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Andy Wilcox, Register  

Justin-Siena tennis stars Jenna Curtola and Parvathi Shanker

Napa attorneys vie for 2 Superior Court judge appointments

Napa County attorneys interested in becoming Superior Court judges are waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown to make a decision on two positions. The first became available in June when Judge Francisca P. Tisher officially retired; the second position is that of Judge Michael Williams whose last day is Monday.

Williams agreed to resign after being informed that he had been caught on video stealing two Art Deco-style business card holders from a judges’ dinner in San Francisco last March.

Saying that judicial appointments are a “confidential personnel decision,” Brian Ferguson, deputy press secretary for the Office of Gov. Brown, said that he could not share details on applicants, including their names.

Superior Court judges earn $200,042 annually.

Although Brown’s office hasn’t released any information, local attorneys have confirmed that the vetting process has begun for at least one of the open positions. Potential candidates include attorneys from the Napa County District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office as well as private attorneys and the two current court commissioners.

Deputy DA Lance Hafenstein, who has worked with the prosecutor’s office for more than 20 years, confirmed Thursday that he has applied.

“It’s something I’ve been interested in doing for quite some time,” Hafenstein said. “I became a prosecutor because it gave me the ability to help people and affect people’s lives.” By becoming a judge, he said, he thinks he’ll be able to help many more people.

If he doesn’t get appointed, he said, he anticipates staying with the DA’s office.

From the Napa County Public Defender’s Office, attorney Joseph J. Solga’s name has been mentioned. Solga, however, would not confirm whether or not he has applied for the position.

“Out of respect for the integrity of the process, I would prefer not to comment at this time,” Solga said in an email to the Register on Friday.

Both Commissioner Monique Langhorne and Commissioner Victoria Wood have also been referred to as potential candidates. Neither responded to media inquiries as of Friday.

Langhorne was chosen to be commissioner in 2006, becoming the first black woman to serve on the Napa County Superior Court bench. Langhorne had previously applied to become a judge, according to Register reports from 2012.

Wood, a former research attorney at the Napa County courts, was sworn in as commissioner in 2013.

Private attorneys Stephen M. Flynn, Cynthia P. Smith, and Amanda Bevins have also been mentioned as potential candidates.

Bevins, who started her practice in Napa this year, said that she put her judicial application in about four years ago while working in Contra Costa County. Although she would be interested if considered, she said she doesn’t believe that she is being considered this time around.

Smith applied to become a Napa County Superior Court judge in 2012, according to Register reports.

Neither Smith nor Flynn responded to inquiries as of Friday.

Napa Superior Court Executive Officer Rick Feldstein said that he doesn’t know when Brown will make a decision, but he does know that the governor’s appointments usually come in batches.

“It kind of happens somewhat sporadically,” Feldstein said. It’s possible that two new judges will be named in a sort of end-of-year “flurry of appointments.”

Inmate first to graduate high school while in Napa jail

Gina Peterson is the first inmate at the Napa County jail to earn her high school diploma while still in custody.

A small celebration – complete with a short graduation procession – was organized in her honor inside the Napa County Department of Corrections on Friday.

“This time in jail turned out to be a blessing in disguise and I’m thankful for it,” Peterson said.

Peterson, 33, had almost completed her junior year when she dropped out of Vallejo’s now-closed Hogan High School.

“I come from a family where not many people have graduated.” Instead, Peterson said, many of them are in prison.

Peterson entered the jail in January after being sentenced to two years for what she called “bad choices.” She didn’t disclose the exact crime, but, according to records, they were nonviolent.

The first program that became available to her was the literacy program offered in partnership with the Napa County Library. In meetings with her tutor, Dan Martin, Peterson would often talk about how much she wanted to get her diploma.

In July, she was able to start working toward that goal with programming offered by Napa Valley Adult Education. Peterson had weekly homework and had to complete a senior project.

“They would just push me every week — ‘do your homework, do your homework,’” she said. “I felt like I was back in high school.”

In less than six months, the mother of two had earned enough credits to graduate.

“I’ve never had to do this much time,” she said. “A whole year away from my kids has been traumatizing. It’s been very hard, so I’m glad I turned this negative into something positive.”

Peterson expects to be out of jail within the next few weeks, in time to spend Christmas with her family. She hopes to continue her education with the goal of becoming a veterinarian technician. In the meantime, she said, she’s going to look into volunteering with the Napa County Animal Shelter.

“I’m so proud of her,” said Kim Wildman with Napa Valley Adult Education. Wildman brought Peterson homework at least once a week and acted as a liaison between the school and jail staff.

The adult education program has been trying to bring their programming back to inmates since they lost their classroom at the jail in 2014 when the South Napa Earthquake hit, Wildman said. As of last week, the program had six students working toward earning their high school diplomas or preparing for the GED.

“The students are just really motivated,” she said.

“For us to be able to do this completely in custody is pretty exciting,” said Lt. Chris Wilson, correctional officer with NCDC. In the past, she said, inmates could work toward their degrees or study for the GRE, but wouldn’t be able to complete the process until they were out of jail. Thanks to better technology and the fact that programming is again becoming available to inmates, Wilson said that more inmates will be able to follow in Peterson’s footsteps.

“You are really a trailblazer,” Napa County Deputy DA Holly Quate told Peterson. “Now you can be a role model in the community.”

With her family in attendance, Peterson will walk in Napa Valley Adult Education’s formal graduation ceremony at Memorial Stadium in June.

Grapegrowers, Napa County team up to help landowners install erosion controls

Fearing erosion of their land this winter, Napans took to the Napa Valley Expo on Wednesday morning for the promise of free supplies and advice courtesy of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and a cadre of county offices for the first Erosion Control Community Fair.

Pallets of straw wattles were stacked high and up for grabs along with stakes, mulch, seed mixes, gloves, boots, tarps and other erosion control trappings, while the county’s Ag Commissioner’s Office, Planning Department, Resource Conservation District and other authorities offered their expertise to those working to tackle the looming threat of erosion in the wake of the October wildfires.

The groups’ offer was open to any landowner or business owner in need of supplies and advice. Among them were Marjorie and John Vulk who wanted to stem the loss of their property to erosion from abutting Tulocay Creek.

The Vulks filled their pickup truck with more than 100 feet worth of wattles and seed at the Expo and by midafternoon the couple had set the wattles along the edge of the creek.

“This creek gets rushing pretty good in the rainy season,” Marjorie Vulk said. “We’ve lost bits and pieces of our land through erosion and it’s getting closer and closer to our barn.”

The Vulks’ property is surrounded by vineyards, she said, where wattles are often used along creek beds and hillsides. “So I got the idea from them because they’re doing it all over the place.”

Aaron Pott, a winemaker and grape grower, was picking up a pallet of 15 wattles bound for his property on Mount Veeder.

Most of his 200-acre property burned during the wildfires, Pott said, leaving steep tracts of open space that must be controlled for erosion before the winter rains arrive in full. “So I’m going through wattles like crazy,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to get some for free.”

The wattles will go on the steepest areas of the property to slow the flow of rainwater, Pott said. To complement, he has also been seeding and planting the area with wildflowers.

Materials were either donated by companies including Jim’s Supply, Central Valley, The Wattle Guys, Hedgerow Farms and others, or were purchased by the Grapegrowers.

“We felt like the growers had a big responsibility to the community to support restoration because we know a lot about it,” Grapegrowers President Jennifer Putnam said. “Everyone has an erosion control plan in place and we do this kind of thing.”

Michael Wolf, owner of Michael Wolf Vineyard Services, was among the growers on hand to offer residents advice.

“Mostly it’s about just using common sense and not having a knee-jerk reaction that can do more harm than good,” Wolf said. For those working to restore property that was burned, Wolf cautioned against both the use of non-native species in replanting and seeding in areas that were not previously grassland.

“Then you create a whole separate level of fire hazard for the future,” he noted. “Because how are you going to manage that?”

Putnam encouraged those who may have missed the Fair and are still in need of supplies, advice and information to contact the Napa Valley Grapegrowers office at 707-944-8311.

Proponents file signatures for new Napa watershed and oak woodland initiative

Proponents for a proposed oak woodland and watershed protection measure are hoping that the second time is the charm.

On Friday morning, they turned in more than 7,000 signatures to the county Election Division on a petition to qualify the measure for the June 5 ballot. They need about 3,800 to be from registered, local voters to succeed.

It seems like a slam dunk. And yet …

Last year, proponents collected enough valid signatures, only to have the measure disqualified on a technicality. County officials said the initiative referenced a county policy appendix, so signature gatherers should have carried that document with them in case potential signers wanted to read it.

That’s one bit of déjà vu that measure co-author Mike Hackett wants to avoid this time around. He noted that the new version doesn’t reference that county appendix on voluntary oak preservation practices.

“I’m optimistic,” he said with a smile as he, co-author Jim Wilson and other supporters submitted three cardboard boxes packed with signature forms.

Registrar of Voters John Tuteur will now examine the petitions to make certain enough signatures are valid. If he determines this is so, he will forward the measure to the county Board of Supervisors to place on the June 5 ballot.

Then an election battle will likely ensue between initiative supporters and opponents that include some segments of the wine industry.

Among other things, the measure would set a 795-acre limit of additional oak woodlands to be removed in the agricultural watershed. Once the limit is reached, property owners would in most cases have to obtain a county permit to cut down oak woodlands.

The county could issue the permit only in certain circumstances. Cutting down oak woodlands to make way for new vineyards is not among them.

In addition, the measure would require property owners to replace the lost oaks by a 3-1 ratio, instead of today’s 2-1 ratio. It would strengthen setbacks for development near streams in the agricultural watershed zoning area.

Hackett said assuring a good future for generations to come means retaining an ecological balance.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers recently joined Napa County Farm Bureau and Winegrowers of Napa County in opposing the measure. Napa Valley Vintners helped craft the measure, but later withdrew its support and has announced no further position.

The measure would effectively ban vineyard planting in the agricultural watershed, a Napa Valley Grapegrowers press release said. Enough proposed vineyards are presently in the pipeline to likely trip the 795-acre limit immediately, it said.

“Ag land in viable production is Napa County’s best case against encroaching development,” the press release said.

The Grapegrowers also said the measure’s focus on oaks would hurt other native tree species, such as madrones. That’s because property owners wanting to plant hillside vineyards could seek sites without oaks.

Hackett disagreed with the Grapegrowers’ conclusion that new hillside vineyard development would be immediately curtailed.

He noted that oak woodland removal approved before Sept. 1, 2017 wouldn’t be counted against the 795-acre total. He believes another 6,000 acres of vineyards can be developed, in part because not all of the watershed land has oak woodlands.

The wine industry in the long run might embrace the measure’s requirements, just as it has embraced the county’s agricultural preserve laws, Hackett said.

“This won’t hurt them,” he said. “It will only help them.”

But at this point, the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018 is controversial. If it qualifies for the ballot, voters will likely witness a lively debate.