DOWNTOWN — There’s no denying that 2009 has been a trying year for many. A struggling economy that resulted in numerous job losses, housing foreclosures and cuts to social services have created an unsettling sense of uncertainty heading into a new decade.

Locally, it has been a year filled with highs and lows, from the passing of longtime City Councilman Herb Katz and the brazen attack that left a former Olympic High School student dead, to the opening of the long-awaited Annenberg Community Beach House, the celebration of the Santa Monica Pier’s 100th birthday and a renewed commitment by City Hall to fund local schools.

There was even a beheading; the Virgin Mary statue at St. Monica Catholic Church the victim.

In many ways, the year represents the roller coaster ride that is life, and while many can’t wait to bid farewell to what some have called “the year of the meltdown,” the Daily Press would like our readers to hold on just a bit longer so that we can recap the local events that made 2009. The past 12 months have produced some interesting headlines, but these issues in particular stood out.

Losing leadership

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The year did not start off well. Nationally, banks were failing along with the auto industry. Locally, Santa Monica lost one of its most dedicated public servants, former Mayor and City Councilmember Herb Katz, a champion of special education rights who lost a long battle with cancer on Jan. 7.

An architect by trade, Katz served on more than a dozen different community organizations and City Hall committees, including the Board of Directors for the Santa Monica YMCA, the Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board.

“Community service was one of his hallmarks,” Councilmember Pam O’Connor said earlier this year. “He gave it his all and he did a great job.”

Hundreds of people from all walks of life packed into St. Monica Catholic Church Jan. 12 for Katz’ memorial. The 78-year-old Sunset Park resident was remembered for his humor and love of Santa Monica, as well as his strong leadership skills and his knack for being blunt during meetings. He asked the tough questions and was a stickler for detail.

He was also a person who experienced great loss — his first wife, Ilona, and two sons, Gregg and Glenn, all died of cancer.

“I cannot remember Herb ever complaining about losing both his sons and then his wife,” Councilmember Bob Holbrook said.

The council in February appointed Planning Commissioner Gleam Davis to serve the remainder of Katz’ term, a move some in the community disagreed with given that Gleam did not run in the most recent election and finished fifth in 2006. Gleam was also the co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the city’s most influential political party that already held a majority on the council. Some felt that Ocean Park resident Ted Winterer, who just missed out on winning a council seat in ‘08, should have been selected.

In August, Santa Monicans received some more unsettling news. Trusted City Manager Lamont Ewell and Santa Monica Fire Chief Jim Hone announced their intents to retire in January, 2010.

Ewell, 56, was hired by the council in January 2006. During his tenure, the former firefighter helped heal old wounds, build bridges and produce balanced budgets that protected essential services.

Several community leaders said Ewell was a “straight shooter” who followed through on his promises. When something failed, he didn’t run, but instead studied why it failed and how to improve.

Poway, Calif. City Manager Rod Gould was hired by the council in December to succeed Ewell.

Hone, who joined the SMFD in 1980 after spending six years in the United States Air Force, was promoted to fire chief in 2003, having served as a firefighter/paramedic, fire captain, support services division chief and fire marshal.

He was credited with enhancing the SMFD’s emergency preparedness following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Reaching a milestone

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With life comes change, but there are those anchors which remind us who we are and keep us grounded. In 2009, those anchors celebrated important milestones.

The Santa Monica Pier celebrated its 100 birthday Sept. 9 with a huge bash that included a memorable fireworks display.

Starting out humbly as a modern cement structure to serve the city’s sanitation needs, the pier has become a cultural haven bringing both surfers and historians alike to walk the boardwalk. Over the last century, the pier has withstood near destruction, harrowing storms and chaotic upheaval. From a temporary jail site to a docking point for 1940s gangsters and gamblers, the pier’s rich history continues to give the community a place to get away from it all and reconnect with better times.

Then came the return of Cirque du Soleil. The world-renown acrobatic troupe erected its blue-and-yellow big top at the 1550 Parking Lot for its production of “KOOZA” in September. The troupe made its American debut in Santa Monica in 1987.

The 1550 lot has been host to several shows over the years, including Cavalia, an equestrian/dance program from Canada, and Ashes and Snow, a nomadic, multi-media art exhibit.

“KOOZA” provided entertainment and much-needed revenue for City Hall and local businesses.

Another Santa Monica attraction that celebrated a birthday was the Third Street Promenade, one of the first shopping districts of its kind, which turned 20 years old in 2009. The transformation of a lethargic Third Street helped breathe life back into Downtown and helped create a new identity for Santa Monica, with the promenade becoming a popular tourist destination.

“Those of us who have been around can remember when you could actually drive down the Third Street Promenade before the bollards were up,” Kathleen Rawson, the CEO of the Bayside District Corp., said earlier this year. “Nobody was actually sure this whole idea was going to work … and now it’s amazing 20 years later the vibrancy is really the envy of many communities throughout the world.”

Gang violence still terrorizes

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Another young life was snuffed out by senseless gang violence. Richard Juarez, a graduate of Olympic High School whose family has lived in Santa Monica for four generations, was attacked by two men in November as he and three friends left the Virginia Avenue Park Teen Center after participating in an art class.

Police called it a “brazen” attack that was most likely gang-related. Those who knew Juarez said he was not a gang member but may have been targeted because of his clothing and the company he kept.

The shooting death of the 20 -year-old at the park, which was remodeled and expanded to give local youth a safe haven and push out gang members who called it home, sent shock waves through the community as residents were left wondering what they must do to protect their children.

“He was a loving son … who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, which is kind of hard for us to understand how Virginia Park at nine o’clock can be the wrong place at the wrong time,” Frank Juarez, the victim’s uncle, said the day after the shooting. “He loved life. … he liked people and people liked him as soon as they met him.”

The suspects were apprehended shortly after the shooting. A sergeant stationed near the park captured the attack on his dashboard camera, leading SMPD Chief Tim Jackman to call it “the most brazen attack I have ever seen.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only attack of the year.

In April, three women were shot at in an alley just off Palisades Park. Doctors passing by the shooting administered aid and may have prevented one of the women from dying, police said. No suspects were apprehended at that time, but police believed the women may have been targeted because of some previous encounter with the suspect.

The shooting raised alarm in the area, known for multi-million-dollar condos with views of the Pacific Ocean. It showed that no neighborhood in Santa Monica is immune to violence.

Just two months later, two men ran for cover into the Wine Barrel Liquor store in the 2100 block of Pico Boulevard following a drive-by-shooting. No one was injured in that incident.

In September, two more people were shot at, one apparently an innocent bystander, in a possible gang-related shooting in the Borderline Neighborhood. The suspects led police on a short chase on Interstate-10 before ditching their truck and fleeing on foot. The suspects were later apprehended in Sunset Park.

The victims included an 18-year-old male and a man in his 70s, police said. They were transported to a local hospital with non life-threatening injuries.

Then in October, detectives announced the arrests of several suspected gang members believed responsible for the death of resident Preston Brumfield, who was beaten and left for dead on a busy street in the Pico Neighborhood in 2008. Detectives said the men were also responsible for selling drugs and intimidating neighbors, creating a climate of fear.

Detectives used court-authorized wiretaps to make the arrests in what they dubbed “Operation Tombstone” because of the proximity to the Woodlawn Cemetery and the name of one of the gangs believed to be involved.

In November, a 17-year-old Inglewood resident was stabbed following a Santa Monica High School football game. Police arrested the two suspects, who later pled guilty to a lesser charge and received 180 days in jail and three years probation.

The violence served as a grim reminder that even though Santa Monica may feel like paradise, the community is still a target and more needs to be done to stem the tide of gang violence.

Williams returns home

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The harsh reality that high school football can be a violent sport hit Samohi this year. Junior linebacker Cody Williams, playing in the first game of the season, injured his cervical spine during what appeared to be a routine play.

The injury, which will take up to another year to truly assess, put the well-liked Williams in the hospital for nearly three months before he finally was released to return home in mid December. The injury united the team and the Samohi community.

Williams has regained movement in his arms and has even wiggled his toes on occasion. His family and friends welcomed him home and he is currently undergoing treatment at a hospital in Northridge on an out-patient basis.

His mother, Stacy Williams, said she plans to take time off from work to help her son readjust to life at home. A collar he had been wearing since the accident was removed recently and his family said his doctors are optimistic that he may regain more movement.

“I’m very emotional,” Stacy Williams said. “I feel relieved.

“This journey is going to have a positive ending.”

Life’s a beach

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A major development in 2009 was the opening of the Annenberg Community Beach House, a project decades in the making. Thanks to a generous, $27.5 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation, Santa Monica is home to the nation’s first public beach club, allowing residents and visitors alike to relax at the former home of silent movie actress Marion Davies, who was known to throw opulent parties with guests like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.

The grand opening featured ornately decorated synchronized swimmers from Cirque du Soleil, who performed a graceful routine in the beach club’s historic pool lined with black and white marble and colorful tiles. Ballroom dancers gave demonstrations of their talents in the event house. Sand Sculptures International gave lessons to kids on how to build the ultimate sand castle. Families lined up for free shaved ice. All while surf rock played in the background.

“To the left, we have the community’s front porch, the sand and the surf,” Mayor Ken Genser told the crowd. “Our front porch has been here since the beginning of time. We finally built our living room.”

The nearly $35-million project would not have been possible without Wallis Annenberg, the TV Guide heiress and philanthropist.

“The truth is, this glorious expanse of sea and sand, these stunning ocean vistas, should belong to us all and that is why I wanted to help return it to … [and] help the city of Santa Monica transform it into a shared-use, community treasure, a window not just onto Santa Monica’s past, but onto eternity for everyone to enjoy,” Annenberg said.

Putting a stop to it

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Always ahead of the curve, the City Council this year became one of the first elected bodies to pass two bans — one that covered smoking and the other focusing on cat declawing — that were somewhat controversial and generated passionate comments at council meetings.

The council banned smoking in the common areas of multi-unit residences like apartment buildings and condominiums, preventing smokers from lighting up by the pool or in the laundry room. The ban was an extension of previous laws outlawing smoking in public places, including the promenade, bus stops, the beach and local parks. The bans are meant to protect the public from deadly secondhand smoke, which has been labeled a human carcinogen, which means there is no safe level of exposure.

The ban established a way for residents to challenge a neighbor who smokes in a common area, allowing them to seek damages of at least $100 in small claims court. The council made sure that landlords cannot use violations of the law as a means to evict tenants, a concern for some on the dais.

“The seriousness of the problem of tobacco smoke in apartments is finally beginning to be understood in Santa Monica,” Marlene Gomez of Smokefree Air for Everyone (SAFE), said earlier this year. SAFE is a support network of individuals who have been disabled by secondhand smoke.

Some say the ban pits neighbors against neighbors and can create animosity within an apartment building. Others felt poor tenants would be disproportionately affected because they would be unable to hire attorneys or purchase kits to help them quit smoking if they choose.

There is already talk of expanding the ban further to include restrictions on smoking within one’s own home, but we’ll save that for 2010.

As far as the cats and their claws, the council moved to ban declawing in October after animal rights activists came out in force, calling the practice torture. The council had to act before the end of the year because a state law that takes effect Jan. 1, 2010 would have prevented cities from banning declawing. Santa Monica followed West Hollywood’s lead.

The ban has been opposed by various veterinary professional groups, including the California Veterinary Medical Association.

Taken by surprise

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City officials were stunned and insulted in July when they received word that the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of six chronically homeless people, filed a lawsuit claiming City Hall was violating the rights of said homeless by arresting them for sleeping in public places. The complaint alleged City Hall violated their constitutional rights by arresting them for breaking the local law against camping when there are not enough shelter beds available.

This came as a surprise to many considering all that City Hall has done to help the down-and-out, earning Santa Monica the nickname, “Home for the Homeless.”

The suits were similarly surprising to officials in Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach when filed by the ACLU in December 2008 and March of this year, respectively.

“This lawsuit in particular represents what many people believe to be a misguided use of resources and energy that could be more wisely spent in solving problems regionally,” Joe Lawrence, the assistant city attorney, said.

The city of Los Angeles was sued in 2003 over similar allegations, later agreeing to a settlement in which it suspended enforcement of an anti-camping law from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until an additional 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing was constructed, at least 50 percent of which would be located on Skid Row and/or greater Downtown Los Angeles.

The settlement allowed enforcement of the ordinance at all times within 10 feet of any operational entrance, exit, driveway or loading dock.

Local city officials are said to be working on a settlement, but no official statement has been released.

In recent years, City Hall has focused resources on housing the city’s most vulnerable homeless first, helping them to get some stability so that they can move ahead with recovery. The latest homeless count showed an 8 percent drop in the total number of people living on the streets.

“We are pleased, but not surprised, to see a decline in street homelessness,” Julie Rusk, the Human Services manager, said. “The city has been working hard for a long time to develop a compassionate and effective plan to address the issues of homelessness in our community.”

Not in my backyard

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While Santa Monica is known for its dedication to public transit thanks to the Big Blue Bus, residents living near Stewart Street Park are not supportive of a plan to build a light rail maintenance yard across the street from their homes. They were especially miffed that they learned about the plan late in the process, questioning why city officials didn’t get involved sooner in finding an alternative location.

Residents united in their opposition to the creation of what they call a “toxic triangle,” an area of the city that is surrounded by City Hall’s waste transfer station, the I-10 Freeway and the proposed maintenance yard. The maintenance yard proposal continued to draw opposition from residents who said the facility should not be located in a neighborhood filled with homes.

City officials and the Exposition Construction Authority looked at other alternatives, including purchasing property along Olympic Boulevard, but so far the Stewart Street location is the number one option and the most affordable.

A number of residents are calling the move “environmental racism.”

The debate is sure to continue in the new year. The final decision on the location will be made by the Expo board, not the City Council.

MLB draft kind to Vikings

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It isn’t often that a baseball player from one of our local high school teams gets drafted to play pro ball.

In 2009, there were a pair of former Santa Monica High School stars who were tapped to leave the amateur ranks behind. Samohi’s Tyler Skaggs was the first taken. He went to the Los Angeles Angels with the 40th pick in the 2008 MLB Draft.

The star left-handed hurler was followed by pro scouts all season, with a number of teams considering taking Skaggs in the first half of the first round. A sprained ankle kept him off the mound for a crucial stretch of the season, potentially causing him to fall to the Angels in the supplemental round, which takes place between the first and second rounds to give teams compensation for losing free agents.

For Skaggs, going to the Angels was a dream come true. He has been a life-long fan and was happy to get the opportunity to play close to family and friends. While signing with the Angels was a priority, Skaggs and his management waited until the final week that drafted players could sign to come to agreement with the Angels.

At the time of signing, Skaggs said, “Now I can just go play baseball.”

It didn’t take long for Skaggs to win a championship.

He helped the single-A Orem Owlz win the Pioneer league title in September giving the highly-touted prospect a bit of success early in his career.

“I feel really good,” Skaggs said of the accomplishment. “Everybody on the team is really cool even though I’m the youngest guy.”

Skaggs wasn’t the only former Viking to make it to the pros. Cody Decker, who played for UCLA after his Samohi days, was taken in the 22nd round of the draft by the San Diego Padres.

This came following a senior season at UCLA that saw the slugging first baseman lead the Pac-10 with 21 home runs. He was nervous about his prospects going into the draft, but was pleasantly surprised to be taken by a SoCal team.

He wasted little time getting used to pro ball. He slapped 15 home runs with 63 runs batted in to lead the Arizona League. His .354 batting average put him in the league’s top three, narrowly missing a triple crown. He was named league MVP for his efforts.

“I’m not nearly done yet,” Decker said. “I’m just one step of the way there.”

Cha-ching

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While it came as no surprise, the decision by the City Council to continue funding local schools to a tune of roughly $7.5 million a year is a significant story for 2009 given the drastic funding cuts the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has had to deal with thanks to what some have called a dysfunctional state Legislature and an inept governor.

The funding agreement also gave the City Council some leverage in forcing the district to make changes to special education.

The contract, which was originally signed in June of 2005, gives the SMMUSD a share of city revenues every year in exchange for public access to its facilities, including classrooms, athletic fields and playgrounds.

What the agreement essentially did for City Hall was codify and affirm its ability to use school facilities for its pre-existing programs, including CREST, which provides after-school activities in the classroom, and the Playground Partnership, which allows unsupervised recreational use.

The joint-use agreement has been a hot topic since 2007 when the district renegotiated a roughly half-million-dollar increase, which was subsequently withheld by the council after parents began reporting concerns about the special education program. The council finally released the money in January after it was assured by district administrators and educational advocates that changes have been made, though there are still some who disagree.

The extension reached in 2009 is good for three years, allowing for annual increases.

Daniel Archuleta contributed to this report.

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