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Some of the Top Stories from 2020
Written and Compiled by Shawn Raymundo, San Clemente Times
Without a doubt, 2020 will be one for the record books. On top of an election year that continued to create divisions in our nation, we were met with a global health crisis that rages on and a reckoning on race that has increased calls for social justice.
The San Clemente Times annually looks back at its coverage throughout the year and compiles a list of the top stories that happened around town. Below is merely a glimpse into everything that transpired in 2020.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly the biggest storyline carried throughout the year—and surely to continue being a major topic of coverage as we head into 2021—we’ve compiled a separate timeline focusing solely on the coronavirus.
The year got off to a bumpy start for San Clemente’s elected officials, who found themselves having to address the impending departure of the city manager, James Makshanoff, after he announced his resignation in December so he could take a similar chief executive position with the city of Pomona.
With Makshanoff leaving town, city councilmembers began the process of searching for his replacement. Then-Mayor Dan Bane had been given authority by the council to contract a recruitment firm to assist in the search, while he and his fellow councilors hired former Lake Forest City Manager Robert Dunek to the role in the interim.
The county’s homelessness problems escalated to begin the year, when the city of Santa Ana filed a lawsuit against the County of Orange, as well as against San Clemente and neighboring cities Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano. The lawsuit alleged that the municipalities had leaned heavily on Santa Ana to take on the homelessness crisis.
The three South County cities disputed that charge, arguing that none of the cities had transported any homeless individuals to an armory for the homeless in Santa Ana. Based on those assurances, Santa Ana dismissed its suit against the three cities roughly two weeks later.
Longstanding plans to dismantle the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) began to move forward as Southern California Edison, the chief operator of the power plant, announced those efforts would get underway the following month.
Within months of the state’s Primary Elections, allegations of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety were directed at Assemblymember Bill Brough, with prominent Republican organizations beginning to call for his resignation.
The Rancho San Clemente Business Park Association and the Emergency Shelter Coalition (ESC) finalized a sale agreement for 10 acres of open space property along Avenida Pico, where the nonprofit intended to develop a shelter for the homeless.
ESC agreed to finalize the deal despite the park’s business owners voting against the nonprofit’s request to terminate the CC&R’s, which had initially been a condition of the sale.
A wild house party thrown by teenagers at a local vacation rental over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend led to a stabbing incident, as well as sparking outrage and renewed criticism from the community over the city’s allowance of short-term lodging units, or STLUs.
Less than a month after ESC and the business park had agreed on the property sale, a group of the park’s business owners filed a lawsuit against the association and the nonprofit, challenging the transaction. The suit alleged the association’s leadership didn’t have the legal authority to execute the sale and sought to void the agreement.
With the three South County cities no longer named in Santa Ana’s lawsuit, the county became the main focus of litigation. However, a federal judge eventually denied Santa Ana’s request for an injunction that would have barred the county from transporting homeless individuals to a temporary shelter at an armory in the city.
After initiating a request for proposals in December 2019 that sought interest from medical providers looking to take over and reopen MemorialCare’s shuttered hospital in San Clemente, the city began the early stage of reviewing and evaluating those proposals.
March kicked off with the state’s Primary Election, which saw races for the 73rd Assembly District and 49th Congressional District. Residents in Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and San Clemente also voted on bond measures to support the renovation of schools in their areas.
In the 73rd District race, Brough, a Dana Point resident and the third-term incumbent, came in fourth place, disqualifying him from appearing on the General Election ballot in November and dashing his hopes for reelection.
The 49th Congressional race was largely symbolic as there were only two candidates—incumbent Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Brian Maryott, a San Juan Capistrano councilmember—meaning both were shoe-ins for inclusion on the November ballot. However, with Levin coming in first, the Primaries offered a glimpse of what would come eight months later.
As for the bond measures, the Primaries delivered another blow to the Capistrano Unified School District’s hopes of refurbishing several of its campuses, including those in San Clemente and Dana Point. Both of CUSD’s measures—H and I—failed, each receiving roughly 45% approval, far below the 55% threshold needed to pass.
For San Clemente residents who have long fought the controversial proposals to have the 241 Toll Road extend to Interstate 5 by cutting through parts of town, the month of March marked a major turning point in the battle.
Those plans were officially wiped from the table as the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ Foothill/Eastern Board of Directors voted unanimously to instead pursue the extension of Los Patrones Parkway. The thoroughfare would remain an arterial, untolled route, ending at the San Clemente city limits at Avenida La Pata.
The city council began a process toward condemning the parcels ESC had purchased from the Rancho San Clemente Business Park Association. The city sought to acquire the land through eminent domain, with the intention of converting the property into a conservation easement that would further block the TCA from considering a toll road extension.
Over the span of both meetings in April, the council deliberated over the acquisition plan, which was estimated to cost the city $100,000—covering both legal costs and the price tag for the land. In a 4-1 decision, with Councilmember Laura Ferguson dissenting, the council voted to condemn the land, officially initiating the eminent domain process in the court system.
Bane, who had been an elected official for roughly a year and half, including serving as the town’s mayor for 2020, announced in the early April council meeting that he would be stepping down from office.
The then-mayor said he had accepted a job offer in his hometown of Blue Springs, Missouri, and would be relocating his family there. His final day on the council was April 21, leaving an open council seat that prompted another Special Election in November—the second in as many years.
With Bane no longer on the council, the four-person body debated who among them should serve as mayor before reaching an impasse—the first of many throughout the year. As mayor pro tem for 2020, Ferguson was thrust into the role in an acting capacity.
Councilmember Chris Hamm later announced that he would not be seeking reelection for a third term in office, leaving Councilmember Gene James, who won his seat in the 2019 Special Election, as the sole incumbent running in the November elections.
An oceanic phenomenon that creates bioluminescent waves seen at night attracted visitors to Southern California’s coastline. Known as red tide, the event is caused by an aggregation of species called dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra.
The species is known for its bioluminescent display, or flash of light, which is meant to scare off predators. During the day, the waters are visibly discolored, as the organism contains a “sunscreen” that gives it its reddish-brown look—hence, the red tide.
On Memorial Day, George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, died while in police custody. His death, the result of being pinned to the pavement by an officer kneeling on the 46-year-old’s neck as he gasped and pleaded for air, sparked outrage and prompted a new social justice movement that would be felt nationwide.
The racial reckoning that followed Floyd’s death reached San Clemente and other South County cities, as social justice advocates staged Black Lives Matter rallies and marched through the town, as well as organizing paddle-outs at the beach that called for an end to police brutality and racial injustice.
Amid the massive protests seen across the U.S., a new rallying cry rang out—”Defund the Police.” The call to action for many meant advocating for less spending on law enforcement, while for others it has meant a complete disbandment of police departments.
During initial deliberations on the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, councilors were divided on its passage, putting the city’s appropriations for services beginning July 1 in a state of flux. Later in the month, the council voted, 3-1, to adopt the budget that puts spending for the year at roughly $70 million and projects revenues to reach just north of $68.2 million.
Ferguson was the sole no vote on the passage of the budget, despite amendments the rest of the council had agreed to, including a guarantee that a lifeguard position would be filled and a requirement that adjustments would be made should revenues fall short of their quarterly targets by more than 1.5%.
Renovations to the historic Miramar Theater and San Clemente Bowling Center continued, as construction crews began to dismantle the 74-year-old bowling alley, which will be restored and turned into a food court.
A proposed amendment to extend Dunek’s contract as the interim city manager for another six months was turned down in another show of political gridlock among the city council. Ferguson and James voted to reject the contract, while Hamm and Councilmember Kathy Ward abstained from voting.
With Dunek out, Assistant City Manager Erik Sund was placed into the role of acting chief executive while the search for a permanent replacement remained in limbo.
The pool of candidates who sought a seat on the city council began to emerge as a handful of people started to file intention statements with the city, or spoke openly about their intention to run for one of the three open council seats.
An Orange County Grand Jury investigation into the TCA found, among other things, that the toll road operators had continued to place themselves in future road planning efforts and projects likely outside of their legislative purview, despite having fulfilled much of their original mandates—to build toll roads.
The SONGS Task Force, assembled by Congressman Levin, released a report that laid out a litany of federal and state policy recommendations to address many the perceived issues related to SONGS and U.S. nuclear power plants in general, while largely focusing on the safe storage of nuclear waste.
Poche Beach and the area surrounding the San Clemente Pier were once again ranked among the most polluted beaches in the state, as the two popular South County beach spots found themselves on Heal the Bay’s annual “Beach Bummer” list.
As many in San Clemente celebrated the Fourth of July, dozens advocating for racial equality marched for miles in a Black Lives Matter rally.
Separately at the North Beach parking lot, where the BLM rally began, a separate group of more than a dozen supporters of President Trump also gathered to lead a “USA Parade” to the San Clemente Pier.
Near the conclusion of a July 7 city council meeting, sparks flew when Ferguson admonished city officials and her fellow councilmembers over an alleged plot to remove her from the role of mayor pro tem.
City officials announced their intention to resume discussions with Palomar Health, a medical provider interested in reopening and operating San Clemente’s shuttered hospital, after initial progress was delayed because of the pandemic.
The California Coastal Commission (CCC) approved a nuclear waste monitoring program from SoCal Edison, which is required to show, among other things, that its storage of radioactive material at SONGS will be maintained and ready for eventual relocation.
A defamation suit against Councilmember James by Jim Bieber, one of his former political associates, raised new allegations and fresh details related to the then-candidate’s involvement in a Stolen Valor controversy during last year’s special election race.
San Clemente High’s Class of 2020 was given a socially distanced graduation ceremony from the school’s parking lot.
A military training accident involving an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) that sank off the coast of San Clemente Island killed eight U.S. Marines and one Navy sailor. Seven of the Marines and the one sailor were initially reported as missing following the incident, prompting a search and rescue operation.
Within a week of the AAV accident, the bodies of the missing marines and sailor were found inside the sunken watercraft, which was bound toward the USS Somerset after completing a training exercise on the island.
The race for the city council took shape, with a total of 18 candidates qualifying for the elections—10 for the General Election and eight for the Special Election.
SoCal Edison transferred the last bit of nuclear waste from its power plant into dry storage, completing another step in the ongoing plans to deconstruct the decommissioned facility.
A vote on whether to sell or lease a city-owned lot that developers are hoping to turn into a gas station and other amenities was tabled by the city council until 2021, leaving the decision to a newly elected council body.
Demolition work to remove and replace portions of the Miramar in North Beach got underway, as restoration work on the historic facility continued.
PierPride Foundation celebrated the completion of its project to renovate the restroom at the historic pier, including the installation of new artwork on the facility.
The San Clemente City Council took the initial steps to challenge the development impact fees that the TCA had imposed on residents and developers who have not benefited from the now-abandoned SR-241 road alignment.
The council also approved a $45,000 survey meant to gauge local support for a proposed funding plan from Palomar Health, which has suggested the creation of a new property tax in order to form a health care district in the city, whereby reopening the hospital.
Attorneys representing Makshanoff, the city’s former city manager, threatened a lawsuit, as the former head of the city raised claims of breach of contract, wrongful termination and retaliation.
Outside of a San Clemente hotel on El Camino Real, police fatally shot Kurt Reinhold, a 42-year-old Black homeless man, who authorities believe reached for a deputy’s firearm during an altercation with two homeless outreach officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The day after Reinhold’s death, mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter rallies were staged in San Clemente, reinvigorating a local conversation on racial equality, the treatment of Black Americans and defunding the police.
Reinhold’s family, including his wife, Latoya Reinhold, filed a wrongful death claim against the county, as well as the two then-unnamed officers involved in the shooting. Attorneys representing the family argued that the two deputies escalated the situation, calling their use of deadly force “excessive and unreasonable.”
Ahead of the Nov. 3 elections, city council candidates began to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports, showing that they collectively had raised more than $200,000 in monetary contributions alone, while spending about $235,617 toward their election bids.
The city council tapped the Public Safety Committee and the Beaches, Parks and Recreation Commission to assess the city’s policies on e-bikes, review what steps other cities have taken, and then come up with recommendations to amend San Clemente’s regulations, as complaints of riders speeding and behaving recklessly along the Beach Trail continued to mount.
During the Nov. 3 elections, Chris Duncan and Steven Knoblock won seats on the San Clemente City Council, while James won his bid for reelection. Laguna Niguel Mayor Laurie Davies won the race for the 73rd Assembly District and Levin maintained his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Prior to the newly elected councilmembers taking seats on the dais, James, Hamm and Ward voted to conduct a special meeting so they could discuss a potential censure against Ferguson, who faced a litany of accusations from Ward. In a 3-1 decision, the council voted to censure the then-acting mayor for “unacceptable conduct.”
City councilors also approved plans to continue contracting services with a handful of toll road experts, costing nearly $350,000 as part of ongoing legal battles against the TCA.
An independent survey of the dry cask storage system at SONGS found no evidence of contamination or radiation leakage coming from the canisters containing spent nuclear fuel.
Days before Thanksgiving, the city received word from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that a renewal request for the five-year waiver to maintain quiet zones at seven railroad crossings had been denied, bringing back the unwelcome sound of train horns blaring through town.
With trains passing through San Clemente now required to sound their horns per federal regulations, the city and Metrolink moved quickly to address the compliance issues that the FRA found with the city’s Pedestrian Audible Warning Systems, or PAWS.
Federal officials said that a decision on whether to approve the city’s new waiver request could come as early as the first quarter of 2021.
In his last few weeks in office, Brough faced an additional allegation, this time involving Patricia Todd, a former legislative aide for Sen. John Moorlach of Costa Mesa. Todd has filed a criminal complaint against the outgoing assemblymember for allegedly raping her after a 2015 dinner in Sacramento.
Months after filing the state claim for wrongful death, the Reinhold family continued to seek restitution from the county and the two deputies involved in the Sept. 23 police shooting by filing a lawsuit in federal court that accuses the officers of using excessive and unreasonable force.
Following the swearing-in of the new councilmembers, Ward was appointed mayor of the city of San Clemente, while James was appointed mayor pro tem for 2021.
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.