By By Marshall Smith, Staff Reporter,
and J.P. Crumrine, Editor

Editor’s note: At the end of each year, the Town Crier looks back at the headlines that made the biggest local news during the year. The summaries of five major stories are presented here in the first of a two-week series. Readers are encouraged to comment on these and other 2011 stories below.

Casey Abrams

Casey Abrams at Idyllwild Arts watching the telecast of his American Idol Austin audition in February 2011. Photo courtesy of Pam Pierce

Idyllwild resident Casey Abrams became a national phenomenon in 2011 while appearing on Fox Television’s American Idol (AI). The Hill did its best to support Abrams during his AI competition. While Abrams was a familiar bass player to Idyllwild residents, Idol introduced him as a singer and bass player to 310 million others on Feb. 2.

Idyllwild Arts’ Nelson Dining Hall was packed with students and Abrams’ family and friends. Parents Pam Pierce and Ira Abrams, and mentor Marshall Hawkins, were part of the hundreds jammed into the Hall to watch Casey’s audition, televised from Austin, Texas.

Not even Abrams’ Idyllwild band mates knew he sang. When he wowed the AI judges with a jazz-infused “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” he surprised a lot of people, including locals. Capping an amazing audition, Abrams led the judges out of the room in a conga line while playing a melodica, and became an overnight celebrity.

The day after the broadcast, 37 pages on Google were devoted to Abrams, now known as the “melodica man.” Critics raved about how a scat-singing jazzman had changed AI’s pop-centric identity.

In the weeks that followed, Abrams fascinated judges and fans with his idiosyncratic fusion of jazz and pop. Casey’s use of improvisation and his introduction of the instantly iconic Casey growl shook up the formulaic nature of the show,

But behind the scenes, Abrams began to experience several health emergencies. He was hospitalized twice during his run on the show.

In mid-season, Abrams survived a heart-stopping March 24 near elimination that would have taken him off the national tour.

Casey’s stage savvy helped when he planted a kiss (later known as “The Kiss”) first on Jennifer Lopez and later in the season on Steven Tyler. He sizzled with Haley Reinhart in their “Moanin” duet. On April 28, Abrams was unexpectedly voted off the show. Many critics and Idyllwild locals had expected him to finish in the top three. He left the Idol stage, with consummate class, just short of the top 5.

On Sept. 24, after the summer AI national tour, Abrams returned to a hometown block party. Five hundred local fans welcomed him home — the Idyllwild kid who, according to AI judge Randy Jackson was the best musician ever to be featured on American Idol and, according to host Ryan Seacrest, a contestant who changed AI forever with his fearless brand of quirky and infectious musicality and showmanship.

Idyllwild Fire Protection District

A large crowd came to hear the six IFPD candidates speak last week. The moderator for the event was State Sen. Bill Emmerson. Photo by Cid Castillo

“IFPD concerned about finances” was the first headline of 2011 concerning the local fire district, and “Fire commission faces same budget problems” was the most recent.

The Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) management has been struggling with diminishing fiscal resources for several years. This year the problem reached a critical stage.

In October, the IFPD commission requested that the county advance the district $450,000 from its anticipated December 2011 and January 2012 property tax and special assessment receipts.

Some on the commission and staff dismissed the seriousness of the issue. They stressed that IFPD has made these advance requests in the past — that this deficit is not a new predicament. But, for the five years from 2000 through 2004 (when the last advance was received), the largest advance was $295,000 in the first two years, and then smaller. During each of those years, IFPD had an average of more than $1.1 million in reserves. The remaining $125,000 reserve was depleted in October to help meet payroll.

Meanwhile, the district added a new full-time firefighter in January, but in August the department told Firefighter Greg Minor there were no funds to pay him as a paramedic. Through 2010 and the first half of 2011, IFPD paid for his training, which he completed during the summer; but no one budgeted for his wage increase after completing training, which is specified in the current Memorandum of Understanding between the district and the Career Firefighter Association.

In the midst of the financial imbroglio, the commission faced political tests. Besides two incumbents — former President Pete Capparelli and Vice President Paul Riggi — facing re-election, the commission decided the path to fiscal solvency was to raise the special assessment through a public vote.

The special assessment is $65 per unit within the district. The commission sought approval to authorize doubling the ceiling although none of the members argued for imposing the new ceiling if it passed.

Blair and Kay Ceniceros listen to tributes during their farewell party in March. During the event, Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins told the audience that the Ceniceros are "Two damn real good people.” Photo by J.P. Crumrine

In an Aug. 15 public meeting about Measure G, the assessment increase, Capparelli opined that the district only needed a $35 increase. Since the current $65 unit fee generates about $210,000 annually, the maximum revenue bounce the district would have obtained was another $210,000. But Capparelli argued that $100,000 was sufficient.

The commissioner election and Measure G referendum results were tallied on Aug. 30. District voters turned out incumbents Capparelli and Riggi and chose Jerry Buchanan and Larry Donahoo, a former paid-call firefighter, as commissioners.

Out of nearly 700 ballots cast, Buchanan and Donahoo garnered more than 350 each. Capparelli was a distant third with 260 votes. Measure G, which needed two-thirds of the voters to approve it, failed — receiving barely 40 percent support.

Three weeks later, former Commissioner Ben Killingsworth publicly confirmed the district’s dire financial condition. The district bank balance had fallen to $65,000. He encouraged his colleagues to make the request to the county. A week later the commission approved a $450,000 request without Killingsworth’s vote. He resigned because he had recommended only a $350,000 advance.

In November, the remaining three commissioners selected Capparelli as Killingsworth’s replacement. His new term will expire in 2013.

Recreation: Present and future

Kathy Lewis, left, wife of former Recreation Director Bob Lewis, right, explains what had been accomplished by ICRC to provide community recreation opportunities. Holding the list are Chris Singer and Bob. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

During 2011, the role of the Idyllwild Community Recreation Council (ICRC) waned with its mid-year loss of the county recreation contract that it had held for four years. In contrast, later in the year the role of the Idyllwild Community Center (ICC) committee waxed. This group undertook responsibility for fundraising and building an Idyllwild Community Center.

That task had previously rested with ICRC, as a condition of transfer by the land donor of the Center property. In May, former ICRC chair Chris Singer, acknowledged that ICRC had done little to raise funds for the center’s planning or construction. She advocated a new start. Under Vice Chair Dawn Sonnier’s leadership, ICRC had only raised money to build a playground at the center site.

Beginning in early 2011, a group of residents urged ICRC, as manager of the county recreation program, to provide more recreational opportunities for active adults who do not play sports. Over several months, senior activities were expanded to include monthly adult dances and Wii sports.

But an incident in May in which then Recreation Director Bob Lewis placed a tape recorder at a meeting of a group of seniors held at Town Hall without asking their permission, created a brouhaha which ultimately played heavily in 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone’s decision to terminate its contract with ICRC.

Stone had long lobbied for ICRC to provide expanded recreational activities for active and older adults, and cited a growing divide between ICRC’s management and the senior group as being unacceptable.

On July 27, a capacity crowd jammed the Caine Learning Center to voice upset at the county’s decision. County Service Area Operations Manager Bill Brown introduced new local staff and explained the county’s reasons for terminating ICRC, but his explanations did little to convince the largely pro-ICRC crowd. The next day, Stone came to Idyllwild to explain that the decision was his and was irrevocable.

Laurie Maxwell, Ernie Maxwell's niece, presents the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council’s Woodies with the first Ernie Maxwell Community Spirit Award during a celebration to mark what would have been Ernie Maxwell’s 100th birthday in July at the Idyllwild Nature Center. Photo by Cid Castillo

The current 11-member ICC Leadership Team, headed by Bill Sanborn, arose from ICRC’s failure to pursue building the center. The team has begun its mission to gain community support for building the multi-purpose facility. The first step was a well-attended Nov. 13 virtual tour of the center property, in which docents mapped out proposed dimensions and features of the center. It was the group’s first foray into bringing the community into its plans for building the community center.

Meanwhile, ICRC continues to keep the Idyllwild Skate Park open and to offer its popular Speaker Series. The county approved ICRC’s playground plans and Sonnier says construction will begin in 2012.

Brendan Steele won the Valero Texas Open in April. Photo by Jack Clark
Brendan Steele
In 2011, in his first year on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour, former Idyllwild resident

Brendan Steele scaled the heights of his international profession. Steele, who grew up on the Hill and graduated from Hemet High School and the University of California, Riverside, is now among the top 50 professional golfers in the world, according to the 2011 PGA Tour All-Around Ranking.

Steele earned his membership into the PGA Tour at the end of 2010 with a come-from-behind victory in the Nationwide Tour Championship.

As a rookie PGA member, Steele started slowly but suddenly established his place among these athletes.

October was the 5th anniversary of the 2006 Esperanza Fire. A memorial to the five fallen Forest Service firefighters has been maintained on Highway 74 in Valle Vista for the past five years. Dianne and Eddie Verdugo, retired captain of Engine 53, erected and kept the memorial. Photo by Kirsten Torrez

In January, Steele was asked how beginning his rookie year on the PGA Tour would compare with his first year on the Nationwide Tour in 2008.

“I’m much more prepared for what lies ahead and I have a much better understanding of what it takes to be successful,” he replied presciently. “I think that there will be less of an adjustment period now than there was in 2008. Some things, on and off the course will be different, but I feel like I’m more equipped to handle whatever I may encounter along the way.”

Steele began his PGA tour year slowly, missing the final cut in six of his first nine tournaments. Nothing at that point signaled his future meteoric arrival and consistent high-level of play.

Town Hall Recreation kids ride in a float during the 2011 July 4th Parade. Photo by Cid Castillo

In his 12th tournament, in the tour’s first 13 weeks, Steele won the Valero Texas Open in April. From that weekend on, he never relinquished his place among the top golfers.

Steele placed 19th in August’s PGA Championship and had two more top ten finishes during the fall.

He ended the year with a flourish. Steele teamed with PGA champion Keegan Bradley, his close friend from Nationwide Tour days, to win the PGA Tour’s 2011 Franklin Templeton “Shark” Shootout at the Tiburón Golf Club in Naples, Fla.

Idyllwild Historic District

Boundaries for the Idyllwild Historic District, which Riverside County approved in July of 2011. Photo courtesy of Riverside County Planning Department

Capping a nearly three-year process, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the establishment of an Idyllwild Historic Preservation District (IHPD) at its July 12 meeting.

The year had begun with the board’s approval on Jan. 11 of Ordinance 578, which established the formation of historic districts in unincorporated areas of the county. On March 17, County Parks and Open Space submitted a petition to the Riverside County Historical Commission to form the district. On the same day, the commission unanimously approved the petition.

The California Redistricting Committee released its final draft maps for the state Assembly (pictured), Senate and Board of Equalization in July. Photo courtesy of the California Redistricting Committee

In June 2007, 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone originally raised the idea of an Idyllwild Historic District. Stone said he had been motivated to propose forming the district for two reasons: one, to offer some protection from the kinds of predatory lawsuits that struck Julian in San Diego County over local businesses’ lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); the other was to carve out a county code compliance niche for Idyllwild that recognized the age of most of its buildings and the limitations imposed by the village grid.

In October, the county issued a contract to LSA and Associates, the Riverside firm that had conducted the initial survey of Idyllwild’s historical resources. LSA is tasked with drafting district architectural guidelines. In November, the county opened the process for locals to submit applications to sit on the five-member IHPD Review Board. Applications are due by Jan. 5, 2012, and guidelines should be done in early January 2012. In February or March, the IHPD Review Board will convene, take in resident comments about the guidelines, submit them to County Planning for final approval, and then the district will be operational.