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  • Last modified 235 days ago (Dec. 29, 2018)

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A year to remember . . . or, perhaps, to forget

Although there was a fair amount of more uplifting news in 2018, controversy and scandal unfortunately dominated Marion County headlines like never before.

1. Acts of commission

The year’s most-read news items were 35 stories detailing a series of heated exchanges and protracted disputes among county commissioners.

No single story captured the full essence of a year filled with angry disagreements among commissioners Kent Becker, Randy Dallke, and Dianne Novak.

However, each individual flare-up added up.

The series’ most-read individual story, finishing 13th overall, was one on Nov. 28 in which Dallke chastised Novak, at one point yelling that she should “shut up,” after she allegedly went behind the backs of commissioner colleagues to investigate matters involving the county’s former emergency medical services director.

The second-most-read item in the series was a story March 21 about EMS director Ed Debesis resigning, only to see Novak’s motion to accept his resignation die for lack of a second. Dallke told her at the time, “You know, Dianne, this is all your fault.”

Debesis later withdrew his resignation but resubmitted it, stating in a story Sept. 19 that ongoing conflict with Novak was the reason.

As contentious as debate over the ambulance service might have been, it was not the only topic around which tempers flared.

A Feb. 7 story detailed a dressing down Dallke gave to county treasurer Jeannine Bateman for being “gone half the time.”

A story May 23 detailed Novak’s vehement complaints on social media about not being invited by political rival Mike Beneke to a series of “inappropriate” economic development meetings that Dallke and Becker had attended.

In the same story, Becker chastised Dallke for again telling Novak to “shut up” but reserved his strongest criticism for chairman Novak, saying: “I can probably count on my hands the number of meetings we have had that haven’t had some type of outburst.”

Other stories focused on whether to cut taxes because of a one-time windfall in revenue, a threat from Dallke to block an appointment by Novak in retaliation for her having voted against one of his appointments when he was chairman, and disputes over Novak and Becker voting to ignore referendum results and create a new county administrator position.

2. Teacher sex

Eight of the year’s nine most-read individual stories all dealt with former Peabody-Burns teacher and coach Chris Young, who was sentenced to 60 days in jail for two counts of sexual exploitation of former students.

The top story was how his sentence included more jail time than he had expected after plea-bargaining out of other charges.

Other stories dealt with how partially nude videos had been found on his phone and the phones of two of his students and with such details as how he allegedly had given one of the students a promise ring and driven her to school after spending the night with her.

Although most of the 12 stories about Young’s arrest and plea bargain generated more readership than any county commission story, total readership of stories about his case was 31 percent less than total readership about disputes among commissioners.

3. Illegal development

A distant third on the list of top topics of 2018 was the arrest and subsequent guilty plea of former county economic development director Theresa Huffman on charges that, after her resignation, she had drained leftover accounts for her own benefit.

An Oct. 10 story of her arrest was the 10th-most-read story of the year, and eight subsequent stories following her case generated the third highest topical readership, even though the total was only 27 percent as great as the number of readers who followed the commissioners’ feud.

4. 99.96% controversial

Next in order behind Huffman’s case were seven articles about Florence’s ongoing dispute over renewing a lease on the city’s Crystal Springs water supply.

The top story in the category, a Sept. 10 article about a second attempt by the city council to remove portions of minutes of a previous meeting, did not rank highly in its own regard, finishing in 64th place for the year. However, the collection of seven articles pulled the fourth largest topical total, equivalent to 19 percent of what the commissioner stories received.

5. Mount Mike

Fractionally behind the Florence water dispute was a dispute between Lincolnville feedlot owner Beneke and the City of Marion over silage he stored at the former Straub International site he owns on the west edge of town.

Seven articles about the dispute drew the equivalent of 18 percent of what the commissioner stories did.

The top story in the group, an Aug. 22 piece detailing how Beneke had been ordered not to trespass on property of Mayor Todd Heitschmidt or Heitschmidt’s employer, Central National Bank, ranked 57th among individual stories and included a quote from Beneke saying he “didn’t think it would get this bad.”

A case could be made for Beneke as a potential man of the year as he figured not only in this set of stories and the commissioner stories but also in the next-ranked package of stories.

6. Economic un-development

The slow and convoluted demise of Marion County Economic Development Corp., which essentially replaced Huffman and for a time featured Beneke as treasurer, finished slightly below Beneke’s exploits with silage.

The top individual story in the group was a Dec. 12 piece detailing the corporation’s decision to disband rather than press forward with just one remaining board member.

Previous stories dealt with Novak demanding that the corporation refund money provided by the county and with cities refusing to pay their dues.

All in all, the decline and fall of the much heralded panel had 17 percent as much readership as the commission meltdown stories.

7. Amtrak suicide

The first top story not part of a continuing saga was the story Aug. 15 of an unruly Amtrak passenger who jumped from a speeding train near Peabody rather than face authorities who were prepared to remove him from the train once it arrived in Newton.

The initial story was the only one other than a story about Young’s case to finish in the top nine, finishing eighth among regular readers of our digital editions.

Among one-time-only readers, on the other hand, it was the year’s single most-read story overall.

8. Nursing home takeover

A recent story, our exclusive coverage Dec. 12 of the state’s takeover of Westview Manor in Peabody, finished as the eighth most-read topic of 2018.

Owners of the home, which cares primarily for patients with developmental and social disabilities, were accused of exploiting patients physically and financially, misappropriating resident’s property, failing to ensure safekeeping of residents’ narcotics, and owing nearly a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid bills more than 120 days past due.

Our initial story finished in 10th place among individual news items.

9. How dry we were

A series of stories about extremely dry weather this summer, and especially its impact on wheat, corn, and livestock, captured ninth place among most-read topics.

The top individual story, from July 4, detailed how cattle were dying and crops withering as Marion County found itself at the center of a small band of “extreme drought,” with both short and long term implications.

10. Mermis departures

At one time, they were a power couple in Marion — Tyler Mermis serving as police chief and Melissa Mermis as a city council member.

Their separation and ultimate departure of both were the 10th most-read topic of 2018.

The best of the rest

  • Former Marion officer Lee Vogel is cleared of legal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Lehigh gunman Robb Stewart
  • Lawsuits and financial travails continue to mount for operators of Hillsboro Community Hospital.
  • Marion County considers a multi-million-dollar renovation of its waste transfer station.
  • Eighteen-year-old Taylor Geisbrecht is charged with lewd fondling of a child younger than 14.
  • Former Marion business owner Mike Bredemeier is charged in California with three counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14, two counts of felony oral copulation with a child under 10, and misdemeanor annoying or molesting a child.
  • Peabody residents object to a plan to bring to their community, and possibly supply free buildings for, escort services, topless dancing, and a soft-drink bar that would feature nude dancing.
  • Released after breakfast Valentine’s Day, county jail inmate Shane Zerbe, 32, of Wichita is back in jail in time for dinner, saddled with additional charges of burglary, possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia, and criminal trespass, after allegedly trying to break into his mother’s house in Peabody.
  • Sheila K. Thouvenell, 51, of Marion, who is alleged to have tried to prevent a witness or victim from reporting alleged indecent liberties with a child by her husband, strikes a plea-deal that gets four felony charges dismissed and one reduced to a lesser charge.
  • McKayla Oursler, 19, is seriously injured after being hit by a car during a quarrel with another woman in Florence.
  • Susan Markham dies of injuries suffered in a fire at Indian Guide Terrace Apartments in Peabody.

Not all gloom and doom

They weren’t among the Top 20, but more uplifting stories were mong the year’s most-read. The top five in that category, in order:

  • Deputy sheriff Bronson Shipman’s police dog, Karma, is criminals’ worst nightmare.
  • Another deputy sheriff, Mike Ottensmeier, goes from rounding up stray cattle on roadways to becoming a cattle rancher and farmer in his own right.
  • Joel and Alice Hayes of Florence swear off backyard gardening after spotting a cougar strolling through their yard.
  • Demolition derby aficionado Evan Slater of Florence presents an engagement ring to like-minded girlfriend Kaycee Shermak after staging his own miniature demo derby.
  • Hundreds of workers come to Marion County for construction of the Diamond Vista wind farm west of Tampa.

Last modified Dec. 29, 2018

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