Delaware State News: 2014 in review

DOVER — What will you remember most about the past year?

This editor guesses you will look back on it as a time of chills and thrills, relief and disbelief, positive actions and unanswered questions.

Perusing the front pages between holiday headlines and deadlines, this editor came up with a list of the most memorable news stories and events of 2014:

Brrrr!

The first three months of the year were brutal.

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Remember the polar plunge? The temperature dropped from 62 degrees at 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 6, to just 6 degrees in 24 hours.

Snow tested our will and backs from January until the end of March.

Dover recorded nearly 40 inches of snow during that time. It was the second-snowiest winter of record for Central Delaware.

Valentine’s Day wasn’t so rosy as we dug out from 7.4 inches of snow the day before.

And, St. Patrick’s Day didn’t offer much reason to celebrate a month later when 5.7 inches of snow fell on Dover. That same day, Harrington took the worst downstate hit of winter with 8.4 inches of snow.

Finally, on March 27, the snow fell for the last time.

The Department of Transportation’s snow removal costs to taxpayers totaled $17.8 million, the most in state history.

‘It is what it is’

Without question, the most read — and shared — Delaware State News story was in the March 2 edition.

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Samantha Gustafson told the heartbreaking, yet uplifting, story of her husband, Brett, who died of melanoma on Dec. 23, 2013. He was just 28 years old.

The Gustafsons were living a love story — high school sweethearts who married, had two boys and committed to life on their Harrington farm.

His obituary was published the week between Christmas and New Year’s and had a profound impact, Samantha said. She said she was touched by the kindness of countless people who offered everything from prayers to meals and farm labor and financial donations.

His story brought about a greater awareness for skin cancer in Delaware.

“Words will never be able to describe our grief and that is a grief that may never pass but it also has carried with it a hope, a hope to change others’ lives,” Samantha said.

Brett, she said, never felt sorry for himself. She said his mantra was: “It is what it is.”

Kent tornado

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Miraculously, there were no fatalities on May 22, the day an EF–1 tornado swept through Luther Marvel Drive, Tower Road and Darling Drive in the Marydel/Hartly area.

The home of Robert Dolga and his wife Barbara Smith-Morlock was tossed 20 feet in the air. Mr. Dolga was rescued from the rubble and suffered a broken leg, thanks to landing under the protective cover of a mattress.

“At 4:35 p.m. we had everything, and at 4:37 p.m. it was gone instantly,” Mr. Dolga said.

Firefighters from Marydel led a fundraising effort and helped the couple move into a new mobile home in October.

Biden in 2016

We’ll find out in the coming months if Joe Biden makes a serious run for the White House.

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But the Biden referenced in this headline shook up Delaware politics in April when he announced his intentions to run for governor in 2016.

At the same time, he said he would not pursue a third term as state attorney general.

“What started as a thought — a very persistent thought — has now become a course of action that I wish to pursue,” he said at the time.
Matt Denn, Delaware’s lieutenant governor, had been the speculative choice of Democrats.

Mr. Biden’s news created a new opportunity for Mr. Denn, whom Delaware voters elected the new attorney general in November.

State Sen. Colin Bonini, the Dover-area Republican who long has said Delaware has a spending problem, let it slip on Return Day that he would be a challenger in the race for governor.

The state has not had a Republican governor since Mike Castle wrapped up his second term in 1992.

Wilting Flowers

Perhaps, the most fun headline of 2014 was “Flowers’ power?”

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State Treasurer Chip Flowers, who had been in the news for controversial travel expenses, was back in the spotlight in a battle with a governor-appointed advisory board over the state’s $2 billion investment portfolio. In a January press conference, he called some of the board’s practices “corrupt” and “shady” since they were potential beneficiaries of the moves and were contributors to the governor’s campaign fund.

Legislation was passed to make it clear that the Cash Management Policy Board has the sole legal authority to make investment decisions. The treasurer just signs the checks.

Mr. Flowers’ former deputy treasurer, Erika Benner, who improperly charged thousands of dollars to her state credit card, filed harassment charges against her former boss in August.

The stresses of the controversies led him to drop out of the race for state treasurer before the Democratic Primary where he would have been up against former Gov. Markell staffer Sean Barney.

Mr. Flowers has moved to Massachusetts.

“History will record my honorable service correctly,” Mr. Flowers said. “I just have to deal with it now.”

Sussex Dems ‘washed away’

On Election Day, Sussex County Republicans unseated Sen. Robert Venables, D-Laurel, and Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, leaving just one Sussex County Democrat, Pete Schwartzkopf of Rehoboth Beach, in the legislature.

“What I want you to understand is that no matter what we did, when the opposite party has a tidal wave there is nothing we can do to stop it,” said Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro. “Incumbents like Sen. Venables and I get washed away.”

Bryant Richardson, a newspaper publisher in western Sussex, is the Republican who replaces Sen. Venables, the last of the county’s conservative Democrats. Sen. Venables, 81, of Laurel, had held the office since 1988. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican, took Rep. Atkins’ seat.

What’s significant about the win is that it now gives the Senate nine Republicans and 12 Democrats. The lack of a super majority means that no spending bill or tax increase can be approved solely by members of the Democratic Party.

If Sussex had its way, there would have been changes in statewide offices, too.

Republican Kevin Wade received 7,615 more votes than U.S. Senate winner Chris Coons, the Democrat incumbent, and Repubican Rose Izzo received 77 more votes than U.S. Representative winner John Carney, the Democrat incumbent.

In the attorney general race, Republican Ted Kittila received 5,928 more votes than Democrat Matt Denn.

Tom Wagner, previously the only Republican in a statewide office, won another term as state auditor.

But, for the first time in a long while, he’s not the only Republican in a statewide office. Republican Ken Simpler won the state treasurer seat vacated by Mr. Flowers.

Fit to be tied?
Perhaps the biggest surprise this election season was in the Kent County Recorder of Deeds race.

Row offices aren’t known for controversies.

The latest is that the race between incumbent Democrat Betty Lou McKenna and Republican challenger La Mar Gunn is now tied.

Mr. Gunn thought he won by two votes on election night.

A automatic recount swayed the vote in Ms. McKenna’s favor, by two votes.

The latest, in the sweating and counting of absentee ballots in late December, is that each has 19,248 votes.

“It’s important people’s voices are heard and every vote counts,” said Mr. Gunn.

Gov. Markell appointed Ms. McKenna to the post on Jan. 5 and she was sworn in the next day.

Inaction in the capital

The state’s Transportation Trust Fund continues to run, essentially, on empty.

In January, Gov. Jack Markell outlined a plan to pump up the gas tax 10 cents per gallon and net $50 million to be put toward state highway projects.

State legislators never bought in.

“I think 10 cents right now is awfully steep,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said at the time. “People are being hit with higher taxes left and right throughout the state.”

Meanwhile, DelDOT was taking heat for its decision-making process in prioritizing projects.

In particular, backers of a proposed sports complex in Frederica were concerned about a vital overpass getting kicked down the priority list and residents of Milford were upset that the data-driven process didn’t address their safety concerns.

Lawmakers also looked the other way when Gov. Markell was hyping new water fees to fund clean-water initiatives in the state.

And, Delaware’s casinos didn’t get the decreases in the gaming tax rate they say are needed to remain competitive in the midst of growing regional competition. The issue will remain in the headlines in 2015.

New forensics office

Scandals in the state medical examiner’s office early in 2014 led to the firing of its chief and the creation of a new division.

The forensics office, by legislation, was moved from the Department of Health and Social Services to the Department of Homeland Security in July.

Dr. Richard Callery, the state’s chief medical examiner, was fired in July after allegations that he was misusing state resources for his own benefit with private consulting. The state paid Dr. Callery more than $198,000 a year.

“As a result of the significant extent of your misconduct, the state has sustained incalculable damage and incurred tremendous costs,” Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro wrote in a dismissal letter to Dr. Callery.

Additionally, the office had come under investigation for evidence tampering and theft in the drug-testing lab, resulting in problems with court cases as prosecutors had to reduce or dismiss numerous cases. Two medical examiner’s office employees were arrested.

State police began an investigation into missing drugs on Jan. 15, the day after a Kent County drug-dealing case brought concerns due to a discrepancy involving Oxycodone. The Controlled Substances Unit in the medical examiner’s office in Wilmington was tasked with receipt and analysis of illegal substances. Oxycontin, marijuana, heroin and cocaine had gone missing, state police and the Department of Justice found. The evidence loss was not always traceable to any one individual, a report concluded.

Dover mayor steps down

In late April, residents of Dover were stunned by the sudden resignation of Mayor Carleton E. Carey Sr.

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The story unfolded slowly, but we learned that city council had demanded his resignation amid allegations that Mayor Carey had put pressure on his newly appointed police chief Paul Bernat to appoint Lt. Marvin Mailey, an African-American, as the new deputy chief.

Five officers filed grievances, asserting that they had been passed over for promotion because they were white. The city paid out $300,000 in settlements.

Mr. Carey denied the allegations and said he didn’t have any influence in the selection of the city’s deputy chief of police.

“I did what I was supposed to do, as it is the mayor’s responsibility to choose the police chief,” he said. “The police chief appoints the deputy and anyone else he wants, as the mayor has no control of who the chief decides he wants in his command.”

Council President David Bonar assumed the role of interim mayor until mid-June when Robin Christiansen was elected to the position.

Mayor Christiansen has announced that he will run for the office again in May.

‘Troubling time’ with crime

In late August, Dover Police were dealing with a spate of shootings.

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In unrelated incidents in late August, two people were killed. One man was leaving a party on Simon Circle when he was shot. Another man was shot in what was ruled a case of self-defense in a dispute over a former relationship.

Police noted that it brought the total of homicides to three, including a stabbing death in July.

“This has been a troubling time in the city of Dover,” said Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat.

Three days after the August shootings, Dover Police and community leaders planned a press conference to discuss efforts to quell violence in the city.

That morning, a pedestrian was shot in the foot on North Kirkwood Street.

“While the incidents that have occurred within the last month are unfortunate and rare in our community, it should be said that when the will to do evil exists within a person, it can be difficult to stop,” said Chief Bernat.

In response to the violent crimes downtown, the police created a new five-member Street Crimes Unit.

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Not guilty of Leipsic murder

In late August, Gerard T. “Jerry” Schweiger was found not guilty of murder after the death of 45-year-old Tony Mozick Sr. at his Leipsic home.

Mr. Mozick was stabbed to death, stuffed in a plastic container and dumped in the Leipsic River in January 2013.

In May, Jennifer Barnes, Mr. Mozick’s daughter and the former girlfriend of Schweiger, was released from prison after 18 months. She was sentenced for abuse of a corpse and other charges related to the case.

After a three-week trial, a jury found Schweiger, 26, guilty of abuse of a corpse. He was credited with serving 595 days in prison and put on probation.

“It’s really a miracle what’s happened to him,” Schweiger’s defense lawyer Andre Beauregard said afterward. “He could be serving life in jail but got his life back.”

Church arsons

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On Dec. 2, fire companies in Kent County were called into action to fight fire at three churches.

Healing Hands Christian Church and Manship Chapel, both near Felton, and Laws Mennonite Church, west of Frederica, were damaged significantly.

The state fire marshal said Alex J. Harrington Jr., 26, of Felton, and Joseph T. Skochelak, 25, of Dover, were each charged in the arson cases.

The Healing Hands site burned to the ground, yet the chimney still stood tall.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the way our lives should be,'” Pastor Wilbert Moorer said. “When we’re in God, I don’t care what the devil does. We’re still going to be able to stand.”

Music mania

In June, the Firefly Music Festival brought 80,000 visitors to the Woodlands at Dover International Speedway.

Headliners were the Foo Fighters and Outkast, but it also was about the experience — “glamping,” hammock hangouts and partying for four days.

A University of Delaware study found that the event contributed $68 million in economic impact — creating the equivalent of 579 full-time jobs and generating nearly $10 million in revenue to local, state and federal governments.

This year’s Firefly festival will be June 18-21.

If twang is more your thang, then the Big Barrel County Music Festival June 26-28 at the Woodlands or the Delaware Junction festival Aug. 14-16 in Harrington may be the ticket in 2015.

Firefly connections are launching the inaugural Big Barrel event. Headliners include Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Merle Haggard and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The Delaware State Fairgrounds will be the site of Delaware Junction. Brian O’Connell, festival producer Live Nation’s president of country touring, said it will be a “hillbilly sleepover” at the 360-acre property.

Headliners in Harrington will include Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and Toby Keith.

Powering up in Dover

The biggest change to the Dover area’s skyline is along White Oak Road where the Garrison Energy Center will begin producing electricity in June.

The Garrison Energy Center is a combined-cycle plant that primarily will fire with natural gas and utilize its exhaust to create additional steam power, producing 309 megawatts of electricity when in peak production.

That equates to enough electricity for 300,000 homes, said Stu Widom, Calpine’s director of government and regulatory affairs. Calpine will sell power into the PJM wholesale regional grid.

At its peak, the plant had 450 workers — a couple hundred more than originally anticipated.

Bayhealth’s boom

In November, Bayhealth CEO Terry Murphy announced that a state-of-the-art health campus will be built  on a 150-acre site near Del. 1 in Milford.

untitledBayhealth anticipates breaking ground on the $250 million project in the third or fourth quarter of 2015 and will open it to patients by the end of 2018.

The campus will feature traditional inpatient hospital and emergency departments (each with only private rooms) and a wide array of outpatient services such as diagnostic testing and convenient access to general practitioners and specialists.

A decision on how the current Milford Memorial Hospital site will be used has not yet been made.

In recent years, Bayhealth has grown considerably with major construction projects. A $148 million Kent General project opened in February 2012, A state-of-the-art emergency department and cancer center was added to the original 1927 hospital building. Earlier this year, Bayhealth announced it will add another floor to the new wing, allowing for a 33-bed Immediate Care Unit.

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New home for the Senators

In August, the new Dover High School opened and a new era began for the Senators as they entered the front door into a unique rotunda where the words “leadership,” “citizenship,” “community” and “scholarship” are written in the tile.

The $114 million school on Del. 8 was built to meet the needs of 1,800 students, replacing the 47-year-old campus off Walker Road.

“There’s a great foundation of Senator pride,” Principal Dr. Evelyn Edney said before the opening. “We’re going to bring that from the old building and put our own spin on it.”

In the fall, we learned Capital School District’s Board of Education decided not to renew the contract of Dr. Edney.

In addition to Dover High, it was a year of excitement for Polytech High School where a new high-tech wing and auditorium were opened and for the Woodbridge School District which opened a new, 162,000-square-foot high school near Greenwood. The $52 million Woodbridge High School was the district’s first new school built since 1931.

Thank you for your readership of the Delaware State News in 2014.
We hope you have a happy news year in 2015.
— Andrew West, managing editor of the Delaware State News.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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