lame. Anybody want a free hot pad?

In the case of Caltrans, I admire the staff’s ingenuity in assembling the confetti package.

Wrong message

But I think it sends the wrong message when our state is facing a budget crisis – and the higher-ups ought to figure that out. As the AP reported earlier this week, “California’s fiscal watchdog (Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill) said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s revised spending plan for the coming year overstates California’s reserves by 75 percent.”

I still don’t think people get this – in our community and elsewhere.

I also worry about the promotional aspects of the Caltrans message, not just sticking with the pragmatic aspects.

I usually admire the public sector thinking more like a business, including Caltrans. Sure, I know all the old Caltrans jokes (One example: “What’s orange and sleeps four? A Caltrans truck.” Or “I hear Caltrans is going to lay people off because they’ve found shovels that can stand up by themselves.”) But I think Caltrans is doing much better: Look how quickly it repaired the Oakland freeway that recently collapsed. Thank you, Caltrans!

In this case, however, I think the plan misfired.

When a corporate giant reports a moneylosing year, it typically ditches the glossy annual report for shareholders and substitutes it for a “10-K” report, the minimal presentation of financial information as required by law.

In light of the budget crisis in Sacramento, I think government should take the same approach with its shareholders.


Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


California Legislative Analyst

Too much money spent on politicians’ self-made monuments?



Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User