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CG man gets bike safety license plate approved in son's memory
 jheadley  / 

CASA GRANDE — “Share the Road” is something that will soon become a way to help protect Arizona’s cyclists, runners and hikers.

The signing of House Bill 2606 by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in April established a “Share the Road” specialty license plate and directs at least 90% of the proceeds from the plate to be distributed to Arizona charities that promote safety and awareness between motorists and cyclists.

Ducey got together with organizers for a ceremonial signing of the bill on July 16.

The measure was brought to the Legislature by Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, on behalf of John Dollar of Casa Grande, whose son, Rob, was killed by a car while cycling in Phoenix’s South Mountain Park in 2017. John Dollar and Rob’s friends and family created the Rob Dollar Foundation to honor his memory and raise awareness of cyclists on the road. The Rob Dollar Foundation, along with Kathy Griffiths from Uphill Into the Wind, were instrumental in HB 2606’s passage on April 30.

“Thanks to the advocacy of organizations like the Rob Dollar Foundation and Uphill Into the Wind, Arizonans will soon be able to select a ‘Share the Road’ specialty license plate to promote the safety of cyclists,” Shope said. “John Dollar and Kathy Griffiths deserve recognition for channeling their grief into hard work that will raise awareness of cyclists and ultimately save lives. I thank my colleagues in the Legislature for approving the ‘Share the Road’ specialty plate and applaud Governor Ducey for signing it into law.”

John Dollar said the idea of the “Share the Road” plate was actually something that his son always wanted.

“We started our foundation because he was talking about it. The Wednesday before he was killed he was talking about how he wanted to start a foundation and just bring more awareness to the cycling community,” Dollar said.

The “Share the Road” license plate will cost $32,000 to implement and organizers have until the end of the year to raise the funds. With the hurdle of state approval already completed, there is little that will stand in the way of the plate becoming reality.

“We don’t just mess around. We’re very motivated at this point and time. We started fundraising last November because it is $32,000 once the bill is signed into law for any specialty plate. A lot of people asked why we were raising the funds when we didn’t have it passed,” he said.

Getting the measure passed into law was easier than he thought it would be.

“I reached out to T.J. Shope and sent them all the information on our foundation and what we were planning to do. He introduced the bill in January and it went right through. Now we are still doing the fundraising,” Dollar said.

He added that $11,000 of the needed $32,000 has been raised.

“The bottom line is in the end whatever we don’t get raised, we will pick the slack up. We are not going to go to all this trouble and not bring the ‘Share the Road’ plate to Arizona. ‘Share the Road’ is not just for cycling, we are going to have a runner or a pedestrian on the plate too. Phoenix is number one in the nation for pedestrian deaths. It is insane how many people get killed this way in Arizona,” Dollar said, adding the goal is to make it safer for everyone.

People who order a “Share the Road” plate pay an additional $25 for it, so $17 of those funds will go back to the Rob Dollar Foundation and Uphill into the Wind. That money will then go for signage, billboards, videos and general education of motorists to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

With the help of the city of Phoenix, a road sign has also been developed to promote awareness and is currently under the review of the Federal Highway Administration for approval. The sign notifies motorists that they must, by law, give cyclists at least 3 feet of space on roads. If the cyclist is not safe in a bike lane or at the edge of the roadway, they may also take the entire lane of travel and motorists are required to yield to the cyclist.

“We are just trying to save one life, so they don’t have to go through what I’m doing. I have lost family members but kids — what a difference. It is everyone’s worst nightmare,” Dollar said. “Once this sign comes to reality, we will start reaching out to all the outlying cities and we will pay for it.”

Dollar said his son was a cyclist but he is not.

“Maybe the culture will change. The ‘Share the Road’ plate is going to help us do what we are doing,” Dollar said. “We have taken this horrible situation and now we are helping the community. We are trying to save lives. It is hard to make positives out of negatives — especially out of something like this.”

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Preserving stories takes couple on a trip down memory lane
 mstaude  / 


A mini dollhouse-sized office sits on the mantle in Randy and Susan Wortman’s Casa Grande home.

The mini-office, which features a desk, open file cabinets, phones, papers and even a micro portrait of the couple in their younger days, is a tiny replica of Randy’s longtime office at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago.

It’s the scene where he spent much of his career.

As the couple work to record the stories both have lived after decades working in education, Randy often thinks about the office in Chicago and the stories that played out there.

The couple is writing a book together, but it’s more than a telling of career stories. It also documents the tales of a life built together that spans from 1960s Chicago to modern-day Casa Grande.

Susan Wortman worked as a school psychologist and later became involved in arts and other causes in the Casa Grande area. Randy Wortman was a physics teacher and school administrator in Chicago and later became the first principal at Casa Grande Union High School after the new campus on Trekell Road opened in 1997. He was also a principal at the district’s Desert Winds campus.

Randy, who has Parkinson’s disease and resides in a specialty care facility, said preserving the stories is important.

“My hope is that someone will read it and learn something from it,” he said.

While the book includes some tales from Casa Grande — including a story about George Clooney shooting hoops at Casa Grande Union High School while making a movie in the area — much of it is dedicated to Randy’s days as an assistant principal at Whitney Young. Among the students who attended the school while Randy was there were Jesse Jackson’s children and Michelle Obama, who at the time was Michelle Robinson.

“When Michelle Robinson began high school at Whitney Young, some of the staff members were excited about her presence there because they knew about her older brother, an exceptional athlete. However, Michelle chose to focus primarily on academics,” the Wortmans write in the book.

Decades later, the Wortmans were excited about Barack Obama’s presidency and happy that Michelle would be first lady. A few years ago, when the couple had a specialty quilt made featuring some of their favorite clothing, they included an Obama campaign T-shirt, which is featured prominently in the quilt.

The book also recounts an encounter Randy had with Jesse Jackson when the civil rights activist was running for president.

“Jesse Jackson came to see me because he had concerns about gang activity at our school,” Randy writes.

The two chatted and Jackson accepted assurances that there was no gang activity at the school. Later that year, Jackson gave the benediction at his son’s class graduation ceremony at the school, according to the book.

Reliving the memories for the book is a good experience, Randy said.

“Looking back, I feel like I’ve made a difference in the lives of many people,” Randy said.

Susan and Randy Wortman have been married 54 years. They have one daughter and two grandchildren.

Both from Chicago, they met on a blind date when they were in college.

“I was at the University of Wisconsin but I’d spend my summers in Chicago,” Susan said. “He was going to college in Chicago and working for a funeral home.”

Susan transferred to a school in Chicago to finish her degree. When they were married, they set a goal to visit as many national parks as possible.

“As city people, we’d never been to these parks,” Susan said. “We started visiting as many as we could. We’ve now hiked the trails at more than 40 parks.”

They’ve also traveled internationally including a trip to Egypt a few years ago.

The couple created several mini dollhouse-like displays together including the replica of Randy’s office, a mini synagogue and other scenes.

Susan, who had her own career in education, credits Randy with bringing out the leader in her. She has served on the Casa Grande Arts and Humanities Commission and is involved in the Zonta Club along with several other activities.

“He started the swim team at Whitney Young and also the Academic Decathlon, which we were both involved in,” Susan said. “As a swim coach, he was the first in a public school in Chicago to allow girls on the team. I’m really proud of him. He always lived his values.”

Randy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006.

“Throughout it all, he’s had a sense of humor,” Susan said.

The couple started writing the book in 2018 to record some of Randy’s education stories, but the project has grown to include family stories and a section called “other” for miscellaneous tales.

“We worked on projects and jobs in education dealing with science and physics teaching, swimming, stage craft, special education, reading, math and the development of leadership skills, best teaching and effective learning,” Susan said. “In our opinion, the members of our generation should be sharing their stories with the younger generation.”

With the writing project almost finished, Susan said she’s not sure what the next step is or if they will attempt to publish or offer the collection to friends and family.

They hope their stories encourage others to consider education-related careers.

“The important thing is to preserve the stories and photos and pass them along,” Susan said. “Perhaps some of our neighbors might have a story to share about their own experiences in our schools.”

The couple believes that the lives of their loved ones will be enriched by the sharing of the stories.

“We have been married for 54 beautiful years,” Susan said. “During a time when Randy has been dealing with a very serious physical problem, working on this book gave me the opportunity to also focus upon our love and the beautiful portions of our lives together. The other reasons continue to be important ones for us but love puts everything together.”

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Volkmer hopes to create more flexibility with sentencing
 jheadley  / 

CASA GRANDE — Pinal’s top prosecutor sees a lack of fairness in how some sentences are handed out, and he believes something can be done about it.

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer spoke Tuesday afternoon to members of the Casa Grande Alliance, providing a snapshot of crime in Pinal County and Arizona.

His presentation to the community organization that focuses on drug and violence prevention dove deep into the myths and realities of crime in the area.

“This is just an overall view of Pinal County and the criminal justice system in Arizona. It is Pinal County-heavy,” Volkmer said as he opened the two-hour meeting.

Volkmer explained the state’s sentencing guidelines. They control how much time a person who is convicted of a felony must serve in prison. He said it is a rigid and antiquated table that puts judges into a box when it comes to sentences.

“If you are caught with methamphetamine in our community, you are probation-eligible the first time,” Volkmer said. “The presumptive sentence, that the court sees is appropriate, is two and a half years. Depending on your life circumstances, and on a number of things, the court can deviate upwards or the court can deviate downwards. The full range is one to 3.75 years and, by law, the court has to begin at that presumptive sentence. Whether it is probation, or not, is up to the court to decide.”

He said if a person is caught selling methamphetamine, the range increases to three to 12.5 years with a presumptive term of five years.

“So this is for your first offense,” he said.

The guidelines change if the accused has a prior felony more than 10 years old, in the last 10 years, or if the person has two prior felony convictions.

“In Arizona, we have what I call a progressive system. If you have a child that does something wrong — the first time your child misbehaves, you correct them. The second time the consequences are a little more severe. If they keep doing the same thing over and over, the punishment gets more severe,” Volkmer said.

He said if a person commits a second felony in Arizona, prison is mandatory.

“The court has zero discretion not to place you in prison,” Volkmer said, adding if caught a third time the “punishment really kicks in.”

He said if a person is convicted of second-degree murder, the presumptive sentence would be 16 years in prison on a first offense. If a drug addict is convicted of three felony charges in, say, six months, they could serve up to 10 years for the much less intense crime of addiction.

Sentencing guidelines have much harsher requirements if a weapon is used in the commission of a felony.

“The county attorney is given an incredible amount of authority and autonomy,” he said. “Most people think the judges have the ability to control things but that is not the case. The court has no ability to place any decisions on us. The only thing they can do is dismiss cases. They cannot tell us to charge or not to charge.”

Plea agreements are also in the control of the county attorney.

“They (the court) can only make the decision at the end. Your county attorney can significantly impact how a county handles criminal cases,” he said.

Volkmer’s goal is to create a system of individualized justice. He wants county prosecutors to look at each case on its individual merits and seek a penalty that fits each individual crime.

In all, between 4,800 and 5,200 felony cases are submitted to the Pinal County Attorney’s Office for review annually.

In fiscal year 2018-19, the office charged people in 2,696 felony cases, which was down from FY2017-18 at 2,876 cases. From 2015 through 2017, about 3,500 cases were filed annually, according to Volkmer’s figures. Volkmer’s term began in 2017.

He said 59% of cases were Class 4 to 6 felonies, 11% were Class 3, 18% were Class 2 and 12% were other felonies.

Volkmer said Pinal County has a lower ratio of felonies than do Maricopa, Pima, Yavapai and Yuma counties.

He said Pinal also has a much lower arrest rate than those counties.

Volkmer said the average Pinal County jail population has dropped from the low 700s in 2015 to the low 500s in 2019. With an average cost of $118 per day to house each prisoner, he said this is saving the county $23,600 per day or a whopping $8.6 million annually.

Volkmer said there is an average of 42,000 people in Arizona’s state prisons at any one time with more than 75% of all inmates having substance abuse issues.

Inside the state prison programs, less than 2.7% of the prisoners receive any help with these addictions, he said.

Volkmer said 98% of all felony cases are resolved via plea agreements. He said plea arrangements can be good for the court system, the criminal and the taxpayers.

Only 2% of cases actually go to trial and just 30% of felony convictions result in prison sentences.

Volkmer said probation is a much more effective method for many criminals in Arizona, as prison recidivism rates skyrocket to 68% in the first three years after release, 79% in six years and 83% within nine years.

Volkmer added there were 4,216 people on probation in Pinal County in 2017 and just 8% of them were unsuccessful and ended up receiving a state prison sentence.

Volkmer discussed diversionary programs that are active in the county including drug court, mental health court, veterans court and domestic violence court.

“My job is not to put somebody behind bars. My job is to make sure all the facts are presented and ultimately justice is done. Sometimes justice isn’t what I think it should be. Our job is to present the evidence and let a jury make a decision that has an appropriate resolution. That is our responsibility. It is not win at all cost,” Volkmer said.