Elections, fires, FBI raid among 2018’s top stories

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez had plenty of news in 2018.

Elections dominated much of the year, from the switch to by-district voting to the push for a half-cent general sales tax with the intent to use much of it to bolster police and water system budgets and an extended and expanded parcel tax for Martinez Unified School District.

While the city wasn’t threatened by the fires that devastated Butte County, residents took to wearing masks when air quality plummeted and watched the skies for any signs of local blazes. One fall fire appeared to threaten the John Muir Historical Site.

Baseball fans celebrated the inaugural season of the Martinez Clippers. But the future of team owners Jeff and Paulette Carpoff and their company, DC Solar, remained in question after the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed warrants and seized property from the couple’s Martinez home and Benicia business place.

For Martinez and its residents, 2018 was a busy year.

Both the Martinez City Council and the school district Board of Education, in response to threatened legal action by Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, approved by-area voting systems starting with the Nov. 6, 2018, election.

The action started in 2017, when both agencies were accused by Shenkman and his legal firm, representing San Antonio, Texas, activists, of violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Shenkman said their at-large elections diluted minority voters’ impact, especially the votes of Latino and Hispanic residents. His letters also accused the agencies of racist attitudes.

Although both the Council and Board vehemently denied the accusations, they also recognized that none has successfully defeated similar accusations Shenkman has made throughout the state. Those who fought back found themselves spending millions, only to switch to district voting or have district voting imposed on them by court rulings.

The two agencies raced to put voting areas in place while shielded by the state from Shenkman’s threatened suits.

Through a series of public hearings, the Council drew maps for four Council districts, keeping the mayor’s position elected citywide, in keeping with voter decisions in previous elections on the matter.

The MUSD Board, which has a rotating president, divided its electorate into five areas. The district excludes part of Martinez that belongs to the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, but includes portions of unincorporated Contra Costa County.

Because the new divisions led to precincts with fewer than 250 voters, many Martinez residents were notified they would be receiving vote-by-mail ballots. Still, some voters were unaware of the changes and threw away those ballots. Instead, they had to cast provisional ballots Nov. 6.

Most of the races were decided early. In fact, two incumbent candidates – Lara DeLaney on the Council and Bobbi Horack on the Board – were unopposed, although by-district advocates had suggested that the new system might attract more candidates who didn’t have to canvass large areas.

Mayor Rob Schroder defeated challenger Yazmin Llamas-Morales and Boardmember Deidre Siguenza defeated challenger Craig Lazzeretti. Voters supported the city’s request for a half-cent sales tax and the extension of the school district’s parcel tax, which they also increased from $50 to $75.

But the District 4 race, between incumbent Debbie McKillop and challenger John Stevens, went down to the wire, with McKillop finally winning by a mere 23 votes.

However, the controversy about Martinez’s by-district voting hasn’t been settled.

Shenkman, this time representing Martinez residents Felix Sanchez and Nancy Noonan, has sued the city anyway, challenging the way Martinez drew its by-district voting maps and claiming the city still is violating the rights of minority voters.

While Paradise to the north virtually burned to the ground with tragic loss of life, and fingers once again were pointed to Pacific Gas and Electric as either cause or contributor to two years of massive Northern California wildfires, the closest Martinez got to a bad brush fire came Aug. 17 near California Highway 4 and Alhambra Avenue.

Thirty acres burned in the four-alarm conflagration, and Highway 4 was closed. Billowing smoke clouds could be seen from Waterfront Park by those watching a Martinez Clippers game, and firefighters battled to keep the John Muir Historical Site safe from flames.

Martinez schools closed temporarily and other activities were curtailed when air was polluted by the Butte County wildfires.

While some residents worried that Martinez had spent too much to upgrade Field 3 to professional baseball standards, others celebrated the arrival of the Martinez Clippers Baseball Club, part of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, an independent Northern California league.

The team finished its season 29-51. But its second half under Manager Dan Parker showed the team’s potential, with a 21-19 record and an increasing attendance, drawing from Martinez and other league towns as well as visitors drawn to the games and the city from past Sacramento and the South Bay.

The team handed out signed posters the final night and gave fans a 5-9 victory over the Pittsburg Diamonds.

Ironically, when the league expanded two years ago, Martinez had been under consideration for the team that went instead to Pittsburg.

The season-ending high note left many fans looking forward to Opening Day 2019. Many were pleased that the birthplace of Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio had become a baseball town.

But the future of the team, as well as that of the multi-million dollar company DC Solar and some NASCAR sponsorships became uncertain Dec. 18, when 20 FBI agents stormed the home of owners Jeff and Paulette Carpoff and then turned their attention to the green-energy company based in Benicia.

An FBI spokesperson said little information would be released about the investigation while it was underway.

The raid on the home caught neighbors by surprise. They described the scene of about 20 agents who broke through the door to enter the home. One said there were so many unmarked cars in the area that it looked like someone was having a party.

But it was no party, as agents used haulers to remove valuable cars and other vehicles from both sites, as well as other equipment and property from Benicia and Martinez.

Spokespersons from both the city and the league said the impact of the investigation is being examined.

Meanwhile, NASCAR, the motorsports governing body, said it had no comment about the incident.

DC Solar is a partial sponsor of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver and Elk Grove native Kyle Larson and had just signed to sponsor Ross Chastain’s full season in the Xfinity series. It also has sponsored several races.

On a happier note, Martinez Waterfront Park – often called the city’s “signature park” – received $8 million in renovations, and reopened in September.

That included upgrades not only to Field 3, where the Clippers play, but also to the other fields used by both adults and youth leagues.

An Oct. 25 ribbon cutting ceremony, attended by members of the Martinez City Council as well as the Park, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission as well as other officials, reopened the park officially after the extensive renovation project.

Besides new field lighting and fencing, the work included a new group picnic area, several smaller picnic areas, a “tot lot” restroom, a new parking lot and repaving of other parking areas, addition of new trails and sidewalks and expansion of the events meadow.

The Council learned that City Manager Brad Kilger would be retiring early in 2019, and that Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell had been hired by Vallejo and would leave before the end of 2018.

However, they helped the city accomplish an organization-wide survey, finding both strengths and shortcomings, and developing ways to improve economic development and the water departments.

In the middle of its contract with police officers and other members of the department, the Council learned that its negotiated pay rate wasn’t enough to attract or retain personnel.

Both of those developments led to the half-cent tax ballot measure, overwhelmingly supported by voters.

Meanwhile, revenues from another half-cent tax approved in 2016 by voters had been accumulating, and contracts for road improvements throughout the city were approved and started. That work will continue into 2019.

Meanwhile, other funding sources paid for repaving of both Brown and Green streets, both of which badly needed those repairs.

The city’s sparring with members of the Friends of Pine Meadow continued. Friends of Pine Meadow is a group that is seeking to prevent a housing development from being constructed on the site of John Coward’s golf course.

The Council and the group had competing ballot measures on the June ballot. Both would require the public’s vote before public open space designations could be changed to allow denser development, but the citizens’ group measure also applied to private property.

The latter measure succeeded at the polls in June, but the matter is back in the courts for settlement.

In another open space preservation matter, the city is continuing its negotiation with the owners of nearly 300 acres of the Alhambra Hills that had been slated for a 112-home subdivision. This effort is endorsed by the Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee, the John Muir Land Trust and supporters of the John Muir National Historic Site.

Part 2 of the year in review will be published in Sunday’s edition.

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