Valley's biggest news of 2011: Pat Hill's firing from Fresno State football

The Fresno BeeDecember 31, 2011 

It's probably just as well that most of the biggest news in 2011 was elsewhere.

Tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri. Drought in Texas.

Revolutions and crackdowns across the Middle East. Earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns in Japan.

This year, the biggest news in the San Joaquin Valley was earthshaking only in a metaphorical sense, and even then, only in the tailgate lot at Bulldog Stadium.

That's the verdict of readers who participated in a nonscientific survey about the top local stories of 2011. They voted Pat Hill's departure as Fresno State's football coach as the year's biggest story.

As the year began, one of our largest ethnic groups lost the leader who personified its struggles on both sides of the globe.

As it ended, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in California's history drew a line on a map through the heart of Fresno. Its opponents drew lines in the dirt.

From start to finish, public officials cut their budgets and staff, then cut them again. Then they took aim at medical marijuana dispensaries and protesters camping in Courthouse Park.

Here are the Valley's top stories of 2011, as determined by readers.

1. Over with Hill

The news: The end came swiftly for Pat Hill after 15 seasons as Fresno State's football coach.

On Dec. 3, the Bulldogs blew a 21-point lead in a 35-28 loss at San Diego State to finish a 4-9 season. The next evening, at a Save Mart Center news conference, Athletic Director Thomas Boeh announced Hill's firing.

Hill took the Bulldogs to 11 bowl games, coached 24 NFL draft picks and finished with a 112-80 (.583) record. He also helped Fresno State establish a brand with dozens of national TV appearances.

But his teams won just one conference title -- in 1999, when Fresno State tied with Hawaii and Texas Christian for first place in the Western Athletic Conference.

In 2011, average attendance at Bulldog Stadium fell to 29,299 -- a 27-year low. Days after Hill's firing, school officials revealed a $730,000 athletic budget gap blamed mainly on slumping football ticket sales.

Hill was let go with two years left on a three-year contract extension signed after the 2009 season. He is owed about $512,000.

What's next: Fresno State hired its new coach, Texas A&M defensive coordinator and interim coach Tim DeRuyter, after a 10-day search. Saturday, he led the Aggies to a 33-22 win over Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Now he faces a heavy schedule of recruiting visits at Fresno State before national letter-of-intent signing day Feb. 1.

-- Marek Warszawski

2. A leader passes

The news: Gen. Vang Pao, 81, who was called the George Washington of the Hmong people, died of pneumonia Jan. 6 at Clovis Community Medical Center.

In Vietnam, Vang led a secret CIA-trained army of Hmong soldiers against Laotian Communists. In America, he became the patriarch of Hmong refugees. His six-day traditional funeral at the Fresno Convention Center was attended by thousands.

What's next: Finding a new leader for the worldwide Hmong community is proving difficult, said Pao Fang, executive director of Lao Family Community of Fresno, an organization founded by Vang in the 1970s.

"At the moment -- almost a year after he passed away -- we still don't have anyone we feel strongly can replace him," said Fang, an organizer of the Hmong New Year celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

The fact that there are two competing New Year celebrations -- the other at the Fresno Regional Sports Complex -- underscores the challenges in finding a new leader, Fang said.

Hmong people need to come together to decide how to move forward and who can best carry out those ideas, Fang said: "We need a true leader the people can respect. We will know the right person when the community begins asking for his help."

-- Paula Lloyd

3. On track -- for now

The news: Critics found their voice as California's high-speed rail system sprinted toward groundbreaking. Objections from San Joaquin Valley farmers and others on its route, plus sticker shock over its newest cost estimates, prompted calls for the project's cancellation.

What's next: With $3.3 billion in federal funding scheduled to expire if it does not move forward, the California High-Speed Rail Authority now expects to start buying land for a first segment by the end of this year.

In December, the authority's board approved a draft environmental study placing a station at Mariposa and G streets in downtown Fresno. A final vote is expected by April.

The board also is asking the Legislature to release $2.7 billion from the $9 billion high-speed rail bond issue that voters approved in 2008.

Court challenges remain unresolved, including one from Kings County, but Fresno civic leaders are solid in their support.

"No city will benefit more from high-speed rail than Fresno," Mayor Ashley Swearengin told a December congressional hearing.

-- Russell Clemings

4. A pot crackdown

The news: Fresno and neighboring cities banned medical marijuana dispensaries in recent years, but Fresno County did not. As a result, unincorporated areas like Friant and Tarpey Village became magnets for the shops.

That changed in August, when a new county ordinance combined with an unexpected federal crackdown forced several dispensary managers and their growers out of business.

Medical marijuana users protested the actions. They cited California's voter-approved Proposition 215, which allows medicinal use of the drug even though federal law still bans it. Local authorities and state courts showed little sympathy for that view.

What's next: The dispensaries that continue to operate -- grandfathered by the county ordinance -- face a March deadline to close. But a showdown looms. Some say they won't shut down and will continue to exercise what they believe is their right to dispense marijuana.

-- Kurtis Alexander

5. Chief retires, or not

The news: Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer tried to get out of town for good, only to change his mind and cement his status as the city's most controversial and intriguing public official.

On June 28, Dyer suddenly announced his retirement after nearly 10 years in the chief's chair. He wanted to spend time with his family. He wanted to test other career options. He wanted to secure a better payout on his pension and had to retire before July to do so.

Then he started to have second thoughts. By Thanksgiving, Dyer and City Manager Mark Scott agreed to pretend the June announcement never happened. Dyer had a pair of one-year contracts in hand and a $30,000 annual raise that included a performance bonus.

What's next: Storm clouds were gathering over Dyer's head at the end of 2011.

Days before Christmas, a federal jury found that a Fresno police sergeant used excessive and unreasonable force in October 2009, when he shot and killed an unarmed man who was high on drugs. Defense attorneys also put Dyer's leadership on trial, but the jury absolved him of blame.

Dyer could find himself on the witness stand again in 2012. Deputy chiefs Sharon Shaffer and Robert Nevarez have filed a lawsuit alleging that Dyer creates a hostile work environment with demeaning and mocking comments about blacks, Asians and women.

The coming year also could see the resurrection of the police auditor's office, maybe with expanded powers. Dyer supported creation of the Office of Independent Review, but the position remains unpopular with rank-and-file officers whom Dyer must command, inspire and placate.

-- George Hostetter

6. Occupying the park

The news: In October, Occupy Fresno protesters joined demonstrators across the country in denouncing corporate greed, income inequality and the role of corporations in politics.

They camped out overnight in downtown's Courthouse Park, but when their county permit to assemble expired Oct. 31, they decided to risk arrest instead of renewing it.

Saying they wanted a constant presence at the courthouse, the protesters refused to obey a county ordinance that prohibits assembly in the park from midnight to 6 a.m. Sheriff's deputies arrested about 100 people over several weeks.

Lawyers for Occupy Fresno filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance. In December, a federal judge upheld the county's ban on overnight camping. But the judge also said the county could not ban distribution of handbills or require permits for groups of 10 or more people to assemble.

What's next: In mid-December, the Fresno City Council rejected an ordinance that would have outlawed camping on city property not currently covered by no-camping laws. But council members said they want to reconsider the proposal, possibly as soon as Jan. 12.

City officials would like to coordinate with the county on camping laws, but county officials say they see no reason for that after surviving the court challenge.

Meanwhile, Occupy Fresno's presence will continue at Courthouse Park in 2012, member Rosendo Rodriguez said: "The occupation movement in Fresno will not stop."

-- Eddie Jimenez

7. Cuts follow cuts

The news: Two of the Valley's biggest local governments -- the city of Fresno and Fresno County -- spent 2011 slashing expenses as revenues plummeted.

Hundreds of employees were laid off. Others saw their salaries cut through furloughs, voluntary givebacks or forced reductions. Taxpayers got less police protection, deteriorating parks and public service calls answered by machines.

The county's downtown Fresno jail was the perfect symbol of the crisis. The lockup remained partly closed for lack of staff. Inmates went home early. Some committed new crimes. The state, with its own budget problems, sent many prison inmates to local jails.

At City Hall, things were no better. Entire blocks in Fresno went dark at night as thieves stole copper wire from street lights. Residents were afraid to go out, but the city was broke and the thieves romped.

What's next: Council President Lee Brand may have been speaking for both city and county when he sized up 2012: "We'll have the same challenges, but things may be worse. We're running out of options."

Look for county supervisors to continue trying to rein in one of their biggest expenses: pensions. They'll also face fallout from cutting wages for most employees by 9%, as their largest union threatens a lawsuit and strike.

The City Council and Mayor Ashley Swearengin will face similar issues: Not enough money for salaries, health care, pensions, services and public expectations.

-- George Hostetter and Kurtis Alexander

8. A changing Valley

The news: The release of the 2010 Census underscored the Valley's growing Hispanic population. In Fresno, Madera and Kings counties, Hispanics now are a majority for the first time.

A soaring number of Hispanics, the census showed, drove the Valley's largest cities to strong growth. Fresno surpassed Long Beach to become California's fifth-most populous city. Bakersfield jumped three spots to become the state's ninth largest. The Bay Area and the Los Angeles metro area, meanwhile, each grew slowly.

What's next: What the Census revealed left many in the political world expecting the San Joaquin Valley to win more clout in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. It's also thought to mean a greater political voice for Hispanics.

-- Kurtis Alexander

9. Car theft capital

The news: Auto thefts surged in Fresno at the beginning of 2011, startling police and residents.

In January, the crime was up 38% from the same month in 2010. Police Chief Jerry Dyer warned there could be nearly 7,000 heists by year's end if the surge continued.

That didn't happen. By the last week in December, the department recorded 4,696 thefts, 4.5% more than 2010.

Police cited a number of factors for the initial surge, including early releases from the Fresno County Jail, a poor economy and organized thefts by gangs running chop shops.

In response, police focused on repeat thieves and publicized names and photos of the city's top offenders. The department also pushed for early arraignments. Accused thieves face a two-year sentencing enhancement if they are caught stealing another vehicle after arraignment.

What's next: Dyer is banking on continued results: "In the first quarter of this year we were up 60% over year-to-date 2010 figures," he said. "To bring these percentages down to single digits where we are today is incredible and required our folks to focus on the most prolific auto thieves and to ensure they remain behind bars."

-- Jim Guy

10. Dropout problems

The news: Fresno Unified School District's dropout and truancy rates were explored in a special series in The Bee, "Dropping out: A matter of life and death."

Fresno Unified's dropout rate is as high as 40%, according to some teachers and community advocates. Some high schools have truancy rates exceeding 50%. The consequences can be dire: When students leave school, many succumb to a life of poverty, drugs and crime.

What's next: At the school board's December meeting, responding to a backlash from angry community members, trustees directed Superintendent Michael Hanson and district staff to meet with Chicano Youth Center Director Javier Guzman to discuss Guzman's proposal for a dropout intervention commission. Hanson is to report back to the board in early February.

The issue is likely to deepen divisions on an already factious board.

Some trustees have resisted Guzman's proposal and defended existing dropout programs. Others have assailed district leadership for turning a blind eye to dropouts.

Hanson and the board will have the final say on the extent of the district's involvement, if any, in the commission, but some community advocates and parents say they're prepared to tackle the problem.

Still, no single commission will be a silver bullet to the deep-seated causes of dropouts -- Fresno's unrelenting poverty and crime, which pull too many children out of school and into the streets.

-- Heather Somerville

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