Year in Review: JPL reaches Mars, Leko let go, a new market sprouts up

“We're safe on Mars.”

La Cañada Flintridge's connection to the heavens made for a sensational story in 2012, as Jet Propulsion Laboratory safely landed the NASA rover Curiosity on the Red Planet. JPL engineer Al Chen made the announcement to hollers and high-fives at JPL's Mission Control Center at 10:32 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 5.

The landing featured new technology including a parachute to slow the rover from 13,000 mph and a “sky crane” suspended in the Martian air to ease the impact of the craft's touchdown in the Gale Crater.

The craft spent more than eight months in space and traveled 354 million miles to reach its destination near the foot of Mount Sharp, named for the late Caltech geologist Robert Phillip Sharp. Estimated expenses are $2.5 billion.

The rover has since taken its first photos and soil samples in what is expected to be at least a two-year study that may prove Mars once held water — and possibly life as we know it.

Curiosity also left a trail of good publicity back on Earth, which may have been a factor in NASA decisions to extend efforts to study Mars.

Shortly after Curiosity landed, NASA officials announced the 2016 InSight mission, which will send a lander to study the planet's core. In December, NASA announced a new 2020 rover mission. JPL engineers are already at work on the MAVEN orbiter, which will launch in 2013 and study the weather on Mars.

Plans for the 2020 mission eased fears about a potential brain drain at JPL driven by federal budget cuts.

In February, after the White House unveiled a 2012-13 NASA budget with more than $200 million in cuts to planetary science programs, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and NASA Director Charles Bolden met with JPL employees in La Cañada to discuss the future of the lab.

The 2012-13 federal budget still is not set, but Schiff said in December that he believes the new mission will “provide new reason for optimism among the broad JPL family that their important work will go on in the future.”

Leko let go

The La Cañada Unified School District maintained its reputation as one of the top districts in the state. Academic Performance Index scores released in October showed it again second only to the San Marino Unified School District, and gaining ground. La Cañada Unified scored a 950 out of 1,000, its best-ever ranking.

In March the La Cañada schools closed a painful chapter by negotiating the departure of longtime La Cañada High School math teacher Gabrielle Leko. Leko was accused of calling a student “Jew boy” in June 2011 and making other inappropriate remarks. The incident and its drawn-out aftermath raised thorny issues about Leko's conduct, the district's ability to discipline faculty and its receptiveness to the concerns of parents.

The district, led by second-year Supt. Wendy Sinnette, has since expanded efforts to connect with parents, students and faculty with an annual survey and online outreach. Six months after the allegation became public, Leko accepted a $215,000 settlement and agreed not to return to her job.

Sprouting anew

The La Cañada business community saw a big change on Foothill Boulevard and is girding for another one on Verdugo Road.

Sprouts Farmers Market opened March 21 in the former Sport Chalet space at Foothill and Beulah Drive.

The store, with bins of fresh produce and nuts as well as a variety of (mostly) healthy foods, provided an immediate boost to the city's sales tax revenues and gives shoppers another option just blocks from Vons, Ralphs and Trader Joe's.

In July Verdugo Hills Hospital officials announced the center's 40 years of independence will come to an end. By the end of 2012 the 158-bed, 750-employee hospital is scheduled to merge with USC's Keck Medical Center, though Glendale Adventist Medical Center pushed hard to be Verdugo Hills' merger partner.

Verdugo Hills officials said changes in the healthcare industry — brought on by Obamacare and other shifts — are bringing financial pressures on many small, independent hospitals.

“Community hospitals are an endangered species,” Dr. Donald Barber, a longtime member of the hospital's medical staff, said in July. “I think [the merger is] going to put us on a much firmer financial ground to hopefully continue to provide excellent care to the community.”

Summer of the bear

It was a big summer for bears, who lumbered down from the Angeles National Forest again and again to visit homes in the foothills.

Wildlife experts said they saw nothing special in the increase in sightings, placing credit or blame as much on increased media attention as on forest habitat still recovering from the 2009 Station Fire, the dry winter of 2011-12 or other ursine quality-of-life factors.

One La Cañada bear incident ended sadly, as a bear emerging near the McDonald's at Foothill and Vineta Avenue early on Aug. 26 was struck by a car. The bear was euthanized later in the day.

A 400-pound black bear known as Meatball, aka Glenbearian, became famous for snacking on frozen meatballs from a North Glendale freezer and making other sorties to civilization. After Meatball had been captured, tranquilized and returned to the forest twice, on Aug. 29 wildlife crews found him on the 5000 block of Ocean View Boulevard and used bacon, honey and a McDonald's Happy Meal to lure him into a trap.

He is now at a San Diego County wildlife rescue center, which is seeking to raise funds to pay for an expanded habitat.

Portantino out of office

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino was forced out of his habitat, as well, but he saw it coming. California's legislative term limits law required the former La Cañada City Council member to give up his Assembly post in November.

Portantino at first considered a run for Congress and then a challenge to another former La Cañada City Council member, state Sen. Carol Liu. Portantino opted not to run for anything in 2012 and will tend to family affairs, though he has said he remains interested in elected office. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D- Silver Lake) now represents La Cañada.

Tragedy strikes the young

Tragedy struck La Cañada on Memorial Day, when 6-year-old Emily Fu drowned in her family's pool during a block party on Indianola Way.

Another terrible incident sparked a community discussion about bullying and the pressure on teens. Drew Ferraro, a 15-year-old sophomore at Crescenta Valley High School, committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a three-story campus building during lunch period on Feb. 10. His parents have since sought $2 million from the Glendale Unified School District, accusing officials of failing to take actions to block bullying. The school has denied the claim.

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