Saturday, June 30, 2007

Double Murderer May Be Outpatient In 2008

By Lenny Roberts
It was reported Friday that Ventura County Superior Judge Edward Brodie has ordered double-murderer Miguel Hugo Garcia transferred from San Bernardino 's Patton institution for the criminally insane to a mental health rehabilitation facility in Sylmar. If Garcia does well there by completing a one-year rehabilitation program, he could be eligible for Ventura County's outpatient mental health program in 2008, effectively returning him to society.

Describing the man who murdered the elderly Upper Ojai cancer patient and his care-giving daughter as a time bomb waiting to go off, Ventura County Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger sentenced Garica to the San Bernardino maximum security mental facility in October 1997. Garcia, a Glendale businessman, was sentenced just five months after he fired six rounds into 42-year-old Helen Giardina moments after killing 83-year-old Albert Alexander in a flurry of destructive Black Talon bullets. The crimes were committed in the presence of Giardina's 3-year-old son in an Ojai-Santa Paula Road home adjacent to property owned by Garcia.

Do you agree with the judge's decision to transfer Garcia to a rehabilitation center; should he remain locked up in the maximum security facility; or should Garcia have been given the death penalty when convcted of the crime?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Olivia Gandy Named Miss Ojai 2007

By Nao Braverman

As outgoing queen Jackie Van Etten applauds, Miss Ojai 2007, Olivia Gandy, steps up to receive her crown at Saturday’s Ojai Valley Pageant.

Even tomboys can be Miss Ojai.
This year’s winner of the Ojai Valley Pageant, Olivia Gandy, is a stellar athlete. Though she looks stunning in a sparkling blue evening gown, Gandy was playing sports right up until the contest, said the pageant coordinator, Nancy Hill-Hinz.
“Even tomboys clean up real nicely.”
Contestants work for two and a half months learning about wellness, how to care for their skin and bodies, and they even get training in etiquette. Hinz learned her etiquette skills when she was training to be a flight attendant and borrowed techniques to pass on to pageant contestants.
In its 55th year the Ojai Valley Pageant proves to be a good old-fashioned traditional pageant, she said.
The contestants paraded across the stage, smiling brightly for a packed Libbey Bowl audience with the backdrop of an American flag and red, white and blue streamers.
“These girls were all really fabulous,” said Hinz. “It was a really hard one to call.”
Gandy, outgoing and talented, impressed the judges with a great interview, said Hinz.
Gandy said she looks forward to serving the community.
“It should be a good year,” she said.
Judges for this year’s Miss Ojai pageant were Buddy Wilds, Robert McNeal, Lori Creiton, Phil Long, Ron Rowe, Tre Bernstein, and Shannon Gilmore.
Jack and Paul Jacobs tabulated the votes.
The preteen winner was Megan Kauer, preteen first runner-up was Bobbi Shane. Teen contest winner was Emily Diamond, first runner-up teen was Crystal Zelenka, Mandy Rhodes won the Little Miss Ojai contest, Madison Miller was the first runner up Little Miss. First runner-up for the Miss Ojai contest was Joanne Mascon. Anthony Andre won the male model contest and Joshua Bonitas won first runner-up.

Ojai Ready For Old-Fashioned Fourth

By Sondra Murphy
Bring family, friends, appetites and portable chairs. Ojai Independence Day 2007 offers something for everyone.
Beginning Tuesday, events start with the St. Thomas Aquinas Teens to World Youth Day barbecue at the Libbey Park fountain. It runs from 4 to 7 p.m. A patriotic show honoring Wendy Hilgers, parade grand marshal, starts at 7 p.m. The free concert features Joe Boccali and the Ojai Band, the Diz Mullen Swing Band, and singers Eileen Bertsch and Marcus Kettles. The Ojai Art Center is sponsoring the Best Decorated Chair contest and judging takes place along the parade route Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Wednesday, Teen Challenge is offering a pancake breakfast from 6 to 10 a.m. at Chaparral Auditorium. The Youth Freedom Run sponsored by the Ojai Rotary Club and Ojai Unified School District begins registration at 8:45 a.m. at Libbey Park. Participants receive flags and ribbons. An optional $1 donation is requested.
The Independence Day parade down Ojai Avenue begins at 10 a.m. This is the final year to see the award-winning kindergarten kazoo band. Meiners Oaks teacher Jim France retired this year after 27 years with the district and sending hundreds of kazoo players out into the world. The parade awards ceremony will be held at the Libbey Park gazebo at 1:30 p.m.
The Fourth of July concert and fireworks show will take place at Nordhoff High School stadium, presented by the Ojai Independence Day Committee. Gates open at 5 p.m. Boy Scout Troop 503’s flag ceremony is at 5:45 p.m. and the concert by Studebaker begins at 6 p.m. The fireworks start popping at 9:15 p.m. Presale admission is $8 for adults, $4 for children and family passes cost $15 for two adults and children under 18. Presale tickets may be purchased at the Ojai Recreation Department, Oak View Liquor, Attitude Adjustment at the “Y” or Tottenham Court in the Arcade. Adults pay $10 and children $5 at the gate. Family passes will not be sold at the gate. For more ticket information or phone orders, call 646-4295 or e-mail Please see inserted parade lineup and details on festivities.

Event Schedule
July 3
4 to 7 p.m., St. Thomas Aquinas barbecue dinner at Libbey Park fountain
7 p.m., Concert and show honoring parade grand marshal Wendy Hilgers
8 p.m., Best Decorated Chair Contest judging sponsored by Ojai Art Center

July 4
6 to 10 a.m., Teen Challenge pancake breakfast at Chaparral Auditorium
8:45 a.m., Youth Freedom Run at Libbey Park
10 a.m., Independence Day parade follows Ojai Avenue from Country Club Drive to Park Road
1:30 p.m., Parade awards at Libbey Park gazebo
5:45 to 10 p.m., Fourth of July concert and fireworks show, Nordhoff High School stadium. Gates open at 5 p.m.; concert begins at 6 p.m.; fireworks start at 9:15 p.m.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Backhoe Blamed For Phone Outage

By Sondra Murphy
Internet, telephones, landline 911 calls come to a halt

When telephone lines go down, it can be bothersome to most people. It often means no Internet and businesses have to take credit card payments the old fashioned way. But for emergency services personnel, phones are their primary link to people in need.
Ojai Valley residents experienced sporadic phone service from the Upper Ojai area on down to Seaward Avenue in Ventura Thursday for more than six hours. With many people using cell phones during the land line disruption, connection was intermittent and dropped calls were common.
For hours, no one, not even the phone company, knew the source of the major glitch. As late as 3 p.m., AT&T media relations were unsure of the cause. AT&T service technician Loren Bright was on location on Santa Clara Street in Ventura where backhoe work had disrupted phone lines.
“We’re mostly concerned about emergency services and getting them back,” said Bright.
Ojai Police Administrative Sgt. Maureen Hookstra was informed by people at the Ventura County Emergency Operations Center of the outage. Her personal cell phone was the main line in for business calls. “We have sheriff dispatch and fire dispatch routed into the office,” said Hookstra. “We can receive calls from the city, take the information and dispatch personnel.”
Extra precautions were taken to keep in contact with local agencies. “The Fire Department has gone out to make contact with extended care facilities in Ojai,” Hookstra said. Ojai Valley Community Hospital was informed of the situation.
Double fire crews were called in to ensure emergency needs were available. Capt. John Tucker and his crew from El Rio were manning Ojai Fire Station 21. “We were moved up here to cover,” said Tucker. “I’m carrying my cell phone with me to receive information as it’s known.” He said extra fire engines were brought into all stations in the Ojai Valley, just in case.
Both county agencies agreed cell phones helped agencies maintain contact with the community. “And everyone’s behaving themselves,” Hookstra added.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Famed Cartoonist Earns Lifetime Achievement Award

By Nao Braverman
Ojai resident Sergio Aragonés is the creative mind behind cartoon images that have been viewed by readers and comic book aficionados around the country and abroad.
Though Aragonés’ humorous illustrations have been seen by millions, he can still sit comfortably at his favorite local coffee shop without being recognized.
“I’m fortunate to have a very anonymous career,” he said.
Though comic book fans have seen his “Marginal Thinking” illustrations in the margins of Mad Magazine pages, or followed the catastrophic mishaps of his comic book antihero Groo the Wanderer, they know Aragonés by name and not by face, and that’s how he likes it.
The Ojai cartoonist never imagined he would be so successful, nor did he aspire to do much more than simply publish his work. But more than 50 years into his illustrating career, Aragonés has won almost every major award offered to a cartoonist including the Will Eisner Hall of Fame Award and the National was due to an error by the post office he said.
After years of contributing to Mad, Aragonés teamed with Mark Wordsworth in the early 1980s to create Groo the Wanderer, one of the few creator owned comic books, about a barbarian who was never able to get anything right.
Groo the Wander was one of the few humorous comics in an American market full of adventure heros. No one had yet written about barbarians, said Aragonés.
Though Aragonés has a degree in architecture from the University of Mexico to satisfy his parents he never thought of becoming anything but a cartoonist.
Fortunately, talent and circumstances worked in his favor and he has been able to lead a comfortable life doing what he loves.
But there are some small changes to his work routine with advancing technology. Though now scans his images into a computer before sending them to a colorist, he has essentially been doing the same job for 53 years and enjoys every moment of it.

Agencies Prepare For Major Fire Threat

By Nao Braverman

This summer marks the 13th year efforts by the C.R.E.W. have helped keep the Ojai Valley safe from wildfires

Since the end of May a team of about 12 young people ages 14 to 21 have been hard at work clearing away brush to protect Ojai during what has been predicted as one of the worst fire seasons the valley has ever seen.
With a grant from the U.S. Forest Service through the California Fire Safe Council, and $50,000 in matching funds from the City of Ojai, the Ojai Fire Safe Council is constructing the Ojai Valley Last Defense Fuel Break.
The fuel break, a safety zone with highly flammable growth patches cleared away serves as a buffer to slow down advancing flames, giving fire fighters more leverage, said Wally McCall, a co-founder of the Ojai Fire Safe Council.
Stretching 4.7 miles from the citrus groves north of Meiners Oaks to the eastern end of Gridley Trail, the fuel break will range from 20- to 100-foot wide clearances, depending on the terrain.
Members of C.R.E.W., an Ojai non-profit benefitting at-risk youth, have taken on the laborious task of removing the brush in the scorching summer sun. Crew members from Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore, half of them under 17 years old, have begun cutting and clearing areas under the supervision of CREW staff and the Ventura County Fire Department.
This fuel break is being cut in a mosaic pattern rather than a linear path, said McCall, also the chief executive officer of CREW. The C.R.E.W. members will leave all riparian plants and growth that stabilizes the hillside to prevent erosion. All plants that don’t burn well will be left alone, leaving a more visually pleasing landscape than a linear fuel break, he said.
All clearing will be done by hand without any ground disturbance. The team of local youth are working together to cut away decadent brush and using a small chipper to chop it into mulch which they spread over the patches of bare land as ground cover.
In addition to fire safety, fuel breaks can become excellent places to view wildlife, said McCall. Clearing away dry brush and dead plants leaves room for new growth which, in turn, attracts deer, birds and other wild animals, he said.
Teams are currently working at two sites, one at the top of Foothill Road and another at the Gridley Trail gate. McCall expects the entire project will take at least a year to complete.
With funding from the city, cooperation from local land owners and labor provided by C.R.E.W. youth, the fuel break has been a true community effort, said William Castagna, grants manager of the Ojai Valley Fire Safe Council.
After the Day Fire, too close for comfort, and with the upcoming fire season, U.S. Forest Service recognized the importance of the project, said Castagna.
The fuel break is intended not only to protect Ojai homes but also the multitude of orchards which have sustained the valley’s economy for years.

Bennett Announces Re-election Plan

By Daryl Kelley
A full year before the 2008 primary election, Steve Bennett announced Monday that he is running for a third term as the Ojai Valley’s representative on the county Board of Supervisors.
Bennett, 56, said he decided to start his campaign early to deter potential opponents in the June, 2008 primary.
“I have heard that opponents are trying to send a message that they are going to come out against me,” Bennett said in an interview.
“Well, I want to send a message early that I’ll have the resources and the endorsements to counter their negative campaigning.”
Bennett, a Democrat, said his campaign already has $110,000 in the bank, more than he spent in both the primary and general elections in 2000, when he won an open seat against two well-financed Republicans.
Bennett won that general election with about 63 percent of the vote, and then won re-election in 2004 with nearly three-quarters of the vote.
First indications that he might face a stiff challenge in next year’s primary came in early March, when an anonymous phone message circulated that accused Bennett of harassing county employees and causing costly lawsuits.
That prompted a district attorney’s investigation, since such anonymous messages are against the law. The inquiry is still underway.
Bennett said he might have been a target of an opponent for his nonpartisan supervisor's seat, because some Republicans consider him a potential candidate for higher office.
The chairman of the Ventura County Republican Party, Mike Osborn, said then that neither he nor his party were behind the phone messages.
But Osborn said this week that Bennett is a political target not only of Republicans but of Democrats.
“A number of people have expressed interest, but none has said they’re actually going to run yet,” Osborn said Monday. “I have heard there are two Democrats thinking about it and maybe three Republicans.”
He said he expects at least one of the Republicans to announce in the next couple of weeks. “You should give yourself a year to run an effective race, to be able to meet everybody in the district,” he said.
Like presidential races, the length of county campaigns has been increasing. And Osborn noted that a two-year effort by a Simi Valley candidate in last year’s race for a superivsorial seat.
Bennett said he’s taking the potential challenge seriously, raising more money than ever and securing the endorsements of numerous elected officials, including Supervisor Linda Parks, who appeared at his Monday morning press conference at a Ventura mobile home park.
Bennett said he has not yet sought the endorsements of other board colleagues. He and veteran Supervisor John Flynn, also a Democrat, have fought over several issues.
And Flynn said this week that there had been much discussion in political circles about strong candidates to oppose his board rival.
Flynn also criticized Bennett, author of a law that limits supervisors’ campaign spending to $175,000, for raising so much money so quickly.
“In the spirit of his campaign fund-raising law, he ought to give that $110,000 advantage up, so everybody could start out at the same place.”
In addition to his bankroll, Bennett said he has received early endorsements from four politically potent employee groups – the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs Assn., the county firefighters union, and the city of Ventura police and firefighters unions.
He has also been endorsed, he said, by the Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation, a group that killed a huge development.
Indeed, Bennett’s support in District 1, which includes Ventura and the Ojai Valley, has been strong among environmentalists and growth-control advocates.
A former Nordhoff High School government teacher, Bennett was coauthor of the county's agricultural land protection S.O.A.R. measures. He is also a former Ventura city councilman.
Bennett said he’s running on his success as a fiscal watchdog in county government.
“When I came into office, county budget reserves were zero; now, they’re at nine percent and that’s after going through some tough times.”
Another cornerstone of his campaign will be promoting “sustainable envirnonmental policies,” he said.
He’s also campaigning on several key Ojai Valley issues: demolition of Matilija Dam to revive the Ventura River, change of state law to protect mobile home owners from soaring rents, and stopping gravel trucks from using states highways 33 and 150 as access points to the Ventura County coast.
“Certainly, those trucks are a threat to our quality of life,” he said.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Would You Welcome Schwarzenegger-Shriver

Rumors are flying that California's first family is looking to purchase property in Ojai. Would this be good or bad for the community?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hotel Owner Cancels Outdoor Event Plans

By Nao Braverman
Lee Clukey, owner of the proposed Inn Harmony hotel, confirmed that he is not currently submitting plans to build a two-story extension to the former apartment complex on 308 N. Signal St., nor will the hotel be hosting any outdoor events for the time being.
The only changes that the Clukeys are currently proposing for the Signal Street building are to widen the 20-foot-long outdoor deck by 7 feet and a bring an existing cottage back to code, said Clukey. If all goes well they hope to complete all the construction and open in mid July.
The main building of the hotel will have four bedrooms and an attached unit for the Clukeys to live in and manage the grounds. A back cottage, which was built by the previous owners and is not yet permitted, will be brought to code, and hopefully function as a fifth bedroom, said Clukey,
Breakfast and wine will be served to hotel guests only and must not leave the premises.
Their initial plans to build a two-story extension were to add a second story to their living quarters on the Inn property, not to build another room said Clukey.
Though they may consider such an extension in the future, the Clukeys decided to withdraw their request after repeated complaints from a neighbor whose view would be obstructed by the added construction.
“We are not going to expand the unit unless the neighbor and I can come to an agreement,” he said.
Clukey said he opted to withdraw his request to hold outdoor events on the property after learning that some neighbors had complained about the excessive noise.
He added that he might ask for permission to host events in the future but only after a sound engineer completed a study that would help them keep the noise below the city code’s thresholds. But all ideas are still speculative and no such plans will be submitted at this stage, he said.
Though the inn is relatively small and will be serving breakfast only, Clukey said he has labeled it a hotel because it is one of the allowed appropriate uses for Ojai buildings in a village mixed use zone. To call it a bed-and-breakfast, he would have to apply for a conditional use permit which would cost him thousands of dollars.
City planner for the project, Kanika Kith, said that she didn’t know why Ojai’s VMU areas include hotels but not bed and breakfasts as appropriate uses.
Clukey said his initial intention was to open a small, moderately priced, classy five-room inn and called it a hotel rather than a bed and breakfast to comply with the city’s zoning ordinance.
“This isn’t going to be a huge money-maker, we’re doing it for fun,” he said.
Though the city received 10 letters of complaint from residents in the inn’s neighborhood as well as several phone calls, Clukey said that over the weekend 30 passersby signed a petition that the inn would offer a welcome contribution to the city. In addition the inn was well-received by an Ojai Valley Inn employee and the city building inspector and code enforcement officer, he said.

Budget, Rate Hike Face New GM At Casitas

By Daryl Kelley
It was a short honeymoon.
Just after the Casitas Municipal Water District hired Steve Wickstrum as general manager last week, he was neck deep in a fiscal swamp that tested his calm nature.
“Within the first 10 minutes we were right into budgets and water rates,” Wickstrum, a 23-year veteran at the water agency, said afterward. “That’s the district’s biggest problem, getting the funding right.”
Wickstrum’s first task was to defend his proposed 2007-2008 budget for the Ojai Valley’s largest water agency, which was based partly on a rate hike of 50 percent next year for farmers.
He did it by focusing on rebuilding an aging waterworks system that needs repair.
But he and the Casitas board of directors also said they would work harder to try to satisfy a State Supreme Court ruling that seems to mandate that all customers, including farmers, pay the full cost of water they use.
Though potentially exposing Casitas legally, district directors indicated they may decide that farmers should pay only part of the cost of the highly treated water they have no choice but to receive. That has been the district’s position for a decade, since a sophisticated treatment plant opened.
So last week, Wickstrum got an earful. And as he responded to farmers’ complaints, the board noted not only his cool, reasoned defense, but his ability to listen – his flexibility when criticized.
“He landed in a very difficult situation,” said board President Russ Baggerly. “And he responded with grace and equanimity under pressure. It’s a mark of his character that he can listen, ask good questions and take part in discussion in a non-defensive way.”
That told the board that they’d hired the right guy from a statewide field of 54 candidates, Baggerly said.
Longtime Director Jim Word, who has watched Wickstrum for more than a decade, said he enthusiastically voted to promote the water agency’s senior engineer, because “he has the ability to take in the situation and find a solution that absolutely works. He doesn’t seem to get riled, that’s for sure. And he’s a down-to-earth person.”
Indeed, Steven E. Wickstrum, 52, has always been a small-town boy.
Born in Kansas, stationed in Colorado as the son of a Navy technologist, and raised in Simi Valley, Wickstrum was the oldest of three children. And he learned to work and set an example.
He was an all-league catcher in high school, who loved the Dodgers and who professional pitchers with injured arms sought out for practice: “Have Catcher Will Travel.”
But in the classroom, he was an average student, so he opted for four years in the Air Force just before the age of 21. The young airman worked in waste water treatment at a base in the South.
“After the Air Force, I had a desire to do better,” he said. “I saw what I could end up doing.”
He was a solid student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, graduating in 1983, after working as a janitor to put himself through college.
In 1984, he was hired by Casitas as a junior civil engineer, and moved with wife Beth to Meiners Oaks. He dealt face-to-face with customers on meter installations and fire protection. And it took three years to afford a house and begin a family.
Their first child, Alessandra, was born in 1988; his second, Nathan, three years later, about the time Wickstrum became a senior engineer.
Indeed, Wickstrum’s has been a life of work and family, of building a career while coaching his children’s athletic teams and taking an annual family vacation to Yosemite.
He still lives in Meiners Oaks with Beth, a self-employed computer technology administrator, and Nate, who was just named most valuable player on his junior varsity soccer team at Nordhoff, and Allie, a college student and a day-camp counselor at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“The thing I miss right now is that I’m not coaching,” Wickstrum said. “I coached my kids starting when Nate 5 years old. If I wasn’t coaching baseball, I was fixing the field or umpiring. Allie is also an athlete, a very good swimmer. And at times I’d coach her basketball and soccer.”
With the comfort of this small-town life has come a familiarity. “Everybody knows you,” Wickstrum said.
Indeed, when it was announced that he would receive a healthy pay raise to $167,900 a year with his new job, Wickstrum said the first thing he heard from his tennis partner was a request for a loan.
Then came the farmers’ complaints.
“There were a lot of familiar faces out there,” Wickstrum said with a smile. “It does make you accountable, because we’re working together on these problems. And I think all of the folks know they can just call me up and talk about what’s on their mind, and I’ll give them honest feedback.”
In fact, if there is a hallmark to Wickstrum’s style it may be his forthright nature.
“I’m pretty easygoing and open, very approachable,” he said. “And I think everybody really recognizes that we are one community.”

Ojai's Nordhoff Graduates 231 Students

By Misty Volaski

With an abundance of youthful exuberance, Eric Luna, left, and Taylor Magill high five each other down the aisle to the stage at Nordhoff's June 15 graduation

The Nordhoff High School Class of 2007 had — well, class. Principal Dan Musick waxed sentimental about a group of kids he called “a very big-hearted, great group of students.”
Although Ojai Valley Community Stadium was rowdy as usual at last Friday’s commencement ceremonies, the group was remarkably respectful during performances. “Beach balls, balloons, that always seems to be a part of it,” said Musick. “However, any time there was someone speaking or singing, or when we gave diplomas, it all stopped. During the transitions it was silly and wild and festive, but as soon as someone got up there it just stopped! They had great manners.”
That respect continued as the Class of ‘07 handed out not one or two thank-yous, but a whopping 17 — more than any other class has done, said Musick. Thank-yous went to teachers, of course, but also administrators and community members. “You always hear about how kids are different these days, how they’re not how they used to be,” said Musick. “But these kids are so thankful and appreciative and they let us know that.”
Academically, the class is stronger than in years past; over 95 percent of NHS seniors are going on to a college (two- or four-year or trade schools) this year, up from around 25 percent just five years ago. And 45 percent of those kids are going to four-year universities.
That’s pretty significant. Musick credits the school’s AVID and college prep programs for getting kids involved and showing them the path to college.
“Research shows that college prep is preparing them for college and the real world,” said Musick. More Latino students are finding their way to colleges through the AVID program. AVID, Musick went on, “… is for first-generation college-goers. We have a class for each grade level. The kids have risen to the challenge more and more, and I’m really proud of that.”
But the class, he said, has just as much heart and determination as it does smarts.
That combination of traits can be found in seniors Brandon Shirck, Kelsey Hersch and Brittany Chisum, in particular. Shirck, whose name is no stranger to the OVN Sports page, maintained good grades while competing in both football and cross country — at the same time. After a few hectic seasons, he decided to focus on running. It paid off; most recently, Shirck went to the CIF finals this year and took sixth place in the statewide 1600-meter race with his personal best time.
“He’s an amazing runner,” said Musick. “Even though he’s the star, the name in the paper, he’s so easy to work with. He’s very compliant and open, very popular, not at all aloof. He’s just a hard-working guy.”
Chisum, too, has a full schedule, but makes time for others. As valedictorian of the Class of 2007, she led academically, but always made time to let people know she appreciated their help.
“To me, she just personifies this class,” said Musick. “She’s just a really good kid, who really cares.” Chisum will attend Pepperdine on a full-ride scholarship this fall, he added.
Hersch is the same way. As salutatorian, she, like Chisum, was dedicated to her studies, but was also the drum major for the marching band. She also had the lead in the school play, “Anything Goes.”
“She’s a sweet young lady,” said Musick, “very strong in the music program.”
These three, he added, are great examples of a class of which he was particularly proud. “I talked about this at graduation. This class is strong in academics, yes, but their work ethic was great. They were really fun to work with; they have a great sense of humor, were willing to work with us, to keep lines of communication open. They’re just awesome.”

Velasquez Leads Chaparral Class of 2007

By Sondra Murphy

Melanie Velasquez receives her diploma at Chaparral High School's June 14 graduation from principal Marilyn Smith

Of the educational opportunities in Ojai, one school is dedicated to second chances: Chaparral High School. Founded in 1969, the school offers independent study to students who need to replace missing credits, diplomas to adult education students, and alternative course work to teenagers who do not find the schedule of traditional high school to be conducive to their needs. Often, working students use continuation schools in order to earn necessary money while maintaining their studies. Chaparral presented 38 diplomas last Thursday.
Melanie Velasquez is a proud 2007 Chaparral graduate and recipient of a Perseverance Award.
“Melanie has had many obstacles in her life, but has continued to persevere,” said teacher Karen Orser prior to giving the award to Velasquez. The 17-year-old senior attended Nordhoff for a couple of semesters, but transferred to Chaparral because of its flexibility.
“Chap is a better environment for me because I’m an independent-type person. It works better for me to go at my own pace,” said Velasquez. “I finished with two weeks to spare.”
Pacing is important for a person as busy as Velasquez. She attended Chaparral five mornings a week, which helped her have time to work at Sea Fresh Seafood five afternoons a week. She is very involved with her family that includes mother Veronica Cervantes, a 12-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother. Her father, Ron, has a 5-month-old son, as well.
Velasquez received a lot of support, not only from staff at Chaparral, but also from her family and colleagues. “Math is my worst subject, so I had a lot of work to do,” she said. One could often find Velasquez at the Sea Fresh sushi bar crunching the numbers. She said the sushi chef would help her, as well as friends who had strong math skills.
Velasquez appreciated the learning environment at Chaparral. “When you’re there, you just do your work,” she said. While the school places a lot of emphasis on core subjects, it also offers electives to students. “I did take a sign language class and I’ve actually used it,” said Velasquez. She and her manager at Sea Fresh enjoy signing to communicate at work.
Velasquez has enrolled at Ventura College this fall, but is still determining her major. “I have so many different interests, I can’t decide. Everybody tells me that college is where you explore those interests.”
Velasquez said that many people thought she would not finish high school. “Even some of my teachers told me they weren’t sure if I was going to make it,” she said. Chaparral allowed her to prove them wrong. “Aina (Yates) is my favorite,” Velasquez said of the school office manager. “Some people are like, ‘You’re not going to make it’ or ‘Chap isn’t a real school.’ Aina says, ‘Don’t listen to them.’ She motivates us a lot.”
The Chaparral High School Class of 2007 is as follows:
Colton M. Ahlberg, Gabriel Antonio Baca, Shawna Carmen Beltran, Bladimir Bolanos, Chelsea Rene Chapman, Bryce Edward Conahey, J. Andrew Corcuera, Cody Tyler Crook, David J. Davidson, Jennifer Dorenkamp, Danielle Nicole Eldridge, Tyler Bryant Elliott, Olivia Allison Gandy, Lindsay Marie Gilson, Corbin Lee Hames, Travis Caleb Henderson, Amanda Dyan Kelly, Jessica L. Kephart, Alexandria Kathryn Larramendy, Lindsay Maharry, Caitlyn E. Mahon, Tina Nicole Mangum, John Robert “J.R.” McMahan, Kaitlin Maura McMahan, Erin Gynelle Murphy, Chauntel Ann Nelson, Jesus J. Ortiz, Luis Angel Otero, Ryan Paul Peterson, Nickalas Victor Rhine, April Stevens, Alyssa Lavon Varela, Melanie Veronica Velasquez, A.J. White, Lyndsey Ann Williams, Brent Michael Yost, and Irfan M. Zaidi.
During the ceremony, the parents of Weston Herbruck were awarded his diploma posthumously.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hotel Plans Prompt Neighbor Complaints

Owners retract request for outdoor events after letters and comments

By Nao Braverman
A proposed conversion of a triplex apartment building at 308 N. Signal St. to a small hotel called Inn Harmony, has received an all but harmonious response from neighbors.
Owners of the five-bedroom inn with a manager in residence, a small kitchen, and a wine license for guests only was initially requesting approval of a two-story addition to the property as well as a permit for special events.
But after the city Planning Commission received a torrent of complaints, including 10 letters of disapproval, the owners retracted their request for outdoor events and additional construction.
Though there will be a change of use to the property, its conversion into a hotel is automatically granted, as that is one of the appropriate uses for that property said Kanika Kith, planner for the project.
Nearby Oak Street resident Carol Langford explained that many of the letters were triggered by recent wedding events held at the Signal Street location.
“No one could park in front of their own property and the noise was reverberating off of the walls,” she said.
Several neighbors mentioned in their complaints that the police had come to break up a wedding celebration on the evening of June 2. A call to the Police Department, however, confirmed that the police and ambulance vehicles were responding to a 911 hang-up call from the location that evening. No arrests or citations had been made that night according to Police Department officials.
Most of the complaints were regarding the request for outdoor events and the additional construction, which the property owners agreed to rescind, according to Kith.
The property owners Lee and Deborah Clukey were not available for comment.
The design review for the project is scheduled for the June 20 public hearing at the council chambers at 7:30 p.m.

Water Hikes May Swamp Ojai Farmers

Casitas rate plan of 150 percent increase over three years could have a serious effect on Jim Coultas, pictured, and other citrus and avocado growers

By Daryl Kelley

Already struggling after a winter of ruinous winds and killing freezes, Ojai Valley farmers could face a future of soaring water prices if a budget proposed by the Casitas Municipal Water District is adopted by directors this month.
Local farmers would absorb a 50 percent increase under a rate plan on which Casitas has based its draft 2007-2008 budget, and after three years would pay 150 percent more — the same rate as other customers.
But after farmers predicted catastrophe at a hearing Wednesday evening, directors of the Ojai Valley’s principal water agency asked analysts to study options that would lessen the burden on farmers, while still paying for needed waterworks repairs and meeting new state legal requirements.
Indeed, directors said they were proposing the bulk of the increase on farmers only because a State Supreme Court decision last year appears to force all customers to pay the full cost of water they use.
The problem with that, farmers maintained, is that they have no option but to receive costly, highly treated water suitable for drinking, but not needed on their orchards. For the last decade, since a new treatment plant opened, Casitas has charged them a lesser rate for that reason.
And after hearing from farmers Wednesday, Casitas directors said they wanted to rethink how much they will charge agricultural users.
‘’Personally, I’m not ready to do anything: I think we should go back to the workshop mode,” Director Richard Handley said. “We’re not trying to screw anybody, believe me.’’
Board President Russ Baggerly asked budget analyst Denise Collin to factor out the cost of water treatment, including bond payments on the treatment plant, from the proposed rate for farmers to see if that would be more equitable.
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Council Extends Chain Store Moratorium

By Nao Braverman
Even before the Ojai City Council voted to extend their temporary moratorium on chain stores Tuesday night, Subway owner Dave DiTomaso decided not to open a Subway in Ojai after all.
DiTomaso said that he and the Matilija Street building owner Ernie Salomon agreed it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“I’d have to spend about $10,000 to get the architectural drawings and do preliminary work,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to put that much into it and not know if it would go through.”
Salomon had already sent a letter to Subway about a week ago, rescinding any plans for the Ojai shop, said DiTomaso.
To protect themselves from any other such applications, the Ojai City Council voted to extended the city’s temporary moratorium on chain stores until the end of April 2008. The May 1 urgency ordinance which prevents the city from issuing any building permits to formula retail stores or restaurants would have expired today.
City staff recommended extending the ordinance as long as legally possible, 10 months and 15 days, even though they expect to replace it with a permanent ordinance before that time is up.
“We don’t expect a permanent ordinance to take that long,” said city manager Jere Kersnar. “But we want to give you that maximum cushion.”
A temporary moratorium can be extended only twice, explained Kersnar. Each time at a maximum of 10 months and 15 days.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ojai Ridgelines Slated For More Protection

On Tuesday the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved a recommendation of Supervisor Steve Bennett to extend ridgeline protections to more of the valley’s scenic viewsheds and ridgelines.
"The Ojai Valley’s scenic views are one of the valley’s most precious assets. Over the last few years a number of large homes have been developed in a manner that has not appropriately addressed their visual impact on the valley. This Board action means the county will identify expanded ridgeline areas for protection and craft guidelines that will better blend development into the natural setting,” said Bennett.
Communities with spectacular viewsheds often adopt ordinances to preserve the unique, natural scenery. The results can be seen in Montecito, and along the beautiful Highway 1 drive up the coast to Monterey. While development is still permitted, there are often restrictions that require use of natural colors, place more of the structure off of the most visible ridgeline, and limit grading and road cuts.
The county planning department will begin this effort next fall. There will be public hearings to receive input from valley residents and property owners. The timetable for completion of the new regulations will be determined after the initial review of the planning department is completed in September.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

New Concerns About Trucks Downtown

By Nao Braverman
A new asphalt mixing plant to be built in Santa Paula has local residents concerned about more gravel trucks traveling through Ojai, this time on Highway 150 right through the center of town.
Bruce McGowan, a branch manager for Granite Construction Co., which intends to submit plans to the Santa Paula Planning Department by the end of the month, says that the company is prepared to make a pledge not to send any truck trips through Ojai.
“We know that the community in Ojai doesn’t want that, and it is more advantageous for us not to send trucks that way because of our location,” he said.
The plant, which will get 70 percent of its materials from nearby sand and gravel mines, is considering purchasing from mines in Los Angeles County’s Palmdale as well as mines in the Cuyama Valley region. The remaining 30 percent will come from recycled materials onsite, said McGowan.
He explained that trucks coming from the Cuyama area offer better rates if they take the less direct route from Highway 166 to Highway 5 and then to Highway 126, rather than Highway 33 and Highway 150, because the two-lane highways through Ojai are more difficult to navigate.
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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Water Threat Added To Anti-Truck Effort

By Nao Braverman
Members of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County introduced a new flaw in the Diamond Rock mine project’s environmental impact report that could support arguments against the mine proposal.
Critics of truck traffic through Ojai have repeatedly cited the harm to air quality, safety and local tourism, caused by the increasing gravel trucks from near by mines. All these were undermined by the environmental impact report for the Diamond Rock mine released in May, according to members of the Committee to Stop the Trucks!
But members of the of Ventura County coalition brought up yet another serious environmental impact that was not properly addressed in the report: the extraction of groundwater.
The Santa Barbara County mine projects would extract 55.24 acre-feet per year from the ground water basin during an average production year of 500,000 tons of gravel and 77.11 acre-feet per year, according to the EIR.
Though Santa Barbara County has a policy of extracting no more than 31-acre feet per year, the mine project’s expected extraction significantly exceeds that threshold.
The effect of extracting too much groundwater could cause a failure in water wells used by agriculture producers in the area, according to the report by the environmental coalition.
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Casitas Board Names New General Manager

By Daryl Kelley
The Ojai Valley’s principal water agency searched the state for a new top administrator before settling this week on a homegrown engineer as its permanent general manager.
After winnowing an unusually large field of 54 candidates, and interviewing seven, Casitas Municipal Water District directors offered interim general manager Steven E. Wickstrum the agency’s top job on Thursday.
“I’m thrilled,” Wickstrum said. “But I’m also saying, OK, here we go now. I know there is a lot of work to be done. I know the problems, so it’s just a matter of diving in.”
Wickstrum said he had to review the details of the proposed contract, but hoped to reach terms with his longtime employer within a few days.
Casitas was expected to offer base pay of between $160,000 and $170,000 a year, a sharp increase from Wickstrum’s current wage of $144,000 annually, but far less than the $211,000 a year veteran chief executive John Johnson made before retiring three months ago.
Pay was reduced after a water district study found Johnson’s wage, one of the highest for a public official in Ventura County, was too high for a new general manager. The posted salary range was between $157,000 and $193,000, depending on qualifications and experience.
This would be Wickstrum’s first stint as a top administrator. But he has gained good reviews as Casitas’ second in command and as interim general manager.
Wickstrum, 52, has worked at Casitas for 23 years, since graduating from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo in 1984, and has been the agency’s principal civil engineer since 1991.
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Ojai City Budget Looking Brighter

By Nao Braverman
As the city approaches the end of its fiscal year, the revised budget for 2006-2007 is looking significantly better than expected. By the end of 2008, city staff expects to have a reserve balance of $2.3 million, almost two-thirds of the way to its emergency fund target of $3.55 million.
The past two years of careful budgeting and frugality — not to mention the dramatic increase in transient occupancy tax since the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa expansion was completed — have proved fruitful, steadily replenishing the surplus which fell from $4 million to a low of $9,000 several years ago, said city manager Jere Kersnar.
“We have had good progress and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he told council members at a special budget meeting on Tuesday.
City staff is recommending a $788,000 contribution to the previously depleted reserves at the end of this fiscal year, ending on June 30, up from the $618,000 estimate in February and the original $586,000 projection.
Despite $140,000 in uncollected transient occupancy tax, due to a dispute with a local inn, the city’s total revenues came out higher than ever before at $8.06 million.
The increase in revenue, was offset by a slight decrease in sales tax and largely attributed to profits from the newly renovated Ojai Valley Inn.
With expenses of $6.92 million at the end of this fiscal year, $250,000 less than predicted, the city had a surplus of about $1.14 million, much larger than the predicted sum.
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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Truck Stop Effort Hires Expert Help

By Nao Braverman
The Committee to Stop the Trucks! is building its brigade by hiring two experts to strengthen its position.
The group, which has been gathering support to oppose increasing gravel truck traffic through the Ojai Valley, has decided on an environmental consultant and an attorney to join their team.
Prior to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission meeting, committee members solicited the help of Chatten-Brown & Carsten’s lead attorney Jan Chatten and local environmental consultant Dave Magney.
The Santa Monica-based law firm came highly recommended by the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center which helped Ojai citizens quash the proposed Weldon Canyon dump site in the early 1990s. Though the Santa Barbara firm was the committee’s first choice, they were currently booked but referred committee members to Chatten-Brown & Carsten’s which specializes in environmental, land use, municipal and natural resource law, said committee member Michael Shapiro.
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Ojai Man Suspect In Phoenix Murder

By Lenny Roberts
Phoenix police have arrested a 53-year-old Ojai man on suspicion of murder, armed robbery and vehicle theft after the body of an 18-year-old woman was discovered inside an insurance office, according to Detective Bob Ragsdale of the Phoenix Police Department.
Ragsdale confirmed published reports that Stephen Douglas Reeves was taken into custody Saturday after attempting to drive away in the victim’s vehicle with her wallet and cell phone, but would not disclose the weapon used or the extent of her injuries, only saying that she sustained “upper body trauma.”
The Phoenix-based Arizona Republic, however, reported the victim, Norma Gabriella Contreras, had her throat slit with a box cutter and suffered head injuries. Ragsdale would not comment when asked if there was a motive in the killing.
Ragsdale said police were alerted after a witness reported hearing a woman screaming inside the C and R Insurance office in the 7200 block of West Indian School Road.
According to Ventura County court records, Reeves pleaded guilty and was convicted of inflicting injuries upon a spouse or co-inhabitant in 1998 in Oxnard, and in 2006 of driving under the influence with special enhancements of a prior DUI and with a blood-alcohol level or more than twice the legal limit.
Reeves remains in the Maricopa County Jail pending a court appearance.

Bicycle Bandit Robs Mid-State Bank

By Lenny Roberts
After displaying a black semiautomatic handgun, a man suspected of robbing the Mid-State Bank Ojai branch Tuesday morning fled on a blue mountain bike on Maricopa Highway, according to Sheriff’s Sgt. Billy Hester.
According to the report, the suspect approached a teller and demanded cash. The teller complied and gave the suspect an undisclosed amount of cash.
The man is described as a white male, approximately 25 to 33 years old, 6 feet to 6 feet 5 inches tall with a medium-thin build. He was wearing black-framed sunglasses, a dark hooded sweatshirt and jeans.
Anyone with information regarding the robbery is encouraged to call FBI Special Agent Derrel Craig at 677-7348, or Ventura County Crime Stoppers at 385-TALK.
The bank, most recently known as the Ojai Valley Bank, was the scene of Ojai’s last bank robbery on Dec. 5, 2001 by a man believed to have been linked to a series of robberies in the county. The bank was also robbed in September 1995. In between, on March 31, 2000, the neighboring Washington Mutual branch was robbed by a man who was later shot during a January 2001 police pursuit in Santa Barbara.
In 1995, a Meiners Oaks resident was convicted of a series of Ojai bank robberies after the Wells Fargo Bank and the now-defunct Bank of A. Levy were robbed a total of five times.