The year 2010 was defined and dominated from the get-go by politics. Not only was 2010 a local election year, but a rematch in the governor’s race and an energized TEA Party movement added fuel to the fire. The political outrage manifested itself as a protest against President Barack Obama’s policies in downtown Bel Air and led 37 people to file as candidates for Republican Central Committee. Yet, in the end, very little changed.
It was also a controversial year for the public school system in Harford County. Superintendent Robert Tomback slipped a 2 percent salary cut for all school system employees into his first budget, then had to defend a series of controversial and purportedly therapeutic skits shown to high schoolers in Havre de Grace without parental permission or school review.
We also saw some troubling trends in public safety in 2010. Bel Air had its first murder in four years and, after links were made to a beating years prior in Edgewood, the town saw itself profiled on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.” At the same time, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s top criminal investigator was under investigation himself, for improper conduct.
As the 56-year-old Edgewood High School was demolished to the tears and remembrances of former teachers and students, the shiny new Hollywood Casino was opened in Perryville to the cheers of local gamblers and state leaders, who have been banking on revenue from the state’s first slots parlor.
A group of concerned citizens, working in concert with politicians and government officials, were able to put the brakes on a plan that would have blasted away the natural features at Rocks State Park; and Mother Nature rewarded their work by delivering a brutal year of snow and rainfall measured in feet and dangerous temperatures off both ends of the thermometer.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 stories of 2010, as chosen by The Dagger staff:
#1 – Off to the Races
The year 2010 was a gubernatorial election year, which meant every issue – be it crime, education, environment, etc. – took on a political tone. This was amplified by the strong local contingent of the national TEA Party movement to create an interesting and volatile brew in Harford County.
There was bitter in-fighting among Republican Clubs; a bit of history when, for the first time, Harford County had more voters registered Republican than Democrat; Art Helton had his ultimately unsuccessful bid for District 34 state senate interrupted not once, but twice by the seemingly-perpetual inquiries into his residency; and Olympic figure skater Kimmie Meissner became the first early voter in Harford County.
When the smoke cleared, however, the net effects of the 2010 elections in Harford County were that we said goodbye to Del. Dan Riley and hello to delegate-elect Glen Glass; watched Del. J.B. Jennings became a state senator and Kathy Szeliga fill his spot as a delegate, and welcomed Derek Hopkins as our new Register of Wills.
Bel Air saw its first murder in more than four years when Derrick Maxey Jr., 25, of Aberdeen was gunned down outside American Legion Post 55 on North Bond Street on July 17. Maxey was outside a party of more than a hundred people at the hall when he was shot and killed and a 15-year-old girl nearby was wounded in the knee.
Police eventually identified his killer as Rakin Raid Muhammad, 20, of Parkville, who had been released from jail in January after serving three and a half years for his role in the 2007 beating of an Edgewood man. Police searched for Muhammad for months following the incident, a manhunt which gained national prominence after the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” profiled the case in November.
Muhammad was eventually tracked to a residence on Myrtle Avenue in Baltimore where he had been hiding out, and was arrested by Bel Air Police. Muhammad is currently being held in the Harford County Detention Center without bail.
#3 – Drama Therapy Drama
At a Havre de Grace High School general assembly, students were shown a series of skits involving recovered memories of sexual abuse, teen suicide, abortion and drinking games. Presented without parental permission or prior review by school administrators, the skits were intended as part drama, part therapy – hence the title Drama Therapy. Parents who objected to the program prompted state legislators to call Harford Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback on the carpet, calling him down to Annapolis for an explanation. Tomback defended the program, but acknowledged that mistakes had been made. The drama continued when one of the teachers behind Drama Therapy lashed out at parents on Facebook, raising questions about the appropriate use of social media by public school teachers.
In April, The Dagger broke the news that Major Mark Forwood, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s top criminal investigator, was under investigation for improper conduct of a then-undisclosed nature. The investigation into the 21-year veteran of the department was conducted by Baltimore County police and stretched through the summer into the campaign season, where Sheriff Jesse Bane—who hand-picked Forwood to the post—faced Republican Jeff Gahler, a member of the Maryland State Police. Gahler publicly challenged Bane’s handling of the case, accusing the sheriff of delaying the conclusion of the investigation until after the election.
The stalemate dragged on until the night before the Nov. 2 election, when Forwood was charged with involvement in a theft scheme and of misconduct in office. Despite the apparent bombshell, Bane was narrowly re-elected over Gahler. Later that month, Forwood was arrested on another theft charge, and fired on Nov. 30. A jury trial is scheduled for March.
The story took a final twist after Baltimore ABC affiliate WMAR mistakenly ran a photo of Dagger reporter Aaron Cahall, identifying him as Forwood. The news station said the error occured when an employee searched the Internet for a picture of Forwood, and pulled the photo attached to The Dagger’s story.
While Edgewood got a brand new high school building this year, The Dagger took a tour of the 56-year-old building it replaced. Snapping photos just before the old building was demolished and gathering stories from students and staff members who once called the place home, The Dagger put together a scrapbook of a school that lives on in the vivid memories of those who learned and worked there. Part I includes stories from students; in Part II we hear tales from the staff.
Mother Nature threw just about everything she had at Harford County in 2010 during an awe-inspiring, multi-season string of natural calamities that tested the preparedness of the local government and the mettle of those brave enough to face her. More than two feet of snow fell on much of Harford County during the first week of February, burying cars and weekend plans, and forcing begrudging shovelers into the cold for The Great Super Bowl Sunday Shovel-Out. Successive snowstorms left schools, courts, local governments, and most everything else closed for days. In late June through early July, a heat wave scorched the region, sending heat indexes soaring into the triple digits and claiming the lives of three Marylanders. Harford County opened several cooling centers to offer air conditioning and cold water to those looking to get out of the heat. Then, in late September, a storm of epic proportions drenched Harford County with more than a half-foot of rain. Schools closed, basements flooded, and the Emergency Operations Center handled no fewer than a half-dozen swift water rescues after motorists were stranded in high water.
Presenting his first recommended budget as superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, Robert Tomback quietly built a 2 percent salary cut for all employees into the 500-page document, in anticipation of a flat year for funding. After The Dagger uncovered the cuts, employee protests ensued. When County Executive David Craig came up with some of the money needed to avoid the cuts, the school board kicked in the rest and employees rested easy. At least until they got notice that their healthcare costs were going up, and the protests started over again.
# 8 – Nothing Could Be FINA
Media coverage was almost nil following the passage of the Fairness In Negotiations Act (FINA), but the new law will have an outsized impact on public school labor negotiations in Maryland. Bringing binding arbitration to public school labor disputes, the state-wide legislation replaces a process that employee unions said was too slow, and favored local school boards. Instituting a new Public School Labor Relations Board to settle issues at impasse, and giving the new body the power to compel local school boards to fund PSLRB decisions, the new law drew cheers from the Harford County Education Association representing teachers. Fearing that school budgets would be upended to pay for binding awards, School Board Member John Smilko called the new law “openly hostile to education.”
Early in 2010, the Maryland State Highway Administration began backing away from an aggressive highway improvement plan, which would have closed portions of Rocks State Park for several months in each of the next two summers while demolition crews blasted away portions of the historic boulders that give the park its name. As originally proposed, the Route 24 Slope Protection Project aimed to improve safe traveling conditions along the highway through Rocks by moving the roadbed as much as 20 feet away from the eroding banks of Deer Creek, which meant SHA would have to at times send the road through solid rock. Those plans changed in January after a citizens action group, Save The Rocks (of which this author is a founder and among the group’s 9,500 Facebook friends), formed and pressured SHA to seek a better plan. In late January, SHA ceased all soil sample drilling and tree-felling in the park after citizen complaints. By summer, the MD 24 Advisory Committee had been formed and SHA had returned to the table with local leaders and members of Save The Rocks to consider new plans and alternatives to improve Route 24 through Rocks State Park without damaging its environmental, cultural, and historic features.
Maryland’s first slots parlor opened its door in Perryville in late September after years of political wrangling, with 1,500 video gaming machines lighting up the other side of the Tydings Bridge. Despite drawing thousands in its first week in operation, The Dagger was less than blown away by Hollywood Casino Perryville, owned and operated by Penn National Gaming.
Nonetheless, the casino raked in $11.4 million in October, its first full month of operation. That figure trailed off the following month, however, as the facility generated $7.6 million in November.
THOSE WE LOST IN 2010:
In late May, Stephen Wright, president of the Route 40 Republican Club and a candidate for Harford County Executive, was killed in a single-car crash in Bel Air. Wright, an outspoken and polarizing figure in Harford County politics, suffered a medical issue that caused him to lose consciousness before his vehicle left the road and struck a utiltiy pole.
On Memorial Day, May 31, Lt. Col. Eugene C. Chandler, former president of the Harford County Board of Education, passed away. Chandler was a Board Member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County and a Lifetime Member and President of the Harford County NAACP.
In mid-July, Havre de Grace City Councilwoman Brenda Guldenzopf lost her battle with cancer. Guldenzopf had moved to Havre de Grace in 1999 and held leadership positions with both the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum and Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.
YOUR FAVORITE STORIES OF 2010:
Those were our hand-picked favorite stories of the year, but statistically speaking, the top 10 most popular, most read, and most commented stories of the last year on The Dagger were: