The Daily Record’s top 20 stories of 2010

Daily Record Staff//December 30, 2010

The Daily Record’s top 20 stories of 2010

By Daily Record Staff

//December 30, 2010

Residents begin to dig out their cars along Kings Ridge Rd. in Parkville, Md. Sunday Feb. 7, 2010.
Residents begin to dig out their cars along Kings Ridge Rd. in Parkville, Md. Sunday Feb. 7, 2010.

No. 1: The blizzards

With bread, milk and toilet paper nearly cleared from local store shelves, flakes began to fall on the metro region the evening of Feb. 5.

What followed was labeled historic and expensive with a Biblical twist as the term “snowmaggedon” was used to describe the back-to-back blizzards that slammed Maryland, burying us under a record of nearly 50 inches of snow and ice.

The Feb. 5 and Feb. 9 storms closed schools, businesses, airports, interstates and roads — some for days on end — as city and state leaders sent out an SOS to other states for front-end loaders, dump trucks and Bobcats to help clear streets. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a Phase III snow emergency for part of a day, which banned all non-city approved vehicles from city streets.

When the bills came in from the blizzard in mid-May, taxpayers had to cover $21.1 million for snow removal, including tree removals and, yes, hot coffee and boxed lunches.

A request for disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was made to help pay for about 75 percent of the cleanup costs. Companies from as far away as Mobile, Ala., and Windsor, Conn., answered the call to help clear the winter wonderland.

No. 2: Dixon resigns, Rawlings-Blake takes over

On Feb. 4, Baltimore got a new mayor when City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was sworn in after Sheila Dixon resigned in the wake of Dixon’s conviction for embezzling gift cards intended for the city’s poor in December 2009.

Rawlings-Blake’s new administration was put to the test the following week when a pair of historic blizzards slammed Baltimore, followed by an austere budget season marked by controversial tax and fee increases pushed by the new mayor. Rawlings-Blake described herself as a realist plugging a $121 million shortfall.

Dixon’s resignation was part of a plea agreement with the state prosecutors, who allowed Dixon to keep an $83,000-a-year pension if she agreed to step down. She is also performing 500 hours of community service at Our Daily Bread and making a $45,000 charitable donation. In return, prosecutors agreed to drop perjury charges against the former mayor and have agreed to expunge her conviction after her community service is complete under probation before judgment.

But the political merry-go-round didn’t stop there.

In a December interview with The Daily Record, Dixon offered a long-awaited apology for her deeds and said she may consider a run for her old office at some point in the future.

And in an offshoot of the Dixon scandal at City Hall, Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton pleaded no contest in early October to violating campaign finance laws. Holton was accused of commissioning a $12,500 poll that was paid for by H&S Bakery magnate and developer John Paterakis and developer Ronald Lipscomb, Dixon’s former boyfriend.

No. 3: Foreclosures

A new state law to require mediation in all foreclosure cases went into effect July 1. That slowed the rate of foreclosures, housing officials say, but the crisis continued to roll on as the recession and unemployment remained high.

The state had 1,385 foreclosure properties as of November, according to RealtyTrac, a national data center on foreclosures. That is one in every 1,685 housing units.

The foreclosure crisis has made a huge impact on the local real estate market, too. RealtyTrac figures this fall show that foreclosed homes accounted for 31 percent of all residential sales in Baltimore during the first eight months of 2010. That is higher than last year’s 22 percent during the corresponding time period.

No. 4: Slots

The state opened its first slots parlor Sept. 27, the Hollywood Casino Perryville, and the operation took in $11.4 million from 1,500 slot machines in its first full month. A second parlor, The Casino at Ocean Downs in Berlin, near Ocean City, is expected to open Jan. 4.

Two years after voters approved slots gaming in Maryland, the issue dominated much of the fall election. A bitter referendum fight ensued between developer David Cordish and opponents of a slots parlor at Arundel Mills mall, which saw Cordish himself knocking on doors to plead his case in person to county residents. The referendum passed with 55.5 percent of the vote.

In the meantime, Cordish told the state’s Video Lottery Terminal Location Commission shortly after the vote that he plans to install a temporary slots facility at the mall while the permanent parlor, to hold 4,750 slots terminals, along with large restaurants and a live jazz hall, is being built.

A proposed gaming facility at the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort in Allegheny County is still awaiting bidders, even though five groups have shown interest. In Baltimore, plans to build a slots parlor near M&T Bank Stadium on the southwest side of town remain stalled as the license remains the subject of a legal battle in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

No. 5: The sorry state of horse racing

After much debate over the viability of the state’s horse racing industry, a short-term fix was approved in late December to keep thoroughbred racing and the Preakness Stakes alive in Maryland in 2011.

The deal was made after Gov. Martin O’Malley and other state officials offered to subsidize operations at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, aging tracks that have struggled to remain open for years.

The state will contribute up to $4 million, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association will contribute $1.7 million as part of the agreement. In addition, the Maryland Jockey Club will run 146 live racing days in 2011, the same number it ran this year.

Penn National Gaming Inc. and MI Developments Inc. entered a joint venture in June to run the Jockey Club.

No. 6: BRAC becomes a reality

This fall, the largest wave of 5,000 new workers began to move into Harford County as the Base Realignment and Closure program got underway. Some 60,000 new jobs are expected in Maryland through 2015.

Already 1,700 new BRAC-related employees are working at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and by 2015, nearly 30,000 new BRAC or BRAC-related workers will be deployed at or near APG, Harford County officials estimate. The growth is so strong and fast that County Executive David R. Craig said his administration is scrambling to handle the impact of so many new families on the county’s infrastructure, housing stock and public education system.

In Anne Arundel County, similar growth is taking place. At the National Security Agency and Fort George G. Meade and at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, BRAC projects are being realigned to form a “military triangle” much like the Research Triangle in central North Carolina.

In May, officials announced that the U.S. Cyber Command will be established at the NSA and Fort Meade. That move will bring an estimated 21,000 jobs to the area, both military and civilian.

No. 7: Budget woes

The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the fallout it has spawned continued to hold a tight grip on Maryland and its local jurisdictions.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who called a special session of the General Assembly in 2007 to tackle budget shortfalls and raise the state’s sales tax, faces a $1 billion revenue shortfall even after cutting budgets and furloughing state workers. The structural shortcomings are based on years of weathering the storm of a recession-weakened economy, but O’Malley is warning of deeper cuts early next year, including to public education.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s package of hikes in taxes and fees for things like parking lots, parking meters, telecommunications, hotel rooms and soda were hotly debated by the City Council, but ultimately passed as the panel grappled with a $121 million shortfall.

All this comes as $800 billion in federal stimulus funds dry up, leaving the state and local jurisdictions to grapple with worsening revenues as the next budget season and the General Assembly opens in mid-January.

No. 8: State, city elections

In November, voters gave Gov. Martin O’Malley a second term in office, as he defeated his political nemesis, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., by 14.5 percentage points.

O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore who also once sat on the City Council, was elected in early December to chair the Democratic Governors Association, a high-profile national advocacy and fundraising platform.

In Baltimore, former federal prosecutor Gregg Bernstein unseated Patricia C. Jessamy for the State’s Attorney job. Jessamy had been state’s attorney since 1995.

Baltimore County voters elected Councilman Kevin Kamenetz to the county executive post, and six of the seven members of the County Council were newly elected.

Voters in Harford and Howard counties retained their county executives, David R. Craig and Ken S. Ulman, respectively. In Anne Arundel County, absentee ballots provided resolution as Republican John Leopold won re-election over his Democratic opponent, Sheriff George Johnson IV, by nearly 4,000 votes.

No. 9: Business closures

A spate of business closures, mergers and layoffs clouded the landscape this year.

In May, Legg Mason announced it was eliminating 200 workers from its overall force, including 99 from its Baltimore and Owings Mills offices. The downsizing accounted for 8 percent of the company’s work force.

In June, Solo Cup Co. announced it would close its manufacturing plant in Owings Mills in 2012, putting 540 out of work. The company is selling the facility, but will continue to make its products there until March 2012.

The deal to sell Black & Decker to Stanley Works for $3.5 billion was approved in March by shareholders, effectively sending a local corporate stalwart to merge into a Fortune 500 company based in New Britain, Conn. It’s now called Stanley Black & Decker.

In mid-August, one of the nation’s largest debt collectors, Mann Bracken LLP, had its collection agency license revoked by state regulators, the final step in a year-long collapse of the company that went into receivership in late February.

And this past year, small banks continued to fail in Maryland — the most recent on Nov. 5 when Owings Mills-based K Bank was closed by the Maryland Office of Financial Regulation and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. M&T Bank acquired its assets.

No. 10: Gansler opinion OKs same-sex marriages

In late February, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued an opinion that endorsed the view that the state should recognize as married same-sex couples who are legally wed in other states.

The impact of Gansler’s 45-page opinion put state agencies on notice that they should extend to same-sex couples all the rights and benefits afforded to married heterosexual couples in the state.

Gansler’s opinion stressed that as the state’s top legal adviser, he believes Maryland is constitutionally required to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. Gansler, also expressed his belief that the Court of Appeals would rule likewise when the issue inevitably reaches the state’s top court.

Gansler supports gay marriage, a controversial issue in the General Assembly where the legislature has extended protections to same-sex couples in recent years, yet stopped short of legalizing marriages or civil unions.

No. 11: Supreme Court’s Shatzer decision

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reinstated Michael Blaine Shatzer Sr.’s child sexual abuse conviction. The court found that Hagerstown detectives did not violate Shatzer’s Miranda rights by questioning him two years and seven months after he had invoked his right to counsel.

Douglas F. Gansler, Maryland’s attorney general, argued the case before the high court. The ruling stated that police can wait two weeks before re-interrogating a suspect after they are released from custody once invoking a right to counsel. That re-interrogation must start with a new notification of the defendant’s right to have an attorney present.

Shatzer was in prison for another offense when he was first questioned about molesting his 3-year-old son. When Shatzer invoked his right to have an attorney present, the interrogation stopped. After the boy turned 6 and provided police with additional information, they approached Shatzer with more questions and he waived his Miranda rights and confessed.

No. 12: Grand Prix arrives, as do traffic tie-ups

The streets around the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore will turn into a speed track on Labor Day weekend as the Baltimore Grand Prix revs up a new three-day event to include an IndyCar race and an American Le Mans Series race.

Parking lots at Camden Yards will serve as the pit lane for the races, sponsored by Baltimore Racing Development, which signed a five-year deal for the event with the city.

Organizers and officials say they expect an economic impact of about $70 million from the Grand Prix, and up to 120,000 fans are expected to line the streets and attend Indy racing activities throughout Baltimore.

While the race cars may go vroom when the checkered flag falls this summer, local drivers have been snarled in traffic jams as downtown streets undergo $7.7 million in paving and curb upgrades in preparation for the races.

No. 13: Constellation Energy pulls out of Calvert Cliffs nuclear project

On Oct. 8, Constellation Energy Group told the U.S. Department of Energy that, because the terms were “unworkable,” it no longer wanted a $7.5 billion federal loan guarantee to build a third nuclear reactor at its Calvert Cliffs plant, killing the energy giant’s joint nuclear power venture with Electricite de France.

Constellation wrote in a letter Energy Department that the cost of the loan guarantee would be “unreasonably” burdensome and would lead to unacceptable risks and costs.

EDF officials said they were “shocked” by the move and had spent huge investments of time and money to secure the federal loan guarantee for the Calvert Cliffs reactor.

Later that month, the companies announced that EDF had bought out Constellation’s 50 percent in UniStar Nuclear Energy, their joint venture that was started in 2007 to develop nuclear facilities in the United States and Canada.

No. 14: Vaughan G. settlement

On March 5, a landmark agreement in a 26-year-old special education lawsuit in U.S. District Court was announced. The case, known as “Vaughn G. V. Board of Commissioners,” centered on forcing the Baltimore City Public School System to provide special education services to students long-ignored in its classrooms.

The BCPS settlement came after top school officials showed they had dedicated staff to working with families of special needs students to help them form individual education plans, including mainstreaming them into regular classrooms.

The original case was filed in 1984. Today, the plaintiff, Vaughan G., or Vaughn L. Garris, is serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison after he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing a neighbor after sneaking through a crawl space shared by their adjacent townhouses.

No. 15: Science City approved in Montgomery County

The Montgomery County Council in mid-April voted to approve development of a 17.5 million-square-foot project, known as Science City, as part of a planned expansion of the Life Sciences Center in the county into a major scientific and research community.

Johns Hopkins University, which owns the 107-acre Belward Farm near the site of the Life Sciences Center, is aiming to build at least a 4.5 million-square-foot development at the life sciences park. The main tenants of the biotech park will be life sciences research, academic and government agencies.

Overall, the Science City project aims to be a live-work community with 5,700 new housing units. The development will also hold retail space and a proposed transit project.

No. 16: Two guilty of murdering Kenneth Harris

On Oct. 8, a Baltimore jury found two men guilty of murdering former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and acquitted a third defendant of the most serious charges.

The three-week trial took place before a mostly black female jury that took 5½ days to deliberate and find that Charles McGaney and Jerome Williams were guilty of all 29 counts filed against them, including second-degree murder and felony murder. Prosecutors charged the pair had robbed the New Haven Lounge, a popular Northeast Baltimore jazz club, two years ago and shot Harris as he tried to flee in his car. A third defendant, Gary Collins, 22, was found not guilty of murder, but was convicted of conspiracy, assault and handgun charges.

Judge David Ross allowed the jury to hear DNA evidence against the defendants, which was critical to the prosecution, because they wore masks at the time of the robbery and shooting.

Retired Judge David Ross sentenced Williams, 17, and McGaney, 22, each to a total of life plus 30 years. Collins was sentenced to 65 years in jail.

No. 17: Stent fallout at St. Joseph

The fallout from the surgical stent controversy at St. Joseph Medical Center entered its second year in 2010.

Dr. Mark G. Midei filed a lawsuit against St. Joseph in October, alleging the hospital made him the “fall guy” in a controversy over implanting unnecessary heart stents in hundreds of patients. He is awaiting a ruling on the validity of his state medical license by an administrative law judge.

In the meantime, testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance on the matter outlined a close relationship between Midei and Abbott Laboratories, a leading U.S. stent maker whose products Midei used. Abbott footed the bill for a large party at Midei’s suburban home.

Midei, a prominent physician and founder of MidAtlantic Cardiovascular Associates, had helped to boost St. Joseph’s profile for cardiology work before he was suspended by the hospital in 2009 amid a federal fraud investigation. Midei’s attorney, Stephen L. Snyder, said he expects his client to be “fully vindicated” as the proceedings roll on next year.

No. 18: Right to counsel at initial bail hearings

A Baltimore judge ruled in early October that criminal defendants have a right to counsel at initial bail hearings, citing that as a “critical stage” of a criminal proceeding that is subject to the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Judge Alfred Nance’s ruling was prompted by a 2006 class-action lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court by a group of University of Maryland School of Law students on behalf of several indigent defendants. The lawsuit centered on the Central Booking and Intake Facility in Baltimore, where a District Court commissioner hears all cases and sets the initial bail. Often, defendants are incarcerated while awaiting trial.

The Maryland Court of Appeals had previously held that the right to counsel at initial bail hearings was not critical. The Maryland Public Defender’s office was evaluating how to serve clients around the clock as a result of the ruling.

No. 19: Rothenberg’s payments

Former University of Maryland School of Law Dean Karen Rothenberg reached a settlement with Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler in mid-December and agreed to return $311,398 in payments for untaken sabbaticals.

In return, Rothenberg will not face litigation over the controversial payments she received while dean. She also agreed not to pursue civil claims against the University System of Maryland or the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Rothenberg was named dean in April 2000 and was the first female to head the School of Law at UM.

A legislative audit in February uncovered bonuses paid to Rothenberg totaling $410,000 — $350,000 for sabbaticals that she never took and $60,000 for teaching summer classes. She was not eligible for the payments as a 12-month administrator and faculty member. The audit listed the payments as improper.

Rothenberg agreed to return the $60,000 in March.

The $350,000 sum has been referred to as a “retention” payment and had been approved by UMB then-President David J. Ramsay, who exceeded his authority to do so, the attorney general’s office said.

Rothenberg will return to the law school’s full-time faculty in January, said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Ramsay stepped down March 1.

No. 20: Harbor’s ESPN Zone closes

Baltimore’s ESPN Zone was closed June 9, leaving 150 workers abruptly out of a job and a massive vacancy in the Power Plant, a popular 170,000-square-foot Inner Harbor tourist attraction.

The ESPN Zone’s owner, The Walt Disney Co., closed five ESPN Zones as part of a recession-driven restructuring that affected 1,000 employees. The other sites shuttered were in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. The Baltimore location was the company’s first.

The Baltimore site was in the Power Plant building and had opened in 1998.

In October, five former Baltimore ESPN Zone employees filed suit in U.S. District Court against The Walt Disney Co. claiming they are entitled to about two months of additional pay in addition to their severance based on the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which a Disney spokesman denied. The workers earned between $7 and $12 per hour.

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