Pin It
Favorite

Thrills and chills: Dashed hopes, political fights, and COVID-19 

click to enlarge ROLLERCOASTER This past year came with ups and downs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. - COVER PHOTO FROM ADOBE STOCK; COVER DESIGN BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Cover Photo From Adobe Stock; Cover Design By Alex Zuniga
  • ROLLERCOASTER This past year came with ups and downs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of 2021, it's hard to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is still here, ever-changing and continuing to test communities, their governing bodies, businesses, schools, and residents. But while it was an ever-present part of the past year, instead of simply struggling to keep up with the pandemic, we were challenged to adjust for the changes that a year-plus of uncertainty brought with it: business closures, widening gaps in the social services safety net, an increase in homelessness, more turbulent politics, and shortages in both goods and the people who provide services. But the COVID-19 roller coaster wasn't the only thing that took San Luis Obispo County residents on a wild ride. As 2021 comes to a close, New Times looks back at some of the big news items of the year.

—Camillia Lanham

Board of Supervisors still divided

From water, cannabis, and waste management, to COVID-19, elections, and redistricting, San Luis Obispo County's bitterly divided supervisors fought over practically every issue under the sun—again—in 2021.

Conservative supes John Peschong (District 1), Lynn Compton (District 4), and Debbie Arnold (District 5) continued to dictate SLO County policy while they faced reliable resistance from liberal supes Bruce Gibson (District 2) and Dawn Ortiz-Legg (District 3).

On 3-2 votes, the Board of Supervisors moved to loosen pumping restrictions for landowners over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, considered suing Gov. Gavin Newsom and his COVID-19 rules, pulled out of the Integrated Waste Management Authority, saw its clerk-recorder vacancy turn into a national spectacle, and denied cannabis projects due to neighbor concerns.

Local citizens shouldn't expect anything less in 2022—Gibson, Compton, and Ortiz-Legg are all up for election in June with a board majority at stake.

—Peter Johnson

Redistricting controversy and a lawsuit

Typically messy and rank with partisanship, the once-a-decade redistricting process seemed even messier than usual this year, especially in SLO County.

It started with delays in the 2020 Census, which was held up by COVID-19 and national politics. It ended this December with some major changes being made to SLO County's electoral maps.

click to enlarge BOARD SPLIT From water policy to elections, the SLO County Board of Supervisors remained divided in 2021. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • BOARD SPLIT From water policy to elections, the SLO County Board of Supervisors remained divided in 2021.

Despite marginal local population growth, the SLO County Board of Supervisors decided to pursue a radical redrawing of its five supervisorial districts. The conservative board majority selected a new map that will widen Republican voter advantages in three districts and rearrange more than 100,000 residents into new districts.

Almost immediately after the 3-2 decision, a newly formed organization—SLO County Citizens for Good Government—announced plans to sue the county over the map. Stay tuned for the outcome in 2022.

State-level redistricting split SLO County into two congressional districts, two state Assembly districts, and two state Senate districts.

—Peter

COVID-19's still here

After the dumpster fire of a year that was 2020, everyone hoped that 2021 would be better—particularly, that COVID-19 would get better. In some ways, it did: Vaccines made it safer to live life again, and California's economy officially reopened in June 2021. But the year started out on a low when both SLO and Santa Barbara counties saw the most new cases in one month, ever, in January.

The first month of the year also saw the highest hospitalizations and deaths of the pandemic on the Central Coast and across the state. Amid the surge, health care workers had a glimmer of hope: They began to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in late December and throughout January. As the winter surge came and went, and vaccines became more widely available, average citizens soon had the option to get inoculated in the spring—but not everyone wanted to. April saw the most vaccines put into arms across the Central Coast, but by early May, demand for vaccinations began to wane.

As cases began to surge again in July, Delta became the dominant variant. Health care workers found themselves reliving the trauma of the previous winter surge, treating patients who were sicker than ever before due to Delta—an outcome they said was largely preventable with vaccines.

When children 5 years and older became eligible in early November, a new vaccine debate ensued, with parents split over whether or not to give their kids the jab. With the Omicron variant now on the rise, at-home COVID-19 tests were selling out in minutes as people scrambled to test negative before holiday gatherings. As of Dec. 21, SLO County had lost 370 community members and Santa Barbara County had lost 557 to COVID-19.

—Malea Martin

Divided school districts

From mask mandates, to anti-vaccine walk-outs, to critical race theory debates, to school board recall attempts, no SLO County school district made it out of this year unscathed. When students returned to in-person instruction this fall, they were required by the state of California to wear masks while indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. Most education leaders in the county agreed with the recommendations and vowed to enforce them—but not all.

The Cayucos Elementary School District board passed a Let Them Breathe resolution in early August and sent a letter to the state asking for masking requirements to be removed. After the resolution prompted a teacher to resign and outcry from parents, the board rescinded it in September.

Not all school controversies were COVID-19 related this year. The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District took up critical race theory (CRT) after receiving a flood of inquiries from parents demanding to know where the district stood on it. The district joined schools across the country by banning CRT in mid-August, despite never teaching it in the first place. A couple of months later, the district found itself in more hot water when the The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the district on Nov. 15 after receiving allegations of discrimination against Spanish-speaking families.

Lucia Mar Unified School District's board was fighting its own battle as a group of parents worked to get three members recalled—an effort which failed to get enough signatures by the Nov. 4 deadline.

—Malea

click to enlarge SLOW JUSTICE In April, Sheriff Ian Parkinson announced the arrests of Paul and Ruben Flores for suspicion of murdering Kristin Smart, almost 25 years after her disappearance. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SLOW JUSTICE In April, Sheriff Ian Parkinson announced the arrests of Paul and Ruben Flores for suspicion of murdering Kristin Smart, almost 25 years after her disappearance.

Arrests made in Kristin Smart murder case

Twenty-five years after the murder of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart rocked SLO County, law enforcement agencies arrested Paul Flores, the last person seen with her in 1996, and his father, Ruben Flores, on suspicion of murder and accessory to murder, respectively. The arrest took place in April when Paul was taken into custody at his residence in San Pedro and Ruben in Arroyo Grande.

A preliminary hearing in August lasted almost two months—it was expected to last around 12 days. The prosecution, led by SLO County Deputy District Attorney Chris Peuvrelle, successfully showed probable cause for the case to go to trial. Paul's lead defense attorney, Robert Sanger, raised several objections to the evidence presented by the prosecution.

The hearing took a surprising turn when the defense served Your Own Backyard podcaster Chris Lambert a subpoena demanding access to his notes, emails, raw interview recordings, and other documents that would have revealed the names of several anonymous sources. Many of them had accused Paul of sexual harassment. But presiding Judge Craig Van Rooyen cited the shield law that upholds confidentiality between a journalist and their sources, quashing the subpoena. Lambert's podcast helped law enforcement unearth new evidence to Smart's murder, according to SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson.

—Bulbul Rajagopal

The fight over Oceano Dunes continues

In March, the California Coastal Commission voted to ban off-roading in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area by 2024, to close the park's Pier Avenue entrance by July 1, 2022, and prohibit crossing Arroyo Grande Creek if it starts to trickle down the sand toward the ocean. The decision resulted in Friends of Oceano Dunes, a group supporting off-riding, filing a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission and State Parks. But in December, the two agencies agreed to temporarily pause these bans, at least until a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge rules on Friends' lawsuit. The agreement also resulted in State Parks allowing people to resume camping at the dunes.

—Bulbul

Bribery scandal

"Your industry should give me one giant French kiss wrapped in money after my work today."

click to enlarge CORRUPTION Helios Dayspring, a local cannabis businessman, surrendered to felony charges of bribery and tax evasion this year. He admitted to giving $32,000 in bribes to late SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill. - SCREENSHOT FROM A SLO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS MEETING
  • Screenshot From A SLO County Board Of Supervisors Meeting
  • CORRUPTION Helios Dayspring, a local cannabis businessman, surrendered to felony charges of bribery and tax evasion this year. He admitted to giving $32,000 in bribes to late SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill.

Late SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill texted those words to local cannabis businessman Helios Dayspring in 2019 following a county meeting, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The message surfaced in July as just one piece of evidence in a bribery and public corruption scandal that rocked the Central Coast this year.

Dayspring, a Morro Bay native who founded Natural Healing Center dispensaries, surrendered to the DOJ in October under charges of bribery and tax evasion—admitting to bribing Hill over several years with $32,000 while also withholding millions of dollars of personal income from the IRS. Hill, in turn, cast votes on the Board of Supervisors that favored Dayspring and the cannabis industry. Hill committed suicide in 2020 as the federal investigation gained steam.

News of the corruption case shook public confidence in county government and led to the city of SLO rescinding Natural Healing Center's dispensary permit on the eve of its long-awaited opening. Dayspring faces a sentencing hearing for his two felonies in February.

—Peter

Homelessness increases

In 2021, homelessness in San Luis Obispo County was 22 percent higher than it was in 2016, making it the third-highest region in the nation for people living outdoors in suburban areas.

The city of SLO began the year with new signage to communicate a ban on camping-style tents in city parks. SLO's homeless population was already strained from the 40 Prado shelter closing its doors for several weeks in December 2020 and January 2021 due to a COVID-19 outbreak. In February, a homeless man was found dead at Mitchell Park.

click to enlarge TENT BAN Earlier this year, the city of SLO put up signage declaring a ban on homeless encampments in public spaces like the tents seen at Mitchell Park. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SLO
  • File Photo Courtesy Of The City Of SLO
  • TENT BAN Earlier this year, the city of SLO put up signage declaring a ban on homeless encampments in public spaces like the tents seen at Mitchell Park.

This summer, the county opened an outdoor Safe Parking Site on Kansas Avenue to give residents living in their vehicles a place to temporarily stay while groups like Community Action Partnership of SLO (CAPSLO) helped them find permanent housing. But the program suffered a delayed opening, lacked potable water, and members of the homeless community said law enforcement didn't notify them about free towing to the parking site.

Issues came to a head when five homeless individuals and the nonprofit Hope's Village sued the city of SLO for criminalizing and mistreating its unhoused residents. In December, SLO responded to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss it.

—Bulbul

Opioid crisis deepens

In April, state senators failed to support Senate Bill 350, known as Alexandra's Law, which could have been used to prosecute future cases in which someone dies of overdose because of the illegal manufacturing, transportation, and distribution of drugs. New Times spoke with two grieving Central Coast mothers who lost their children to fentanyl poisoning and supported the bill.

Opioid deaths rose all over California, and SLO County Sheriff's Office data revealed that fatal overdoses in the region during 2020 almost quadrupled over 2019. State public health data showed that SLO County racked up opioid overdose deaths at a rate that's 55 percent higher than California's.

After the county set up the first public detoxification center in its history in November, SLO County heard it was in line to receive national opioid settlement funds the following month. Out of the overall $26 billion up for grabs across the U.S., the county could receive a $16.5 million sliver in remediation to stem the opioid epidemic. SLO County is eligible because in 2018, it joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff accusing pharmaceutical companies of aggravating the opioid crisis by downplaying the addiction risks of their prescription drugs.

—Bulbul

click to enlarge DRIED OUT, AGAIN SLO County entered another drought in 2021, with reservoirs like Lopez Lake dropping to alarmingly low capacities. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DRIED OUT, AGAIN SLO County entered another drought in 2021, with reservoirs like Lopez Lake dropping to alarmingly low capacities.

Drought strikes again

Locals got a bad case of déjà vu in July when Gov. Gavin Newsom stood in front of Lopez Lake near Arroyo Grande and announced another statewide drought emergency. After consecutive dry winters, SLO County reservoir levels had plummeted. Over the summer, Lopez Lake dropped to nearly 30 percent capacity and Lake Nacimiento sunk below 20 percent capacity. Local cities and communities enacted water restrictions, while officials worried about the implications of another dry winter.

In good news to end the year, California and the Central Coast saw higher than average rainfall in December thanks to set of storms that swept through. While the rain is encouraging, it doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet. SLO County remains in an "extreme drought," according to the Dec. 23 U.S. Drought Monitor, with some local areas in "exceptional drought."

—Peter

Law enforcement debate rages on

While major local protests over police brutality died down in 2021, the debate over law enforcement continued this year in other arenas. Real-time events—like the May death of SLOPD Det. Luca Benedetti—added sobering context.

click to enlarge HONORING LUCA The SLO County community paid respect to fallen SLOPD Det. Luca Benedetti, who was killed during a May 10 shootout with a mentally ill resident. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • HONORING LUCA The SLO County community paid respect to fallen SLOPD Det. Luca Benedetti, who was killed during a May 10 shootout with a mentally ill resident.

On May 10, Benedetti, 37, was shot and killed while serving a search warrant at a mentally ill resident's apartment. He's the first local peace officer to die in the line of duty in decades. The tragedy hit just as new SLO Police Chief Rick Scott arrived in town, promising a more progressive approach to policing.

In August, a three-year-old U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the SLO County Jail wrapped up and alleged a litany of constitutional violations against inmates, from the jail's chronic use of excessive force to a lack of access to health care. The report prompted a scathing denial from the county—sending the standoff into 2022.

SLO city officials and residents rehashed the SLOPD's 2020 use of tear gas against protesters and debated a proposed new $52 million police station.

In a surprising twist in September, SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson acknowledged that systemic racism does exist in SLO County, a response to his department's release of a Unity report detailing instances of racism. Parkinson, a frequent critic of the 2020 protests, previously said he'd "never seen any indication" of systemic racism locally.

—Peter

Energized debates

The long-uncertain fate of the iconic Morro Bay stacks was finally solidified this year. A June agreement reached between Vistra Corp, which owns the site, and the city of Morro Bay allowed the city to purchase easements from Vistra for the Water Reclamation Facility project, practically for free. The agreement also put the fate of the stacks in the Morro Bay City Council's hands: If the city decided to give that power to Vistra, the company would be financially responsible to take down the stacks by the end of 2027. If the council opted to keep them, it would become responsible for ongoing costs.

DEMOLITION DESTINY Whether people like it or not, the stacks are coming down: Morro Bay City Council handed over their fate to Vistra earlier this year. - PHOTO COURTESY OF VISTRA
  • Photo Courtesy Of Vistra
  • DEMOLITION DESTINY Whether people like it or not, the stacks are coming down: Morro Bay City Council handed over their fate to Vistra earlier this year.

Residents got an opportunity to weigh in on the debate in September, where their opinions ranged from "tear them down" to "repurpose them into a bungee jumping platform." On Oct. 26, the council decided to hand the stacks over to Vistra, solidifying their fate to be demolished. Vistra has already expressed its plans to use the space to build a battery energy storage facility, and it's not the only company trying to hop on the renewable energy scene in Morro Bay. Canadian-based company Hydrostor announced on Nov. 23 its plans to build a long-duration energy storage facility near Morro Bay, embarking on what will be a lengthy process toward approval.

—Malea

click to enlarge DREAM TEAM Maggie, a resource parent, took care of recovering addict Taylor's baby, and was part of the team of people who helped mother and daughter reunite. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DREAM TEAM Maggie, a resource parent, took care of recovering addict Taylor's baby, and was part of the team of people who helped mother and daughter reunite.

SLO County needs more foster parents

The uncertainty that came with COVID-19 caused San Luis Obispo County's reservoir of foster parents to dwindle. Child Welfare Services (CWS) told New Times that many potential resource parents (the CWS-updated term for foster parents) were nervous about children's medical history during the pandemic, which caused hesitation about volunteering to participate in the foster care system.

The pandemic-slammed environment was especially tough on people recovering from substance addiction who depend on the foster care program to help them reunite with their children. Genii Myers-Sandoval, a counselor at an Atascadero recovery home called Bryan's House, said that many addicts lost their support during COVID-19. Narcotics Anonymous meetings shut down, too.

Taylor, an Atascadero mother, who was separated from her baby at the time, experienced this first-hand along with a host of other problems. Mass lockdowns also meant she couldn't interact with her daughter or the resource parent in-person, and it delayed her reunification process. Δ

—Bulbul

Tags:

Pin It
Favorite

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Search, Find, Enjoy

Submit an event

© 2022 New Times San Luis Obispo
Powered by Foundation