Many believed 2021 was supposed to be a year of recovery. I remember attending a press conference during the late spring in which county health officials said that they expected the pandemic would largely be winding down as we reached the final quarter of the year.
Obviously, that is not the case.
Still, there are some things that we can celebrate that happened in this yo-yo-like year.
Here are five stories that made an impact on me in 2021:
Upheaval at City Hall
After several years of stability within the city of Watsonville, the municipality saw major changes this year. Police Chief David Honda, Public Works and Utilities Director Steve Palmisano, City Attorney Alan Smith and City Clerk Beatriz Vasquez Flores all announced their retirement this year. In addition, City Manager Matt Huffaker surprisingly announced he would leave to take the same position in Santa Cruz, and Watsonville City Councilman Aurelio Gonzalez stepped down because of a family health emergency.
Some of these voids have been filled over the past few weeks, and others will be resolved in the coming year. All of this change is par for the pandemic, as several reports found that millions of Americans had planned to change careers as the pandemic subsided.
I am still extremely impressed with the efforts of the entire South County community and the people within county leadership that helped the 95076 zip code have the highest Covid-19 vaccination rate in Santa Cruz County. Despite all of the challenges that come with reaching—and convincing—people in Watsonville, the county, city, nonprofits and health care providers got it done.
A big shout-out goes to the South County Support and Triage Group made up of leaders in education, health care, prevention and nonprofits. County and city elected leaders also deserve a big pat on their backs for recognizing that Watsonville and its high number of essential workers living in cramped housing, some without access to health care, would need the vaccines first.
It’s always a cool moment to follow a story from inception to completion. So while the planned $23 million renovation of Ramsay Park and the $3.5 million renovation of the City Plaza are not quite completed, it was still fun to see Watsonville Parks and Community Services Director Nick Calubaquib and other city officials gathered at Ramsay Park earlier this year to announced that the city’s dream of upgrading its largest recreation asset would become reality.
Talking to Calubaquib about those plans, still in their infancy in 2018, was one of the first things I did when I took over as Managing Editor. His passion to see these plans through then was inspiring. And seeing him at the podium with Assemblymember Robert Rivas by his side was a nice bookend to a three-year journey.
Of course, both renovations are still years away from breaking ground, but the work the city did to advocate for those upgrades deserves praise.
It’s the issue that seems to resurface at the end of every story, and there’s a reason for that. Most people who experience homelessness simply want to be left alone or have become accustomed to living on the edges of society. So when Kmart on Freedom Boulevard shut down for good in August, it came as no surprise that people set up camp behind and around the vacant building.
Most in Watsonville can see that homelessness is becoming a bigger issue in our city, but the trouble is our resources are nowhere near enough to solve this issue—not even with the county’s help can we solve this. It’s going to take real investment from the state and federal government to fix this issue that we are so woefully behind on.
At the recent Homeless Memorial Service, David Davis, an analyst with the Homeless Persons’ Health Project, said that, currently, there “are fewer shelter beds than ever before” in our county.
Aptos High Stabbing
Perhaps no other incident this year sparked as much conversation than the fatal stabbing of an Aptos High School student in August. The tragedy was, law enforcement, school district and mental health officials say, the result of a combination of factors that all have scrambled to address.
The conversation about school resource officers (SRO)—which the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees voted last year to remove from high school campuses—dominated South County for several weeks as the community tried to cope with the stabbing.
The SROs are back at PVUSD schools, and are now paired with mental health clinicians. It will be interesting to see what effect the new initiative will have on area students and schools. I hope and believe that it will be a positive one.