Remembering 2016: Top ten stories of the Northwest - Tucson Local Media: News

Remembering 2016: Top ten stories of the Northwest

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Posted: Tuesday, December 27, 2016 4:56 pm

1.Lisaius drug scandal captures international attention

No story originating from the northwest region captured more national—and international—attention than that of Somchai (Som) and Kristyn Lisaius. The tragic tale of child-involved drug use first broke locally, but within days The Oro Valley Police Department informed The Explorer of receiving information and interview requests both nationally and internationally.

Trouble began for the couple the morning of Sunday, May 15, around 11 a.m. when Som, a former crime reporter for KOLD News 13, and his local journalist wife Krystin arrived at the Oro Valley Hospital with their four-month-old daughter. The couple told staff at the time that the child as “wabbly,” “became limp,” was “unable to wake up” and that her “eyes were rolling” into the back of her head. After refusing a blood draw on the child they left against medical advice, though they did agree to have her transported to Diamond Children’s Hospital via ambulance.

In a series of discussions with authorities, care workers and hospital staff, it was ultimately discovered through Kristyn’s admission that she and her husband had “snorted” cocaine the previous night while at a barbecue they had hosted at their residence, and she had later breastfed her child.

Eventually, and within the presence of representatives of the Office of Child Welfare Investigations and Department of Child Safety, Banner  UMC staff conducted a urinalysis as well as a toxicology screen which showed the presence of cocaine in the child’s system. An OVPD officer performed a blood draw analysis on Krystin after obtaining a search warrant. Som also admitted to using cocaine that night and approximately “every six weeks or so,” as reported by police.

The next day authorities served a search warrant on the couple’s home and found “one clear baggie” containing a white powdery substance, a Hilton Hotel honor’s card belonging to Krystin with white residue on it, several baggies of assorted sizes and a small black digital scale. Clear bags containing white powder tested positive for cocaine and contained 1.59 grams. Another container had .1 grams. A Tiffany and Co. jewelry box with a rolled up dollar bill with residue inside was also found. Another bag contained .21 grams of cocaine.

On June 1, the urinalysis and lab test results from Krystin came back positive for the presence of cocaine, though a hair test came up negative due to the hair having been chemically bleached. Som’s hair and urine tested positive for cocaine, as did the hair tested from the young child. 

By the end of August, the couple each pled guilty to child endangerment, a felony which can be reclassified as a misdemeanor after time served. Original charges against the couple included child abuse, possession of narcotics and possession of drug paraphernalia, all of which were felonies.

The couple was sentenced in October to one year of probation each, as well as a 30-day jail sentence. Som was also sentenced to 100 hours of community service, Krystin received 20 hours. The child’s medical status was deemed “good” and is expected to make a full recovery, and was placed with her maternal grandmother after being released from the hospital by the Arizona Department of Child Safety.


2.Marana and Pima County confounded by mystery smells

What started out as a post on a Gladden Farms Facebook group became a much bigger issue. At first, it appeared to be a single small story, but soon blossomed into a series of stories focusing on at least two different “mystery smells” in the Marana area. Even as 2016 winds down, there has been no final resolution. 

As of a few weeks ago the Town of Marana and Pima County were still looking into the smell affecting the Ina and Cortaro Road areas. 

Investigation into the mystery smell began when residents in north Marana, particularly in the Gladden Farms area, were complaining of a strange smell and accompanying white smoke. Most believed the smoke came from one of two plants off Tangerine Road; either the Cal-Portland cement plant or the plant belonging to Granite Construction. Several residents insisted that the smoke was coming from the Granite plant, where asphalt is made, among other things. Despite inspectors from the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PDEQ) looking into the plants in north Marana, they could not issue a ruling on the actual cause. 

“It is not clear exactly where the odors are coming from,” said Beth Gorman, senior program manager for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, back in May. “We have not verified the source of odor complaints at this point and are continuing our investigation.”

The north Marana smell was not the only “mystery smell” in Marana. PDEQ responded to several complaints in the spring, and again in the fall, regarding odors near Ina and Cortaro.

Although one of the smells in the area was identified, it was not the odor affecting homeowners in the area. A temporary change in processes led to a higher than

normal concentration of sewage in one of the lines that feeds into the Tres Rios Waste Treatment Plant. The buildup resulted in odors stronger than normal, but county officials noted that the smell only affected a small area. Although the smell can be quite strong in the area, it is fairly contained to that specific part of the plant, as well as small parts of Sportspark.

“It is very localized,” said Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department Director Jackson Jenkins, though he admitted the area where the smell is strongest is adjacent to Sportspark, but he is quite confident that the smell is contained to that area. 

The PDEQ said that Tres Rios is one of several locations in the area that have been investigated and it appears that there are multiple sources to the smells. 

“There are several sources of odors in the areas of Ina and Cortaro t hat we are investigating,” Gorman said.


3.Oro Valley residents vote in three new councilmembers

The political environment within the Town of Oro Valley has been a hot-button item for several years, and 2016 was no different. Seen by some to be the second part of a “mandate” carrying over from last year’s failed recall effort of four members of council, there were some in the community who carried over that feverish animosity into the regularly scheduled 2016 elections.

On the ballot were the three councilmembers not named in the recall election: Mike Zinkin, Bill Garner and Brendan Burns. Running to gain a seat on council were community businesswoman Rhonda Pina, retired lawyer and former Planning and Zoning Commission chair Bill Rodman and former councilmember and real estate developer Steve Solomon, who was nominated to the position by council in 2010 to fill a two-year vacancy. Despite some early statements by all candidates contradicting the assumption, the election was framed as a three-versus-three competition.

At the heart of most campaign talking points were the financials behind the Oro Valley Community and Recreation Center and its multiple golf courses, and what each candidate saw as the best course of action for the property’s future. While the three incumbents looked to leasing, rental or sale opportunities for the courses, each of the challenging candidates held ideologies similar to those of the other four members of council: Mayor Satish Hiremath, Vice Mayor Lou Waters and Councilmembers Joe Hornat and Mary Snider. Other talking points included future land development, fostering the business community and providing amenities for residents at reasonable cost to the town.

As many had predicted, the race was decided in the Aug. 30 primary. Zinkin, Garner and Burns were unable to retain their seats. Solomon, Pina and Rodman were sworn into office Nov. 16 after the results of the general election were verified. Solomon, Pina and Rodman (the new members of the council) will serve on the town’s ruling body until their terms come to an end Nov. 3, 2020.


4. Incumbents rule in Marana elections

Although a lot of money was spent by all sides, when the smoke cleared, the Marana mayoral and town council elections were won by the incumbents. Marana residents appeared to like the direction the town was going in, or at least the results of the election indicated that. The three winners had different views (in fact, one of the council winners not only endorsed the other mayoral candidate but shared a billboard with him), but that did not matter to the voters. 

Mayor Ed Honea was re-elected with more than 62 percent of the vote, defeating local businessman and longtime school governing board member Dan Post. 

“I think what is happening is people are happy with what is happening in the town,” Honea said.

Honea’s campaign was based around the perception that the town was doing well in a number of factors, including new homes, revenues and new businesses. 

“I think one of the problems with somebody running against any of the incumbents in Marana is that we have great roads, great parks, great schools, we have money in the bank and we don’t have a property tax,” Honea said.

Honea returns for his 30th year on the council and 14th as mayor.

The two incumbents in the town council race were re-elected.

It was further evidence that voters put a premium on rewarding those who have been governing the town

during a successful era. Roxanne Ziegler garnered the most votes, yet endorsed Post in his attempt to unseat Honea.

Conversely, Honea endorsed challenger John Officer, but it was not enough of a boost to unseat the other incumbents. 

Dave Bowen ran as the “numbers guy,” basing much of his campaign on his experience as a financial planner and his taking a big role in the budget. 

Bowen chose to stay neutral in the election, stating that he could work with either mayoral candidate, and instead let the numbers do the talking.

Ziegler edged Bowen by less than 200 votes, while both held at least a 700 vote lead over Officer. 

Among the big topics in the election were the town’s relationship with the county, the town debt and further economic and job growth. 


5. Ina Road construction begins

One of the biggest stories of 2016 will also be one of the biggest stories of 2017 and beyond. The Ina Road Traffic Interchange Project began in 2016 and will continue for at least two more years. The project is similar to a recent project at Prince Road and will completely reconstruct the interchange, with Ina Road crossing over I-10 and the railroad. The project will also widen I-10 to three lanes in each direction, as well as Ina Road to two lanes in each direction from Silverbell Road to Camino de la Cruz. The project will also extend west of the freeway as the Town of Marana will make repairs to Ina, including building a new bridge over the Santa Cruz River. 

Access to I-10 from both sides of Ina Road will close early next year and will last over two years. When completed, this project will ease the flow of traffic at this intersection and improve the safety at this location for all users of Marana’s roads and I-10.

The town has tried to be very proactive with the project, especially as it comes to local businesses that might be affected by the road closure. Although several businesses moved out of the area, most are staying put and will get an assist from the town. 

To help businesses in the area, Marana is rolling out the Ina Corridor Business Support Program, which promises to support commerce and businesses “by being creative and flexible to produce innovative solutions.”

“Anyone who has driven on I-10 the past few months has seen construction has already begun in that area for the reconstruction of the Ina/I-10 interchange and this project is geared towards to helping those businesses in the Ina Corridor through the duration of this project,” said Marana Assistant to the Town Manager Tony Hunter in October.

The town has already altered the sign code to allow affected businesses to put out extra signage during construction and the town itself will also be putting up signs to remind drivers to utilize those businesses. The town has also developed a mobile app to help those affected by the construction.


6. Board of Supervisors limits loitering on county medians

Long broiling tensions over panhandling at several traffic medians and homeless individuals presiding in nearby residential washes throughout northwest Tucson came to a head over the summer when the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted May 17 to prohibit loitering on traffic medians in unincorporated Pima County.

Open house events and public forums preceding the decision covered a wide array of topics, including panhandling, individuals living in washes near residential developments and human services offerings in the region, and were attended by several hundred members of the community.

The topic had been unsuccessfully brought before the board by District 1 Supervisor Ally Miller, who was one of the voices leading the charge this year, and the efforts of outgoing Pima County Sherriff Chris Nanos and other members of the community helped to pass the ordinance.

Even with the new ban, there is still space for individuals near the roadways, as the trespassing only applies to the medians.

“They can still sell their papers,” Nanos said after the board made its decision. “If they conduct their business on the corners, so be it. If they sell their papers or ask for help on the corners, so be it. But I understand the frustrations of those in that neighborhood who deal with this every day, just as other neighborhoods deal with it.”

Informational warnings about potential trespassing have since been affixed at more than a dozen intersections throughout Northwest Tucson.

Pedestrians utilizing crosswalks should not be in the median for longer than the length of one cycle of a signal light intersection, according to the memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. The ordinance means that any pedestrian in the median longer could be declared a trespasser. Though that may scare some pedestrians into walking faster, Nanos said that his deputies will be “reasonable and understanding” when it comes to pedestrian trying to utilize crosswalks. Individuals with disabilities or facing difficulties in movement will not be cited as trespassing if in need of more time.


7. Marana Home Rule Option passes

The Mayoral and town council elections were not the only important elections for Marana. In November Proposition 440, also known as the Home Rule Option, passed, preventing the town from having to make some tough decisions. The measure allows the town to utilize all of its revenues in regards to budget spending. Had the measure failed the town would be forced to use a state generated formula which would have seen the budget decrease by nearly $62 million.

“The Marana voters have an expectation that public safety, roads, parks and other services are important and that all available financial resources should be used to make Marana a great community to live,” said Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson. “Home Rule allows the local government to fully utilize all revenue to support the quality of life expected by our residents.”

The measure passed by a near 2-to-1 margin, and marks the ninth time Marana voters have passed the Home Rule Option. The Marana Town Council was so worried about the measure being overlooked by voters suffering from “voter fatigue” that they explored holding a special election to make it the sole item on the ballot, but recent changes to state election laws prevented the move. 

The town’s estimated budget for fiscal year 2017-2018 is approximately $118.1 million. If the Home Rule Option measure had failed, the town would have trimmed its spending to $53.7 million and would have necessitated the firing of numerous town employees as well as causing a huge loss of town funded services. The outcome of the vote neither raised nor lowered taxes, but simply allowed the town to utilize all of its revenues. Had the measure not passed, those revenues would have sat in the bank until the Home Rule Option was reinstated. 


8. Tangerine Road Improvement Project begins

The Tangerine Road Improvement Project officially got underway in March with a groundbreaking ceremony, and will continue for several years in various stages between Oro Valley and the freeway. 

The project is a partnership between the four entities and will make improvements to Tangerine Road from Dove Mountain/Twin Peaks to La Cañada Drive.

“Projects like this, and especially this project, there are many, many people who help make a project of this magnitude a reality,” said Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson. “This one, just from the regional partnership alone is quite a feat. To take the towns of Oro Valley and Marana, and then Pima County and the Regional Transit Authority and all come together to figure out the design elements.”

The project will widen the roadway to four lanes, provide pedestrian and bicycle facilities and install turn lanes, signals and wildlife crossings. 

There are several goals for the project; the biggest to make the trek from Oracle to I-10 on Tangerine much quicker, avoiding traffic delays.

The project is part of the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Authority plan approved by voters in 2006 and is being managed by the Town of Marana in conjunction with the Town of Oro Valley, Pima County and the RTA. Both Marana and Oro Valley residents had real input into the design aspects of the projects, which will include bike lanes, landscaping and a park in the Marana area.

In addition to widening the road to four lanes, the project will flatten the road, removing the dips and allowing for all weather access.

“We are really starting to have problems moving traffic on the northwest and northeast parts of the urban area,” said Marana Mayor Ed Honea, who is also the RTA chair.


9. New Amphi elementary school to be built in Oro Valley

Since the Amphitheater Public School District first announced at the beginning of the year its plans to build a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) based elementary school, the site has been given a principal, a name and a planned open date.

In the districts own words, Innovation Academy is “uniquely designed to weave the sciences into all aspects of learning… engage students in ‘hands on’ and ‘minds on’ relevant curriculum and instruction that will utilize technology and the arts to enrich and encourage learning.”

The school will have no enrollment boundaries, meaning that students from across the region have been invited to apply. The school will be built for 500 students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

At the helm of Innovation Academy will be Principal Michael McConnell, a man with an impressive work history within Amphi. McConnell was previously head of Lulu Walker Elementary, an instructional support assistant at Prince Elementary, an assistant principal at Coronado K-8 and a teacher with over ten years of experience at E.C. Nash Elementary.

The district broke ground in June at West Moore Road and North LaCanada Drive. Construction should be completed by next May and the school is scheduled to open for the first day of school on August 10, 2017.


10. Oro Valley limits use of electronic devices while driving 

On Dec. 7 the Oro Valley town council unanimously voted to ban the use of cell phones and electronic devices not in hands-free mode while driving, a decision that was the culmination of several public meetings, discourse and campaigning by members of council and the community at-large.

Within the ordinance, which will take effect beginning Jan. 6, the use of any mobile phone or electronic device must be done “without the use of either hand by employing an internal feature of, or an attachment to, the device.”

The Oro Valley Police Department will begin enforcement next month, though the focus will not be on issuing citations, but instead educating the public. Despite an information-driven mission, the police will still issue citations if necessary. For first-time offenders, the infraction will cost $50, doubling for second and third offenses respectively. For those in violation and involved in a collision, the minimum fine is set at $250.

The ordinance does include language allowing the activation and deactivation of hands-free features. Restrictions do not apply to anyone making a call to an emergency response operator, an ambulance company, fire district and rescue service personnel, law enforcement personnel, hospital or physician’s office or health clinic. Additionally, all emergency service personnel are exempt while operating an emergency vehicle within the regular course and scope of their work.

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