From a smoking ban to increasing parking meter rates, it's been another busy year in Walnut Creek.
Here is a look back at the Walnut Creek Journal's Top Ten Stories of the Year. Some are over and done with, while others -- such as one councilman's crusade to overturn his own council's law -- will continue to make news well into the new year.
1. Drama surrounds Lesher Center
A Lesher Center saga took center stage this year after allegations that city employees failed to report child sex abuse. That was followed by city hall infighting that rocked city staff and caused the exodus of upper-level managers.
Four of them -- Lesher Center Manager Scott Denison, Arts Director Barry Gordon, his deputy Kevin Safine and city Human Resources Manager Sally Rice -- were placed on paid leave in March for more than two months during the internal investigation. Walnut Creek police claimed they had failed to report child abuse, though the employees said they knew another police department was investigating fired employee Jason Pedroza, an actor and theater teacher. He eventually pleaded guilty to child sex abuse charges after he had inappropriate relationships with teen girls at the Lesher Center.
The four city employees on leave were eventually brought back after the district attorney decided to file no criminal charges and an independent city investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing for three employees. The human resources director Sally Rice, however, was said to have lied to police, according to the report. She later resigned and filed a claim against the city which is still pending.
The report also revealed that City Manager Ken Nordhoff and others knew of the Pedroza situation earlier than council members originally thought. The drama continued with some councilmembers publicly saying they felt lied to by Nordhoff and a band of former mayors calling for employees to be brought back to work even before the investigation was complete.
The damage from the Lesher drama was severe, with City Attorney Bryan Wenter resigning abruptly, claiming two city council members tried to pressure him to shut down the internal investigation. Council members denied they wanted the investigation shut down, only concluded. Wenter's resignation was soon followed by Assistant City Attorney Katy Wisinski, Rice and Assistant City Manager Lori Tinfow, and by Gordon's retirement.
Earlier this month, the city settled claims and paid nearly $100,000 in attorney's fees for Gordon and Denison.
The city implemented a mandated reporting policy on child abuse, which had not existed before.
2. Where there's smoke ...
Walnut Creek this year enacted one of the most stringent secondhand-smoking laws in Contra Costa County.
The City Council passed the strict smoking ban in September which restricts smoking in all multiunit residences, all of downtown, all recreational areas and all commercially zoned properties where there are outdoor dining areas or outdoor service areas; anyplace within 25 feet of entryways and operable windows; and in all public places. The council made an exemption, however, that does not require public or private golf courses to be smoke-free. And it doesn't outlaw smoke from medical marijuana.
The decision brought cheers from anti-smoking advocates and those living in multifamily housing who struggled living next door to smokers. But it also elicited jeers from smokers who say the ordinance violates their rights.
Violators are cited with fines starting at $100 for the first infraction, $300 for the second and $500 thereafter. After that, the new law gives the city attorney power to bring a civil suit against an offender.
3. Councilman v. Council
The smoking ban, along with work on an eventual plastic bag ban, led Councilman Justin Wedel to strike out on his own this year and try to overturn his fellow councilmembers' decisions.
Wedel, the lone vote against the secondhand-smoking ordinance, announced he would try to get not one but two initiatives on an upcoming ballot. He says the people should decide on the two important issues. One initiative would undo the city's smoking ban and only prohibit smoking in public places, not in people's homes.
"This is not a smoking or plastic-bag issue; this is a government-intrusion-into-our-daily-lives issue," Wedel said in November. "I swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the U.S. and the Constitution of this state. I would not be upholding my oath if I didn't take every action necessary to make sure people's private property rights are protected."
The other initiative would block, or retroactively invalidate, any council decision to ban plastic grocery shopping bags. Wedel said it's not proven that such a ban would help the environment, and that the government shouldn't dictate what stores use. Wedel is in the process of collecting signatures and started a new group with like-minded individuals called Speak Up for Walnut Creek.
4. Bringing up Broadway Plaza
The City Council voted unanimously in December to approve a master plan for the $250 million expansion and renovation of Broadway Plaza that will increase the size of the outdoor downtown mall by 300,000 square feet and redevelop and demolish another 200,000 square feet of buildings and parking garages.
This should provide space for a potential fourth anchor store, new multilevel parking garages and completely redesigned shops and outdoor space.
While the plan allows the work to take as long as 20 years, Broadway Plaza owner Macerich expects all the work to be done by fall 2017.
The timeline calls for the Nordstrom parking garage and all the stores between Nordstrom and Macy's to be demolished early next year. The city will get as much as $5 million from Macerich as part of the deal, which city leaders can use as they want.
While this is a major expansion that will cause headaches during construction years for both shoppers and drivers, there was virtually no opposition to the project -- in stark contrast to when, in 2009, it took voters to allow a Neiman Marcus store be built there.
5. Mt. Diablo ousts superintendent, gets new one
The Mt. Diablo Unified School District, which includes Northgate High and some other Walnut Creek schools, went through a major shakeup this year after severing ties with former Superintendent Steven Lawrence and former General Counsel Greg Rolen.
In a split vote in April, the school board decided to fire the pair and cut their contracts off a year early, citing distrust in the district and low employee morale. The cost to pay each man for a remaining six months of their contract was around $250,000.
In September, the board found a new woman to lead the district -- former San Diego school district Assistant Superintendent Nellie Meyer. She received a $245,000-a-year contract which began Sept. 23 and ends June 30, 2016.
The Mt. Diablo district in Contra Costa County is one of the largest school districts in the state. It serves about 33,000 students in 50 schools in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Clayton, Bay Point and portions of Martinez, Pittsburg and Walnut Creek.
6. Pay to park
Walnut Creek downtown parking rates soon will shoot up to $2 an hour, Sunday parking no longer will be free and meter hours will stretch well into the night.
The City Council passed the new parking ordinance in November with a final reading earlier this month. The changes will take effect in the spring, and are expected to bump parking revenue, after expenses, from $1 million to $3.1 million annually.
Besides enforcement on Sundays, new for Walnut Creek will be a move to change enforcement times from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. To help guide drivers into the underutilized downtown parking garages, the city will make the first hour free in its structures, but parking rates in the busy South Locust Street garage will rise from 50 cents to $1 an hour.
The additional revenue from the parking changes will be spent on saving for future parking structures, downtown police officers and other downtown programs, which could include the Lesher Center.
7. Las Lomas loses beloved student
Just two weeks until school let out for summer the Las Lomas High School community was sent reeling after 18-year-old junior Amir Khakimov, a fierce competitor and athlete died suddenly from a brain aneurysm.
Known for his smile and called by his wrestling coach "the glue" that held the team together, Khakimov had lived in the U.S. for less than two years. His family had moved from Tashkent, Uzbekistan so the children could have a better life, according to friends of the Khakimov family.
But on May 13 while working out a fitness club, he collapsed suddenly and was rushed to the hospital where he underwent brain surgery. His family, friends and teammates kept vigil at his bedside for more than a week before he died.
The good-looking young man with a "great smile" was the Diablo Foothill Athletic League champion in his 126-pound weight class and competed for Las Lomas at the North Coast championships this past year. And was set to team captain next school year.
8. There's a new chief in town
After the retirement of former Police Chief Joel Bryden, a commander from the Citrus Heights Police Department became Walnut Creek's top cop this year. Chief Tom Chaplin, a 23-year law enforcement veteran, came to head the department in July.
Chaplin worked in Citrus Heights since 2006, serving in roles including lieutenant and as commander for both the patrol services division and the investigative services division. He helped establish that department's juvenile diversion and education program and its youth and family services unit. He has also worked for the state's Department of Justice and with the Sacramento Police Department.
He came to Walnut Creek at a tenuous time; the department has struggled with staffing shortages in recent years, leading to cuts in community policing teams, motorcycle traffic patrols and school resource officers. Officers on leave due to retirement, military service and injury, and those leaving for jobs with better compensation at other agencies, have plagued the department. One of the major focuses for Chaplin has been to hire more officers.
9. Money, money, money, money
A large focus of city officials this year is the city's finances -- specifically, the long-term financial challenges the city faces that show multimillion-dollar deficits for Walnut Creek over the next eight years, beginning with next year.
The council hired pollsters to find out what residents knew of the city's financial problems and found that people didn't know much. The City Council has authorized city staff to begin a road-show of sorts to present to various groups that the city will not be able to continue to provide or maintain its level of services with existing funding sources.
There's disagreement on the city council about where those cuts should come. Some councilors believe the city must cut back on spending, while others advocate some kind of new tax measure be put on the ballot.
Either way, serious decisions are coming, including how to pay for continued library hours at the city's two busy libraries. And as employees' costs continue to rise, so does the need for major capital investment into aging facilities such as the city's pools and roads. But with divided beliefs on how bad the problem is and how the city got into such a mess, some of the meetings based around fiances have gotten a bit heated as council members argue their poins.
No matter what a balanced budget is necessary and projections show there will be a $1.6 million shortfall next year according to the city's long-term financial plan. In 2015-16 that number shoots up to $3.7 million.
10. A new year, a new mayor
For the first time Councilwoman Kristina Lawson was appointed mayor in December. Lawson who is still in her first term, will be mayor during the city's celebration of its centennial next year.
Lawson, a lawyer and mother of two, has already chaired three City Council meetings in her short time as the head of the council. She took the reins from Councilwoman Cindy Silva who finished her second turn as mayor.
Lawson will lead the council during not only a 100-year city celebration but the passing of a two-year budget in June and resolution over how to deal with unfunded services such as library hours and infrastructure needs.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.