High-speed rail leads top stories of 2012
To rail or not to rail was the big question of 2012.
Regardless of which side of the tracks you stood on California’s high-speed rail effort, there could be no dispute about this: The central San Joaquin Valley was at the epicenter of a national debate about a transportation system widely used elsewhere in the world.
Farmers worried about being forced to sell prime crop land. Business owners voiced concern about relocation costs and losing customers. Lawsuits were filed in hopes of derailing the plan. Backers of the high-speed train system talked about jobs, reducing car traffic and air emissions and moving people around the state more efficiently.
But plenty of other stories and issues grabbed the attention of residents and readers this year. Fresno Unified School District occupied a permanent spot in the headlines. Conversely, the inability of police to keep car serial thieves behind bars became so commonplace, it barely qualified as news anymore.
The city of Fresno, once again, passed a plan for development that promised to curb sprawl but was immediately panned by developers hoping to cash in when the economy recovers. Rio Mesa, the long ballyhooed collection of developments in Madera County touted to be the size of Clovis one day, remained bottled up in court.
There were elections, of course, and President Barack Obama won another four years in the White House — somehow managing to carry Fresno County for the second time. Maybe this part of the Valley isn’t as conservative as its reputation.
And Fresno’s first strong mayor, Jim Patterson, got back on his political horse and won an Assembly seat by beating fellow Republican Bob Whalen in the first election contested under California’s voter-approved “top two” primary system.
I’m picking the top stories of 2012. No doubt, I missed many. Your list likely will be radically different than mine, and that’s OK. The idea is to jog memories — good and bad — before heading into 2013.
Here is a quick look at the 10 themes made 2012 a year to remember in the central San Joaquin Valley.
1. High-speed rail: Rumbles forward.
2. Education: To include an ongoing focus on Fresno Unified and John Welty setting an end date at Fresno State.
3. Crime: To include the unsettling recurrence of fatal drunken driving crashes and a workplace shooting on Election Day.
4. Homelessness: In the city of Fresno.
5. Agriculture: Continuing to largely enjoy boom times.
6. Heroes: Around most corners, there’s someone ready to make a difference.
7. Fresno City Hall issues: To include outsourcing residential trash service and haggling over animal control services.
8. Health: To include the tale of an undocumented immigrant who spent more than a year at Community Regional Medical Center.
9. Sports successes: The resurgence of the Fresno State football program leads the way.
10. Fresno County issues: To include whether to allow mining on Jesse Morrow Mountain.
Here are the Top 10 stories of 2012
1. No train, no tracks, but high-speed rail chugs along
Interest in high-speed rail was so intense that The Bee and other California newspapers sent reporter Tim Sheehan to Spain to learn about the 1,740-mile bullet-train system there. He found the trains to be fast (top speed 187 mph), comfortable and expensive to ride ($100 to $250 a ticket).
Republican leaders in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., said that high-speed rail was too costly ($68 billion) and wouldn’t attract sufficient ridership or shouldn’t be a priority in light of the nation’s slowly recovering economy and mounting government debt.
Supporters, many of them Democrats, said that California’s plan was reminiscent of other massive infrastructure projects such as the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s and the creation of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s. The project isn’t perfect, supporters said, but give us time and we’ll work out the kinks.
All the while, the plan — which would link the Bay Area to Southern California via a route through the heart of the Central Valley — kept chugging along with support from President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown.
In fact, the governor’s push was such that he broke ranks with environmentalist allies and urged that the project receive a green light with less-than-customary environmental scrutiny.
A Field Poll in July indicated that if California voters could go back in time and vote again on funding high-speed rail, they would reject the project.
And 2012 is ending with Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the House majority whip, reiterating his opposition to high-speed rail.
The latest revised timeline calls for construction to start this summer on the initial Merced-to-Fresno leg. Will it happen?
The courts largely will decide.
2. Hanson solidifies command of Fresno Unified
Controversy shadowed Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson like a parent following a child to kindergarten.
A police officer towed Hanson’s truck because the superintendent was speeding and driving with an expired license. Reporters dug up that it was at least his seventh speeding ticket since 2008.
Board chairman Tony Vang, a Hanson supporter, resigned after public records indicated that he hadn’t lived in the McLane High area he represented.
Questions surfaced about Hanson’s decision to pull back from suspending the charter of the troubled New Millennium school in 2009, and he misled the public by saying that state officials made the choice.
Trustees, following Hanson’s recommendations, awarded $78 million in no-bid lease/leaseback construction contracts to Harris Construction Co. Public records showed that the company and its owner, Richard Spencer, were the biggest financial contributors to a past district bond drive. Spencer, his family members and employees of his companies also made significant contributions to the campaigns of three candidates supportive of the superintendent in the November election.
When voters spoke at the ballot box, it was a runaway victory for Hanson — not the teachers union that had vociferously questioned his leadership.
Other notable education stories:
- John Welty, at the helm since 1991, announced he will retire as Fresno State president in summer 2013.
- Fresno State and local community college students protested continuing tuition hikes and class reductions triggered by the state’s ongoing budget mess.
- Lindsay Unified School District, with 4,100 students, won a $10 million Race to the Top grant this month to boost student achievement, beating out larger local districts such as Fresno, Clovis and Central.
- Pete Menjares, upon becoming president at Fresno Pacific University, challenged students, staff and faculty to be community problem-solvers.
3. One drink too many
Whether it’s murder or maddening problems caused by car thieves, metal scavengers and burglars, crime continued to concern Valley residents.
But no story fanned more emotion than the death of Donovan Maldonado. The 7-year-old was riding his bike across a northeast Fresno street on a July night when he was hit and dragged by the car of alleged drunken driver Loren LeBeau, at the time the boys basketball coach at Central High.
Donovan’s senseless death, as well as major injuries to his father and 18-month-old sister, occurred despite intensive efforts by Fresno police to curb drunken driving.
Moreover, the tragedy happened two weeks after Regan Johnson, a 24-year-old graduate of Kingsburg High and Fresno State, was killed by an alleged intoxicated driver. Johnson was moving cones for a Highway 99 resurfacing project near Clinton Avenue at 2 a.m. when the driver, who had a previous DUI conviction, ran her over and drove away, the California Highway Patrol said.
Maldonado’s family filed a lawsuit against LeBeau and the city of Fresno. The suit contended that the Sugar Pine trail crosswalk at Shepherd Avenue wasn’t safe.
Despite the publicity of Maldonado’s death, drunken driving continued. Police arrested nine people on suspicion of driving while intoxicated at a sobriety checkpoint in west-central Fresno a week ago Saturday.
The number surely will be higher New Year’s Eve and New Year’s morning.
Other notable crime stories:
- Lawrence Jones, using a stolen .357-caliber magnum, four-shot derringer, opened fire at his place of work, Valley Protein. He killed Salvador Diaz, 32, and Manuel Verdin, 34, and wounded two others before taking his own life on Election Day in November.
- A dispute between northwest Fresno neighbors ended in the killing of florist Frank Cardoza, 59, and the suicide shortly later of insurance agent Dan Andersen, 74, in March.
- Richard Allen Schoenfeld, 57, one of the three men who kidnapped 26 Chowchilla school children and bus driver Ed Ray in 1976, was paroled from prison in June despite the objections of victims. Schoenfeld is being monitored by GPS 24 hours a day, according to state officials.
- Neng Yang, a second-grade teacher at Clovis Unified’s Freedom Elementary School, was arrested in January for allegedly molesting one of his students and also shooting pornographic video of the victim with a cell phone.
4. Homeless are here, there and everywhere
Four years after the city of Fresno settled a lawsuit alleging it violated the civil rights of homeless people for $2.3 million, the city was in federal court again last week battling allegations of illegally clearing encampments.
In addition, Bee reporter Marc Benjamin revealed in a February story that two homeless men had called for an ambulance an average of nearly twice a day for more than a year. These “frequent fliers” had made 1,363 combined trips, accounting for 1.34% of all American Ambulance calls in Fresno County in 2011.
About $545,000 to taxpayers, insurers and the ambulance company. Hospital charges were estimated to be an additional $500,000.
And despite Mayor Ashley Swearengin starting a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in the city, as well as the opening of the $11 million Renaissance at Santa Clara apartment complex for the homeless, the number of people living on the streets appeared to be growing.
The problem was so serious that advocates for the homeless promoted an idea they once rejected: setting up “official” outdoor camps where people can live until they get into housing.
The homeless problem was one of several tearing at Fresno’s quality of life. Many of the ills were rooted in the financial woes of a city trying to fend off bankruptcy. There wasn’t enough money to keep up with graffiti, trim trees, repair cracked sidewalks and keep pace with metal thieves.
On top of this, reducing homelessness is a challenge in the best of times. The city of San Francisco spends $200 million annually combating homelessness. Fresno had $972,572 — all from federal grants — in its fiscal-year budget.
5. There’s gold in those raisins and almonds
Farmers will tell you that they’re worried about the fundamentals of their industry, especially the ability to obtain irrigation water.
But with worldwide demand increasing for specialty crops grown in the Valley and the United States striking more free-trade deals with foreign countries, the here and now was bright for agriculture.
In September, Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Carol Hafner reported that the county’s 2011 crop value was a record $6.8 billion, shattering the previous mark of $5.9 billion set in 2010.
Other counties reported record gross values, too. Tulare County came in at $5.6 billion; Kings County, $2 billion; and Madera County, $1.5 billion.
Grape growers had more suitors than a season of “The Bachelor” as wineries and raisin packers competed for their attention. The county’s grape value was $961 million followed by almonds at $832 million.
But not all is well on Valley farms. The dairy industry is battling low milk prices, high feed costs and California’s price-setting formula. On average, state dairies receive about $2 less per hundred pounds of milk than dairies in other states.
“I have been in the dairy business 35 years and I have never seen it this bad,” Larry Soares, a dairyman and owner of Kings Dairy Supply in Hanford, told The Bee in October.
Other notable business stories:
- California’s unemployment rate fell in November to 9.8%, its lowest point since early 2009, and rates in Valley counties improved from a year earlier.
- New home construction started to rebound. But with nearly half of Fresno mortgage holders owing more on their mortgage than their home was worth, inventory of existing homes for sale was low — and so were home prices.
- Food trucks were a hot ticket, and they sold everything from tacos to Korean barbecue to broccoli chicken linguine in Valley cities.
- Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford temporarily shut down in August after the U.S. Department of Agriculture received a videotape allegedly showing inhumane treatment of animals. The plant reopened after one week.
- Del Monte Foods announced in July it would phase out its peach-processing plant and warehouse in Kingsburg, resulting in 70 full-time and 1,100 seasonal jobs moving to a more modern plant in Modesto. Del Monte began operations in Kingsburg in 1922.
Valley residents responded when trouble struck. This quality is part of the fabric that distinguishes our melting pot region.
So when Steve Coleman, a 25-year veteran of the Fresno police force, saw smoke at the Sunset West Mobile Home Park in February, he entered the park. An 80-year-old woman was lying on the ground and screaming near a mobile home engulfed in flames. Coleman and two Good Samaritans devised a plan. They grabbed a sheet of plywood and used it as a heat shield to pull the woman to safety.
With budget cutbacks thinning the ranks of police officers, citizens took matters into their own hands.
Jannine Ramirez, fresh off winning a karate competition, came home to the Fresno apartment she shares with her mother at 1 a.m. in October. Hearing an intruder in the bathroom, Ramirez, 20, kicked the door down and, in her words, “literally kicked him all the way through the house.”
Detectives later determined that the man, who lived in the same complex, had been drinking and thought he had broken into his own apartment.
“Bravo to you, young lady!! You have just showed that idiot that it might not be safe to go where you don’t belong. i don’t believe for a minute the story about this guy not knowing he was in the wrong apt. Just know that what you did should be commended, not chastised!” reader John Hall posted on fresnobee.com.
Jessica Davis, 33, foiled a carjacking at Willow and Nees avenues in October by fending off a man trying to pull a woman from her car. Other Good Samaritans joined in the effort and held the man for police. Bee readers responded with job offers (Davis was between jobs) and money for Davis to fix her car, which was damaged during the carjacking attempt.
Other acts were less dramatic but important.
Residents raised tens of thousands of dollars with yard sales and a bike ride to help the Maldonado family after Donovan was killed and his father and sister were injured.
When The Bee reported that the Pinedale pool would be closed for the fourth straight summer, donations poured in to open it again.
And, after grinches stole $4,500 worth of raffle and silent-auction items intended for a Down Syndrome Association charity golf tournament, the show went on. Players at Ridge Creek Golf Course dug into their pockets to help the association meet its goal of clearing $18,000 from the event.
7. City Hall hands workers a lump of coal for Christmas
Five days before Christmas, on a 4-3 vote, the Fresno City Council outsourced residential trash service.
A combination of poor financial decisions made during former Mayor Alan Autry’s eight years in office and declining tax revenue had put City Hall between a rock and a hard spot.
Outsourcing netted the city’s general fund a $1.5 million signing bonus and about $2.5 million a year in franchise fees. Ratepayers were promised a 17% cut in fees for two years. Affected city workers were promised jobs with Mid Valley Disposal for at least one year.
Still, the city needed to cut another $5 million to close its budget gap for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
And the displaced workers, along with residents who liked their service, didn’t throw in the towel. Their goal is to force a public vote on outsourcing by collecting 21,000 petition signatures.
The issue provided a snapshot of municipal government and politics following the 2008 economic meltdown. For years, council members and mayors had praised city garbage haulers for their hard work, excellent service and contributions to making Fresno nationally known for recycling.
Furthermore, the workers aren’t paid out of the city’s hemorrhaging general fund; the sanitation department is funded by ratepayers.
But the lure of new money from private haulers to help pay for city services such as police and fire protection convinced the council majority and Mayor Ashley Swearengin to lay off more workers.
Other notable Fresno City Hall stories:
- A very public and emotional spat with the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was mended in November with the nonprofit agreeing to provide animal control services for another six months. Fresno County, however, contracted with a start-up provider, ending its relationship with the CCSPCA.
- A 29-page report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development criticized Fresno’s housing division for wasting millions of dollars.
- Tea Party activist Steve Brandau was elected to the City Council, replacing Andreas Borgeas, who won a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Paul Caprioglio, a lawyer, won the race to replace termed-out Larry Westerlund. And Swearengin cruised against token opposition to her second term.
- The city paid $820,000 to nationally known lawyer Patricia L. Glaser of Los Angeles. Glaser, representing the city, settled for $300,000 a discrimination lawsuit filed by deputy police chiefs Robert Nevarez and Sharon Shaffer against Police Chief Jerry Dyer. In another case, the city agreed to pay $1.3 million to the family of an unarmed man killed by police in October 2009 and change policies involving officer-involved shootings.
- The city restored the position of independent police auditor by hiring Richard Rasmussen of Salt Lake City, and retired federal judge Oliver W. Wanger became the first video policing auditor on a volunteer basis.
8. The patient
He spent 374 days at Community Regional Medical Center, perhaps the longest uninterrupted stay by a patient at the Fresno acute-care hospital.
He had landed at Community after gallstones developed into a gallbladder infection. There were holes in his intestines and bile and feces in his abdomen. He had life-threatening blood infections and blood clots in his lungs.
He had 12 surgeries overseen by three trauma physicians. For 11 months and two weeks, he was fed intravenously because he was too ill to eat food and drink water.
Marco Antonio Fuentes left the hospital Jan. 4 a healthy 35-year-old man.
All of Fresno seemed to be talking about him.
He was both the miracle man and an undocumented immigrant.
The cost of his care: $1 million.
Medi-Cal paid about $770,000 of the bill; the remainder was written off by the hospital as charity.
His story renewed old debates on immigration and farmers’ need for skilled, reliable hands to do the work that Americans won’t.
Nothing was settled. The year will end without comprehensive immigration reform — mostly because Republicans and Democrats believe they benefit politically from maintaining the status quo.
But the staff at Community justifiably was proud of saving the life of the Kerman farmworker.
Fuentes thanked the doctors and nurses. He thanked the staff at Terry’s House, where relatives stayed while visiting him.
He also said he wanted to share something with other patients: “I will tell them not to give up.”
Other notable health stories:
- Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, said in November he was working on legislation to finally bring clean drinking water to impoverished rural communities in the Valley.
- Clovis Community Medical Center opened a new five-story tower with 144 beds in November as part of a $285 million expansion and renovation that will wrap up next year.
- Nancy Hinds, internationally known for her expertise in hospice and palliative care, stepped down as chief executive officer of Hinds Hospice in May. She founded the hospice in 1981.
- Three people died and 10 people became ill from the hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite National Park’s “signature” cabins in Curry Village during August.
- Millions of dollars in federal grants poured into the Valley to improve health care. Among the projects: opening a clinic in Kettleman City.
9. Bulldogs bounce back
New Fresno State football coach Tim DeRuyter said that the Bulldogs would feature a wide-open offense and an aggressive defense — strategies vastly different than predecessor Pat Hill’s grind-it-out offense and bend-don’t-break defense.
DeRuyter was true to his word, and Fresno State finished 9-4 in a remarkable turnaround season that lost some of its luster with an embarrassing 43-10 defeat to underdog Southern Methodist in the Hawaii Bowl.
Quarterback Derek Carr and tailback Robbie Rouse starred as expected. But senior strong safety Phillip Thomas was the difference-maker, becoming the school’s first unanimous All-America selection. He led the nation with eight interceptions — returning three for touchdowns — after missing the 2011 season due to injury.
Fans had a wait-and-see attitude about the team, which captured a share of the Mountain West title in its first season in the conference. The Bulldogs failed to sell out a single home game.
Next year offers promise with Carr saying he will return for his senior season. He will throw to Davante Adams, who led the Mountain West in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
But Bulldog dreams of starting 2013 ranked in the Top 25 evaporated in Honolulu and sent ripples of doubt through Red Wavers, who haven’t had a bowl victory to savor since 2007.
Other notable sports stories:
- Avenal’s Jose Ramirez survived a grueling qualification process to make the U.S. Olympic boxing team, but was eliminated after opening the London Games with a victory. Still considered a potential professional world champion, he signed a five-year contract with Top Rank Inc., and knocked out his opponent in his pro debut this month.
- Adrian Wiggins, who led the Fresno State women’s basketball program to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, left in March to become head coach at Ole Miss of the powerhouse Southeastern Conference. Seven months later, he was fired after Ole Miss officials found recruiting and academic misconduct in the program. Wiggins may end up back in the Valley coaching the boys basketball team at Clovis East High.
- The San Francisco Giants won their second World Series title in three seasons, completing a sweep of the favored Detroit Tigers in November. Fresno Grizzlies fans pointed out that the Giants’ World Series roster included 17 players who had played in Fresno during their careers.
- The pins stopped falling after 53 years at Cedar Lanes Bowling Center in June. The center was a longtime stop on the Professional Bowlers Association tour. Closure stemmed from the sale of the shopping center at Cedar and Shields avenues; Cedar Lanes was the anchor tenant.
10. Mountain of support for Jesse Morrow
Defenders of the eastern Fresno County foothills were dedicated and vigilant.
They organized and formed a nonprofit. They put up a website explaining why they believed Jesse Morrow Mountain shouldn’t be mined for aggregate. They packed hearings every step of the way.
In August, they prevailed when the Fresno County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposed quarry along Highway 180, the gateway to Kings Canyon National Park.
With Supervisors Susan Anderson, Henry R. Perea and Debbie Poochigian voicing opposition to the mine, proponents failed to muster support to even take a vote on certifying the project’s environmental impact report.
Then, in December, the board approved a tentative deal with mining giant Cemex calling for a permanent ban on mining the company’s 2,000-acre foothill property.
Why did Cemex agree to the ban?
In the face of strong opposition to its plan, the company hopes to sell the land and cut its losses.
Other notable Fresno County stories:
- Nearly 2,000 Fresno County employees participated in a three-day strike in January. The dispute was over a contract they said left low-paid workers shouldering the biggest pay cuts.
The strike didn’t change the contract and management’s heavy hand remained in place, but the final verdict isn’t in. The union’s challenge to the contract is being mulled by the state labor board.
- Fresno County was ground zero for implementation of Gov. Brown’s “realignment” plan that cut the state prison population by shifting newly sentenced inmates and parolees to county hands.
The county’s beef was that it didn’t receive enough state funding to handle the increased burden. Indeed, other counties received more money despite having fewer inmates and parolees.
State funding, however, allowed the county to reopen two jail floors closed because of budget cuts. Another floor will reopen in January with money from the county’s general fund.
- The board continued full participation in the Williamson Act in September despite getting no money from the state.
The effect of the decision was to subsidize farmers with lower property taxes in exchange for keeping their land out of developers’ hands. Cost to the county — including cities, schools and special districts — was about $26 million.
By Bill McEwen