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Archive for Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Journal-World looks back at the top 10 news stories from 2010

The top 10 news stories of 2010, top row, from left to right, were the KU ticket scandal, Lawrence residents campaign to "Save Our Neighborhood Schools,"  Republicans sweep the midterm elections, Lew Perkins retires and the death of two workers at MagnaGro following an industrial accident. Bottom row, from let to right, were passing the Library bond, two top law enforcement and court officials retire, KU's continued focus on binge drinking prevention after a student was injured at a fraternity party, the growth of the Lawrence economy as Berry Plastics, and others, plan expansions, and a whole lot of snow.

The top 10 news stories of 2010, top row, from left to right, were the KU ticket scandal, Lawrence residents campaign to "Save Our Neighborhood Schools," Republicans sweep the midterm elections, Lew Perkins retires and the death of two workers at MagnaGro following an industrial accident. Bottom row, from let to right, were passing the Library bond, two top law enforcement and court officials retire, KU's continued focus on binge drinking prevention after a student was injured at a fraternity party, the growth of the Lawrence economy as Berry Plastics, and others, plan expansions, and a whole lot of snow.

December 29, 2010

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At the end of each year, Journal-World staffers compile what they determine to be the top 10 news stories of the past 12 months. The following is their list for 2010:

1. KU sports ticket scandal

An embarrassing ticket scam that cost Kansas Athletics up to $5 million dominated the Lawrence Journal-World’s headlines for much of 2010.

In all, seven Kansas Athletic officials were charged in federal court for the scandal. Prosecutors claim that in 2005 former associate athletic director Charlette Blubaugh started taking football and basketball tickets and distributing them to other athletic department officials to sell either individually or to third parties.

Two former employees have plead guilty to failing to inform authorities about the illegal ticket operations and four others plead not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The four will stand trial on Feb. 15. Kassie Liebsch, who was promoted to director of ticket operations after KU became aware of the ticket scam, is scheduled to plead guilty on Jan. 21.

2. Save Our Neighborhood Schools

Last winter, parents, students and educators rallied to keep the Lawrence school board from closing the district’s smaller elementary schools as a way to help bridge a $5 million budget shortfall.

The grassroots movement, know as Save Our Neighborhood Schools, had more than a thousand people marching through downtown Lawrence to protest the school closings.

In the end, the elementary schools were saved by a compromise to keep schools open but increase the student-teacher ratio by one student across the district, close the East Heights Early Childhood Center and cut one elementary principal position. In February, a community task force is expected to present to the school board a report on elementary facilities.

3. Republicans sweep state offices

On Nov. 2, Kansas voters gave a clear directive when they elected a full slate of Republicans to the state’s top offices. Leading the charge was Sen. Sam Brownback, who in the governor’s race handily defeated Tom Holland, a state senator from Baldwin City. Filling Brownback’s senate seat was U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran and state Rep. Kevin Yoder defeated Democrat Stephene More in the 3rd District.

Lawrence resident Steve Six lost his race for attorney general to state Sen. Derek Schmidt. Law professor Kris Kobach, known for helping draft Arizona’s controversial immigration law, was elected as secretary of state.

4. KU’s Lew Perkins resigns

In June KU Athletics Director Lew Perkins announced he would retire and this September Perkins resigned a year ahead of schedule.

The past few months have been rocky ones for Perkins. Last fall, KU football coach Mark Mangino resigned after the university did a formal investigation regarding the coach’s conduct toward players. Perkins hired Turner Gill to replace him. This season, KU’s football team finished with a dismal 3-9 record.

In the spring, Perkins was asked to explain how employees under his watch and without his knowledge participated in a ticket scam costing the university up to $5 million. And just before his announced retirement, Perkins fond himself in the middle of a blackmail scandal involving exercise equipment provided to him for personal use.

After Perkins’ resignation, associate athletics director Sean Lester was named interim athletics director and a national search to find Perkins’ replacement began. In December, Tulsa University’s Lawrence “Bubba” Cunningham” squelched rumors that he would be the next KU athletic director when he signed an extension contract to stay a TU.

5. MagnaGro fatalities and violations

In April, two workers at MagnaGro International suffocated after inhaling deadly fumes while cleaning out a storage tank containing cane molasses.

Following the deaths of Brandon Price, 25, and Roy Hillebert, 51, government agencies took a closer look at operations at the fertilizer mixing facility.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found 11 work place safety violations on the day of the double fatality and fined the company $73,000.

This summer, the city of Lawrence boarded up the building after declaring it unfit for human occupancy because it had not connected to the city’s water and sewer service.

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a civil complaint and compliance order against the agriculture fertilizer company for failing to tell the federal agency what hazardous wastes were on site.

6. Voters approve $18 million library expansion

Even in a tight economy, Lawrence voters said they would be willing to raise taxes so the Lawrence Public Library could grow. On Nov. 2, 55 percent of voters said yes to a $18 million expansion project that would allow more space for children and young adult reading sections, parking, meeting rooms and computers.

To cover the cost of expansion, along with operational expenses, the city will have to raise taxes by about 2 mills, which will add $39.10 onto the annual property tax bill for a $170,000 home.

7. Top law enforcement and court officials retire

Two long-standing Lawrence officials retired in 2010. Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin announced his retirement this summer after 23 years in the position. He moved on to become director of security and internal controls at Kansas Athletics.

Also this year, Judge Jean Shepherd announced she would put down the gavel in January. Shepherd, who was appointed as a Douglas County judge in 1984, has presided over the county’s family court since it was established in 1994. She also started the Citizen Review Board of Douglas County.

8. KU continues to grapple with partying

After a school year in 2009 where two students died in alcohol-related incidents, KU’s party-school reputation took another hit this fall.

In September, Matt Fritzie, a freshman from Stilwell, suffered head injuries while diving into a makeshift pool during a fraternity party at Phi Gamma Delta. Fritzie was later transferred to a Denver area rehabilitation clinic that only treats serious spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries.

A week after the incident, the university placed the fraternity on probation for two years for hazing practices.

Also within the last year, KU has taken steps to address the problem of high-risk drinking by sending students and staff on a whirlwind tour of colleges across the country, requiring students to take an alcohol education class and establishing a marketing campaign to encourage students to look out for each other while drinking.

9. Lawrence economy shows signs of life

The arrival of some new businesses and the expansion of existing ones offers hope that the Lawrence economy could be on the mend.

This year, the plastic manufacturing company Plastikon announced it would move into the East Hills Business Park, bringing 126 people with it in the next three years.

Another big development was the decision by Berry Plastics to begin construction on a 675,000 square-foot distribution facility just west of the Kansas Turnpike’s Lecompton interchange. When complete, the building should be the largest in Douglas County.

Another major project that got underway in 2010 was the construction of the $10 million seven-story apartment, retail and office building at the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.

10. Lawrence has snow, snow and more snow

Lawrence residents rang in the New Year with a healthy dose of snow on the ground. And, the white stuff kept coming throughout the year with Lawrence seeing 4 to 6 inches of snow on the official first day of spring.

So how bad was it?

In Lawrence, the city spent $700,312 to remove snow in 2010, more than twice than the previous year.

A particular harsh string of storms between Dec. 22 and Jan. 8 costs Douglas County entities $540,000 in storm-related expenses. Cities, townships, school districts, hospitals and Kansas University received federal disaster grants to help cover the cost.

And, one Sunday in February, a combination of blinding snow and slick roads caused more than 70 accidents along the Kansas Turnpike near Kansas Highway 7. One Kansas Turnpike Authority called it “the (Almost) St. Valentine Day Massacre.”

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