Year in Review: Political change defines 2016 in San Benito County

The following are the top stories of the year in San Benito County:

Principal’s resignation
In January, San Benito High School District trustees unanimously appointed Adrian Ramirez as principal. Ramirez was made the school’s interim principal in December after the former principal, Todd Dearden, resigned during an investigation. Ramirez was formerly an assistant principal. Ramirez also served as a guidance technician, a classified position similar to that of a counselor; a student supervision manager in charge of attendance and discipline; four years an assistant principal; and two years as summer school principal.

Traffic ticket spike
Hollister traffic enforcement numbers took a giant leap forward in 2015 following three years with relatively low citation figures, according to annual statistics released by the police department in January. There were 2,223 “moving violations” recorded in the city during 2015 compared with 1,197 in 2014, 921 in 2013 and 490 in 2012, according to police records.

Those numbers mean the increase between 2012 and 2015 was a 454 percent gain. And between 2014 and 2015, local traffic enforcement jumped by 86 percent.

Homeless coalition disbands
After about a decade running the seasonal San Benito County homeless shelter, a coalition of volunteers wound down oversight of the Southside Road facility for the final time last winter. The early months of 2016 made up the final winter overseeing the shelter for the Homeless Coalition of San Benito County. Currently, plans call for a permanent shelter to open in the next year or two, so there is a gap in which the county is using an outside contractor for the services.

Murderer parole denied
Notorious Hollister murderer Gustavo Marlow will spend at least another 15 years behind bars following a parole hearing in April. His Jamestown parole hearing resulted in a denial. Marlow was convicted for two separate murders at age 17 in 1988 and a rape/assault three years later. Since his sentence is over on the rape conviction, he was eligible for parole on the homicide cases due to a new state law opening up such eligibility for crimes committed in youth. Marlow went before the Jamestown parole board in a hearing to determine whether to grant him freedom after the 1988 killings of 21-year-old Martha Delarosa and 16-year-old Lisa Koehler.

Downtown plot sale
Hollister council members Monday voted 4-0 to approve going forward on exclusive talks to sell the city’s property in the 400 block of San Benito Street for a multi-use development.

It came after dozens of local residents shared their views on both sides of the issue.

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez did not take part in the vote because he has declared a potential financial conflict of interest, as he owns The Vault property neighboring the site, but he has openly spoke out against a development at the location next to the Briggs Building.

New HSD superintendent
Hollister School District trustees in May approved a contract for new Superintendent Lisa Andrew. Fringe benefits detailed in the contract include $2,000 in district money to pay dues for professional organizations, up to $2,500 in moving expenses if the move occurs to a location within district boundaries prior to June 30, 2017; and $100 toward the cost of a mobile phone.

Andrew started July 1, earning a salary of $189,250. The district’s longtime superintendent of nearly six years, Gary McIntire, retired June 30 with a salary of slightly more than $200,000.

Transit tax rejected
In June, a special ½-cent tax to fund transportation projects in the county failed with 58.92 percent of countywide voters in favor of it. If approved with a two-thirds yes vote, the tax would have generated an estimate of $240 million over 30 years, with half of the funds toward Highway 25 upgrades and the other half toward local road fixes. The Council of San Benito County Governments sought the 1/2-cent tax as a way to fund road improvements that are lagging throughout the county. Support came from a wide spectrum of business, nonprofit and political leaders. Others, however, balked at such details as the 30-year term length and vagueness in the measure’s language potentially allowing for non-specified projects.

New Gavilan superintendent
Gavilan College named Dr. Kathleen Rose as the new president and superintendent in June. Her appointment includes a two-year contract with compensation of $239,000 in the first year.

Rose spent the past seven years as Executive Vice President and Chief Instruction Officer of Gavilan College. During the summer, Rose held morning discussions with the public in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister. She met with local city and county residents in July at Mars Hill Coffeehouse. The college’s Board of Trustees started a nationwide search in January for a replacement for retiring Superintendent Dr. Steven Kinsella. A screening committee composed of board members, administrators, staff, faculty, students and community members selected three finalists, according to a press release.

Del Webb pulls out
The company behind the 1,100-home Del Webb development at San Juan Oaks Golf Club informed county officials in July it was backing out of the approved project. San Benito County supervisors in November 2015 approved the Del Webb project at San Juan Oaks featuring more than 1,000 homes aimed at active adults age 55 and over. Supervisors unanimously approved the project after hearing overwhelming support from residents and project supporters in a public hearing. Pulte Homes subsidiary Del Webb was set to build 1,017 single-family, age-restricted homes on the San Juan Oaks property targeted toward active adults 55 years and older, along with a host of amenities that include a resort, community center and a skilled-nursing facility. San Juan Oaks still has plans for its 67-home portion of the project.

Biker rally continues
The 2016 Hollister Independence Rally brought larger-than-expected crowds, but no major crime incidents. Council members approved the 2016 rally in February, just five months before the event took place. As for the 2017 motorcycle rally, council members approved a contract of $164,000 for a three-day event with promoter Roadshows Inc. in December. The approval came after council members declined in November to approve a contract of $135,000 for a four-day rally. This will be the second rally Roadshows Inc. promotes for Hollister. The promoter was the only one to submit a bid for the 2016 rally after the 2015 promoter left over a dispute of $90,000 owed to the City of Hollister. City documents showed that officials over the last four years calculated widely ranging figures for each rally’s total cost. There was a fluctuation of $94,000 between the 2013 and 2014 motorcycle rallies.

Mike Rodrigues denied
A local judge denied convicted rapist and former San Benito County sheriff’s deputy Michael Rodrigues’ recent attempt at a re-trial. Judge Harry Tobias on Oct. 17, after taking in oral arguments from both sides in the Rodrigues matter at a prior hearing, denied the Rodrigues motion for what’s called a writ of Habeas Corpus. A jury in September 2009 convicted Rodrigues, age 48 at the time, of raping three women while on duty as a San Benito County Sheriff’s Office deputy. Rodrigues, the son of former County Supervisor Ron Rodrigues, spent 25 years with the local sheriff’s office before his arrest and eventual conviction for raping those women. In November 2009, Rodrigues was sentenced to 60 years to life in prison.
San Juan chains
In October, San Juan council members voted 5-0 to approve revised plans for a new gas station, convenience store and quick-serve restaurant. Though the approval still faces legal challenges, such as ongoing litigation against the plans in the local courts, it officially opens the possibility for a second gas station and new franchise businesses in the Mission City where such chains have been largely shunned. While the new Arco gas station is a go for now, the remaining portions of the approval are vaguer in context. The approved resolution calls for allowing a “convenient store and quick-serve restaurant” along with the gas station on the other side of Highway 156 opposite from the Windmill Market. The designation could mean anything from Dunkin’ Donuts to McDonald’s to a traditional mom and pop shop or cafe, depending on the chosen tenants.

Luis Valdez honored
Luis Valdez, the playwright, theater director, actor and lifelong activist, from San Juan Bautista, in September joined arts luminaries at the White House to receive the 2015 National Medal of Arts. Valdez, who founded El Teatro Campesino and wrote movies like “La Bamba”, was honored “for bringing Chicano culture to American drama,” the White House spokesperson announced as the San Juan Bautista resident took the stage. The packed ceremony was jovial and visibly joyous—with laughter as President Barack Obama greeted each of the award medalists in a mid-morning ceremony notable for its inclusivity of genre, according to the Associated Press. Recognized alongside Valdez were Broadway star Audra McDonald; comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks; dancer Ralph Lemon; author Sandra Cisneros; composer Philip Glass; musicians Berry Gordy and Santiago Jiménez, Jr.; painter Jack Whitten; playwright and director Moisés Kaufman; and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

Nurses’ strike
Nurses at Hazel Hawkins Hospital in September reached an agreement with hospital administration on a new contract after a 14-month dispute. The new contract covers the 120 registered nurses at the public hospital. Highlights include maintenance of pension/health/dental coverage and creation of a forum where nurses meet with management to address patient care and working conditions. “The hospital spent over one million dollars of public funds to hire one of the largest law firms in the nation, specializing in ‘union avoidance’ and labor relations strategies, to advise them in contract negotiations,” an announcement from the California Nurses Association reads. “Despite this the nurses prevailed in winning an agreement that preserves and improves safe nursing standards, addresses the hospital’s chronic short staffing, improves retention and recruitment, and strengthens the voice of RNs in patient care.”

Tobacco ban
Hazel Hawkins Hospital implemented a new policy in October that bans tobacco on the campus and all of the health care district’s facilities. The new policy bans cigarettes along with smokeless tobacco, vapor and e-cigarettes. Former District Director Gordon Machado told the Free Lance in March he had been working to get a smoking ban implemented on the publicly-owned hospital campus off Sunset Drive. Machado has said a former human resources official was a smoker and that it was a reason for putting off a ban. That employee no longer works at the hospital. Four national health care companies have banned tobacco and include Kaiser Permanente, Cigna, Mayo Clinic and SSM Health Care, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. At least 40 municipalities, including Santa Clara County, have banned tobacco at health care facilities.

Tax measure questions
Local voters in November approved Measure W, a 20-year extension of Hollister’s 1 percent sales tax. The extension was approved with 78.88 percent of the vote, according to the county elections office. It’s expected to contribute $4.5 million annually to the city’s general fund.

Measure W was an extension of Measure E, a five-year sales tax approved in 2012. County voters initially approved the tax in 2007 as Measure T. Email communications obtained through a records request called into question whether city employees properly followed a state law barring them from doing any campaign work on city time or resources. City Manager Bill Avera published letters on the city’s website that highlight reasons for voters to support Measure W on Election Day. Avera contended his posts on the sales tax extension were merely informational and didn’t qualify as campaigning.

General election
Hollister voters elected incumbent Ignacio Velazquez for a third term as mayor. He won 70.09 percent of the vote in a one-on-one race against three-time challenger Keith Snow. Newcomer Roy Sims won his race against former city employee Tim Burns for Hollister City Council District 4 with 55.35 percent of the vote. Incumbent Councilman Ray Friend was re-elected without opposition. San Juan Bautista voters replaced incumbent council members Rick Edge and Robert Lund with John Freeman and Dan De Vries. Dr. Ariel Hurtado beat longtime incumbent Gordon Machado in the race for San Benito Health Care District Director for District 3. Hurtado won with 79.69 percent of the vote. Measure W, the City of Hollister’s 20-year extension of their 1 percent sales tax, was approved with 78.88 percent of the vote. Local school bond Measures U and V were approved, which are expected to bring over $215 million in new taxes over the next several decades in order to pay for facility updates at local schools.

Hospital shakeup
The Hazel Hawkins Hospital saw a shakeup this year with three new directors coming to the board: Angelina De La Cruz, Jerrianne Marie Hernandez and Ariel Hurtado, M.D. Hurtado, chief of surgery at the hospital, faced off against four-term board member Gordon Machado. This was the first direct competition Machado faced during his long tenure because of the San Benito Health Care District’s move to five districts and coinciding elections following a 2014 Voting Rights Act challenge against the previous at-large system. This was the first district election under the new format, with the District 3 race between Machado and Hurtado in the central part of Hollister. Hurtado won 79.69 percent of the vote, according to the county elections office.

De La Cruz and Hernandez were elected to the uncontested seats of former Directors Parveen Sharma and Jim West.

Sam Farr retires
Congressman Sam Farr is retiring after 23 years of representing San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in Washington D.C. Some of his accomplishments include helping to establish Pinnacles National Park, obtaining federal funds for the local airport and advocating for affordable housing. “Almost everything I wanted to go to Congress I got done,” Farr said earlier this year in an interview with the Free Lance. “I think you run for office using that office as a tool to fix things. Congress is just a tool; so is the state assembly; so is the board of supervisors. They’re all tools and they all have different tool boxes. They can do wonderful things. You ought to figure out what is broken that you need to fix.”

Dassel’s sold
Local oil and gas company Dassel’s Petroleum was acquired by Illinois-based Energy Distribution Partners in November. The family-owned company opened in 1939. It operates in two locations: one in Hollister and another in Hanford. Owners Jim Dassel and Graham Mackie elected to retire and chose to transition the business to Energy Distribution Partners, a spokesperson for Energy Distribution Partners confirmed in an email to the Free Lance. Both their sons remain active in the business. There will be no change in the company’s service or name. Customers will continue to be served by the same employees who have been helping businesses and homeowners in the Central Coast region for years, the spokesperson said.

Energy Distribution Partners is a privately-held retail propane and light fuels marketer. It operates in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.

Airshow in limbo
The future of the 2017 Hollister Airshow hangs in the air after a November stalemate city council vote to approve the event resulted in no action. The stalemate vote came before newcomer Roy Sims replaced then Councilman Victor Gomez. During the meeting, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said Sims should be given an opportunity to state his voice. But the resolution to approve the airshow has yet to come before the new council. City staff recommended the council cancel the event at their Nov. 21 meeting. Airport Director Mike Chambless said during the meeting that the Airshow Committee wasn’t committed to raising funds for the event.

Cold case arrest
More than 14 years after the killing of Jesus Sandoval, Hollister police in December announced an arrest in the case. Police arrested Juan M. Gonzalez, 35, and charged him on suspicion of murder in the case that was believed to be gang related when it occurred in the fall of 2002.

Hollister police Lt. Dan Winn said there wasn’t any new information that triggered the arrest. It was just a matter of having the city’s investigations unit up to full staffing, he said. The detective in the case had time to look back at prior information. On Sept. 8, 2002, Hollister police responded to the Hillcrest Road carwash regarding the report of a fight and assault victim who was at the scene. Upon arrival, officers found Sandoval unconscious. Sandoval had suffered massive head trauma.

SBHS superintendent placed on leave
San Benito High School Superintendent John Perales was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 12. The expected time frame of the leave is unclear. The school board contracted with an investigator to examine Perales and also appointed Shawn Tennenbaum as interim superintendent. Tennenbaum is the district’s longtime director of human resources. When reached by phone, Perales said he couldn’t comment on the situation. It’s been a turbulent two-plus years for Perales since his arrival from the Gilroy School District that have included the superintendent asking for a buyout in March. Perales joined the school district in 2014 when he replaced Krystal Lomanto after she became county superintendent of schools.
Marijuana law approved
Marijuana was a hot topic for both city and county governments this year. The City of Hollister approved Dec. 19 a medical marijuana ordinance that will lift the city’s ban on medical cannabis facilities within city limits 30 days after adoption. After months of deliberations, city council members decided to cap the dispensary number at two facilities, change the working age in facilities from 21 to 18 and removed the 600-foot setback from conforming residential use and religious institutions. State law still requires that all medical cannabis facilities have at least a 600-foot setback from schools. Meanwhile, county supervisors in September unanimously approved a 45-day cultivation ordinance that temporarily banned large-scale grows in the county. In November, supervisors chose to extend the ordinance by 10 months and 15 days.

The ordinance can be incrementally extended for two years, but state law prohibits anything beyond that.

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