Year in Review
By VCR Staff 12/27/2012
[ ventura county ]
In late November, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office announced that members of the Mexican Mafia were extorting and taxing local rival gangs on their drug sales and forcing them into conspiring to commit organized crime. The seven-month investigation, known as Operation Wicked Hand, resulted in 27 indictments to local gang members accused of conspiring to commit felony assaults, extortion, home invasion robberies, narcotics trafficking and other organized criminal activity. It was the largest criminal indictment in the history of Ventura County. Of the 27 indictments, only two remain outstanding, against Angel Mata and Lina Fuentes. The investigation also resulted in the seizure of 32 firearms — 12 handguns, 12 rifles, four shotguns, three assault rifles and one MAC-10 (Military Armament Corporation Model 10) with silencer — plus $36,000 and a quarter-pound of heroin.
— Shane CohnTwo police chiefs hit the road
In early May, Santa Paula residents lashed out at city officials, using the words “witch hunt” and “mob mentality” in describing the decision to place Police Chief Steve MacKinnon on paid administrative leave. Citing privacy personnel decisions, City Council members and City Manager Jaime Fontes could not explain the decision, which was vigorously challenged by residents.
In June, Fontes fired MacKinnon for using a city vehicle and making unauthorized purchases with a city gas card for personal trips to Arizona. When MacKinnon was hired in 2005, the job offer stated that he could use a city car for personal use, and MacKinnon claimed that the previous city manager had also signed off on his personal use of the car. But when Fontes discovered that MacKinnon made 23 trips to Arizona, he felt it was a misuse of a privilege and city resources.
The decision was not popular with residents, who said that MacKinnon accomplished more for the community than any other previous police chief. MacKinnon’s lawyer, Ron Bamieh, said at the time that Santa Paula “continues to be a rudderless ship, which apparently cannot tolerate professionalism and success.”
The first female to be police chief in Port Hueneme, Kathleen Sheehan, hired in September 2010, was placed on paid administrative leave on Nov. 26, and resigned Dec. 4. Third-party investigators were hired to look into allegations that Sheehan violated city policies by issuing concealed weapons permits, recording private conversations with city personnel, inappropriate participation in the dismissal of a parking citation and other alleged improprieties. Her severance agreement was equivalent to six months’ pay, just under $76,000. Lt. Robert Gager was named acting police chief.
— Shane Cohn
Former Ventura City Manager Rick Cole
Five cities seek new managers
Strange year for city managers in Ventura County. Five cities saw their city managers, typically the highest-paid city position, placed on paid administrative leave, resign or retire. In a closed-door session in early September, Ventura City Council voted 4-3 to accept City Manager Rick Cole’s resignation. In an Aug. 29 press release, Cole and the city announced that, during Cole’s annual evaluation, “It became clear that a majority of the City Council believes that it is time for a change in leadership.” Acknowledging the council majority, Cole, an at-will employee, offered to resign and retire.
Twelve-year Oxnard City Manager Ed Sotelo was placed on paid administrative leave in January. Because it is a confidential personnel matter, council members cannot explain the reasons for admonishing Sotelo. He will be collecting his $411,850 total compensation package until his contract expires in February 2013.
In Fillmore, three-year City Manager Yvonne Quiring announced her resignation Sept. 6, came on the heels of a budget passed in June that would require layoffs and a deficit of $1.5 million during this fiscal year. She told reporters she had found another job in the public sector.
In Simi Valley, Assistant City Manager Laura Behjan took over as city manager in July when 17-year City Manager Mike Sedell retired. Behjan has stated she will relinquish the position as soon as the City Council finds a new city manager
After six years on the job, Port Hueneme City Manager Dave Norman resigned in October after the City Council expressed its desire to move in a different direction.
— Shane Cohn
[ Camarillo ]
Residents stand proud and loud against Conejo Creek Plan
Camarillo’s City Council meetings are a typically light-hearted affairs, with council members exchanging pleasantries and the occasional chuckle as they move through the day’s agenda. Discussion tends to focus on correcting awkward traffic patterns or improving signage at intersections. Public comments, if any, tend to occupy only a handful of the 30 minutes allotted during each meeting. A certain tranquility permeates the chambers, giving one the sense that things are going well in Camarillo and residents haven’t much to complain about.
Unless, of course, someone proposes developing the area between Highway 101 and Pleasant Valley Road. Then all hell breaks loose.
The Conejo Creek Specific Plan is under consideration by the City Council and proposes the development of 740 acres of agricultural land. Submitted by Development Planning Services and five property owners, the Conejo Creek plan would provide 2,500 residential units, 40 acres of additional, nonresidential space, and more than 220 acres of parkland and open space. The proposed development is to take place over 20 years and would require amendments to the city’s current general plan in order to rezone current farmland.
Residents want no part of it.
Hundreds packed City Hall during two Planning Commission hearings on Sep. 18 and Dec. 4, and spoke out regarding the plan’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The pushback came in large part due to several adverse impacts of the plan that are designated as Class I, or “significant and unavoidable,” within the EIR. Among them are the loss of agricultural lands and the demolition of potentially historic structures within the 740 acres included in the proposal. This is expected to negatively affect Camarillo’s “scenic views” and “visual character.” Increases in traffic-related congestion and noise are also expected.
Along with the Camarillo Sustainable Growth Board, a nonprofit public benefit organization, residents claim that whatever development takes place as a result of the plan cannot be undone and the “Shangri-La” nestled at the base of the Conejo Grade will be lost forever. It’s a risk they have emphatically urged the council not to take.
— Justin Formanek
[ Oxnard ]
Former Oxnard City Manager Ed Sotelo
It was a fascinating year in Oxnard for politicos.
First, the City Council voted in January to put City Manager Ed Sotelo on an unexplained paid leave of absence ($411,850 total compensation package).
Assistant City Manager Karen Burnham was named interim city manager.
Then, in April, came the result of the nearly two-year investigation by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office into misuse of public funds and malfeasance by city officials, which identified criminal activity by city officials but, as the April report detailed, did not find enough evidence to prosecute. The report revealed the many ways the city’s top officials used public funds to pay credit card balances for expensive meals, bar tabs, adult films in hotels and travel expenses, and the matter of Sotelo creating a $300 per month lifetime retirement perk for top managers and using public money for a $10,000 personal loan. But the district attorney stated that the statute of limitations ran out on these crimes because they were discovered more than four years after they occurred. And that was that.
In the wake of the investigation’s results, the council voted to approve a 10 percent ($20,000) raise for Burnham, resulting in a total compensation package in the ballpark of $305,391.
In August, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) found three Oxnard city officials in violation of state law. The FPPC fined Sotelo $12,500, former Mayor Tom Holden $10,500, Community Development Director Curtis Cannon $4,000, former Public Works Director Ken Ortega $7,000 and Burnham $2,000 for failing to report gifts (from developers) on their annual Statements of Economic Interests that exceed the applicable gift limit. In December, Councilman Bryan MacDonald, former council members Andres Herrera, Dean Maulhardt, Irene Pinkard and Development Services Director Matt Winegar were also fined by the FPCC for violating state gift disclosure laws.
Then came election season and a time for much-needed change in leadership. Thirteen candidates ran for two open seats on the council. Incumbent MacDonald won handily, and in a dramatic upset that came down to the last vote, 24-year-old political novice Dorina Padilla defeated retired educator Dick Jaquez, who was heavily supported by business interests.
With Holden deciding not to seek re-election, Councilmembers Tim Flynn, Carmen Ramirez and Pinkard all vied to become mayor. Flynn collected more than 36 percent of the vote to claim victory, thus vacating his council seat. A special election will be held in the new year to fill the fifth seat on the council, assuring that Oxnard reigns as the best politically dramatic city in the county.
— Shane Cohn
Photo by Heber Pelayo • Oxnard residents holding protests against police brutality
Oxnard officers under the microscope for deaths
Over the past six months, tensions between the community and local law enforcement have risen in Oxnard as four have died during police-related incidents.
The earliest fatality occurred on June 24, when police responded to a call regarding Robert Ramirez, a 26-year-old Oxnard resident, who was reportedly overdosing on methamphetamine. Officers attempted to restrain Ramirez and there was a brief struggle. Shortly afterward, Ramirez fell unconscious and was pronounced dead at St. John’s Hospital less than an hour later. On Nov. 20, the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Ramirez died of asphyxia from “active prone restraint.” He also had an “extremely high level” of methamphetamine in his system. Ramirez’s mother, Teresa, claims that her son was beaten and has called for the FBI to investigate.
The following month, Michael Mahoney, a 36-year-old resident with a history of mental instability, was shot to death by police. On Aug. 14, after firing a shot in his home, he confronted officers, holding a gun to his own head. Mahoney then challenged officers to shoot him and pointed his gun at them. Mahoney had been briefly admitted to a mental health facility earlier in the month. His twin sister, Tara, stated that the police knew her brother was mentally unstable but ignored her pleas to have him returned to the facility. Officers visited Mahoney the day before he was killed, responding to threats he had made against himself.
On Oct. 13, 21 year-old Alfonso Limon Jr. and Jose Zepeda, 24, were killed during a shootout that erupted after a traffic stop. As police chased two men who fled the vehicle, gunfire erupted. The Oxnard Police Department has claimed that officers were returning fire when Limon, an innocent bystander who had been out jogging with his brother, was killed. Limon’s family has since filed a government claim for damages against the police department, calling its actions “negligent” and “reckless.” The claim states that witnesses saw officers open fire on Limon despite his being in “full view” and yelling “multiple times” not to shoot.
In response, the Todo Poder al Pueblo (All Power to the People) Collective has held several marches protesting alleged brutality by the Oxnard Police Department. Organizers and Collective members have also repeatedly packed City Hall during council meetings, demanding justice for those who have been killed. On Sep. 11, the group issued subpoenas to Police Chief Jeri Williams and the “seven unidentified” officers involved in Ramirez’s death, ordering them to appear before “the People’s Tribunal for Justice” the following week at Cafe on A in downtown Oxnard. When Williams did not show, the Collective assumed an admission of guilt had been made.
Williams did, however, call for the aid of the Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight group created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, on Nov. 8. She cited the need for an outside entity to review each of the incidents and to improve police protocols and training. The City Council would need to approve the expense, which is expected to be at least $70,000.
— Justin Formanek
[ Ventura ]
The city of Ventura removed over 100 tons of debris from the river bottom
Ventura River bottom cleanup
2012 was the year the city of Ventura vowed to permanently dismantle the illegal encampments in the river bottom. With fires and murders in the river bottom having been reported earlier in the year, the city discontinued the annual Cal Lutheran University student river bottom clean up that usually yields about 12 tons of trash. Instead, the city first wanted to remove the people illegally living among the river bottom and then remove what would end up being more than 100 tons of debris.
In the fall, the county began mowing the nonnative arundo plant that helped create shelter for the illegal camps. By the end of September, city officials claimed there were no more homeless encampments from the Main Street bridge to the county-owned Stanley Avenue parcel near Highway 33. Some of the homeless individuals agreed to commit to a management plan to end their homelessness and received motel vouchers from the county. But most simply moved on to other locations, such as the Santa Clara River bottom.
Many in the surrounding communities, such as Pierpont, say they think that since the river bottom sweep, there has been an increase in vagrancy and crime. But police have said it is still too early to draw conclusions.
— Shane Cohn
[ Thousand Oaks ]
Thousand Oaks Planning Commissioner Mic Farris
Thousand Oaks democratic controversy
Controversy erupted in Thousand Oaks following the decision in February to fill an empty council seat by appointment. When Councilman Dennis Gillette resigned for health reasons, a two-year vacancy opened up. Many residents wrote letters to the city clerk’s office and publicly declared that there should be a special election for the vacant seat, or that it should be assigned to the runner-up from the previous election.
But the council voted to appoint the next council member, and after an interview process, elected Joel Price to fill the vacancy.
Residents, however, rallied in the name of democracy. Planning Commissioner Mic Farris drafted the Right to Vote Initiative, which calls for an election when future vacancies occur on the City Council. More than 10,000 registered voters signed the petition, and in July, the council unanimously approved the initiative into law.
— Shane Cohn
On the night of Jan. 13, the cruise ship Costa Concordia partially sank after running aground off the coast of Isola del Giglio in Italy. The Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, had overridden the ship's computer-navigation system in order to treat passengers to a “near-shore salute” when the ship hit a reef that tore a 160-foot gash in the ship's port side. The shipwreck claimed 32 lives and left twice as many injured. Schettino was arrested on charges of manslaughter, due to the shipwreck, and abandoning ship while passengers and crew were still aboard.
Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the 60th anniversary of her ascension to the throne on Feb. 6, a feat matched during the entire history of the United Kingdom only by Queen Victoria. Elizabeth II has been queen regnant of the 16 sovereign states within the Commonwealth of Nations (of which the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Jamaica are the most populous) since the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952. At 86, and much to the chagrin of Prince Charles, the Queen is the second-longest serving monarch.
Trayvon Martin shooting
Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, 28, in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman claimed that the shooting was in self-defense and justified by Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of deadly force in lieu of retreat from an unlawful threat. In the wake of public outrage and allegations of racist motivation, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. His trial is set to begin in June 2013.
Whitney Houston dies
On Feb. 11, Whitney Houston was found dead in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. She was 48. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled that her death was due to accidental drowning as the result of chronic cocaine use and heart disease. The legendary pop icon, once the most award-winning female artist of all time, had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction throughout most of the 2000s.
The Ohio Valley was rocked by 70 tornadoes over a two-day period in early March. The outbreak, one of the deadliest on record for that month, left 40 dead and hundreds injured. Twenty-two of those deaths occurred in Kentucky alone. The most powerful of the tornadoes was an EF4 that left a 49-mile path of destruction from Fredericksburg, Ind., to Bedford, Ky., killing 11. In all, the outbreak caused an estimated $2 billion in damages.
End of Encyclopedia
In March, the president of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. announced that the encyclopedia would no longer be produced in print. After 244 years, the 32-volume 15th edition, released in 2010, would be the company’s last. Instead, the company will focus on an online database and various educational tools. In a digital age where Wikipedia has become the go-to for free and readily available (if not always reliably factual) information, however, one must wonder if this is just the first stage in the demise of what was once a fixture in many homes across America.
Secret Service scandal
On the eve of President Obama’s visit to Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas, 12 Secret Service agents and other military personnel were accused of bringing prostitutes to the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena for a night of misconduct. Initial attention was brought to the hotel after one agent refused to pay Dania Londono Suarez $800 for services rendered. The incident led to an investigation by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, the resignation or retirement of at least nine of those involved, and the instatement of a stricter code of conduct for Secret Service agents.
Obama supports gay marriage
President Obama became the first sitting president to openly support gay marriage during a May 9 interview on ABC. While he initially opposed same-sex marriage during his 2008 candidacy, Obama said he had changed his position after years of discussion with friends, family and staff members. “At a certain point,” he said, “I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The president stressed, however, that his position was personal and he still supported the rights of states to decide the legality of same-sex marriage on their own.
Venus between us
The 21st century’s second and last transit of Venus took place on June 6. The event, which occurs when Venus passes directly between earth and the sun, is one of the rarest of predictable astronomical phenomena. Observations of the 1639 transit, recorded by Jeremiah Horrocks, were instrumental in determining the first realistic estimates of the size of our solar system. The next transits of Venus will occur in December of 2117 and 2125.
In June, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was formally charged with doping by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). As a result of the USADA ruling, he was stripped of all his titles and banned from future competition. Subsequently, Armstrong was dropped by his sponsors and eventually withdrew all involvement with the Livestrong Foundation, a nonprofit cancer support organization he founded in 1997 after successfully overcoming testicular cancer.
The 2012 Olympics were held in London, making it the third time that city has hosted the modern games. The opening ceremony, directed by Academy Award-winning direct Danny Boyle, was an impressive spectacle that received worldwide acclaim. The games boasted the first-ever entrance of female athletes from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, as well as the first inclusion of women’s boxing as an event. American swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time, winning his 22nd medal during the 4×100-meter relay.
More than 700 million people, nearly 10 percent of the world’s population, were in the dark for two days during late August. The power outage, which affected 22 states throughout northeastern India, was the largest blackout in history. Trains were brought to a halt, hundreds of miners were trapped below ground for hours, and shops and hospitals were left in the dark after record levels of heat led to increased energy consumption. India’s power grids, which were of questionable reliability, couldn’t handle the demand. The outage lent urgency to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s bid to secure $400 billion for increasing the country’s power generation.
Twelve people were killed and 58 injured when a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater during a premiere of #The Dark Knight Rises#. James Egan Holmes, 25, is the sole suspect in the massacre and was arrested outside the theater moments after the attack. Authorities removed more than 30 homemade explosives and 10 gallons of gasoline from his apartment after he indicated he had “booby-trapped” it. Holmes has since been charged with multiple first-degree murder and attempted murder counts. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 7.
After a journey lasting eight months and covering 352 million miles, NASA’s Curiosity landed in the Gale Crater on Mars. The $2.5 billion rover, weighing in at just less than a ton and boasting an array of 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras, is on a two-year mission to discover whether Mars has ever been capable of supporting microbial life. In September, the Curiosity relayed photographs that revealed signs of a shallow river that once existed within the crater.
Romney’s 47 percent
In September, a video surfaced showing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaking at a closed-door fundraising event. In it, Romney stated that 47 percent of the country believed they were entitled to healthcare, food and housing. "My job is not to worry about those people," he said, adding, “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." In a profound display of poetic justice, Romney managed to capture only 47 percent of the popular vote in November’s election.
On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, roughly 150 gunmen stormed the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya. Ten were injured and four were killed, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Controversy erupted regarding the timeline of events and the apparent failure of security. Former CIA director David Petraeus testified before Congress that the attack was an organized terror assault by gunmen linked to al-Qaida. Investigation by an independent review board is ongoing.
After wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and much of the southeast seaboard, Hurricane Sandy hit land just south of Atlantic City, N.J. For two days, Sandy pummeled the northeast with heavy rains, 90-mile-per-hour winds and flood tides as high as 13 feet. Before finally sputtering out in Pennsylvania on Oct. 31, the superstorm ripped up boardwalks, leveled houses, flooded subways and left hundreds of thousands without power, with some areas not being restored until late November. In all, Sandy killed 253 people and caused at least $65.6 billion in damage, making it the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Despite a sluggish economy, a mounting deficit and a higher rate of unemployment than when he took office, Barack Obama was re-elected president of the United States. Though he grabbed 332 Electoral College votes and 50 percent of the popular vote, President Obama became only the second president in history to win a second term with fewer Electoral College votes than his first victory. (FDR did so previously.) Americans seemed willing to buy into promises of hope and change, just with slightly less fervor than they did in 2008.
The Israeli-Palestinian tensions escalated in November when Israel launched an offensive on Gaza that killed Ahmed Jabari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas. The intended goal was to end the rocket attacks on southern Israel. Eight days of violence along the border ensued, leading to 150 deaths, most of which were Palestinian. Just as it seemed there would be a repeat of the 2008-09 conflict that killed more than 1,400, both side agreed on a cease-fire.
Sandy Hook shooting
On Dec. 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself. All of the children were first-graders, between 6 and 7 years of age. Earlier that morning, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy, who was the owner of the semi-automatic rifle and two pistols found near Lanza’s body. The incident was the deadliest attack at an American elementary school in nearly a century, second only to the Bath School bombing in1927.