Politics: The story of 2012 in San Benito County

City Hall

With the presidential race nationally and Hollister’s first mayor’s race locally – along with many other consequential ballot questions and contests – it was a year defined by politics in San Benito County. The following is a rundown of many important political matters throughout 2012.

Redevelopment agencies abolished:

Hollister city officials had held out hope that state legislators might come up with an alternate to Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to dissolve redevelopment agencies in 2011 in an effort to bring money back to the general fund. The Hollister Downtown Association and Economic Development Corp. of San Benito County were especially hit hard in January since the city funded portions of their budgets through the RDA, which was also used for recently completed projects such as the downtown fire station. Hollister took over as the successor agency for the RDA, with the task of continuing to administer loans given out before the agency was dissolved.

The HDA lost what it had received – $65,000 from the redevelopment agency to support events and activities in downtown Hollister.

“That has increased over the years with the various projects that we’ve done,” HDA Executive Director Brenda Weatherly said. “We are looking at options such as downsizing our office or taking pay cuts. The reality is we have to decrease expenses while increasing revenue.”

In June, Nancy Martin, the executive director of the EDC, resigned from her position as county and city officials considered cutting funding to the agency.

San Juan gets charging station:

San Juan Bautista leaders dedicated the area’s first electric charging station at Abbe Park on Feb. 17.

The Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments – which includes San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties – used a $25,000 grant from the Monterey Bay Regional Air Pollution Control District to install at least one public charging station in each county. The San Juan station also was developed by the joint cooperation of ECOtality, North America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 234.

Grimsley named permanent SJB manager:

In March, the San Juan Bautista City Council removed the interim tag from City Manager Roger Grimsley’s title, extending the contract of the former engineer and longtime government worker who came out of retirement last summer to fill a leadership void created when Stephen Julian resigned in May 2011.

“Because the interim classification put a restriction on me to sign various documents, the council elected to appoint me as permanent city manager,” said Grimsley, 71, whose previous experience includes time as Hollister’s city manager and director of public works and planning. “That’s fine with me. I serve at the will of the city council and I’m here to help them.”

County incumbents win:

Three county supervisors retained their seats in the June primary – with two winning by a large lead and a third narrowly defeating an opponent.

Anthony Botelho garnered 57.54 percent of the votes to candidate Arturo Medina’s 42.15 percent. Jaime De La Cruz received 65.89 percent of the votes in District 5, with Sonny Flores taking in 33.11 percent of the votes. Margie Barrios had received 51.12 percent of the votes in District 1, with Mark Starritt receiving 48.16 percent.

In reflecting on the race, Barrios said she understood that some voters didn’t believe she and other supervisors – facing continual deficits and a $5.5 million hole next fiscal year – did enough to cut county costs the past four years.

“I think it’s a general mood,” Barrios said, “and I believe that (Starritt’s) campaign was about, perhaps, the county has not done enough to cut costs.

“We’re not done. We’re moving forward in doing that.”

Gavilan president’s raise

Impassioned monologues from a handful of public speakers at a June meeting failed to persuade the Gavilan College School Board from reversing a $42,000 raise – which the board approved seven months prior for college President Steve Kinsella.

The swift re-vote happened during a regular board of education meeting inside the campus student center, where community members such as Mickie Solorio Luna, of LULAC, looked directly at Kinsella and asked him to “consider the fact that a pay increase is an injustice to all of us.”

LULAC had requested the item be discussed as an open agenda item after contending that the original vote in October 2011 had not followed the Brown Act requirements. At the time, Kinsella was named as a finalist in a search for a lead administrator in another community college district, and trustees agreed to match the salary at the other district to keep him at Gavilan.

Pinnacles National Monument bill:

In 2012, Congressman Sam Farr pursued a bill to turn Pinnacles National Monument into a national park. The bill received plenty of local support, with Supervisor Jerry Muenzer traveling to Washington D.C. in June to testify before a legislative subcommittee reviewing it.

Muenzer, whose district includes Pinnacles in the south end of the county, said he was invited by Farr’s office.

“It would increase tourism,” Muenzer said of the main benefit to the proposed change in designation for the monument.

He said he has talked to staff members who work at the monument who have said because of the designation as a monument, visitors from out of the area expect to see a statue or something akin to Mount Rushmore. The bill was approved in the House of Representatives, but stalled on the floor of the Senate.

Emerson’s paid trip to China:

When Councilman Doug Emerson filed a statement of economic interest as he started a run for mayor this summer, it was discovered that in July 2011 he accepted $4,650 for a trip to China – and apparently exceeded the state’s gift limit for elected officials – from a private solar company that requested he speak at a seminar to help recruit investors for California projects.

Emerson initially denied accepting anything classified as a gift under state law but later acknowledged that some of the reimbursement from CleanFocus Energy did qualify as such – which would subject him to a limit of $420 annually from a single source.

Still, Emerson continually denied any violations of the Fair Political Practices Commission rules – which can result in fines of up to $5,000. After initially stressing that the reimbursement did not qualify as a gift – which would exempt him from the limit but still require reporting on a Form 700 Statement of Economic Interest – he did acknowledge his wife’s portion of the payment did not qualify as a “travel” reimbursement and he repaid that amount.

Budget hearings marked by cuts:

County supervisors approved $1.7 million in final cuts to balance the budget on the last day of budget hearings in July. In anticipation of a shortfall of $5.3 million, supervisors asked county department heads to start offering up cuts and concessions in March, with much of the gap filled before the budget hearings began July 23.

During the hearings, supervisors agreed to additional layoffs, a reduction of hours and defunding of positions equal to 18.3 full-time employees. Those were in addition to 23 other layoffs approved May 29.

Sheriff Darren Thompson noted that the reduction of $1.3 million to the sheriff’s office operations and $93,586 to sheriff’s corrections was a “devastating reduction.”

He compared the staffing level for 2012-13 of 24 positions in operations and 25.5 positions in corrections with the level in 2008-09, when there were 40.5 positions in operations and 32.5 in corrections.

“Although steadfast in our commitment, with 23.5 less personnel, it will be a challenge for the Sheriff’s Office to perform all of the functions we have historically performed,” Thompson wrote in a statement. “Some functions are mandated by state law, or dictated by special funding streams, leaving us with little or no flexibility.”

In September, Supervisor Anthony Botelho asked his fellow supervisors to consider closing the San Benito County Free Library to reinstate some of the funding cut from the sheriff’s department budget, but he did not receive support from his fellow supervisors.

Residents reiterated many of the same sentiments they shared during the 2012-13 budget hearing process as well as in recent years when cuts have been proposed to the library. Supervisors approved the final budget Dec. 4.

Aromas oil concerns arise:

In August, Aromas residents expressed concern about potential oil and gas drilling in their quiet enclave – concerns they say could lead to water contamination in their community and other areas of San Benito County. They brought those concerns to the supervisors in September.

Members of the Aromas Cares For Our Environment group collected signatures for a petition asking supervisors to put a 180-day moratorium on all oil and gas exploration, along with permits offering time to further explore the potential impacts that hydraulic fracturing and other resource recovery techniques could have on the environment. They collected 500 signatures from residents.

Their worries grew from exploration in June and July at and around the Wilson Quarry in Aromas owned by Graniterock. Residents speculated that the seismic studies were examining the area in hopes of finding sources of oil or natural gas.  

While county planning staff members brought forth a proposed revision to the existing oil and gas well ordinance Oct. 16, the supervisors decided not to make any changes to the ordinance without allowing an opportunity for residents to speak about it in a forum dedicated solely to the issue. They also agreed to create a committee that would include stakeholders such as local residents, county or city officials, and representatives from the oil industry.

Bypass transfer approved:

In October, local officials accepted an option from the Council of San Benito County Governments that would return ownership of the existing Highway 25 route from San Felipe Road south to Tres Pinos Road, including the downtown corridor. Caltrans would be responsible for Americans With Disabilities Act compliance on the downtown corridor, including crosswalks.

County supervisors voted 4-1 to recommend the transfer of the bypass to the state, with ownership of the existing roadway transferring to local control. City council members approved the same recommendation.

Caltrans would take on ownership of the highway bypass as a state road and would make the $3 million to 4 million in improvements identified along the north curve of the road, but would not take ownership of the roadway until the improvements are completed, in three to five years.

San Benito CAO resigns:

After two years on the job, County Administrative Officer Rich Inman resigned. Supervisors issued a press statement Oct. 11 noting they accepted the resignation of the CAO, effective Jan. 9.

Inman was set to receive his regular compensation through Jan. 13 while officially on leave and then another three months after that as well. He did not receive health benefits from the county.

Supervisors named Raymond Espinosa as the interim CAO. Espinosa had been the county’s information technology manager. The search for a permanent CAO is ongoing.

Velazquez elected as first at-large mayor:

In June, voters approved a measure to allow themselves to vote for an at-large mayor – with four council districts – in the fall general election. Voters supported a two-year term for mayor.

Hollister businessman Ignacio Velazquez won victory in the city’s first mayor’s race. In the days after the election, Velazquez had posted a more than 10-point lead in the race among four candidates.

Velazquez faced off against Councilman Doug Emerson, retired military professional and engineering manager Marty Richman, and retired construction foreman Keith Snow.

Velazquez recited the oath of office Dec. 10 and was sworn in as Hollister’s first at-large mayor.

City Clerk Geri Johnson administered the oath to incumbent council members Victor Gomez and Ray Friend before doing the same for Hollister’s first mayor chosen by the entire city electorate.

The runner up, Doug Emerson, departed the council Monday and received a plaque for his eight years of service.

State and city taxes approved:

On Nov. 6, Hollister voters approved the Measure E sales tax extension by a comfortable margin.

The city measure is intended to extend the 1 percent Measure T sales tax in the city for another five years.

State voters also supported Prop. 30, put on the ballot by Gov. Jerry Brown to support schools.

Local school officials breathed a sigh of relief Nov. 7 when it became clear voters had approved a state ballot measure that will alleviate the need for further cuts at K-12 schools for the second part of the school year.

“It makes a $2 million dollar difference just this one year,” said Steve Delay, a San Benito High School trustee. “We will really be in good shape financially.”

Prop. 30 increases the sales tax statewide by 0.25 percent and increases income taxes on residents making more than $250,000 annually. It will be in effect for four years and is expected to raise between $6.8 billion and $9 billion.

Charter school petition OK’d:

Founders of a Gilroy charter school who have their eyes set on opening a similar school in Hollister next fall were “thrilled” with the outcome of a Hollister School District board vote Nov. 27 offering conditional approval of the petition.

“We are absolutely thrilled and we are honored that they allowed us to have this opportunity to work with them,” said Sharon Waller, a cofounder of Gilroy Prep, also vice principal and president of the charter school’s board.

The board of trustees voted 3-2 in support of the resolution offering conditional approval of the petition and a memorandum of understanding, with outgoing Trustees Dee Brown and Judi Johnson voting against the charter school. Trustees Rebecca Salinas, Elsa Rodriguez and Jennifer Bagley voted in favor of the MOU and resolution.

The team behind Gilroy Prep submitted a petition to the Hollister School Board in August, with the school district following up by hiring a law firm to examine the document. Initially, the firm and district superintendent urged against approving the petition, but that was before revisions were submitted by the applicants.

Consolidation nixed:

The city of Hollister and San Benito County officials worked together in 2012 to pursue consolidation of public safety, but in the end the decision was made to keep the status quo for now. In 2011, officials hired a consultant to review the possibility of consolidating the Hollister Police Department and San Benito County Sheriff’s into one agency. But when the Municipal Resource Group gave a report in January 2012, it recommended against a consolidation because it estimated it would only save the agencies $316,000 annually. The consultant said the low staffing ratios at the two departments would not improve, while the amount saved would not be significant enough to warrant a consolidation.

Later in the year, county supervisors also pursued a contract for fire services with the Hollister Fire Department after contract negotiations with Calfire stalled.

In April, supervisors voted 3-2 to start negotiations with the city. Supervisors Anthony Botelho, Jaime De La Cruz and Robert Rivas favored talks with Hollister to contract with the city’s fire department in an expected three-year deal. Supervisors Margie Barrios and Jerry Muenzer voted against the measure.

Upon request from the county, Calfire and Hollister each estimated they could provide annual services at a cost of $1.1 million. Calfire has pushed its so-called Amador Plan, featuring a varying level of resources depending on the time of year and needs to fight wildland blazes. Hollister had vowed it can provide more resources, while officials had talked about eventually adding a third fire station on the city’s west side.

The decided vote came in May, when Rivas nixed his support for the city fire department in favor of staying with Calfire, with Barrios and Muenzer also supporting that decision. The county pursued a contract extension with Calfire, while forming a committee to continue discussions of how the fire agencies might be able to work together in the future.

Parks district discussed:

In 2012, the county parks and recreation commissioners were dedicated to two tasks – getting a conceptual design approved for a river parkway and regional parkway along with seeking sources of funding to maintain services.

In August, the county formed an advisory committee to look at what format to pursue for a community services district that would provide library, parks and recreation services. With a grant from the Health Trust, a survey of about 400 likely voters was conducted at the end of November. When presented with the findings of the survey, which found support below the 66 percent majority required to approve a sales tax measure or a parcel tax, supervisors decided to continue the public dialogue and potentially pursue a district in 2014.

Meanwhile, the parks and recreation commissioners worked closely with consultants from SSA Landscaping to create a conceptual design for a river parkway and regional park, with plenty of opportunities for community input. The river parkway would stretch from San Juan Bautista to the County Historical Park in Tres Pinos when it is completed, with the first stretch to be developed between Fourth Street and Hospital Road. A regional park would connect with that portion of the river parkway.

Hollister rally talks resume:

On December 17, Hollister city council members discussed a potential revival of the Hollister Motorcycle Rally. In one of his first orders of business, Velazquez recused himself from the discussion despite the topic being one of the cornerstones of his election campaign due to a conflict of interest.

City Manager Clint Quilter indicated that council members by their Jan. 7 meeting may receive an official proposal from an outside manager, with whom officials have been in talks, to sanction a July 2013 rally.

That prospective rally manager, Mark Cresswell of North Carolina-based Worldwide Dynamics, visited Hollister in December and met with various city officials, including Quilter and Interim Police Chief David Westrick. Cresswell, as officials pointed out, has experience at major motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, S.D., and Laconia, N.H.

The dormant biker rally that drew an attendance of nearly 100,000 people annually was canceled after 2008. A rally has potential to generate millions of dollars in economic activity, but council members canceled it four years ago because Hollister’s rally budget carried a deficit of more than $200,000 – largely due to a $360,000 budget for law enforcement and the city’s loss incurred from sales of T-shirts.

Look back for a rundown of stories from 2012 outside of politics.

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