2020 — Beyond the pandemic, Local life carried on

2020 — Beyond the pandemic, Local life carried on

“What a long strange trip it’s been.” – Grateful Dead

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY—Yes, we went on quite the journey in 2020 – a year that seemed surreal and all too real at the same time.

In his January 2020 column in the Pioneer, Concord Mayor Tim McGallian wrote: “The start of every new year brings with it the excitement of possibility and new beginnings.”

And as 2021 comes into focus with the promise of full-scale COVID-19 vaccinations, we may just begin to see those possibilities again – for in-person learning, those long-awaited family reunions and so many other things that fell by the wayside as we each waged our personal battle with the impacts of the pandemic.

But even as we look forward to 2021’s new beginnings, let’s also take a moment to look back at some of the stories the Pioneer covered in 2020.


Development impasse: At the Jan. 8, 2020, meeting, the Concord City Council told Lennar/Five Point to continue negotiations with the Building Trades Council (BTC) over labor contracts at the development planned for the former Concord Naval Weapons Station. Kofi Bonner of FivePoint was not optimistic, saying the BTC’s plan “sinks the project, financially.” Later in 2020, the City Council let the contract with Lennar expire. By year’s end, the city was reworking development plans with the goal of finding a new building partner in 2021.

Fire chief sounds the alarm: Brian Helmick of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District warns that chronic underfunding and understaffing puts residents at risk. “Let me be clear: Status quo is not acceptable,” he wrote in his Pioneer column. In July, the district announced it would only send firefighters inside a burning building if human life is at risk and would focus on containing the fire to the structure involved. In September, orange skies filled the Bay Area in a haunting reminder of the growing threat of wildfires for us all.

Short stint for new Clayton manager: In an interview in January 2020, Ikani Taumoepeau said he was “excited about the opportunity to work in one of the best communities in the entire state.” However, he resigned in May without offering an official explanation. In November, the city hired Reina Schwartz as city manager, taking over from interim city manager Frances Robustelli.

“Clayton is an extraordinary community and environment,” Schwartz said, “and I look forward to working collaboratively in support of our vision to be a premier small city focused on customer service and excellence.”

Thwarting second-hand smoke: The Concord City Council voted to ban smoking in multi-unit residences and many public areas. The rules went into effect Feb. 6, 2020, for new units and on Jan. 1, 2021, for existing units. “We’re going to be working on education and outreach the next quarter or so,” Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister told the Pioneer on Dec. 31, 2020. “The enforcement on that is mostly a civil matter.”


Frenzied freelancers: California’s new “gig” law (AB5) is making it difficult for many independent contractors to find work: The law, aimed at Uber and Lyft, had wide-ranging – and unanticipated – consequences for workers from musicians and actors to journalists and therapists. In a pre-pandemic interview, Sylvia Amorino told the Pioneer that Concord’s Solo Opera might have to shut down to comply. Little did she know then that March’s stay at home order would drop the curtain on all theater companies and most other businesses for months. In December 2020, Amorino launched a fundraising campaign in the hopes of bringing ‘Scalia/Ginsburg” to the stage later in 2021. And as many workers and employers continue to sort through AB5’s ramifications, voters approved Prop. 22 in November to allow gig economy drivers to continue as independent contractors.

New plan will protect open space near Clayton
Open space around Mt. Diablo set aside for protection.

Preserving open space: Save Mount Diablo (SMD) and the Concord Mt. Diablo Trail Ride Association signed an option agreement to permanently protect about 154 acres east of Clayton. The plan gives SMD two years to raise more than $1 million to purchase a perpetual conservation easement on the open space. In April, SMD launched another campaign to connect Mount Diablo to the whole of the Diablo Range. Seth Adams, SMD’s land conservation director, said the Diablo Range is the “missing piece of the California conservation map.”

Booking it for 25 years: The Clayton Community Library will celebrate its 25th birthday in March. “In March 1989, a group of women from the Clayton branch of the American Association of University Women met to fulfill a long-held dream to have a brick and mortar library,” Mayor Julie Pierce wrote in her Pioneer column. “Construction began in March 1994, and we celebrated the grand opening on March 4, 1995.”


Coronavirus hits the front page: As the March 20, 2020, edition of the Pioneer was going to press, most Bay Area counties were issuing a three-week shelter in place order. The Pioneer reported 34 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Contra Costa County and 250 in the Bay Area.

Olivia gets the go-ahead: The Clayton City Council approved a three-building, three-story senior apartment project on Marsh Creek Road at the March 3, 2020, meeting. Residents in the Stranahan neighborhood continue to oppose the Olivia, citing inadequate parking. In a column in the Pioneer, Mayor Tuija Catalano said the council had no legal basis to deny the project. “A court could order the project to be approved, award attorney fees and impose penalties … in excess of $4 million.” The 3-2 vote spawned a contentious race for three seats on the council in November, which ended with Catalano failing to win reelection. On Oct. 30, Contra Costa Superior Court judge Edward Weil ruled that the city acted properly in approving the project.


Virtual reality: Like most everything else, the Pioneer newspaper went virtual in April. Stories focused on the multitude of organizations working together to help feed homebound seniors and others in need as well as how local restaurants were coping with the ban on indoor dining.

Protest rally in Concord during the summer of 2020.

Policing during a pandemic: In an interview with the Pioneer in April, new Concord Chief of Police Mark Bustillos said he was looking forward to the days when he could get out and meet with residents. While he might still be waiting to fulfill that goal, other issues became more pressing. In July, he gave a virtual presentation to the City Council about the department’s policies and procedures in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and an effort to defund the Concord Police Department. Speaker after speaker pleaded for more social service providers instead of armed officers. In September, the council directed city staff to work on expanding the Coordinated Outreach Referral and Engagement (CORE) program and establishing a Mental Health Evaluation team. According to Concord community relations manager Jennifer Ortega, city and county staff are working together on the CORE team and expect to have contracts before the Concord council later this month. “Concurrently, city staff has been very engaged in the county-led effort to look at developing a 24/7/365 response program countywide for mental health emergencies. An update on that work is anticipated to occur at the Contra Costa Mayors Conference meeting in February,” Ortega told the Pioneer on Dec. 31, 2020.

Budget crunch: With the loss of sales tax due to the stay at home orders, city staff said Concord could face more than $14 million in losses this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and more than $23 million in the next. On April 14, the City Council approved a 13-day furlough for 60 non-represented employees as they continue to make cuts to an already tight city budget. The council subsequently placed a one-cent sales tax on the November ballot. Voters approved Measure V, which city officials estimate will raise $27 million annually.

Parking problems: As more people try to access Mount Diablo State Park through Clayton, the City Council imposed a 24/7 ban on non-resident parking on Regency and Rialto drives. “I have personally witnessed groups of up to 20-plus gather outside my house, violating every possible social distancing regulation,” said resident Dan Walsh.


Congressman on the mend: U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord was released from a Washington, D.C., hospital, where he was recovering from pneumonia and a fractured rib. “We appreciate his friends and constituents affording him time and support as the next phase of his recovery begins,” his sons said in a statement.

Tree of wonder: Families on walks can’t help but smile when they encounter the tree in Concord resident Kathy Gleason’s front yard. “Be kind to all animals” is the message she wants to spread through the colorful stuffed creatures. “I am thrilled the kids like it,” said the 72-year old animal activist. “They come to see what animals are new and count them.”


Clayton tackles racism: Citing violation of Clayton’s 6 p.m. curfew, police officers used tear gas to disperse a crowd downtown. Police had set the curfew after hearing word of a planned protest over the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. The Clayton City Council subsequently established a Public Safety Committee to meet regularly with the police chief in an open forum with residents. And a group of residents launched “Clayton Speaks,” a public panel about racism in the community. Holly Tillman, one of the participants, won a seat on the City Council in November.

Game over: Given societal changes due to the pandemic, Hall Sports Ventures ended its exclusive negotiating agreement with the city of Concord to develop a downtown soccer stadium along with hotels, a convention center housing and retail. “The future is rather difficult to forecast for all types of real estate projects,” said company president Joe Garaventa.

Cannabis on the front burner: After more than three years of review, the Concord City Council approved cannabis regulations that include retail storefronts in the downtown area. Greg Kremenliev of the marijuana advocacy group NORML called the 3-2 vote “a milestone for our city.”

Clayton shows its pride: The rainbow flag flew at Clayton City Hall for the first time on June 1, prompted by resident Dee Vieira – who said she wants to wants to make this world a safer and more inclusive place for LGBTQ+ youth.


Help for renters: Concord residents gathered at Meadow Homes Park on July 7 to protest the city’s removal of the Residential Rent Review Program. On July 18, the City Council adopted a Residential Tenant Protection Program that includes relocation assistance for no-fault just cause evictions and requires that a tenant be provided a written lease with the appropriate minimum lease terms. In the fall, the council also launched a tenant loan program for those impacted by COVID-19 and directed more than $900,000 in federal funds to help residents at high risk of evictions due to the pandemic.

Patriotism on display: With the old-fashioned Fourth of July celebrations canceled this year, Clayton created a video of past events. Over in Concord, residents submitted videos of their own mini parades. “We are all trying to find ways to come together while being apart,” Concord Mayor Tim McGallian wrote in his Pioneer column.


Father Johnson Abraham talks with the parking lot greeters as parishioners arrive for Holy Communion at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Concord.

Keeping the faith: As regulations for religious services continue to fluctuate, the Pioneer talked with several local faith locals about the challenges of serving their communities from a distance. “I think the social connections are as essential as the spiritual ones,” noted Rabbi Daniel Stern.

A boost for affordable housing: Resources for Community Development will receive more than $25 million in federal and states grants to help build a 62-unit, $41.5 million affordable housing complex in downtown Concord. Construction on Galindo Terrace is expected to begin in spring 2021. “Concord is working very hard to build affordable housing as well as housing of all income levels so everyone can continue to live and work here,” said Councilwoman Carlyn Obringer.

Traffic calming measures: The Clayton City Council urged residents to slow down so the city can avoid increasing the speed limits. The council also asked staff to look at several modifications to reduce speeds. According to Laura Hoffmeister, assistant to the Clayton city manager, staff was in the process of installing speed limit signs on Eagle Peak Avenue and Clayton Road in late December. Plans also include a meeting with the Dana Hills Homeowners Association about speeding on Mountaire Parkway and adjustments to signal light timing.


County begins reopening: With coronavirus numbers improving, Contra Costa County moved to the Red Tier – leading to a loosening of restrictions across a wide spectrum of social settings. However, the celebration was short-lived and the county was back on lockdown on Dec. 6.

Contra Costa pilots form disaster response team
Members of the Contra Costa County Disaster Response Team in Concord, CA. Pete Cruz photo.

DART to the rescue: Local pilots DeWitt Hodge and Stephen Tucker were among those becoming California Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART) operators after a mission to deliver Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to two local aid groups. “Everyone in the group performed flawlessly,” said Tucker, the new group’s executive director.

Concord Villages up for sale: The U.S. General Services Administration began an online public sale of two villages with 280 housing units. The property is adjacent to the former Concord Naval Weapons Station and was transferred to the Coast Guard in 2007. According to Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister, the bid was at $32 million on Dec. 31, 2020. “Every day that there is another bid of $200,000, the bidding stays open until there are no bids in a 24-hour workday period,” she said.


Les Ruefenacht used his woodworking skills to craft efficient home desks for students during the pandemic.

A studious project: With so many students struggling with distance learning, Clayton resident Les Ruefenacht used his woodworking skills to craft efficient home desks – and give them away for free. Within 48 hours, Ruefenacht had more than 100 requests. His son Mark set up a Go Fund Me campaign to help with expenses. “Thank goodness he did that,” Ruefenacht told the Pioneer.

Local election results: Concord City Councilwoman Carlyn Obringer bested four opponents to hold on to her council seat, while fellow Councilman Edi Birsan ran unopposed. In Clayton, Councilman Jim Diaz was reelected, with newcomers Holly Tillman and Peter Cloven joining him on the council.


Mayoral musings: Both the Concord and Clayton City Councils opted against moving the vice mayors into the mayoral posts. In a 3-2 vote, the Clayton council passed over Vice Mayor Jeffrey Wan in favor of CW Wolfe. The majority cited Wan’s support of disinformation and negative tactics over high-density housing downtown. In his inaugural column in the Pioneer, Wolfe said he hopes “that we can come together, rather than oppose each other, in a civil, positive and constructive way to better our city.”

Meanwhile, the Concord City Council voted to retain Tim McGallian as mayor for another year, with Vice Mayor Dominic Aliano supporting the decision. While acknowledging the challenges that 2020 brought to the city, McGallian wrote in the Pioneer that there was still much to be thankful for – “including our vibrant Concord community.”