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Looking back at the news in 2013

Posted: January 1, 2014 - 1:01am
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City-planted tulips stretch to the sunlight as the Celebrity Solstice pulls into the Juneau harbor in June 2013.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
City-planted tulips stretch to the sunlight as the Celebrity Solstice pulls into the Juneau harbor in June 2013.

It’s time to say farewell to 2013 and usher in a new year. Before we say our final farewell to the year that brought us oil tax reform, multi-million dollar construction projects and a federal government shutdown, here’s some of the stories Juneau residents are likely to remember throughout 2014 and beyond.

National news

For 16 days in October the federal government came to a screeching halt as Republicans and Democrats waged a political battle over whether or not to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. Even though the battleground was 4,000 miles away, the effects were still felt in Juneau. Employees with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Forest Service and Juneau’s Federal Building were sent home indefinitely. What resulted shortly thereafter were lawsuits filed by the timber industry, a decrease in traffic and revenue for local businesses, and concerns by king crab fishermen that they might miss the entire season. The shutdown finally ended Oct. 16 after a group of bipartisan female lawmakers, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, came up with a proposal that lead the way for a compromise.

A weekend of festivities and celebration were held in Juneau following the U.S. Supreme Court’s July 26 ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. LBGTQ activists, organizers and supporters held live performances, dance numbers and forums to mark the occasion. “There’s been so much prejudice and discrimination,” activist Lin Davis told the Empire. “It’s so nice to have something to celebrate.”

Business news

The news that Juneau’s utility company, Alaska Electric Light and Power, was selling out to Spokane, Wash.-based Avista Utilities would have made this list by itself. But then owner Bill Corbus dropped a bombshell at the end of the Nov. 4 press conference announcing his company’s pending sale. Corbus said he would donate 90 percent of his shares, about $40 million, to the nonprofit Juneau Community Foundation once the sale closes July 1, 2014. Spoiler alert: Don’t be surprised if Corbus’ larger-than-life gift makes our top headlines of 2014 as well.

Delta Air Lines’ Dec. 16 announcement it will begin flights to Juneau in May is one of the more recent stories of 2013, but one of the biggest business stories nonetheless. The announcement was so sudden that even airport officials were caught off guard by Delta’s plans. “Wow, that’s great news,” said one airport official, “but I wish they would have given us a memo.”

City news

Juneau’s publicly-owned Bartlett Regional Hospital saw three of its top four administrators resign in 2013 following an investigation into personnel complaints of harassment, verbal threats and the creation of a hostile work environment. Former CEO Christine Harff handed in her resignation in September after barely more than a year on the job. A few months later Ken Brough, the hospital’s chief financial officer, turned in his resignation. In between Harff and Brough, Human Resources Director Norma Adams gave her resignation. Officials with Bartlett say that all employee claims were unsubstantiated following the internal revue.

After two years of dealing with a failed meter system that offered two-hour free parking, Juneau decided this month to part ways with parking-meter provider Aparc Systems. The city will now take its complaints to court to try and recover the $500,000 spent on the meters. City Manager Kim Keifer and the Juneau Assembly will spend the early portion of 2014 looking for a new solution to downtown parking.

Eaglecrest Ski Area earned national recognition thanks to an online contest held by Powder Magazine. Labeled the “Cinderella Story” of 2013 by the magazine, Eaglecrest pulled one upset after another on its way to the Ski Town Throwdown finals against Crested Butte, eventually losing by only 93 votes. It will be interesting to see what the added publicity will mean for Eaglecrest in 2014. “We’re all winners in this,” said Marketing Director Jeffra Clough. “It’s been a great ride, and so many more people now know about Eaglecrest and about Juneau. That’s the whole goal.”

What residents will likely miss most about 2013 is the warm, sunny — and mostly rain free — summer we all were able to experience. It was a good summer to be a cruise ship tourist visiting Juneau, but an even better summer to live here. If 2014 brings half as much sunshine and 70-degree days as last year, most will probably consider it a good year.

Education news

After years of stagnant graduation rates, the Juneau School District saw an increase in graduates from 70 to 79 percent in 2013. Among Native students the increase was even higher, jumping from 50 to 71 percent. There’s more work left to be done, but the increase reflects the hard work by teachers, support staff, administrators and students in preparing future generations for life outside of school.

The Juneau Board of Education voted 4-3 on Sept. 10 to ban middle school sports travel, creating a community uproar that still hasn’t settled down. The ban will take affect after the current school year, unless a stakeholder committee created by the school board to evaluate the issue and present alternative plans can come up with a proposal board members agree with. What made the issue so divisive — and confusing — is that even now no one is sure the precise reason why the ban was approved in the first place. Lack of staff resources? Not enough money? Pulling teachers from the classroom? Last year brought more questions than answers. Perhaps 2014 will be the other way around.

The Juneau teachers union and school district sat down to talk about a new contract in October, and after a month of meetings the two sides were still $10 million apart heading into the Christmas break. Teachers believe there’s money in the district’s budget to give raises; the district contends otherwise. The result of negotiations ended with many teachers deciding to work only their contracted hours and the Juneau Education Association talking about a possible teachers strike sometime in the near future. Like some other stories on this list, we’ll have to wait to see how it all turns out.

State news

Is SB21 a tax break or is it tax reform? That all depends on who you ask. The Alaska Legislature adopted SB21 during the last session, with supporters arguing that going away from ACES and its sliding tax scale would encourage more new development and investment in infrastructure by oil companies. Opponents believe SB21 does little more than give a tax break to big oil without any guarantees of more drilling or exploration. Not long after SB21 was adopted a petition revoking the bill gained enough signatures that Alaska voters will now decide on Alaska’s oil tax system at voting booths in August.

Expansion to Medicaid was a divisive topic for every state, but in the end only Alaska and a handful of other states decided against accepting federal dollars to expand the program. After two reports, pressure from multiple state groups to accept the funds, and months of speculation about what Alaska would do, Gov. Sean Parnell decided in November not to accept the money.

Construction news

A ground-breaking ceremony was held Jan. 16 for the new State Library, Archive & Museum building, a $131 million project that required a decade of planning and fundraising. The project will take several more years to complete, but when finished the SLAM building will house books, artifacts, paintings, drawings and other culturally- and historically-significant items that can be shared and enjoyed by all.

The passing of Dr. Walter Soboleff in 2011 was a great loss for Juneau, but through the Walter Soboleff Cultural Center his name and spirit will live on. Sealaska Heritage Institute broke ground on the downtown center Aug. 1, with construction expected to be completed in early 2015. The building will serve as a modern cultural and heritage center. “The center will share the vision of learning, celebrating and preserving native traditions and ceremonies,” said First Lady Sandy Parnell at the ground breaking. “A building that stands, like doctor Soboleff stands in our hearts and memories as a bridge between cultures, a building whose purpose will be for the benefit of all.”

Court news

John Nick Marvin was sentenced to serve two 99-year prison sentences on April 5 for the murder of two Hoonah police officers in 2010. Marvin was found guilty of the first degree murder charges in late 2012 for killing Officer Matthew Tokuoka,32, and Sgt. Anthony Wallace, 39. Hopefully the sentencing was able to provide some level of closure for the families and friends Tokuoka and Wallace left behind.

A Thunder Mountain football coach ended up on ESPN, but not the way he might have hoped. A video surfaced in May of former Falcons assistant coach and middle school teacher John Wahl knocking a freshman player unconscious during an unsanctioned boxing match during a football camp in Oregon in 2012. Shortly after Wahl and former Falcons head coach Bill Byouer, also a middle school teacher, lost their jobs with the school district. The story took another twist in November when the Gold Beach, Ore. district attorney overseeing the case said it wouldn’t go to trial because he lacked the funds to fly the youth there for trial. After an outpouring of community support, District Attorney Everett Dial reversed course a day later. “I have never had that happen before,” he said.

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