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Sonoma Index-Tribune's top ten stories of the year

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The year 2017 opened with the quiet conviction that it could not possibly be worse than 2016 – rock icons passed away, a housing crisis roiled neighborhoods, and a locally-unpopular candidate was elected president. But true to form, 2017 proved to be even more disquieting, capped by a once-in-a-generation calamity that turned Sonoma Valley into a disaster zone.

1: Without doubt, the October Fires were the news of the year throughout Sonoma County. For 10 days the flames consumed homes and parklands, filling the air with toxic smoke that could be seen from space. It burned 110,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, destroyed or damaged almost 7,500 structures (about 400 homes in the Valley) and cost 40 lives.

But it also brought forth a powerful community spirit, tagged #SonomaStrong. Neighbors rescued neighbors and their pets even as the fires bore down on the communities of Glen Ellen and the areas surrounding Sonoma, and volunteers took up the slack in fighting the fires and helping in the recovery. It’s an ongoing story, one whose effects will be felt for years to come.

2: If the firestorm grabbed all the headlines in October, the year opened with a storm of protests over president Trump’s inauguration, policies and public statements. A pro-Trump rally was held in Sonoma on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, but from that point on the Plaza became a gathering ground for dissent. Jan. 21 found a “sister march” to the National Women’s March on Washington, with an estimate 3,000 demonstrators crowding the Plaza with signs, chants and a desperate form of jubilation.

On Feb. 17, a smaller rally gathered to recognize Day Without Immigrants and a Strike for Democracy; on April 29 a People’s Climate March gathered to support environmental protection. But as the year wore on, the protests became fewer and thinner, and by July the Plaza was the scene of just another Fourth, with parade, hot dogs, beer and fireworks.

3: Crime was another recurring theme in Sonoma this past year, with bank robberies making a comeback into the headlines. In July, a man acting alone without a gun requested and got a sackful of cash from the Rabobank on First Street West; he turned himself in three days later. On Sept. 9, a Napa couple found their crime spree cut short two blocks from the Wells Fargo on West Napa Street, as their getaway pickup was surrounded and they were arrested. Two weeks later another lone robber hit the Umpqua Bank, again on West Napa; so far, he has not been caught.

4: The biggest local bank crime of all, though, came to a bittersweet conclusion only in December, with guilty verdicts for the three men accused of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in the Sonoma Valley Bank case. Among them was bank president Sean Cutting, still looked upon favorably by many Sonomans despite the guilty verdict. Not among them was Bijan Madjlessi, the developer who pushed the bank over the edge: He died in a car crash in 2011, just weeks after being indicted.

5: Car crashes, unfortunately, took a local toll throughout the year. A 22-year-old Sonoma man, Nicolas Olascoaga, died in a single-car accident on Highway 12 and Dunbar Road in July. In November, 38-year-old Karen Quackenbush was killed in a head-on collision on nearby Lakeville Highway – the second fatal accident on Lakeville Highway that month. In December a midnight hit-and-run took the life of a 51-year-old transient, Theodore Erkson, on Highway 12 near Kenwood.

Most tragically, a young mother and her daughter were the victims of another head-on collision, on Highway 12 just outside of Agua Caliente on Nov. 14. Estefania Soto was taking 6-year-old Kaliyah Ava Adkins to school when an apparently intoxicated pick-up truck driver crossed two double-yellow lines to slam into them, at 7:45 a.m. Soto died at the scene, her daughter two days later.

6: The Sonoma City Council found its way onto the front page frequently in 2017, often as much for what they did not do as what they did. Late in 2016 they imposed a moratorium on marijuana sales – both medical and recreational – as well as distribution; that moratorium was renewed for another 10 months just this November. (Perhaps they have trouble making decisions on cannabis?)

Similar moratoria were adopted over two other hot-button local issues. In November, the approval of new wine-tasting rooms was frozen, as the council stopped all new applications in the face of apparent run-away sniffing and swirling in the Plaza commercial district; city staff will come up with recommendations in nine months’ time. And a moratorium on vacation rental applications was also approved, freezing the number of permitted properties at the current level.

7: It wasn’t just the City Council that made use of the pause button; the Sonoma Planning Commission found itself in an existential crisis over rejected appointments, contested decisions and ultimately a wholly-revised appointment process. Gone was the time-honored process (decades old, according to city staff) of mayoral appointment of new or renewed members; instead the Council imposed a new method where each Council member appoints his or her own candidate. End result? The new commission has five of its seven members with previous experience on the commission, almost as if all that sound and fury was about nothing.

8: The Sonoma Valley Unified School District also found itself in the eye of a hurricane in 2017, at least from mid-year when longtime Superintendent Louann Carlomagno abruptly resigned. Shortly afterward, new district trustee John Kelly was slapped with a hostile-workplace complaint, exacerbating ill will among the board members. In July they appointed former UCLA chancellor Chuck Young to a temporary role as superintendent, but even his venerable experience didn’t appease a small but vocal contingent of school board critics.

Then in October, the Sonoma County Office of Education said the district was at risk of insolvency due to its practice of deficit spending, and a budget consultant conveyed much the same findings. As the year ended, Kelly had apologized, trustee Britta Johnson was elected board president, and the search for a permanent superintendent finally got underway.

9: The Sonoma Valley Hospital District felt the heat this year, dating from the March defeat of a bond measure for a $255 parcel tax, which caused an emergency effort to put the same measure up for a vote three months later. That time it passed, promising $3.85 million a year for the next five years.

In between that drama, the district’s ownership of the 2.83-acre “South Lot” rose to prominence when district officials decided to sell it rather than develop it for hospital facilities or offices. The district voted in September to sell the property to an East Bay developer for a housing project, at a price tag of between $3 and $4 million.

10: National news again found its way into the Valley in November, following months of allegations of sexual inappropriateness from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Minnesota. The wave of allegations swept up to Disney’s gate, and Glen Ellen’s John Lasseter had to step away from his role heading the Pixar animation division. Multiple reports that the creator of “Toy Story” and “Cars” was a bit too touchy-feely in professional as well as social situations led to an enforced six-month “sabbatical,” and a last-minute cancellation of an appearance at the local Sonoma Speakers Series.

The saddest part of a retrospective is realizing who’s been lost over the past year, a list that is particular piquant for 2017. Longtime Sonoma Valley High School teacher and coach Don Lyons died in October, after a lengthy battle with cancer; Valley of the Moon Hospice founder Carole Peccorini died in November; and civic dynamo Kathy Mazza left us in June. Stay tuned next week when we offer a longer farewell to those Sonomans who said goodbye in 2017.

Christian is at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.