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Fitting tribute or misguided sympathy?
Friday, September 28th, 2007
Issue 39, Volume 11.
Several residents, businesses and political leaders have raised questions or cited concerns over a City Council decision to name a field in Temecula’s newest sports park after Jacob Andrew Nelson, the 24-year-old son of City Manager Shawn Nelson.
Some of those interviewed criticized the decision because of the circumstances of Jacob Nelson’s October 2006 death and his prior arrest on suspicion of drunken driving. Others simply question whether Jacob Nelson’s accomplishments merited such recognition when more prominent youths or adults have not been similarly honored.
All expressed sadness and sympathy for Shawn Nelson and his family, but they say the naming decision might reflect badly on the community.
"It’s inappropriate," said Al Rattan, an Old Town landowner who has developed a De Luz subdivision. "It sends a wrong message, and I think there’s a tremendous conflict of interest at the council level."
He and others question whether the ball field memorial was done as a favor to the Nelson family.
City Manager Nelson and Mayor Chuck Washington, who recommended that the council name the field and allocate money for signs, declined to be interviewed in detail about the issue or the interview responses. Each official issued a brief e-mailed statement, as did Councilman Ron Roberts last week.
Nelson said he would limit his comments because he did not have a role in the council’s decision to name the field after his son.
"No father has ever been more proud of his son than I am of my sweet, wonderful Jacob," Nelson said in his e-mail statement. His comment was similar to the message etched onto a bronze plaque that now stands at the entrance to the championship ball field at Patricia H. Birdsall Sports Park near Great Oak High School.
Washington’s e-mailed response to an interview request was equally brief.
"Jacob was a much beloved member of our community," Washington wrote.
Roberts said Shawn Nelson was not involved in the naming decision, which the councilman said was recommended by city parks staff. In his statement, Roberts backed the council decision and said the memorial was warranted at the sports park.
"Shawn had nothing to do with the naming of the ball field for Jacob. It was a City Council decision through our Community Services Department," Roberts wrote in his statement. "This was a good thing that happened at a sports park named for Pat Birdsall, one of the closest friends of Shawn and his family. She would have wanted it this way and that is why it was done."
Death sparks aftermath
Jacob Nelson died Oct. 22 at Palomar Medical Center, where he was airlifted following a solo-vehicle on Interstate 15 near the Deer Springs Road exit in north San Diego County. At the time, California Highway Patrol officials said witnesses reported he was driving south in excess of 100 mph when he lost control of his 2007 Toyota Tacoma.
City staff and council members gathered afterward to comfort the Nelson family. Many community residents attended the emotional memorial service.
Newspaper coverage did not report that Jacob Nelson had previously been arrested on alcohol-related charges. He was arrested in June 2005 on suspicion of misdemeanor drunken driving, according to Riverside County court records. He pleaded guilty two months later to misdemeanor reckless driving, an admission that resulted in a $1,391 fine, three years probation and other sentencing conditions.
The results of the San Diego County autopsy report also went unreported. The report, signed Nov. 29, said Jacob Nelson suffered fatal head injuries. His blood alcohol level was .21, nearly three times the state’s legal threshold for drunken driving, after his death. No illegal drug use was detected, according to the report signed by Dr. Bethann Schaber, a county deputy medical examiner.
Washington’s recommendation to name the field after Jacob Nelson was unanimously approved by the council Dec. 12. A city staff report stated: "Jacob was an accomplished athlete and graphic artist, and his father Shawn played an instrumental role in developing the city’s park and recreation program when he served as the city’s first community services director in 1990."
The report indicated that a sign and a plaque identifying the facility as the Jacob A. Nelson Championship Field would cost about $5,000. Shawn Nelson did not speak during that agenda item, but he thanked the council after the regular session for honoring his son.
Work began months later to install large green-and-white signs over the field’s entrance and a scoreboard. A concrete base was built to hold a bronze plaque with a raised likeness of Jacob Nelson and a personalized message from his father.
The plaque, which Shawn Nelson signed as "Dad," details Jacob Nelson’s achievements, cites a particular chapter of his life and tells of the void left by his death. It notes his love for Temecula, his artistic and athletic talents and how he had a positive effect on many people.
The plaque tells of remarks Jacob Nelson made to about 200 youth in May 2002. In the talk, he spoke of "fences" that people encounter in life and how tenacity can enable people to handle such trials or tragedy.
The plaque saidhis family could not understand why he "…ran into his final fence at such a young age…" It said family members were honored by the council’s naming decision and they would always cherish Jacob Nelson’s memory.
The sign and plaque installation work was finished by June 2, when a ceremony was held for the Nelson family and close friends, according to a city staff report. The ceremony was held one year after the sports park was dedicated to Birdsall, who was elected to the first City Council after incorporation in 1989 and has served as Temecula’s only female mayor.
Birdsall frequently praised Shawn Nelson while she was on the council and after she stepped down years ago. She died in August 2006 of heart failure associated with a severe breathing disease that she suffered many years.
Since the dedication, several people have questioned the decision to name the field after Jacob Nelson. Besides Rattan, they include a former City Council candidate, three Old Town merchants and landowners and a retired firefighter. Other local leaders and residents have questioned the council decision, but they declined to speak on the record because of political or business considerations.
James "Stew" Stewart said he was torn when he spotted the field improvements as he played softball at the sports park. He had not been aware of the council approving the work until he spotted the signs.
Stewart, who owns several barber shops and unsuccessfully ran for the council in November 2006, said he was torn because he used to cut Jacob Nelson’s hair and he considers himself a friend of Shawn Nelson. Yet the circumstances of Jacob Nelson’s death prompted him to wonder whether the council made the right choice.
"I did question it," Stewart said in a telephone interview. "It puzzled me."
Old Town merchant Lorena Spencer said she did not want to appear unsympathetic to the Nelson family, but naming the field after Jacob Nelson has sent the "wrong message" to those concerned about the dangers of drunken driving.
"Shame on them," Spencer, who owns an outdoor furniture and collectables store, said of the council in a telephone interview. She questioned whether Jacob Nelson would have warranted such an honor if his father was not the city manager.
Roger Sannipoli, who owns several Old Town properties, questioned how Jacob Nelson could be moved ahead of several deserving Temecula youths or adults who have died in recent years.
He cited Margaret "Maggie" Allen, who worked for Temecula’s history museum before she became the first manager of the city’s children’s museum, as an example of someone who deserves such recognition.
"I don’t think they should have named a sports field after the city manager’s son who hasn’t done a lot for the city," said Sannipoli, who went on to identify several other people who also made key contributions locally. "I think it’s terrible what [the council] did."
Allen’s mother, Eve Craig, said she has been working with the city for some time in hopes of finding a way to publicly recognize her daughter’s community efforts.
Maggie Allen died at age 56 in July 2005 of a heart attack while she was vacationing in Hawaii.
Craig said she raised $6,000 under the auspices of the children’s museum for a memorial. She said about $1,000 of the money has since been spent on museum improvements. She said city officials have assured her that a memorial is being planned in her daughter’s honor in a city park.
"They say, ‘We’re working on it,’" Craig said in a telephone interview. "I keep getting told it’s going to get done."
Craig said she attended Jacob Nelson’s emotional funeral service, but did not believe he was prominent in the community. She recalled that Birdsall held Shawn Nelson in high regard. Craig said she is not dismayed that Jacob Nelson memorial was completed while work remains in an effort to honor her daughter.
"I don’t hold it against anybody," Craig said. "I do know Shawn has done so much for the community."
Some people cited a pair of deserving Temecula youths who died in recent years: Jonathan Varela and Adam Mejia. Jonathan, 14, was killed by a drunken driver in April 1996. The teen was struck while dashing across Rancho California Road while en route home. Adam was a standout wrestler at Temecula Valley High School who died at age 17 in November 1996 after a brief battle against cancer.
Old Town merchant Doc Laine said he has sympathy for the Nelson family, but he questions the council decision to name the field after Jacob Nelson.
"It doesn’t make any sense," Laine said in an interview. "It seems out of place considering those who came before. There’s so many names out there."
Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from Phil Hoxsey, a retired firefighter who battled Temecula years ago over plans to develop a Western-style entertainment complex in Old Town. Hoxsey said he was not surprised by the council decision.
"If you’re part of the in crowd that happens," he said. "It’s just typical of Temecula."
Hoxsey believes the council named the field out of sympathy for Shawn Nelson and his family.
"If it wasn’t Shawn Nelson’s son it wouldn’t have happened," Hoxsey said. "I think, from [the council members’] point of view they wanted to do something nice for Shawn."
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