Year in Review: City manager Mike Flad leaves, Burbank sees first homicide in 3 years, Rebecca Mieliwocki recognized by Obama

A massive manhunt for a missing FBI agent, the surprise departure of the city’s chief executive, a National Teacher of the Year, tragic suicide and long-sought closure for the family of a murdered Burbank police officer.

The year 2012 was full of twists and turns, surprise and tragedy. Here’s a look back at some of the top stories that reverberated throughout the community, and far beyond.

Burbank woman electrocuted trying to help motorist in crash

A 40-year-old Burbank woman was one of two Good Samaritans who were electrocuted to death Aug. 22 after trying to help a motorist trapped inside his vehicle after a crash in Valley Village.

Irma Zamora and Stacey Schreiber, 39, of Valley Village were electrocuted on Aug. 22, when they tried to render aid to 19-year-old Arman Samsonian who crashed into a light pole and fire hydrant, officials said.

Samsonian was allegedly driving at high rate of speed on Magnolia Boulevard when he lost control of his SUV and crashed into the pole and hydrant at Ben Avenue in Valley Village, officials said.

Schreiber and Zamora stepped into the spewing hydrant water that had been energized with 4,800 volts of electricity from fallen power lines and were electrocuted. Rescue crews had to use a 6-foot pole with hooks and a handle to retrieve the women.

In all, six people, including a Los Angeles police officer and the driver, were injured from electrical shock.

Samsonian pleaded not guilty in November to two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for the women’s death. Zamora’s son, meanwhile, described her as brave, heroic and “always trying to help someone.”

“The fact that my mom died being a hero, I am just so proud of her,” the son, David Aguilar, said.

Bob Hope Airport experiences prolonged financial turbulence

The Bob Hope Airport struggled throughout the year with declining passenger numbers and parking revenues following the unexpected departure of American Airlines in February.

Airfield officials were caught by surprise in October when the number of passengers for September tumbled by 10% compared to the year prior and parking revenues declined 9.7%, dropping to $1.5 million from the $1.67 million logged in September 2011.

For fiscal year 2012, the airport managed to squeak ahead of expectations, taking in just $4,677 more than what was projected, according to a report released in October.

The report, though, showed that parking revenues, which traditionally make up about 40% of the airfield’s total revenues, came in at $732,196 under budget — a 3.8% decrease from what was projected.

The airport was also hit with more bad news when Jet Blue announced that it was halting its daytime flights out of Burbank. Only one nighttime flight to JFK International Airport in New York City will remain.

The airport is trying to bolster parking revenues for the rest of fiscal year 2013 by increasing fees in all of its lots except Lot A, which will remain at $10 a day.

Residents, chapel duel over cellular equipment

Residents living near the Little White Chapel were successful in keeping a wireless telecommunications facility out of their neighborhood after the Burbank City Council blocked the project.

Council members in June sided with neighborhood residents in overturning a commission-level approval of the T-Mobile facility that was proposed atop the Little White Chapel, located at 1711 N. Avon St.

In their appeals, residents argued the project would negatively impact property values and was incompatible with a single-family residential area.

The project had driven a divide between the neighbors and the church, but after the council’s decision, church members and nearby residents held a potluck in the name of future harmony.

A few months later, the City Council directed officials to explore options to limit how and where wireless telecommunications facilities can be built, particularly involving buildings such as churches and libraries and in residential areas.

Possible options include underground wireless equipment, as well as stricter regulations that could include testing for radio frequency emissions, time limits on permits and increased public noticing.

A few weeks ago, a list of options was presented to City Council members, who instructed officials to sit down with an expert and residents who have raised concerns about the equipment and determine which of their concerns can be included in the options.

Big plans for big retailers

The legal maneuvering over a planned Walmart adjacent to the Empire Center got off in earnest in 2012, beginning with a lawsuit filed in May to block construction, followed by an injunction issued by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in August.

Three local residents filed the suit to stop the store from opening, claiming street improvements required by a city-approved ordinance need to be completed — as well as another environmental impact review — before building permits can be issued because a Walmart will dramatically increase traffic in the area around the Empire Center.

The city issued the permit to Walmart in February to begin work in the former Great Indoors store.

Walmart and the city of Burbank sent a letter to Gideon Kracov — the attorney representing Shanna Ingalsbee, Katherine Olson and Yvette Ziraldo — stating it planned to start construction in mid-July.

Kravoc, who also represents the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 770, sought an injunction until the matter is resolved at trial.

Earlier this month, the case was reassigned because Judge Ann I. Jones, who was slated to hear the case, was moved to a new post as supervising judge of budget planning and administration for the court system.

Another major retailer, IKEA, plans to build a new store in Burbank that will be nearly twice the size of its current location.

The new store would open in 2016 and be built on 22 acres west of San Fernando Boulevard and south of Providencia Avenue, less than a mile from the current location at 600 N. San Fernando Blvd., according to the company.

There have been no formal protests against IKEA’s project.

Colony Theatre struggles to build an audience

In October, the Colony Theatre announced that if it didn’t raise $49,000 in two weeks, it would have to cancel the opening of “The Morini Strad,” starring Mariette Hartley as an aging musician.

It reached that goal and the play turned into a surprise hit for the theater, generating enough revenue to produce the next play of the season, the thriller “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight.”

But the theater still needs to raise $500,000 to continue operations and it delayed sending out its subscription renewal notices that were set to go out in January because of the uncertain future.

“Our subscribers have been incredibly loyal, routinely renewing at a rate of 90%, and we are committed to being transparent with them about our financial situation,” said Trent Steelman, the theater’s executive director, in a statement.

The immediate goal, he added, is to be able to fund the last production of the season, a world-premiere musical telling the short and often troubled life of lyricist Lorenz Hart — of Rodgers and Hart fame — and featuring many songs from his career.

The theater is looking at various fundraising options, including opportunities for a sponsor to have its name above the title of the play on the theater’s marquee and in promotional materials, Steelman said, adding that the Colony has “high hopes” that that donors will take advantage of the tax write-off for 2012 and give by Dec. 31.

Flad makes surprise jump to South Gate

Former City Manager Mike Flad stunned city officials in September after announcing his plans to leave the Media City to take the top post at South Gate, a seven-square-mile working-class town of 95,000 nestled between Lynwood and Cudahy.

City officials had expected him to retire in the city where he had spent more than two decades building his career.

Flad became the second-youngest city manager in Burbank's history when he assumed the top job in 2008. He worked for the city for nearly 23 years, or half his life.

In February, the city extended Flad's contract for five years to December 2016, with an initial salary of $18,117 per month and an annual 3% increase after two years.

But Flad said in September the timing was right for a change.

Along with the new job change came a pay cut — South Gate approved Flad’s $215,000 annual contract in September.

“I got into this business to make a difference, not to become the city manager of the largest city,” he had said after his appointment was approved. “If your goal is to make a difference, you see this move in a totally different light.”

Flad started in South Gate Dec. 3.

That same day, Ken Pulskamp — who had just retired from the top position in Santa Clarita — kicked off his first week as Burbank’s interim city manager.

First homicide since 2009 shocks neighborhood

Shock waves pulsed throughout the Burbank community in October after a 43-year-old Burbank man was shot to death on his front porch, across the street from Joaquin Miller Elementary School.

The victim, identified as Antwan “Tony” Haroun, was shot multiple times just before 11 p.m. on Oct. 11 as he returned to his Providencia Avenue home from work, authorities said.

The shooting death marked the first homicide in Burbank since early 2009, when there were two murders — one in January and one in February.

A neighbor who lived in the complex with Haroun’s family for four years said he heard four gun shots — and later “blood-curdling” screams — echo through the stairwell.

The victim was remembered as a barber who enjoyed barbecues on his porch with his wife, children and large extended family.

Haroun’s family has since moved out of the complex, according to neighbors.

No suspects have been identified and no arrests have been made, Burbank police said.

“It could take years,” said Burbank Police Sgt. Darin Ryburn. He also said the murder was “not a random act.”

‘Hot Topless Maid’ anyone?

Burbank garnered national media attention this fall when bright, colorful vans advertising $99 topless maid and $40 massage services were parked near the city’s major commercial intersections, annoying business owners and city officials.

The ad vans that sparked the initial complaints are no longer parked on city streets, nor did they try to get a permit, Burbank officials reported last month.

Even so, the City Council opted to consider a set of stricter rules on the books.

Burbank moved last month to ban advertising vehicles from city streets, though it’s unclear how the proposed law would be applied, such as whether a commercial van used for transportation and advertising would be banned from city streets, or if the law would cover both roving and parked vehicles.

Despite that effort, the City Council decided a few weeks later to plaster its own vehicles — the 28-bus BurbankBus fleet — with advertisements to help fund the city’s cash-strapped transit programs.

That the council appeared ready to cover city buses with ads just weeks after requesting a ban on ad vans struck some residents as hypocritical.

Though city officials in the past called the ad vans “unattractive” and “an eyesore,” one council member insisted this month that the problem was not the content, but that they were parked.

“They’re taking up parking spaces, so we are losing valuable parking, essentially to provide an advertising space for a business,” Mayor Dave Golonski said at a December council meeting.

With regards to working with mobile advertising services firm Titan Outdoors, Golonski said the city will craft an agreement that doesn’t allow the city to regulate the content of the BurbankBus ads.

Perhaps Hot Topless Maids is looking for a new venue to flaunt its services?

Cop killer is sentenced after pleading guilty

The man who killed Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka in November 2003 — David A. Garcia — was sentenced in July to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges, bringing closure to the law enforcement community and the officer’s family nearly a decade after his death.

Pavelka, 26, was killed in an exchange of gunfire during a routine stop outside the Ramada Inn in Burbank after just 10 months on the force. His partner, Officer Gregory Campbell, was wounded as they approached a parked SUV in which Garcia was a passenger.

The officers stopped the pair because they suspected a possible drug offense.

Garcia was 19 at the time of his arrest.

In addition to first-degree murder, Garcia also pleaded guilty to one count of transportation of methamphetamine, two counts each of possession of a machine gun and possession of an assault weapon and one count of possession of a silencer, according to Burbank police.

He also admitted to two special circumstance allegations: that the murder victim was an on-duty peace officer, and that the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding arrest.

Prosecutors announced in 2004 that they intended to seek the death penalty against Garcia, but agreed to life in prison without parole in exchange for Garcia's plea, Head Deputy William Hodgman, of the district attorney's Target Crimes Division, said in a statement.

Prior to Pavelka's death, Burbank police had not lost one of their own in a shooting since 1920.

High school football player commits suicide

In March, 17-year-old Burbank High football player Matthew Smyser died at his Shadow Hills home in what officials would later rule as a suicide.

Matthew was a wide receiver and linebacker on the varsity squad who was known by his football coach Hector Valencia as popular among students on campus.

“He was very friendly and was polite with a great deal of character. He also had a lot of integrity,” Valencia said. “He was positive and he was a kid that you could trust.”

Matthew attended Village Christian and Alemeny before enrolling in Burbank Unified in 2011. Upon his death, district officials said Matthew’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer also in 2011.

His suicide came weeks after a sophomore jumped to his death at Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta.

Valencia said Matthew wouldn’t be remembered so much for what he accomplished on the football field as for the kind of person he was.

“We want to remember all the good things about him,” he said.

Burbank educator named national Teacher of the Year

Seventh-grade English teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki put Burbank on the map this April when she was named National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama.

“I am not the best teacher in America — there isn’t one,” she said, during the White House ceremony. “All across this nation there are millions of teachers who do the work that I do and many do it better.”

Six months into her national post, Mieliwocki had temporarily bid farewell to her Luther Burbank Middle School classroom to travel to Russia, Japan, China, Singapore and many more stops up and down California and across the nation to meet fellow educators and hash out the most pressing issues in learning today.

Among the most common issue has been the discussion over teacher evaluations.

“What worries us is when whole states or whole districts are using one score on one test given one time in the school year,” she said.

The second issue is California’s poor budget for education.

“Thirty years of cutbacks have given us a system that barely works for kids to be competitive,” she added.

With six more months ahead in the limelight, Mieliwocki continues to travel, tweet and do “the most good for teachers, making sure we’re heard.”

It was a year of surprises as local events often turned into national news.

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