Year in Review: PRJUSD dominated headlines in 2018

From left to right, newcomers Chris Arend, Stephanie Ulibarri, and Lance Gannon, and incumbent Tim Gearhart are sworn in during December’s Paso Robles Joint Unified School District meeting. (File photo)

Today we take a look back at the major stories of the past year. Sometimes it’s hard to find a top story and sometimes it’s easy — 2018 was the latter as Paso Robles Joint Unified School District dominated headlines over the course of the year for a variety of reasons, unfortunately, it was mostly negative.

Here are our picks for the top 10 stories from 2018:

PRJUSD financial fallout

No. 1 — In front of a stand-room-only crowd, Paso Robles Joint Unified School District Superintendent Chris Williams took full responsibility for the district’s most recent budget woes.

During the Sept. 25, school board meeting it was explained during the PRJUSD Unaudited Actuals Report that district reserves — money in the general fund that hasn’t been budgeted — at the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year had dipped to .96 percent — $754,413.

The California Department of Education requires school districts to maintain a reserve of 3 percent. Following past fiscal troubles in the district, PRJUSD trustees have asked for reserves to be 10 percent.

“One hundred percent my responsibility and accountability that I own this budget, I am responsible for it. I do not point my finger to blame anyone else,” Williams said. “The reality is the time I’ve spent with other areas should have been spent within the budget.”

Voters took notice of the drop and elected three new trustees, Chris Arend, Lance Gannon, and Stephanie Ulibarri.

Just before the new board was to be seated, Superintendent Chris Williams unexpectedly resigned Thursday morning, Dec. 6, during a special school board meeting. Williams will receive a payout of $113,409, equal to six months of pay as a lump-sum payment.

Trustees will begin the search for a full-time replacement in early 2019 and also continue closing a projected $2.9 million shortfall over the next two years.

Paso elects first woman to Council in 34 years

No. 2 — People in a packed Council Chamber loudly applauded as Paso Robles’ newest councilmember, Maria Elena Garcia, was sworn in Tuesday night, Dec. 4.

Garcia is the first woman elected to the Paso Robles Council more than three decades and only the third councilwoman in the city’s history.

She finished second in the November general election behind incumbent John Hamon with 4,831 (28 percent) and 5,221 (30.26 percent) votes, respectively. Michael Rivera and Andy Pekema finished a distant third and fourth.

Paso Robles City Manager Tom Frutchey swore in Garcia, Hamon and returning Mayor Steven Martin.

Garcia took the seat formerly held by Jim Reed, who instead of running for re-election challenged Martin for mayor.

Following the swearing-in ceremony, each newly elected councilmember thanked their supporters and made brief comments.

“I just want to say thank you to all of the community for inviting me into their homes and letting me listen to the concerns they had,” Garcia said.

Body of missing woman found

No. 3 — After seven months of wondering what happened to Nancy Woodrum, the San Luis Obisbo County Sheriff’s Office may have some answers.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson and District Attorney Dan Dow during a press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 19, shared an arrest was made in connection to the disappearance of 62-year-old Woodrum, who went missing on Saturday, May 5.

Carlo Alberto Fuentes Flores, 42, of Paso Robles, was being held on suspicion of murder, awaiting formal charges by the DA’s Office.

“We arrested the person that we believe is responsible for the murder,” said Parkinson.

Parkinson presented a timeline of events on the Woodrum case.

On Tuesday, Dec. 18, Flores, a resident of Paso Robles, was interviewed by detectives of the Sheriff’s Office and as a result of the interview, he led detectives to the body of Nancy Woodrum.

Flores was charged with the murder Thursday afternoon, Dec. 20. If the special circumstances are found true, the penalty for a defendant who is found guilty of murder in the first degree is death or imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Former Paso Robles cop not charged

No. 4 — San Luis Obispo District Attorney Dan Dow said Thursday afternoon, Nov. 1, there was not enough evidence to bring charges against a former Paso Robles police officer accused of both on-duty and off-duty sexual assault.

Dow said during a press conference that “no reasonable jury or judge would conclude after seeing all of the evidence that Mr. McGuire was guilty of the crimes that have been alleged against him.”

Christopher McGuire resigned on Oct. 1 from the Paso Robles Police Department. He was a sergeant with the department.

McGuire was placed on paid administrative leave in May. Throughout the investigation and while the case was being reviewed by the DA’s Office, officials did not elaborate on the allegations, saying only that they involved sexual assault.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office started looking in the matter on May 9. It stemmed from a separate incident during a report made to Santa Cruz law enforcement by a woman. Santa Cruz reached out to Paso Robles police on May 8 and the SLO Sheriff’s Office started its investigation the following day.

On Aug. 15 the case was referred to the DA’s Office and the SLO Sheriff’s Office recommended the DA file charges of suspicion of committing forcible sex acts.

Council greenlights events center

No. 5 — The Paso Robles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, June 19, to move forward with a plan to study the feasibility of building a multi-million dollar events center in the city in partnership with nonprofit organization Travel Paso and the Paso Robles Events Center under the umbrella of the 16th Agricultural District of the State of California.

According to a report from Paso Robles City Manager Tom Frutchey, a recent study conducted by Visit CAL SLO “demonstrated a clear need for a conference center in this region” and identified the North County as the preferred location over both South County and San Luis Obispo.

“In terms of the North County, if it’s going to be anywhere, it’s going to be Paso,” Frutchey said. “We believe that a conference center will form a key element of our long-term visitor strategy set of assets.”

The $26 million dollar project would create an estimated 181 jobs during construction and another 151 permanent jobs as part of its $12.5 million projected annual budget. The facility would also generate an estimated $7.35 million in Transient Occupancy Tax over the coming 30 years, Frutchey said, adding that more than 30 percent of the projected attendees would be non-local.

The proposed facility would include a 35,000-square foot building with 19,000-square feet of usable space including 11-14,000-square feet that will be reserved for a ballroom/banquet/meeting room, Frutchey said, noting that such a facility is not available anywhere in the county.

New chiefs hired

No. 6 — The Paso Robles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, April 3, to approve the appointment of Interim Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta to the position of Fire Chief and Police Commander Ty Lewis to the position of Police Chief.

Stornetta has been serving as the interim fire chief for Paso Robles for the past six months and his appointment as chief took effect immediately. Lewis’ appointment to chief will take effect when current police chief Robert Burton retires on June 25.

Normally, staff appointments would be included on the Council’s consent agenda and wouldn’t be discussed during the public meeting, but City Manager Tom Frutchey said he made an exception for these two appointments.

“Because of the nature of the service from the two individuals involved, I wanted to ensure that the Council and the community had a chance to appreciate these two individuals,” Frutchey said.

Parking Permits Plan put in motion

No. 7 — A little more than a month ago after hitting an unexpected snag, City Council said it was going to do something about parking.

Council followed through Tuesday night, Oct. 16, and unanimously approved, 5-0, an employee parking permit pilot program. The 6-month pilot launches Nov. 1 with implementation set for Dec. 1.

Prior to approving the permit program, council first approved, 5-0, updates and revisions to its parking ordinance.

The basics of the program include the city selling 150 virtual employee parking permits for $5 per month. Due to the early interest in the program, the City Council increased the number of possible spaces from 75 to 150 to allow the City to be responsive to demand.

Market Walk Groundbreaking

No. 8 — Deborah Longo had a vision for a gathering place in Paso Robles where visitors could get great wine and food.

From that vision was born the Paso Market Walk. Longo with about 50 people in attendance watched as she broke ground on the mixed-use project Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 4.

Work is currently underway on the 16,000-square-foot marketplace located on the site of the old Hometown Nursery at 1803 Spring St., just north of Paso’s downtown.

Longo, standing in front of dirt moving construction equipment, thanked her team, her husband, the City of Paso Robles and the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce during the ceremonial groundbreaking.

By-district elections coming

No. 9 — The Paso Robles City Council received public comment on Nov. 20 on the criteria and the timeline for drafting district boundaries for the transition from at-large City Council elections to by-district elections.

The City is required to transition to a by-district system because of a legal challenge that the current system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2002. The primary criteria is census population data. All districts must have an equal population, as determined by indivisible census tracts.

Additional outreach and community meetings will be held in January to educate and encourage residents to utilize mapping tools prior to a February workshop to draft boundary maps and a potential election sequence.

Porter leaving PRWCA

No. 10 — Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Porter announced Oct. 11  her plans to leave the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance at the end of 2018 to pursue new opportunities closer to her family on the East Coast. The search for a new Executive Director is actively underway. Porter will be assisting the Alliance with the search and the transition.

Key achievements under Porter’s leadership were the recognition of 11 new sub-AVAs within Paso Robles, a “Wine Region of the Year” award by Wine Enthusiast in 2013, the integration of associate and hospitality members into the organization’s board of directors, and the publication of a study in 2016 that showed a total economic contribution of the Paso Robles Wine Industry of $1.6 billion annually.

“It’s been a wonderful experience representing Paso Robles Wine Country for the past seven years,” said Porter.

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