2021 in review Jan.-March: A look back at a tumultuous year in the Ojai Valley

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By Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter


Stay Home Order extended

Jan. 1

The state’s Stay Home Order, first issued in early December, has been extended for at least another three weeks due to zero percent availability of intensive care unit beds in both Ventura County and the Southern California region.

This is a state calculation based on the number of staffed beds available and the high percentage of COVID-19 patients in ICUs. All COVID-19 patients currently in the Ojai Valley Community Hospital emergency room are being taken to Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, according to hospital officials.

Dashing through the snow

Jan. 1

The first significant storm of the season brought rain, hail and mountain snow to the Ojai area on Dec. 28, and prompted the closure of Highway 33 through Los Padres National Forest.

By late afternoon Dec. 28, most areas of the Ojai Valley had recorded between 1.5 and 2 inches of rain, according to the Ventura County Watershed Protection District.

Snow levels were running as low as 3,500 to 4,000 feet in the mountains north of Ojai, according to the National Weather Service, with 6 to 12 inches of snow falling above 5,000 feet, and 1 to 3 inches between 4,000 and 5,000 feet.

Ojai gets top marks for safety

Jan. 1

Ojai is the 22nd safest small city in California, according to a new report out Dec. 15.

The report, the “Safest Cities in California,” analyzed data published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for cities across the state, to calculate crime scores that reflect the level of reported crimes.

Ojai had a crime score of 26.9.

“That’s actually very low,” said Brenda Franco, public relations specialist with AdvisorSmith, a small-business research website that published the report. “For California, the average statewide crime score for small cities was 212.”

Capitol siege shocks world

Jan. 8

A mob of supporters of President Trump breached the U.S. Capitol building Jan. 6, breaking windows, ransacking offices and making their way into the Senate chambers in the process. The shocking event prompted calls on Jan. 7 by members of Congress, including Ventura County Rep. Julia Brownley, to have President Trump removed from office.

Also, the day after the riot, Trump, on an aide’s Twitter account since he has been blocked indefinitely by Facebook, issued a written statement: “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.”

In the early hours of Jan. 7, Congress certified the election of President-elect Joe Biden.


County reports 50 new COVID-19 deaths this week

Jan. 8

 As of Jan. 7, there were 46,944 people who ever were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Ventura County, and 7,041 active cases under quarantine.

This was a 985-case jump from the day before. Out of these 46,944, 546 were in Ojai and 183 in Oak View.

Forty of the Oak View cases and 142 of the Ojai cases came in the last 14 days.


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Photo by Sally Carless

Phil Harvey in 2014 with two of his many friends, Sally Carless (left) and Myrna Cambianica.


Phil Harvey: Oh, what a beautiful life

Jan. 15

Phil Harvey, an Ojai icon who entertained generations, passed away Jan. 5 in the little valley he loved.

Harvey was 99, just four months shy of his 100th birthday.

“He enjoyed life so much, and that rubbed off on all of us,” daughter Jeannie Harvey told the Ojai Valley News Jan. 12.

Born and raised in Emporia, Kansas, Harvey’s rich show business career as a singer and actor included operas, musicals, and movie and television roles in Westerns and science fiction movies.


Vaccines roll out in the nick of time

Jan. 15 

Ventura County officials moved forward with COVID-19 vaccinations this week, opening up registration to those who fall into Phase 1A, which includes hospital staff, medical first responders, long-term care staff and residents, all other health care providers, and more.

People in those categories can register to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on the county government website, The complete list of who can receive the vaccine under Phase 1A is on the website as well.


LA court grants public access to hearings remotely

Jan. 15

People following proceedings in a water adjudication lawsuit can now attend hearings in the case without having to go to a courtroom in Los Angeles.

On Jan. 11, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County announced the court’s new Remote Audio Appearance Program.

Using the program, attorneys and members of the public, including the news media, will be able to listen remotely to certain court proceedings to promote social distancing, officials said in a news release.

The announcement came nearly two months after the court denied a request by the Ojai Valley News for remote access to proceedings in the case, despite advocacy on behalf of the newspaper by the UC Irvine School of Law and the American Civil Liberties Union.


‘Quite the miracle’: Muths tackle COVID-19 

Jan. 22 

An Ojai Valley family hard hit by COVID-19 says they’ll get through the ordeal, thanks in large part to support from family, friends and neighbors.

In December, Meiners Oaks residents Jeff and Lee Muth became ill from coronavirus. Lee recovered, but is unable to work, while Jeff had complications and suffered a stroke.

Earlier this month, friends of the family started a GoFundMe page to help the couple pay medical expenses. “I had no clue they were doing it,” said Lee. “It was quite a surprise, and it will help, because we’re now getting all the ambulance bills and doctor bills coming in like crazy.”


Vaccines trickle in

Jan. 22 

Ventura County opened up registration for the COVID-19 vaccine to residents ages 75 and older Tuesday, and the first round of appointments were gone within hours.

As more vaccine doses become available from the state, Ventura County government officials will begin to offer more vaccine appointments to more seniors, with those age 75 and older first in line.

Ventura County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin said at the county’s weekly COVID-19 press conference Thursday: “There is a trickle of vaccines into our state. As of earlier this week, the state had received 3 million doses of vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control. The population of the state of California is 39.8 million people.”


Bernie meme a hit in Ojai

Jan. 29 

At the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was photographed bundled up against the cold, wearing handmade woolly mittens given to him by Vermont schoolteacher Jen Ellis. Soon after, memes popped up all across the country of Sanders in every photo imaginable. Ojai photographer Stephen Adams joined in the fun, Photoshopping the viral image of Sanders to make it look as though he was parked in a slot on Maricopa Highway. A lifesize cardboard cutout of Sanders was also spied near Libbey Park on Ojai Avenue on Jan. 24. 


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Photo by Keith Chancey

Four California condors and a turkey vulture search for a meal on Sulphur Mountain Jan. 24.


Condors caught snacking on Sulphur Mtn. Road

Jan. 29 

An Ojai Valley man riding his bike on Sulphur Mountain Road on Jan. 24 caught a rare sight.

“When I got to the top, it was about 1:20 p.m. and I noticed about 20 turkey vultures, and then one massive other bird, and I knew right away it could only be a condor,” Ojai resident Keith Chancey told the Ojai Valley News on Jan. 27.

With a 9-and-a-half-foot wingspan, the California condor is a scavenger that feeds on carrion. The largest land bird in North America, it was federally listed as endangered in 1967 and went extinct in the wild 20 years later.

Condor numbers grew through captive breeding, and condors were reintroduced into the wild starting in 1991. The population continues to grow, but sightings remain rare.


Poet explores upside to pandemic

Jan. 29 

A young poet from Oak View hopes her new poem about the pandemic will get people to focus more on the good than on the bad.

Nine-year-old Tovah Starin is a third-grader at Ojai Valley School and has written two books of poetry, “Happy Love is for Sharing” and “One Day.”

“Her second-grade teacher last year, Mrs. George, introduced her to poetry,” Tovah’s mother, Cecilia, told the Ojai Valley News.

Her interest in poetry truly blossomed last spring when the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect. “When I started, I’d do a poem every once in a while, but over this last summer I’ve gone kind of poem-crazy,” Tovah said.



Wing walker to pilot Monica Ros School

Feb. 5 

Kate Spiva, a teacher at Matilija Middle School, enjoys her new hobby, wing walking. Spiva will replace the retiring Susan Hardenbergh as director of Monica Ros School.


Attorney general slams Ventura for water suit

Feb. 5 

The state of California is urging lawyers for the city of Ventura not to rush into litigation in the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper case that involves thousands of Ojai Valley and Ventura residents.

Writing Jan. 26 on behalf of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s Office asked attorneys to wait on requesting a schedule for holding an evidentiary hearing in the case.

The hearing would decide whether Los Angeles County Superior Court should enter a proposed physical solution as a judgement in the case.

A negotiated settlement, rather than litigation, is in all parties’ best interest, the letter stated.


Students launch Hall of Character & Achievement

Feb. 5 

Two Nordhoff High School students have launched a new alumni program: the school’s Hall of Character and Achievement.

Junior Jennifer Donohue and senior Kolbe Fink came up with the idea for the program. It provides Nordhoff alumni the chance to be recognized and speak at the school, either via Zoom or in person.

Nordhoff graduate and Air National Guard Maj. Ben Vail inspired Fink and Donohue to create the Hall when he Zoomed into Nordhoff’s Greater Good Leadership Program class in October. 


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Photo by Judy Spaar-Hillewaert


Love is in the air!

Feb. 12 

It’s mating season for Hannah and Majestic, the pair of bald eagles nesting at Lake Casitas. And things are heating up at the nest. Here, Hannah puts her left foot on top of Majestic’s right foot, repeatedly lifting it up and down Feb. 9. She then placed her foot on Majestic’s back for a few moments and tried to nibble at his feathers, all to show her interest in mating.


No fair in 2021

Feb. 12 

For the second year in a row, the Ventura County Fair has been canceled for this August, due to the pandemic, according to Ventura County Fairgrounds President Leslie Cornejo of Santa Paula.

There has been no formal vote of the fair board to cancel the fair, Cornejo said. However, when the board reviewed the budget in November, it was determined that there were no funds to hold a fair, Cornejo said. Then, at the Jan. 26 fair board meeting, Fair CEO Barbara Quaid announced there would be no Livestock Auction this year,


People 65 and up eligible for vaccines

Feb. 12 

Ventura County expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to residents ages 65 and older on Feb. 9, while noting that appointments for vaccines are limited based on vaccine availability from the state. Also, a COVID-19 vaccination site at Nordhoff High School is anticipated to open Feb. 20, according to Ventura County Supervisor Matt LaVere.

Previously, vaccine appointments were only available for residents 75 and older, as well as healthcare workers and others included in the county Phase 1A tier of vaccine eligibility. 


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Photo by CSUCI

Congressman Bob and Norma Lagomarsino at a CSUCI event.


Former Congressman Bob Lagomarsino dies

Feb. 12 

Former Ojai mayor and Ventura County congressman Robert J. Lagomarsino passed away Feb. 7 in Ojai.

Lagomarsino was 94 and died peacefully at home on his ranch, according to family.

“Bob and I only go back about 40 years,” said former Congressman Elton Gallegly, who served his first three terms and Lagomarsino’s last three terms together in the U.S. House of Representatives. “We were very close and he was a mentor of mine.”

Lagomarsino was dedicated to his job and a patriot, according to Gallegly. “Bob was like a quiet giant,” he told the Ojai Valley News. “You hear about people with lots of smoke and no fire. Bob was a guy who had fire and very little smoke.”


Judge tells Ventura lawyers to slow down on suit

Feb. 19 

The judge in the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper case says the city of Ventura is moving too fast and the state too slow in working toward a settlement. 

At a status conference in the case Feb. 9, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger did not set a schedule for a hearing on the proposed physical solution, but he did agree on March 15 for it to be lodged with the court for the first time.

Highberger said the city of Ventura first needs to work through cleaning up the database of cross-defendants’ names and parcel numbers, so that a property doesn’t receive the wrong judgment. “This is a haystack,” he said, comparing the process of correcting and regularizing the information to “scrubbing for surgery.”

While Ventura wants to move too quickly, Highberger said, the state of California is taking too much time in releasing its studies on the flow needs of species, and the connectedness of the four water basins to the Ventura River.


Tennis tourney no match for COVID-19

Feb. 19 

For the second year in a row, the Ojai Tennis Tournament — scheduled for April 21 to 25 — has been canceled because of the pandemic. 


Morse named Superintendent of Year

Feb. 19 

Ojai Unified School District Superintendent Tiffany Morse was presented with the Association of California School Administrators Region 13 Superintendent of the Year Award on Feb. 10.

The region encompasses Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Meiners Oaks Elementary Principal Theresa Dutter said: “From Day One, we knew that we had a superintendent unlike anyone we had ever worked with before, and this is our chance to acknowledge the great work she has done. If I tried listing even half the things that Dr. Morse has done to improve our district, we’d be here all night.”


Vaccine site in Ojai

Feb. 26 

Headed into its third day of operation on Feb. 26, the Ojai COVID-19 vaccine site at Nordhoff High School is running smoothly. Ojai Valley Community Hospital partnered with the Ojai Unified School District to bring the vaccine site to the Nordhoff High gym at 1401 Maricopa Highway. More than 400 people were vaccinated at the gym on Saturday, and 700 more Wednesday.


Law proposed to allow court access

Feb. 26 

Newly elected state Assemblyman and former Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett has introduced legislation to require courts to provide remote access to open court proceedings for the public and media.

AB 716 modernizes open court proceedings and strikes a balance between access and court flexibility, according to a news release from Bennett’s office. 

On Nov. 16, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denied the Ojai Valley News remote access to a status conference hearing in the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper watershed adjudication lawsuit.

A Nov. 19 article about the court’s denial of the request was followed by an email on Nov. 24 to Bennett from Ojai Valley News Publisher Laura Rearwin Ward asking for his help on the matter. “I had my staff look into what the policy was statewide and found that this was an issue in other jurisdictions as well,” Bennett stated. 


Residents reminded to lock up to reduce thefts

Feb. 26 

Ojai’s top cop is reminding residents to lock their cars and homes.

“Most of the theft-related cases we receive in the Ojai Valley are directly related to unlocked vehicles or property that is left unsecured and unattended in front of people’s homes,” Ojai Police Chief Jose Rivera told the Ojai Valley News in an email.

To remind people to lock up, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, over the past few months, has put an electronic reader board in place on Nye Road in Casitas Springs. It flashes the message, “Remember to lock your cars and house.”

It appeared to be an especially timely reminder, after three attempted burglaries reported in social media posts over the past two months.



Ojai leaders don’t go with the flow

March 5 

The state of California’s draft flow recommendations for the Ventura River are based on faulty assumptions and would drastically alter life in the Ojai Valley, according to local water experts.

On Feb. 26, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife held an online public meeting to present its highly anticipated flow studies for the lower Ventura River.

The goal of the analysis was to determine what flows in the river are necessary to keep it in an unimpaired condition for endangered Southern California steelhead.


Nordhoff Mock Trial team rules competition

March 5 

Ventura County Mock Trial concluded last week and Nordhoff High School had one of its best finishes ever, making it to the final eight teams.

Nordhoff ranked as high as fifth place at one point and ultimately finished in seventh.

The competition was held this year via Zoom. Twenty-six teams from 22 high schools around Ventura and western Los Angeles counties competed.

This was the fourth year attorney Kevin Ruf, a Nordhoff parent and Ojai Unified School District trustee, coached the team. “I’ve always encouraged our team just be who you are,” Ruf said. “You don’t have to be one thing or another. You don’t have to be loud if you’re not loud. You don’t have to be animated if you’re not super-animated. You can be who you are.”


Wilderness areas up for expansion

March 5 

A bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives Feb. 26 would add stronger protections to public lands and wild rivers in Los Padres National Forest, including areas near the Ojai Valley.

The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, a bill championed by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, would designate as wilderness nearly 250,000 acres of the National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument.

“This extensive legislation fills in many gaps that remained from the first local Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River designations in 1992,” said Alasdair Coyne of Keep Sespe Wild. “Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River protections are the strongest available for preserving America’s public lands and rivers over the long term.” 


Skatepark lease gets OK

March 12 

The Ojai Unified School District board unanimously approved a 20-year renewal of the Ojai Skatepark lease at its March 10 meeting.

The current lease expires on Dec. 31, 2023. The city of Ojai proposed a renewal and extension for 20 years, which will expire on Dec. 31, 2044. The item was initially considered by the board on Dec. 14, 2020. At that time, the board tabled the item to gather further information. Chet Hilgers, president of the nonprofit Skate Ojai, was out at the skatepark last week advocating for an extension of the lease.


Firefighters rescue dog stuck in pipe

March 12 

Ventura County firefighters rescued a dog that got her head stuck in a pipe in Upper Ojai Tuesday afternoon.

At approximately 1:15 p.m., firefighters responded to reports of an animal in distress in the 12000 block of Sulphur Mountain Road.

“Heidi, a 2-year-old German shepherd was chasing a squirrel and chased the squirrel into a steel pipe with a 5-inch opening and, unfortunately, Heidi got her head stuck in this steel pipe,” VCFD Capt. Bob Welsbie told the Ojai Valley News.

Once on scene, firefighters made sure that the air inside the pipe wasn’t hazardous. “They provided clean, fresh air to the dog. They lubed the entire head and neck of the dog with liquid soap as a lubricant, and with very gentle finessing and pulling they were able to free the dog,” Welsbie said. 


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Ojai Valley News photo by Perry Van Houten

Clouds and snow cover the Topatopas as seen from atop Sulphur Mountain on March 11.


Sun melts away snow

March 12 

A cold Pacific storm this week brought much-needed rainfall and low snow to Southern California.

By Thursday at noon, rainfall totals from the storm that arrived Wednesday morning ranged from about a half inch to nearly an inch in most areas of the Ojai Valley.

In the mountains north of Ojai, 1 to 6 inches of snow were reported by noon Thursday, with snow levels running as low as 2,500 feet.

Local peaks above the valley like the Topatopas, Chief Peak and White Ledge Peak all showed a dusting of snow Wednesday and Thursday.


Judge calls Ventura water suit ‘a huge time suck’

March 19 

The judge in the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper watershed adjudication lawsuit says the city of Ventura needs to do more clerical work before he can proceed with the case.

At the latest status conference in the case March 15, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger told attorneys representing the city that mismatches still exist in the city’s spreadsheets of cross-defendants’ names and parcel numbers involved in the litigation against thousands of property owners in the Ojai Valley and Ventura. Highberger expressed frustration with having to work through the clerical errors, calling it “a huge time suck” and “not the highest and best uses of a judge’s time.”


Parents rally for more class time

March 19 

 Ojai Unified School District parents, students and other community members rallied outside the Ojai Unified School District office on March 16 — many with signs — to show support for more in-person instruction for students.

Approximately 20 people had gathered at about 12:30 p.m. for the “Ojai Parents Peaceful Protest” that ran from noon to 2 p.m. Superintendent Tiffany Morse was among the district staff members who spoke with the protesters.

The rally was organized by the Ojai Parents Peaceful Protest Facebook group.


Red tier means more openings

March 19 

 Ventura County moved to the COVID-19 red tier of reopening March 17, meaning loosened restrictions on indoor dining, gyms, movie theaters and more.

“This is great news for our community and an opportunity to work together to support our local businesses as we move forward in reopening our economy,” said Ventura County Executive Officer Michael Powers.


Sweet season for supersweet Pixies

March 19 

 This year’s crop of Ojai Pixie tangerines is big on flavor and selling oh so sweetly, according to growers.

“The fruit is really good this year. The flavor is really there,” said Emily Ayala of Friend’s Ranches and the Ojai Pixie Growers Association, which consists of about 65 local growers.

“They have delicious flavor,” agreed Jim Churchill, who has been growing Pixies for more than 40 years. “That’s what keeps people coming back and buying them.”


The Ojai Valley News Year in Review will continue in next week’s edition.


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