Measure G, Rim fire, Bulldogs headline 2013's top local stories picked by Bee readers

The Fresno BeeDecember 28, 2013 

One of the most expensive and biggest elections in Fresno's history. One of the state's largest wildfires. The first Latino president for Fresno State. The passing of one of the school's greatest football coaches.

The top local stories of 2013, as voted on by readers of fresnobee.com, are truly superlatives.

Who could have predicted that a campaign over trash collection would become the battle royale known as Measure G? The campaign took over columns of The Bee and filled the airwaves for much of the winter and spring before it was decided last June.

Smoke filled the air for much of August and September in the Valley, the result of a hunter's campfire that sparked out of control and set off the Rim fire. By the time it was declared out, the fire burned over 400 square miles near Yosemite National Park.

The year was marked by surprises: A Republican from Hanford winning a state Senate seat in a largely Democratic district; the trustees of the California State University system picking a young Latino from Hanford to lead Fresno State; the untimely passing of one of Fresno's leading educators and civic leaders; the death of a young woman who was killed by a lion she was caring for at a rescue center.

Noteworthy stories came from the courts. One trial ended in a conviction of a former Fresno City Council member who assaulted a Fresno City College student in a fit of anger. Another featured a hitchhiker who uttered expletives while telling the court how he subdued a man who allegedly attacked another man.

Valley pride shone forth in the outstanding season achieved by Fresno State's Bulldogs football team, even as former coach Jim Sweeney's passing was mourned.

Here are the Valley's top stories of 2013, as determined by fresnobee.com readers.

1. Measure G

The news: Measure G was all about humbug. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin swore to the people that their city was headed toward financial ruin. The city-owned residential trash service must be sold -- "outsourced," in bureaucratese -- to a private hauler in exchange for millions in budget-saving fees, she said.

Three City Council members and a trio of union leaders swore to the people that Fresno could weather the money storm without such a drastic step. Outsourcing, they said, was code for gutting a prize-winning division for no reason other than political spite.

The people at the ballot box would decide who was full of nonsense.

Measure G -- a special election to decide whether to outsource the home trash service to Mid Valley Disposal -- was nearly a dead-heat. But on June 4, the people sided with the mayor's critics.

The final tally: 29,901 no (50.7%), 29,039 yes (49.3%).

The city's commercial trash service was Measure G's birthplace.

Swearengin and the City Council by mid-2010 had grasped just how devastating the Great Recession was to the budget. Swearengin asked the council to outsource the trash service for businesses and large apartment complexes to private haulers Mid Valley and Allied Waste -- each would get half the city. The firms would pay annual franchise fees totaling several million dollars. The idea met with fierce resistance from union members and some council members. Swearengin lost a few battles but won the war when the deals were approved in 2011.

But budget woes continued. Swearengin in mid-2012 pitched Outsourcing 2. Mid Valley would get all of Fresno, more than 100,000 residential accounts, and City Hall would get a $1.5 million signing bonus in addition to millions in franchise fees.

The council in December 2012 approved the deal. But three council members -- Blong Xiong, Sal Quintero and Oliver Baines -- wouldn't take Aye for an answer. Nor would three union leaders -- Marina Magdaleno (blue-collar workers), Dee Barnes (white-collar workers) and Jacky Parks (cops).

A petition drive garnered enough signatures to put the council's outsourcing decision to a binding referendum. Garbage -- hence the measure's G -- had never before basked alone in Fresno's spotlight.

When the dust settled, the blue-collar union's Magdaleno could offer only the obvious: "The people have voted."

What's next: The city didn't go bankrupt and there's no administration talk (at least for public consumption) about another outsourcing attempt. But the fire department remains understaffed, proposed parks are still on the shelf and a shrunken police force continues to struggle with gangs. City officials will be scrounging for every penny for a long time. Trash rates could rise in 2014.

The blue-collar union -- which represents trash-truck drivers -- has gone 18 months with an expired contract. Talks between the union and the administration are at an impasse. The future includes three options. The first is a settlement. The second is imposed conditions. The third is a strike.

What readers said: "Here's another thought ... maybe politicians shouldn't be mayor. I think what this level of public service needs at this time (is) someone with a finance background." -- crashboat

-- George Hostetter

2. Rim fire

The news: A weekend fire slowly burned 40 acres through the rugged Tuolumne River Canyon west of Yosemite National Park in mid-August. Within days, 1,200-degree flames climbed 200 feet in the air, torching thousands of forest acres that hadn't burned in a century.

The Rim fire quickly became the story of California's summer statewide, menacing foothill communities and billowing a smoke column that could be seen from Sacramento 100 miles away.

At 402 square miles, it was the third-largest fire in California history, and the largest recorded in the Sierra.

Sparked by an illegal campfire, it was named after the Rim of the World, an overlook in the Stanislaus National Forest near where it started. No action has been filed against the hunter accused of igniting the blaze, but federal authorities in December said they expected to file charges.

At one point, more than 5,000 firefighters battled the blaze as it burned into Yosemite and threatened the watershed around Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco's municipal water supply.

The fire was finally controlled on Oct. 24 at a cost of more than $127 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The damage to the ecosystem could be felt for many years, say experts.

"A fire like this will kill a third to half of the forest it burns through," said Malcolm North, research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service and forest ecology professor at University of California at Davis. "It is devastating."

What's next: A team of nearly 60 specialists from all over the West are planning the recovery for the charred ecosystem, said Forest Service spokeswoman Pamela Baltimore. It will be several months before the recovery plan is complete.

"It's a much bigger team than you would see for an average fire," Baltimore said. "This was a monumental fire."

-- Mark Grossi

3. Jim Sweeney

The news: Jim Sweeney, who coached Fresno State football for 19 years, won 143 games and breathed unprecedented life into the sporting community and region, died after a long illness in early February. He was 83.

A 32-year career in all that began at Montana State, had a middle stop at Washington State and totaled exactly 200 wins, presented a roller-coaster journey for the charismatic, daring Irishman and Fresno Athletic Hall of Famer.

He arrived at Fresno State in 1976 from Washington State of the then Pac-10 Conference, where he had admittedly lost his coaching mojo. But he restored his professional faith with the Bulldogs in only two seasons.

He then dipped into the NFL trough briefly as an assistant before returning to Fresno State in 1980 and leading the program to new heights. That featured eight conference titles and five bowl wins, including a landmark 24-7 conquest of USC in a 1992 Freedom Bowl that saw nearly 30,000 adoring Bulldogs fans stuff into Anaheim Stadium.

Sweeney retired following the 1996 season.

"He took us from being obscure to being somebody," longtime Bulldogs booster Harry Gaykian said.

That meant hoisting the Bulldogs out of Ratcliffe Stadium and the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference and into sparkling on-campus Bulldog Stadium and, ultimately, the Western Athletic Conference.

What's next: Sweeney connected three decades in the most esteem-altering period in the history of San Joaquin Valley sports.

He represented stability and passion for the region, a path followed similarly by his 15-year successor, Pat Hill.

Tim DeRuyter has taken the baton and posted two successful seasons. But the questions: Will this merely be a professional steppingstone? And will the Bulldogs ever know the kind of stability Sweeney and Hill provided at the top again?

What readers said: "What a great man, and a wonderful leader of both the Fresno State Bulldogs and the entire Fresno community. We have truly lost one of the best here in Fresno. My condolences go out to the Sweeney Family." -- CrookedStix

-- Andy Boogaard

4. Cat Haven lion attack

The news: An intern at Project Survival's Cat Haven was killed by a lion March 6 at the haven in Dunlap.

Dianna Hanson, 26, was killed by "Cous Cous" after she accidentally left a door open within his enclosure. She died instantly of a broken neck, apparently from the swipe of a paw, and didn't suffer as the lion continued to bite and claw at her body, Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said.

The lion was put down by responding Fresno County sheriff's deputies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined the nonprofit did not violate Animal Welfare Act policies in the fatal lion attack, and a sheriff's investigation did not find criminal misconduct.

In August, the cat haven introduced a new lion named "Titan" and a snow leopard named "Jackson."

What's next: "Dianna would want us to move on and continue to do the work we're doing," said Dale Anderson, founder and executive director of the haven. "Things will never be normal like they were before, but we can find a new normal and try to continue finding and saving cats around the world."

What readers said: "Our condolences to the family. When my number is called to go, I just hope I'm as lucky as her as to be doing something I loved doing. May she now be at peace, playing with the all animals in heaven." -- mypreferredagent

-- Carmen George

5. Fresno State football

The news: Fresno State made a run at a berth in one of the big-money postseason games that is part of college football's Bowl Championship Series. Though the dream was derailed in the regular-season finale and the year was capped by a blowout loss in Las Vegas, the season wrapped up as one of the program's best ever.

Fresno State stayed undefeated through its first 10 games, surviving four thrillers by no more than a touchdown and playing in front of three sold-out crowds at home. Among the big wins was a 41-40 victory Sept. 20 over rival Boise State, ending a seven-year losing streak to the Broncos.

The Bulldogs spent most of the season ranked in the Top 25 while setting records on and off the field.

But the BCS run fizzled in a 62-52 loss at San Jose State on Nov. 29. Fresno State bounced back to win the first Mountain West Conference championship game -- and its first outright conference football title since 1991 -- by beating Utah State 24-17 on Dec. 7 at Bulldog Stadium.

That locked up a date with unranked USC at the Las Vegas Bowl, where the Bulldogs lost 45-20 and fell short of a school-record 12th victory while finishing 11-2.

Two losses in the last three games and a shaky defense throughout much of the year left many wondering just how good the Bulldogs really were in 2013. Still, they did set program and conference records with 7,101 total yards and 546.2 yards per game.

Quarterback Derek Carr, eighth in the Heisman voting, established 25 school and 21 Mountain West records and led the nation in eight categories pending the final tally after the bowl season. Carr became the fourth quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history to amass 5,000 yards and 50 touchdown passes in a season.

What's next: Fresno State loses plenty of star power in Carr, a senior, and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Davante Adams, who told coach Tim DeRuyter last week that he'll declare early for the NFL draft. The 2014 campaign starts as this one ended, with the Bulldogs playing USC, Aug. 30 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

What readers said: "I am a DOG fan forever." -- John Keyes

-- Bryant-Jon Anteola

6. Joseph Castro

The news: Hanford native Joseph Castro took the helm of California State University, Fresno, in August, taking over for John Welty, who retired after a 22-year stretch as president.

The appointment of Castro -- the first Latino to hold the post -- immediately excited Valley students and residents alike, who said he would likely understand the region's challenges and culture.

Castro has made good on those expectations: He's repeatedly called for improving graduation and retention rates among Latino students and said he'll invest in more academic counselors to make that happen.

The soft-spoken former UC San Francisco administrator has already carved out several other major goals. He delighted wrestling fans this fall when he announced a plan to revisit adding a Fresno State wrestling program. He's also called for fixing up old buildings and completing other deferred maintenance projects and doing aggressive searches to add talented faculty.

The retirement of several administrative heads this year has also given Castro the chance to shape his own leadership team: The president is still looking to fill the provost spot vacated by William Covino this year. He's also working to find a replacement for Paul Oliaro, who retired this month as the vice president of student affairs.

What's next: Castro has proposed a big first-year agenda that includes giving tablet computers to certain students next year, expanding enrollment and boosting the school's academic profile.

-- Hannah Furfaro

7. Brian Calhoun

The news: A jury in October dealt a swift blow to Fresno City College instructor Brian Calhoun's reasoning for fighting with female student Kevynn Gomez, taking only one hour to find him guilty of misdemeanor battery. Calhoun, a former Fresno City Council member, lost his teaching job over the March 22 campus incident.

What's next: Calhoun, who turned 70 on Dec. 20, said he would have rather gotten a 90-day jail sentence, but plans to comply with Judge Denise Whitehead's sentence of three years of probation and 90 days in the adult offender work program. He also must attend anger management classes and pay a $240 fine.

Calhoun plans to appeal his conviction.

What readers said:

"If he is sorry to have lost his job, maybe -- at 69 years old -- he ought to learn how to control his temper. Apparently his temper has always been an issue." -- Harry Kargenian

"If he get 90 days, the girl should get 180 days, she's the ignorant vulgar-mouth person who caused it!" -- James Athey

"Teachers are actually expected to be able to deal professionally with students being rude, disrespectful little BRATs. Professional behavior does not involve touching said student. Its not a subtle line, it's a nice, bright, shiny line. Mr. Calhoun stepped over it. That is entirely and completely on him." -- Linda Tolladay

-- Pablo Lopez

8. Pete Mehas

The news: Valley residents said farewell to longtime education and civic leader Pete Mehas, who died suddenly in September. He was 73.

The esteemed educator, who worked his way up from a Fresno civics classroom to the halls of the state Capitol as education secretary, died at Saint Agnes Medical Center from an aneurysm.

The Fresno native was known for his larger-than-life personality, commitment to educating Valley youth and political savvy. He was also known for his passion for sports. Mehas was an offensive lineman on Fresno State's undefeated 1961 Mercy Bowl team and an All-American center at Fresno City College.

Throughout his career, he worked as a teacher, coach, principal and four-term superintendent of Fresno County schools. At the time of his death, he was a member of the California State University Board of Trustees.

Family and friends packed into St. George Greek Orthodox Church on Oct. 4 to pay their respects to the man St. George's Rev. Jim Pappas called "an icon." His funeral drew more than 1,000 people from across the state, including the head of the California State University system, current and former Fresno State presidents and former California Gov. George Deukmejian.

What readers said: "I've always likened Pete to an oak tree. Deep roots that made him loyal and strong, and an expansive, far-reaching canopy. He was a diplomat, a positive force for good and made connections for a lifetime." -- Jill Wagner

-- Hannah Furfaro

9. Andy Vidak

The news: Hanford Republican Andy Vidak shook California's political world when he swept to a 16th District state Senate special election victory, winning both a five-person May primary and then a July showdown against Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez.

Vidak's win was a surprise because Perez -- a Kern County supervisor -- held most of the political cards. She was buoyed by a sizable Democratic Party voter-registration advantage and backed by the Senate's Democratic Party leadership.

He almost won the election -- which was held after Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio resigned the seat in February to take a job with Chevron -- in the May primary, falling just short of the needed 50%-plus-one threshold.

And Vidak's reward? He gets to do it all again. Rubio's normal term ends in 2014, so Vidak will have to stand for re-election, this time in the newly created 14th District.

What's next: Vidak will carry on his duties as a state senator. His first six months on the job were slow. He was finally appointed to two committees -- banking and judiciary -- but they didn't meet much.

With all the Senate turnover, Vidak expects to find himself on new committees next year, where he said he'll continue to try and derail the planned high-speed rail project and fight for other issues in his district.

"It's still all about common sense," he said. "Pray for rain and stop the train."

What readers said: "The reality is the lack of jobs and poverty of the entire Valley region of California. The Democrats have failed to change this direction and this shows in all cities under Democrat rule. I am glad to see a new face in Sacramento -- maybe we can now get some results." -- gbandy

-- John Ellis

10. Kai the hatchet-wielding hitchhiker

The news: Caleb McGillvary, aka Kai, was the hatchet-wielding hitchhiker who became an overnight Internet and television celebrity with his tale of rescuing a Fresno PG&E worker from 6-foot-4, 290-pound Jett McBride.

But Kai won't be testifying at McBride's attempted murder trial because Kai is accused of murder in New Jersey.

McBride is on trial in Fresno County Superior Court, charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and battery. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Prosecutors are seeking a conviction without Kai taking the witness stand.

Earlier this month, the jury heard Kai's testimony from a hearing held in February in which he raised both hands and started to give himself the oath to tell the truth before Judge Gary Hoff stopped him. He then dropped expletives from the witness stand, talked about smoking marijuana with McBride, and testified he hit McBride in the head three times with a hatchet that Kai kept in his backpack.

After the first two blows didn't work, Kai testified a third blow dropped McBride "like a sack of potatoes."

Kai gained notoriety as a YouTube sensation (more than 4.4 million views of the video that includes Kai describing his actions: "Smash, smash, Sa--MASH!") and appeared on the "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" show.

What's next: In New Jersey, he's accused of killing 74-year-old lawyer Joseph Galfy, whose body was found May 13. He was arrested in Philadelphia days later.

If convicted, McGillvary, 25, could face life in prison.

-- Pablo Lopez

Compiled by Bee staff writers.

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