Sunday, December 22, 2019

Bakersfield Observed's 2019 Winners and Losers: the high, lows, challenges, setbacks and victories in a wild year in Kern County

Welcome to Bakersfield Observed. Our mission is to celebrate life in Kern County by focusing on newsmakers and events and the local characters who make this community such a special place. The views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of any other individual, organization or company. 

 WINNERS AND LOSERS: It was a year to remember in Kern County. A longtime District Attorney retires, a federal court orders the supervisors to rewrite their district boundaries, homelessness surges, the locally owned newspaper is sold, the question of legal cannabis roils the community, some iconic local restaurants close and a beloved local priest is accused of sexual impropriety. So today we look back on 2019 and present some of the winners and losers for the year. Enjoy.


 10)  ... CYNTHIA ZIMMER: After a divisive election which pitted her against another member of the District Attorney's office, Cynthia Zimmer became the new DA and immediately set a law and order tone in sync with a community dealing with a sharp spike in crime, gang activity and homelessness. Zimmer is on my "watch list" of those public officials whose prominence will only grow in stature.

 9) ... EAST CHESTER: It's hard to find a better example of resilience, challenge and grit than the emergence of the "east Chester" business district (east of Chester on 18th Street). Young people with vision, drive and working capital moved into this previously sleepy part of downtown and created something new and magical. First there were the 17th Street Townhomes, a project by City Councilman Bob Smith and investors, followed by Cafe Smitten, Dot & Ott, The Angry Barnyard BBQ, the new Metro Galleries and others. The aptly named East Chester is fast becoming one of  "the" places to shop and be seen.

 8)  ... ROB AND JUDI MCCARTHY: Former Bakersfield residents Rob and Judi McCarthy,  owners of Lightspeed Systems who took the company to Austin where it was sold, never forgot their hometown and generously donated $2.5 million to the Kern Community Foundation and the Women's and Girl's Fund. That's called walking the walk.

7)  ... KERN COUNTY: Props to the county of Kern that proved itself more nimble, aware and aggressive in dealing with our homeless crisis. While city officials fretted and flirted with paralysis, the county charged forward and is on the verge of opening its 150-bed low barrier homeless shelter off Golden State Avenue. This is a testament to the entire Board of Supervisors for getting it right.

 6)  ... TBC STAFF: With the newspaper industry in turmoil, some of the most talented of The Bakersfield Californian's staff have fled to jobs outside the industry, and many of them are already making their mark on the community. Among them: ranking editors Jennifer Self and Christine Bedell to CSUB, Trevor Horn to Garces Memorial High School, Jason Kotowski to KGET, James Burger to CAPK, Harold Pierce to Adventist Health Tehachapi and Lois Henry to the non-profit SJVWater.Org, devoted to the politics of water in the Central Valley.

 5)  ... CSUB: CSUB lost president Horace Mitchell to retirement, but the school didn't miss a beat when Lynnette Zelezny came from Fresno State to replace Mitchell as the school's new president. The campus is booming, entering into a partnership with Bakersfield College, expanding its academic offerings and continuing on its quest to evolve from a sleepy commuter school to a true major university. Zelezny may turn out to be the idea choice for CSUB at just the right time.

 4) ... VINCE FONG: It must be hard to be a Republican legislator serving with the Democratic majority in Sacramento. But Assemblyman Vince Fong does it with ntelligence, focus and grace, a tireless advocate of the lifestyle, priorities and morality of the Central Valley in an increasingly hostile setting. Never an ideologue or bomb thrower, Fong works with both sides of the aisle to get things done.

 3)  ... DAVID COUCH: Supervisor David Couch drew the short straw in the battle over drawing new districts at the Board of Supervisors. His district was gutted and he lost relationships with voters and communities that took years to establish. And, he was forced into running for re-election prematurely in a predominantly Hispanic district. Yet Couch defeated Grace Vallejo handily and proved once again that focus and commitment will always trump skin color at the ballot box.

 2) ... THE 18HUNDRED: Hard to find a better example of urban renewal, vision and infill that the opening of The 18Hundred restaurant at the corner of 18th and Chester downtown. This elegant old bank building, once covered up by an ugly facade, has been completely restored and his now one of the hottest eateries in town.

 1) ... RYAN ALSOP: And the biggest winner of the year: Kern County chief administrative officer Ryan Alsop, who has made a name for himself as a person who gets things done with razor-like focus. He brings to the CAO's role the same discipline and determination that he brings to his personal workout schedule, which in itself is impressive. Alsop was the tip of the spear in the county's aggressive efforts dealing with our homeless crisis, the rebuilding of Hart Park and putting the county back on sound financial footing.


 10)  ... DAVID ABASSI: Local businessman David Abassi went from vocal marijuana advocate to erratic (and some say potentially dangerous) gadfly over the course of the year. Once merely a cannabis advocate, his behavior is increasingly under question as he levels charges of fraud and conspiracy against countless people. And among other things, Abassi was cited for drawing a gun in public and he once went before the supervisors with a bizarre rant taken from straight from the soundtrack of the move "Pulp Fiction."

 9)  ... CAFE MED: Meir Brown's Cafe Med went out of the business this year, in itself no sin given the brutal competitive nature of the restaurant business, but when it went belly-up it left dozens holding useless Cafe Med gift certificates, some sold to support local schools.

 8)  .... TATYANA HARGROVE: Add this Millinneal to the list thanks to her arrest for tampering with food where she worked at the McDonald's on Stockdale Highway. Hargrove sued the Bakersfield Police for false arrest (she lost that case) and later retaliated by spitting on an officer's to-go order, only to be discovered by her boss who turned her into police. Real class that girl.

 7) ... DOWNTOWN BUSINESS ASSOCIATION: The DBA earned its reputation as a do-nothing local organization by hosting a series of expensive luncheons where it featured city officials, proving once again the DBA's main mission seems more about paying its own salaries rather than serving its business members.

 6) ... ELAINA SOSA: Add the name Elaina Sosa to our list after being charged with animal cruelty for dragging her dog behind her while she used a scooter to drive down 20th Street downtown. The dog's paws were swollen and bleeding after Sosa was caught on video dragging the poor thing down the street while on a leash.

 5)  ... KERN COUNTY FAIR BOARD: Yet another fall from grace was the Kern County Fair Board, which was cited in a state audit for gross mismanagement of funds. Led by Fair director Mike Olcott and board chair Blodgie Rodriguez, the fair board was cited for spending lavishly on expensive meals and booze on out of town junkets.

  4)  ... WE, THE PEOPLE: This list would not be complete without including us - yes, you and me - on the list of losers. Thanks to liberal policies that decriminalized everything from heroin possession to prostitution, crime is exploding in California and yes, we are the true victims. Petty crime, car theft and vandalism, retail theft, public urination and drug use are all on the rise in California.

 3) ... BOARD OF SUPERVISORS: In the list of "winners," we rightfully recognized the county of Kern for its singular focus on getting its financial house in order and addressing the homeless issue. But the Board of Supervisors also earned a "loser" nod for two boneheaded decisions: they showed short sightedness in failing to approve a concert venue off Interstate 5 (choosing instead to cow-two to a handful of influential farmers) and failing to approve the retail sale and delivery of cannabis products, a decision that has benefited other communities by the millions.

2) ... OIL INDUSTRY: It's now official: the state of California has declared war on the oil industry and seems more determined than ever to shut down the exploration and production of fossil fuels in the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom has made it clear that the future of California - if he gets his way - will be oil free, and the Democratic legislature agrees. The next few years will be crucial as we see just how fast this movement will surge, and what it will mean for oil patch communities like Bakersfield.

 1)  ... FATHER CRAIG HARRISON: It's hard to find a bigger loser this year than Monsignor Craig Harrison, who was suspended from St. Francis Parish in April after a handful of men accused him of sexual abuse when he served in Firebaugh, Merced County and here in Bakersfield. Although his fate remains uncertain and Harrison has retained the support of a core group of local Catholics, including some of the richest and most prominent people in town, Harrison is on the verge of losing everything if he is not re-instated. Whatever Bishop Joseph Brennan decides, the damage to Harrison's once unblemished reputation has been done, a dramatic fall from grace that has no peer locally. Today Harrison is a man without a portfolio, a man of the cloth at heart who can no longer practice in the Catholic church as he awaits his fate. If Harrison is cleared and returned to the pulpit, no doubt he will head next year's list of "biggest winners," but the odds are clearly against him.

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