By Daryl Kelley
Officials who oversee Lake Casitas, the Ojai Valley’s main source of water, are set to decide Tuesday whether to shut down the popular fishing destination to outside boaters or to simply maintain current inspections to keep a destructive mussel from migrating here.
Because of high interest, the 5:30 p.m. meeting has been shifted from the Casitas Municipal Water District headquarters in Oak View to the Nordhoff High School cafeteria in Ojai.
General manager Steve Wickstrum said water district directors will consider two main options: closing the huge reservoir to outside boats to ensure that a mussel does not infest the lake, or continuing the status quo.
Since the quagga mussel threat surfaced last year in San Diego and Riverside counties, the district has been checking boats for water or vegetation that could carry the mussel’s microscopic larvae and asking boat operators if their craft have been in infested lakes and excluding those that had.
Casitas directors imposed the boat inspections in mid-November, and Wickstrum said 158 of about 2,800 screened boats have been excluded, usually because they still carried water from other lakes.
In a series of recent meetings, dozens of boaters have asked Casitas directors not to ban outside fishing craft, citing the economic harm that would do since Casitas is a premier bass fishing lake. District staffers have estimated such a ban would cost the water agency more than $600,000 a year in recreation revenue while also hurting nearby businesses.
But some community members have said an infestation would be much more expensive, clogging the lake’s waterworks and ravaging its ecosystem.
They’ve asked for an immediate ban on outside boats, citing the billions of dollars agencies have spent in the Great Lakes region since 1988 to combat the invasive zebra mussel, a close cousin of the quagga, which apparently migrated to the United States aboard freighters from the Ukraine.
“The question is how much protection should we provide for Lake Casitas,” Wickstrum said this week.
Reacting to the same perceived threat, managers of Lake Cachuma have proposed closing that scenic Santa Barbara County reservoir to outside fishing boats. The issue is set for hearing March 11 before Santa Barbara County supervisors.
Whatever action the Casitas board takes Tuesday — and it could defer a final decision again — would be viewed in the context of the actions that board has already taken.
Just last week, the board asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a statewide emergency because of the mussel infestation, so California could qualify for federal emergency money to fight the problem.
“We are urgently seeking your leadership to help prevent an impending catastrophe stemming from an invasive non-native species that could destroy the water quality and cause an unprecedented escalation in maintenance costs for virtually every California resident and business,” said a letter to Schwarzenegger, signed by board President Jim Word.
“The mussel threat is of extraordinary magnitude because these mussels have been found to consume most of the food chain upon which many other species depend for survival,” the letter added. “The quagga and zebra mussels also may clog pipes of almost any diameter.”
The most likely way a mussel may be transported is by trailered boats, the letter said.
One large utility in the East Bay of San Francisco has already responded by banning any boat from Southern California or outside the state from its reservoirs. That move came in late January after a zebra mussel was discovered near Gilroy in San Benito County, just south of the Bay Area.
That discovery was the first for a quagga or zebra mussel in the State Water Project, an elaborate set of dams, canals and reservoirs that provide most of the water in the state.
It was also the first zebra mussel found in the western United States, officials said.
Both the quagga and zebra mussels are suspected of traveling from lake to lake by boat, although the quagga mussel’s migration northward, after it was discovered at Lake Mead and Lake Havasu 14 months ago, has apparently occurred in the sprawling canal system of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The infestation of the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes area, discovered two decades ago, now costs utilities about $140 million a year to try to control and to clean encrusted facilities, Casitas spokesman Ron Merkling has told the board.
But in hearings about the issue, boat owners have made impassioned pleas to Casitas directors to explore all options before considering a ban of fishing and pleasure craft at the lake.
After a pivotal hearing in January, the board ignored pleas to immediately ban outside boats, saying it would take several weeks to gather enough information to make an informed decision.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the board will have better estimates of how much money lake closure would cost the district and the community, and how much it would cost Casitas to fight the mussel if it does arrive.
In addition to the two primary options — lake closure or maintaining the status quo — the board may also consider, the hot-water spraying of all boats entering the lake, adding storage for boats to be used only at the lake and increasing the number of rental boats for fishing.
So far, Casitas has taken a statewide lead in highlighting the mussel problem. And Wickstrum said state and federal officials are finally beginning to seriously address it too.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation owns many of the infested lakes in California and Lake Casitas Dam and Reservoir. And the state Department of Fish and Game, the lead California agency, is trying to implement a computer tracking systems to red-flag boats that leave infested lakes before they enter clean ones.
Seven California lakes are infested with the quagga mussel. One lake near Escondido has been closed to boats to prevent infestation.
Casitas Recreation manager Brian Roney has said he favors a “passport” system under which a sticker would be attached to a boat when it enters an infested lake, and which rangers at Lake Casitas could easily see. But he said that suggestion has not been acted on. Also, infested lakes in Arizona and Nevada would not be required to follow a California passport system.
While officials have said it is impossible to eradicate the mussel once it reaches a lake, a Ventura marine biologist distributed to the board at a January hearing a research paper by state of New York scientists that suggests progress in the fight against the damaging mussels. That report concludes that dead bacteria may be safely spread in lakes to kill mussels, once the voracious mollusk eats it.
Now, Great Lakes power plants and water distribution agencies attempt to control the mussels with chlorine and other poisonous chemicals, the report noted. But that has been challenged by environmentalists as a long-term solution, the report said.
Casitas Director Russ Baggerly, who brought the mussel issue to the board’s attention in October, said he’s already convinced that the board has to take its most restrictive option, because infestation would be a catastrophe.
“The issue really is very clear in my mind,” Baggerly said in an interview this week. “Protecting our water source is our primary goal as elected officials, and recreational boating is secondary. I will recommend an immediate temporary ban on outside boats.”
Forecast goes up 1 percent, but sales and property tax collections fall short of expections
By Nao Braverman
Despite the nationwide economic woes, the city’s mid-year budget report shows that Ojai is still on target for this year’s projections.
With new projections showing a slight increase, just over 1 percent more than previously projected in revenues coming in this fiscal year and higher fund balance than expected last year, the city expects to close this fiscal year with just over $3 million in reserves. Still short of the $3.9 million policy target, the general fund balance will nonetheless surpass the initial projection of $2.7 million, said city manager Jere Kersnar.
Though two of the city’s three largest money generators — sales tax and property tax — came in lower than projected, the largest income generator of them all, transient occupancy tax, came in higher than expected, making up for shortfalls in the latter.
“There are storm clouds surrounding us which lead to property tax weakness,” Kersnar told the council.
Property tax had only come in at $662,447.27 from July to December, under 1 percent less than projected, he said, a shortfall so small that it would still be considered within the scope of projections. However, with the declining housing market, it could be seen as a foreshadow to increasing loss in property tax revenue in the coming years.
“We are not feeling it yet, but the lag time between the declining property value and its effect on the city is generally two to three years, he said. “We are OK for this year but we may feel it later.”
Sales tax, which has been historically volatile experienced a more substantial shortfall, coming in $473,103.72, from July to December, is at this point 5.5 percent short of expectations.
“That concerns me,” said Kersnar. “Because it may be an indicator of general economic problems. People are feeling the hardships so they aren’t spending as much in stores and on dinners out on the town,” he said.
But fortunately bed tax came in at $1,259,195.38, from July to December, just under 4 percent more than projected, and more than the combined shortage in property and sales tax.
With other revenues coming in more than projected, the total revenues from July to December came in at $3,464,990, with newly projected numbers just under 1 percent over previous projections, said Kersnar.
There have been no unexpected expenses, total spending came out to $3,607,941.85. Though $142,951 more than revenues, that is to be expected said finance manager Susie Mears. The beginning of the year has a number of one-time payments such as liability insurance and major repair projects such as the skate park renovations, that won’t be incurred during the last two quarters. So, overall, the revenues are expected to come out over expenses by the end of the year.
Kersnar added, however, that with many “storm clouds” surrounding the city, from declining housing prices to regional economic issues, the city would have to get prepared to face some shortfalls.
“Income tax reductions, for instance, don’t directly affect us but it is a big one for the state,” he said. “As the state’s financial issues mount they are going to start cutting elsewhere. But unlike the state we can see it coming and prepare for it.”
In other council news, the new Public Works director, Mike Culver, proposed a reorganization of the Public Works staffing that would reduce upper level management, and contract workers, enhance the administrative staff, and add a much-needed full-time maintenance person. This saves the city a little money while organizing the staff to better suit the needs of the department, improving overall efficiency, said Culver.
The reorganization would eliminate a transportation manager, as Culver could wear both hats, serving as the director while managing transportation.
“I could take care of transportation issues as I am pretty well versed in that area,” said Culver, who served as the city’s former transportation manager for years. That elimination would free up $120,670. Those funds would help pay for upgrading the administrative assistant, upgrading the office specialist II to an administrative analyst, upgrading the trolley coordinator to transit operations supervisor, and adding a full-time maintenance person, all with $7,836 overall reduction in personnel costs for the department.
Mayor Sue Horgan said she would like to see a future update on the reorganization to see how well it was working for the department.
The reorganization was approved unanimously.
Earlier, during the public comment period, Dawn Clifton, a newcomer to Ojai, wanted to know if the city could do something about the lady riding her bike through Ojai “basically nude.”
“I have a 14-year-old son raging with hormones and a daughter to whom I don’t want to explain that that is not appropriate behavior. I don’t want to be embarrassed that I moved to Ojai to raise my kids,” she said.
Kersnar explained that doing anything would raise a number of legal issues.
“As I understand there has been no behavior that contradicts existing laws,” he said. “Restricting anything else would be a restriction of freedom of expression.” Nonetheless he promised to look into it.
Photo by Rob Clement
By Daryl Kelley
Local attorney Cathy Elliott Jones has settled the $10-million civil rights claim she filed against the Ojai Police Department after the police chief pulled her from a candidates’ forum he said she was disrupting and arrested her in October 2006.
“A settlement was reached with her for $22,500 simply for economic reasons,” said Alan Wisotsky, whose Oxnard firm represents the county Sheriff’s Department, which provides police protection in Ojai. “For our firm to get involved, the costs would have been considerably greater.”
Wisotsky said he doubted that Jones could have won her civil case, “but the costs far outweighed the nuisance value settlement.”
He said the case was essentially settled through Jones’ negotiations with the county risk-management department, instead of by county lawyers.
Jones’ case against the city and county and several other defendants, including forum hosts, the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Ojai Valley News, was dismissed by a Superior Court judge because of the settlement, according to a court record filed last week.
Jones refused comment this week.
But in her civil rights claim, she alleged that she was illegally and forcibly seized and unlawfully arrested by Ojai Police Chief Bruce Norris after refusing to sit down and stop talking during the Oct. 16, 2006 candidates’ forum.
When Jones mistakenly thought that her written question to candidates was being misread, she objected and refused to stop talking when confronted by Norris. The police chief then pulled her outside of Chaparral Auditorium, where she was handcuffed and arrested for allegedly interfering with a public meeting and resisting a peace officer.
Jones, who was recovering from an appendectomy, was taken to Ventura County Medical Center for examination, but was soon released. Later, her attorney said she had been bruised and traumatized by the incident, her reputation tarnished, and her right to speak at a public forum denied.
County prosecutors refused to file criminal charges against Jones, and she filed a legal claim against the city of Ojai in March of last year. Her lawsuit against eight defendants was filed in September. Defendants were never served with the suit, but legally she had one year to serve them, Wisotsky said.
Wisotsky said that prosecutors declined to file criminal charges because Jones had been arrested for disrupting a public meeting, but that the candidates’ forum was not legally a public meeting, but instead a campaign event and the same rules may not apply.
“This was one of those technicalities in the criminal system and she probably could have been arrested (and prosecuted) under the Election Code,” Wisotsky said, “but she wasn’t.”
Instead, prosecutors declined to file that charge and county officials declined to fight the lawsuit once a low settlement offer was made, he said.
“If it was a serious policy issue and not a fracas in the sleepy town of Ojai, we would have gone forward,” the county lawyer said. “The fact is Capt. Norris could establish that he had probable cause (to think a crime was being committed.) We certainly had plenty of issues to raise. But at $22,500 the economics just didn’t make sense.”
Wisotsky said he’d like to try all cases he thinks the Sheriff’s Department can win, and that for decades the county did, but stopped because of costs. Still, the number of cases against deputies has dropped dramatically because of the county’s position to fight most cases, he said.
When Jones filed her legal claim last year, her attorney, Neal Safran, said Norris used excessive force to apprehend and detain her without any justifiable reason.
“She was bruised badly and suffered emotional stress, humiliation and embarrassment which affected her reputation in the community,” said Safran.” “We are possibly claiming there was a deprivation of her rights of freedom of speech.”
According to the claim, Norris falsely accused Jones of being “loaded on Vicodin” which started a rumor that spread through the community. She also incurred legal fees and out-of-pocket expense for medical treatment.
The claim stated that 12 witnesses saw Jones roughly escorted out of the forum and accosted.
It also said that Jones suspected that she had been singled out and targeted for harassment by Norris who “harbors personal animosity toward her.” Since the event, the claim said that she had been followed, kept under surveillance by police officers, and had been harassed both at home and in public.
With the settlement, the case is now over, at least as it pertains to the county and the city, Wisotsky said. But since a judge dismissed it without prejudice it could be refiled against the other defendants within two years of the incident, he said.
“But I think, effectively, this case is over,” he said.
By Nao Braverman
Fortunately no vehicles were traversing Highway 33 just north of Wheeler Gorge Friday evening, when California Highway Patrol officers were informed that a portion of the roadway had collapsed into Matilija Creek.
At 6:15 p.m., Friday, rocks and concrete from under the road came loose and fell into the creek, forcing part of the southbound side of road to collapse, along with pieces of a 300-foot-long and eight-foot-high concrete wall, said Maria Raptis, a Caltrans spokesperson.
Highway 33 at that location runs high above a steep embankment.
“When we arrived on scene, 25 feet of earth including part of the roadway had slid into the river below,” said Highway Patrol Officer Shawna Davison.
The road was closed entirely for an hour and a half while Caltrans officials evaluated the situation, but the northbound lane was later opened to residents and emergency personnel only, said Davison. The portion of Highway 33 remained closed to the public, however, until Saturday morning when one lane was opened for alternating traffic, regulated by a traffic signal, according to Raptis. The single lane will be open to all vehicles, including gravel trucks, she confirmed.
While the southbound lane at the location of the road failure has incurred significant damage, and will take at least several months to repair, the slope underneath the northbound lane has been stabilized and secured and will remain open to alternating traffic until the repair is completed, she said. That should take months, though no estimates have been made yet.
Some misinformation regarding the incident had been circulated but the road failure was not caused by a landslide and did not involve any bridges, clarified Raptis.
Years of erosion by the creek below caused the slope underneath the road to give way, and the part of the road to collapse, according to Caltrans officials.
Howard Smith, a member of the nonprofit group the Committee to Stop the Trucks questioned whether the vulnerable road should be open to heavy gravel trucks. He also wondered why the possibility of such a failure, apparently unrelated to any unusual weather conditions had not been predicted during a recent Caltrans study of the safety of the mountainous portion of Highway 33.
The study of the Highway from the five points intersection through Pine Mountain and its descent into Lockwood Valley, released at the end of May 2007, after taking over three months to complete, determined that, according to Caltrans, the road was indeed safe for all motorists.
Raptis said that the study had focused exclusively on the geometric design of the road for safe and orderly movement of vehicles. According to Caltrans engineers it did not focus on the stability of the roads or the hydraulics, she said.
After three days of trial, three years of controversy, parents withdraw complaint
By Daryl Kelley
Three days into a Superior Court trial, parents who’d claimed their children were harassed after they complained about profanity and sexual content in a book withdrew their lawsuit against the Ojai Unified School District, ending three years of controversy and expense.
Parents Betty Craven and Jeff and Rosalyn Luttrull abruptly withdrew their suit Thursday morning, following opening statements Wednesday and testimony by veteran teacher Linda McMichael that she did not retaliate against girls in her fifth-grade class after their parents complained about a book she assigned to counter playground bullying.
In interviews, the parents said they ended the case because federal and state judges had so narrowed its scope it would have little effect, and because they feared their children would be harmed by testifying.
Ojai educators named in the suit said they were relieved that they can finally put a costly nightmare behind them and get fully back to the business of education. The district is still tabulating the cost of the case, which is being covered by insurance, and Superintendent Tim Baird said he could not immediately provide an estimate.
But Jeff Luttrull said he’d spent about $100,000 pressing the claim through federal and state courts, and seeing its breadth dramatically reduced by judges. “It was a matter of principle,” he said.
Standing in an emptying courtroom Thursday morning, McMichael, a 26-year teacher at San Antonio School, said she was crying with relief.
“I’m in shock; I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s been a lot for three years to hold onto.”
She said the suit had changed her forever: “I’m much more diligent about what I do and fearful,” she said. “It’s affected all the teachers in our district because everyone is now terrified of litigation.”
Baird, also a defendant in the case, said he was relieved and that the district’s actions had now been proven justified.
“I would say it was a waste of money and time,” he said. “And I’m glad it’s over.”
But Jeff Luttrull, a Ventura eye surgeon, said he still believes the district had been negligent in its oversight of the content of books assigned in local public schools. But he said the final straw was the limiting of the surviving negligence claim in recent days by Judge Henry Walsh, so jurors could not rule on whether the district was negligent for allowing the controversial book into the classroom, but only on whether educators were negligent in allowing retaliation against the girls.
“They’ve gotten immunity from most of the things I was concerned about,” he said. “So it was now basically, ‘he said, she said.’ It’s two little girls, and all we can ask the jurors to do is form an opinion. I’m not interested in putting the jurors through that, and I’m not interested in putting the girls through that.”
Craven said the decision was simple in the end.
“After opening statements, I could see how it was going to go regarding the girls,” she said, “and I couldn’t put my girl through that. Initially, it was just stand up for the right thing, but seeing how the system would have worked, I couldn’t put her though it. It would cause more harm than good.”
The decision to withdraw followed opening arguments Wednesday afternoon during which the parents’ lawyer, Cathy Elliott Jones, occasionally sparred with Judge Henry Walsh.
As she ended about 45 minutes of summary statements, Walsh assisted her in regaining her train of thought: “You were going to talk about the loss of innocence,” he said.
And Jones responded: “I was going to use an analogy, but I don’t want to make you mad.”
Prompting the judge to say: “This case is not about you and me.”
Then, while Jones was questioning McMichael on the stand, Walsh asked Jones to sharpen and clarify her questions, at one point saying he didn’t understand what she was asking the teacher.
Jones has refused to discuss the case with the Ojai Valley News, saying it has not treated her clients fairly.
On Wednesday, the aftenoon before the parents ended their case, a nervous McMichael testified that she never retaliated against the girls, but said she finally concluded they should be moved from her class because their parents told her superiors they no longer trusted her.
“I liked these girls,” said McMichael, who has taught her entire career at San Antonio School, a tiny East End campus. “The kids, in my mind, didn’t feel like I was picking on them.”
The spring 2005 dispute tore the tight-knit San Antonio School community apart, with one side calling for McMichael’s removal and the other saying she was being bullied by overly protective parents.
Although McMichael immediately withdrew the controversial book and school officials changed district policy on use of such supplemental materials, parents of three girls removed them from the school after a series of events they said harassed their children.
The parents filed a lawsuit in September 2005, claiming negligence and retaliation by school officials and a violation of the students’ and parents’ civil rights. Of the nine original counts, judges reduced the case to the single negligence claim. Parents of the third child had already dropped out of the lawsuit.
As Jones’ first witness, McMichael acknowledged that several weeks into the controversy she asked her superiors to move the girls into another class.
“I started to think some of the things I did might be considered retaliating,” she said. “The parents made comments that they did not trust me, and I had 28 other kids in my class I needed to teach.”
Early on, in a meeting with Baird, those parents had asked that the teacher be removed from her classroom because she lacked judgment in assigning the anti-bullying book, which contains several explicit passages about sex and drug use and the pressures on children to engage in both at a young age.
McMichael’s written request to move the girls followed six weeks of community debate about whether the book, which she assigned only to fifth grade girls, was appropriate for young girls and whether she and her superiors had responded to the turmoil appropriately.
She, Baird, school principal John LeSuer and the district were defendants in the case. Craven and the Luttrulls sought monetary damages for the girls’ emotional distress and to pay the mounting costs to educate the Luttrulls’ children in a private school. Craven’s daughter remains in a public school.
On Wednesday, Jones questioned McMichael about several incidents the lawyer said showed retaliation against the complaining families.
“Are you feeling well today?” Jones immediately asked McMichael.
“No,” the teacher said nervously.
Jones asked McMichael about an incident that prompted the parents to remove the girls from the school: When the teacher allowed a student to read a ‘current event’ about the book controversy in class and call for support of the teacher.
McMichael testified that she knew nothing of the content of the current event before the student began to deliver it, and then she had to make a snap judgment about whether it was better to allow the girl to finish the short presentation or to stop it, which she said would have highlighted the issue in the minds of others students.
“I can certainly see how it could be perceived to be bullying to the girls,” McMichael acknowledged. “I had been trying all along to keep this out of the classroom, so for me to have said anything about this to the entire class would not have been good judgment.”
Yet, McMichael said she was horrified by the presentation, and immediately apologized to two of the girls in private. The third girl had left the school and complained to her parent.
The next day the parents withdrew their children from the school.
During opening arguments, Jones said the case was about the “loss of innocence” by young girls being exposed to inappropriate material and then abused by school district officials when their parents dared complain.
The lawyer dwelled on the language and content of the book McMichael had assigned: “Please Stop Laughing at Me,” an autobiographical account of teen-age bullying by Jodee Blanco. On 15 large placards, Jones displayed the curse words and sexual situations found in several parts of the book.
For example, when the author wrote that she had handed her high school yearbook to a boy on whom she had a crush, the boy inscribed in capital letters: “YOU’LL HAVE TO (EXPLETIVE) YOURSELF, WE HATE YOU, B—H.”
“We’re not here because we’re right-wing zealots,” Jones told the jury. “We’re here because of what happened when (the Luttrull child) protested. These little girls were 10 and 11.”
Until the controversy, Jones said her clients received good grades for citizenship from McMichael, and the Luttrull girl was chosen a peer counselor by the teacher. Then they were characterized as trouble-makers.
“Two or three weeks earlier they were shining little beams of light … ,” Jones said. “What happened in a matter of weeks, days? … Suddenly, they became troublemakers, they became bullies.”
Nor were the parents troublemakers, the lawyer said. The Luttrulls had long supported school fund-raising events and Rosalyn Luttrull had volunteered in her daughter’s classroom. Craven, a single mother with a daughter with learning problems, had spent her time trying to meet her child’s special needs.
Jonathan Light, lawyer for the district, said the case was about the over-reaction of parents to what his clients admit was an inappropriate book for fifth-graders, but which had been used successfully the previous year without parent complaints.
Before the book was distributed, McMichael had asked the parents in a note to read the book with their children, but they did not until the Luttrull child complained about the content, he said.
The book was immediately withdrawn by McMichael, who apologized to the parents, he said. And it was only after they insisted that the teacher be fired and continued a campaign against her that the dispute escalated into a community debate, he said.
Indeed, district officials thought the issue had been resolved after parents met with Baird, LeSuer and McMichael on March 30, a week after they’d first complained about the book to the teacher.
He described the educators’ response as “rational, reasonable, quick.”
But three weeks later, Jeff Luttrull distributed fliers at the school asking parents to attend a school board meeting to complain about the book: He attached examples of the book’s most controversial passages to the flier, Light said.
“Dr. Luttrull’s flier was the catalyst that upset the community,” Light said.
About this time, Jeff Luttrull allegedly said: “I want Linda McMichael fired and if the district doesn’t do it, I am going to sue and make them pay,” the district’s lawyer told the jury.
“And that is why we’re here today,” he said Wednesday.
Luttrull denied that he asked that McMichael be fired, although he did ask that she be reassigned.
The trial was expected to last up to 10 days before it was dismissed Thursday morning.
A major mud or rockslide has closed Maricopa Highway to all but local and emergency traffic. To read the CHP call log, click HERE. For updated information, click the ROADS link on the OVN homepage
By Nao Braverman
A soft blanket of snow covering the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest prompted a number of local residents and visitors to drive as close as they could get to the mountains early this month.
But the long line of cars waiting to enjoy this winter’s first substantial snowfall nearby and bring home truckloads of powder were turned away two weekends in a row due to road closures.
The last weekend in January Ojai resident Serra Benson bought two toboggans and decided to take her husband who had never been in snow, to Mount Piños to go sledding for the first time. In the line of traffic she saw what looked like a number of-out-of town families, children in their snow gear with picnic lunches and people with pickup trucks and shovels who had driven up Highway 33 with similar plans, she said.
But the road was closed at Wheeler Gorge and two Highway Patrol officers manning the closure were directing the cars to turn around.
Though about 12 miles from any actual ice or powder, Caltrans officials decided to close the road at Wheeler Gorge Campground because it was an easy place for cars and trucks to turn around, according to Caltrans District 7 spokesperson Jeanne Bonfilio.
Though the Caltrans web site noted the closure, Benson said she expected to be able to at least drive up to the snow, park and walk to it as she had done in the past.
Bonfilio said that the road closed initially the last week in January for safety reasons because of dangerous weather conditions, re-opened for a short period in February and then closed again on Feb. 4 until Feb. 6 because a big rig truck had gotten stuck in the ice between Lockwood Valley and Wheeler Gorge and it took two days to get out.
Highway patrol officer Shawna Davison said that the roads at Pine Mountain were covered with several feet of snow and entirely impassible. CHP officers were there to make sure that the roads were blocked off to all except residents whose homes were past the closure, while Caltrans brought in heavy equipment to clear the roads. The CHP staffs closures with two officers for the safety of the officer, she said.
Bonfilio said that closures generally depend on the severity of weather conditions and on the discretion of Highway Patrol officials. The funding to pay additional CHP officers is not covered by Caltrans for emergency weather related closures, she said.
As court convened Thursday morning in the case of Luttrull vs. OUSD, it just as quickly closed when plaintiffs withdrew their case.
The long-standing lawsuit alleged that San Antonio Elementary School teacher Linda McMichael retaliated against three fifth-grade girls after their parents raised objections against teaching materials they thought inappropriate for their daughters.
The complete story will be posted online later today and in print Friday.
School district accused of neglect for not protecting students after complaints about book
By Daryl Kelley
A Superior Court jury begins hearing today a negligence claim against an Ojai public school teacher and her superiors, whom two students say retaliated against them after their parents complained about profanity and sexual content in a book assigned to fifth-graders to discourage bullying.
An attorney for Jeff and Rosalyn Luttrull and Betty Craven, parents of the two former San Antonio School students, is set to open arguments this morning, with lawyers for the Ojai Unified School District to follow.
The trial to settle a 2005 lawsuit is expected to last at least a week. The original suit has been reduced by a series of judges in federal and state courts from nine counts to one remaining negligence claim, which a jury will decide.
The negligence claim has been limited, since a judge ruled last week that plaintiffs could not present evidence that the district was negligent in allowing the book in the classroom, but only that educators retaliated against the girls because of their parents’ complaints.
The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages for the girls’ “extreme emotional distress, both of whom having been exposed to (the) egregiously improper book in the first place, and then as a result of the harassment and retaliation they experienced when their parents dared complain.”
The Luttrulls also seek payment for the mounting cost of their children’s education, since all four moved to private schools after the book controversy led to a confrontation with the district.
District officials have said insurance is paying its legal bill for the case, but refused to disclose the size of the bill.
The suit alleges that district employees failed to maintain a safe environment at school for the girls after their parents complained about the book and, in fact, allowed retaliation against the girls. The district maintains that the controversy surrounding the book was handled quickly and professionally, and that only the parents’ “over the top” response to the issue caused any lasting trouble.
Testimony “will show that the teacher and administrators did not engage in any wrongdoing,” writes attorney Jonathan Light in a pre-trial summary. “On the contrary, the defendants immediately ceased use of the book, responded to the parents’ concerns, and pro-actively set up a new policy and regulations to deal with the use of controversial material as well as programs to deal with bullying.
“The evidence will firmly establish it was the parents’ bullying and inappropriate efforts to remove (teacher Linda) McMichael from the classroom, or in the alternative, ‘make the school district pay,’ that brings this case before the court and jury.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Cathy Elliott Jones would not comment on the case, but in a pre-trial summary she wrote that the two girls endured a “campaign of terror” by veteran teacher McMichael and begged to leave the tiny East End elementary school.
McMichael, who has taught at San Antonio for 25 years, is a defendant in the suit, as are school principal John LeSuer, district superintendent Tim Baird and the district.
Jones notes in her written summary that the book — “Please Stop Laughing at Me,” an autobiographical account of teen-age bullying by Jodee Blanco — was withdrawn by the district once the parents complained.
“But by blaming (the girls) and their parents for the controversy … Baird actively fostered an environment of hostility directed at (the girls),” Jones wrote. “Baird could have taken preventative measures to head off the recriminations, retaliation and hostility toward (the girls) and to prevent Ms. McMichael from harming (them), but failed to do so.
“The school board at first refused to hear the complaints from the parents … then talked over them and allowed other speakers to belittle them at two meetings,” Jones wrote. “Group hysteria began to foster.”
But Light said he’s confident the school district will prevail.
“The evidence at trial will not support a conclusion that defendants engaged in any wrongdoing,” he wrote. “Defendants timely and appropriately addressed plaintiffs’ parents’ concerns and remedied any issues that arose.”
In court documents, the girls’ parents have cited several incidents they say show the district’s indifference to the girls’ situation, and, in fact, retaliation against them.
After Craven, the Luttrulls and other parents complained about explicit language and sexual situations in the anti-bullying book assigned to girls in McMichael’s fifth-grade class, the teacher allegedly:
• Told the two girls they had “social problems” and would grow up to have “bad friends” if they didn’t change;
• Gave the girls an extra writing assignment over the weekend after withdrawal of the book;
• Improperly allowed two parents who supported her to come into the classroom as visitors;
• Improperly graded an assignment by a third girl in her class whose mother had also complained about the book;
• Allowed a student to read a “current event” about the book controversy in class and make negative comments about the girls’ parents.
The suit also alleges that another San Antonio teacher publicly discussed the controversy with McMichael in front of one of the girls and her friends, and called her father “a jerk.” And that a parent of a former San Antonio student brought a newspaper with a letter supporting McMichael into class during school and declared her support for the teacher in front of students.
In addition, the suit maintains that principal LeSuer encouraged parents to wear buttons that said “Books Yes, Bullies No” to a school event.
Craven and Jeff Luttrull attended the event with his three children who still attended the school, the suit says. “They were met on school (sic) by an organized gang of teachers, staff, parents, children and members of the general public with buttons that read ‘Books Not Bullies,’ and who were circulating a ‘Support Ms. McMichael’ petition. Defendants LeSuer and Baird each knew in advance about the organized plan.”
Light maintains that the plaintiffs claims are simply not true or are misrepresentations of the facts. The evidence is “underwhelming,” he writes.
For example, he wrote, McMichael is one of the district’s most respected teachers and she assigned the anti-bullying book because of bickering among girls in her fifth-grade class, notified all parents of the assignment and asked them to read the book with their children. Neither the Luttrulls nor Craven read the book until their children complained about its content, he said.
Then, after quickly meeting with the parents in late March 2005, McMichael immediately withdrew it. As for the extra weekend writing assignment, that was in response to a lunchtime argument among girls, he said. McMichael asked them to write an essay explaining their problem and how it could be resolved, a common practice among good teachers.
Yet, Craven called LeSuer to complain that McMichael had been critical of the girls and was punishing them with the writing assignment. The teacher and the principal then met with the girls, Light writes, to explain the assignment was a way to work out their problems, not a punishment.
“The girls agreed,” the lawyer writes, “but the (girls’) parents rushed to the school that day to complain further.”
Two days later, Baird, LeSuer and McMichael all met with concerned parents for two hours, Light says. Baird removed the book from use by the district, pledged to set policy to guide teachers on the use of sensitive materials and to obtain written permission from parents before using such materials.
“At this point, Baird believed the controversy had ended, as it well should have,” Light writes. “And, for nearly three weeks, matters were calm and normal at San Antonio.”
Then, the girls’ parents asked for McMichael’s removal from her classroom. “In fact, Jeff Luttrull told another parent that if the school district did not fire McMichael, he would ‘sue the district and make them pay,’’’ according to Light’s pre-trial brief.
Even the controversy about use of the anti-bullying book was overblown, he said. The same book had been used very effectively by McMichael and another teacher with fifth- and sixth-grade students the previous year, he said.
But Light said that defendants do “concede that small portions of the book are inappropriate for fifth-grade girls, but the overwhelming majority of the book has rich material dealing with the girls’ bullying issue.”
But the girls’ attorney writes that it was the district and its employees who forced the issue by allowing retaliation, including a student’s so-called ‘’current event’’ on the controversy in McMichael’s class in which the parents were accused of bullying the teacher.
The girls “felt scared after being publicly singled out by the ‘current event,’” according to Jones’ brief, “and begged not to return to San Antonio School.”
The Luttrulls took their daughter out of school and subsequently placed her in a private school. Craven moved her daughter to a charter school within the district. The girl is now attending a public middle school.
Hearing the case is Judge Henry Walsh in Department 42 of the county courthouse in Ventura. Opening arguments are set to begin today at 9:30 a.m.
Avian illness hits Ojai Valley doves, cross-species infection feared
By Linda Harmon
Low-flying birds, flapping their wings, ruffling their feathers, and opening and closing their beaks may be sending out distress signals. Pigeons, doves and even some area hummingbirds have already succumbed to an infection of trichomoniasis.
According to the California Department of Fish and Game web site, the protozoan that causes the illness, Trichomonas gallinae, is a parasite that has been found in pigeons, doves, quail, turkeys, chickens, falcons, hawks, various finches, the Java sparrow and canaries.
“I’ve had seven birds in the last week brought to me,” said Kim Stroud, who rescues ill and injured birds at the nonprofit Ojai Raptor Center.
Experts believe European settlers first brought the trichomoniasis parasite to North America by importing pigeons and doves. The infection can be fatal within four to 18 days causing starvation due to blockage of the bird’s throat by lesions and masses. The disease is spread from bird to bird in crop feeding or by contamination of food and water by an infected bird. When an infected bird having oral lesions tries to feed, pieces of food that the ill bird cannot swallow may fall back into the shared food or water.
“It’s probably best to eliminate feeders all together, but if folks decide to keep them, there are precautions they can take to minimize the spread of the parasite to healthy birds,” said Dr. Ben Gonzales, a Fish and Game wildlife veterinarian.
Stroud recommends discarding possibly contaminated seed, and cleaning all feeders and birdbaths with a bleach-water solution ratio of one to 10 to keep from spreading the infection. The organism can live at least five days on some moist grains and 20 minutes to several hours in water.
Although the disease has never been reported to infect humans, officials warn it is the most important disease of mourning doves in North America and has been seen from Bahrain to Berlin. Other birds such as domestic and wild turkeys, chickens, raptors (hawks, golden eagles, etc.) may also become infected
“It can spread like wildfire and to a variety of other bird species,” said Gonzales. Falcons and hawks can become infected after feeding on dead doves, owls and songbirds have also contracted the disease.
According to the DFG. over the last 18 months personnel have investigated and confirmed trichomoniasis along with avian botulism, avian cholera, mycoplasmosis, salmonellosis, exotic Newcastle disease and West Nile virus outbreaks in various wild bird populations serious enough to warrant public notifications.
Although exact numbers of bird deaths are impossible to calculate, Gonzales believes the number to be in the thousands so far this year.
Stroud will accept any bird that the public finds in distress but officials want to remind the public to use caution with the birds. Individuals should wear gloves and always wash with an anti-bacterial soap afterward.
“The quicker I can treat them the better,” said Stroud, who treats the ill birds with medication to try to stop the progression of the disease. “Isolate the bird by gently placing in a lightly covered box and call the Raptor Center at 649-6884.”
Stroud reminds the public to get tree trimming done quickly as the warm weather is bringing baby season early. Late tree trimming, she said, can disturb local nesting sites and threaten breeding.
By Sondra Murphy
Two academic-minded and active local high school students are on the road to recovery following separate automobile accidents. Each girl is an experienced equestrian and is blessed with the support of family and friends following their traumatic injuries.
Both the families of Chloe Gilman and Salina Butterfield have discovered that assertive involvement in their daughter’s therapy has been essential to their recovery. Each girl overcame life-threatening injuries and is making the slow journey back to health.
Nordhoff High School senior Salina Butterfield was driving to school on Creek Road Oct. 10 when she swerved and hit a stone wall. Even though she was wearing her seat belt and her car’s airbags deployed, Butterfield suffered severe head trauma, survived an initial craniotomy, was comatose and her prognosis for survival was low. In the event of survival, doctors indicated that she had a 90 percent chance of remaining in a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
Villanova student Chloe Gilman, 15, was a passenger in a vehicle involved in a single-car accident on Villanova Road Jan. 28. The car struck a tree, trapping Gilman for 40 minutes before she could be taken to Ventura County Medical Center’s trauma unit. Gilman, too, was wearing her seat belt, but sustained lacerations, minor head trauma, a collapsed lung and broke a tooth, several ribs, a forearm, and her pelvis.
Such devastating injuries can test a family’s emotional and financial resources, as well as present medical diagnoses that go beyond typical parental territory. Fortunately, Salina Butterfield’s mother has a background in psychology and special education and began researching therapies for people suffering from traumatic brain injuries. “I did not give up hope,” said Jarice Butterfield, a former Ojai Unified School District assistant superintendent. “I found research that said if you do intense sensory activities with them during this peak time, the prognosis improves.”
Jarice Butterfield used several techniques to help her daughter respond to external stimulation, including a squeeze-activated squeaker. “I would put it between her fingers and say ‘Squeak,’” said Butterfield. “Around the 13th day of doing that, her fingers finally squeezed around it. It was the greatest moment of joy I’ve ever had in my life.” Salina slowly improved in the coming weeks.
Chloe Gilman spent four days at the trauma unit and is making better progress than medical staff anticipated. “Her lung and her pelvis were the major injuries,” said Gilman’s grandmother, Shareen Torres. “She’s doing really well — much better than everyone thought she would.”
During the 18 days of Salina Butterfield’s coma, Jarice and husband, Brett, spent much of their time in the hospital and tried to cover as much work-related tasks from the site as possible. When Butterfield could not be at the hospital herself, her mother or friends would sit in to continue the sensory activities. “At first, we just wanted her to live,” Jarice Butterfield said. After Salina came out of her coma, the next goal was that she would not remain vegetative.
Salina Butterfield remained in the Ventura County Medical Center ICU for four weeks and then was transferred to St. John’s Regional Medical Center’s acute neural rehabilitation facility in Oxnard. She recognized family, her memory was returning, she was gaining speech and showing emotion. “Then, all of a sudden, she started speaking in Spanish and had a constant runny nose,” said Butterfield. What hospital staff thought was merely a cold, Butterfield suspected was more. “I told them that they needed to do more tests. They finally did and it turns out one of the fractures in her frontal lobe had opened up and she needed an emergency craniotomy.”
For this next operation in which a portion of the skull is removed to gain access to the brain, Salina Butterfield was taken to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She lived through the second craniotomy and was able to recover and resume her rehabilitation at CHLA for the next two months. “I had to be on top of it every step of the way,” said Butterfield of the proactive involvement with her daughter’s medical care. While she praises the staff in all of the hospitals where Salina has been a patient, “Parents know their children better than doctors.”
An honor student, Chloe Gilman is now recovering at home and must do physical therapy exercises and breathing exercises every hour. “She tried going to school Monday, but found it was too hard. It is too painful for her to sit for a long time.” Maneuvering her wheelchair around campus also proved taxing to Gilman. Torres said that her granddaughter hopes to return to school next week and that Villanova said they will do what they can to help Gilman catch up academically.
In addition to working with a physical therapist, her father, Derek, has been very involved with her physical therapy. “At first, she had to set up chairs around the house to rest on as she walked around,” said Torres. Some of Gilman’s mobility is reduced because of her pelvis, but her lung damage also impacts movement. “She can walk for short periods now,” Torres said.
Salina Butterfield is now at the Center for Neuro Skills in Bakersfield. This post-acute neural recovery facility has expanded on the progress she has made in learning to walk and talk again. Salina lives in an apartment with an assistant and other teens recovering from brain injuries, where she also continues her schooling and is learning to cook.
“Our goal now is for her to get her diploma,” said Butterfield. “Her long-term memory is intact, but her short term is about five seconds right now. She doesn’t remember things she learned the day before.” Butterfield said that Nordhoff has been working with them on this goal with the hope Salina can walk with her graduating class.
With Salina’s placement at CNS, Jarice and Brett Butterfield have just returned to their jobs full time. “We’ve been fortunate in that our insurance has covered most of the expenses,” said Butterfield, estimating the medical costs so far as $1 to $2 million. “Our only expense has been the out-of-home expenses from staying near the hospitals, eating out and those kinds of things.” Butterfield said that several community members, Ojai Unified School District sites and their church community have collected funds, from which they have created an account in preparation for Salina’s future needs.
Insurance from both the Gilmans and the driver’s family has helped cover much of the cost of her medical care. “The problem with insurance is it doesn’t cover all costs, such as loss of income from loss of work,” said Torres. “Family leave lets you have three months, but there’s no pay during that time. That’s why we put together a fundraiser.”
Derek Gilman spends his time off from work helping his daughter with physical therapy. “He makes sure she does her breathing exercises and physical therapy exercises every hour,” said Torres. “She does what he requests.”
Salina Butterfield is making her first visit home this weekend, but it will be several more months before she will be moving back for good. “She said ‘I need to be here (at CNS),’” said Butterfield, “’and I want to be well when I come home.’”
Meanwhile, Salina is comfortable at CNS. “She said ‘Mom, this is like going to college.’ I told her ‘Salina, this is too nice. It’s nothing like what you’ll live in during college.’” The Butterfield family remains focused and appreciative of the progress Salina is making. “Her neurosurgeon considers her a miracle,” said Butterfield. For more about Salina’s progress, visit salinabutterfield.bravehost.com.
Miriam Andrews is a friend of Chloe’s mother, Shannon Gilman, and was involved in planning the benefit to help the family. “Everyone is just amazed that Chloe survived,” Andrews said, “and then, that her healing is happening so fast.” Andrews expressed concerns about local roads, like Creek and Villanova. “Chloe’s mom and I would like to address the safety of the roads that have so many accidents on them.”
The Chloe Gilman benefit took place on Sunday and raised nearly $3,400 through auction items and attendee donations. An account has been established at Washington Mutual Bank in Ojai to help ease the financial burdens associated with Chloe Gilman’s recovery. Donations may be to The Chloe Gilman Family.
Radio broadcasts seen as efficient way to keep citizens informed during emergencies
By Nao Braverman
In the event of a natural disaster sometimes the most primitive forms of technology are the most reliable.
As antiquated lanterns or candlesticks are put to use during a blackout, a battery-powered AM radio will transmit critical information to Ojai residents during emergencies, even when telephone lines are down and electricity is out.
At the Feb. 5 City Council meeting, the city accepted a $50,000 grant from the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services to purchase and implement an Emergency Advisory Radio System to serve the Ojai Valley.
Surrounded by mountains, with thick vegetation, seasonally dry climate and occasional rainstorms, the Ojai Valley faces a number of challenges in responding to natural disasters and is highly susceptible to them. Living with the dangers of alternating floods, landslides and wildfires, and less likely incidents such as earthquakes and dam failure, Ojai residents have only two highways that connect them to the rest of the county, both which traverse windy roads over mountainous terrain.
The subject of disaster preparedness was considered high priority by attendants of the most recent valley-wide meeting.
Efficient communication between public safety and community members is key during natural disasters, said Police Capt. Bruce Norris. Though there are currently a variety of ways that people get information during such events. An AM radio station could serve as the official and immediate source for direction and announcements to the public. With battery-powered, solar-powered and old-fashioned wind-up radios available, the radio broadcast could also continue to function when a power outage eliminates other sources of information.,
Carole McCartney, the former coordinator for local public access television, said that she received a number of calls at the station during the wildfires last year.
“People wanted more information and they didn’t know where to call so they called me,” she said.
Emergency Advisory Radio System, the low-powered broadcast system that the city is about to implement, will transmit information to local AM radios throughout the valley. It is equipped with a four-day battery backup and a wireless audio link so it can broadcast when power and telephone lines are not functioning. The antenna and receiver, which are to be positioned in Oak View at a community water tank belonging to the Ventura County Community Water District, can broadcast over a radius of three to five miles or 25 to 75 square miles, depending on the terrain, said Norris.
A small antenna, computer interface and broadcast equipment will be installed at the Ojai Police Department.
In addition to disaster information, such as shelter locations, flood and fire evacuation, the system may also announce road closures and conditions, weather updates, local events, crime prevention tips, disaster preparedness tips, and other advisories by Ojai Valley agencies when no alerts are being broadcast.
The Federal Communications Commission regulates the station’s information and does not allow any broadcasts for commercial purposes, said Norris.
Other nearby areas using E.A.R.S. are Simi Valley, Fillmore and San Marcos Pass, along with hundreds of cities, airports and government agencies across the country.
The $50,000 allotted to the city project from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department is part of a $965,762 grant from the State Homeland Security Program awarded to the county for disaster preparedness.
The funds covered the purchase of hazardous materials equipment, Community Emergency Response Team training, National Incident Management System training, development of an animal disaster plan, equipment and supplies for public health services, and continuity of government planning for the county, in addition to Ojai’s E.A.R.S.
Norris said the system is expected to be up and running in about two to three months.
In other council news, the city awarded a certificate of appreciation to Thad Hyland, who directed the Ojai Valley Inn, the city’s highest taxpayer, and transformed it from an unprofitable golf course to a Five Diamond-rated, high-quality inn.
Council members also discussed the staff’s priority list of planning projects presented to the Planning Commission.
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad and Mayor Sue Horgan said they thought the proposed neighborhood-specific plan could be divisive, and should not be prioritized. All council members agreed that the tree plan should be placed lower on the list of priorities and that re-evaluating the city’s village mixed use designation should be considered high priority.
The meeting was adjourned in the memory of council members killed at a city council meeting in Kirkwood, Mo., last week.
Despite death, bid to expand mine continues
By Nao Braverman
In mid-January, owners of the Ozena Valley Mine applied for modifications to their Conditional Use Permit to mine sand and gravel in Ozena Valley.
Included in the application is a request to increase the number of truck trips hauling sand and gravel to and from the plant and expand the hours that their gravel hauling trucks are permitted to travel on Highway 33.
With growing concern about the harm that increased truck traffic would cause Ojai Valley air, economy and quality of life, any increased truck activity has been viewed as a threat to the community by a number of concerned citizens.
But local critics of truck traffic have questioned whether the company is in a position to take an action as the documented owner of the mine, Mike Virgilio died unexpectedly Nov. 7.
Ventura County planners are in the very beginning stages of processing Ozena Valley Mine’s application to modify their CUP, according to Planner Pat Richards.
They have yet to complete the required environmental Impact Report for the permit modification, he said.
Generally, a change of ownership occurs when property is sold, explained Richards. In such cases new owners would provide a statement in writing provide a statement in writing that identifies the new owner and states that they will abide by the permits and conditions given to the previous owner.
“But this is a unique case,” he said. “Rarely do we have an owner who passes away in the middle of the application process.”
Richards said that the Planning Division had asked the mine property representatives to provide documentation of who the department should be communicating with from a legal standpoint.
“I am waiting for their reply,” he said. But, in the meantime, the department will not halt the application process.
Howard Smith, active member of the Committee to Stop the Trucks! believes that planning officials should be more prudent.
“We are of the position that if they have no proof that the people they are talking to are registered owners of the property,” he said, “they could be perceived at least as being fiscally irresponsible if they move forward with anything.”
Ross Atkinson, a local estate planning attorney, said that if a property is vested in the sole name of a person who has died, and not a corporate entity, then no one has the authority to take any actions concerning the property until there is a legal personal representative. But in the case that there is a living spouse, or that the company is legally documented as being family owned, or owned by a corporation, the proceedings which transfer ownership are often shorter, he said.
Kate Neiswender, the attorney representing the Virgilios, said that Mike Virgilio’s wife, Ann Virgilio, was indeed still alive.
“The company might have been under Mike Virgilio’s name but it has always been owned by the family,” said Neiswender. “The Planning Department was very kind about the fact that Mike died unexpectedly and said the family could take their time to get back to them with the title of ownership, but that there was no hurry.”
In the meantime planners are moving forward with an Environmental Impact Report.
Smith said that the Committee to Stop the Trucks believes that the Ozena Valley Mine has repeatedly been in violation of their permit requirements, particularly with regard to the hours their trucks are permitted to drive on Highway 33. The Planning Department has not thoroughly investigated the alleged violations and will not confirm them.
“I am really appalled that people are making an issue out of this. The family is still mourning their loss.” said Neiswender.
The mine’s operating family would not comment but deferred to their attorney.
By Daryl Kelley
Longtime Ojai Valley resident Jeff Bennett, a veteran chief deputy district attorney, has become a leading candidate for Ventura County Superior Court judge after receiving broad backing from the local law enforcement community.
Bennett, 51, a lifelong county resident, announced at a press conference on Friday that he’d filed to fill the post of Judge Bruce Clark, a 30-year jurist who’d decided to retire, leaving to voters a rare decision on who should fill an open judgeship.
Jurists often retire during their six-year terms, and replacements are usually filled by the governor.
Bennett will be challenged by 54-year-old Roberto Orellana of Santa Paula, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and a veteran civil lawyer in the Ventura County Counsel’s Office.
Several other candidates were expected to file, but election officials said they failed to pull applications by the Monday deadline after initial calls of inquiry. Until May 20, others could still file as write-in candidates in the June 3 election if they gather at least 20 nominating signatures, election officials said.
The 29-seat Ventura County Superior Court is now divided evenly between judges who are former prosecutors and those whose experience is primarily in civil courts or as defense lawyers, officials said.
And the contest between Bennett and Orellana pits a veteran prosecutor against an experienced civil lawyer.
Bennett had hoped to scare off potential challengers by announcing his candidacy Friday morning — just one work day after Clark said he would not seek re-election. Indeed, dozens of law enforcement and local officials backed him at a press conference.
“It’s my way of getting my name out there early to let people know I’m serious,” he said.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) was one of those who cited Bennett’s law enforcement background: “This is my honor,” he said to the candidate. “We need justices like you.”
District Attorney Greg Totten and former District Attorney Mike Bradbury also spoke on Bennett’s behalf. He received endorsements from Sheriff Bob Brooks and County Fire Chief Bob Roper, from the police chiefs of Ventura and Port Hueneme, and from the mayors of Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Santa Paula and Moorpark.
Bennett is prepared to spend $150,000 or more to win the seat if necessary, backing himself with a $20,000 nest egg to start, said his campaign manager.
In comments, Bennett staked out his position as law enforcement’s candidate, citing 29 years of experience as a police officer, district attorney’s chief investigator and the last 13 as a chief deputy district attorney.
He said he was running “so I may continue a lifetime of service … especially to our residents who have been the victims of violent crime. … Public safety is my first priority.”
But if Bennett’s quick announcement was intended to deter opponents, Orellana said he hardly noticed.
He said he’d been encouraged by numerous local residents to join the race. A list of endorsements and an estimate of his own potential expenditures will be forthcoming, he said.
“I’ll spend whatever it takes,” Orellana said. “A lot of people have come forward to ask me to run. But I didn’t know Bruce Clark wasn’t running until Thursday. Apparently Mr. Bennett did. ”
Citing 18 years in the County Counsel’s Office, Orellana said he has his own experience as a prosecutor. His first five years as a county lawyer, he said, were dedicated to civil and criminal prosecution of violators of Ventura County’s property codes.
“So I’ve worked as a special deputy district attorney,” he said Monday in an interview after filing.
But Orellana said he is running on the breadth of his experience — as a special prosecutor and as the county’s lawyer representing its harbors, Civil Service Commission and its Mobile Home Rent Committee, among other duties.
“I feel the time is right to get a representative with my diverse background on the court,” he said. The public needs someone with diverse experience, general governmental experience.”
In addition, while Ventura County is more than one-third Latino, the Superior Court has only two Latino judges, and one is retiring March 1.
Orellana said “The fact that I’m Hispanic is secondary. But we need to have a bench that is representative of the community. So they feel they’re getting a fair shake.”
Indeed, the candidates’ ability to be fair was a principal part of opening comments.
Totten and Bradbury cited that characteristic in backing Bennett.
“He will be a great judge,” Totten said.
“He is a person of fairness … and that is a hallmark of any good judge,” Bradbury said.
Both candidates also cited personal backgrounds that show an up-by-the-bootstraps diligence.
Bennett, the son of an elementary school teacher and a tile contractor, was Ventura County’s Athlete of the Year as a high school senior, excelling in football track and wrestling. He starred as a defensive back in football in college, then served as a peace officer in Sacramento, then Santa Barbara, while attending Ventura College of Law at night.
Bradbury hired him in 1989 and was so impressed by his hard work he named him Prosecutor of the Year in 1990. Bennett soon directed the office’s major fraud unit and was named one of Bradbury’s top five deputies in 1995.
A computer whiz, Bennett later oversaw a four-lawyer team that prosecuted local Hells Angels for drug distribution in the longest and most complicated case in county history. The case resulted in numerous convictions, but sentences were cut short when a Santa Barbara judge ruled the grand jury that indicted the suspects was not composed of a fair cross-section of the community.
Bennett is married to wife Dee, a physical education teacher at Matilija Junior High, and has two daughters. He is also an avid amateur astronomer and has coached and refereed local sports teams.
Orellana also boasts an impressive history of achievement despite a modest family background in West Los Angeles.
The son of a Salvadoran immigrant who came to the U.S. decades ago, Orellana was one of four siblings who graduated from college as their father toiled in variety of jobs and his homemaker mother raised the family.
Orellana moved to Santa Paula in 1978 to attend Thomas Aquinas College, graduating four years later with a liberal arts degree in the university’s renowned classics curriculum. He then graduated with honors from Notre Dame Law School and clerked with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
After three years of private practice in civil law, he became a county lawyer here, partly because he’d met and married his wife, the former Mary Kern, while she was also a student at Thomas Aquinas.
Her father, Joseph Kern, was the longtime city attorney in Fillmore.
The couple have eight children, ranging from pre-school to college age, with the eldest a student in law school.
Whoever wins the June election will become the first elected judge in Ventura County since former prosecutor Kevin McGee was selected by voters in 1998. Before that, two other former prosecutors won election — Don Coleman in 1996 and Colleen Toy White in 1994.
White, now the presiding judge, said that the perception that the court is dominated by former prosecutors is a misconception, since the bench is now evenly split. And that could change even more as four vacant positions are filled this year, and Clark is replaced.
“And because several more of our judges are eligible for retirement, in five years this could be a completely new bench,” she said.
A Superior Court judge is paid $178,789 annually.
If Bennett is elected, he would be the third Superior Court Judge from the Ojai Valley, following Fred Bysshe and John Dobroth. Judge Arturo Gutierrez, who is retiring next month, also lives in this area., White said.
Governor’s budget plans leave local schools in quandary
By Sondra Murphy
Ojai Unified School District may be the county’s poster child for declining enrollment issues, but its expertise does not make dealing with additional state budget deficits painless. Assistant superintendent of business and administrative services Danielle Pusatere presented a draft at Tuesday’s school board meeting which outlined the district’s projected $2 million in budget reductions.
A combined loss in revenue, unrestricted and categorical funds of over $900,000 paired with expected increases in expenditures which include salaries, health benefits and utilities that total nearly $700,000 brings the low estimate to $1.6 million in necessary reductions by OUSD for the 2008-2009 school year.
Pusatere pointed out the sum is based on the current proposal from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because of district timelines in planning budgets and giving notice to certificated staff whose jobs are in jeopardy by mid-March, OUSD has to act on projections that may change in the months to come.
But Pusatere also warned of other funding sources that may be reduced, as well, kicking the total over that $2 million mark.
“If (Medical Administrative Activities) funding goes away, that’s another half a million dollars,” she said, fully expecting the elimination of that source.
MAA is federal funding that reimburses school employees for the cost of administrative activities that promote access to health care for pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students in public schools and coordinates other student health care needs with Medi-Cal service providers.
The board met the dismal projections with long faces. Board President Steve Field suggested asking the Ventura County superintendent of schools to organize a discussion with local representatives about ways to change or cope with the 10 percent, across-the-board gouge to state education. “We did that before and they didn’t come,” said member Pauline Mercado. “I think a budget workshop for us would be most helpful.”
The district will need to give teacher notices by March 15 before the final OUSD budget is formed and well before the California budget is enacted. The first OUSD budget draft will be presented to the board in April, with another given before a third and final budget is approved around June.
By Nao Braverman
With a total turnout of 51.5 percent, more Ojai voters came out for the primary elections on Super Tuesday than did for the 2006 November general election.
“More people showed an interest in the primary candidates, so it has been a very interesting and exciting election,” according to Sue Broidy, secretary of the Ojai Valley Democratic Club.
Barack Obama handily won over Ojai voters, with 415 more votes than Hillary Clinton in the Ojai Democratic Party primaries, and 16.9 more percentage points more than Clinton out of all Ojai voters of all parties.
Without a local election to set boundaries, combined precincts were defined as Upper Ojai, Ojai’s East End, Meiners Oaks and Mira Monte. Oak View and Casitas Springs polling places were combined.
John McCain led the Ojai Republican vote count with 834 to 729, for a 105-vote spread. Upstart Republican and former Libertarian congressman Ron Paul received 79 votes in the Ojai end of the Ojai Valley, and 37 in the Oak View end, for a fourth-place finish, behind former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s 217 and 132 votes, respectively.
Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman and the only presidential candidate to vote against the resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq, received only 13 votes each from local Democrats in both sides of the Ojai Valley, despite a visit to Ojai in September.
Obama barely edged out Clinton in the Oak View and Casitas Springs polling places, with a mere 14 votes separating the front-runners.
$1.8 million facility will be double the size of existing emergency room
By Nao Braverman
Ground breaking for the Ojai Valley Community Hospital’s new Emergency Room was celebrated by about 100 people on Thursday, including physicians, nurses, Emergency Room staff, members of the OVCH Foundation, the OVCH Guild, and the local community.
“It was a real sharing of the progress that has been made,” said Nita Whaley, a board member of the OVCH Foundation.
In the year 2000, a community survey by the OVCH Foundation showed an improved Emergency Room was a top priority.
After OVCH’s merger with Community Memorial Hospital two and a half years ago, Ojai resident Chilant Sprague, who passed away this fall, provided the seed money for the Emergency Room. The Community Memorial Hospital then agreed to provide additional funds and partner with the OVCH Foundation and OVCH Guild to build the facility.
The new Emergency Room will be twice the size of the old one, going from three beds to six, and will offer greater privacy and comfort for patients and their family, said Whaley. A new waiting and admitting area will also be added to the facility.
The community is paying for at least half of the $1.8 million project through the OVCH Foundation and OVCH Guild.
“The proceeds from the last three Nightingale Balls, which were very successful, have gone toward the Emergency Room,” said Whaley. Construction is expected to be completed next summer, she said.
By Lenny Roberts
Deputies from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department’s Gang Unit arrested two men and a 17-year-old juvenile Tuesday night on suspicion of the attempted murder of a alleged OSL gang member Jan. 5 on Fox Street. The unidentified juvenile victim was shot in the leg and sustained a non-life-threatening injury, according to authorities. Twenty-year-old Jesus Moran, the suspected driver of the Dodge Charger from which three shots were allegedly fired, was originally arrested by Ventura County Gang Unit deputies Jan. 11 in Bellflower, but released the next day after posting $20,000 bail, according to court records. On Tuesday, along with the juvenile, the alleged shooter, 20-year-old Jesus Leon, was arrested in Downey. Investigators served a search warrant in the 10000 block of Mapledale Street at Leon’s residence and seized gang paraphernalia and a large quantity of marijuana. Both the juvenile and Leon are listed as residents of Norwalk. The incident was prompted by “some sort of confrontation,” according to Sgt. Bill Schierman. The weapon, a .25 caliber handgun, has not been recovered. Schierman said all three suspects are members of a Los Angeles County-based gang, the Grape Street Watts. Schierman said surveillance video provided by the Big 5 sporting goods store in Ventura showed the suspects buying ammunition that matched evidence found at the scene of the shooting. He added that the suspects were in Ojai to visit a friend of Moran, and the shooting happened after a random encounter. The two adult suspects were booked into the Ventura County main jail and the 17-year-old was booked into juvenile hall. Leon is being held at the Ventura County Jail on $500,000 bail.
By Daryl Kelley
Three adult steelhead trout were discovered climbing the Robles Fish Ladder on the Ventura River in recent days, the first such sightings of the endangered fish at the ladder in two years, authorities said.
Images of all three trout — ranging in length from 21 to 25 inches — were captured by underwater cameras from last Thursday through Saturday.
The fish were swimming upstream through a $9.5-million fish ladder built to allow them to migrate up the Ventura River around the Robles Dam, which diverts water to Lake Casitas.
The steelhead will now continue their journey upstream, lay their eggs in the gravel in the next month or two, then attempt to return to the ocean, although only about 20 percent survive that round trip, scientists said.
The first steelhead confirmed using the ladder, which did not become fully functional until late 2005, was discovered in early 2006.
But the drought of the last two years dried the river and kept the steelhead from migrating. Now, after a month of good rain, the Ventura River is flowing and the fish have returned to their traditional migration pattern from the salty ocean to the fresh highwaters of the upper river, officials said.
“It’s pretty exciting to see the fish using the ladder like it was intended,” said Scott Lewis, fish biologist for the Casitas Municipal Water District.
The ocean-to-river southern steelhead trout is a unique form of the rainbow trout, which is strictly a freshwater fish. Scientists say the number of steelhead south of Santa Barbara has diminished in recent decades from thousands to hundreds, prompting its designation as an endangered species in 1997.
Only about 100 adult steelhead remain in the Ventura River watershed, federal officials estimate.
It is hard to tell the difference between the two types of fish when the steelhead are young because they are about the same size as the rainbow, Lewis said. But as the steelhead matures during a year or two in the ocean, it consumes far more food than its insect-eating freshwater cousin and grows much larger, he said.
“It’s pretty easy to see the difference,” Lewis said.
For example, the three steelhead seen in recent days were all much larger than the adult rainbow also captured by camera last weekend, he said.
The first steelhead, seen last Thursday, was 21 inches, the second and third, seen on Friday and Saturday, were 25 inches. The rainbow was 13 inches, a little larger than normal for the adult freshwater fish on the Ventura River, Lewis said.
But the key characteristic that quickly confirmed the steelhead sightings, Lewis said, was the size of the large fish’s eye sockets. The steelhead’s eyes are proportionately smaller than the rainbow’s when compared with the size of its body, he said.
“It’s a simple mathematical equation,” he said, “comparing the length of the fish to the eye diameter. The concept is that as the fish gets larger, its eye diameter proportional to its body gets smaller.”
So, while adult steelheads’ eyes are actually larger than the adult rainbows’, they appear to be much smaller, he said.
“It’s like when you look at a human baby,” Lewis said, “its eyes seem so large. But as it grows its eyes seem proportionately smaller.”
Lewis said the eye diameter-to-body length equation is routinely used by fish biologists to determine fish species.
“For the next few weeks we’re going to be out trying to find more,” he said.
This week, Lewis also revealed that lab tests by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service on 11 small fish found dead last June after water was shut off during a dam safety test in the upper Ventura River have proved inconclusive on whether they were juvenile steelhead or rainbow trout.
“They’re going to try another method of testing, but that might or might not work,” he said.
It was the largest fish kill on the river in recent memory, Casitas officials said. And it was significant because of how much money and effort has been dedicated to saving the steelhead.
The federal government has required Oak View-based Casitas Municipal Water District to spend $9.5 million to build a fish ladder for the steelhead migration. Casitas must also provide between $1 million and $2 million worth of water a year so the fish can migrate.
A costly federal lawsuit to reimburse the water agency for the expenditures is before a federal court.
By Nao Braverman
Several months ago, the Humane Society of Ventura County on Bryant Street in Ojai was fifth on the list of shelters chosen out of hundreds of contestants nationwide to win a $1 million make-over. Now it has dropped past 50th.
Not bad, considering it is competing with more than 900 other animal shelters, but still too far down the list to qualify for a much-needed shelter remodel.
Just an online comment or two from enough local shelter supporters could put Ventura County’s Humane Society back in the running.
The contest is being held by ZooToo.com, a social networking site for pet lovers to rate and display pet products and services. Supporters can glean points for their shelter of choice by logging onto the web site and casting their vote by reviewing a shelter, posting a comment or engaging in other Zootoo activities. Each activity adds points to the shelter that they chose to support.
The site pledges to give a $1 million remodel to the top 20 shelters that accumulate the most points by the proposed deadline at the end of March.
The Humane Society of Ventura County’s shelter couldn’t be more in need of such a remodel, said shelter director Jolene Hoffman.
“Our kennels need help desperately. The heaters are old and being repaired on a weekly basis. Concrete work needs to be done, we need more fencing and more space,” said Hoffman.
Currently the Humane Society Shelter which survives solely off of donations, with no county state or federal funding, costs $900,000 a year to run, including insurance payroll and general care of animals. But that doesn’t include major repairs and upgrades, said Hoffman. Already the heaters are costing the Humane Society $500 every few weeks.
Increasing space is also near the top of the Humane Society staff’s make-over wish list.
The shelter just took in 23 puppies from Kern County. Since August 2007 Linda Hodges, a Taft resident and dog lover, has been bringing Kern County’s homeless puppies to the Humane Society because Kern County does not have a no-kill shelter of its own. Homeless animals in the area get taken to an animal control center where they are soon euthanized if they aren’t adopted first.
“We normally don’t take in animals from outside the county but sometimes you can’t say no, you just have to help,” said Hoffman.
Hodges praises the staff at Ojai’s shelter. It is her favorite and the most caring and welcoming out of all the shelter facilities where she takes her rescued puppies, she said.
The 23 newcomers are a variety of mixed breeds including what appear to be Labrador and collie mixes, some part Chihuahuas, and even what looks like a dalmatian mix, said Hoffman. All puppies have been vaccinated and should go up for adoption Monday or Tuesday, she said.
Many puppies are expected to be taken in by Ojai families. But as soon as some kennels are vacated more are admitted.
“To get them bigger play areas is the best way to get our puppies stimulated and happy,” said Hoffman. But the only way for them to be able to afford such an expansion to their facility or even just a remodel in the near future would be to win the Zootoo contest.
From being fifth from the top of the list of shelters, the Humane Society dropped to 27 and is currently in the 50s.
For more information on how to increase the Humane Society of Ventura County’s chances to win the remodel, log onto zootoo.com.
Ojai Civic Association on board with plans to make downtown Ojai skate park permanent
By Nao Braverman
A generous pledge from the Ojai Civic Association has accelerated Skate Ojai’s fund-raising efforts almost two-thirds of the way to a new permanent park.
“The project fits ideally with the purpose of our organization which is to assist in the general welfare and recreation of the citizens of the Ojai Valley,” said Jack Fay, a board member of the association. “The fact that the skate board park provides recreation for our youth was a plus.”
On Jan. 29, the Ojai Civics Association pledged a substantial $100,000 to Skate Ojai, but not without some terms and conditions. The funds are to go specifically to the skate park and the skate park only, and will not become available until all plans, leases, contracts and permits are completed and obtained. The total cost also has to be covered in order for Skate Ojai to collect their $100,000 check, according the letter of agreement from the Civic Association.
In essence, board members want to be sure they know that the skate park will be there if they are going to support it. The letter also adds, “It is the hope of the board of directors that the city of Ojai keeps a capable adult present and in control of the facility whenever it is in use” and that perhaps the city will also enforce the skate board ordinance.
At this time Skate Ojai has no specific plans related to getting the park supervised, said Wendy Hilgers, a member of Skate Ojai. But that could change at a later date.
For more than 10 years, Ojai’s skaters have awaited the construction of a permanent park to replace the dilapidated wooden ramps next to Chaparral High School that were meant to be only temporary. But after years of delay, skate park supporters are finally seeing their hopes come to fruition.
The nonprofit organization, Skate Ojai, that was formed specifically to gather funds for building a permanent skate park, began collecting donations at the end of November 2007.
The $100,000 donation from the Ojai Civic Association brought the total skate park fund to $223,000, with $100,000 already in the pot from the city, and a collective $23,000 from individual donations, said Hilgers, who was a member of the original Skate Park Task Force and very active member of Skate Ojai.
Hilgers, like many other local participants in the skate park fund-raising effort, is the parent of a longtime skateboarder. But with her children grown, it is her 21-year-old grandson who motivated her to get involved.
“I used to drive him all over the place so he could skate in other parks in the county,” she said. “The current park is deteriorated but all those kids are using it to its maximum.”
At a City Council meeting in November 2007, skate park task force members agreed to set a June 30 target date to raise the $350,000 needed to build a basic state-of-the-art, permanent, in-ground cement skate park. Additional funds for bathrooms and other frills could be raised later, they decided. With more than half the money raised in just slightly more than two months, the nearly four months remaining until target date should give the organization more than enough time to reach their total, said Hilgers.
“We’re in the very beginning stages, we’re just doing research,” she said. “But we are on a good time schedule.”
Skate Ojai is getting ready to draft plans for a 10,000-square-foot park at the existing location on Ojai Avenue next to Chaparral Auditorium.
Council members have also mentioned at previous city meetings that before recent repairs, the dilapidated temporary park was beginning to form a peculiar sort of eyesore. The permanent park, however, should be an attractive addition to that central location, said Hilgers.
A Ventura radio station, Live 105.5-FM, has offered to hold the next fund-raising event with Skate Ojai, but the date and details are still unconfirmed, Hilgers said.