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The year in review
Water, economics top issues, while city government gets a new look
election  pic1
Gary Soiseth and former Turlock Mayor Curt Andre view election result updates with campaign manager Josh Weimer on Nov. 4 at Latif's. - photo by Journal file photo

As the Journal editorial team started to look back on 2014 for a year in review story, it became obvious that a few issues were recurrent themes throughout the year.

Ask any farmer, business owner, politician, government agency or homeowner what their number one concern was in 2014 and the resounding answer will be "water." Not a month went by in 2014 that didn't have coverage of the state's historic drought and the use and control of local water resources. Water dominated the year's news and will continue to in 2015.

In November,  voters elected a new mayor and city council member, ushering in an era of youthful leadership in the last at-large election the city will see, while also shooting down a half-cent sales tax that supporters hoped would help pay to fix Turlock's failing roadways.

Turlock is fast becoming a local economic powerhouse, attracting both small businesses and big industry into town. Openings and expansions filled 2014, with the year also seeing big changes in the town's medical industry. The best part? More jobs.

Although 2014 had quite a few bright spots, tragedy also befell residents of Turlock. Through the loss, however, was a sense of a community rallying to support those in need.


The state's water crisis didn't start in January when Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, but the official recognition of the devastation caused by a lack of precipitation put legislative and economic aid wheels into motion.

In fact, the drought — the worst the state has seen in over 100 years — received national attention when President Barack Obama visited area farms in February and announced federal relief available to those affected by the ongoing drought.

The emergency declaration also launched a massive public information campaign aimed at conservation. The Governor tasked all residents and state agencies to cut water use by 20 percent — and the City of Turlock responded.

The City drastically reduced hours of operations at its two water park features, located at Columbia and Broadway parks. The City also diminished landscape watering and asked residents to do the same.

Along with calls for action on reducing individual, government and business water usage (and fines to back it up), a water bond was put on the November ballot.

Voters approved Proposition 1, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, which will bring water recycling projects, groundwater sustainability plan management and implementation, watershed protection, new surface and groundwater storage projects and flood management.

The state's new control over local water districts, however, was not something well received by local elected officials.

“Our goal is to mobilize grass roots advocacy to fight the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to curtail pre-1914 water rights… and they are now moving into completely unprecedented territory in what I believe is an effort to control water rights that they have been trying to get a hold of for years now,” said Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) at a town hall meeting in June. “And they are using the drought as an excuse to do that and I believe without the expressed authority to do so.”

Olsen’s sentiment was echoed throughout the town hall forum as farmers and water experts discussed ways to fight what they saw as state legislators’ political strategy to gain control of not only water rights but the agriculture industry by citing ecological concerns for reasons to impede water access.

Despite taking drastic measures to battle the ongoing drought, the state has still been dealt impactful consequences. California has lost more than 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs in the agricultural sector and approximately 428,000 acres of irrigated cropland has been fallowed.

Altogether, California has faced a statewide economic loss of an estimate $2.2 billion as a result from the drought. 



2014 saw the end of an era for the City of Turlock, as Mayor John Lazar decided not to run for another term. He was sworn into office as a member of the Turlock City Council 22 years ago and then served the town as mayor for two terms. As his time in office comes to a close, it's obvious that the growth and success he fostered in Turlock will far outlive his years of leadership.

As Lazar ends his time as Mayor of Turlock, Gary Soiseth will take up the mantle.

At 30, Soiseth — a third generation family farmer who spent four years working in Afghanistan on agriculture development before teaching in the Political Science Department at California State University, Stanislaus and advising Modesto Irrigation District management on water and energy policy — is one of the youngest mayors Turlock has ever seated.

Soiseth won't be the youngest member of the new Turlock City Council, however, as voters also elected into office recent college graduate Matthew Jacob, 22.

The 2014 election cycle was also the last at-large City Council election to be held in Turlock, as voters approved Measure A, which changes elections from at-large to district based.

While mayoral candidates will continue to be elected by all city voters, the new district election system means that future City Council candidates will now be charged with running in their home districts in future elections rather than the current at-large election system that lets the top two candidates take the seats. The approval of Measure A kept Turlock from facing potential litigation from minority-advocate groups that have sued cities throughout the state, such as Modesto which spent $3.7 million on the case for violating the California Voting Rights Act by having at-large election systems.

The state of Turlock's roads has long been an issue of contention for both residents and visitors to the town. In 2013, the City of Turlock hosted a series of public forums to inform locals about the poor state of the roadways and what exactly the city's options were. In 2014, the city decided its best bet to raise the funding needed to repair the roads was a citywide half cent sales tax — and thus came about Measure B.

The local measure would have generated an estimated $5.6 million per year for the repair and maintenance of Turlock's roads — but the voters have spoken and they said, 'no, thank you.'



According to economic reports, the Central Valley is recovering from the recent recession at a slower pace than other areas of the state, but you wouldn't know that in Turlock. 2014 was a year of development for this Valley town, with new businesses opening and others planning expansions.

Monte Vista Crossings' southern expansion opened in the fall, bringing additional shopping destinations for locals and, more importantly, hundreds of new jobs.

Grocery Outlet opened its doors in September, filling a vacancy left in the West Main shopping center that used to house Dollar City.

In the downtown area alone, at least five new businesses opened in 2014. Sky High Comics and Collectables and Ciganos Fine Cigars both opened on Main Street in April, followed by eateries  Memo’s Cocina and Tequila Bar and La Mo Café in August, and Ju Ju Thai Cuisine in September.

Sutter Gould opened its new state-of-the-art $23 million facility on Golden State Boulevard and Christoffersen Parkway in August. The new center offers primary care, specialty care, urgent care, laboratory and radiology services in the two-story 37,000 square foot location.

2014 was also the year that Tenet Healthcare Corporation took over ownership of Emanuel Medical Center, beginning a new chapter in the hospital's 97-year history. Tenet acquired the hospital from Covenant Ministries of Benevolence, a family of Evangelical Covenant Church ministries.

The largest commercial real estate sale in Turlock in the last decade closed in December at $4.4 million as three doctors purchased the 4.48 acre Turlock Professional Office Park on Geer Road to pursue their dental, orthodontic and oral surgery practices.

Although only the initial stages of construction began on the Turlock location of the new Hilmar Cheese Company milk processing plant this year, thousands of job seekers lined Canal Drive in October for the company's hiring fair.

Also in 2014, the Turlock Planning Commission approved plans for Dust Bowl to expand its operations with a 30,000 square foot brewery and operations building on the Westside of Highway 99 at the intersection of Fulkerth Road and Dianne Drive, guaranteeing that the year's economic development trend will continue on in 2015.


Although Turlock may be home to over 70,000, when tragedy strikes the community comes together to mourn and offer support to survivors. Unfortunately, there were reasons to mourn in 2014.

On June 26, a family of four was found deceased in their Red Oak Court home by a relative who was visiting the home out of concern that she had not seen or heard from any of the family for some time. The family had been deceased for more than 24 hours when they were discovered.

It was later discovered that Rodney Bowman,39,  who also went by the name of Radni Babakhan at some point, stabbed his parents to death.

Fire investigators from the Turlock Fire Department, a forensic pathologist and deputy coroners from the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office determined that Sarkis Babakhan, 78, and Rozmary Babakhan, 70, died as a result of multiple stab wounds.

Bowman died as a result of exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals generated from a fire which had been intentionally set within the home. Investigators also found that exposure to the smoke from that fire also killed Robert Babakhan, 42, who was disabled.

On Sept. 6, Elena Flores, 47 and her daughter-in-law 20-year-old Julia Flores were out for an early evening stroll with Julia’s 4-year-old son Brian Flores and 2-year-old daughter Emily Flores. The family was just a block from their home when a speeding car came around the corner at Rockwood Avenue and Boxwood Way.

The driver of the vehicle lost control of the car and swerved up onto the sidewalk striking the two women and the young boy. The vehicle then struck a utility box and a stop sign. The car crashed into a birch tree which sent it careening into a home at the corner of Boxwood and Rockwood. The car smashed through two bedrooms of the home before coming to a rest.

Elena and Julia Flores both died at the scene, while Brian Flores died at a nearby hospital. The vehicle narrowly missed Emily Flores.

The driver of the vehicle, later identified as Luis Miguel Cruz, 28, of Turlock, tried to flee the scene by jumping over a fence, but a group of neighbors chased after him and kept him detained until police arrived. Cruz was arrested and is awaiting trial on charges of murder and vehicular manslaughter.

The deaths of the three family members sparked an outpouring of sympathy from the community for the surviving family members, especially for Elena’s husband Clemente Flores and his son Jose Flores, the father of Brian and the husband to Julia. Contributions were sent in to help pay for funeral expenses and nightly vigils drew in large crowds wanting to express their condolences to the family. A memorial of photos, candles, and mementos grew at the site of the collision and continues to inspire new additions months later.