Monday Jan 07 2013
Journal picks top 10 stories for 2012
By: Jenifer Gee,
Meteorites, fire and parolees top list
Looking back on 2012, the year was busier than I remembered. Auburn City government kept us busy with a charter measure, food truck debate and legal battles. Mother Nature took her turn when the Robbers Fire was sparked in July. Along the way interesting stories that originated locally caught national attention. Below are the Journal’s picks for the top 10 stories of 2012.
10. Hidden Cold War cache uncovered
In June, volunteers repainting Placer High School’s weight room opened up a long locked-up room that contained survival supplies stored since the 1960s. The Cold War cache included containers of biscuits, bandages, plastic cups, and water that was still clear. Retired principal Jug Covich, who led the school between 1970 and 1988, said he remembered the supplies and said he believed the school wanted to be prepared for a possible air strike during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Word of Placer High’s hidden stash made national news with stories appearing on Huffington Post, Fox News, MSN, AOL and Yahoo. Today, the supplies remain locked up at the high school.
9. Meteorite mania in the foothills
When a meteor the size of a minivan exploded overhead April 22, it set off a mini Gold Rush in the historic mining towns of Coloma and Lotus, located not far from Auburn on Highway 49. Scientists, residents, and the curious came from all over to find pieces of the meteor. James Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma, which normally logs 400 to 500 visitors a day during that time of year, saw more than 1,000 visiting cars during the hunt for meteorites. The going rate for a meteorite found ranged from $5 per gram up to possibly $1,000 per gram.
Auburn Elementary School fourth-grader River Townsend was among the few who found a piece of the meteor. The then-10-year-old said one man had offered him $100 for the raisin-size piece of the space rock. He turned down the offer.
8. Colfax coach arrested
In a shock to the Colfax school and ski community, former longtime Colfax High School snowboard coach and teacher Belden “Jack” Morgan was arrested Feb. 9 on charges of continual sexual abuse on a child, punishable by 15 years to life in prison. Morgan, a Christian Valley resident, was a computer science teacher at Colfax High for six years. He retired as a coach in March 2011. Morgan, 71, is scheduled to appear again in Placer County Superior Court March 1.
7. Food truck debate
Auburn city officials voted against letting restaurants serve meals on wheels in October. The issue of whether to allow mobile businesses/food trucks sparked controversy and debate among local business owners and residents. Only one Auburn restaurant, Maria’s Mexican Tacos, had a business permit from the city to operate her food truck in Downtown and Old Town Auburn. Brick and mortar business owners claimed it was unfair because Maria’s mobile business wasn’t subject to the same costs. Supporters of food trucks argued there are similar costs and it’s not fair to ban healthy competition that benefits consumers. In the end, the city council voted 4-1 to not allow food trucks in the city’s historic district.
6. Tow truck driver’s death brings awareness
On March 20 Citrus Heights tow truck driver David “Davey” Robinson Jr. was struck and killed on westbound Interstate 80 near the Ophir Road exit in Auburn. The driver, Christopher Michael Keller, 25, of Newcastle, sped away from the scene despite severe damage to the front of the silver Honda he was driving. A public call for witnesses and tips via the media led law enforcement to the vehicle, which was covered under a tarp in a Foresthill yard. In October, Keller changed his plea to no contest and in November was sentenced to four years in prison for felony hit-and-run causing death. Robinson family members, who spoke at the sentencing, remain strong advocates for toughening the state’s “Move Over/Slow Down” law. The law requires drivers to slow down or move over when they come upon law enforcement, tow truck operators, emergency responders and Caltrans vehicles’ flashing amber lights on the side of the roadways. The current maximum fine for violating the law is $50.
5. Robbers Fire forces evacuations, burns 2,000-plus acres
For 12 days the 2,650-acre Robbers Fire burned in canyon land between Foresthill and Colfax. The fire, which started July 11, threatened 170 homes and forced the evacuation of Foresthill and Iowa Hill residents and their animals for days. It burned one home and four outbuildings and caused minor injuries to nine firefighters. The fire was fully contained July 22. More than 2,000 firefighters from around the state responded and the cost to suppress the summer blaze added up to about $13 million. Sacramento resident Bryon Mason was arrested and charged with arson in relation to the wildfire. Mason, 28, is alleged to have used a pyrotechnic device at the time. His case is still in the Placer County Superior Court system and he is schedule to appear Jan. 7.
4. City government heats up with elections, lawsuits
Auburn government was marked by two elections and at least three different lawsuits this year. In the beginning of the year, the city attempted to become a charter city. A large union funded campaign that put more than $80,000 into the effort against the charter city proposal defeated Measure A. The city also lost its battle in court. It was eventually required to pay about $62,000 in legal fees over challenging the ballot language written by opponents.
Also related to Measure A, Auburn resident Victoria Connolly filed a lawsuit seeking city council member emails regarding Measure A, which she did not get. The result was a change to city email policy and a nearly $50,000 upgrade to its server to store official city correspondence.
Inspired by the Measure A backlash, longtime Old Town Auburn business owner Gary Moffat gave incumbents Dr. Bill Kirby and Keith Nesbitt a run for their money in a race for two city council seats. At one point two of the candidates were separated by one vote. The final tally ended with Nesbitt and Kirby both tying at 3,181 votes and Moffat closer behind than many may have expected with 3,143 votes.
While the make up of the council remains the same, the city’s legal battles continue. The city has so far spent $75,000 in attorney fees in an ongoing lawsuit with the Auburn Police Officers Association. The outcome of an appeal filed by the city is expected this year.
3. Newcastle fire house ballot battle
Newcastle residents voted twice in 2012 about the fate of their local fire district. After a $146.46 parcel tax increase passed by 68 percent during a March special vote-by-mail election, a group of residents came out of the woodwork protesting the tax as too high and plans for a new, $1.5 million fire station as too grand. Those against the tax successfully put a counter measure on the November ballot that was defeated. The November election didn’t go without change. Three incumbents were voted off the Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors. The fate of the district and its firehouse, which is in need of major repairs, remains to be seen. With Placer Hills Fire District shutting one of two fire stations for four months and Ophir’s fire station hanging on only thanks to a $1.2 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, how local fire stations will remain funded and stable is uncertain moving forward.
2. More parolees in Auburn
Placer County continued to feel the impacts of AB 109, a state realignment bill that sends prisoners to county jail in an effort to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. However, the mandate comes with little to no support and area law enforcement is working with more criminals and no more resources. Placer County Sheriff’s Captain George Malim said in 2010, the jail had 523 inmates a day. Now, it’s 580 with some weeks and months seeing an average daily prisoner population of 600.
In May, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation closed its Marysville parole office and split parolees among Auburn, Woodland, Chico and Oroville. Four parole agents were transferred to the Auburn office, which previously had eight agents overseeing 450 parolees. Following the Marysville closure, 352 parolees were split between Auburn and Woodland.
In December, Auburn Airport business owners called law enforcement to a meeting regarding an increase in homeless residents living in brush around the airport. Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn said there has been an uptick in the number homeless parolees in the area. Ruffcorn said a regional solution is needed.
“If they’re expecting me and my agency to solve the problem through arrests, they’re going to be sorely disappointed,” Ruffcorn said in December.
1. ADA lawsuits, counter lawsuits continue
Throughout the year several Auburn businesses received lawsuits from Carmichael attorney Scott Johnson, who claimed the businesses were not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. Some business owners chose to fight back. Others have hired an access specialist to help make changes or settled.
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1186, which, among other provisions, requires a litigant to send a letter to the proposed defendant 30 days before filing a lawsuit listing what is in violation. Local merchants remained skeptical of whether the legislation will help.
As for Johnson, the attorney who’s filed hundreds of lawsuits in the state is the subject of a sexual harassment and fraud lawsuit filed by four former employees. Johnson made an appearance in Auburn in November as part of a court-ordered inspection involving a lawsuit he filed against Pete Aroz Sr.’s Auburn businesses including Pistol Pete’s Brew & Cue and the Liquor Outlet. Johnson declined to comment in detail to the Journal during his visit and about the lawsuit filed against him.