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Year In Review - Top Newsmakers, Issues Remembered
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CHP officers fill out paperwork outside the AC Transit bus stolen from San Francisco on July 19. A spike strip was put down along Highway 120 at a major intersection in Escalon and the bus ended up off Highway 120 near Cleveland Avenue a few miles west of Oakdale. Marg Jackson/The Leader

From new city leadership and the subsequent financial changes, to the possibility of fire consolidation with the Stanislaus Fire Protection District, 2013 was filled with Oakdale Leader headlines both good and bad. This week, we continue with our annual ‘Year in Review’ by taking a look at stories from the second half of the year, July through December.



With the hospital budget hurting, Oak Valley Hospital Directors took up the issue of charging $200 for these “dry-runs” where ambulances are summoned and are later not used to administer aid or transport patients. Hospital CEO John McCormick said the reimbursement can come from the county, Medicare, or the person who called for the ambulance.

The Hershey Visitors Center, The Free Will Baptist Church, and a vacant rental house were the list of city owned properties City Manager Bryan Whitemyer wanted to unload to apply to more than $1 million in a budget deficit. Whitemyer had Touchdown Properties estimate the worth of the properties with the Hershey Center being valued at $475,000, the church at $139,000, and the single-story house at $80,800.

In a marathon three-plus hour meeting on July 15, members of the Oakdale City Council attempted to resolve only two issues, both of which would have a financial impact to citizens. An agenda item regarding the levy and assessments to the landscape and lighting maintenance districts (LLMD) saw a host of speakers questioning the formulas used and justification for many of the expenses. In its second matter, the council discussed various formulas to be used for a much needed rate hike for its wastewater services. In 2012 the city failed to make its first $840,000 payment on its $13.1 million loan. Officials said the city’s rate structure was not providing sufficient revenue and rates were not applied properly.

In a story that made national headlines, an AC Transit bus, stolen out of a terminal in San Francisco, ended up off Highway 120 near Cleveland Avenue a few miles west of Oakdale on July 19. A spike strip was put down along Highway 120 at a major intersection in Escalon. Traffic was held up there as CHP units awaited the arrival of the bus, which traveled primarily at speeds of 55 to 60 mph on its journey from the Bay area to the Valley.



The Oakdale City Council heard agenda issues relating to the city’s now-cut management shortage at its Aug. 5 meeting. City Manager Bryan Whitemyer showed a series of organizational charts displaying what the city management structure looked like prior to 2007, the diminished administrative adjustments in 2008, and finally the current structure of only the city manager, finance director, police chief, and the contracted fire chief. Whitemyer suggested the city create a new position called the public services director.

Afternoon motorists were delayed on the way to their destinations on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 11, when a J.S. West & Company propane tank became dislodged, causing the tanker to roll on its side on Highway 120 north of River Road. The accident, called in at 11:46 a.m., closed down northbound Highway 120 at the Stanislaus River Bridge, shutting down one of the only exits from the city. Oakdale Police units were tied up assisting CHP for over four hours diverting a heavy traffic flow to residential roadways. Highway 120 was opened back up at 3:53 p.m., after a four-hour shutdown for the accident investigation and clean-up operations.

An agenda item at the Aug. 19 Oakdale City Council meeting on a proposal to prohibit city park drinking brought out public comments by several residents, some spirited, in support of the ban. Citizens complaining of harassment, public drunkenness, and conditions left by the street people have led to the city removing downtown benches, petition drives, and repeated calls to the police department – who state their hands are tied due to no city ordinance banning alcohol in the frequented areas or city parks.

The deaths of well-known Riverbank Karate for Kids business owner Scott Pettit and his wife Janet, both 59, were classified as homicides by Modesto Police investigators on Aug. 9. On Aug. 17, police announced the arrests of the Pettits’ son, Brandon Pettit and his friend, Felix Valverde, 26, of Oakdale on suspicion of murder, arson and conspiracy. Valverde graduated from Oakdale High School in 2005 and worked at the Oakdale Sears store.

With area fire crews battling one of the biggest wildfires in recent years, members of the Oakdale Saddle Club were supporting the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse and Animal Control staff with the evacuation of livestock in threatened areas of the Rim Fire. Several Oakdale Saddle Club members organized a Rim Fire Donations Drive, collecting at the Yogurt Station on West F Street. Oakdale police officers and other support staff were sent to the Rim Fire to assist emergency crews with traffic control and to help prevent any looting. In the end, the fire consumed 257,000 acres and cost over $127 million to fight.

On Aug. 21, unsuccessful 2012 council candidate and current OTVB Administrator Ramona Howard, sent a lengthy email to city council members, The Oakdale Leader, and a Modesto Bee reporter regarding banning park alcohol drinking and the city’s proposal of putting portable toilets in certain parks. In her email, Howard criticized former mayor and current city councilman Farrell Jackson for his position of not previously addressing the issue. Later in the day, Jackson attended a Tourism Business Improvement District Advisory Board meeting hosted by Howard and requested sanctions for the personal attacks.


Seeing no other viable alternative, the Oakdale City Council at its Sept. 3 meeting voted unanimously to proceed with a two-year reviewable ordinance banning alcohol in city parks. The ordinance would provide for a simple permitting process to allow alcohol for individuals wishing to have gatherings at parks. The ordinance went into effect Nov. 30.

After a month long investigation, a former Boy Scout troop leader and Oakdale business owner Paul Birmingham was arrested by Stanislaus County Sheriff’s detectives on Sept. 5 for engaging in sexual acts with a minor and showing the minor pornography. Birmingham, 55, of Oakdale, and owner of Print-Rite Printing on Hi Tech Parkway, was suspected of having inappropriate relationships with minors. Birmingham is a past Boy Scout troop leader and was believed to have utilized his position to possibly establish relationships with young boys.

Academic Performance Index (API) scores were released and Oakdale area schools performed well, mostly seeing increased growth in their scores from their baseline scores in 2012. OJUSD remained stable with its API score of 806, same as last year. Oakdale High School had a score of 798, compared to last year’s score of 790. Oakdale Junior High School had appeared to have a sizable downturn in its score of 785, down from 802. However, the difference was not as big as it seemed because in 2012 OJHS initially received a 786 API score but then late in the school year, the state adjusted the score up because of algebra scoring.

Citing that he had the right to an appeal hearing under the district’s disciplinary policy and that he was not afforded the opportunity to confront witnesses, former Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Chief Steven Mayotte filed suit at Stanislaus Superior Court on Sept. 12. The district claimed otherwise, stating the district’s disciplinary and appeals policy clearly states it does not apply to “chief officers.” In his lawsuit, Mayotte laid out several confidential district personnel documents showing discipline of Mayotte and actions that brought censure. Mayotte was eventually demoted and remained on leave until the end of the year and retired with benefits.

After a two-week long investigation, Oakdale Police arrested a Cloverland Elementary School substitute teacher for lewd acts with a child and child molestation. Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins said that Bryan Dauvergne Thies, 48, of Modesto, was arrested Sept. 23, after he surrendered himself at the police station. Jenkins said police were notified by Cloverland school staff on Sept. 5 regarding an allegation that Thies inappropriately touched five students at the school. Thies pleaded not guilty on Sept 30 to two counts of felony lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14 and three misdemeanor charges of annoying or molesting a child.


On Oct. 7, despite warnings of inadequate service levels by its line personnel, a plea from its past long-term fire chief, an advisement by the current command staff against future cuts, and going against a recent $32,000 fire study by the city on fire department staffing, the Oakdale City Council accepted City Manager Bryan Whitemyer’s recommendation by a vote of 4-1 to lay off two firefighters at the end of the calendar year. The move brought the city’s firefighting crew to only 12 that at one time was as high as 22 members less than five years ago. The action irritated scores of citizens who believed public safety levels were to be maintained as promised with the passage of Measure O.

Officials from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District on Oct. 14 moved forward on the possibility of a merger with the City of Oakdale Fire Department and the Oakdale Rural Fire Protection District with the presentation of a study that looked into staffing, finances, and combining operations. The $26,000 study, commissioned by the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District, laid out plans for the absorption of the two smaller departments.

The serenity of a cool autumn morning was disrupted on Oct. 17 around 11:30 a.m. when shots rang out on I Street near the front of the Oakdale Market. Oakdale police units, along with assistance from the sheriff’s department, responded and cordoned off the intersection of South Third Avenue and I Street as officers searched nearby yards for the possible shooter and set up a perimeter. While officers were taking positions in the area, a Hispanic male checked into the Oak Valley Hospital Emergency Room with two gunshot wounds that were not life-threatening. Police learned the subject was involved in the shooting and reported that he got into a verbal confrontation at the entry to the store with a group of males in their late teen to early 20s. Police later arrested Eric Michael Sarber, 18, in connection with the shooting.

Homecoming Week festivities wrapped up successfully on Oct. 18 when the Oakdale High School Mustangs beat Sierra High School at the OHS Corral by a 24-17 final in Friday night football. With the theme of “Superheroes” for this year, members of each OHS class clad in the appropriate costumes participated in the annual Homecoming Parade through downtown Oakdale near the end of the school day. Viviana Aguilera was chosen as Homecoming Queen and sophomore Lauren Ott selected as the Homecoming Princess at that night’s game.

Just a few short months after settling his hostile workplace lawsuit resulting from defending the city’s only African-American worker in another lawsuit, the City of Oakdale placed Public Works Supervisor Mark Ozbirn on administrative leave claiming an investigation into his work performance. Earlier in the year the city settled a lawsuit filed by Ozbirn where he claimed that he was snubbed and demeaned by city leaders after he defended an employee. The city later paid Ozbirn $220,000 to resolve his suit as well as paid legal costs over $143,500. Ozbirn believed the action by the city against him was retaliatory for the lawsuit and his disagreement with City Manager Bryan Whitemyer on public works operational issues since Whitemyer was hired.



With the threat of state sanctions for default, and over the objections of many residents at its Nov. 4 meeting, the Oakdale City Council voted to raise water and sewer rates to pay for a $13 million loan. Last year the city could not make its first $840,000 loan payment and revised its debt payment schedule. The rate structure will eliminate volume based wastewater charges in lieu of a monthly flat rate charge of $42.02. The majority of public comment opposed the aimed hikes with some stating that a flat rate was discriminatory to smaller households. Others blamed mismanagement of funds and questioned how the city got to the position.

On Nov. 8, the one-year anniversary of the death of off-duty Oakdale Police Officer Paul Katuszonek, Gold Star Foods Inc. agreed to pay $8.5 million to Katuszonek’s family to settle claims that its truck driver employee caused his death. Officer Katuszonek, 30, was stopped on Highway 132 at a Caltrans road closure when he was rear ended by a big rig, killing him instantly. The driver of the big rig stated he was not able to brake in time to avoid the collision and the investigation showed the driver, Gold Star employee Jose Hermosillo, had been driving for over 22 hours with only 4½ hours rest.

An Oak Valley Hospital District board member criticized the city for violating policies with its use of an Oak Valley ambulance the police department summoned for the mayor in October. Oak Valley Hospital Board Chairman Dan Cummins, who is also a City of Oakdale fire captain, sent a letter to Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins about the department’s response and a list of policy violations dispatchers committed when they requested the ambulance.

A Modesto man, out on bail for drug charges, who police say led them on a high speed chase in a stolen car, was shot by a local homeowner in the early morning hours of Nov. 13 after attempting to break in to the residence despite being warned to halt.

A consent agenda item by the city manager requesting the city pay over $8,300 for a joint fire study sparked discussion at the Nov. 18 Oakdale City Council meeting. The item had some council members the questioning the intent of asking the city to pay for something they were told was being taken care of by the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District. The council voted unanimously not to contribute any funds for the study.



Chevy, a 13-month-old cross breed between a German shepherd and a Belgium Malinois, was sworn in during a special ceremony at Steves Chevrolet on Dec. 2. He will be partnered with Oakdale Police Officer Andy Stever. Steves Chevrolet donated $16,000 to the department last summer for the purchase and training of the dog as well as made available at a low cost a Chevrolet Tahoe from its used fleet to be specially equipped as the department’s canine patrol vehicle.

In response to a complaint of parking availability by the business owner of Plaza 131, Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer asked the city council at its Dec. 2 meeting to designate that street parking on South Second Avenue in front of the business be designated only for the patrons of Plaza 131. The item, which was a consent agenda item but pulled for public discussion, raised doubt to the legality of the move and raised a question of the authority of a city to make such a decision giving certain public street parking to the solitary use of a single business.

Calling the proposal the city’s greatest chance of success at a special Oakdale City Council meeting on Dec. 9, Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer moved that the city council pursue a contract with the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District for fire services. Whitemyer laid out three possible proposals that included yearly budget predictions consisting of the status quo at $2.74 million, the future operation with 12 firefighters due to a previously voted two layoffs at $2.5 million, and contracting with Stanislaus Consolidated at $2.44 million. Public comment was mixed as Whitemyer attempted to make clear that the proposal was a contract with the city still maintaining control and not a merger as previously studied.

As expected on Dec. 16, the city council approved the proposal for the city manager to pursue a contract for fire services with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.

Friday the 13th was anything but unlucky for single mother Sharon Nardello of Oakdale, as she received the keys to her three-bedroom home that was renovated by Habitat for Humanity. The three-month long refurbishing project, a joint effort with the City of Oakdale, Bank of America, and Habitat for Humanity, provided the Bardo Avenue home at a reduced mortgage amount so that the family could get into the residence under the city’s first time buyer program.

A reduced amount of money, $72,500, was donated by the Oakdale Irrigation District Board of Directors to the City of Oakdale for its operation of the Royce Memorial Pool on Dec 17. Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer had asked for $99,000 from OID in order to operate the city’s “Plunge” for the 2014-2015 year. OID has given checks to the city for the pool’s operation since 2009 in the neighborhood of the low $70,000s and the $72,500 still covers three-quarters of the operating costs.