From new city leadership and the subsequent financial changes to keep the city afloat, to the discontinuation of maternity services at Oak Valley Hospital, as well as selfless acts done to better the community, 2013 was filled with Oakdale Leader headlines both good and bad. This week, we start our annual ‘Year in Review’ by taking a look at the months gone by, with stories from the first half of the year, January through June.
The year started off with news that special education costs were increasing for school districts, while the state and federal governments’ contributions were decreasing, according to a 25-page report on special education in California released by the state. Oakdale Joint Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Larry Mendonca said that the goal for OJUSD was to provide the appropriate amount of service for the students tempered with making appropriate decisions about costs. He referred to it as a “delicate balance.”
City leaders, governmental figures, business owners, and well-versed citizens turned out on Friday night, Jan. 18, as the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce hosted its 67th Annual Awards Dinner. At the gala, Frank Clark was being honored for the Lifetime Achievement award for his many years of volunteer service within many prominent committees, foundations and groups committed to building a better, stronger, more cohesive Oakdale community.
In an announcement made to hospital workers on Jan. 21 and made public at the Jan. 23 Board of Directors meeting, Oak Valley Hospital CEO John McCormick announced that he will be looking into shutting down obstetrics treatment and child birthing at the Oakdale hospital. The move, later approved, forced Oakdale and Riverbank residents to Modesto and Manteca hospitals for child birthing care. McCormick cited the reason for the move as the financial well-being of the hospital district.
Oakdale High School took the academic championship trophy for the 13th time in a row. The Aca Dec team beat out 11 other high schools, swept the top spots for individual high points, and also won the Super Quiz at the 33rd Annual Stanislaus County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 1-2 at Gregori High School, Modesto. OHS sent a total of 34 students to compete. Nine of those students comprised the OHS competing team, while the others were alternates.
The December death of an infant was classified as suspicious by the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office and became listed as the third homicide for Oakdale in 2012. Toxicology reports showed “excessive levels of methamphetamine” in the system of the 44-day-old female infant that had died on Dec. 11, 2012. The department coordinated with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office on proceeding forward with the investigation and were looking into the possibility of the methamphetamine being ingested by the infant from breast feeding. On Feb. 18, police obtained a felony arrest warrant for the mother Nicole Todd-Smith, 31, charging her with felony child endangerment with a bail of $1 million.
The situation with the homeless had boiled over with repeated complaints of littering, public drinking, harassment, and fighting, officials said at a Feb. 4 city council meeting. One of the solutions offered by Police Chief Lester Jenkins was to remove the downtown benches in an effort to combat loitering by vagrants. The following day city crews were out on North Third Avenue unbolting and hauling away the benches for “refurbishing.”
What started as an orderly public hearing on Feb. 13, turned into shouting, arguing, accusations, and name calling from the audience as the Oak Valley Hospital board hosted its first forum on the proposed closing of the hospital’s obstetrics department. The first of the scheduled meetings was emotionally charged as the audience, consisting of residents, former patients, and hospital employees addressed the 10-person panel. All speakers were in support of keeping the unit, which delivered 213 babies in 2012, open.
By a vote of six to one on Feb 24, the Oak Valley Hospital Board of Directors decided to close the obstetrics unit of the hospital that had delivered babies since the early 1970s.
It was discovered that cash strapped Oakdale was spending a mound of money on civil lawsuit settlements and using some creative ways to pay off the litigant settlements and the associated attorney fees – over $800,000 –from the actions of city employees that brought on the lawsuits. With the city claiming the sewer and water enterprise funds were falling short, a gap of at least several hundred thousand dollars in 2012, and the need for a user rate hike to cover sewer and water costs, the lawsuit payouts and legal costs from two recent settlements were made out of those restricted use accounts.
In a document released by the Oakdale City Manager’s Office on city salaries, the city paid over $415,000 to just three employees who were initially designated as temporary, part-time, hourly employees, hired to guide the city to solvency during the absence or after the removal of certain upper-management employees. Former Atwater City Manager Greg Wellman, hired to serve as interim city manager and later moved to an operations manager, was paid over a $205,000 salary for 2012. Retired Merced County Administrator Dee Tatum, who was brought aboard by Wellman to oversee the public works department, was paid over $115,000. Stan Feathers, also retired from Atwater, served as interim city manager from July to December and received just over $92,000 for his tenure.
History came to life in Knights Ferry on March 23-24 as American Civil War enthusiasts re-enacted battles and daily life in the Union and Confederate camps during Civil War Days put on by the American Civil War Association. The Knights Ferry Civil War Days event took over the Stanislaus River Park area. The Stanislaus River and the covered bridge served as the backdrop for two battles daily as event attendees found spots to sit on the hillside to observe the action and hear the boom of the cannons, and occasionally cheer.
With just one area operating above budget, the overall figures from the initial six months of city funds gathered from the Measure O sales tax initiative were spent below budgeted expectations, according to figures presented by Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer at a Measure O Oversight Committee meeting on March 21. Approximately $300,000 of Measure O funds were collected in 2011 and applied to the 2012-2013 Fiscal Year budget.
Visitors from as far away as Madera and Sacramento made the trek to the FES Hall to dine on the evening’s highlighted cuisine for Oakdale’s most distinctive and exclusive event; The Oakdale Testicle Festival. Over 400 pounds of bull testicles, better known as Rocky Mountain Oysters, were served at the community fundraiser for the Oakdale Rotary Club and the Oakdale Cowboy Museum.
City Manager Bryan Whitemyer presented a mid-year budget report that was no joke to the city council at a special meeting on April 1. With the steady loss of tax revenues since 2007, Oakdale experienced continued economic downturn to where it had been operating at an over $1 million deficit each year. Whitemyer reported that the Measure O sales tax initiative is helping the city not fall into a negative balance, but the windfall from that measure ends in March 2015.
Cowboys escaped the 62nd Annual Oakdale Saddle Club Rodeo with $128,753 in earnings on April 13 and 14 — without the pursuit of a posse. The collective payoff, an Oakdale Rodeo record, was the final measurement of a historic weekend that drew worldwide spectators to the Cowboy Capital of the World for what has become the biggest sporting event in city history. Over 11,000 tickets were punched, not including the throng of media, staff and a record number of participants also present.
RaeAnn Victoria Rodrigues, almost 2, and her parents served as the March of Dimes Ambassadors for the April 27 ‘March for Babies’ at Modesto’s Graceada Park and the May 4 event in Stockton. RaeAnn, the daughter of local residents Paul and Kirsten (Cordoza) Rodrigues, was born on May 17, 2011 – 14 weeks early.
A trip to Sacramento turned out to be a simulated trip to outer space recently for fifth graders at Fair Oaks Elementary School. The school’s three fifth grade classes, taught by Danny Rogers, Michelle Danner, and Niki McCoy, each took separate field trips in late March and two days in April to the Discovery Museum Science and Space Center in Sacramento, which was paid for by the Parent Teacher Club.
After taking public criticism for voting to shut down its popular maternity ward, Oak Valley Hospital officials considered another controversial decision – disassociation with the well-liked and admired Oak Valley Hospital Foundation. At its April 24 Governing Board meeting, the Oak Valley Board of Directors had an agenda item to discuss a report by board member Louise Sanders on the Oak Valley Foundation and the “Recommendation of Subcommittee.” Sanders told the board that while reviewing the long-term plans for the hospital’s viability and the current method of operation for raising funds, the hospital wanted to study further whether or not to disassociate itself with the Oak Valley Foundation.
Over 300 concerned citizens came out and participated in the Love Oakdale event on May 4. With projects ranging from painting over graffiti, weed abatement, hauling trash, and more at some 21 locations around the community, volunteers spruced up the city for the annual event that started at 8 a.m.
A one-year water transfer contract with the Westlands Water District was unanimously approved at the May 7 meeting of the Oakdale Irrigation District Board of Directors. In early April, OID approved 40,000 acre feet of water in the form of pulse flows to be released for “fish outmigration enhancement,” i.e. fish flows, on the Stanislaus River in April and May. The San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority and State Water Contractors agreed to pay OID $100 per acre foot to pick up the water at the state’s Water Project pumps.
After a 15-year relationship, Oak Valley Hospital ended its affiliation with Dignity Health, formerly Catholic Healthcare West, the hospital announced on May 13. According to a hospital press release, Oak Valley Hospital District and Dignity Health will continue its existing management until the Sept. 1 contract expiration, but at that time it will not be renewed. Hospital representatives said the decision was made following an in depth evaluation by both parties of the hospital district’s current and future needs.
With pleasant weather for both days, the 21st annual Oakdale Chocolate Festival had thousands attend to enjoy the classic cars, entertainment, food, merchandise and crafts, and most of all, the chocolate. The affair’s “Chocolate Avenue” was packed with festival goers and vendors selling their scrumptious treats and providing samples.
As over 100 peace officers from 13 different law enforcement agencies in Stanislaus County converged in a one-day gang sweep, focusing on over 115 gang-related targets, one city’s cops were absent from the posse – The City of Oakdale. Task force officers conducted 89 searches on suspected gang members on May 15, resulting in 27 arrests amid drug seizures and nine firearms taken off the street, including two assault rifles.
Excited graduates filed into the stadium to the traditional Pomp and Circumstance while friends and families cheered them on in one the most important events of their young lives at Oakdale High School’s 119th Annual Commencement on Friday, May 24. Senior Class President Lindsay Combs welcomed the 313 graduates and the community on the temperate but somewhat windy Friday evening. Student speakers entertained the crowd with humor and insight into their years in high school, while also keeping their addresses to lengths that were short enough to be interesting and long enough to cover the subjects. Madeline Jones and McKenna Cramer delivered the Four Year Review. Valedictorian Hayley Benson and Salutatorian Madison Lane shared the podium to deliver their speech to the class, each taking turns to deliver different parts of the message.
Less than 18 months after voters passed a half-cent sales tax in November 2011 with Measure O to solidify public safety service and staffing levels, City Manager Bryan Whitemyer at the June 3 city council meeting proposed discarding those promises in an effort to balance the budget. Proposed cuts to the budget included not filling two vacant police officer positions, eliminating a vacant firefighter position and laying off two firefighters currently serving the city. The hit to public safety did not sit well with those in the audience that addressed the council. Frank Clark, one of the co-chairs of the Measure O committee, reminded city leaders that Measure O was passed on the promise that 2011 public safety levels would be maintained during its three-year period.
City Manager Bryan Whitemyer laid out a revised city budget at the June 17 meeting that wasn’t as aggressive in cuts and saving two firefighter positions that had been proposed for lay-offs. Part of the 2013-2014 Fiscal Year budget included significant reduction to the city’s recreation programs. The council voted 5-0 to pass the city’s budget that took effect July 1, 2013.
Reminiscent of Petticoat Junction or Hooterville, the new faux water tower installed by AT&T in June greets travelers entering the city from the north along Highway 120 with “Welcome to the City of Oakdale.” The color scheme, however, has some not thinking of Green Acres or the Cannonball, but of American Graffiti and the color description of John Milner’s hot rod, which included yellow and “puke green.” The reaction from the public was mixed as The Leader received several calls on criticizing the choice of paint for the old fashioned tank, many upset because the colors – a pale green and yellow – were more akin to the rival Sonora Wildcats to the east, not the colors of the town’s own red and gold Oakdale Mustangs.
An active shooter joint training exercise on June 13 was conducted at Oakdale Jr. High School with the Oakdale Police Department, Oakdale Fire Department, and Oak Valley Hospital in conjunction with the Oakdale Joint Unified School District. Role players, consisting of over 30 students and 25 staff members played out their part as the injured or panicked. Police officers, all using blank ammunition, arrived and tactically advanced as a team to locate the at-large gunman.
The Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury 2102-2013 Final Report determined that Oakdale city officials did not misrepresent Measure O, the city’s half-cent sales tax measure that passed with 55 percent of the vote in November 2011.
The report stated the jury received a citizen’s complaint in October 2012 regarding the mayor and unnamed City of Oakdale government employees. The complaint alleged the City of Oakdale “improperly implemented an Oakdale sales tax increase.”
Next week, a look back at the second half of the year, with top stories from July through December.