From smuggled Mexican marijuana floating off the coast of El Porto to a decomposing corpse buried in fertilizer at Polliwog Park, Manhattan Beach has endured a year peppered with unprecedentedly bizarre events.
The Manhattan Beach Police Department deployed its SWAT team for the first time since 2005 to respond to mysterious gunshots fired in a North Manhattan Beach duplex, and several months later endured incriminating publicity nationwide when a 22-year-old Hawthorne man sued the police chief, a team of detectives and the city for $5 million in a sex sting gone awry.
The city cut ties with former city manager Dave Carmany while beginning a new partnership with the school district. For the first time ever, the city has agreed to make direct payments to the district for use of its facilities.
2013 was a big year for Manhattan Beach schools: Robinson Elementary earned a new distinction as a Blue Ribbon Award School and Mira Costa’s choir director Michael Hayden as one of five California Teachers of the Year. Plus, phase one of Mira Costa’s revitalization project came to fruition in the fall with the completion of the school’s new state-of-the-art math/science building.
Construction for the new county library in the Civic Plaza kicked off this September, and the $26.3 million project is anticipated to be completed by April 2015.
The Manhattan Beach Unified School District had many causes for celebration this year.
In September, a U.S. Department of Education official toured Grand View Elementary as part of its California leg of “Education Built to Last” Facilities Best Practices Tour, which features public Green Ribbon Award schools that exhibit best practices in school building and grounds design, construction, operations and management to support health, environmental literacy, energy efficiency and cost savings. Grand View Elementary, which earned the distinction last year, was just one of five schools in California visited by the department.
Board members, school officials and the community celebrated the on-time and on-budget completion of the state-of-the-art solar-powered math/science building at Mira Costa High School in October, marking the end of phase one of a modernization project at the high school funded by Measure BB, a $67 million public bond campaign approved by Manhattan Beach voters in 2008.
Phase two and three, slated for completion at the end of 2014, entail modernizing classrooms, building a multi-purpose room with a renovated band/orchestra facility and establishing a central outdoor area.
The new 68,000 sq. ft. three-story building, open for use since the beginning of this school year, includes 16 math classrooms, nine science classrooms, four laboratories and five “superlabs.”
In November, Robinson Elementary principal Nancy Doyle was invited to Washington D.C. to receive a plaque from the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of the school, which on Sep. 24 was named a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School, a distinction bestowed on just 15 public schools in the state and 236 nationwide. The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, founded in 1982, recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools for high academic achievement, measured by aptitude or significant improvements in student performance.
Mira Costa High School’s director of choirs Michael Hayden is among the five California Teachers of the Year recognized by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in November. Hayden, who began his post in 2007, was chosen earlier this year as the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Teacher of the Year and as one of 16 Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year. He will be honored at a luncheon in Sacramento next February.
First-term councilman Wayne Powell and first-timers Mark Burton and Tony D’Errico prevailed as the winners of the Manhattan Beach City Council race in March. Powell secured an early 1,000-vote margin from second-place candidate Mark Burton, garnering 28.8 percent of total votes cast. Burton, a former municipal counsel for the City of Los Angeles, earned 21.5 percent, followed by small business owner Tony D’Errico, who finished with 17.3 percent total.
Two-time councilman and mayor Mitch Ward edged out former TV executive Mark Lipps for fourth place by a mere two votes, a total of 2,085 or 15 percent. Activist Viet Ngo scored 301 votes total. City Treasurer Tim Lilligren ran unopposed to retain his seat.
On Nov. 5, four candidates faced off in the first Manhattan Beach school board race since 2007. In past elections, incumbents have faced no challengers. Ellen Rosenberg, an incumbent who ran uncontested in 2009, led the pack with 30 percent of ballots cast, or 2,915 votes. Newcomer and longtime parent volunteer Jennifer Cochran came in second with 27 percent or 2,600 votes, while retired financial analyst Christine Cronin-Hurst earned a seat with 23 percent or 2,252 votes. Attorney Kathleen Paralusz claimed nearly 20 percent or 1,912 votes.
Before the break of dawn on May 25, an unoccupied fishing boat came ashore in El Porto under the radar of border patrol agents and MBPD. When authorities approached the white panga, which bore the name La Mina or “mine” in black lettering, they discovered piles of large, black suitcases stuffed with approximately 1,850 pounds of marijuana as well as two lifejackets, two pairs of pants and 14 ten-gallon gas cans, half of which were still full.
During a search for the panga’s crew, federal agents found two men, reeking of gasoline, hiding in a bush under a tree. Around 5:30 a.m., Mexican nationals Armando Natividad Soberanes-Rios and Rocque Mendez-Garcia were arrested and transported to the U.S. Border Patrol Station in San Clemente for questioning.
In his interview with a federal agent, Soberanes, 29, said he and Mendez departed from Ensenada, Mexico that prior Tuesday. The two were roommates, and Mendez, who admitted to having served 21 months in prison for smuggling into the U.S. before returning to Mexico, had offered Soberanes $5,000 to accompany him on the voyage. Soberanes said, at the time, he thought they would be smuggling people, not marijuana. He also claimed that nobody was waiting for the delivery.
According to Homeland Security Investigations agents, low-grade marijuana from Mexico is valued at $100 to $500 per pound, totaling in this case between $183,500 and $917,500. The Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force seized the marijuana for investigation.
On July 11, public works employees discovered a decomposing body at Polliwog Park, wrapped in pink plastic material and concealed in a pile of fertilizer.
Authorities later identified the body as that of 21-year-old Long Beach man Mario Herrera, who was reported missing by family members the day before the discovery of his body.
According to MBPD detective Mike Rosenberger, the city’s public works staff had transported mounds of fertilizer from Polliwog Park to Pacific Elementary’s field before discovering the body. A six-hour dig at the school netted no further evidence, he said.
Homicide detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigated Herrera’s death as foul play.
MBPD deployed its SWAT team in August for the first time since 2005 when Bayview Drive residents reported hearing two distinct gunshots around 3:30 a.m. from inside a duplex.
Officers evacuated nearby residents and cordoned off surrounding streets when they saw a broken window and a trickle of blood, calling in SWAT teams from MBPD and El Segundo Police Department. When police finally obtained a search warrant and entered the residence around 11:30 a.m., no one was inside and no weapon was found. They did however find a large amount of narcotics inside the residence, according to police.
The resident of the duplex, later identified as 32-year-old Jeffrey Paul Henderson, turned himself in to MBPD two months later when police issued a felony warrant, which included charges of Possession of a Controlled Substance (Xanax) for sales, Possession of Methamphetamine for Sales and Possession of Ketamine (Ecstacy) for Sales.
Manhattan Beach made national headlines in October when a 22-year-old former El Camino student wrongfully arrested in a sex sting operation sued the city, its police chief and five detectives for $5 million in damages.
MBPD’s sting operation targeting a public restroom on the beach last March culminated in the arrest of 18 men, including then-Hawthorne resident Charles S. Couch, after police were informed by lifeguards that it had become a popular meeting place for men seeking sex. The following month, MBPD disseminated a press release that included the names, birth dates and booking photos for the arrestees, which made the front page of the Daily Breeze.
In a criminal complaint filed in a Los Angeles federal court, Couch, who at the time of arrest was working as a caretaker for a 14-year-old boy with disabilities, says police arrested him without cause and violated his civil rights by publicizing his identity, among other transgressions. He is being represented by civil and gay rights attorney Bruce W. Nickerson, who specializes in litigation surrounding police sting operations. The two parties are amidst negotiation.
A long-anticipated joint-use agreement between the Manhattan Beach Unified School District and the city came to fruition in May, marking for the first time a direct payment from the city to the district for access to its facilities.
Under the previous agreement adopted in 1999, the school district had granted the city free access during non-school hours to its school fields and facilities as long as the city footed maintenance and operation costs.
Under the new three-year agreement, the city will pay the district $550,000 a year and continue upkeep and operations for access to 14 district facilities and 23 acres of open space, which includes eight school fields, Begg Field and Pool, Polliwog Park and Mira Costa’s tennis and basketball courts.
For the 2013-2014 year, the agreement will cost the city approximately $1.5 million — a sum of the direct payment to the district, costs of field maintenance, hardscape maintenance and additional lifeguard staffing for the Mira Costa pool during use. Adjusted for inflation, the cost is anticipated to climb up to $1.7 million annually for the following two years.
“We should actually feel good that we’re coming clean and paying for what we’re using,” then-Mayor Pro Tem Amy Howorth said at the May 21 City Council meeting where the council unanimously approved the motion to sign off on the new deal.
Construction began this September for the new county library in Manhattan Beach, marking the end of a long bureaucratic process for the $26.3 million project approved by City Council three years ago. L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe joined city officials in August to break ground for the new library on Highland Avenue, slated to be unveiled in April 2015.
The two-storied, 21,500-square-foot glass facility will be nearly twice the size of the previous library (built in 1975) with half its footprint. It will include adult reading areas, a team and children section as well as a 100-seat community meeting room. The glass facade makes way for a panoramic ocean view from the second floor and captures the nature of air and light as well as the personality of the community, architect John Favaro explained to the City Council in April.
The county-led project is being funded by property tax collected from Manhattan Beach residents and a 30-year county-issued bond.
On Nov. 4, the Manhattan Beach City Council voted unanimously in a closed session to terminate city manager Dave Carmany’s three-year contract without cause, citing its vision of moving in a new direction.
Under the terms of his contract, the city must pay Carmany a year’s salary of $213,000 and benefits.
Recently inducted mayor Amy Howorth singled out the recruitment of “an A+ city manager” as a top priority in her nine-month tenure. John Jalili, formerly a longtime city manager for Santa Monica, is serving as interim.
Carmany began his post in January 2011 following a scandal that prompted the abrupt dismissal of predecessor Geoff Dolan. His contract with the city was set to expire this upcoming January, but it was automatically extended to January 2015 because neither he nor the City Council issued a timely notice of non-renewal, according to a staff report.
Upon his hiring, Carmany and the city entered into an equity housing agreement, sharing equal ownership of Carmany’s new residence on Pacific Avenue. With the sales price now at $1.5 million, the City Council in December voted to sell the house, netting the city about $163,000 from the sale.
In late November, Carmany was hired by La Puente as its new city manager.