Council election, chemical explosion,
library troubles top stories of 2014

January 02, 2015
Santa Paula News

The election of a new City Council majority, explosions and fires west of the city caused by still unknown chemicals and the ongoing investigation and lawsuits entangling Blanchard Community Library topped Santa Paula news in 2014.

Most results from a Facebook survey and input from an email blast followed a lead set by Mitch Stone, who posted that top local stories during the year were, “The election, the Spill of Mystery, and the library.”

The City Council race saw two-term incumbents Ralph Fernandez and Bob Gonzales taken out - and Mayor Rick Cook who declined to run replaced - by winning candidates John Procter, Ginger Gherardi and Jenny Crosswhite.

The turnover on the council was unusual because there had not been a woman on the City Council since 2006, when Mary Ann Krause held the office, and surprising as Fernandez and Gonzales had easily won reelection in 2010.

But hard times followed with the drawn-out and controversial dismissal of Police Chief Steve MacKinnon, rising citizen outrage over spiraling sewer bills, criticism of alleged municipal lethargy and growing public distrust of city leaders. 

In 2012, Fred Robinson did not win a second bid for the council and Jim Tovias ran a distant second to top vote getter Martin Hernandez; two years later Fernandez and Gonzales were rejected by voters.

The November 18 chemical explosions and fires at Santa Clara Waste Water are still unexplained and the facility, located at 815 Mission Rock Road, remains closed and under criminal investigation.

The initial blast, when the back of a vacuum truck exploded spilling more than 1,000 gallons of unknown chemicals, injured two, one critically. Although outside city limits Santa Paula Fire arrived first after the 3:45 a.m. explosion, where those on scene assured firefighters that the material involved was sewer wastewater. 

It wasn’t until the spilled chemicals started to dry and crystallized that they began to spontaneously combust; at about 8 a.m. a vapor cloud over the facility ignited causing a large explosion and fires that - due to their unknown nature - were allowed to burn themselves out. There was an evacuation ordered, those within 3 miles of the 1-mile evacuation perimeter asked to shelter inside. More than 50 people sought treatment for toxic exposure symptoms at several hospitals including Ventura County Medical Center where medical personnel were also affected.

Three Santa Paula Firefighters remain off duty while they are treated for respiratory problems stemming from the unknown chemicals.

So volatile was the spill that labs have refused to test it fearing explosions. Santa Paula’s fire engine, abandoned at the scene after the tires emitted a toxic cloud, was later stripped of all porous material and is now being stored under a tarp. A city mechanic who went to check the engine before it was moved also became ill. The Ventura County Fire Department has declared their engine - left next to the initial explosion site due to what happened to Santa Paula’s truck when it attempted to leave - a total loss.

Also in November Blanchard Community Library announced a $450,000 payoff from its insurer to help cover an estimated $750,00 theft/embezzlement still being investigated by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.

The independent library received the maximum it could per policy guidelines and BCL vowed to continue to pursue the recovery of losses.

The District Attorney’s Office confirmed in August 2013 that it had launched an investigation the previous month into financial irregularities and now many are questioning when the results will be announced.

In February Dan Robles, the former BCL librarian who had been terminated in April 2013 - the bookkeeper was reportedly let go the following month - filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the library where he had worked for more than 30 years, a career started as a teenage volunteer.

His suit seeks a minimum of $50,000 plus interest for lost wages and benefits as well as attorney’s costs.

Some other stories seen as topping the news in 2014 included the dispute between the Santa Paula Rotary Club and the UC Hansen Trust that prevented the famed Faulkner Farm Pumpkin Patch to be held... the annual fundraiser raised about $1 million over a seven-year period for the Rotary Club which returned it to the community through gifts and grants to other nonprofits.

The campaign for and defeat of Measure F, a 1 percent sales tax to benefit police, fire and roads was also big news in 2014. 

The measure would have generated an estimated $1.6 million that would have given the police 50 percent and 25 each to fire and roads. The measure fell short of the 67 percent voter majority it required for passage.

Another top story was the alleged embezzlement of $22,000 from the Santa Paula High School Band Booster Club by a former band member and the generous support of the community that allowed members to make a trip to San Francisco for a national competition.

Other stories included American in Bloom Santa Paula Chapter garnering honorable mention and special recognition in its first try in the AIB competition that pitted the city against those of like size across the United States and the construction of the new Santa Paula High School science/technology building as well as the acquisition of Stewart Ranch as the eventual home of the SPHS Agricultural Learning Center and FFA Farm.

Several respondents had a wish list for the coming year centered on whether or not the sewer plant will be purchased by the city, if Limoneira will start construction on their residential and commercial developments east of the city and if Santa Paula has a vision for future development.

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