In this high-tech Age of Instant, Napa County’s elections can still provide a touch of drawn-out drama.
The Election Division as of Monday morning had released five updates for the Nov. 6 election, with a six and seventh due by Tuesday evening. At that point, about 95 percent of the vote should be counted and no more results will be available until certification, officials said.
Virtually every race has been decided either mathematically or by any reasonable measure of probability. One exception is the tight St. Helena mayor race, which might have to wait for the final count at certification for a victor to be declared.
County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said he has until Dec. 6 to certify the election, and he expects to finish ahead of that deadline, possibly during the week of Nov. 26.
“California doesn’t rush things like some other states you’re hearing about in the news,” Tuteur said. “The reason for that is: 1. accuracy and 2. to make certain every vote counts.”
Napa County’s elections depend on paper ballots returned to the county by mail or by voters at drop boxes and vote centers. This hack-proof communications method means the county can’t arrive at a final tally on election night with the mere push of a button.
Workers, not robots, make certain the signature on each vote-by-mail ballot envelop matches the voter’s registration signature. Tuteur called signature-checking the measure of the election’s integrity.
Then the votes must be counted using a scanner. Tuteur portrayed the effort as trying to do a good job, not a rush job.
“There’s a limit as to what you can ask people to do before they start to crack and you get mistakes and signatures aren’t checked right,” Tuteur told the Napa County Board of Supervisors last week.
At 8:01 p.m. election night, the county released the results of 21,732 ballots that had been received by or during the prior weekend. That left about 35,000 to be counted. Tuteur said more people are waiting until the Election Day deadline to turn their ballots in.
All of this assures that election results come in post-Election Day dribs and drabs of updates.
“There are larger counties that have been able to produce better results,” county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza told Tuteur at the Nov. 13 Board meeting. “Is there something we can do to support you in being able to provide bigger vote counts in the subsequent reports?”
As it turns out, there is a technological fix. Tuteur mentioned a quarter-million-dollar machine that can do the signature checking.
But the Election Division has no room for this large machine. Also, Tuteur said, the temporary employees who check signatures can also help voters with questions on Election Day, something a machine can’t do.
The gain by using the quarter-million-dollar machine would be days in reporting results, not weeks, Tuteur said.
Of course, another option would be to hire more people to check signatures and count votes. But, Tuteur said, there are limits to how many people can fit into the Election Division’s downtown offices.
“There’s no room to hire more people,” Tuteur said. “We have to keep the ballots under our secure control. They can’t leave our office. They can’t be shipped across town to some big rental space to be counted.”
Sonoma County has an older ballot system, Tuteur said. Unlike Napa County, Sonoma can’t provide updates between the election night count and the final, certified count.
Also, many of the larger counties with faster election update reports still have polling places, Tuteur said. They don’t have to deal with the same percentage of vote-by-mail ballots as Napa County, which is all vote-by-mail.
Tuteur said he’s happy to talk to the Board of Supervisors about how Napa County can provide faster election results.
“It’s not a quick fix,” he said. “It gets to the very basis of how we’re organized and where we are located.”
Last year, as the Tubbs Fire scorched its way across Napa and Sonoma counties, environmental researchers at the University of California, Davis, fielded questions about the health impact of chronic exposure to smoke from a wildfire that torched trees and urban structures alike.
UCD’s Kent Pinkerton and Rebecca Schmidt and other researchers had the same questions. They sought studies on urban wildfires and found no answers.
“Everyone had concerns about their health and what was in the smoke,” said Schmidt, who studies how environmental exposures influence child development. “We just didn’t have any answers to those questions, and when we looked and searched to see what was out there, we really found there wasn’t much.”
Yet studies on air pollution do offer up clues to what happens when the human body is under assault from microscopic particles in the air, Pinkerton said. The UCD professor has spent decades studying the effects of air pollution on lung inflammation and disease.
Longer-term, Pinkerton said, the health of people breathing in smoke from the wildfires might well depend on the degree of their exposure and whether the microscopic particles floating in the air manage to worm their way deep into lungs and circulatory systems.
When exposed intermittently to bad air days, Pinkerton said, the average healthy person may experience irritated eyes, scratchy throats, a cough, maybe tightness of the chest, even wheezing. Other experts said people also report shortness of breath, headaches and nosebleeds.
Various hospitals around Northern California are reporting a slight uptick in emergency room visits by people experiencing respiratory issues: In Sacramento, that includes both Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Medical Center.
Other hospitals are seeing a surge of patients: In Sonoma County, emergency room doctors at St. Joseph health hospitals reported an influx of patients equal to what they saw when the Tubbs fire raged across their county last year.
“It isn’t so much about breathing the air that’s closest to the fire,” said Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Sonoma County for St. Joseph Health. “It’s being in the area that’s experiencing air quality issues. You don’t necessarily need to be living in Paradise to be having these issues. We’re actually seeing that play out in the volumes in our emergency departments. We’re seeing lots of folks with respiratory issues.”
Doctors urged residents to monitor air quality, either through government websites such as www.airnow.gov or www.sparetheair.com, or via local news media. Stay indoors as much as possible, said Dr. Nicole Braxley, medical director of the emergency department at Carmichael’s Mercy San Juan, and use N95 respirator masks when outdoors.
“Even if you’re a completely healthy person, there’s no reason to expose yourself to these particles,” Braxley said. “You might cause yourself harm.”
With progressive exposure to the wildfire smoke, Pinkerton said, healthy people tend to adapt to the conditions: Their eyes are not quite so irritated. They don’t necessarily have that scratchy throat anymore. They cough less and their throats aren’t as tight.
“When we have repeated exposures, our bodies hunker down,” Pinkerton said. “It says, ‘OK, I know this is a bad situation, so I’m going to make some changes.’ The changes are all subconscious. We may breathe a little less deeply. Our cells might be a little bit more responsive in terms of not putting up lots of inflammatory factors. The epithelial cells that line our airways would become tolerant, meaning they’re not so easily damaged.”
Does that mean there is no risk of longer-term damage to the body?
Actually, Pinkerton said, chronic exposures to fine particulates could elicit other responses.
For instance, there’s evidence that it can lead to asthma. In 1996, as the Olympics got underway in Atlanta, city officials acted to minimize the amount of traffic allowed within city limits, Pinkerton said, and there was a statistically significant drop in the percentage of people coming to emergency rooms with asthmatic symptoms.
Links also have been found between exposure to traffic pollutants and problems with pregnancies, Pinkerton said. Studies have shown that pregnant women who live downwind of freeways were more likely to have premature births and to deliver low birth-weight infants. Both conditions are associated with higher risk of infant mortality.
And, Pinkerton said, research also has shown that animals that breathe in particulate matter while pregnant have a tendency to deliver offspring with asthmatic lungs.
One of the greatest concerns that researchers have, Pinkerton said, is whether an embryo will have a tougher time implanting to the uterine wall if its mother is exposed to the fine particulate matter of wildfire smoke during the first trimester.
While doing research in Napa and Sonoma counties, Schmidt met several women who asked whether breathing in wildfire smoke could have caused them to lose their babies. She had to tell them there was no answer yet to that question. They asked to be included in the study, Schmidt said, because they wanted the answer.
For that study, Schmidt and her team collected bio-specimens from the women — hair, blood, saliva, even placenta and umbilical cord blood. They will use the hair to check for bio-markers of stress, and they’ll also look at the specimens to determine which pollutants were present and measure their impact.
UCD researchers have funding to follow the babies’ progress for a year and are seeking funds to continue monitoring them through preschool. Their mothers have provided information on their exposure to the fire and to smoke and on protective measures they took, so researchers will be able to compare children who had greater exposure to those who had less. They’ll also be able to compare all the children to data on children in the general population.
Respiratory and reproductive systems are not the only vulnerable targets in the body.
Pinkerton explained: “When we talk about particulate matter, or PM, we always think, ‘Oh, well, the target organ is the respiratory tract, the lungs, but far more people have problems with cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality due to PM exposure than respiratory conditions.”
The fine particles being deposited in the lungs don’t necessarily stay there, Pinkerton said, and even if they do, that doesn’t mean their presence isn’t felt by other parts of the body. Researchers have posited several theories about how these particles affect other organs and systems.
The most common belief is that, during the lung’s exchange of oxygen into cells, the microscopic particles hitch a ride into the circulatory system and subsequently cause problems in human organs or in blood vessels.
The greatest concern, Pinkerton said, is that these particles are attaching themselves to plaque formations in blood vessels. Those formations are already bad news, because they’re composed of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances. It’s believed, Pinkerton said, that the particles could provoke inflammation that ultimately triggers a heart attack or stroke.
Another theory, Pinkerton said, is that particles in the airway can disrupt how critical nerves perform their job. There are nerves in the bronchial tree that give automatic feedback to the heart and brain: Narrow the airway. Expand the airway. Speed up the heartbeat. Slow down the heartbeat.
In essence, these nerves are part of the control system for the human flight-or-fight mechanism, Pinkerton said, but when the tiny particles land in the bronchial tree, they somehow delay or dampen the signal. That means the heart no longer immediately responds, said Pinkerton, noting that these are relationships UCD researchers found as part of their research on the health effects of secondary cigarette smoke.
Because of the dearth of research on fine particulate from wildfires, an interdisciplinary team of UC Davis researchers sought funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of breathing in fine particulate matter from wildfires in urban areas.
The data from those studies is just coming in for analysis: survey responses from hundreds of people living in or near the wildfire boundaries, analysis of ash and gases from urban neighborhoods like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park that were consumed by the blazes, sophisticated computer models of the movement of the smoke plume.
This kind of scientific research is challenging, Schmidt said, and the toughest part is going to people who have been traumatized by the disaster and asking them to participate in a study. When they approached residents in fire-stricken communities, she said, roughly 2,000 households and 200 women pregnant at the time of the Tubbs Fire volunteered to participate.
“Usually, when we think about poor air quality, what we’re dealing with is a day or two, not a prolonged, several-day period,” Pinkerton said. “If we continue to have bad air for more than a week, that certainly is a concern. ... We oftentimes have asked the questions: What is the effect of chronic exposure? Is there a cumulative effect every day that we breathe particles? Is it building up? Is it doing something in that way?”
Researchers at UC Davis are moving closer to some answers.
A new guidebook for signs in Napa may allow some businesses to put up their branding a little larger.
The city’s first new sign ordinance in nearly a quarter century would replace strict rules on letter height and the percentage of a façade that may be covered with a new standard based on the width of a storefront. The revision is meant to prevent businesses from being stuck with obviously undersized lettering that may be harder to see, according to city planning staff.
The Planning Commission on Thursday signed off on the new rule package, which would replace a sign ordinance from 1994. A favorable City Council vote would put the updated standards into law.
Changing the way Napa calculates a store’s largest allowable sign area should prevent merchants in larger spaces from being at a disadvantage compared those in small storefronts, where current rules could allow most of the frontage to be covered, according to senior planner Michael Walker. Under the existing ordinance, overhead storefront signs are limited to 10 percent of the front-facing area with letters no more than 24 inches high.
Two businesses at Napa Crossing South at Soscol and Kansas avenues illustrate the conundrum created by those rules, he told the commission. Branding for Michaels, a craft-store chain in one of the shopping center’s largest spaces, is squeezed into the center of a vast stretch of corrugated metal between roof and windows. On the opposite side of the parking lot, the modest rectangular logo of Mod Pizza covers just 16 square feet – but could have occupied 66 square feet under city law.
The revised design rule would tie an outdoor store sign’s maximum area to the linear width of the storefront – for example, up to 40 square feet of signage for a 40-foot-wide space – and eliminate the letter-height limit to permit signs in better proportion to their businesses, said Walker.
On taller and high-profile structures, the new sign code will encourage more use of the type of vertical lettering used at Archer Hotel Napa, which opened on First Street downtown in 2017. Top-to-bottom signage will be allowed on buildings of three or more stories if the characters are placed on an “architectural element” of the structure.
The overhauled sign rules would not revoke or change existing permits, and other prohibitions would remain, such as a city ban on A-frame displays outside shops.
Elsewhere, the rewritten ordinance is meant to make it easier to parse the signage rules for different situations. Allowed uses are organized into one table based on zoning and whether a business is freestanding or part of a shopping center, and the code sets down permitted sign types and standards based on land uses.
Winery owners and other landowners who are breaking county rules might want to circle March 29 on their calendars.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors has delayed passing a new code compliance regime until their next meeting. But it endorsed a March 29 deadline for rule-breakers to submit “substantially complete” use permit applications to correct violations without facing certain consequences.
So, while things aren’t official yet, the county is heading in that direction. Supervisors as of Tuesday had no plans to make major changes to the proposed law.
“I’m hoping folks have already started working toward the deadline,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said after the hearing.
For example, wineries that are producing too much wine or having too many visitors could apply to try to make these levels legal. If they wait until after March 29 or are caught after that date by the county, they would have to comply with their use permit numbers for a year before seeking changes.
The proposed, new code compliance regime comes after critics for years have said it’s easier for scofflaw wineries to seek forgiveness than ask permission. The March 29 deadline is designed to create the grace period before the crackdown.
“Code compliance has been perhaps the biggest issue the county has been struggling with,” County Executive Officer Minh Tran said.
Napa Valley Vintners supports the direction the county is heading, but wants a July 1 deadline to voluntarily remedy violations. The group has more than 500 members.
“We do not want to reward or otherwise assist violators,” the group said in a letter. “However, we recognize that available staff and consultant resources cannot be ignored.”
Supervisor Ryan Gregory was the lone supervisor to push for a later deadline, in his case June 1. The holidays are coming up. Some environmental testing can’t be done until spring, he said.
“I think our goal is to solve compliance problems … I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by that (March 29) date,” Gregory said.
Others noted the county started talking about the code compliance move a year ago and delayed taking action because of the October 2017 wildfires. Violators have known this has been coming and could already be working on an application.
“I think we ought to keep things moving along,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said.
Landowners could submit partial applications by March 29 if they must wait for an environmental study that can only be done in the spring.
Also, land owners could review their use permits with county officials to make certain they and the county have a common understanding of their rights, such as what marketing events a particular winery can hold. As proposed, they could have the March 29 deadline extended for the length of the review.
Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison in these cases would issue a written decision of a landowner’s rights and obligations. There would be no public hearing unless his interpretation was appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
Several members of the public wanted these use permit reviews to be given public notice.
“If you want to heal the divisions that came about in the past, put your best effort in the future,” vintner Warren Winiarski told supervisors. “Give the public confidence that they will be heard. Be courageous. That’s what it’s going to take.”
County officials said the county has long been doing use permit reviews at the request of landowners. The outcomes clarifying what is allowed are administrative.
“It is not a granting of any new rights,” Tran said. “Rather, it is a confirmation of existing rights.”
Dillon called the use permit reviews “basic” and “benign.” She wants the county to post the last 20 use permit reviews and the last 10 involving wineries on its website so the public can see what’s involved.
“I think there’s a legitimate concern about the unknown,” Dillon said. “I think we have to make this known – how the use determination letter works.”
The Board of Supervisors could vote on its latest code compliance update on Dec. 4.