For good, better or worse, San Marino residents and workers were treated to a year full of events, happenings and developments.
In observance of the end of 2017, The Outlook has highlighted 17 of the biggest of stories in San Marino.
1. CITY COUNCIL ELECTION
Having been talked about from the beginning of the year and ultimately dominating local media coverage all throughout fall, the City Council election in November ranks as the top story for San Marino for 2017.
In a city that prides itself on its spirit of volunteerism, that there were seven candidates in a city of about 8,000 voters for three at-large seats shouldn’t have been a surprise. Those candidates varied in their origins and careers, but they shared something of a camaraderie in their quest to take charge in defending the unique look of the city, investing their fellow residents’ tax dollars in the most responsible ways and generally giving the city the best government possible.
By order of vote count, Gretchen Shepherd Romey, Ken Ude and Susan Jakubowski were elected by a fairly large margin to serve for the next five years — an extra year was added to these terms in order to align the city’s elections with the statewide elections in even-numbered years. They join Steve Talt and Dr. Steven Huang — 2018’s mayor and vice mayor, respectively — as they begin their third years on the City Council.
The three victors and fellow candidates Dr. Hai-Sou Chen, Scott Kwong, Calvin Lo and Eugene Sun each ran thoughtful and cordial campaigns that were, at least publicly, not adversarial in the least. Much time went into these campaigns — one candidate publicly spoke of running a whole year prior — and each could be seen socializing among themselves as friends and neighbors.
Going into next year, the City Council has a lengthy agenda that includes bolstering its support of first responders, settling once and for all the historic preservation issue and charting a path out of the city’s unfunded pension liability.
2. CITY MANAGER HIRED
With the year winding down, the City Council finally decided on its pick for the next city manager — Marcella Marlowe.
Her hire in September (with an October start date) ended a formal search process that began in January, but the city had been without a permanent CEO since July 2016, when its city manager at the time, John Schaefer, retired. Cindy Collins, who served in numerous City Hall roles here in her career, was tabbed the interim city manager in the meantime.
Collins, who now is retired, certainly took on the role like she was the full-time choice, but Marlowe’s hire answered many an impatient question from residents and came, appropriately, at a time when City Hall is changing its makeup and on the eve of the aforementioned City Council election.
Marlowe’s first major action was, by her own characterization, sort of a cage-rattler: She is currently asking the City Council to codify the procedure by which she and her successors will hire and fire department heads.
3. BARTH ATHLETICS COMPLEX GROUNDBREAKING
Parents and school officials finally got their wish — Huntington Middle School is getting its new gym.
Not just any gym, the Barth Athletics Complex will include two media classrooms, a fitness room, boys’ and girls’ team rooms and a multipurpose room with its full-size California Interscholastic Federation gymnasium. The facility is being funded by a host of private donations from residents and organizations, chiefly the up-to $5.5 million pledge from Andy and Avery Barth.
Demolition of the former gym, which was built in 1930, began in June and the new facility is expected to be ready for the 2019-20 school year.
4. NEW SMHS PRINCIPAL
San Marino’s only high school began the current school year under the leadership of Issaic Gates, who characterized it as his “dream job” upon being hired this summer.
The Florida native has made Southern California his home for most of his education career and was hired out of Los Alamitos High School in Orange County to take over San Marino High School when Mary Johnson retired at the end of the prior school year. She had been principal for three years and was at SMHS for a total of 13 years.
Gates, who holds a doctorate in education from USC, has endeared himself to parents and local officials.
5. THE PRESERVATION CONVERSATION
Beginning with the first City Council meeting of the year, residents have made it abundantly clear to their city officials that more needs to be done to preserve historic structures in San Marino.
The conversation at that time was the narrow approval of the demolition of a home believed by many to be a prime example of historic architecture in town worth preserving. The city is now locked in a lawsuit with the group San Marino Heritage over this decision.
In general, the fear of “mansionization” in San Marino neighborhoods comes up at most City Hall meetings; decisions such as the demolition of the old Rose Arbor in Lacy Park have earned the ire of some residents.
The Planning Commission and now the City Council has spent much of this year considering how to word an ordinance levying rules and enforcement for historic preservation. The three new City Council members campaigned heavily on enacting preservation rules and the two carryovers also were elected on such platforms.
6. LEAD SCARE
It wasn’t an example of “fake news,” but a Reuters report in April that was ultimately clarified sent residents and officials into a brief panic over the potential of San Marino’s children being exposed to dangerous amounts of lead.
Reuters, which has been reporting on lead exposure nationwide, focused its story on the Los Angeles area on the apparent revelation that the highest percentage of tested children who showed high lead exposure were in San Marino. This spurred an emergency City Council meeting and a response from the San Marino Unified School District upholding the safety of its facilities and water.
Reality was less dramatic. Health officials from the county explained that the number of San Marino children tested for lead was too low for statistical significance and it was discovered that at least one of the testing laboratories had accidentally mislabeled most of its test results. Still, the City Council is tentatively considering tightening up work permit regulations regarding lead mitigation.
7. THE FIGHT AGAINST BURGLARIES
San Marino has, effectively, eliminated violent crime as a trend, but property crimes — especially burglaries and identity thefts — have continued to plague residents.
Residential burglaries this year have notably included two incidents in which a group of people were allegedly squatting in vacant homes they’d broken into, including one vagrant family with four small children. In various town hall-style meetings and presentations, the San Marino Police Department has helped residents learn how to protect their homes and also work together to watch out for each other.
Police Chief John Incontro aims to have a fully staffed department for the first time in his tenure by summer and Mayor Talt plans on creating a Public Safety Commission to dedicate time and resources to helping residents and law enforcement secure the city from roaming thieves.
8. VERIZON ROBBERIES
Thrice this year, the Verizon Wireless store on Huntington Drive was raided by armed robbers who escaped with a cache of cellphones and a set of phones was stolen a fourth time in an overnight burglary.
Suspects successfully fled each time, and there were no injuries in any of the incidents. One possible explanation for the store being targeted is that some of the company’s phones are easier to fraudulently access and use overseas, authorities said.
9. CITY ATTORNEY STEPS DOWN
After 31 years, Steve Dorsey called it a day serving as San Marino’s city attorney in May, when he officially resigned.
The longtime San Marino resident is not quite done with working at Richards, Watson and Gershon Attorneys at Law, but he acknowledged he is winding down his career. He began serving as San Marino’s counsel in 1986 when his firm was hired to represent the city.
Dorsey was effusive in his gratitude for working for the city he’s called home for decades. Another Steve from Richards, Watson and Gershon (his last name is Flower) took over in Dorsey’s stead.
10. CITY GRUDGINGLY ACCEPTS ADU Rules
They weren’t happy about it, but City Council members approved an ordinance prompted by the state that allows for the creation of accessory dwelling units on San Marino properties.
These ADUs, however, come with a few caveats, thanks to how the Planning Commission and City Council hashed it out. City officials (and many residents) were wary of the state requirement that cities allow for ADUs out of fear that it would open the door for mixed-use living in a city that prides itself on being almost entirely single family residential.
Nevertheless, there remains a contingent of residents who believe the city’s ordinance is more restrictive than the state allows and advocate for more property rights.
11. HUNTINGTON PRESIDENT DEPARTS
The Huntington Library continues to search for a new president after Laura Trombley stepped down suddenly from the role in March.
Trombley, who was hired not two years prior, said she was embarking on a book-length study of Mark Twain following the reception of an award and scholarship. A statement from the Huntington Library indicated she was stepping down to concentrate on that study, but otherwise it has been fairly tight-lipped, adding only that she’ll continue to advise the board of trustees.
Steve Hindle, the institution’s research director, has served as acting president since.
12. SMUSD GETS GOOD GRADES, AGAIN
It’s one thing to be recognized as a top-performing district or school, but to consistently do so, year-in and year-out, is something else entirely.
SMUSD has managed that feat to an art. In addition to the district receiving the state’s top scores in the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress testing, which evaluates public schools and districts, a variety of targeted websites also routinely rank SMUSD and its schools at (or near) the top of their respective categories.
All of this is accomplished with the Board of Education watching every penny as it lives with the reality that a small, high-performing district is not going to receive a tremendous amount of money from the state.
13. CITY HALL RESHUFFLING
After taking recommendations from an ad hoc committee, the City Council began the process of rearranging the administrative structure of City Hall and also how day-to-day operations are handled.
The city manager remains, but gone are the assistant city manager and finance director. New are the administrative services director and human resources manager, in addition to an accountant position. The change also means some department heads will shoulder more responsibilities and also report directly to the city manager.
Additionally, Director of Parks and Public Works and City Engineer Michael Throne joined City Hall recently after the surprise departure of his predecessor Dan Wall, who had taken the job barely a year prior.
14. MISSING STUDENT PROMPTS School LOCKDOWNS
The search for a 15-year-old San Marino High School student earlier this year prompted lockdowns in each of the city’s schools after police developed a suspicion he may have taken a gun from his father’s home.
The student, in fact, took the gun with him that morning. Instead of school, he went to the Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia. He was found near Dave and Buster’s after a search had received local media coverage. No one was hurt as a result and it transpired the student had improperly been enrolled in SMUSD to begin with.
15. CELL TOWER WOES
It’s been years and still there appears to be no resolution to the deeply unpopular cell signal tower on SMUSD property near the district office and Huntington Middle School.
Verizon, who leased space for the tower, has proposed a handful of alternative ideas that remain unpopular with resident concerned about sullying the skyline around Huntington Drive and City Hall. There also was a safety concern regarding the proximity of the city’s emergency operations center.
Residents and city officials hope to reach a less visually obtrusive decision for Verizon while also wondering if SMUSD could evict Verizon for erecting the tower without getting all of its requisite permits.
16. MEMORIAL HONORS BLECKSMITH
J.P. Blecksmith, the San Marino man killed during a deployment for the War on Terror, was among those memorialized by the Enduring Heroes monument.
Unveiled in Defenders Park in Pasadena for Memorial Day, the bronze monument honors the Pasadena-area soldiers killed in action since 9/11. Blecksmith’s father, Ed, was among the featured speakers at the unveiling ceremony, along with District 5 County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, a San Marino resident.
17. FAMILY SUED FOR DEATH OF LOCAL BOY
The family of Brendan Leon filed a wrongful death lawsuit against local resident Kevin McCloskey and 100 other unnamed defendants in August, more than a year after the 17-year-old SMHS student died in a fiery car crash.
Leon died after colliding with a light pole near the Rose Bowl Stadium last May in the early morning hours after his 17th birthday. The lawsuit alleges Leon had been given alcohol and other impairing substances by the hosts and attendees of a party at McCloskey’s home that night, which Leon attended.