Top 10 stories of 2012
During the 12 months of 2012, Sonoma Valley saw numerous changes. From allegations of abuse at Sonoma Development Center to local groups rescuing parks the state was going to close to the sale of the I-T itself, the year was full of highs and lows. The Index-Tribune was there capturing and recording the major issues facing the Valley and its residents. Here are the top 10 most significant stories of the year as decided by the I-T editorial staff.
1) Abuse and termination notice at SDC
Judged on the basis of the amount of news coverage in the Index-Tribune, immediate and potential impact on the community, response from readers and the judgment of editorial staff, the top Sonoma Valley story of 2012 was the series of revelations about abuse cases and ineffective police investigations at the Sonoma Developmental Center.
Highlighting the issue was the news that a dozen SDC patients were discovered with burn marks on their bodies corresponding to contact with a Taser weapon.
Subsequently, an employee was discovered with a Taser and a loaded handgun in his car, although the Taser configuration was reported as not conforming to the burn marks on the victims. That employee was fired after being convicted of a misdemeanor weapons charge.
Investigative reports by California Watch charged that the Office of Protective Services, a state-run police force, had not conducted timely investigations into that and other reported abuse cases, including the rape of an SDC resident who later gave birth to a child.
By December, it was revealed that the State Department of Health had given SDC until Jan. 4 to come into compliance with at least four “deficiencies” involving “immediate jeopardy to resident health and safety.” If compliance is not successful, the facility would immediately lose federal funding of about $117,000 a day for 290 patients in the Intermediate Care Facility.
The state Department of Developmental Services, which oversees SDC, has appealed the termination notice.
2) Highway 12 saga
At the beginning of the year, Sonoma County was only months away from bidding out the Highway 12 project that included sidewalks, curbs and streetlights in the stretch of highway from Boyes Boulevard north to Agua Caliente Road, when the state Supreme Court dissolved redevelopment agencies statewide. The court decision nullified any contracts between two government agencies, but the county’s Oversight Board re-instated the contract with public works for the project.
The county included the project as part of its recognized obligation payment schedule (ROPS) each time it had to send the documents to the state.
But time after time, the state disallowed the project. The county even asked for two face-to-face meetings with state officials and a conference call to no avail. In one of the rejections, the state said that “public safety” wasn’t one of the considerations it would look at to decide whether or not a project could continue.
In October, the county decided to sue the state, but the suit hasn’t been filed yet.
3) City loses redevelopment money, passes sales tax
In an unfolding fiscal and political drama, the City of Sonoma (along with more than 400 other California jurisdictions) lost its redevelopment agency following a state Supreme Court decision and a move by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to corral some $1.8 billion in local funds for state use.
While the city tried (and is still trying) to regain control of some of the funds from redevelopment bonds already sold, at least $850,000 a year in capital project funding for streets and sidewalks is gone.
To help fill the gap, city officials placed a measure on the June 5 ballot to impose a half-percent sales tax for five years that is expected to raise an estimated $1.1 million a year. That ballot measure won voter approval, but still in limbo is the fate of redevelopment money the city insists should be part of its recognized obligation payment schedule or ROPS.
It may take lengthy litigation before that issue is resolved.
4) Kidnapping attempts, groper incidents alarm city
Parents, police and school officials were alarmed when at least four encounters occurred between children outside school and a Hispanic man in a small red sedan. According to child witnesses, the man asked the children if they needed a ride home. He was described as skinny, with a fat nose, short hair with two horizontal stripes cut closely on one side, and spoke with a Spanish accent. The incidents happened near a bus stop on Robinson Road and involved an Altimira
Middle School girl, twice at El Verano Elementary School and once at Sassarini.
No arrests were made in the wake of the reports although police increased patrols near schools.
In the wake of the potential kidnap attempts, police began receiving reports of a mysterious groper who attacked women, usually from behind in public areas. An ongoing police investigation resulted in the Aug. 14 arrest of Samuel Johnson Lyons, a 36-year-old Sonoma resident who was charged with four misdemeanors and one felony count after confessing to five assaults in Sonoma and four others police had not heard about.
Lyons made $200,000 bail with an all-cash deposit and subsequently agreed to a plea deal. He is due for a pre-sentencing appearance in Sonoma County Superior Court on Jan. 14.
5) Supervisor seat leaves Valley
The field for the First District Supervisors seat that was traditionally held by a Valley resident, got crowded after incumbent Valerie Brown decided to retire after 10 years on the board. Brown announced her intentions in August 2011, giving ample time for candidates to enter the June primary. The newly-redrawn district also gave Santa Rosa a 52-48 percent advantage over the Valley.
The field started filling up and eventually reached six candidates, including Susan Gorin and John Sawyer, both from Santa Rosa and both sitting on the Santa Rosa City Council, Gina Cuclis, Mark Bramfitt, Joann Sanders and Michael McClure, all from Sonoma Valley. There was some controversy when Gorin, who originally lived outside the district, moved to a rented house in Oakmont in order to qualify. The race was expensive, with the six candidates raising almost $375,000 and spending more than $260,000.
When the dust cleared from the primary, Gorin and Sawyer were headed for the runoff in the November election. Cuclis finished third, Sanders was fourth, Bramfitt was fifth and McClure sixth. Even after the primary, there were some hard feelings when Cuclis accused Sanders of “Nadering” her with a last-minute entry into the race.
In the November general election, Gorin beat Sawyer by a 52-to-48 percent margin and will be sworn in on Jan. 8.
6) Nonprofits take over state parks
Nothing gets Sonomans motivated like threatening to take away their state parks. Facing a budget reduction of $22 million, in 2011 the California Department of Parks and Recreation announced it would close 70 of California’s 278 state parks, including Sonoma Valley’s Annadel, Sugarloaf Ridge and Jack London State Historic Park.
Legislation penned by Assemblymember Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, opened the way for qualified nonprofits and/or municipal agencies to apply to take over management of parks slated for closure. Sonoma organizations jumped on the opportunity, and led California in the transition from state to private ownership. Glen Ellen’s Valley of the Moon Natural History Association was the first nonprofit in the state to get approval to run a park, and has been operating Jack London since May 1. The Sonoma Ecology Center was not far behind with its proposal to take over Sugarloaf Ridge, while the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department took the helm at Annadel. Both Jack London and Sugarloaf Ridge are on five-year contracts, while Annadel’s is only one year, meaning it will be revisited by the county’s Board of Supervisors in 2013.
7) Formula store fears spur city ordinance
When the public learned that a Staples store was slated to open in the former home of Holder Ford near the Ig Vella Bridge on West Napa Street, rhetorical warfare erupted between those who saw in Staples the big-box camel sticking its nose into the tent and business boosters who saw jobs and an increased tax base, along with a comprehensive business-supply store that would reduce out-of-town buying trips.
At little more than 10,000 square feet, Staples may not have qualified as a bona fide big-box store, but in some minds the perception became the reality. And fears that a McDonald’s could just as easily move into a vacant Plaza storefront drove action on the City Council which, in the midst of polarized bickering agreed to support an ad hoc committee composed of various stakeholders from the city, the public and the business community to explore development of a formula store ordinance.
Chaired by City Council member Steve Barbose, the formula store committee eventually emerged with an ordinance that imposed a ban on formula restaurants on the Plaza Retail Overlay Zone having more than 250 outlets, requires that stores with 10 or more outlets applying to open in the Historic Overlay District surrounding the Plaza must have a use permit, and that outside that boundary stores of more than 10,000 square feet must get a use permit, although the city’s five established shopping centers are exempted from the requirement.
The ordinance was adopted and put to the test when Peet’s Coffee announced plans to apply for a use permit on Broadway, within the Historic Overlay District. The application was turned down by the Sonoma Planning Commission, was then appealed to the City Council and received a unanimous 5-0 vote in favor of approval.
8) Up and down year at SVH
It’s been a year of highs and lows at Sonoma Valley Hospital, beginning with an upswing, when 73.2 percent of Valley voters approved extending the $195 parcel tax to support the hospital for another five years. The good news kept coming in May when longtime supporters Marcia and Gary Nelson donated $3 million to the hospital’s emergency services department.
The hospital found itself in a public relations nightmare in July when, somewhat suddenly, the entire 13-member Sonoma Valley Hospital Foundation board, led by longtime chair Carolyn Stone, walked away from the nonprofit. In the coming weeks, Stone would claim bullying by hospital Chief Executive Officer Kelly Mather, along with boardmemebers Madolyn Agrimonti and Sharon Nevins. The foundation continued to exist under new leadership, however the popular Dancing with the Sonoma Stars and Magic of Christmas fundraising events were both canceled.
By fall, the dust had settled and hospital officials turned their attention to completing the new west wing, to house the emergency room and surgical department. In October, Mather said the hospital had 84 percent of the project funding, but still needed $6.5 million to complete the operating suites with new equipment. The Nelsons stepped up again to support the hospital by leading the capital campaign to bridge the financial gap, which will continue into 2013.
9) Fifth Street West
Within the span of two weeks, motorists hit pedestrians in crosswalks on the same stretch of Fifth Street West in two separate incidents, the second a fatality. In October, a 92-year-old man driving a Corolla hit and injured two teenage boys who were crossing at Sassarini School. And then Alvin Hesse, 93, was struck crossing at Studley across from the Safeway while on his motorized scooter. Hesse was hit by an 80-year-old Springs man, raising further concerns about the safety of Fifth Street West.
The intersection where Hesse was struck and killed has the dubious distinction of being Sonoma’s most deadly, with three fatalities in the last 20 years and two in the last six, this paper noted in November.
The crosswalks have lighted flashers on the street and on signs, as well as a newly added audible warning. All were reported to be functioning when Hesse was struck.
Early in the year, a vocal group of residents vociferously opposed a project to install bike lanes on Fifth Street West, though the work went ahead as planned. The bike lanes reduced the number of lanes for cars from four to two, and many have voiced concerns that the bike paths made a confusing and congested snarl out of the intersections.
10) Index-Tribune sold, group buys P-D
In April, it was announced that the 135-year-old Sonoma Index-Tribune, which had remained in the same family since its founding, had been sold by Bill and Jim Lynch to Sonoma Media Investments, a corporation established by local investor, lobbyist and philanthropist Darius Anderson.
Anderson announced that the paper would remain under local management, with editor David Bolling taking on the additional role of publisher, and that he would not interfere in the paper’s independent editorial direction.
Anderson also announced plans for a boutique, luxury hotel, spa and restaurant complex on land owned by the Lynches surrounding the Index-Tribune building and aid, upon purchase of the newspaper, that the Index-Tribune offices would in time be razed to make room for the hotel complex.
An acceptable nearby site would be sought to keep the paper’s presence downtown.
Then in November, Anderson announced the formation of a local investor’s group he assembled to buy the Santa Rosa Press Democrat from Halifax Media Group, which had earlier bought the P-D from the New York Times in a package deal with 15 other newspapers.
The Press Democrat purchase was completed in December, linking the Index-Tribune, the Press Democrat and the Petaluma Argus Courier – along with the North Bay Business Journal – as separate components of Sonoma Media Investments.