San Mateo County residents spent 2013 absorbing and participating in several national stories — the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings allowing same-sex marriage and ending the Defense of Marriage Act and the salmonella outbreak that included chickens sold at the South San Francisco Costco.
But closer to home, the county’s top headlines were steeped in grief, triumph and occasionally surprise.
On May 4, five nurses died when a limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge trapped nine women celebrating one’s recent wedding. An investigation concluded the car’s rear suspension failed, letting the car’s steel drive shaft scrape against the limousine’s floorboards and catch fire. The tragedy spurred a number of proposed bills to make limousines safer but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that would have required the California Highway Patrol to conduct annual safety inspections for a $75 fee.
The county made national news again July 6 when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed while landing too low at San Francisco International Airport. Three Chinese girls were killed and 181 other passengers injured in the initial crash. One of the fatalities was a 16-year-old girl who survived the crash but died after being run over by two rescue vehicles rushing to the scene though the foam-filled runway.
In the aftermath, debate arose over the use of cameras on firefighter helmets, a local television station fell victim to a racial-tinged prank involving the pilots’ names and a United Airlines worker at SFO and his fiancee were charged with reportedly stealing luggage from diverted travelers and returning the merchandise to a department store for money.
Redwood City’s year was marked by several fires that left several apartment residents displaced and raised safety questions about both residential buildings and industrial facilities.
On July 7, the 72-unit Hallmark House Apartments at 531 Woodside Road went up in flames, killing a 48-year-old man and injuring 17 others. On Oct. 17, another six-alarm fire broke out about a mile away at the Terrace Apartments at 926 Woodside Road. The fire left about 75 residents of the four-story building without housing and sent four people to the hospital. The first caused an estimated $3.5 million in damage.
In both cases, the older complexes predated a 1998 law requiring sprinklers in new residential buildings. Lawsuits from the residents involved in both blazes now number in the dozens.
Less than a month after the residential fire, Sims Metal Management on Seaport Boulevard had its first of two fires within a five-week span. Following the Nov. 10 and Dec. 17 fires, the city gave the recycling center a list of stipulations to remain open while various agencies investigated the cause and Sims agreed to measures to prevent stockpiles of unprocessed metal that could cause future fires. The facility will also keep three qualified operators present round the clock.
The fires sent smoke into the air reported as far away as Mountain View and came amid a lengthy stretch of Spare the Air days.
Redwood City also had notable news on the development front for several projects in its downtown core and with a revamped plan for Pete’s Harbor. The Redwood City Council sent the original controversial plan back to the Planning Commission in 2013 for reconsideration after developer Paul Powers redesigned his proposal for 411 units and a commercial marina at the former floating community.
Future development in San Carlos also got a big change in 2013 when the City Council approved plans for a much-scaled down Transit Village mixed-use complex around the existing Caltrain station.
Over in San Mateo, changing market conditions pushed the Hillsdale Shopping Center to withdraw large-scale renovation plans that included a new Target store, open-air food court and luxury cinema. The plan, submitted in March but withdrawn in late November, was meant to update the center’s north block and link it with the new Bay Meadows community.
San Mateo development also made headlines when the City Council in August launched a review its Community Development Department following what some members called “hiccups” like erroneously permitting the controversial 7-Eleven on San Mateo Drive. The department also saw exits, including former director Lisa Grote.
In March, The Tom Lantos Tunnels at Devils’ Slide opened to great fanfare nearly 32 years after the late congressman secured the first $50 million in federal funding to bypass the treacherous former stretch of Highway 1 south of Pacifica. Construction started in 2006 and Lantos’ family was on hand these several years later to see his proposal unveiled as a reality.
Crime in the county included a drop in the number of murders but a noticeable uptick in crimes like vehicular manslaughter and residential burglaries that prompted police departments to warn residents about mid-day “doorknock” robberies and “snake scams.” A San Bruno police officer fatally shot a suspect in late October after the man allegedly drove a stolen car at him. The case is still under review by the District Attorney’s Office.
In February, 35-year-old Cecilia Zamora went missing from the San Bruno home she shared with boyfriend Albert Antonio Trejo and others. Her body was found April 26 at a Pacifica apartment complex and Trejo is now charged with her fatal shooting.
The courts were also free of all but a few notable moments. Former 49ers Kwame Harris was tried and convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against an ex-boyfriend. Former San Mateo child psychiatrist William Hamilton Ayres was sentenced to eight years in prison for molesting former patients after a plea deal that ended decades of waiting by victims and families. One former patient during sentencing called Ayres a “wolf spider.” Others just called him done.
But the biggest court case of 2013 had to be the child pornography possession trial of Stuart Forrest, the former chief probation officer who was found with dozens of images of young boys on his laptop. Forrest, who capped the 2012 year with his arrest and suicide attempt in late December, was convicted and sentenced to 10 months jail and lifetime sex offender registration after a trial in which he personally testified that he bought the videos and downloaded the photos as part of a self-launched initiative to fight child pornography. Meanwhile, the county brought in an interim chief and ultimately hired John Keene permanently to head the Probation Department.
County hiring was also notable in 2013 for the unexpected move of longtime San Mateo Deputy Police Chief Mike Callagy from law enforcement into a newly created deputy county manager spot with a focus on state criminal realignment.
The education arena was marked by 641 invalidated Advanced Placement test scores by 286 Mills High School students after seating irregularities. The July 17 move by the Education Testing Service sparked protests and a lawsuit later withdrawn voluntarily by the San Mateo Union High School District and a parent group. ETS never accused the students of cheating but said it launched an investigation after a Mills student complained that school personnel didn’t comply with specific seating guidelines.
In the southern part of the county, the San Carlos Elementary School District’s $1.3 million home loan to Superintendent Craig Baker drew fire after the funds were transferred a day before the board approved it. The district hired a third-party investigator whose report is pending and former board president Beth Hunkapiller resigned out of frustration there was not a fuller review and timeline of the loan process.
In the November election, voters defeated Measure P, a $130 million bond proposal that would have added capacity in the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.
In that same election, Burlingame voters had a nail-biting City Council race with Ricardo Ortiz beating out Russ Cohen by a mere eight votes. The two candidates went back and forth for days after the election but ultimately fell in Ortiz’s favor and Cohen opted against a recount.
Millbrae City Council got a fresh face — very fresh indeed — when 25-year-old Reuben Holober was elected to fill one of two open seats. One seat was left vacant after the death of his mother, councilwoman Nadia Holober. He is also the son of Richard Holober, a longtime member of the San Mateo County Community College District Board of Trustees.
Speaking of elections, San Mateo County in 2013 dovetailed off of two of the previous year’s big governmental news: the charter change moving from countywide to district supervisorial elections and the passage of half-cent sales tax Measure A. In October, following months of public workshops and dozens of proposed boundary maps, the Board of Supervisors finalized lines that split four cities and keeps District Five in the northern end of the county as a majority-minority Asian-American district. The supervisors also held several hearings to determine how to allocate the annual sales tax revenue.
Venture capitalist Tim Draper continued expanding his university offerings in downtown San Mateo in 2013 but also made state and national news right before the Christmas holidays by launching a state initiative to split California into six smaller states. Draper will spend 2014 collecting about a million signatures to qualify for the November ballot. He argues the plan will reconnect residents and better serve them.
Some of the year’s stories were also continuations of years past, among them the battle over high-speed rail. Peninsula cities, like Burlingame, started January debating asking voters to reconsider the 2008 approval and, by the end of the year, high-profile lawsuits had its future in doubt and other transit agencies like Caltrain scrambling to assure the public that electrification was still on regardless.
Gas pipeline safety, the California Public Utilities Commission and distrust of Pacific Gas and Electric also continued in 2013. Lingering fears that began with the deadly San Bruno explosion and fire of 2011 peaked in October when the city of San Carlos declared a state of emergency after learning about November 2012 emails in which a PG&E engineer questioning the safety of the 84-year-old gas transmission Line 147 which runs parallel to Brittan Avenue. The former engineer suggested the city could be “another San Bruno situation” in reference to the Sept. 9, 2010, gas line explosion and fire that killed eight, injured dozens and destroyed 38 homes. The engineer also questioned if hydrotesting in 2011 exacerbated cracking.
The line was temporarily taken out of service after questions were raised about its safety but later reinstated at a reduced pressure of 124 psi. In mid-December, the CPUC gave PG&E the OK to increase the pressure to 330 psi but simultaneously ordered the utility to pay a $14.3 million fine for faulty record keeping. PG&E officials consistently maintained that the line was extensively tested, inspected, monitored and safe.
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