Leader Blues

Saturday, January 02, 2010

TOP STORY >> Looking back at July, August, September

COMPILED BY RICK KRON

This is the third in a four-part series looking back at 2009. Here are many of the news stories The Leader covered from July through September.


JULY

• The Cabot High School marching band represented Arkansas in the National Independence Day parade.

This was the second time the high school band had been invited to march in the parade. The band’s previous trip was in 2006.

A caravan of four charter buses took 160 students and 29 adults to Washington for five days and four nights.

Making the trip were students who chose to go who were in 10th, 11th and 12th grades during the 2009 school year. Each student was responsible for paying their own way. The cost was $1,000.

The band played “Patriotic Medley” comprised of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”

• Jacksonville officially had a new mayor, Gary Fletcher, as Justice of the Peace Bob Johnson swore in Fletcher in front of about 200 friends, family members and well-wishers at the community center.

Fletcher told the crowd he felt a bit guilty becoming mayor. “The apples are ripe and on the trees for me to just pick and hand to you,” he said, complimenting the work of former mayors Tommy Swaim and James Reid. “They have been great.”

• A $10.7 million contract for the new Joint Education Center outside the air base was awarded to W.G. Yates and Sons Construction of Philadelphia, Miss., to build the new school at the corner of Vandenberg Boulevard and John Harden Drive.

• The Air Force’s contribution is $9.8 million and Jacksonville’s is $5 million, raised by local residents who approved a dedicated tax for the purpose in 2003.

“We used every dime of the federal dollars, what’s left are city dollars,” according to Craig Pierce, chief of military programs branch, Little Rock District Engineers.
The current 46,000-square-foot plan calls for about 30 classrooms and labs.

• The ribbon was cut in July in a dedication ceremony for the newly completed Grand Prairie Bayou Two, Larry W. Sims Water Treatment Facility.

Construction of the plant near Hwy. 31 and Hwy. 321 Spur between Lonoke and Beebe was finished in May. Work began in early 2008. The Grand Prairie Bayou Two water system supplies water to approximately 4,000 customers in northeast Lonoke County and portions of Ward.

• High winds and ice-cube-sized hailstones beat crops like a rented mule around Schafer Road.

In all, 26,000 acres or more of Lonoke County crops were damaged or destroyed in a matter of minutes in a year where farmers already have suffered floods and near-drought conditions, according to Jeff Welch, county extension service chief agent.

While the Schafer Road/Hwy. 31 intersection was the epicenter of the storm, the area affected was about four miles wide and 10.5 miles long from near Furlow all the way to the airport at Carlisle.

• Before new Mayor Fletcher could finish his thoughts about filling his vacant Jacksonville council seat, the council nominated, seconded and approved John Ferrell for the position even though six residents had expressed an interest.

Alderman Terry Sansing abstained, calling the whole affair a slap in the face of the city residents and the new mayor.

“It was unfair to the other five candidates who applied for the position and unfair to the citizens to not have a voice,” he said.

• Little Rock Air Force Base commander Col. Gregory Otey endeared himself to the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce by endorsing the effort for a stand-alone Jacksonville school district and also by seeing off just-retired Mayor Tommy Swaim with a couple of well choreographed audio visual gags.

Otey, who has both of his children in Pulaski County Special School District schools, commended the work of “Daniel (Gray) and some of the folks here,” to improve existing schools and get a Jacksonville district.

• Jacksonville’s interim parks and recreation director Kristen Griggs was officially hired in July to permanently run the department.

Mayor Gary Fletcher surprised Griggs, 27, with the announcement in the guise of a second interview.

Former director George Biggs resigned after city officials learned that he is a convicted felon.

• Bids were opened in July for the construction of Jacksonville’s training facility for the city’s police and fire departments at the former Vertac site off Marshall Road.

Kullander Construction of Little Rock was the low bidder, estimating the cost at $2,259,000, about $1 million less than had been budgeted.

Construction started in August and should be done by May.

• After six months of investigation, Sherwood had received less than 10 percent of the $200,000 siphoned from one of its city checking accounts by a gang of cyber criminals.

Eagle Bank officials made the city aware of the theft in December 2008. State Police and the FBI were then called to investigate.

The Sherwood case is similar to a Kentucky incident where Russian criminals stole $415,000 electronically from county accounts.

City Treasurer Angela Nicholson said nothing had been said earlier publicly because the case was under investigation. She said the city audited all of its other accounts and funds seemed to be missing only out of the one.

She said in July that authorities recovered about $16,000 and the city made changes and added additional safeguards to help prevent such theft from happening again.

It seems the money was stolen electronically over a three-day period last December.

Mayor Virginia Hillman said the stolen funds were placed in at least 20 accounts across the country in amounts less than $10,000.

• A $35,000 economic development infrastructure grant will help Jacksonville jump-start an ambitious proposal to define a Main Street district and turn it into a pedestrian-friendly destination with shops, dining and entertainment, according to city planner Chip McCulley.

The grant is likely to be spent on decorative, energy-efficient street lighting on Main Street east and west of James Street, he said.

State Sen. John Paul Capps helped the city get the grant.

• On July 4, Sherwood’s Steve Perry was named Pops on the River winner after his performance of The Star Spangled Banner.

“It’s taken me 30 years to be an overnight success,” Perry joked. He said he’s always enjoyed singing.

Perry began taking voice lessons at age 18, when a singer at his church encouraged him to get training. He says he now has a range of three octaves. Perry, who sings at the Church at Rock Creek, said he mostly performs Christian music and the National Anthem.

• The APA named The Leader the state’s best large weekly newspaper after it received 17 awards, including first place for best news story, best front page, best special issue, as well as top honors for investigative reporting, news and political column, sports column and sports feature photo.

“Violent end brings pall over subdivision” by Jonathan Feldman and Garrick Feldman won for best news article in a large weekly.

The story described a standoff in August 2008 between the Jacksonville police and a mentally disturbed man in a residence in the Foxwood subdivision who was shooting at neighbors and police. A police sniper later shot the man through a kitchen window.

For the second time, Leader senior staff writer John Hofheimer won for his series of exclusive reports on the housing privatization program at Little Rock Air Force Base. His reporting has received national recognition and led to the dismissal of the previous contractor for failing to build or remodel homes on the base and pay subcontractors.

• The Pulaski County Special School District replaced Deputy Superintendent Beverly Ruthven with former Cabot principal and administrator June Elliott.

Ruthven resigned after she was passed over for the interim superintendent’s job in favor of Rob McGill shortly after the board forced the resignation of then-Superintendent James Sharpe.

“I’ve done all I can do for Pulaski County Special School District. Now I’m looking for other opportunities,” Ruthven said.

Elliott, a Cabot resident, has a long history of teaching and administration in the Cabot district.

Elliott has several certifications, including that of district administrator, and has completed all course work on a PhD. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, and has taught master’s level courses at Arkansas State University.

• The South Bend Volunteer Fire Department purchased two new water-tanker trucks. The trucks enable the department to better serve the areas in their district that are not connected to city water.

The department is responsible for protecting rural Lonoke County from Jacksonville city limits to Basankan Road (Gun Club Road) between Cabot and Graham Road. New equipment is always a cause for celebration at a department with such a huge territory to protect.

About a third of the South Bend district uses well water. In those areas, the firefighters do not have access to fire hydrants.

The new trucks carry 1,850 gallons of water and can pump 375 gallons per minute.

• “If I’m going to jail, then this is worth it,” Alderman Bob Stroud said as he made a motion that Jacksonville Advertising and Promotion use $100,000 to help the city get its own school district.

At the request of the nonprofit group, Jacksonville Education Foundation, the commission voted unanimously to transfer the money to the city’s public facilities board, which could then use it for the new district.

Former state Rep. Will Bond, an attorney, speaking for the foundation, told the commission that no one would go to jail but he couldn’t promise there wouldn’t be a lawsuit.

“There is no better promotion for the city than getting its own school district,” said Bond.

• Lisa Otey, wife of Little Rock Air Force Base commander Col. Gregory Otey, told school officials and others that she had pulled two of her three children out of Pulaski County Special School District since the family arrived in January, calling the facilities “no better than schools in Eastern Europe—in East Germany before the wall fell down.”

Otey was one of about 20 people who took advantage of a town meeting at Bayou Meto Elementary School to tell district officials their thoughts on whether or not those in that attendance zone would prefer to continue their affiliation with PCSSD, to affiliate with the proposed—but not inevitable—Jacksonville district or to split that affiliation down the length of state Hwy. 107.

District boundaries had been pretty well agreed-upon with the exception of the Bayou Meto attendance zone.

• Four C-130s returning to the Little Rock Air Force Base from McChord AFB, Wash., were loaded down with trophies that Team

Little Rock won during the weeklong air rodeo competition.

Team Little Rock came home with two best overall awards and seven C-130 awards. The 19th Airlift Wing won best overall C-130 team and best overall aerial port team in the rodeo competition.

The wing’s aerial port crew won for the best C-130 engine running off-load team and the best C-130 in-transit visibility team.

Team Little Rock maintenance team picked up three awards. The best C-130 maintenance team award went to the 19th Airlift Wing, J-model. They also brought home the best C-130 pre-flight team.

The best C-130 post-flight team was the 314th Airlift Wing, H-model.

Another award the 19th Airlift Wing won was best C-130 short field landing crew. The 314th was also recognized for having the best back-landing combat off-load crew.

• Nearly 12 inches of rain fell in July, with six days having rainfall of more than an inch. All the rain also kept the temperatures down for most of the month, making July the coolest July since 1968, according to the National Weather Service.

The six days with an inch or more of rain and three days with two or more inches were record setters.

Since Jan. 1, the area had seen 43.05 inches of rain, based on NWS records, and 13.38 inches above the norm. Just since June 1 the area had 15.27 inches of rain, close to eight inches above the norm.

AUGUST

• In a five-and-a-half-hour special meeting, the Pulaski County Special School District board approved the boundaries for a proposed Jacksonville school district that will include the Bayou Meto attendance zone, the city of Jacksonville and a smaller unincorporated area that runs east along Military Road into Lonoke County.

The board also voted to cease all negotiation on the topic of Jacksonville’s detachment from PCSSD until the federal district court declares the district unitary—that is, desegregated.

“We just got hosed,” said Daniel Gray, a member of the Jacksonville Education Foundation.

“They just shut us down,” Gray said. “They don’t want to talk to us ever—not until the district achieves unitary status. Once we’re unitary, there’s no need to even talk to them,” Gray said. “That’s why working diligently and in good faith is important.”

• Cabot Junior High North approached completion. In mid-August teachers were allowed inside the school to begin setting up their rooms for the start of the school year. The new $13.5 million, two-story, 127,282-square-foot building replaces the junior high that burned down in 2006. Three years since the fire, teachers have been holding classes in portable classrooms and in buildings at the high school campus.

• Excessive summer rain forced the new Lighthouse Academy charter school to open Aug. 17 in Second Baptist Church on North James Street instead of its new $4 million facility off North First Street.

• The Jacksonville City Council agreed to chip in $150,000 if the parks department gets a 50/50 state grant to add 16 acres to Dupree Park. The parks department wants to buy and develop the acreage just to the east of the park’s playground.

Once the land is purchased, plans call for the department to move the skate park to that location and expand it for the skateboarders. A nature trail and other improvements including a special-needs ball field are also planned.

• Beebe’s new 91,000-square-foot, $10 million Early Childhood Center was opened in August on South Holly and will house up to 600 students.

Much of the structure, including the cafeteria, indoor play area and library, is set on the concrete slab of a defunct sewing factory.

The facility has art and music rooms, a 3,000-square-foot tornado shelter, a stage in the cafeteria and a smart board in every classroom. It was built with small children in mind, down to the low water fountains and toilets.

The state paid $6.3 million for the new facility, leaving the school district to pay $3.7 million by restructuring bonds instead of raising taxes.

• Pulaski County Special School District board member Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville, calling himself the man of the hour, led the charge Tuesday night against reviving talks with the city on its own district.

By a 4-3 vote, the board opted not to repeal its vote from the last meeting and reopen negotiations on the separation of the proposed Jacksonville school district. “The school buildings in Jacksonville belong to PCSSD. The area belongs to PCSSD, and the decision and ability to separate belongs to PCSSD,” he said.

Vasquez added that there’s also nothing in the law that prevents PCSSD from handling everything on its own.

• Maj. Gen. Kip L. Self, commander of the Air Force Expeditionary Center, Air Mobility Command, at Fort Dix, N.J., was promoted to director of operational planning, policy and strategy, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, at the Pentagon’s Air Force headquarters in Washington. Self served as commander of the 314th Airlift Wing and was installation commander at Little Rock Air Force Base from September 2005 to May 2007.

• Funding problems continued for the 15-year-old Lonoke White Water Project that is supposed to connect communities in the central part of the state to Greer’s Ferry Lake. Project participants were told that Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, which was expected to distribute the federal loan money to pay for much of the project, would not bend the rules to make it happen.

The Lonoke White Public Water Authority, which plans to build the project, can’t borrow money because it has no customers of its own. Only existing systems with existing customers are eligible. And the plan to take on someone else’s customers in name only is not acceptable. The only way the project can get funding is if some of the larger water providers in the group agree to take on the responsibility of borrowing the money.

The $45 million project is for long-term state water planning and not in response to an existing public health problem, a requirement to receive Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) money.

• What two fishermen thought might be a body in Paradise Park lake turned out to be a colony of aquatic animals that is a distant relative to coral and jellyfish.

Jacksonville Police Capt. Charlie Jenkins said the police got a call about a possible body and quickly responded and blocked off the park. “It didn’t take us long to determine it was not a human body, but we didn’t know what it was,” he said.

The police, with help from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, got the “body” out of the water, took pictures and sent them to the Arkansas Game and Fish.

Mark Oliver, a fisheries biologist, verified that the ”body” was a freshwater bryozoan. “They are pretty abundant in Arkansas,” Oliver said, “and are usually found in our big lakes.” The biologist said bryozoans run in size from an inch or so up to many feet in size. “This one was about the size of a basketball,” Oliver said.

• “No kids should go to school in these type of conditions,” said Tim Clark, president of the Pulaski County Special School District Board as he toured Jacksonville Elementary School in August with principal Sonia Whitfield, Mayor Gary Fletcher and Jim Durham, the city’s director of administration. Fletcher had invited the school board president to see for himself how wretched conditions were at the 44-year-old school.

Clark called interim Super-intendent Rob McGill, who had taught at Jacksonville Elementary School, to see the problems for himself: Shower curtains and bed sheets separating classrooms, dangerous electrical outlets and protruding objects sticking out of floors, where youngsters could easily trip. Clark was upset at the appalling conditions at the school. “Is this the worst school in Jacksonville?” he asked.

“The middle school is much worse,” Durham told him.

• Calling the offer the most generous any state has made in ending a desegregation agreement, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel proposed phasing out the state’s desegregation funding to the tune of $392 million over seven years.

In letters sent to attorneys for Pulaski County Special School District, Little Rock School District and North Little Rock School District, McDaniel wrote that the state currently subsidizes $68.8 million a year as part of the desegregation agreement.

• A Lonoke County jury found an Austin motorcyclist guilty of negligent homicide and second-degree battery in connection with the death of a Cabot man and injury to his wife as the couple walked from a Cabot football game during halftime September 2008.

The jury recommended and imposed the maximum sentence upon Larry Dalhaus, 40.

Dalhaus was sentenced to 10 years for the homicide with a $10,000 fine and three years and $10,000 for the battery. The sentences will run consecutively.

Jeff and Rebecca Marvin, Cabot residents, were among a group of pedestrians in the crosswalk leaving the game when Dalhaus struck them. He was driving east on Hwy. 38 and passed vehicles on the left that had stopped in the northbound lane waiting for pedestrians to cross.

SEPTEMBER

• “We got a lot of good news in the last few days,” Lonoke businessman Bill Ryker said of a second Lonoke I-40 interchange tying Hwy. 89 on the west side of town to the interstate.

“The Federal Highway Administration said they agree with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department on the choice of “Alternative 1” and now its time for the final plans and construction, he said.

Cong. Marion Berry joined Arkansas senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor in getting $5.4 million for engineering, right of way and some construction, Ryker said, but now the project needs about another $4 million to complete.

• For all the salacious detail of what her superior officer told Officer Beverly Hughes he dreamt about her, Hughes’ Sherwood Civil Service Commission appeal of her termination ultimately was not about the sexual harassment to which she was subjected, but about whether or not she refused to answer one particular question during a subsequent polygraph exam. The hearing stretched over several sessions, and in the end, Hughes got her job back, along with a financial settlement.

• Cabot was the first city mentioned as a possible location for a new fairground after the state fair board ran an ad in late June asking for proposals from cities and private landowners. But it was removed from the running soon after city officials expressed interest.

Mayor Eddie Joe Williams initially said in June that the economic impact to the area would make relocating the fair to Cabot a worthwhile venture. He had been contacted several weeks earlier about Cabot’s interest in becoming the new home for the state fair and he believed Cabot was interested.

But Williams’ comments were before anyone looked into the prospect further. Karen Davis, the mayor’s operations director, said later that the short answer to whether Cabot would submit a proposal by the Sept. 15 deadline was “no.”

Davis said the city’s interpretation of the request for proposals is that the board is looking for donated land complete with infrastructure. And that would be far too costly for Cabot to even consider.

• The Jacksonville branch of the NAACP sent a letter to Pulaski County Special School District Board President Tim Clark charging racial bias in the disciplining of teachers, among other complaints.

In his letter, R.L. Aaron, chairman of legal redress for the group, charged that Clark “allowed (Teachers’ Union President Marty Nix) to blatantly direct comments toward us as the NAACP without objection,” that President Barack Obama was referred to disrespectfully as “Obama” and that parent Bonnie McDonald was “silenced” when she charged the district with racism and complained that the president’s speech to school children was not mandatory and was aired in only a handful of PCSSD schools.

• In September the F-105 Thunder Chief on display on the south side of the Jacksonville Museum of Military History was dedicated and at the same time museum officials expressed hope that the fighter would be joined by a C-130 in 2010. Warren Dupree, of the museum, said that there is a C-130 at Little Rock Air Force Base with the museum’s name on it if Lockheed-Martin will commit to the funding. “We’ve sent the letters of request to them and should know by next year,” Dupree said.

• Scott Landrum, chief executive officer of North Metro Medical Center, resigned. Family obligations following the death of Landrum’s father necessitated his resignation, hospital officials said. Landrum served as administrator of the hospital since 2007. His resignation was effective immediately.

Hospital board chairman Mike Wilson said that he and the board were pleased with what Landrum accomplished to lessen the hospital’s financial difficulties. “He did what we think is an excellent job, and he leaves with the best wishes from the board.”
Don Cameron, the chief operating officer for Allegiance Health Management, which manages the hospital, has served as CEO until a permanent hire is found.

• Two Jacksonville police officers were honored by the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police as the 2009 Police Officer of the Year. Sgt. Brett Hibbs and officer John Alberson were recognized during the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police 42nd annual convention banquet at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs.

The officers were selected for the award from a group of candidates from other law enforcement agencies around the statE.

Jacksonville Police Chief Gary Sipes nominated Hibbs and Alberson for the award.

He said the officers were nominated for their actions during the five-hour standoff in the Foxwood neighborhood in August 2008.

• The Cabot Medical Clinic changed ownership. The board of directors for North Metro Medical Center, then-owner of the clinic building at 2037 W. Main St., accepted a purchase offer from the physicians group that practices at the Cabot location. The board unanimously voted in favor of accepting $1.44 million for the building.

• Sherwood renamed the old North Hills golf course property “The Greens at North Hills.” The city council unanimously approved a resolution renaming the property, which stated that the “best use of the property for the benefit of our citizens is a golf course,” and that the new name “conveys the beauty of the facility as well as conveys that a special place has been created in the city’s park system for the benefit of all.”

• September 28 was the first day for lottery ticket sales in Arkansas and lottery fever had local players scratching like mad when the state scholarship lottery tickets went on sale.

Many people who won money from the scratch-off tickets turned right around and put their winnings towards the purchase of additional lottery tickets.