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A Recap of This Year’s Top Stories
Written and Compiled by Shawn Raymundo
Every year, the San Clemente Times looks back at its coverage throughout year and compiles the top stories that happened around town.
From issues related to homelessness and a special election held this fall, 2019 proved to be a rollercoaster of a year for the city of San Clemente. Here is only a fraction of everything that went down in 2019:
San Clemente started off the year with a couple of long-running businesses shutting down.
Duke’s, which had been a favorite haunt for locals, closed its doors in the downtown corridor after negotiations with the landlord had fallen through. And down El Camino Real, in North Beach, the owners of San Clemente Art Supply decided to retire and close their shop after being in business for more than 15 years.
Around mid-January, the San Clemente Skatepark Coalition, with the help of Friends of San Clemente Foundation, was able to raise $50,000 to go toward the installation of lights at the skate park.
During its Jan. 15 meeting, the city council approved a new route for the San Clemente Trolley program, which would connect to Dana Point’s trolley service.
Freshman Congressman Mike Levin, who represents South Orange County cities under the 49th Congressional District, started off his term in the midst of a partial federal government shutdown.
The Capistrano Unified School District’s (CUSD) legal counsel gave a presentation to the Board of Trustees, explaining how the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ (TCA) proposed 241-Toll Road extensions are likely to negatively impact nearby schools.
In a related toll road matter, Riverside Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled that most of the arguments the city of San Clemente and a homeowners association had against the 241-extension proposals were able to move forward.
In February, the city was able to make significant headway in its legal battle with MemorialCare, the owner and former operator of San Clemente’s vacant hospital. Federal Judge David O. Carter ruled that the city was within its right to zone the parcel on which the Saddleback Memorial Medical Center hospital sits specifically for emergency services.
After taking office, Congressman Levin launched a series of monthly town hall meetings throughout the 49th District, which encompasses cities in South Orange County and North San Diego County. Levin returned to San Juan Capistrano, where he held his first South OC town hall meeting, touching on his goals on Capitol Hill.
The year ended up being a rather turbulent one for the city of San Clemente in terms of its struggles to tackle the rising homelessness crisis. The city and its neighboring cities of South Orange County were forced to face the issue head-on in late February, when they were included in a lawsuit over a lack of shelters.
Orange County Catholic Worker, along with the Emergency Shelter Coalition and Housing is a Human Right Orange County, filed the federal complaint on Feb. 27, accusing the cities of not doing enough to provide shelters to the homeless.
Faced with the new federal suit and mounting pressure from citizens urging the city to address the tent city that had begun to form at North Beach, the council initiated the process to begin looking for space to operate a temporary homeless shelter.
As the city struggled with its homelessness crisis, it was able to select a new Chief of Police Services, Lt. Edward Manhart, who was appointed by the council on March 15 to replace outgoing chief Lt. Mike Peters.
And over at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), Southern California Edison prepared to get hit with a $116,000 fine by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) over violations relating to an incident that occurred while loading a spent nuclear fuel canister in August 2018.
About a month after Edison was hit with the fine, Rep. Levin toured SONGS, where he announced that he was going to formally introduce legislation that could give priority to the nuclear power plant when it comes to removing its spent nuclear fuel.
Levin said the bill would require the U.S. Department of Energy to consider a set of three criteria when determining which sites to first begin offloading nuclear waste.
With CUSD at the time mulling whether to put a pair of regional bond measures for school facilities improvement funding on the March 2020 Primary Election ballot, a poll was conducted to gauge the San Clemente community’s support.
That poll showed that 54% of the registered voters likely to participate in the 2020 primary election who participated in the survey would support the bond measure. Bond measures must meet a 55% approval threshold to pass.
A multicity-sanctioned study of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) service contracts showed that cities are being billed at a rate that was outpacing inflation and growth in city revenue.
To address the continued excessive bacterial levels in the seawater surrounding the San Clemente Pier, the city put together a task force, the Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
The city’s homelessness saga ramped up in May, when it opened its temporary outdoor shelter at a city-owned lot on Avenida Pico. At a resident-packed council meeting on May 21, more than a hundred locals cheered as councilors adopted an urgency ordinance prohibiting camping on public property.
On the Friday morning of that same week, OCSD arrived at North Beach to begin enforcing that no-camping ordinance while assisting the homeless relocate to the Pico encampment. Crowds of onlookers also gathered near the Metrolink train station to cheer the removal of the homeless.
As the city dealt with the homeless situation, it also mourned the loss of Mayor Steve Swartz, who died unexpectedly while on vacation with his wife in Palm Springs. In the wake of his passing, the council voted to hold a special election to fill Swartz’s vacant seat.
By the end of the month, the NRC had announced that it gave SoCal Edison the green light to resume its ongoing efforts to transfer spent nuclear fuel at SONGS into dry storage, which had been put on pause following the August 2018 canister incident.
The announcement came weeks after the NRC had opted not to hit Holtec International—the company that makes the canisters to store nuclear waste—with a proposed $36,250 penalty for the canister incident, because it had taken prompt corrective actions.
With the 2018-2019 fiscal year coming to an end on June 30, the council voted unanimously to adopt the city’s budget for Fiscal Year 2019-2020. It also approved a FY 2018-19 supplemental appropriation of $60,000 related to implementing the urgency ordinance that prohibited camping on public property.
In addition to passing the city’s budget for the new fiscal year, the council was also tasked with approving the city’s FY 2019-20 Police Services Contract, which did pass in a special meeting just days before the contract was set to end on July 1.
Deliberations over the contract had stalled after the council’s June 18 meeting, when Councilmember Kathy Ward abruptly left the council chambers. She left protesting a direction Councilmember Laura Ferguson had given to city management to explore potential budget cuts over the next couple of months for future funding of additional deputies.
The South County cities named in the federal homeless lawsuit initially filed in February caught a break when a federal judge granted their request to remove Judge Carter from the case.
That same month, MemorialCare’s lawsuit against the city came to an end, as the two parties reached a settlement agreement—the details of which were sparse at the time.
After an 85-day trial and six days of deliberation, a jury found Charles “Chase” Merritt guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in the McStay family slaying.
By month’s end, 73rd District Assemblymember Bill Brough faced accusations of sexual misconduct from several women—including Orange County Board Supervisor and Chairperson Lisa Bartlett.
Bartlett’s accusations stemmed from an alleged incident that had occurred during a retirement party at Olamendi’s Mexican Restaurant in Capistrano Beach in March 2011, when the two were on the Dana Point City Council.
The month of July got off to a rocky start as San Clemente, and the rest of Southern California, were hit with two major earthquakes over Independence Day weekend.
A 6.4 magnitude quake first shook the city of Ridgecrest the morning of July 4. The desert town was hit again the following evening, when a 7.1 tremor struck the area, causing further damage to buildings.
U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson denied a motion from lawyers representing homeless advocacy groups who had requested a temporary restraining order to close down the Pico homeless encampment.
SoCal Edison began construction to more than double the size of Wheeler North Reef, the 174-acre, man-made kelp forest. The company also announced that it had officially resumed its operations to transfer spent nuclear fuel into dry storage at SONGS.
The city’s special election to fill Swartz’s vacant seat took shape in August, when the nomination period ended, resulting in five people qualifying to appear on the Nov. 5 mail-in-only ballot. Those five candidates were Dee Coleman, Jackson Hinkle, Gene James, Michael “Mickey” McLane and Christina Selter.
After hearing considerable feedback from residents and business owners who had opposed a proposal to lease property on Calle Negocio for a temporary homeless shelter, the four-person city council unanimously voted it down.
The city staff’s recommendation was to allow a 10-year lease for a 35-bed temporary homeless shelter, as well as a request for proposal for a shelter operator.
The city’s homeless woes continued even though Judge Anderson granted a motion by the South County cities in the homelessness lawsuit to dismiss the case. While he dismissed the homeless rights advocates’ suit against Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Irvine and San Juan Capistrano, Anderson left San Clemente and the County of Orange as the primary defendants.
Additionally, several South County mayors, including then-acting San Clemente Mayor Dan Bane, signed on to a letter urging Supervisor Bartlett and the rest of the county board to end its regional approach to homelessness.
That letter came weeks after the board had finalized a settlement agreement that resolved a pair of similar homeless lawsuits that advocacy groups had filed against the county in 2018 over the removal of an encampment in the Santa Ana riverbed.
By the end of the month, the city imposed significant changes to the Pico encampment. On Aug. 30, the city notified campers that it would be conducting maintenance and cleaning of the camp, instructing them to vacate the premises for the day.
Upon returning, the campers were told they could no longer use their own tents and could only use the city-approved green tents that had been installed. The most impactful change was the city’s rule that limited space to only those who could prove they had ties to San Clemente.
In a 3-1 vote, the council approved a construction contract and plans for bulkhead repairs and accessibility improvements to San Clemente’s aging Marine Safety Headquarters building that lodges the city’s main lifeguard operations.
The month also signaled the closure of several hundred redemption recycling centers throughout California, leaving residents and businesses who relied on the centers without services.
The NRC held a town hall meeting at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center to provide updates on its oversight of SONGS. The community meeting somehow led to an audience member passing out a basketful of lemons—a snide reference to Holtec canisters SCE uses to contain nuclear waste.
As the 2019-20 school year was getting underway, San Clemente High School was brought into the media spotlight after claims of racial slurs being directed at a Lincoln High School cheerleader during a football game had surfaced.
An investigation by both schools confirmed that a “racial epithet” was said to the student and that “derogatory words were heard” in the San Clemente stands during the football game at home on Sept. 13.
The nonprofit advocacy group Public Watchdogs sued SoCal Edison, Holtec and the NRC for their handling of nuclear waste at SONGS. The group sought a temporary restraining order to “stop the beachfront burial of nuclear waste.”
An accidental fire broke out at Rose Donuts & Café that was determined to be the result of an unspecified failure in the area of the water heater. The donut shop was undergoing construction at the time. No one was injured.
San Clemente’s special election began to heat up for then-city council candidate Jackson Hinkle, who was asked by the Orange County Fire Authority’s general counsel to remove campaign-related materials and photographs bearing the OCFA logo he had posted to his social media platforms.
Within weeks of being asked to take down the campaign materials, OCSD confirmed that it had launched an investigation to determine whether state laws governing the use of public resources in election campaigns were violated during the OCFA event in which Hinkle’s photos were taken.
Fellow city council hopeful Dee Coleman faced some political scrutiny of his own, as he was accused of attempting to buy votes by trading discounted prices on vehicles he sells—a potential violation of election law. The complaint against Coleman was filed with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which, after reviewing the accusations, announced that it would not be investigating the issue.
In the lead-up to the election, San Clemente Times learned of a lawsuit then-candidate Gene James’ former employer, AVI Food Systems, had filed against him in 2003. The Ohio-based company sued James for not paying back the remaining balance of a loan it had given him.
Court documents SC Times obtained revealed that James failed to appear in court, resulting in a Cuyahoga County judge ruling in favor of the company and ordering James to pay $28,141 plus a 10% annual interest.
When questioned about the suit, James said he wasn’t aware of AVI’s lawsuit, nor the judgement, but said he had a lawyer looking into it.
About a week prior to the election, James also came under fire from some local veterans who had brought to light a pair of campaign mailers the Republican Party of Orange County had sent out, falsely claiming the candidate was a recipient of the U.S. military’s Legion of Merit award.
James, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, has maintained that he did not give the OCGOP permission to send out those mailers.
The city secured a major victory in the ongoing homelessness lawsuit when Judge Anderson dismissed the case. That win, however, didn’t resolve the city’s homeless problem, as it began to see an influx of homeless-related activity at Pico Park, across the street from the Pico encampment, after it had imposed its ties-to-San-Clemente rule.
The homeless saga did take an interesting turn in October, when the Rancho San Clemente Business Park Community Association entered into a Purchase and Sale Agreement with Emergency Shelter Coalition (ESC) for a pair of land parcels along Pico.
ESC sought to buy the land, which amounts to 10 acres, from the Business Park to develop a homeless shelter. News of the sale prompted prospective competition from the city and from Olen Commercial Properties, which expressed interest in purchasing the parcels should the sale with ESC fall through.
Rancho San Clemente business owners were given ballots to vote on whether to effectively approve or deny the sale. The votes were initially due by the end of October; however, ballots needed to be resent to the members because some of them didn’t receive the appropriate number of ballots the first time around. That action delayed the vote by an additional 30 days.
A new poll was conducted to again gauge San Clemente’s support for a CUSD regional bond measure to fix schools within the city. The results of that poll showed that support remained on the bubble, with about 54% to 55% approval.
A few weeks after the results of that poll were revealed, the CUSD Board of Trustees voted to place the regional bond measure on the March 2020 ballot.
The city’s special election came to a close with Gene James decisively winning the fifth and vacant seat on the city council. James earned just shy of 55% of the vote, defeating runner-up Jackson Hinkle by nearly 24 percentage points.
To address the issue of homeless individuals camping out on the Metrolink train station platform at North Beach, as well as public safety concerns related to the types of tents used on public property, the city council introduced a pair of ordinances, which were later passed.
One ordinance designates the platforms at the North Beach and Pier Bowl train stations as ticket-required areas, and the other prohibits the use of any tents, lodges, shelters or structures at the city’s parks unless they have two sides open.
About a month after the federal judge had dismissed the homeless-related case filed by advocacy groups against the city, those same organizations filed a separate, but related, complaint with Orange County’s Superior Court.
The month of December kicked off with Gene James being sworn in to the city council and with Dan Bane being officially appointed to the role of mayor. Bane had served as the acting mayor since Swartz’s death in May. Laura Ferguson was appointed as his lieutenant, taking on the position of mayor pro tem.
One of the first actions taken by the fully-impaneled council was to pass an ordinance that shut down the Pico encampment. With very few homeless people camping there since the city limited its use to only those with ties to San Clemente, it was no longer financially viable to operate.
Days after the camp had closed, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not be taking up an appeal to the landmark homelessness case Martin v. City of Boise. In the Boise case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled last year that municipalities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances unless adequate shelter space and beds are offered to the homeless.
With the city hoping to reopen a hospital in San Clemente, it initiated plans to develop a request for proposals seeking to garner interest from medical providers that may want to operate the hospital formerly run by MemorialCare.
About a week before the city council’s regular meeting for late December, the city released a draft of that RFP that was set to go before the council for approval. In that draft, it laid out estimated costs of renovating and reconstructing the hospital, challenges in operating the hospital, as well as other historical information of the site.
However, a new version of the proposed RFP that was starkly different from the original, with the details on costs and challenges being removed, was included in the council’s agenda, prompting criticism and questions from some members of the public and the council.
Despite the concerns, a council majority voted to approve the RFP, which will be released in early January to solicit interest from prospective hospital operators.
The council also began considering proposals from three developers looking to purchase city-owned property near Talega and turn it into a gas station complex that could include a convenience store and car wash.
Those proposals, however, have prompted criticism from San Clemente residents who question the potential use of the site.
Amid the city’s ongoing issues, City Manager James Makshanoff submitted a resignation letter to the council, announcing that he’ll be stepping down from his position on Jan. 17 to become the city of Pomona’s new city manager on Jan. 21.
Public Watchdogs’ lawsuit seeking to halt the transfer of nuclear waste at SONGS was dismissed in federal court, as the judge ruled that the court didn’t have jurisdiction to preside over the case.
San Clemente’s historic Miramar Theatre and Bowling Center were officially sold in December, allowing the new owner, a restaurateur from San Diego, to reopen the site as an event center and food court.
And 17-year-old surfer and San Clemente resident Caroline Marks earned a spot on the first U.S. Olympic Surf Team, which will compete in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo next July. Previously, San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino had earned one of two spots on the first men’s U.S. Olympic Surf Team.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.