2011 in Review: Power outages, school board shifts, Costa trial

La Cañada saw its share of troubling news in 2011, the most controversial being a complaint filed against a La Cañada High School teacher for having made ethnic slurs in her math classrooms. But there also were celebratory moments — for the victors in city council and school board elections as well as for individuals who achieved recognition in their fields.

Taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, an ad hoc committee, giving a nod to La Cañada’s unique ZIP code, organized a 9.10.11 weekend of events in September that drew participants across a broad spectrum of the populace. They not only were willing to party, but to donate time volunteering at specially designated areas in need of some care.

Two events that occurred in 2009 were still making headlines this year: the runaway-truck crash on Foothill at Angeles Crest and the Station fire, the county’s biggest blaze in modern history. The murder trial of the driver in the April 2009 crash that took two lives got underway in June of this year. In September he was convicted of manslaughter and reckless driving. With the rest of the Southland, we waited for 18 months for Angeles Crest Highway to be reopened, as it had been heavily damaged by storm runoff directly related to the damage sustained in the Angeles National Forest during the Station fire. That reopening — promised several times, with various targeted dates —finally came in August.

The school board, wrangling with budget issues forced on it by the state, continued to search for ways to boost revenue. In October it was announced that the local district would offer naming rights for facilities to generous donors.

With 2011 poised to go down in the history books, we invite you to take a look at news highlights that took place in La Cañada Flintridge, month by month:



—The year begins with La Cañada High School’s Evanne Friedmann presiding as queen of the 122nd Tournament of Roses Parade, which also featured the local Tournament association’s colorful “3-2-1 Dig!” float.

—La Cañada High School junior Robin Miketta is named Miss La Cañada Flintridge during a chamber fundraiser at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club. Anais Wenn, principal of Palm Crest Elementary, is honored as Educator of the Year.

—LCUSD Supt. James Stratton announces he will retire in June. Assistant Supt. Wendy Sinette is tapped to replace him.

—The U.S. Supreme Court rules that JPL employees must submit to new government background checks that examine workers’ medical and sexual histories, among other things. A federal appeals court had sided with workers that the policy needlessly violated privacy rights.

—The La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation announces plans to offer a summer school program to raise funds for the district.

—La Cañada Flintridge resident and Caltech professor Frances Arnold wins the Draper Prize, one of the top global honors for engineering achievement, for her work in directing the evolution of microbes.



—Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse moves two doors west to its new home on Foothill Boulevard at Chevy Chase Drive after an 18-month construction effort.

—Court appointed attorney Edward Murphy steps in to defend Marcos Costa, the driver in the fatal April 2009 Angeles Crest truck crash, from murder charges after Costa gives up on leading his own defense.

—The city council bans medical marijuana clinics in La Cañada, just in case the thought had crossed anyone’s mind.

—City paints new bike lanes along Verdugo Boulevard and Descanso Drive in an effort to divert bicyclists from busy Foothill Boulevard.

—Council members approve plans to landscape the long-neglected hillside behind Memorial Park.



—Layoffs of JPL employees due to smaller project workloads and anticipated budget cuts total 246.

—Michael Davitt is elected to the La Cañada Flintridge City Council to replace retiring Councilman Greg Brown, coming in 118 votes ahead of local businessman Charlie Kamar. Incumbents Laura Olhasso and Donald Voss get four more years. Dave Spence takes another turn in the mayor’s seat, with Steve Del Guercio as mayor pro tem.

—LCUSD Board member Cindy Wilcox announces she will not run for reelection.

—The La Cañada Flintridge Trails Council celebrates the long-awaited completion of the citywide loop trail system.

—The school district lays off nine teachers, citing state funding cuts as the reason for the layoff.

—Heavy rains and high winds fell trees throughout the city, including a century-old oak at Lanterman House.



—The idea of a 710 Freeway tunnel gets a cold reception during a community forum at La Cañada High School.

—La Cañadans heed the call for voluntary water conservation, dropping usage more than 20% while workers temporarily shut down a Metropolitan Water District treatment plant for repairs.

—Multiple visits from at least one hungry bear prompt concerns among residents, particularly those of Paradise Valley, one of the bear’s favorite hangouts.



—Kiwanis Club praises Clyde Hemphill as La Cañadan of the Year during a ceremony at Descanso Gardens.

—JPL gives up trying to revive the Mars rover Spirit, which suffered a harsh Martian winter after becoming stuck in loose soil.

—Negotiations continue for the sale of La Cañada Town Center by the Olberz family’s La Cañada Properties Inc. to property management giant IDS Real Estate, with a deal finally reached later that summer.

—The City Council brings some closure to the years-long dispute between Dr. Philip Merritt and neighbors over development of a hillside lot abutting Hampstead Road. Merritt had sued for the right to use Windermere Place, a planned but un-built street off Inverness Drive, to access the property. A council easement turned the street into a less-intrusive private driveway that neighbors could use if they shared construction costs.

—Fiesta Days, La Cañada’s annual Memorial Day weekend celebration and commemoration, is another crowd-pleasing hit.



—Angeles Crest Highway reopens after being closed for nearly 18 months due to post-Station-fire storm damage. Sightseers flock to the roadway, but drunk and dangerous driving are among causes of three fatal wrecks that take place within days of its reopening.

—The murder trial of Marcos Costa begins. Costa was the driver of the runaway truck on Angeles Crest that killed two people while crashing through Foothill Boulevard on April 1, 2009.

—LCUSD decides to drop four days of school to give teachers time for professional development, but increases remaining school days by a few minutes each to make up some of that time.

—JPL celebrates the successful launch of its Aquarius satellite.



—Construction on the new location of local Mexican food mainstay Los Gringos Locos is started at the restaurant’s new location in the Vons shopping plaza at 631 Foothill Boulevard. For the last 15 years, the restaurant was located at 464 Foothill Blvd. The official grand opening will take place at the start of 2012.

—Marcos Costa, the driver in the fatal 2009 runaway truck collision off the Angeles Crest Highway, is convicted of involuntary manslaughter, gross vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving, but found not guilty of murder.

—Norbert Olberz, the founder of La Cañada Flintridge-based Sport Chalet, dies at age 86.Olberz, who arrived in the U.S. in 1955 after emigrating to Canada from his native Germany, was a fixture of the La Cañada business community and the driving force behind the recently constructed Town Center.

—A new plant covers the hills and trails above La Cañada Flintridge with fields of gorgeous lavender flowers that sprout up in the void left by the 2009 Station fire. But residents are warned to avoid them, because this plant, the Poodle-dog bush, causes an itchy, burning rash much like poison oak.



—Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies arrest two Red Bull energy-drink thieves after they attempted to make off with 51 cans of the drink from a Ralphs in La Crescenta. One of the men was recognized from security camera footage taken during the July 16 theft of $1,200 worth of Red Bull from the Ralphs supermarket in La Cañada Flintridge.

—In an accident that raised memories of the fatal April 2009 runaway truck crash in La Cañada, a pick-up truck collides with a car, goes out of control and crashes into Melody Nails in the 900 block of Foothill Boulevard. No serious injuries are reported.

—The LCUSD finds the funds to hire 30 temporary teachers, making it possible for there to be no K-3 classrooms with more than 21 students.

—Landscapers and gardeners in La Cañada Flintridge have their permitted hours of operation cut by the City Council from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

—See’s Candies is robbed by a man who flees on foot down Verdugo Boulevard.

—The two-year anniversary of the 2009 Station fire, which consumed 160,557 acres of land, destroyed 209 structures and claimed the lives of two firefighters, sees L.A. County Sheriff’s detectives no closer to finding the arsonist who started it.



—Two years into a five-year parcel tax, the La Cañada school board approves a $6,500-per-month contract with a consulting firm that will assess the feasibility of a similar measure in the future.

—Yvette Hall is named the new city clerk. Hall was promoted from within the ranks of city employees.

—The new Sturt Haaga Gallery opens at Descanso Gardens with a weekend of special events.

—Marcos Costa, the big-rig driver convicted of manslaughter and reckless driving charges in the 2009 crash at the foot of Angeles Crest Highway that killed two people, is sentenced to seven years and four months in prison. Costa receives credit for time served, or roughly half the length of the sentence.

—Former longtime La Cañadan Lynn Newcomb Jr., credited with establishing the first ski lift in SoCal, died at the age of 91.

—At the 9.10.11 in 91011 event, residents of La Cañada Flintridge celebrate the unique character of their city on a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence of the date and the local ZIP code.



—La Cañada school board member Cindy Wilcox calls for La Cañada High School math teacher Gabrielle Leko to be fired, alleging, among other things, that she addressed a ninth-grade geometry student as “Jew boy.” Wilcox said she filed a complaint with the school district —as a member of the public — against the high school teacher in June, adding that it was based on numerous verbal grievances she received from school families about Leko.

—Family members of the two victims who were killed in a fatal 2009 runaway big-rig crash in La Cañada Flintridge reach tentative wrongful-death settlements totaling $3.15 million with the driver, Marcos Costa, and the state.

—Drew Washington, a senior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, is named 2012 Rose Queen. Joining her on the court are La Cañada residents Morgan Devaud and Cynthia Louie, as well as Sarah Zuno, Hanan Worku, Kimberly Ostiller (a Flintridge Prep student) and Stephanie Hynes.

—Princesses and pirates, Pokemon and pumpkins amble up and down Foothill Boulevard as local families explore the merchants in the community and score some candy during the 3rd annual Trick or Treat on the Boulevard.

—Wash Away Thirst, a national program to bring clean water to the developing world, reaches California, and La Cañada Flintridge’s Foothill Car Wash is its first outpost in the state.

—La Cañada Unified buildings and athletic venues may bear the names of the district’s most generous patrons as school officials get creative with fundraising. Some of the priciest options include the La Cañada High School football stadium and library for $1 million each, elementary school playgrounds for $750,000, and cafeterias for $500,000.



—Ellen Multari and Andrew Blumenfeld are elected to the two open seats on the La Cañada Unified school board. The final count was drawn out due to a close race between Blumenfeld and incumbent Jeanne Broberg. Challenger Ernest Koeppen came in fourth.

—Local homeless man William “Wild Bill” Pluma Barrios is memorialized by community members in a service at Hahamongna Watershed Park, where he resided for several years before his death there in October.

—YMCA of the Foothills sees more than 350 attendees fill its gymnasium for its 18th Community Prayer Breakfast, a revived tradition that returned after a four-year hiatus.

—La Cañada High School is hit by a facility-wide burglary that strikes six different classrooms and leaves the school missing equipment valued at $17,760. Later in the month three suspects are arrested and the stolen property is recovered.

—The Community Center of LCF hosts its 18th annual Thanksgiving Day Run and Food Drive, drawing more than 1,000 participants.



—La Cañada Flintridge suffers widespread power outages and downed trees, but avoids the heavy damages suffered by neighboring cities during a devastating wind storm that begins on the evening of Nov. 30. Southern California Edison receives heavy criticism from residents, the City Council and County Fire Department personnel for its failure to effectively communicate during the storm and resulting power outage. Some residents are without power for more than six days. A power generator is brought in for the Dec. 2 Festival in Lights celebration in Memorial Park.

—Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who has hammered the U.S. Forest Service over its response to the 2009 Station fire and its slowness in completing investigations of the blaze, demands that agency watchdogs push harder to determine if privacy laws were broken in the early days of the fire.

—The owners of a Robin Hill Road property win the right to build a home on their steeply sloped lot after a contentious an eight-month contest with their neighbors over the city’s hillside ordinance.

—After years of discussion and planning, La Cañada Flintridge takes the first step to installing freeway sound walls when the City Council votes to use $4.588 million of Measure R state transportation funds to install two walls on the eastern side of the city.

—The city’s float, “If Pigs Could Fly,” undergoes final preparations for participation in the Jan. 2 Rose Parade.

Staff writers Carol Cormaci, Megan O’Neil, Joe Piasecki and Daniel Siegal contributed to this report.

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