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October 2, 2023

A look back at 2002

In many ways, 2002 was a turbulent year in which bad things
happened to good people, the best-made plans of government and some
businessmen fell through and the truth about hunger in San Benito
County was exposed.
In many ways, 2002 was a turbulent year in which bad things happened to good people, the best-made plans of government and some businessmen fell through and the truth about hunger in San Benito County was exposed.

One of the lowest points of the year came nearly at its beginning when two promising and well-liked young men were tragically killed in a head-on crash on Highway 25.

Just when it seemed the community was starting to recover from that incident, some overly industrious burrowing animals reportedly weakened the bank to a sewage pond at the city’s wastewater treatment plant causing it to rupture and 15 million gallons of partially treated sewage spilled into the San Benito River.

On the bright side, the Hollister City Council gave its approval to plans to build a long-awaited second fire station. The only problem was the city was forced to put the project on hold because after the sewage spill, state officials ordered a halt to sewage connections, which in turn undermined the building of the new fire station and put the plans on hold indefinitely.

Plans for a new 600-home development, called the West of Fairview Project, was the focus of a major dispute between the Award Homes development company and the Local Agency Formation Commission that ended in a lawsuit between the agency’s director and the developer.

Another local agency came under scrutiny as questions were raised about its misuse of funds that ultimately forced the resignation of the agency’s director and the dissolution of the commission itself.

And to its end, the past year was full of events, both large and small, that made for a unique time in local history.

Here are some of the events that we think were the most memorable:

Sewage spill has major ramifications

A 40-foot breach at an industrial waste treatment pond May 4 left Hollister with more than just 15 million gallons of treated sewage to clean up.

An immediate result of the spilled sewage, some of which found its way into the San Benito River, was a halt to all new construction in Hollister imposed by the City Council. That decision was topped Sept. 19 when the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cease-and-desist order for all new building permits in the city during a seven-hour meeting in Salinas.

The building moratorium, however, took a back seat to the $1.2 million “suspended liability” against the city by the RWQCB. But rather than make the fine purely punitive, the state water board determined that half the money would go toward phases 1-3 of the city’s Long-Term Wastewater Management Plan, with $200,000 for each construction phase, and an additional $576,000 for three supplemental environmental projects, including $300,000 for a hydrogeologic study of the wastewater treatment plant.

The remaining $24,000 was designated for administrative costs incurred by the state.

On Oct. 22, the RWQCB proposed an additional lump-sum fine of $576,000 if the city did not meet the deadlines for the three SEP projects. But city staff objected to the proposal and it was amended so that the state’s Cleanup and Abatement Fund would receive the money if Hollister missed the deadlines.

The fine and cease-and-desist order were not solely because of the sewage spill but also for the city’s history of wastewater mismanagement, the RWQCB said.

LAFCO denies West of Fairview annexation

A proposed 677-unit housing project that had been the city’s biggest bone of contention for more than a year came to an end April 25 when the Local Agency Formation Commission denied the annexation of 125 acres of land for the project near the intersection of Airline Highway and Fairview Road.

As proponents of slow growth and affordable housing cheered those who spoke against the annexation during a four-hour meeting, LAFCO members voted 4-1 to deny the annexation of the land for the proposed West of Fairview project.

“The biggest thing is, we have to give the city a breath,” LAFCO Commissioner Richard Scagliotti said after the meeting. “They’re strapped right now with previous decisions. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure that has to be in place. I’m not saying all of it has to be in place, but I think we need to have a plan of services that’s in front of us adopted by all.”

Then-City Councilmember Peggy Corrales cast the only vote in favor of the annexation.

Calling LAFCO’s decision “kangaroo-court justice,” Award Homes acquisition/land development manager Michael Van Every vowed that the developer would not give up the fight. He also cited conflict-of-interest charges by Award Homes attorney William Ross against Scagliotti, himself a developer, and LAFCO Executive Director Rob Mendiola, who is also San Benito County Planning Director.

Earlier, Ross had requested that Mendiola and Scagliotti be disqualified from the issue. In February, Award Homes sued Mendiola, claiming that he had refused to certify in a timely manner the city’s Resolution of Application, which called for the annexation.

Award Homes can re-submit the project to LAFCO in April 2003.

Hunger-related issues plague county

The hunger-stricken in San Benito County don’t usually sleep in boxes or beg on the streets. But they exist – even if they can’t be seen.

A study released by the University of California at Los Angeles magnified the problem at the local level. According to the California Health Interview Survey, which details hunger-related problems throughout California, San Benito County, grouped with Monterey County, experiences an astounding number of adults unable to put food on the table.

Between the two counties, 29.4 percent of low-income adults suffer from “food insecurity” – defined by the CHIS as a “lack of assured access to enough food through socially acceptable means.”

“Low-income” in this case refers to families earning less than $36,000 per year, or twice the poverty level.

Among Central Coast regions, San Benito and Monterey counties have the highest incidence of hunger problems among the poor, significantly higher than Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

The study listed Latinos among the ethnic groups most vulnerable to food insecurity. Latinos make up 55 percent of the population of Hollister and 50 percent of San Benito County.

Two teens killed in Highway 25 accident

The deaths of two Hollister teenagers in an auto accident on Highway 25 stunned the city, particularly at San Benito High School where several friends of recent graduates Jeff Conte and Ryan Perry went for grief counseling provided by the school the day after the Feb. 12 tragedy.

Conte, 19, and Perry, 18, were passengers in a car driven by 19-year-old Reynaldo Rivera Jr. when it collided head-on with a car driven by Jose Delgado, 19, also of Hollister.

Rivera, along with Conte a 2000 graduate of SBHS, was reportedly driving at speeds of 80 to 85 mph while northbound on Highway 25 when the accident occurred near Bolsa Road at about 10:30 p.m., according to the California Highway Patrol.

Rivera, an all-Monterey Bay League football player in high school, had entered the southbound lane to pass a line of cars when his vehicle and Delgado’s collided. Conte and Perry, a 2001 graduate of SBHS, were pronounced dead at the scene. Delgado suffered a broken wrist and multiple cuts to his face, and 19-year-old Arthur Suniga, another passenger in Rivera’s car, sustained lacerated intestines and was released from the hospital a week after the accident.

Rivera, who suffered a dislocated hip in the crash, pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter April 10 after turning himself over to Santa Clara County Superior Court. He was sentenced May 31 to eight months in jail and three years probation.

The sentence included a requirement that Rivera spend the first full 60 days in incarceration, after which he was eligible to serve the remaining seven months on either a work or school alternative program.

Second fire station gets green light

A much-needed second fire station to serve the southern areas of Hollister took the final step toward reality Aug. 15 when the City Council approved a conceptual plan and the acquisition of land for Fire Station No. 2.

The site, located at the northeast corner of Union Road and Airline Highway, will provide a necessary augmentation for the city’s only existing fire station at Fifth and Sally streets downtown. The California Department of Forestry station on Fairview Road serves as a county fire station.

“Everybody is responding from one downtown station,” Hollister Fire Chief Bill Garringer said after the Council’s decision. “We can’t get to the site where the other stations will be in six minutes. Ideally, a station should respond within four minutes. There are parts (of Hollister) that we can’t respond to in four minutes.”

Responding to an emergency within four minutes can mean the difference between life and death in some instances, Garringer said.

“In parts of the city … it takes eight minutes for us to get there,” he said. “If a person stops breathing, they suffer brain death after four to six minutes. That is unacceptable.”

The new fire station will have dormitories, a kitchen, a dining room and an exercise room. It will accommodate female fire fighters with separate, private bedrooms and bathrooms. It will also have a hose tower to wash dry, dirty fire hoses, something the current fire station does not have.

The new station will also have a community room where local organizations can hold meetings.

Plans for the new fire station had begun four years earlier, but a revolving door of fire chiefs delayed the process, City Manager George Lewis said.

“We have a really good chief in now and now the fire station will be built,” he said.

The death of Nancy Johnson

The community was shocked to learn that Nancy Ann Johnson, 49, a San Juan Elementary School teacher, was killed in a single-car accident July 14 for which her husband, Bill, a San Benito High School teacher, was later sentenced to five years probation on charges of vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving.

The accident occurred on Airline Highway just north of Best Road when Bill Johnson was reportedly driving northbound with his wife. He was wearing a seat belt. Nancy was not.

During an emotionally charged hearing Dec. 18 in which family members and friends spoke on Bill’s behalf, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders sentenced Johnson to the maximum allowable sentence of one year in jail on the two misdemeanor charges. But Sanders suspended the sentence and placed him on probation.

As a condition of his probation, Johnson was ordered to serve 120 days in jail. He is eligible to apply for home monitoring, under which jail officials could keep tabs on him by an electronic device. He would be allowed to go to work during the day but would be under house arrest at night. He has to turn himself over to jail officials by Jan. 26.

Johnson is also required to serve 800 hours of community service with the county’s substance abuse program. As part of the service, he is to use his skills as an educator to develop a curriculum designed to teach youths about the dangers of drinking and driving. He is to bring the proposal to Sanders for review by Feb. 20.

Howard Harris dies

San Benito County lost one of its most honored and faithful champions on Dec. 1.

Howard W. Harris, dubbed by many of his peers as a “living legend,” died at St. Louise Regional Medical Center in Gilroy after a long battle with cancer, diabetes and related health complications. He was 92.

Harris, a fourth-generation resident of San Benito County, once claimed his “roots here go pretty deep,” beginning with his great-grandfather who arrived in California with Col. John C. Fremont, for whom Fremont Peak is named.

Before Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area was born, it was known as “Howard’s private motorcycle park.” Harris later sold the land to the state.

“Howard had his hands in just about everything,” Farm Bureau Director Albert Bonturi said.

“He was one of those members you don’t forget,” said Bob Krauter, publisher of Ag Alert, a newsletter of the state agriculture industry. “He is the best example of what leadership can achieve as an individual. He was very bright, very articulate, respectful of others opinion and he thought a lot about the issues.”

Harris served as director of the San Benito County Farm Bureau for 75 years, was county president, chaired numerous Farm Bureau committees, served as a California Farm Bureau director and delegate to CFBF and American Farm Bureau annual meetings.

Allegations against SBHS employee

Former San Benito High School Athletic Director Marty Dillon is still waiting a ruling by an administrative panel that could determine the future of his career.

Nearly three weeks of testimony ended Oct. 31 regarding allegations against Dillon, a long-time SBHS teacher and coach, of misconduct with a student.

The dispute between the school district and Dillon, who is accused of touching a female student-athlete in an inappropriate manner, started in the summer when he was placed on paid administrative leave after the student reportedly came forward about the alleged incident at a gathering following a non-school-related athletic event in Stockton.

Dillon’s attorney denied that the incident happened and prosecutors with the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office did not file criminal charges, citing a lack of evidence.

San Benito Arts Commission disbanded

With a 4-1 vote on April 2, the Board of Supervisors rejected a $40,000 state grant that would have provided funding for the San Benito Arts Commission and disbanded the group.

The arts commission came under investigation for possible criminal activity stemming from a failure to repay a $110,000 loan from the county.

The commission was supposed to send expense invoices to the state for reimbursements that would have paid off the loan, but the invoices were never sent.

Also in question was the use of a private bank account by a member of the commission. The commission was using a private bank account to manage county money for an unknown amount of time, a violation of county policy.

Vixen The Cat buried

A simple funeral was held March 12 for Vixen, San Juan Bautista’s town cat.

Vixen, age unknown, lived on the streets of San Juan Bautista for nine years. Cancer ravaged her body in a matter of weeks and on March 5 residents of the Mission City put her out of misery.

Vixen was laid to rest underneath her favorite tree behind the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department sub-station on Third Street.

A somber group of local merchants and residents and San Juan Mayor Priscilla Hill came to pay their last respects, some teary-eyed.

Barbara Gonzales, owner of Visions of Christmas, became close to Vixen about six years ago. Every day around 4:30 p.m. she would go around town looking for the feline to make sure Vixen was safe inside one of the shops.

Vixen was a fixture along Third Street ever since she arrived in the spring 1991 and gave birth to four kittens in the back yard of the Bear Flag Gallery.

The Free Lance Staff
A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.

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