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Top 10 local stories of 2011

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:57 am, Thu Dec 29, 2011.

During the past year, fireworks were sold for the first time in Lodi, gang violence became a growing concern, local residents demanded more access to the Mokelumne River and school officials were accused of changing grades to get students into a local college program.

Below is a summary of the top stories from the year.

1. The rise of gang violence

Throughout the entire year, our crime reporters were busy covering a variety of shootings and stabbing in the community while the police attempted to crackdown on local gangs.

Reporter Jordan Guinn took a look at a rash of gang violence between Norteños and Sureños in mid-May, and found that is it centered in a 50-block area on the Eastside.

There were dozens of attacks throughout the year and a 20-year-old died in November after gang members shot him at Central Avenue and Pine Street.

In August, Heritage Elementary School, located on South Garfield Street, had to go on lockdown because of a drive-by shooting. Shortly after that, the Lodi Police Department held a forum at the school to see what concerns parents had and to give information on how to recognize gang members.

2. City, county and school district budget woes

As revenues have decreased and employee costs have increased, all agencies in the county have struggled with how to balance their budgets this year.

City of Lodi employees gave up $2.6 million in concessions and most city offices went to a modified work week where employees work nine-hour days Monday through Thursday and then have every other Friday off. Combined with the monthly furlough, this means that city offices are usually closed three Fridays a month.

Lodi Unified School District laid off 159 employees because of budget constraints. Both the city and the district also picked apart their budgets looking for savings that included reducing the number of employee cellphones.

At the county level, San Joaquin County Superior Court shut down one of the Lodi courtrooms because of state budget cuts.

To make the public understand funding challenges, the city of Lodi also held multiple informal community meetings to educate local residents on the different aspects of the budget.

3. Grade-changing scandal

A Lodi Unified School District trustee resigned in November amid accusations that he ordered a principal at Liberty High School to change grades.

A report prepared by an outside attorney hired to investigate the accusation indicated that Trustee Ken Davis may have told Principal Robert Rivas to change grades so students could qualify for a program Davis founded and had championed through Humphreys College.

Rivas was placed on paid administrative leave last April and retired as previously planned on June 30.

4. The battle over the river

Throughout the year, local residents pushed for more access to the Mokelumne River as the number of kayakers and canoers swelled.

In May, an all-volunteer team with the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department started patrolling the Mokelumne River from Lodi Lake to Highway 99 throughout the summer.

The Woodbridge Wilderness Area was opened for the first time in years to the public in June. It continued to be open one Saturday a month.

In August, the city of Lodi looked at opening an access point at the end of Awani Drive in the Mokelumne Village subdivision. Hundreds showed up at a community forum on the topic, with outdoor enthusiasts saying there should be more access and neighbors raising concerns about how a park could affect their neighborhood.

In November, the News-Sentinel examined three different times that public access should have been created within city limits but was not.

5. Acampo murders

The small community of Acampo was rocked by two murders and a murder-suicide during the past year.

On March 2, Acampo resident Juan Romero murdered his wife, Billijo Dyer-Romero, and then took his own life. Dyer-Romero was the drillmaster for the Mokelumne Mounties Junior Equestrian Drill Team, a horse-riding performance group.

Then later that month, Howard Daniel Smith, a then 40-year-old, allegedly shot and killed Jonathan Meagher, 48, and his father, William Robert Meagher, 84, and shot a third person in the foot.

Police arrested Smith shortly after the murders when the vehicle he was driving collided with another vehicle on southbound Highway 99 at Harney Lane.

6. Firework sales hit Lodi

For the first time, Lodi residents could set off fireworks in their front lawn legally during the Fourth of July.

In April, the Lodi City Council approved the sale of fireworks in the city limit. The decision allowed residents not to worry about getting in trouble for cone fountains or spinners, and gave six local nonprofits an opportunity to earn tens of thousands of dollars.

The sales also provided the city with money for additional patrols around the holiday to make sure people were not using illegal fireworks.

7. ADA lawsuits abound

Businesses around town dealt with dozens of Americans with Disability Act lawsuits filed by a variety of plaintiffs, mostly from outside the area.

Most of the businesses tended to be small mom-and-pops or local establishments. The list included Java Stop, Weigman's Lodi Nursery, Paul's Safe Lock & Key Service and the Cherokee Veterinary Hospital.

The suits were so widespread that the Lodi Chamber of Commerce held a seminar to educate business owners on how to avoid attempts from serial litigants who target businesses for being out of compliance with disability laws.

The city and the Lodi Unified School District also settled a lawsuit for $45,000 that stemmed from Tokay High graduate Jeremy Hixson saying not enough access was provided at his 2009 graduation ceremony at the Lodi Grape Bowl.

8. Galt focuses on downtown

The city of Galt is working to attract more tourists downtown with several big projects.

The first upscale, sit-down restaurant in town, Brewster's Bar and Grill, opened at 4th and B streets, providing 65 jobs to the community.

The 19th-century renovated building includes a large dining area downstairs with a bar and a glass floor that looks into the restaurant's wine cellar.

Galt Place, an 80-unit senior housing complex with some retail spaces, opened in November. There will be a variety of tenants, including Velvet Creamery, that are scheduled to move in this spring.

The Galt City Council also approved spending almost $300,000 to create a quiet zone to silence the Union Pacific railroad trains that barrel through the area.

9. The fast-moving Mokelumne River

The Lodi Lake Nature Area was closed for about two weeks because of Mokelumne River flooding that went all the way up to the redwoods near the front gate.

Because of a wet winter and unexpected spring storms, East Bay Municipal Utility District started releasing more water from Camanche Reservoir, causing the Mokelumne to be higher and run swifter than usual.

The San Joaquin Sheriff's Department also closed public access to Stillman Magee Park, and East Bay Municipal Utilities District is denying access to the Mokelumne River Day Use Area near Camanche Reservoir.

10. The growth of the Lodi wine industry

Lodi's distinction as a wine town grew leaps and bounds with the opening of tasting rooms in Downtown and a national marketing campaign to get tourists to the area.

The Lodi Winegrape Commission is spending $450,000 on a national advertising campaign to brand Lodi as a wine region. The commission is using the nickname "LoCA" to distinguish Lodi.

Tasting rooms like Estate Crush, Fields Family Wines and the Toasted Toad opened in Downtown Lodi, offering a variety of options for wine afficionados.

The wine industry will even be featured on TV. A film crew from the DIY Network, also known as Do It Yourself, spent the weekend in March filming Ripken Winery constructing an outdoor, covered tasting room in basically one day. A web television show, "Wine Nation TV," also featured Lodi's wineries.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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