Looking Back At The Top 10 Local Stories Of 2018
Tumultuous weather, the church abuse scandal and a presidential visit were among the biggest news stories in 2018.
Two school districts saw progress in building plans and contract negotiations respectively, while another faced problems with busing issues.
Here’s a look at the top 10 stories of the year:
It took months to rebuild stores in the Arena Hub after an EF2 tornado ripped through the shopping plaza, Mundy Street and Wilkes-Barre Twp. Commons on June 13.
The tornado caused at least $18 million of damage. In all, about two dozen businesses were damaged and six people suffered minor injuries.
Since the tornado, eight of nine stores in the Arena Hub reopened including PetSmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, T.J. Maxx, Staples, Carter’s/OshKosh, Eddie Bauer, Avenue and Men’s Wearhouse.
Construction continues at Barnes & Noble, which will reopen in early 2019. In the meantime, it’s operating a temporary pop-up store in the nearby East End Centre.
On Mundy Street, Kurlancheek Home Furnishings was destroyed and demolished. Owner Ronne Kurlancheek opened a temporary location in the former Gateway Cinema in Edwardsville and recently opened a holiday pop-up shop in Midtown Village in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Ashley Furniture also was destroyed and opened a new location behind the Wyoming Valley Mall that formerly housed H.H. Gregg before it closed and other vacant stores.
Stations Grill closed because the building it was in was demolished.
The Wilkes-Barre Twp. Commons strip mall that housed eight tenants was destroyed and is awaiting demolition.
Panera Bread, one of the tenants, could return.
Another tenant, Tovon & Co., reopened a store in the Dallas Shopping Center. Owner Tommy Van Scoy Jr. said while the tornado devastated the store, diamonds and other jewelry remained in the safe unharmed.
After the tornado, employees from other tenant GameStop began working at another store location in Wyoming Valley Mall. GameStop recently opened another store in the closed Sweet Frog in the Wilkes-Barre Twp. Marketplace near Walmart.
Employees at Holiday Hair, another tenant, moved to another location in Edwardsville.
Jack Beccaris, owner of Sneaker King, recently announced that his store in Plains Twp. will close after more than 71 years. That left Sneaker King without a location in the Wyoming Valley since the tornado destroyed the other store in the Wilkes-Barre Twp. Commons.
Other stores destroyed in Wilkes-Barre Twp. Commons included America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, LA Nails and Famous Footwear.
— DENISE ALLABAUGH
The long-awaited grand jury report on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania was released in August.
The report implicated 59 priests from the Diocese of Scranton, many who served throughout Luzerne County. One parish — St. Therese’s Church in Shavertown — had been home parish for five of the priests at some point in their careers.
The diocese admitted the number of known sexual abusers from the diocese actually totaled 70, which included priests not mentioned in the report and non priests.
Fallout from the 1,356-page report led local Catholic institutions to revoke honors given to past diocese bishops James Timlin, Jerome Hannan and J. Carroll McCormick, accused of aiding in covering up cases of abuse and/or not reporting them.
Timlin, 91, the only one of the three still alive, was later permanently barred from representing the diocese in any way. Bishop James Bambera referred Timlin’s case to the Vatican to determine what further action could be taken.
Within a month of the report’s release, an additional 30 victims came forward in the Diocese of Scranton, church officials said.
— BOB KALINOWSKI
The Wilkes-Barre Area School District continued to move ahead with its plan to build a new high school and now plans to consolidate all three high schools.
The district plans to borrow up to $137.3 million to fund the construction of a new high school between Maffett and North Main streets in Plains Twp. The district bought the 78-acre site from Pagnotti Enterprises for $4.2 million.
The school board in 2018 also decided to merge the sports teams at the district’s three high schools — Meyers, GAR and Coughlin — in 2019-20 due to declining student participation. The uniform sports teams will have new team colors — black and Carolina blue — and a new nickname/mascot — Wolfpack.
The consolidation of the three high schools into the new high school in Plains Twp. is expected during the 2021-22 school year.
Members of the anti-consolidation group Save Our Schools continued to criticize the project and started calling it “Mine Shaft High” on social media because of previous mining activity at the site.
School officials have said the site will be safe because of environmental safety measures that will prevent exposure to potentially harmful soil.
The initial plan in 2015 was to merge Coughlin and Meyers at a new high school built at the current Coughlin site. After the city zoning board rejected that plan, the board chose the Pagnotti site in 2017. The board added GAR to the consolidation plan last August.
— MICHAEL P. BUFFER
Wilkes-Barre police saw a change in leadership in 2018 after the release of a scathing report critical of the chief, a commander and several aspects of departmental operations.
Mayor Tony George announced on April 4 that Marcella Lendacky intended to retire as police chief in June. It was the same day he released to council and the police union a report by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association that criticized the qualifications and leadership of Lendacky and then commander of patrol Ron Foy.
Council last year commissioned the chiefs association to review and assess departmental leadership and operations after acrimony between the top brass and the police union grew and legal costs of defending grievances and unfair labor practice complaints topped $100,000. George agreed to the assessment and its $26,212 price tag.
George refused to make the final report public on the advice of counsel, but The Citizens’ Voice obtained a copy from a source who had access to it.
Although the report made 30 recommendations for improving departmental operations, it did not recommend Lendacky’s or Foy’s removal. But George eliminated Foy’s position and returned him to his former rank of detective.
The mayor put Joseph Coffay, a 28-year department veteran who had been commander of the detective division, in charge of the department after Lendacky retired June 3.
George advertised for a new chief, engaged a search committee to narrow the list of applicants and conducted interviews, but the hiring process stalled for several months. George eventually appointed Coffay as chief in November.
— STEVE MOCARSKY
The long, contentious contract dispute between the Dallas School Board and the union for school district teachers ended in September.
Dallas teachers got a new contract that ends Aug. 31, 2023. They worked three years under an expired union agreement and went on strike a total of 31 days during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.
Negotiators on both sides gave credit to mediator Bill Gross for coming up with a proposed contract that both sides found agreeable. Gross became involved after Luzerne County Judge William Amesbury began overseeing negotiations in June.
State Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera filed a request for a court order to prevent teachers from striking more days — to ensure the district had 180 instruction days last school year — and Amesbury ordered daily bargaining sessions until the dispute ended.
Under the new agreement, the average union salary increased from $62,076 in 2017-18 to $69,223 this year. Teachers didn’t advance pay-scale steps after the previous union agreement expired Aug. 31, 2015 and did not receive retroactive pay under the new deal.
The teachers union, the Dallas Education Association, is a local union in the Pennsylvania State Education Association with more than 170 members.
— MICHAEL P. BUFFER
Luzerne County hosted a president and a vice president for political rallies in 2018.
President Donald Trump appeared at Mohegan Sun Arena on Aug. 2 at a campaign rally for Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who was in the midst of an uphill and ultimately unsuccessful battle to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Scranton.
Trump spoke to an enthusiastic, cheering crowd at the arena in Wilkes-Barre Twp. Some who arrived late in the afternoon were turned away after the arena filled to capacity.
About 200 protesters stood outside. Some held up anti-Trump signs and chanted anti-Trump slogans. Police took one woman into custody, after she did not immediately follow instructions to get off Highland Park Boulevard as Trump’s motorcade neared.
It was Trump’s third appearance at the arena, following two campaign stops during his successful 2016 bid for the presidency.
Vice President Mike Pence headlined a campaign rally for Republican congressional candidate John Chrin on Oct. 24 at Valley Aviation in Forty Fort.
Pence urged voters to support Chrin, a millionaire investment banker from Monroe County, in his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat, in the newly formed 8th Congressional District.
Cartwright defeated Chrin in the November general election.
— ERIC MARK
The City of Wilkes-Barre managed to stay out of financially distressed status this year, even though Mayor Tony George had requested the designation.
George sent a letter to Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin on June 29 asking him to deem the city financially distressed as defined under Act 47, citing projected budget deficits as a major factor in the plea.
Officially called the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, Act 47 allows distressed municipalities certain revenue-collection advantages other cities don’t have, such as increasing the local services tax and imposing an earned income tax, or commuter tax, on people who work in the city but reside outside its borders.
Davin denied George’s request in September.
DCED Press Secretary Michael Gerber had said the department — based on testimony presented at an Aug. 1 public hearing, written testimony, and an extensive review and analysis of the city’s financial data — found several actions the city could take before it needed to enter Act 47 “as a last resort.”
The city made “significant positive strides” by implementing several recommendations in an Early Intervention Program report prepared by financial consultants in 2017, but the city had not yet implemented many other recommendations, Gerber had said.
DCED supplied a report containing oral and written testimony on George’s request. While most of the oral testimony supported George’s request, much of the written testimony did not.
Councilwoman Beth Gilbert was among the dissenters who sent a letter opposing distressed status.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski and state Sen. John Yudichak sent a joint letter asking the DCED to examine whether continuing with the Early Intervention Program would be a more appropriate course of action than entering Act 47 status.
Despite earlier predictions of a budget deficit next year, the administration managed to put together a $50.4 million balanced budget for 2019 with no tax increases and just a $10 increase in the annual recycling fee.
— STEVE MOCARSKY
Two medical marijuana dispensaries opened in Luzerne County in 2018, a local sign of statewide change.
Patients started buying cannabis from Justice Grown in Edwardsville in March. In December, a Columbia Care PA branch opened in Wilkes-Barre.
It’s a major change in the landscape of healthcare in the state.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed a medical marijuana bill in April 2016. By this year, the first dispensaries were opening.
Since then, more than 40 have sold cannabis, including three in Northeast Pennsylvania — the two in Luzerne County and another in Scranton.
More dispensaries are planned. The state Department of Health approved 23 more permits, including one in Hazleton. Once all those dispensaries open, there were be 79 dispensaries selling cannabis in Pennsylvania. Each of those permit holders is allowed to open up to three locations.
Thousands of patients across the state have signed up to treat a number of ailments. The initial legislation recognized 17 conditions, and an advisory board added four more this year. Among the medical conditions that qualify patients for participation are cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and others. Opioid use disorders that haven’t been helped through convention therapies are another condition.
The list of approved conditions could soon grow larger. The Medical Marijuana Advisory Board will accept petitions for conditions to be added to the list and plans to vote on the first round of submissions at a Feb. 1, 2019 meeting.
— BILL WELLOCK
A controversy involving Luzerne County election director Marisa Crispell’s ties to county vendor Election Systems & Software drew state-wide attention in December.
Crispell served on the ES&S customer advisory board and traveled to two meetings for which ES&S paid her expenses last year, including one in Las Vegas.
The company supplied the voting machines the county has used since 2006, as well as an electronic poll book system the county purchased this year for about $325,000.
Crispell said she cleared the trips with county election board solicitor Michael Butera and county Director of Administrative Services David Parsnik. She resigned from the advisory board in October 2017, before the county sought proposals from vendors for the electronic poll books, she said.
County council members blasted Crispell for not disclosing her connection to ES&S before council voted on the poll book purchase, in April. Council Chairman Tim McGinley said Crispell’s connection with ES&S raised lots of questions, and he would not have voted to purchase the poll books until those questions were answered.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale addressed the controversy during a Dec. 12 news conference in Olyphant. He described the March 2017 trip to Las Vegas trip as a “junket” and called Crispell’s decision to attend it a “disgrace.”
DePasquale launched a state-wide investigation into how counties acquire voting equipment.
Luzerne County hired the Harrisburg law firm McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC to investigate whether any violations of the county charter or administrative code took place.
The Crestwood School Board launched a probe of how bus drivers were working without background clearances and placed superintendent Joseph Gorham and Christopher Gegaris, Crestwood’s chief of operations, on paid leaves.
District officials canceled school Oct. 24 and 25 — after state auditors found background clearances for some school bus drivers had expired — until all drivers had up-to-date clearances. Since then, the investigation has been ongoing, and Gorham and Gegaris continue to remain on paid leaves of absence.
The school board also voted Nov. 20 to end the student bus contract with Rinehimer Bus Lines Inc. on Feb. 1 and is looking to approve a new bus contract, perhaps with another company. The current bus contract costs $2.3 million a year.
Another Crestwood controversy came in April when the board voted to furlough a Spanish teacher, a home economics teacher and two teachers of technology and woodworking. But a few weeks after the vote, district and teachers union negotiators reached a deal to save the four jobs by adjusting the union’s collective bargaining agreement and reducing expenditures.
In March, Gorham issued an apology because a tribute to the victims of the school shooting the Parkland, Florida, contained an audio clip of the attack, which upset some parents. The tribute was broadcast during a planned walkout protest.
Also in March, Gorham responded to an incorrect school closure notice by blasting WNEP-TV for “incompetence.” The station incorrectly listed the district as being closed for a second consecutive day because of a winter storm and apologized.
Gorham sent a robocall to parents to explain that school was not closed and that the notice on WNEP was wrong.
“I apologize for their incompetence and any confusion and concern this may have caused your family,” Gorham said.
— MICHAEL P. BUFFER