First of two parts
According to readers, this year was topped by local stories that reflected a contentious election season, economic problems and misfortune. An analysis of the most-read articles from the LaGrange Daily News online by Google Analytics gave the following stories as the 10 most popular over the last year.
10. Kia parts supplier burns
About 5 a.m. March 17, a fire quickly knocked out one of Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia’s main suppliers, shutting down production of Troup County’s biggest employer for several days.
The roof of Daehan Solutions’s plant located in the Northwest Harris Business Park in West Point collapsed soon after the quick-spreading fire broke out. A sprinkler system was activated during the incident, but the roof collapsed so soon after the start of the fire, the sprinklers were not effective.
About 30 employees were in the plant when the fire started about 5 a.m. All tried to use fire extinguishers and also were unsuccessful. Firefighters were on the scene within five minutes and immediately called for backup from Lanett, Ala., East Alabama and Harris County fire departments.
More than 50 firefighters were on the scene, including all West Point firefighters and off-duty personnel.
“When I arrived on the scene there were approximately 50 firefighters and a dozen fire trucks,” West Point City Manager Ed Moon said after the incident. “The fire was being fought in a defensive mode, ladder truck large streams and interior and exterior streams from hand lines located in the expansion.”
The fire was ruled accidental and unintentional, said West Point Fire Chief Milton Smith. Total damage was estimated at $18 million.
Smith said the fire started when an employee left hot molds too close to combustible materials.
The Kia supplier makes sound barrier material that goes in automobiles, such as headliners and carpet. The barrier material is made up of rubber material that looks like shredded cloth and felt and is pressed with heat.
When the sound barrier material is composed, it goes through a hot mold to be compressed and those hot molds are hung on a cart and taken outside for disposal, Smith said.
“The man who was supposed to take it outside didn’t make it,” Smith said in April. “He went on a break and left it too close to combustible materials.”
Daehan has about 300 employees, and is located in a 140,000 square foot facility on 30 acres in the business park. The building was built at a cost of $36.9 million.
The fire shut down the supplier, and Kia stopped manufacturing for five days. Daehan began partial production after four days of 24-hour work on the plant and called all 300 employees to come back to work a week after the fire.
“We have done in seven days what normally takes a month,” human resources manager Ron Wilson said a week after the fire.
Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia resumed full mass production March 26. Daehan also has since resumed full production.
9. Flyer targeting Woodruff has false information
The 2012 elections proved to be some of the most contentious in local memory, and one of the hottest contests was the sheriff’s race.
Sheriff-elect, then candidate, James Woodruff, was in fierce competition with his former employer, incumbent Donny Turner, for the Republican ticket. Tensions were high and supporters of both candidates were pulling no punches.
In August, flyers began circulating to homes in Troup County stating Woodruff had lost critical certification.
The flier, sponsored by “Troup Mothers for a Safe Community,” points to a 2009 investigation of Woodruff by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, after he was fired by Turner that year.
“The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council revoked sheriff candidate James Woodruff’s law enforcement certification,” the flier stated.
That never happened.
“The agency that governs law enforcement says he cannot be in law enforcement,” the flier stated. It directed readers to the website, www.gapost.org for more information on Woodruff’s case, even though one has to be a registered law enforcement officer to use the site.
“It’s totally untrue,” Woodruff said after finding out about the fliers. “My certification was never revoked. It’s sad that people make these untrue allegations with a week to go in the election.”
Woodruff was dismissed as chief jailer at the sheriff’s office after he allowed a female inmate charged with driving on a suspended license to leave the jail and go to the state Department of Driver Services in LaGrange on April 24, 2009, and to Columbus four days later.
Woodruff’s actions were “without proper authority,” Turner said at the time.
The action led to an investigation by POST and a recommendation by POST council that Woodruff’s certification be revoked. Before that happened, however, Woodruff appealed and was given a year of probation.
His certification never was revoked and his probation ended in May 2011.
“To say his certification was revoked is entirely incorrect,” said Ryan Powell, director of operations at POST.
8. Fire claims Teaver Road Baptist sanctuary
It was a Sunday morning, and a church burned.
The fire started about 7 a.m. Jan. 8, reported by a passerby traveling past the building at 215 Teaver Road. A wall of the building collapsed shortly after 10 a.m. No one was injured in the blaze, and firefighters saved the family life building and the original building at the church.
Firefighters were still putting water on the fire two hours later and continued to extinguish hot spots throughout the day as church members gathered at the remains.
“It’s going to be OK,” said Jeff Benefield, chairman of the deacons at the church, the day of the blaze. “What would have happened if it had started two hours later? It could have been much, much worse.”
The congregation met in the church’s family life center, a building that was completed just three years ago. It had no damage from the fire.
“We have a beautiful building that is unharmed,” Benefield said. “Now it’s our sanctuary. Thank God, he put it there for us. There will be blessings in this for us.”
Longtime members were saddened by the loss.
“It’s emotional. I know it’s just a building, but my three daughters were married there. We buried my mother there,” said Pat Gaston, a charter member. “It’s sad, but it will be OK.”
Her husband, Larry Gaston, had recently begun a project to collect information about the church history. A large box of old photos for that project was destroyed in the fire.
“Another hour and we would have had people in the building,” Benefield said. “I know one thing, God put us here and he’s going to take care of us.”
The Rev. Aaron McCollough was scheduled to preach at Teaver Road on Sunday morning. Instead, he comforted church members who had gathered in a circle on the perimeter of the fire scene to pray and sing worship songs.
“This is the church,” McCollough said, pointing to those in the circle. “The church didn’t burn. The sanctuary can be replaced. Life will never be the same, but it will go on.”
Federal ATF and state fire marshal’s officials investigated the blaze. The fire marshal released a final report on the sanctuary fire about a week after the incident, finding that the fire started in the attic, and an electrical malfunction could not be ruled out. However, the cause of the blaze still was listed as undetermined.
7. Schools propose school closure, 118 jobs cut
Fiscal woes are nothing to the Troup County School System, but 2012’s state formula for funding left officials with some heavy choices.
The Troup County School System in February brought a sour-tasting proposal to the Board of Education, proposing closing West Side Magnet School, eliminating almost 60 teachers — one-third of those art and music teachers, accounting for all elementary-level art and music — and cutting its budget by 8 percent to make up for a projected $11.1 million shortfall.
Although federal stimulus funds and property tax revenue increases related to Kia have helped stave off more dramatic effects of a decrease of $34.2 million in funds over the last four years, the system still has seen a net loss of $17.5 million in the state’s Quality Basic Education funds, said Superintendent Cole Pugh.
The school system was slated to see a dramatic drop in state funding based on the county’s wealth ranking, which increased due to the initial inclusion of property values by Kia and its suppliers. Kia and many of its suppliers are actually PILOT - payment in lieu of taxes - properties, because they pay a reduced property tax for a set number of years as part of their agreement with local and state officials.
However, after school system officials brought to the state’s attention the discrepancy in counting the full value of Kia and related suppliers, state officials pledged to amend its funding. Troup County School System announced in March that it would get $3.9 million in equalization funding over the previously announced $1.7 million.
The last minute amendment helped save art and music in elementary classes, but West Side Magnet School still was closed, shifting 367 students out to other elementary and middle schools. In the end, 38 teaching positions were cut, but many teachers were shifted to open positions.
The school system still faces budget challenges and is staring down more potential cuts and school closures in the next year.
6. AG won’t investigate sheriff
The 2012 sheriff’s race had its share of controversy, and related stories account for three of the Daily News’ top 10-viewed stories of the year.
A tape was given to the Daily News in July where incumbent Sheriff Donny Turner, who had served 20 years in the position, was heard threatening a former employee’s job. Turner was upset after seeing the employee campaign for opponent James Woodruff. (For more on that, see Monday’s edition for the top 5 stories of the year.)
The question that followed was whether Turner’s action was illegal. Georgia law states it’s illegal to intimidate an elector to refrain from voting.
District Attorney Pete Skandalakis said after the tape was made public that he recused himself from deciding whether Turner’s intimidation was illegal, but did ask the attorney general to appoint another prosecutor.
“I have recused myself and this office from answering/interpreting the question regarding Sheriff Turner and if his actions violated OCGA 21-2-567,” Skandalakis said. “The basis of my recusal is due to my close personal and professional relationship with Sheriff Turner and, therefore, I feel it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in on this matter. I have asked the Attorney General to appoint another prosecutor to answer the question.”
The state Attorney General later said his office wouldn’t investigate Turner. David S. McLaughlin, senior assistant attorney general, sent Skandalakis a letter saying Turner did nothing criminally wrong.
“This conclusion only involves the question of criminality and not the ethical considerations presented by Sheriff Turner’s comments,” McLaughlin wrote.
McLaughlin said Turner wasn’t trying to intimidate Whitney into not voting, and an act of intimidation didn’t occur.
“The issue is not one of elector intimidation, but one of retaliation against Mr. Whitney for supporting another candidate,” McLaughlin said.
The attorney general’s office also defined intimidation as “placing another person in reasonable fear for the person’s safety or the safety of another person.”
“There is no evidence that Sheriff Turner’s comments placed Mr. Whitney in reasonable fear for his safety or the safety of others,” McLaughlin said.
Although charges were never filed in the incident, it may have been the biggest contributor to Turner’s eventual defeat.
See Monday’s Daily News for a breakdown of our top five stories of the year.