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Swine flu fears and record high unemployment dominate 2009
An early morning blaze swept through the Red Steer restaurant on May 28 causing major damage to the interior of the building and the roof. - photo by Journal file photo
Another year has come and gone. A year which many may be happy to see go, as 2009 saw a record high in unemployment, budget cuts and H1N1-related deaths.
Change was also in the air in 2009. The City of Turlock welcomed a new city manager, the annual fireworks show moved to the fairgrounds and the Stanislaus County Fair said good-bye to long-time supporter and chief financial officer, Anthony Leo.
Before we begin the challenges of a new year, let’s look back on a few highlights from 2009.

Changing of the guard
2009 began with a bang, at least for the City of Turlock. Just before 12 midnight on Jan. 13, the Turlock City Council decided to terminate the employment contract of City Manager Tim Kerr during a regularly-scheduled performance review. Two days later, the council moved to hire Chief of Police Gary Hampton as interim city manager.
Kerr became interim city manager in October 2007 following the retirement of Steve Kyte, then was named city manager in January 2006. Kerr’s employment with the City had been tenuous since 2007, when he was embroiled in a controversy regarding the city’s contract with the Turlock City Employees Association.
Hampton served as both chief of police and interim city manager —  with no additional salary increase — until May, when the City Council hired Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden to take over the position of city manager.
“It has been a pleasure to serve the Modesto community and to lead the great men and women of the Modesto Police Department,” Wasden said shortly after being hired as Turlock City Manager. “I believe my 30 years of public sector experience has prepared me for the opportunity to serve as the city manager of Turlock... Turlock is a special community and I look forward to serving the city council and the community and working with city staff to enhance the quality of service and life in Turlock.”
After 30 years, Stanislaus County Fair CEO Anthony Leo tendered his resignation in October. Although Leo has returned as interim CEO while the 38th District Agricultural Association Board of Directors looks for a replacement, he will not be overseeing operations of the 2010 fair. The Fair Board also made two other significant changes this year that will effect the 2010 fair — the fair run dates have been moved from the first week in August to July 16 through July 25 and ticket prices were increased by $2.
After 24 years of filling the Turlock sky with showers of red, white and blue sparkles — all set to the exquisite sounds of the California State University, Stanislaus symphony orchestra — the university had to cancel its annual Fantastic Fourth fireworks show due to budget cuts. But Turlockers were not without Fourth of July flare, thanks to the Turlock Chamber of Commerce and Stanislaus County Fair. The Chamber of Commerce resurrected the community celebration, just in time for the holiday.

The piano bar and football field

The Turlock City Council spent 2009 embroiled in hot button issues from the controversial granting of a Conditional Use Permit to the Vintage Lounge, a downtown piano bar, to the council’s decision — when acting as the Redevelopment Agency — to allocate $2.8 million to renovate Joe Debely Stadium.
The process the owners of the Vintage Lounge went through to obtain a Type 48 liquor license resulted in Councilwoman Mary Jackson being accused of a conflict of interest — and subsequently acquitted by the Civil Grand Jury.
The Nov. 24 decision of the Turlock City Council, sitting as the Redevelopment Agency, to allocate funds for the renovation of Joe Debely Stadium at Turlock High School, despite public objections, has resulted in a lawsuit. This is one 2009 issue that will be following the council into the new year. Soon after, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a legal letter to the city council that resulted in the elimination of prayer during council meetings, the council decided — amid television cameras and a crowded room — that displaying the motto “In God We Trust” in City Hall was a good idea. Councilman Kurt Spycher will be paying for the phrase’s installation. An ad-hoc arts sub-committee comprised of Mayor John Lazar, Spycher, and members of the Turlock City Arts Commission was formed in the fall to research artistic alternatives to display the phrase in City Hall.
The Turlock City Council wasn’t the only public body to navigate controversial waters this past year.  
Less than two months after approving a 15 percent electric rate hike intended to stymie a $57 million Turlock Irrigation District budget shortfall, the TID Board of Directors approved $492,348 in merit-based salary raises for about 130 managerial, supervisory, professional and confidential employees.
While the district justified the raises — “The people that are getting this additional salary have shown some extra effort and extra performance and are being rewarded for it,” said then TID Board President Charlie Fernandes — the public responded with outrage during subsequent board meetings and letters to the editor.

A call to arms
Turlockers, in years past, have not been known as rabble rousers — until 2009, that is. Usually sedate citizens and students in Turlock grabbed their banners and bullhorns and made protesting the thing to do in 2009. The most agitated groups this year were students and teachers.
In March, a wave of pink spread out across Turlock as teachers, administrators, students, and parents campaigned for the Turlock Unified School District to create a budget that did not include laying off teachers.
All across school campuses teachers and staff donned pink attire and pink balloons peppered the parking lots as a symbolic gesture of support for the 95 educators and 32 administrators who received pink slips. The TUSD Board of Trustees was able to come to agreements with the teachers’ and school employees’ unions that resulted in no teachers being laid off for the 2009-2010 school year.
Seven months later, Cal State Stanislaus students, faculty and staff took up the call to rally in protest of a 20 percent tuition hike, class cuts, the end of Winter Term and the loss of professors. More than 300 students, all clad in black, marched on campus in a mock funeral in October holding cardboard tombstones depicting the names of each of the 144 classes canceled due to state budget cuts. The CSUS protesting did not end there.
Rallies continued to be held throughout the fall and early winter, with one even held in front of CSUS President Hamid Shirvani’s home. And on Nov. 20, the General Faculty of California State University, Stanislaus voted overwhelmingly to express no confidence in the performance and leadership of Shirvani.
In light of the CSU system’s plan to reduce enrollment by 40,000 students over the next two years, and their closing of spring 2010 admissions completely, continued protests by frustrated college students will most likely continue into 2010.

The destruction of a community landmark

Fire swept through a mainstay of Turlock’s dining scene on the morning of May 28, leaving the Red Steer in charred ruins. The Red Steer had been serving up their famous French Dip sandwiches in Turlock since 1968. Turlockers were still mourning the loss of a truly great place to eat lunch, when Red Steer co-owner Tracy Smith and his cousin, Jeremy Britt, were arrested on July 15 by Turlock Police detectives on suspicion of starting the fire that gutted the popular establishment. The investigation into the fire also turned up a tangled web of debts, a federal inquiry, and a penchant for arson among the two suspects.
Smith and his father-in-law, Scott Soiseth, became co-owners of the Red Steer in May 2007. The arson case against Smith and Britt has not yet been heard in court, although Smith has since opened another Red Steer in downtown Modesto. The Turlock restaurant remains abandoned.

A rushed opening
The much-awaited Turlock BMX park finally opened — just in time for winter break, although the reviews were mixed.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. But we’re working on it, making it how we want,” said David Bonvicino, a 14-year-old BMX rider who volunteered to help city crews reconstruct jumps to be more in line with riders’ needs.
A grand opening of the park is still to come.

Work wanted
The unemployment rate in Stanislaus County marked a new milestone in March, reaching its highest point in 14 years.
Stanislaus County’s unemployment rate reached 17.5 percent for the month of March, up from 16.8 percent in February, according to a report issued by the state’s Employment Development Department. The department reported 42,800 people were unemployed in Stanislaus County for the month of March.
The county wasn’t the only one to set new highs. The state unemployment rate rose to 11.2 percent for March, reflecting a job loss of 62,000 for the month.
As the year wore on — and harvest season arrived — unemployment numbers lowered, only to climb again to 17.2 percent in November. Many in the Central Valley are hoping a new year will bring new job opportunities and fast.

Cover your cough
More people than ever washed their hands after sneezing in 2009, mainly due to public health campaigns aimed at slowing the spread of the H1N1 virus or swine flu.
In June the World Health Organization declared a world-wide influenza pandemic. From April to November, there were 3,900 deaths attributed to H1N1 in the United States. By November, there were 297 deaths in California and 10 deaths in Stanislaus County caused by the virus.
Everyone was encouraged to get flu vaccinations and practice good hygiene. 2009 was probably the only year on record where boxes of Kleenex and hand sanitizer topped everyone’s Christmas wish list.

Now that we’ve taken time to consider the events of the past, we can focus on making 2010 a better and more prosperous year for the entire community.
To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.