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Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

I’m an asphalt-loving guy. How else to explain the joy I experienced in June 2010 while covering a paving celebration in north Napa.

The entire City Council turned out to mark the anniversary of the city’s new 10-miles-a-year paving program. While we looked on in shared rapture, a giant paving machine put down 100 yards of steaming, fresh asphalt on Sierra Avenue.

“This is smooth sailing,” said Councilmember Jim Krider as he rolled along the fresh strip in his wheelchair.

“The people are excited to see things getting done,” said a beaming Mayor Jill Techel.

Excited was the half of it. Napa residents had endured decades of bad roads. The city’s excuse was always the same: Not enough money to repair streets faster than they were falling apart.

Who changed all that? Jacques LaRochelle, that’s who.

When LaRochelle became public works director in 2008, he shook things up big time.

Instead of using city crews mostly for pot hole repairs, why not let them tackle the much bigger job of street resurfacing? The city can do it cheaper than private contractors, he said.

The City Council bought his argument. Contractors might complain, but city residents, tired of rough roads, wouldn’t.

The rest is history. More than half of the city’s streets have been repaved under “10-miles-a-year.” The city’s average pavement condition scores went from “at risk” to “fair.” Now a “good” rating is on the horizon, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s annual “Pot Hole” reports.

I am a personal beneficiary of the LaRochelle-inspired program. As a pre-dawn jogger, I’m exceptionally vulnerable to pot holes. Since the city went at it, virtually my entire jogging route has been made as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

This is why LaRochelle became my public works hero.

Sadly, recent events have not been kind to LaRochelle’s legacy. In September, he was put on paid leave while the city hired a private investigator to look into complaints of wrongdoing in the Public Works Department.

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At year’s end, LaRochelle decided to retire and take his city pension rather than wait for new City Manager Steve Potter’s verdict.

In a recent interview with Marin County’s Independent Journal, LaRochelle said he retired because Potter intended to fire him.

This wasn’t LaRochelle’s only embarrassment. His department exploded with controversy last summer when allegations of bullying and showing undue favor surfaced against Jeff Folks, his pick for manager of maintenance operations.

Folks retired in August after being the subject of a city investigation, the results of which also have not been made public.

In light of all this, what to say about LaRochelle and his public works leadership?

The optics are terrible. They are a depressing counterpoint to that upbeat June day in 2010 when LaRochelle’s can-do attitude and vision of pavement perfection were on brilliant display.

LaRochelle’s record of accomplishment is more than the 10-miles-a-year program. He pushed to have downtown’s one-way streets made two-way, ending decades of outmoded directional restrictions.

He contracted out street sweeping, meaning for the first time I was getting predictable cleaning of my street.

And he swapped out the city’s old-style street lights for brighter, longer-lasting new ones, meaning I jog more safely.

And after the 2014 quake, his department quickly tackled all those cracked streets, curbs and sidewalks in my part of town.

To sum up, wherever I look — or jog — in Napa, I see LaRochelle’s imprint.

Jacques LaRochelle had an impressive run.

Then the wheels fell off.

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Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or kcourtney@napanews.com.

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City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.