Many positive developments notwithstanding, 2019 may have been a year many in Marion County want to forget.
Crisis and controversy dominated headlines to almost unprecedented levels, as demonstrated by this list of the top stories of the year, determined by the number of habitual readers each story attracted on our websites, the most heavily read news sites in the county:
1. A long-winded, sometimes violent debate
Overheated debate about Expedition Wind’s plans for a wind farm in the southern part of the county was by far 2019’s dominant news topic, accounting for 38 of the year’s 250 most-read stories.
The biggest individual story in the group was coverage Dec. 4 of the arrest of wind farm opponent Amy Stutzman after she allegedly fired a handgun during a confrontation with surveyors near her Peabody-area property.
That story placed 12th overall. Follow-ups in ensuing weeks placed 14th and 246th.
Among other wind farm stories in the top 250, the most-read individual story was our reporting May 15 about how a leading opponent, outspoken county commissioner Dianne Novak, had signed a document allowing a wind turbine from another project, Enel Energy’s northern windfarm, to be placed on land owned by her husband.
That story placed 23rd, followed by a story July 3, which placed 29th, reporting how wind farm opponents had fallen short of obtaining enough petition signatures to force reconsideration of a conditional use permit for the southern project.
A story May 1 about opponents hiring lawyers to sue Expedition and the county finished next in 36th place.
2. Hillsboro hospital on life support
Years of financial difficulty at Hillsboro Community Hospital came to a head with foreclosure actions filed against the hospital, city, and county, as reported Jan. 9 in the year’s No. 2 story overall — one of 22 stories in the top 250 about the hospital’s difficulties this year.
That same week, a separate story about the hospital facing a shutdown deadline placed 9th on the overall list. A threatened utility cutoff the week before placed 16th, just behind stories May 1 about physician changes and Jan. 23 about a critical report received from the hospital’s bankruptcy receiver.
3. Devastating flooding, some of it intentional
Flooding in the wake of a 7½-inch rainfall in Durham dominated headlines in July as Marion Reservoir was pushed to record levels.
Initial flooding produced the year’s No. 4 story July 3 and additional stories the following week:
- No. 7 about 75-year-old former Lincolnville mayor David Schneider Sr. being trapped in mud for 1½ days.
- No. 40 about Monte Magathan’s rural Marion home being flooded without warning by an intentional release of water from the reservoir.
Eventually, there was good news in a 56th-place story Aug. 14 reporting that iconic Main Street Café, closed by the Durham flooding, had been purchased and would reopen.
All in all, 16 of the top 250 stories of the year dealt with flooding in May, June, and July and the aftermath.
4. Windiness not about wind farms and roads
Even when not arguing about wind farms and another favorite topic, roads, county commissioners endured yet another year of public division and derision.
Of the year’s 250 top stories, 13 dealt with various disputes among commissioners, topped by Jan. 16 coverage, placing 17th overall, about disagreements over paying for fire department radios and denial of a beer license for Last Chance Bait Shop because the applicant’s spouse, Gary Davis, had been found to have a criminal record.
The commissioners’ surprise decision, reported Jan. 9, to rescind at Novak’s request an earlier decision against referendum advice to hire a county administrator placed 31st.
Other stories in the top 250 included coverage of elections that expanded the commission to five members, two of whom now represent districts in which isolated islands of Hillsboro and Marion have been attached to widely separated, non-contiguous rural areas.
5. Law and disorder in the sheriff’s office
The year was especially challenging for to the sheriff’s office.
Deputy Bronson Shipman’s firing after being arrested by Marion police on suspicion of domestic battery was the year’s No. 3 story overall. His arrest was reported Nov. 27. A decision not to charge him was reported Dec. 11.
Allegations of poor leadership by Sheriff Rob Craft from yet another dismissed deputy, David Harper-Head, provided the year’s No. 7 story June 5.
A June 26 story about a Wichita activist’s attempts to organize a protest against what she termed Harper-Head’s “corrupt cop” actions in a 2018 arrest placed 45th, the next most-read of eight stories overall about conflict involving the sheriff’s office.
6. Hostage standoff with former gun dealer
With more than twice the readers of any other single story, the year’s most-read report was our coverage Jan. 2 of a hostage crisis at former gun dealer David Impson’s home in Goessel.
Impson eventually was arrested peacefully after a juvenile inside the house reported that Impson had fired shots and was holding others hostage. Harper-Head was the lead deputy on the scene for much of the standoff.
7. Mauling and mailing
A dog kept at the home of its Peabody owner savagely mauled the owner’s uncle, 51-year-old Kent Anderson, leaving Anderson’s face unrecognizable after rescuers pried the dog off his neck.
Our reporting July 3 was the 8th most-read individual story of the year, but it was not the only time dogs were in the news.
On April 3, we reported (in the 69th most-read story of the year) that letter carriers’ concerns about dogs had resulted in the Postal Service discontinuing door-to-door delivery of mail in the first three blocks of N. Roosevelt St. in Marion.
In a follow-up investigation June 12, we reported (in the 89th most-read story of the year) that documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicated Marion postal workers had filed no complaints about dogs in two years prior to the decision and had filed only three complaints in the two years before that.
As reported March 20 in the 85th most-read story of the year, a pit bull registered as a service dog to help owner Michael Darrow with anxiety was ordered removed from the city after it attacked another dog that had ventured onto Darrow’s property. The pit bull was moved to Darrow’s backyard, which is outside the city limits and nearly a mile from where door-to-door mail service was ended.
8. What’s on the menu?
Comings and goings of Marion restaurants accounted for seven of the 250 most-read stories of the year.
Feedlot owner and entrepreneur Mike Beneke’s decision to open Edward’s in Marion’s former Pizza Hut location finished 12th Aug. 7, with other stories about the new restaurant finishing 27th May 22 and 82nd Oct. 2.
A story July 10 about the Historic Elgin Hotel’s new Parlor 1886 restaurant finished 129th.
A story June 12 about the closing of FamLee Bakery finished 132nd.
A story Feb. 13 about the opening of Dorothy’s Coffeehouse and Tea Room finished 145th.
9. All wired up about wireless
A shouting match at a city council meeting over a proposal to locate a wireless phone antenna on Marion’s old water tower produced the year’s 25th most-read story Nov. 20. Police chief Clinton Jeffrey had to intercede between Mayor Todd Heitschmidt and resident Darvin Markley.
Stories about the proposed antenna and plans for a separate cell tower accounted for six of the year’s 250 most-read stories.
10. Going down a familiar road
Year after year, county roads seems to make the list of the year’s top news stories, and 2019 was no different, with five stories ranked among the 250 most-read for the year.
The single most-read road story was from Jan. 23, when 11 members of the public showed up at a county commission meeting to speak about what they termed deplorable road conditions.
Commission chairman Kent Becker started the meeting with a warning: “Commission and public: This is not a yell-fest. This is a civil discussion. If it deviates from that, it’s over.”
The year wasn’t all about conflict and controversy, of course. Eighteen of the 250 most-read stories of the year were what best might be considered human-interest features.
Among them was a story Oct. 16 (finishing in 35th place) about how Marion residents helped a stranded trucker after he was the sole survivor of an accident on US-50.
Other stories included those published:
- June 12 (in 80th place) about Hillsboro rallying to support the family of teenager Demarius Cox, who died while on a camping trip to Colorado.
- Dec. 11 (in 88th place) about Matt Zieammerman’s research of the legendary disappearance of the town of Ashley, Kansas, for a book that he hopes will separate fact from fiction.
- July 17 (in 93rd place) about Hillsboro resident Roger Ryder’s beating the odds to live with stage 3 pancreatic cancer.
- Aug. 7 (in 111th place) about the piece-by-piece process of stonemasons moving a landmark home from just south of Marion to an undisclosed location in Butler County.
- Dec. 4 (in 125th place) about Lincolnville pastor Alan Stahlecker leading young people as a coach as well as spiritually.
- March 13 (in 161st place) about semi-retired machinist Eugene Hamm’s foray into producing nine flavors of Grannies Homemade Mustard from a factory in Hillsboro.
Stories about accidents, fires, and crimes also were scattered among the 250 most-read stories of 2019.
The most prominent, placing 5th overall, was coverage July 3 of a massive two-day search of Marion Reservoir for the body of a boater from Douglas County.
A fatal house fire in which Marion resident Howard O’Connor died was reported Dec. 4 in a story that finished 10th overall.
Peabody resident Steven Holdren’s death after he parked his Jeep in the path of an Amtrak train was reported Feb. 13 in a story that finished 18th overall.
All in all, 44 of the top 250 stories had to do with accidents, fires, crimes, and the like.
Other top headlines of 2019
As reported July 10 in the 24th most-read story of the year, Aulne Church has begun withdrawing from the United Methodist denomination over issues related to Biblical interpretation, including gay marriage.
With low unemployment, Marion County businesses are having trouble recruiting workers, as detailed in a story July 17 that finished in 32nd place.