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Master of Wine Peter Marks, left, led a panel discussion at the Oakville tasting with Michael Weis, Cameron Parry, Lindsay Hoopes, Geneviève Janssens and Larry Maquire. 

Law Enforcement
Napa Police tout benefits of officer body cameras

Next time you speak to a Napa Police Department officer, you might notice a pocket-sized black box with a blinking red light strapped to the officer’s chest.

That’s because nearly all of the department’s officers began wearing the cameras in November, according to Sgt. Kristofer Jenny, who gave a public presentation on the cameras Wednesday night.

Proponents of the technology say body cameras keep officers accountable, reduce unfounded complaints against officers and lower court costs because there’s less debate about how events unfolded, Jenny said. The cameras’ fisheye lenses, low-light recording abilities and audio playback may reveal more than the officer is able to observe.

The cameras have their limitations and don’t always portray the scene as the officer sees it, he said. The 2-D video can skew a viewer’s depth perception, and the officer’s quality or field of vision may be superior to what a camera can detect.

Many of these strengths and shortcomings were illustrated at a December press conference in which department Chief Robert Plummer played clips of a foot chase that ended in the death of local man David Alejandro Molina.

Molina, 27, led Napa Police Officer Christopher Simas through dimly lit paths and a dark wooded area, so parts of the tape only revealed audio of the chase. The body camera did, however, capture video of much of the encounter, and showed Simas telling Molina to stop or put his hands up 36 times before shots were fired.

Studies on whether body cameras alter an officer’s or a civilian’s behavior are mixed. But Chief Peter Newsham of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. told The New York Times that body cameras are helpful in ways that are hard to measure, such as more accurate investigations, better training and a more trusting relationship with the community.

The first body cameras were introduced in England in 2005, Jenny said. The Napa Police Department began using car-mounted cameras in the late 2000s, and motorcycle officers began using body cameras around 2010.

Early adopters of body cams in Napa had some issues with the durability of the cameras, but the technology has greatly improved since, Jenny said.

The department completed a three-month pilot program of cameras created by Axon in 2013. Officers weren’t impressed, in part because video files are so large that it would have been difficult to store the data on site, police said.

But then came the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager who was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. The high-profile death fueled a national debate about police shootings and spurred many to push for greater use of body cameras.

Napa Police decided again to use pilot program for the technology in 2017, this time trying out cameras from competitors Vievu and Axon for seven months. Afterward, the department entered into a five-year, $570,000 contract with Axon for cameras, training and help maintaining those digital files.

The department can accept video submissions from a cellphone, Ring doorbell, security cameras or more through the smartphone app Axon Citizen, Jenny said. This ensures that officers do not have to ask people to surrender their phones to download large, videos that can be used as evidence.

Officers are trained to turn on body cameras when they’re about to speak with someone or respond to calls. The cameras automatically start recording when officers turn on their car lights.

The Axon camera battery can last 12 to 18 hours — longer than an officer’s full shift — and routine footage that isn’t reviewed after it’s been recorded is deleted within a couple of weeks, Jenny said. Footage related to misdemeanor crimes is kept for two years and tapes related to felonies are generally kept for three to 10 years, he said.

Officers have some discretion to turn the camera off during an encounter. An officer may turn off their body camera if an encounter with a tourist asking for directions seems to be going smoothly, but they may leave it on if the person is intoxicated, for example, Jenny said.

Lt. Brian Campagna, who oversees the body camera program, said after Jenny’s presentation that body cameras can be worn by plain-clothes officers. Officers no longer have to ask people to come into the station for a videotaped interview and can meet people at home or the office.

Campagna said it is too soon to be able to tell whether there has been a reduction in complaints against officers.

Residents clean up after Napa County litterbugs

Paul Moyer picked up a few trashy items from the side of the road and with that simple act made Napa Valley look more like the wine country paradise it’s supposed to be.

“I’ve found all kinds of beer bottles and wine bottles this morning,” said Moyer, who is president of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Napa. “They were all here along the road.”

The Kiwanis Club is bugged enough by litter bugs to declare war on litter. It is among the 27 groups that have adopted a total of 31 stretches of rural county roads to keep clean under the Napa County Adopt-a-Roadside program.

A mile-long stretch along Dry Creek Road from near Alston Park to Orchard Avenue is the Kiwanis’ trash removal domain. Members were out in force on a rain-and-shine morning in early December, as they are once every three months.

“It’s not hard work,” said member Mark Vinella, who was armed with a metal mechanical litter grabber that removed the need to bend down. “You’re doing some good. And the residents appreciate it.”

Dry Creek Road wasn’t awash in trash on this particular morning. The wrappers, bottles and other small pieces of garbage didn’t leap to the eye at the first glance, but could be hunted out with a little effort.

Vinella has seen an improvement. He said the cumulative Kiwanis effort over time has tamped down the trash.

Maia Manzagol was one of several Napa High School Key Club members who joined the effort. She has picked up litter elsewhere in the county and sees evidence that the Kiwanis’ long-term effort on Dry Creek Road is paying off.

“This is definitely not as much trash (here) as in other places,” she said. “That’s good.”

County Public Works Superintendent Stephen Stangland said litter on rural roads is “a big problem.”

“My belief is the majority of it is stuff that blows out of somebody’s pickup,” Stangland said. “I would say a small percentage is stuff people throw out.”

Stangland said the county doesn’t have the resources to send road crews out to pick up the small stuff like wrappers. That’s where volunteers such as the Kiwanis Club come in under the Napa County Adopt-a-Roadside program, which was established in 1992 by the county Board of Supervisors.

Among the adopt-a-road volunteers is the Eagle Cycling Club, which has patrolled a stretch of Silverado Trail for about a quarter-century. Some groups or individuals adopt multiple stretches of roads, such as Calistoga Adventist Church, which has three. Adopted road segments can be one mile to four miles long.

The adopters have their names on signs at the boundaries of their trash-collecting road segments. They get safety vests and mechanical trash grabbers from the county.

They also receive a list of county safety standards. Among them – walk and work facing oncoming traffic and don’t enter drainage structures.

“We always have openings,” Stangland said. “We don’t actively pursue groups. We generally wait for somebody to contact us. All of the information is on the county’s website.”

Some tasks are beyond the crews of litter-busting volunteers. Picking up a piece of aluminum foil is one thing, hauling off a mattress or a pile of construction waste is another.

County crews take care of the big roadside garbage piles. At times, crews must go out with a tractor and several dump trucks because the piles are so large, Stangland said.

“You name it, if it’s something that should go to the dump, we have probably found it along the side of the road at one time or another,” Stangland said.

The big-garbage dumpers are probably motivated by avoiding landfill disposal fees, he said.

But these county cleanups cost taxpayers. Stangland said the county expense from July 1 through Dec. 11 was $10,077 for 151 staff hours, $1,571 for equipment costs and $18,556 for disposal fees — a total of $30,204 in about five months.

Catching the miscreants is more dream than reality, though not out of the question.

“The biggest problem is unless you have an eyewitness who sees them do it, law enforcement’s hands are essentially tied,” Stangland said.

County workers can comb these garbage heaps for an old bill or other piece of trash that might have an address on it and provide a clue as to the dumper’s identity. But Stangland said the people contacted might say they paid someone else $20 to haul off their garbage.

For now, volunteer groups take care of the small trash and county crews take care of the large garbage. It’s all part of the local effort to keep Napa County beautiful.

Volunteers adopting roads can go beyond litter removal. Napa County Adopt-a-Roadside also offers the chance to adopt county roads for planting wildflowers.

Go to to find information on adopting a stretch of county road.

Jacques LaRochelle to retire as Napa city public works director

Jacques LaRochelle is stepping down as director of Napa’s Public Works department after being on hiatus for four months, the city announced Thursday afternoon.

LaRochelle, 58, who has led the city agency since 2008, will retire effective Jan. 15 and receive his city pension, according to City Manager Steve Potter.

Eric Whan, the deputy public works director, will continue leading the department on an interim basis as he has since LaRochelle went on leave in September, Potter said.

Recruitment will soon begin to find a permanent replacement, he said. Base salary for the position ranges from $159,510 to $192,718 per year.

LaRochelle has been off duty since the city told staff members in an internal email Sept. 7 he was “away from the office” following a complaint an employee reportedly lodged against him for unknown reasons. The city later confirmed an inquiry involving LaRochelle, but gave no details.

A call to LaRochelle on Thursday was not returned. He is not expected to return to work in Napa before his retirement date, according to Potter.

The exit of LaRochelle was the third departure of a city department leader in 5 ½ weeks. Earlier, Jefferson Folks retired in July as Napa maintenance director after a mass email to city staff alleged a pattern of workplace bullying, intimidation and offensive remarks at the Jackson Street corporation yard he directed.

In September, Peter Pirnejad stepped down as assistant city manager after only seven months on the job, an exit Potter announced to staff members at the same time as LaRochelle’s hiatus. His newly created position had placed him in charge of key city projects including the four-story city hall and police station envisioned for downtown First Street – a project that is now being reexamined after opposition from city workers, the Napa police union and City Council candidates Mary Luros and Liz Alessio, both of whom won seats in the November election.

LaRochelle’s decade leading Napa public works, which followed a stint as assistant public works director in Bakersfield, began amid fiscal belt-tightening in the Great Recession and ended with city revenue rebounding on the strength of an increasingly tourist-driven economy.

Under his tenure, Napa began an annual campaign to repair and resurface 10 miles of streets to improve overall pavement conditions, which had sunk to one of the fifth-worst among Bay Area communities in 2008, a year before the program debuted, studies show.

“He was very solution-oriented; he would find innovative ways to get things done,” Potter said of the road-work campaign supported by LaRochelle. “… Being able to accomplish what he did in a recession was a significant feat.”

Top Stories of 2018
Peremptory power shutoff among Calistoga's top stories of 2018

2018 was a busy year for Calistoga. Among the stories that made the headlines were increased water rates, a fiasco with PG&E, the city’s purchase of a portion of the Napa County Fairgrounds, and city council elections. Here’s a recap:

PG&E cuts power to entire town

The entire town of Calistoga was without power Oct. 14 -16 during PG&E’s first deliberate power safety shutdown in Napa County.

The intentional shutoff affected about 5,700 customers in Napa County, and was called because of the extreme risk of fires due to strong winds and exceptionally dry conditions, PG&E said.

There was much confusion among residents and business owners as to when, or even if, the power was going to be turned off. Subsequently, Calistoga public schools were forced to close, and Calistoga stores and restaurants were out of business until late Monday, losing tens of thousands of dollars in inventory and business.

PG&E subsequently brought in and installed expensive back-up generators for the town as a temporary fix, should it need one.

PG&E also reiterated that company would not reimburse individuals or businesses for losses during such power shutoffs.

Water rate increase

A water rate increase of 15 percent went into effect the end of April, after much deliberation, rate studies, public hearings, community meetings, and four new plan options by the city.

Rates will also go up 14 percent in 2019, and 10 percent for the next three years. Wastewater charges also went up 15 percent, and will go up 13 percent in 2019, 10 percent in Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021, and will end with a 3 percent increase in the final year of the plan.

Napa County Fairgrounds sale

In November, a much-anticipated agreement was reached between the City of Calistoga and the county to buy a portion of the Napa County Fairgrounds, which is located in Calistoga.

The city intends to purchase 34.3 acres of the 70.6-acre property, paying $225,000 per acre, which includes the Calistoga Speedway, Calistoga RV Park, Butler Pavilion, Tubbs Building, Cropp Building and the great lawn. Napa County will retain ownership of the remaining 36.3-acre portion of property, which includes Mount St. Helena Golf Course and the Tucker Building.

No plans for the property have yet been disclosed by the city, and the mayor has said any plans will be discussed publicly.

Management of the property, which until Dec. 31 was the responsibility of the Napa County Fair Association, has been taken over by the county, and all current contracts with the fairgrounds are being continued.

Due diligence on the sale will be completed by spring when more concrete plans could be in place, county officials said.

Don Williams, Gary Kraus win city council seats

In a race for two open city council seats, new challenger Don Williams took one seat by a wide margin with 47 percent of the vote, and Gary Kraus narrowly won the other over fellow incumbent Jim Barnes by 37 votes in the November election.

While the Kraus and Barnes campaigns emphasized city government experience, Williams’ campaign called for new leadership, more restrained development, and more equitable water rates.

The election essentially polarized the city, with those who advocated halting commercial development to maintain Calistoga’s small-town character versus those who maintained slow but steady growth is the path to keeping the town fiscally healthy.

Eighty percent of residents also supported a new Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) to support affordable and workforce housing development.

Incumbent Mayor Chris Canning, who ran unopposed, also won re-election.

Brannan’s Grill, Goodman’s closes, more to come

Marking the end of an era, Brannan’s Grill in downtown Calistoga closed its doors July 29.

Co-owners Ron Goldin and Mark Young decided to sell the restaurant after two decades, citing a list of challenges including the lingering impact of last October’s wildfires, decreased sales, problems finding and retaining staff, and the impact of negative social media reviews as factors driving their decision.

Goldin also announced the sale of Checker’s Restaurant late in the year, but that deal fell through.

Goodman’s retail store, also an institution that was formerly in operation in St. Helena since 1879, closed at the end of November. Owner Amber Ebling cited a lack of enough shoppers and high rents as the reasons for closing the store.

Sugar Train, in the historic train cars, also closed in December. Rabbit Rabbit Fair Trade announced it will be closing, Tanit restaurant will be closing, and Man’s Supply Store and Blackbird of Calistoga will close at least temporarily due to seismic-retrofitting of their building.

Calistoga Girl’s Volleyball win section title, makes run to state

The Calistoga volleyball team made history this season, winning its first North Coast Section title and qualifying for the NorCal state tournament. The Wildcats, playing as the eighth seed in NCS playoffs, completed upset after upset before defeating Jewish Community School of San Francisco in the championship game in front of a packed house at Calistoga High School.

With their section title secured, the Wildcats automatically qualified for the NorCal playoffs, where their magical run came to an end in the first round.

Still, it was the first section title for any girls sport in Calistoga history and the first for any sport since 1999.

Affordable housing gains in 2018

Residents began moving in to a new 30-unit Senior Apartments project on lower Washington Street in August.

In 2015, the city of Calistoga paid $950,000 for the 0.74-acre parcel to be developed as housing for those 62 and older.

The Senior Apartments were advertised as being 564 square feet with energy-efficient appliances and a 70-square foot balcony or patio, in one- and two-bedroom units. Rents are based on income and start at $485 per month.

Another new housing project for 78 apartments was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission on Dec. 12.

The project will be located on vacant land on Lincoln Avenue between Calistoga Motor Lodge to the north, and the John Deere dealer to the south, between Silverado Trail and Brannan Street.

Francis House opens

After sitting vacant for more than 50 years, the fully restored Francis House on Myrtle Street opened in September.

Owners Dina and Richard Dwyer spent three years lovingly, painstakingly, renovating the historic building back to its original splendor. Extensive renovations included a seismic retrofit and adhering to historical restoration guidelines.

It was originally built in 1886 as a family home for prominent local merchant James H. Francis.

From 1919 to 1946, it served as the Calistoga Hospital. After that, changes in ownership, natural disasters and the passing of time contributed to the fading of the property. It was closed down by the state of California in 1965 and has remained vacant until now.

The five-room inn also received a 2018 Preservation Design award from the California Preservation Foundation.

PUC hosts Camp Fire victims for tournament

Pacific Union College helped victims of the Camp Fire. In November, the school volunteered to host Paradise Prep’s basketball tournament in Angwin and donate all proceeds back to the heavily damaged school.

For the students of Paradise Prep that comprised the boys and girls basketball teams, the weekend tournament provided a much-needed break from reality – even if just for a moment.