An incumbent survives a spirited challenge. Cuts in public spending spark objections. In general terms, the two biggest news stories in St. Helena this year don’t sound all that different from the headlines that dominated national and international newswires.

However, other key local stories — like ongoing controversies involving affordable housing and trees — have a more distinctive St. Helena flavor.

Here are the top 10 news stories of 2012, as voted on by the Star staff.

1. Voters re-elect Mayor Del Britton

Voters have been pretty comfortable with Del Britton since he unseated then-Mayor Ken Slavens in 2005. Britton went on trounce former Councilmember Bonnie Schoch by 20 percentage points in 2008, then waltz unopposed into a fourth term in 2010.

But for Britton, winning a fifth term wasn’t going to be as easy. There were concerns about his health, lingering discontentment about the still-unfinished General Plan update, and, most importantly, a well-funded, politically savvy opponent in Planning Commissioner Alan Galbraith.

On key issues like affordable housing, water and city finance there were clear ideological differences between the candidates. In terms of personal style, Britton is your friendly next-door neighbor, with an endless supply of folksy quips, while Galbraith is the intense policy wonk who rattles off statistics and speaks in complete paragraphs.

Galbraith outspent Britton 3-1, campaigned door to door and performed well in a televised debate. But in the days leading up to the election Britton stepped up his campaign with ads and a widely distributed email blast, and on Election Day he once again proved his durability, beating Galbraith by more than 6 percentage points.

2. City cuts staff in favor of roads

In April members of the City Council called for meaningful cuts in city operating expenses and more funding for long-delayed repairs to the city’s roads, which are among the worst in the Bay Area.

That’s exactly what they got a few weeks later when the city laid off two members of the Planning Department and announced plans to eliminate a few more positions, hire contracted labor to do menial “mow-and-blow” work on public property, and allocate almost $1 million in savings to road repairs.

The cuts drew criticism from city employees and some citizens who doubted that St. Helena could run a Planning Department with only one staff member. But the new spending priorities were quietly applauded by citizens who’d been pushing for austerity measures and were impressed to see the city taking a more businesslike toward managing its resources.

3. Young elms struggle in tree tunnel

Terms like “landmark” and “iconic” were coined to describe things like St. Helena’s 130-year-old elm tunnel, which is of tremendous historical, environmental and sentimental importance to locals. As for tourists, the elm-lined avenue might be the most photographed place in town.

That’s why the planting of 44 new elms in the tunnel, where Dutch Elm Disease has taken a heavy toll on the original trees, was such a big deal in March. Another reason was that the city and Caltrans appeared to be working hand-in-hand after feuding for years over the future of the tunnel.

However, elm lovers were soon dismayed to see that many of the trees weren’t looking too healthy. While early reports downplayed their pallid appearance, in July city officials announced that almost half of the new trees were dead or dying. They cast some of the blame on Caltrans for not allowing the trees to be planted at the optimal time of year, and for repeatedly interfering with the work once it got under way.

Caltrans vehemently denied the accusations. It remains to be seen in 2013 whether the two agencies will iron out their differences for the sake of the elm tunnel.

4. Auction Napa Valley raises $8 million

After more than 30 years of success, it’s easy to take Auction Napa Valley for granted as a surefire source of funding for worthy local nonprofits. But given the shaky economy, a successful wine auction this year was by no means a sure thing.

Yet the Napa Valley Vintners, participating wineries, volunteers and, of course, deep-pocketed bidders proved the pessimists wrong when proceeds topped $8 million.

Well-heeled philanthropists from around the world left the auction with one-of-a-kind auction lots, but the real winners were nonprofits like the St. Helena Family Center, the Boys and Girls Club and Clinic Ole.

5. Lawsuit attacks city’s affordable housing efforts

In November of 2011, St. Helenans were shocked to learn that people had been living in slum-like conditions on a Pope Street property that was discovered to contain illegal, substandard rental units.

The second shoe dropped almost exactly one year later, when a handful of former tenants, joined by Fair Housing Napa Valley and an affordable housing advocacy group fronted by well-known attorney David Grabill, sued their former landlords and the city.

The suit, which is likely to cost the city a great deal in legal expenses, accuses the city of doing an inadequate job supporting the development of housing for low-income Latino people who support the local economy.

6. The deaths of Robert Darter and Sampson Bowers

Robert Darter and Sampson Bowers couldn’t have been more different in temperament or attitude toward civic involvement. But in their distinctive ways, both men left their mark in St. Helena before dying this year.

Darter was a mild-mannered physician with a penchant for community service and volunteerism, especially if it helped young people. In October, Boy Scouts, library patrons and countless others mourned the loss of a true friend who embodied the spirit of selfless service upon which St. Helena prides itself.

Bowers, an irascible, irrepressible, incisive government watchdog, served the community in a different way prior to his death in September. Never one to shy away from confrontation, he kept a close eye on city officials and, most controversially, represented a group of environmentalists who fought the city’s flood project. Friends also attested to Bowers’ gentle side and his talent at a wide array of artistic pursuits.

7. Ill-fated tree ordinance raises furor

Trees enjoy near-holy status in St. Helena. But in May members of the Tree Committee learned that private property rights are also highly esteemed.

The committee proposed a tree ordinance that would have drastically increased the city’s regulation of privately owned trees, even relatively small ones. Property rights advocates cried foul loudly and publicly, and members of the City Council ordered that the ordinance be tabled.

Two members of the Tree Committee resigned in frustration. The committee is expected to take another crack at the ordinance in 2013.

8. Police catch burglar red-handed

As crime waves go, it wasn’t exactly Victorian England in the days of Jack the Ripper, but the rash of home burglaries that struck St. Helena in early 2012 was still a bit of a shock. Trusting citizens to whom door locks had seemed superfluous suddenly realized their iPods were missing.

The crisis ended abruptly on July 17, when a vigilant Kearney Street couple reported encountering a suspicious man whose behavior fit a pattern police had associated with the burglary suspect. St. Helena police arrived at the scene to find Michael Vasquez of Clearlake with a pocketful of drugs and stolen jewelry and clutching a bag containing a stolen laptop. More stolen property was found at his home.

Vasquez pled guilty in November and was sentenced to three years in state prison.

9. Voters pass $30 million school bond

School district officials and supporters of the $30 million Measure B bond that passed in 2010 had promised that a follow-up measure was in the works. But the fact that the $30 million Measure C appeared just two years later was a bit of a surprise. Had voters’ support of local schools finally been exhausted?

No, agreed the 59.6 percent of voters who favored Measure C, which will fund a new high school auditorium, pool, and technology upgrades throughout the district.

10. Jackie Rubin takes over police department

St. Helena started off the year by welcoming Jackie Rubin, a 26-year veteran of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, as the city’s new police chief.

Rubin, the first female chief of a city or county police force in Napa County history, was chosen from a field of 37 applicants. While she called the position her “dream job,” she faced serious challenges like maintaining the high level of morale from Interim Police Chief Mike Johnstone’s 14-month tenure and updating the department’s technology on a tight budget.

She and the rest of St. Helena’s police officers proved their mettle in July, when they nabbed a man suspected of a series of home burglaries.

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