The lonely bridge into town: Isleton’s population has dropped more than 70 percent since its heyday in the 1960s, according to the city’s chamber of commerce president
39 miles southwest of Sacramento lies Isleton,Ca. Its located in the beautiful Sacramento Delta. The current population of the town in less than 850. At one time there were three canneries in the area. The majority of the employees were of Asian.
Isleton’s last stand
Tweakers, cop scandals and political feuding: how a tiny Delta town went from Mayberry to Twin Peaks
By: Graham Womack/Sacramento News and Review
The dilapidated trailer sat in front of the suspected drug house, transients living inside.
In Sacramento, such a problem might be addressed with a call to the police or city. But this was Isleton, which hasn’t had a police department since 2012 and where the beleaguered local government couldn’t do much beyond ask the property owner that the trailer be removed.
So one resident did the kind of thing that happens a lot in this remote Delta town on the southern edge of Sacramento County: He took matters into his own hands.
One night in the past couple of years, the resident backed up his truck, hitched the trailer to it and took off. The story goes that while the resident was pulling out of town, freaked-out methamphetamine users were bailing out of the suddenly very mobile home.
The trailer wound up on Jackson Slough Road on Isleton’s outskirts. When Gerry Zink, the city’s public works director at the time, got word of the trailer’s location, he hauled it to a gated area at Isleton’s sewage ponds so the tweakers wouldn’t retake it. Six months or so later, the trailer burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances.
Problem solved, Isleton style.
In a tiny city that’s been broke for years, crazy capers sometimes rule the day. Some of these schemes have crippled Isleton in years past. Today, the city is nearly insolvent, with dwindling public services and resources, standing on the brink of bankruptcy or disincorporation.
But old habits die hard.
Now, even the mayor believes that Isleton should just give up, call it quits as a city and relinquish all control—and its very identity—to the county. “We’re on the bubble,” said Mayor Mark Bettencourt. “How much longer do you want to run on that knife’s edge?”
He’s not the only one asking that question.
Located along a bending tributary of the Sacramento River, Isleton is a speck hanging on to a map for dear life and losing its grip. The city still has its loyalists, residents who glimpse new opportunity and remember the city’s storied past, when it was referred to as the “Little Paris of the Delta.”
But the years haven’t been kind to that memory and the small town stands at a crossroads: Suffering wounds both cosmic (the recession) and self-inflicted (we’ll get to those in a moment), the city of Isleton is a tweaker trailer being dragged to the dump.
Can its leaders stop feuding long enough to take the wheel?
Isleton’s Many Deaths
The city’s two main drags are Main Street and Second Street, which jet off in opposite directions parallel to the levee as one comes into Isleton off Highway 160. They’re rowed with gold rush-era storefronts and clapboard homes in various states of disrepair: chipped, rotting wood; exposed and rusted metal sidings; warped, swollen garages; and lazy, leaning telephone poles. Eerily quiet, even on weekends, it’s as if some natural disaster has chased out most of the townsfolk.
Longtime city residents say it wasn’t always this way.
“Now it’s very quiet and almost seems like a ghost town,” said Jean Yokotobi, president of the Isleton Chamber of Commerce. “But in ’63, you still had a vibrant agriculture industry here. You had several canneries. You had ag workers. The population went up to about 2,500.”
1963 was the year that Yokotobi arrived. Those were the boom times. Settled in the 19th century, the city boasted one of the West Coast’s first Chinatowns. Now the city is more like Chinatown, the 1974 classic about humanity’s existential futility.
Isleton used to be the asparagus capital of the world, specializing in a white variation on the crop, which grew well in the city’s sandy soil. But then technology changed, and the industry retreated in the 1950s. In time, the canneries left, too.
It’s also been years since the Crawdad Festival drew thousands of tourists to Isleton on an annual basis. Started in 1986 by Ralph and Charli Hand, the couple began losing money on the festival and turned it over to the city in 2005. In 2006, with the city and chamber of commerce jointly hosting the festival, $12,000 in deposits went missing, according to a 2008 investigation by Sacramento County’s grand jury. The Hands reclaimed the festival in 2007, and took it out of town for good the following year.
Today, the Crawdad Festival operates in Tehama County.
“There was no choice,” Charli Hand told SN&R. “We didn’t have the money.”
Hand still runs a card room and real-estate office in Isleton, and hopes the city can rebound. “Isleton used to be just like Mayberry,” she said.
Locals say that a lot. But this is Mayberry gone bad. Or maybe this is just what Mayberry would devolve into in real life: Sheriff Andy Taylor contracted out, Aunt Bee persecuted by town gossip, Barney Fife a grand jury investigation waiting to happen.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the Isleton Police Department.
If the retreating asparagus and crawdads cost Isleton its cultural cache, they also leeched the city of crucial revenues.
The general fund shrank to a measly $1,285 in 2012, which in turn left the city vulnerable to bizarre gambits and seedy scandals. In January of that year, either the city or the state stopped paying the department’s workers’ compensation insurance. Stories differ on why this happened.
Dave Larsen, who was both the city manager and city attorney at the time, told SN&R that the state compensation insurance fund canceled Isleton’s policy due to accumulating back debt. Larsen says he tried to negotiate a payment plan with the state and a bailout loan from the county, but was unsuccessful on both fronts.
Others, such as current City Manager Dan Hinrichs, say Larsen mismanaged funds. The council fired Larsen in April 2012, and Larsen subsequently sued the city for wrongful termination and defamation; both sides agreed to a confidential settlement this year.
Hinrichs was appointed to replace Larsen just in time for a series of scandals.
First, Hinrichs recalls, a repossession agent called to ask about a cache of guns a previous police chief allegedly hadn’t paid for. Then, in early May 2012, Hinrichs placed interim police Chief Steve Adams on administrative leave, after Adams reportedly posted on Facebook that he wanted to tell the media of problems in town. A police officer had already resigned after allegedly getting caught having sex with his mistress in a squad car.
The day after Adams went on leave, a different officer attempted to shoot a dog fighting another dog, according to a CBS13 report at the time. Hinrichs told SN&R that the officer missed, with the bullet ricocheting off a curb and striking a bystander’s leg. The department already lacked firearm training and was in danger of losing its state Peace Officer Standards and Training certification, so Hinrichs asked the sheriff’s department to take over, according to a May 10, 2013, news report.
Two weeks later, CBS13 quoted an anonymous source accusing Councilwoman Elizabeth Samano, a Larsen ally, of selling drugs. Speaking to SN&R, Samano denied the accusations and claimed they originated from a woman living near one of her rental properties, whose story she says was coached by Adams.
“He was able to befriend a lady who lived across the street who was willing to say whatever,” Samano said.
Asked if he could recall the drug accusations against Samano, Adams initially denied it. Pressed further, he told SN&R, “I heard allegations, but it was just from the public. I had nothing to base it on, nothing to go forward on, nothing.”
The Isleton Police Department was no longer functioning by September 1, 2012, which is when the sheriff’s department took over, CBS13 reported. Today, the city outsources its public safety for approximately $200,000 a year. About half of that is covered by a state grant.
Discount law enforcement had other costs, though. At a May planning commission meeting, one resident noted Isleton’s “nests of tweakers … [who] steal everything that’s not nailed down,” though another local resident claimed that crime had actually dropped by half between 2013 and 2015.
The sheriff’s department didn’t fulfill multiple public records requests seeking crime statistics in Isleton. According to statistics compiled by the California Department of Justice, only two violent crimes were reported in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available. That year also saw 23 property crimes, half as many as were reported in 2013.
But the Delta area is a hot zone for illegal marijuana grows, according to an August 23 grant acceptance request filed by the sheriff’s department, with the department uncovering 25 hidden grows last year in a 10-mile radius of dense cornfields. The department’s marijuana task force also seized 77 firearms and made 78 arrests, the form states.
Still, the city’s unsafe reputation persists.
Many Main Street storefronts are boarded up and vacant, as are the former police station and one bank. The city’s population is circling the drain at approximately 800, give or take. Today the general fund collects roughly $500,000 a year, compared to a city debt that has reached $1.6 million.
Residents Dave and Julie Amma aren’t optimistic that things will improve. When Dave Amma first met his wife a few years ago, he would tell her how great the city once was, how the Crawdad Festival drew 30 people to his home during those Father’s Day weekends. Julie Amma remembered hearing about how people hopped between five busy bars in Isleton.
“It sounds like everybody would have fun and gather and spend,” she said. “It sounds like those days are long gone.”
City officials are still willing to gamble that that’s not the case.
It takes a Village
Eighteen homes built several years ago stand empty and incomplete, facing each other across a barren divide. Some lack exterior staircases, with loose boards lying in dirt. Inside, the rooms are dirty, the floors unfinished. Red tags underline the shoddy state, three-story vessels in danger of being torn down.
Welcome to the Village on the Delta, Isleton’s latest hope and misstep.
Located on the town’s edge at the Highway 160 entrance, the subdivision is embroiled in litigation and a stalemate between the developer that inherited this project and the city that needs it to survive.
In the early 2000s, the city approved this 300-plus home development. Original developer Del Valle Homes started construction before the 2008 recession hit and the company went under. A different developer, KLD Ventures LLC of Roseville, assumed control in January 2013, but is struggling to get the first crop of 18 houses sold before moving forward with the rest of the subdivision.
The semi-built homes still need, among other things, staircases, sewer hookups and landscaping. The city has given KLD multiple extensions, but work has come to a standstill, say city officials. Additionally, as many as 15 of the homes have suffered additional damage since they were erected.
“We are also certain that there are squatters living in those houses,” Hinrichs wrote in an August 23 report to the city council.
That wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen at this site.
Before KLD entered the picture, the city allowed a marijuana grow operation to set up shop and begin cultivating inside the stalled subdivision.
On the heels of a recession that hit the small delta town particularly hard, around late 2010, Delta Allied Growers made Isleton an offer it couldn’t refuse. The marijuana growers assured city officials their operation was legally above board, and promised the city as much as $600,000 in revenue that first year, as well as jobs for 50 people. Isleton’s annual deficit hit $488,181 that year, so the prospect of digging out of that hole seemed like fortune finally smiling on the hard-luck hamlet.
Enter the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, which convened a criminal grand jury investigation into whether city officials violated state and federal laws concerning marijuana cultivation. The D.A. ended up not filing charges, but reported Larsen to the California State Bar Association for conflict of interest allegations.
In a report it released in June 2011, the grand jury concluded that “the city of Isleton was highly vulnerable to a seemingly lucrative proposal, and that DAG exploited that vulnerability.” It wouldn’t be the last time.
Today, the city has its fiscal hopes wrapped up in Village on the Delta
KLD faces ongoing litigation from its Sacramento-based lender, Socotra Capital, after allegedly defaulting on a $3.48 million construction loan from 2015 to make the requested improvements. In an April 5 letter to Hinrichs, KLD representative Sidney B. Dunmore acknowledged the “unanticipated delays,” but contended they had more to do with “funding issues” than “dereliction on the part of KLD.”
Be that as it may, the city has gotten tired of waiting for its long-deferred dream to be realized, of a housing subdivision that could double Isleton’s population and boost its plummeting tax base.
One house made it into escrow this summer, only to fall out, with the city unwilling to issue final permits or a certificate of occupancy. In his August 23 report to the council, Hinrichs wrote that the city would “red tag” the unfinished homes for a second time in about a year, indicating substandard work and at least the possibility of demolition. Posted notices also went up at the development site in recent weeks, threatening to auction certain lots outside Sacramento Superior Court on August 24, an action that Hinrichs said was postponed two weeks.
These threats appear to be empty ones.
Tearing down the homes “would be a terrible mistake,” Hinrichs wrote. Instead, the end goal is to have the finance company come in and take over completion of the houses. “It will be a hassle with these people, but that is not unusual when dealing with developers,” Hinrichs added.
KLD representatives and a company attorney didn’t return phone messages seeking comment. Adham Sbeih, CEO of KLD’s litigious lender, Socotra Capital, told SN&R his firm remained optimistic regarding the development.
But not everyone is pulling for the project. “I just think they were not built to complement a historic
Flat Broke and Frantic
DeJack’s Country Store is one of the few businesses left open in town. The shop is more like a bodega or mini-mart, with a small selection. Some locals make the drive to the Costco in Lodi to stock up on provisions and only patronize DeJack’s if necessary. On a recent trip, the store’s owner, Jack Chima, introduced himself as a member of the planning commission and explained there would be no council meeting next door that evening at City Hall, as the city’s website indicated.The website hadn’t been updated in years.
Glenn Giovannoni serves on the planning commission, owns a local storage business and could be Isleton’s next mayor. Giovannoni and three other candidates are running for the city council in November: incumbent Councilwoman Pam Bulahan; longtime volunteer firefighter Dean Dockery; and resident Paul Steele, who, according to photographer Victoria Sheridan’s website, organized the Spam-throwing contest at the Isleton Spam Festival in 2014.
The five-member council will appoint the next mayor.
“I was raised in this community so I have a big heart for it,” Giovannoni said. “I’ve always thought Isleton had great potential—and it still has great potential.”
There are people still fighting for Isleton’s survival as a city, but they have different ideas about what could reinvigorate the town.
Samano wants a focus on small businesses and a ban on franchises. Chima would like to attract a manufacturing concern to headquarter in Isleton, to distribute goods throughout the region. Giovannoni and Yokotobi want a renewed emphasis on cultivating a tourist economy, while Hinrichs envisions developing an artist community, similar to Sausalito’s, and is excited by a couple relocating from Oakland to start a beer-tasting room on Main Street.
“Open your business here,” Hinrichs pitched. “You’ve got cheap rents. The crime problem that we have—it’s not 100 percent [taken care of], but it’s under control. I’m told by the deputies that the crime’s no worse here than it is anywhere else in the Delta.”
Still, one can’t help notice what’s missing here.
Across the street from DeJack’s, the Isleton Fire Department has just one paid employee, a part-time chief who also works for the contract paramedic service in town, Medic Ambulance. The city is able to keep an ambulance in Isleton by letting its medics crash for free at the fire station.
In June, local voters approved Measure B, a half-cent sales tax estimated to raise $91,000 to make the chief full-time, purchase much-needed equipment and maybe hire another part-time employee. City officials have also discussed placing another half-cent sales tax on the November ballot to bolster the general fund.
But these are patchwork fixes for a much deeper problem that not everyone thinks can be solved. Zink, the former public works director who retired last year, called Isleton “a pretend city.”
“I talked with the mayor,” he said. “I told him why I left. That was one of the reasons. You never had enough tools, you never had enough equipment. It was always inadequate what you had to really go out there. You need another couple people, but the funds aren’t there.”
The mayor agrees.
“We’re doing them an injustice right now with the levels of services that we’re providing,” said Bettencourt, who isn’t running for re-election in November. “I believe the county can provide a better service.”
That’s easier said than done.
A Sinking Ship
Inside a drab, white conference room located beside City Hall, consultant Ken Dieker said he had good news for Isleton’s elected officials: It would actually cost too much money for the poor city to declare bankruptcy or disincorporate.
“You absolutely are on the razor’s edge of being able to survive,” Dieker told the city council and a small gathering of residents on July 9. “Absolutely. But you’ve made progress.”
With a general fund deficit shrunk down to a manageable $13,000, Dieker counseled Isleton’s finest minds to stick it out and rein in unnecessary spending.
Almost on cue, that’s when things fell apart once again.
Councilwoman Samano asked how the city’s estimated debt of $1.6 million figured into this rosy projection. Dieker couldn’t immediately say.
Commissioner Chima wanted to know whether the deficit amount could change before the budget was finalized. Dieker figured a swing of $5,000, perhaps $10,000.
Commissioner Giovannoni, calling the numbers soft, walked out on the presentation, returning later.
After the meeting, Bettencourt acknowledged his colleagues’ skepticism. “They don’t believe what we’re telling them,” he told SN&R.
Mistrust is a given in Isleton, where years of mismanagement and infighting have fostered an air of straight-up dysfunction. But the stakes have rarely been higher.
While Dieker reiterated the grand jury’s 2008 conclusion that disincorporation would be a costly, time-consuming process, the jury did recommend the city explore that option if it couldn’t provide necessary services to its residents.
If it couldn’t get its act together, in other words.
Perhaps Isleton’s biggest cheerleader, Yokotobi thinks that day won’t come without an irreversible reckoning. “I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere unless it disincorporates,” she said. “We need new blood in here.”
But disincorporation is no quick fix, no magic bullet. It would mean representation by a handful of officials who live outside the area, primarily Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, whose district encompasses six unincorporated areas and four cities, including Isleton.
“The problem is Don Nottoli, who’s done a great job of representing our area, he’s only one of five votes,” Hinrichs reflected.
Nottoli says he and his colleagues want to help, in whatever form that’s possible. “There certainly is a willingness by our board to, I think, not just … help the city get on its feet, but stay on its feet,” he said.
That aid has had its limits, though.
The county has declined Isleton’s loan requests for years, Hinrichs said. Here, things are always precarious, the next fight never that far off. Prior to the July 9 council meeting, Hinrichs told SN&R he was going to publicly censure Samano for creating a hostile work environment. He backed down, and ended up reading a general statement that didn’t name her. Councilwoman Bulahan, a rival of Samano’s, kept echoing what Hinrichs said while Samano sat stone-faced.
Given the stakes, it was a weird meeting. The city is on life support, and its caretakers can’t stop bickering. That kind of drama is why Bruce Pope retired. The city manager before Hinrichs and Larsen, Pope checked out in 2011.
“There’s a lot of conflict for the city,” Pope said. “You have people coming to council meetings, coming to my office screaming and hollering, fire department out of control. … I don’t need this kind of stuff. Semiliterate assholes.”
Forget it, Jake. It’s Isleton.