Top Stories of 2005
By Lookout Staff
December 23 -- 2005 was a year of change and action, a year to look ahead, as well as look back. It was a year that saw the City radically shift its homeless policies and hire a new city manager, while the college tapped a new president to oversee its unprecedented growth.
In 2005, plans to rebuild Downtown’s indoor mall came to a sudden halt, while plans to open a parking lot gate to the new Bundy campus took City and College officials all year to resolve.
2005 was also a year marked by racial tensions and brutal murders, but unlike the violence that marred other years, this time it spurred immediate action, as a coalition of civic and government leaders vowed to tackle gang violence head on.
Here, in no particular order, are the top stories of 2005.
To the families of Johnathan Hernandez, Hector Bonilla and Jesse Becerra, this will be the first Christmas without them.
All three were killed in gang-related violence in 2005, two of the young men brazenly shot multiple times during a local birthday party in March. The oldest, Bonilla, was 25. (see story)
Hernandez, a 19-year-old resident of Ocean Park, was shot 17 times -- twice to the head and numerous times to the shoulder, back and upper and lower body -- by gunmen who greeted him at the party at the Moose Lodge in Sunset Park.
Bonilla, a 25-year-old resident of the Pico Neighborhood, was shot eight times, twice to the head, as he ran to Bonilla's aid. (see story)
In October, police arrested William Vasquez, 25, and Jose Mojarro, 21, in connection with the double homicide. A third suspect, Ector Hugo Sanchez, 20, remains at large.
Six months after Hernandez and Bonilla were gunned down, Santa Monica resident Jesse Becerra, 24, was fatally shot in the head after leaving a party in Los Angeles. (see story)
Less than one week later, Michael Leon Gatewood, 25, was shot half a dozen times near the Santa Monica Pier by his 17-year-old assailant after engaging in a fight with the gunman and his female companion. Gatewood was reportedly a member of the “Playboy Gangsta Crips.” (see story)
For every gang-related shooting in 2005 that ended with a death, there were others where the bullets missed or injured their targets.
Two Santa Monica youths received non-life threatening gunshot wounds on August 22. (see story) A week later, two individuals were shot during an assault in the Pico Neighborhood and taken to a local hospital. (see story) Another shooting ended up in a car chase, with suspects reportedly firing at the other vehicle as they raced through the Santa Monica residential neighborhood of Sunset Park. (see story)
While in other years a replay of the gang violence that has simmered in and around Santa Monica's Pico Neighborhood for more than two decades would have quickly faded from the news, this year was different.
Council members, county agencies and a State Senator came together in an unprecedented moment of cooperation and coordination and promised to follow through on a plan to stop gang violence. (see story)
"Action is about doing," said California Senator Sheila Kuehl, who co-sponsored two workshops early last year designed to bring important policy players together. "Taking it from the idea to action... is going to take all of us."
Finding a solution will require more jobs for “at-risk youth,” better education and improving community relations. The effort will require the cooperation of representatives from the City, School District, Santa Monica College, the Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood groups, labor groups and three law enforcement agencies, including the Santa Monica police.
Six months after the workshops, the City issued its first progress report. (see story)
At least one job fair had been held and several at-risk youths were enrolled in a program that keeps them in school. December saw the long-waited opening of Virginia Avenue Park, which many Pico Neighborhood activists see as a potential base of operations to deter kids from joining gangs.
Despite the modest progress, many of the programs suggested in March were still on paper when the September report was released. City officials are looking to 2006 to change that.
SHIFTING HOMELESS POLICIES
In what City officials described as a crossroads in the fight against homelessness, council members ended 2005 by backing an ambitious plan with new strategies to help lift people off the streets of Santa Monica.
From new programs (such as passing out bus tickets to individuals who want to reunite with family members who agree to shelter them) to expanding programs introduced in the last six months (such as a offering chronic alcoholics recovery help as they sit in jail) a move was underway last year to take the fight against homelessness in new directions. (see story)
"This is an historic time," said Mona Miyasato, the City's acting human services manager, who heads up staff working on homeless issues. "We can show others that we are leading the way in solutions that make sense and in the long-term can be cost effective for the City."
While the savings should theoretically come in the long-run from reduced trips to area hospitals and emergency systems that spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on treatment of the homeless, the new strategies will not come cheap.
In fact, one estimate by City staff placed a $10 million price tag in the coming years, paid mostly by the City, to assist up to 400 of the Santa Monica's most hardened, or "chronic," homeless get into supportive housing and on their feet, a centerpiece of the new strategies.
To lead the daunting task of helping Santa Monica tackle what is a regional problem, the City Council tapped former Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, a long-time advocate of regional social services and a 40-year political veteran. Under a one-year contract as the City’s chief Homeless Liaison, Edelman will make $200,000. (see story)
REIMAGINING THE MALL
The year 2004 ended with the bang generated by the Macerich Company when the mall owners unveiled an ambitious redevelopment plan for Santa Monica Place that included three 21-story condo towers. (see story)
A year later, any and all plans were up in the air after Federated Department Stores Inc. announced it would close its Robinsons-May outlet.
In August, Macerich officials asked the City Council to indefinitely postpone the community outreach program that had garnered input from more than 3,000 residents during several months of community workshops to “reimagine” the indoor mall built by Frank Gehry. (see story)
Months later, it remains unclear exactly what effect the closure of Robinsons-May – which occupies 131,000 square feet of retail space – will have on plans to tear down the 25-year-old mall and add housing, offices and a park above two floors of retail, Macerich representatives said.
Although Federated officials plan to convert many of the other regional department stores it bought in the $11 billion Robinsons-May acquisition into Macy's – another department store chain it owns – Santa Monica Place already has a Macy's store.
In 2005, Santa Monica was not immune to the escalating racial tensions that swept high schools across Los Angeles County.
On April 15, Samohi was the scene of a melee involving black and Latino students and several hundred on-lookers that spiraled so far out of control that school administrators locked the school down and Santa Monica Police called in reinforcements from neighboring communities. (see story)
When the fists stopped flying, the real fallout began.
For days afterward, rumors swirled that students might be arming themselves and police stepped up their presence. (see story)
And the drama wasn't confined to the kids involved in the fight.
A week later, police nearly arrested School Board member Oscar de la Torre -- an outspoken community activist and director of the Pico Youth and Family Center -- when he came onto school grounds with an ex-gang member without district approval. De la Torre contended his guest was a reformed gang-member turned successful businessmen who was there as a role model to warn kids against gang violence. (see story)
In addition to the six suspensions handed down immediately after the fight, a 12-page report issued by the district on May 9 outlined several steps the district and school should take to address racial violence. (see story)
Since school began again in September, there haven't been any outwardly visible signs of the chaos that gripped the school in April. Parents, teachers, school administrators and many students hope the new changes will keep it that way.
SANTA MONICA HIRES CITY MANAGER
A nationwide search shrouded in secrecy ended in late November when the City announced it had gone south to fill a key vacancy. (see story)
P. Lamont Ewell, who until recently served as city manager of scandal-ridden San Diego, will take over as Santa Monica's top administrator on January 16th, replacing Susan McCarthy, who retired as city manager this month.
Appearing reserved yet cordial during his debut in the council chambers last month, Ewell complimented Santa Monica's "proactive" spirit and said that he looks forward to taking on the City's day-to-day operations.
"You're one of the few who address issues head on, when most communities throughout this nation are willing to turn their back on them," Ewell said.
The move comes at an opportune time for Ewell, given the political minefield San Diego has become in recent years. Ewell was elevated to San Diego's top job in April 2004 after his boss was forced out by years of mounting financial scandals -- including a shortfall in public pension funds that some say now exceeds $2 billion.
A 30-year veteran civil servant, Ewell began his career as a Compton firefighter and worked his way up through the ranks before landing key roles in Oakland, California and Durham, North Carolina. He came to San Diego as assistant city manager in 2001.
McCarthy -- known for her low-key style -- announced her retirement in August after 24 years with the City, including the last six as city manager. (see story)
Some 60 candidates were passed over for the position, including several from within the City, insiders said. To spare the candidates problems at their current jobs, their names were not released to the public.
SMC HIRES NEW PRESIDENT
Tsang -- who has headed San Jose City College for nearly a decade -- will inherit stalled faculty contract negotiations and strained relations with City officials, as well as with some neighboring residents.
He will take over a college that expanded across the city under its last permanent president, Dr. Piedad F. Robertson, who pushed several major bond measures during her decade-long tenure. (see story)
Tsang -- who was tapped less than two weeks after the City Council chose Ewell as the new city manager -- has had plenty of experience facing challenges, according to colleagues.
Known as a politically savvy coalition builder, Tsang helped San Jose City College grow while making tough budget choices during his eight-year tenure as president. He successfully pushed through two multi-million dollar bond measures, one for $180 million in 2004 and another in 1998.
An immigrant, Tsang came to the United States from Hong Kong as a 19-year-old and has a history of pushing for immigrant rights and enrollment. He has made a career of creating opportunities for those who might otherwise be left out of the educational loop.
Perhaps because of past conflicts, perhaps because of a taste for sturm und drang, -- who knows? -- by fall, everybody who was anybody in Westside political circles had been drawn into the black hole that was Bundy.
And as the perplexing and intractable quarrel morphed City Council and Board of Trustees meetings out of all recognition, the two most powerful entities in Santa Monica seemed to stand on the brink of a legal showdown.
Enter the guys in white hats. With Lamont P. Ewell and Chui Tsang poised to take over the reins as City Manager and College President, respectively, the governing bodies of the adversaries came to their senses and worked out an eleventh hour peace treaty in December.
So the gate will open in January.
Or will it?
Staff writers Olin Ericksen, Ann K. Williams and Gene Williams contributed
to this report.
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