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March 20, 2023

Year in Review: Election, upgrades, inspirations and tragedy mark 2018

The year 2018 in San Benito County has been marked by leadership changes, debates over issues like growth and plenty of community progress.

The following are some of the biggest stories of the year that helped to define 2018 locally:

The Election

As in many cases with an even year, the election was perhaps the biggest event and produced many significant stories in San Benito County. In Hollister, the city’s Mayor Ignacio Velazquez won a fourth two-year term after handily defeating challengers Gordon Machado and Keith Snow. There are four new council members after the election of three — Marty Richman, Honor Spencer and Rolan Resendiz — and appointment of one in Carol Lenoir.

In San Juan Bautista, the council has three new members in Mayor Cesar Flores, Leslie Jordan and Mary Edge.

At the county level, new Supervisors Jim Gillio and Peter Hernandez joined the board, while newly elected Judge Omar Rodriguez takes over for the retiring Harry Tobias. Voters also narrowly passed a 1 percent countywide sales tax to fund road improvements and a host of other important measures such as a Gavilan College bond for new facilities.

At the county level, new Supervisors Jim Gillio and Peter Hernandez joined the board, while newly elected Judge Omar Rodriguez takes over for the retiring Harry Tobias. Voters also narrowly passed a 1 percent countywide sales tax to fund road improvements and a host of other important measures such as a Gavilan College bond for new facilities.

Additionally, a plethora of school districts and other types of districts had changes in leadership that will certainly impact local residents.

On the state level, former San Benito County Supervisor Robert Rivas easily won his bid for 30th District State Assembly and takes over for Anna Caballero, who won the State Senate seat for the area.

Growth debate

In the political arena, locals couldn’t avoid the hottest topic of the year, which was the debate over housing growth in the local community. The issue played a major role in the election and was the most discussed topic in the Hollister mayor’s race and others.

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Strong economy

Growth is often an indicator of a strong local economy, and the local economy has been a lot stronger than in previous years to go with the state and national trends. Most recently in November, the unemployment rate — just one barometer of economic success — was at historically low levels of 4.4 percent.

Cannabis facilities

On that same economy topic, one area is bound to see continued growth after the cannabis industry got its first go-ahead in Hollister and San Benito County in 2018. The city now allows medicinal marijuana dispensaries and other types of facilities such as manufacturing, cultivation and distribution. The county allows pretty much any type of facility except retail dispensaries, while neither jurisdiction has stamped an OK for adult-use cannabis dispensaries despite their legalization to start 2018.

Landslides

On the nature side of things, a portion of Southside Road experienced plenty of downs in 2018 with the continued landslides there. Starting in May, there were at least five landslides to a portion of the hillside near Blossom Lane. It has led to a seven-figure cost for the county to repair it, while there is continued debate over the cause and who should pay for it.

E. Coli outbreak

While the agricultural economy remained strong in 2018, there was a hiccup at the end of the year with the E. coli outbreak that was traced back to a Santa Barbara farm. As of today, however, federal regulators have not cleared San Benito County from potential problems related to the E. coli issues that have led to 59 cases in 15 states with 23 hospitalizations.

Court delays for major cases

In the local criminal justice system, several major cases have experienced delays in prosecution. Suspected murderer Jose Barajas, accused in the 2014 killing of 18-year-old Ariana Zendejas, was arrested by Hollister police July 14 after he was extradited from Mexico, while his case remains in the preliminary hearing stages. Sang Ji and Jung Choi, accused in the 2017 killing of Sang Ji’s wife Yoon Ji, are also going through preliminary hearings in the local courts.

Probation chief resignation

Criminal justice leadership saw a shakeup in 2018 with the resignation of former Probation Chief Ted Baraan. It came in August while he had been under investigation for allegations of workplace sexual harassment. The former official ran San Benito County’s probation department from April 2014 to August 2018.

Computer virus hits county

San Benito County was the victim of a serious computer virus. That virus caused shutdowns and other issues for more than three weeks in August and ended up costing taxpayers $400,000 to fix.

Pinnacles leadership change

With the departure of longtime Pinnacles National Park Superintendent Karen Beppler-Dorn at mid-year, the park has had several interim leaders during a search for the permanent replacement.

Panoche Road fire deaths

The Panoche Road fire June 5 fire killed a mother and two children. The mother who died in the fire was Crystal Asbjornsen, age 27. Her two children who passed away were Xavier Robbins, 3, and Rosa Browne, 7 months. The boyfriend told sheriff’s officers he had used the grill earlier that day—and that he may have removed a piece of wood from the grill and placed it outside “to use later.”

Garbage contract

New 10-year contracts were approved by the county, Hollister and San Juan Bautista for Recology to continue handling waste pickup services.

Environmental steward Shelby O’Neil recognized

The San Benito High School senior received accolades throughout the year for her environmental stewardship. Most recently, the founder of the nonprofit Junior Ocean Guardians was presented with the Gold Award and $5,000 from Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs for designing and leading a campaign “in your school or community that creatively educates others and inspires action to reduce or prevent marine debris.” She’s earned national exposure through the Martha Stewart Living magazine and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. She convinced Alaska Airlines to ditch plastic straws and toothpicks on all its flights (a story picked up by Fortune magazine).

Highway 156 funding confirmed

Caltrans in March confirmed funding the state’s portion of the $57.4 million expansion from two lanes to four lanes between Union Road and The Alameda, with a roundabout at Bixby Road. The start date has been moved from the fall of 2019 to July 2020.

FoodBank re-opens

The Community FoodBank in San Benito County held an Open House in May to mark the completed renovations to the facility at 1133 San Felipe Road in Hollister.

Diabetes center opens

Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in November hosted a grand opening for the new Barragan Family Diabetes Center that opened in 2018. The Hazel Hawkins Hospital Foundation in early 2016 announced the Barragan family was making the second-largest donation in the hospital’s history to create the diabetes center, which includes wound care among a host of other services. Mary Ann Barragan, long time resident of Hollister, made the donation. Her late husband Ray Barragan suffered from diabetes.

Hospital finances

Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital had a reprieve for its financial struggles in September when it learned the district would gain a critical access designation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It means the Hollister hospital will receive full reimbursement from the federal government for those publicly funded services. Hospital leaders said it would amount to $3 million to $4 million annually in additional revenue, which would all but wipe out the current structural deficit on the books.

Hospital Leapfrog recognition

The hospital had more good news in October when it found out it would score an “A” on the nationally recognized Leapfrog Group safety ratings. The A score resulted from a variety of safety measures.

Chamber president resigns

The San Benito County Chamber of Commerce President Candace Ledesma resigned in November after just four months on the job. She had replaced Juli Vieira after her five-year run in the role. Michelle Leonard, meanwhile, has taken over as interim president/CEO.

Wildfires and poor air quality

A busy wildfire season hit home not only from a series of local wildfires but also from the massive, destructive fire in Butte County. San Benito County, like other areas in the region, suffered from poor air quality for more than a week during the Camp Fire in Butte County, while local firefighters joined in the aid effort. Two local breweries, Grillin & Chillin and Brewery 25, opted to brew the special Resilience IPA beer with proceeds going to help victims of the Camp Fire.

Rally canceled

With the Hollister Motorcycle Rally canceled yet again, there were much fewer bikers in town for the Independence Day weekend, with some private events continuing like the one at Corbin Motors over that stretch. The Hollister rally has been sanctioned on and off again since the 50th anniversary of the 1947 event depicted in “The Wild Ones.”

New SJB city manager

Longtime San Juan Bautista City Manager Roger Grimsley left and was replaced by Michaele LaForge. The Mission City has a lot of tough issues on its plate such as not-so-idea water conditions and concerns about rapid growth.

San Juan well installed

The addition of a new well led to improvements to the color of the water being pulled from Well No. 5, which has shown an orange-like tint in recent times due to high levels of iron that don’t mix favorably with chlorine used to treat it. The resulting discolored water wasn’t unhealthy, but it wasn’t pleasant, either. Even more significant for the Mission’s City economy and coffers is that the new well should result in the lifting of the town’s moratorium against new housing hookups that’s been in effect for several years.

HSD impact fees lawsuit

The Hollister School District sued San Benito County alleging it failed to collect and disperse developer impact fees owed to the district over several years.

Plans move ahead for Santana Ranch school

Hollister School District trustees for the first time in December saw the 100 percent design plans for the new Santana Ranch School planned at Fairview and Sunnyslope roads, and to the dismay of some that project will not include a gym or multipurpose room. That school will be much smaller in size than the standard K-8 campus due to a lacking budget on the project, and school officials are looking at January 2021 as a target opening date.

SBHS facility upgrades

Local taxpayers and members of the San Benito High School community saw a lot of dividends paid off this year with the completion and continuation of various facility projects on campus. The projects were funded by two major bonds passed by district voters in recent years.

Chamber people/businesses of year

The 2018 man and woman of the year for the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce were Jim Hart and Frankie Gallagher, while businesses of the year included Intero Real Estate, Margot’s Ice Cream Parlor, Galaxy Self Storage Services, Pierce Real Estate as Chamber Champion and Fisher’s Restaurant.

Dispatcher birth

As Ashlin and Andrew Braddock walked up to Fire Station #2 in Hollister on Sept. 13, 911 dispatcher Valerie Conner was there waiting to embrace them. Just 11 days earlier, Conner not only had the rare chance to help the local family deliver their baby, but now she also had the opportunity to meet them — along with the emergency responders who showed up on the scene — at a special reunion 11 days after the birth. The Braddocks, Conner and emergency responders gathered at the fire station and recalled the experience from Sept. 2 when the dispatcher helped Andrew and Ashlin Braddock deliver their baby over the phone.

Granada, Stage Company in transition

The San Benito Stage Company ended an 11-year run using the historic Granada Theatre. The theater’s owner, Andrew Barragan, is planning to renovate the site in 2019 and has talked about reopening it for screening of movies, possibly classics. The stage company plans to perform elsewhere in 2019.

Jim West passing away

A longtime community member and San Juan Bautista’s mayor in 2018, Jim West died on Dec. 6. West had been active in the local nonprofit community and politics, as he also served on the San Benito County Healthcare District Board before taking on the San Juan role. Celebrations of life are planned for January.

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