Irene recovery, Yankee dominate Vermont news in 2012

Wednesday January 2, 2013

MONTPELIER, -- The top Vermont story of 2011 reverberated enough to take the title again in 2012, as residents continued mopping up from Tropical Storm Irene, according to a year-end survey of journalists at Associated Press member newspapers and broadcasters.

The year began with high hopes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would provide funding generous enough to fix up most of Vermont's state complex in Waterbury, while retooling its mental health system with a new state hospital to replace the Waterbury facility wiped out by floodwaters.

By mid-year, big questions arose about just how generous that FEMA funding would be. Those questions are still unresolved.

The year was punctuated in late August with observances of Irene's anniversary, and ended with an announcement by Gov. Peter Shumlin that in lieu of a second inaugural ball, he would hold a fundraiser at the Statehouse so the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund could continue helping people still suffering.

No. 2 on the top story list was the continuing saga of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. The year began with a ruling from Judge J. Garvan Murtha of the U.S. District Court in Brattleboro that the plant could continue operating despite the state's efforts to close it. The judge ruled that in its efforts to close the Vernon reactor, the Legislature had improperly let its concerns about nuclear safety influence it. Federal law makes nuclear safety the sole purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The stories were ranked by combining the number of votes they got among survey respondents with the ranking each voter gave them.

Crime stories took three spots in the top 10 ranking, with another story that started in 2011. Story No. 3 was about Bill and Lorraine Currier, who were killed in their Essex home in June 2011. The case was not resolved until their alleged killer, Israel Keyes, took his own life in an Alaska prison this month.

Fourth place in the ranking went to the merger of Vermont's two largest power companies, as the Canadian company that owned Green Mountain Power Corp. finished its acquisition of Central Vermont Public Service Corp. The merger triggered a big fight in the Legislature, as some lawmakers said consumers who bailed CVPS out of financial trouble a decade ago weren't getting the compensation they were due.

A ski resort owner, with the help of foreign investment encouraged by a federal program designed to bring capital into the United States, took fifth place in the ranking, with big plans announced in September to bring multiple bursts of economic development -- and thousands of jobs -- to Jay, Newport and Burke.

Bill Stenger said that ongoing development at his Jay Peak resort would continue, that new manufacturing and commercial development would be coming to Newport, and that Burke Mountain, which Jay acquired this year, also would see new housing and expanded ski facilities.

Melissa Jenkins, a popular teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy, went to help a couple who said their car had broken down and ended up being killed in a crime that prosecutors say Allen Prue and his wife Patricia Prue committed for their idea of fun.

Police said the Waterford couple got the idea "to get a girl" and planned the crime, buying a stun gun and prepaid cellphone before driving to Jenkins' home and then to a dam in Barnet where her body was dumped. The story tied for fifth place with Stenger's economic development projects.

Vermont Democrats came in seventh in this survey after coming in first just about everywhere else. From national networks again announcing Vermont as the first state to support President Barack Obama, to the party's expansion of its already big majority in the Vermont House, 2012 was a banner year for the state's Democrats. Their candidate for lieutenant governor lost, but even Cassandra Gekes but got more votes than the Republican candidate for governor, Sen. Randy Brock.

Eighth was the mental health reorganization. Irene forced something state officials had talked of doing for decades: closing the antiquated Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. That set up a crisis with mentally ill people being held in hospital emergency rooms, sometimes for days at a time, while the state scrambled to reorganize its mental health system. The result: a more geographically dispersed set of mental health services, with a new, smaller hospital to be built in Berlin next year.

The last two of the Top 10 tied in the scoring.

One concerned charges that veteran Vermont State Police Sgt. James Deeghan padded his time sheets, in part by filing, in 12 years, 1,000 traffic tickets that he never gave to a motorist or the state traffic bureau. Deeghan resigned July 10. He has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges that he claimed 63 hours of overtime in June that he didn't work.

The other was the news about trouble in dairy land. Farmers were hit with rising costs, low milk prices and a failure by Congress to reauthorize the farm bill, leading to dissolution of a key price-support program.

Editor's note: Look for the Reformer's local year in review in the Weekend Reformer.


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