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2021 marked by total council dysfunction, masks, vaccines
No mandate protest
A large crowd of ordinary Stanislaus County residents showed up in front of the Stanislaus County Office of Education in early October to protest vaccines for children to attend school in California. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

The year 2021 may best be remembered as the year that the Ceres City Council was hopelessly deadlocked in a series of votes and missteps surrounding two empty council seats.

Also remaining top stories in the Courier during the year was COVID and the accompanying restrictions imposed by the state, which took out for a second consecutive year the Ceres Street Faire.

The year also saw the 14-year effort to build and open the new Walmart Supercenter come to a close with a November grand opening event in the new Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center.

The council’s dilemma started when a mostly inexperienced membership dealt with the resignation of Channce Condit who left his District 1 seat in January after his November election to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. The council wanted to fill the seat by appointment but found itself in multiple split decisions during four tense meetings held in February. Four hopefuls who applied for the council position were Ceres Planning Commission chairwoman Laurie Smith, day care facility operator Connie Vasquez, Memorial Medical Center technician Mark C. White and limousine business owner Parminder S. Bahia.

Councilmember Linda Ryno and Councilman Bret Silveira held fast to their insistence that Smith had the experience that the others lacked. Mayor Lopez and Vice Mayor Couper Condit blocked her appointment, voting in support of any of the other three applicants in separate motions which systematically failed in 2-2 ties. 

The meetings were punctuated by barbs traded and periods of silence as members stubbornly dug in their heels over choices.

When the council could not agree on Condit’s replacement, a special election was ordered and held on Aug. 31, which resulted in a win for James Casey.

The council was complete for one meeting when on Oct. 11 Vice Mayor Couper Condit resigned 10 months into his four-year term, stunning the community. Condit still has offered no explanation. The council, once again, found itself faced with the prospects of a new vacancy and decided to fill the District 4 seat to avoid another special election.

The applicants for the seat were Daniel Martinez, who was recently appointed to the Ceres Planning Commission; Mohinder Singh Kanda, who came under criticism for suddenly moving into District 4 after he lost a 2020 bid to run for District 3; and John R. Osgood III, a truck driver and host of the Forgotten Liberty Radio podcast. The council voted 3-1 to appoint Osgood on Nov. 8, but received significant blowback when some of Osgood’s comments were made public, specifically his use of the “n-word” on one of his podcasts. The council quickly rescinded the appointment at the Nov. 22 meeting and tapped former Councilman Mike Kline who didn’t apply in October. Kline was immediately seated, making a full council once again.

Plenty of changes occurred in city staff during 2021. City Manager Tom Westbrook left his post in August just as Christopher Hoem join the city staff as director of Community Development. Westbrook spent 20 years of his life working behind the scenes of Ceres city government.

Matthew Lohr was replaced as the Recreation Director by Joey Chavez. The department recently also added Katie Lemburg as the new recreation supervisor in late August.

Life was anything but normal in 2021 with COVID restrictions, on-again, off-again indoor mask mandates and vaccine requirements for some workers. In March, Ceres City Council meetings opened up for physical attendance for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020, but also continued running meetings on Zoom.

Even the Stanislaus County Fair was modified in a limited style but Ceres Concerts in the Park resumed over the summer.

The new year started out violent, with a deadly shooting at Strawberry Fields Park on Jan. 11 and the death of Miguel Pena, 18. The suspect in the case, a 17-year-old Modesto teen, turned himself into police the first week of April.

Hughson saw a brutal stabbing death of Jesus Duarte, 42, during an evening domestic fight in the 200 block of Charles Street in Hughson. Renato Gadino Valdovinso, 36, of Hughson was sought in connection with the Feb. 6 deadly stabbing.

In February, the Ceres Planning Commission approved a proposal to build a 10-unit multi-family residential apartment project on a flag lot at 3420 Ninth Street in Ceres. Putney Ventures, LLC, was the applicant.

The Ceres Chamber of Commerce held its Citizen of the Year event in March not as a banquet but an online event in which Scott Siegel was honored with the “Citizen of the Year Lifetime Achievement” award during a socially distanced format at the Ceres Community Center. The Chamber also honored:

• Ben Castellanos as the “Volunteer of the Year,”

• Kase Manufacturing as “Large Business of the Year” for businesses with 35 or more employees;

• Supermom’s Frozen Yogurt & More as the “Small Business of the Year” award for businesses with under 35 employees;

• The Ceres Unified School District as its “Legacy Award”;

• The Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Temple of Ceres/Modesto with the “Distinguished Service Award.”

March brought about the Stanislaus County Superior Court guilty verdict for David Machado who murdered Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Wallace on Nov. 13, 2016 at Fox Grove Fishing Access northeast of Hughson.

Another case that was resolved in 2021 came in April with the guilty plea of Matthew Douglas Nicholson, 32, of Ceres, who shot to death his mother Lydia Suzi Orozco Nicholson, 68, during a moment of rage on Jan. 11, 2018. Ceres Police arrested Nicholson shortly after he shot and killed his mother during a dispute over a broken video game headset at the Nicholsons’ home on River Valley Circle.

Also in March, the new Doghouse Tap Room opened at 2723 Central Avenue in Ceres after COVID delays and lengthy remodeling of an existing block building.

Also in March, Sgt. Greg Yotsuya retired after spending 30 years with the Ceres Police Department. His retirement came after Chief Rick Collins promoted Dirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Vierra to rank of sergeant. Yotsuya was being replaced by Sgt. Keith Griebel.

The pandemic delayed the opening of the refurbished lower terrace of the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. The lower terrace of the park on Hatch Road – which was mostly formerly planted in walnut trees – had been closed as it was being restored to its more native riparian habitat state. One of the new improvements was the installation of a 140-foot precast concrete walkway to the kayak ramp.

In April construction began on the new 3,114-square-foot Habit Burger at the Whitmore Plaza Shopping Center.

The community of Keyes was shattered with the May 2 shooting death of 16-year-old Evan Robinson. He was an innocent bystander hit in the crossfire of a shooting at the food truck stationed at Martha Avenue and 7th Street.

Stanislaus County Sheriff’s detectives identified 19-year-old Ruben Perez of Keyes and Anthony Joseph Pando, 22, of Ceres, as suspects in the shooting. Detectives believe a physical altercation preceded the drawing of guns. The DA decided not to prosecute Pando while his gun may have fired the fatal shot, because it appeared that he was acting in self-defense. The news stunned Robinson’s mother, Athan Hicks of Modesto.

In June the Ceres City Council voted 3-1 to contract with the city of Modesto to run the fire department. Firefighters mostly approved of the action. Interim Fire Chief Mike Botto presented a picture of an overworked and short-staffed Ceres Fire Department that was unable to keep up with growing volume of calls for service and the need for more firefighters to be able to provide advanced life support services due to delayed ambulance response times. Only Councilwoman Linda Ryno voted no. Those in favor were Mayor Javier Lopez, Vice Mayor Couper Condit and Councilman Bret Silveira.

Ceres Unified School District held a groundbreaking ceremony for its new performing arts center on June 22. Located on the Central Valley High School campus, the venue is named after retired CUSD music teacher Ricardo Campero. The 5,000-square-foot black-box theater will serve as a district-wide performance venue for CUSD’s band, choir and drama students, offering a floor-level stage and 400 retractable seats that can be configured to accommodate a variety of needs.

On June 28 the Ceres City Council voted to revert back to the old “store your cans out of view” policy. In January 2020 the former City Council led by Mayor Chris Vierra voted 3-2 to allow residents to leave their cans out as long as they are next to the house. At no time did the city allow cans to be left directly in front of the house or garage. Under Mayor Javier Lopez, the new council voted to revert back to the old policy, which took effect in late July.

In July the city dedicated the new park in Eastgate in the name of the late ex-city councilman Guillermo Ochoa. The Ceres City Council voted 3-1 on March 22 to rename Eastgate Park to Guillermo Ochoa Park followed a month-long park naming contest in which the city received 181 applications. A total of 54 individuals supported Ochoa’s name, while 48 called for the name of Veterans Park and 35 for Howard Stevenson Park after the slain officer.

By late summer the water picture for the Valley and foothills was looking dire. Turlock Irrigation District and customers experienced the fourth-driest year on record since the Tuolumne River Watershed received about half of the historical average.

Local officials were angered in 2021 that the State Water Board decided to end a voluntary agreement between local irrigation districts (including Turlock Irrigation District) and moving forward with a plan that will drastically restrict river water available for local farmers.

Stanislaus County voters favored the September recall attempt to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom along with 27 other counties. However, Newsom held onto his job because of the support from urban Democrat voters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

On Oct. 20, Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District received a letter from the state informing them that they are walking away from the Tuolumne River Voluntary Agreement process and instead moving forward with implementation of the Phase 1 Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan which calls for 40 percent unimpaired flow in the Tuolumne River. TID and MID have filed lawsuits in response.

In October the City Council appointed Daniel Martinez to the Ceres Planning Commission and reappointed incumbents Bob Kachel and Gary Del Nero who both sought re-appointment. Members voted 3-1 to make the appointments against the wishes of new Councilman James Casey to reopen the application process.

A proposal to turn the former Kmart building into a Public Storage self-storage facility while filling the remaining property for a Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Dutch Bros Coffee shop, and Quik Stop convenience store and gas station, was approved by the Ceres Planning Commission on Oct. 18. The development proposal for the northeast corner of Hatch Road and Herndon Avenue required a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and approval of a vesting tentative parcel map to create six commercial zoned parcels out of the single 9.02-acre site. City officials expressed disappointment that a retailer was unwilling to fill the former Kmart building, but as Senior Planner James Michaels put it, it’s better than nothing.

Also approved was the subdividing of commercial property at Mitchell Road near Highway 99 laying the groundwork for actions leading to a new shopping center, SamBella Plaza. Members approved a Vesting Tentative Parcel Map (VTPM) so that businessman Sam Khacho may subdivide 11.9 acres into six separate commercially zoned parcels and a storm drainage basin parcel at the southeast corner of Mitchell and Rhode Road.

The site is located between Mitchell Road and the TID Ceres Main Canal, north and south of Rohde Road, and is approximately 400 feet south of the Mitchell Road/Service Road intersection.

Right across the street, construction began this month for the Ceres Gateway Center.

Upset parents and citizens staged an Oct. 5 protest of Governor Newsom’s forthcoming mandate that children in middle school and older be vaccinated against COVID as a condition to being in the classroom. Parents, children and community members staged a loud protest in front of the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) with placards, chants and shared conversation, calling for an end to the governor’s mandate.

Following the other first-in-the-nation school masking and staff vaccination measures, Newsom announced the COVID-19 vaccine will be required for in-person school attendance — just like vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and more. The requirement is expected to apply to grades 7-12 starting on July 1, 2022. However, local health jurisdictions and local education agencies are encouraged to implement requirements ahead of a statewide requirement based on their local circumstances.

At a special community meeting held Nov. 4, the Ceres Chamber of Commerce was encouraged to continue as an organization despite faltering participation and revenues. A number of community and business leaders who attended a special gathering said they would step up to volunteer for the bare bones staff.

Renee Ledbetter, the volunteer executive director of the Chamber, told the crowd that the Chamber has suffered as most other businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ledbetter said the Chamber was unable to hold its staple events which helped to galvanize the community while bringing in crucial funding during pre-COVID times.

The year was beginning to feel back to normal toward the end of 2021 with relaxed restrictions until threats of the Omicron variety of COVID began infecting Californians. Ceres was able to resume its Trunk Or Treat event on Halloween weekend and the Ceres Christmas Festival this month.


The year was a sad one for the many losses of life due to COVID as well as other causes. Among the notable Ceres figures who died in 2021 were: Helen Marchy on Jan. 29; Robert “Bob” Caulton on Feb. 11; John Derby on March 25; Lions Club member and former postal carrier Andy Anderson in March; former Ceres businessman Bill Bilson on May 28; former Ceres teacher Gertrude M. Melton on July 25; Terrie King who was active at Richland Faith Assembly of God Church in Ceres; Joel J. Hidahl; Michael Ray Scudder on Sept. 6; World War II veteran John Buford Tabor on Sept. 16; retired Ceres Unified School District Assistant Director of Operations Keith Gibson on Nov. 3 in Boise, Idaho; former teacher Jene Bently Rudd on Nov. 16; WWII veteran Tom Dimperio on Nov. 26;  former Ceres High School standout athlete Austin Stiles in a Dec. 1 car crash; and Pastor Adrian Condit on Dec. 27.