EDITOR’S NOTE: Changes wrought by the people dominated the news in 2018 as activism drove us to the polls in unprecedented numbers to alter the way we view marijuana and to restrict downtown development. Hot-button issues like what to do about Enbridge’s Line 5 across the Mackinac Straits, an investigation into Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Paul Soma and the still-unresolved contract issue with Munson Medical Center’s nurses union fueled large-scale and expensive campaigns for hearts and minds. Fatal tolls were collected by the opioid epidemic and in another suicide at Grand Traverse County jail. The following are the top 10 stories that grabbed headlines in the Record-Eagle in the past year.
Recreational marijuana legalized; medical use rules put in place
A majority of state voters declared, “Light up,” when asked if recreational marijuana should be legal in Michigan. More than 55 percent of the 4,216,097 votes cast on the question were in favor of allowing those 21 and older to possess up to 2.5 ounces on them and grow up to 12 plants out of public view — public consumption still is barred.
Voters had their say just before Traverse City leaders finalized rules for medical marijuana businesses. They began in February to figure out where provisioning centers, testing labs, growers and transporters can locate in city limits, with both city and planning commissioners hashing out drafts.
Drafting suitable rules took some time, in part because of disputes over particulars like how many provisioning centers — also called dispensaries — to allow in city limits. City leaders largely settled on 13, although two city commissioners wanted far fewer. The city’s Downtown Development Authority also requested that no dispensaries be allowed downtown, an ask to which city commissioners largely agreed but with some dissent. Commissioners also debated, but ultimately scrapped, a requirement that would’ve mandated 1,000-foot separations between dispensaries.
The public had its say during the debate as well. Each meeting where medical marijuana was on the agenda drew large crowds and plenty of public comment, both from those speaking for allowing the businesses to those wary of doing so, to those outright opposed. Proponents voiced their frustration that it took city leaders so long to write the rules, while opponents worried allowing the businesses would have negative public health impacts.
Now the city — and any other local government that chooses to allow recreational marijuana sales — must write a new set of rules once state regulators pen theirs. City leaders bought themselves some time by opting out of recreational sales, with the intent to allow them once state rules are in place.
Other locales, meanwhile, have opted out of allowing recreational cannabis business, Garfield Township for one. Other aspects of the new state law aren’t impacted by this move.
Death-by-suicide in county jail; settlements, mental health
A second suicide within a year at the Grand Traverse County Jail brought mental health services to the forefront.
Alan Bradley Halloway committed suicide in July 2017 and Marilyn Lucille Palmer did the same this March. There have been more than 50 suicide attempts in the jail since criteria for reporting attempts changed in 2011.
Halloway’s family sued the county and, in November, the Grand Traverse County Board approved the release of funds for a settlement. The amount has yet to be disclosed and the settlement is scheduled to be finalized in probate court early next year.
Also in November, County commissioners also approved a contract with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health for expanded mental health services in the jail. The new contract will extend services to people who aren’t pre-existing clients of Northern Lakes and who haven’t yet reached crisis.
Two full-time positions are provided for in the contract: a licensed mental health professional — likely a therapist — and a peer support specialist. The positions cost $98,000 and $65,500 per year, respectfully, according to the contract.
The jail previously had at least 40 hours of mental health services each week, but through attrition and budget cuts, only about 10 hours a week currently are available, said Capt. Todd Ritter, jail administrator for the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office.
Jail, county and Northern Lakes officials spent about six months working on the contract. It has a start date of Dec. 1 and will continue through Dec. 31, 2019. The contract can be renewed for one-year intervals.
Tall building voted down again
Traverse City voters gave a thumbs-down to 326 Land Company’s request to build a 100-foot-tall condominium building on State Street. It’s the latest victory for defenders of the city’s small-town character, and the latest blow to developers and others who contend the city’s future depends on more density.
City voters in 2016 added to the city charter a requirement that any new construction taller than 60 feet be put to a public vote. A yes vote in November would’ve allowed Traverse City commissioners to consider issuing a special land use permit to 326 Land Company.
It was the first time voters used this power to shape the future of the city’s skyline. Now, the developer is renewing its legal challenge against the vote requirement. The company wants a judge to level the charter amendment, arguing it violates state law and due process rights, among other claims.
City commissioners must decide whether to hire outside counsel to defend against the lawsuit after city Attorney Lauren Trible-Lauct asked to step aside on the case. She cited her office’s workload, plus a perceived conflict of interest over her opining in 2016 that the charter amendment might not be legal. They could make their pick on Jan. 7.
Save Our Downtown, the group behind the vote requirement, likely will intervene in the lawsuit to defend the charter amendment, just as the group did in the previous legal challenge. The group’s attorneys intervened in the previous case amid criticism that the city wasn’t seriously defending the vote requirement.
Line 5 debate results in tunnel proposal
Plans are finalized between state officials and Enbridge energy transportation company to construct a tunnel through the bedrock beneath the Great Lakes’ Straits of Mackinac into which the controversial petrochemical pipeline Line 5 will be relocated — just before incoming administration changes can stop it.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s team worked in the last weeks of his administration to establish the three-member Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to ink a deal with Enbridge after a failed attempt to tie the planned underground utility tunnel to the Mackinac Bridge Authority. The agreement is intended to be unbreakable.
Incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and incoming attorney general Dana Nessel have vowed to shut down Line 5. Critics of the tunnel deal have vowed to continue to fight the negotiated agreements and the approval process based on constitutional questions, particularly surrounding the creation of a new public body to oversee transport of a private company’s product.
According to the new tunnel plans, a new segment of pipeline will extend through the structure and replace twin pipes that currently lay across the lake bed, where they’ve been since 1953 when Enbridge first garnered its lease to the area which extends into perpetuity. The timeline for this construction project is expected to take the next seven to 10 years.
Crude oil and natural gas liquids used in propane are carried through Line 5 across large swaths of northern Michigan along its route between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario. Opponents argue the most sensitive spot along the route is where the exposed pipelines run along the lake bed between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
Line 5 has drawn fierce criticism in recent years from environmental groups, tourism-related businesses and native tribes who agree that a pipeline rupture in the Straits of Mackinac could pollute hundreds of miles of Great lakes shoreline, according to worst-case scenarios outlined by university researchers. Such a potential disaster is estimated to wreak more than $6 billion in economic damages, including natural resources losses and restoration to tourism revenue drops and coastal property value losses.
Enbridge officials steadfastly defend the pipeline’s integrity and argue it could continue indefinitely. However, the company agreed to shoulder the more than $500 million it is expected to cost to design and build the tunnel, which is expected to then be used to house other utility lines beneath the straits.
Board turnover at TCAPS, county
Accusations flew in the expensive, tense race for five Traverse City Area Public Schools board seats. Coalition Team5 for TCAPS — running on a platform of change — squared off against five other candidates, four of whom banded together under the loose platform of maintaining the district’s current trajectory. Support of or vilification of TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma figured prominently in the race, after a tumultuous year of investigations into his behavior with subordinates, specifically administrators, and a Michigan Department of Education audit of the district’s virtual homeschool program.
Soma was cleared after a months-long investigation; the MDE situation is ongoing.
Supportive candidates Sue Kelly, Matt Anderson, Pamela Forton, and Jeff Leonhardt won the election handily, along with a single Team5 member Erica Moon Mohr.
Soma has since announced his desire to retire at the end of the school year, after sitting board members increased his retirement pay 20 percent for getting a “highly effective” rating.
Grand Traverse County commissioners picked former Undersheriff Nate Alger to be the county’s administrator in June. Former deputy civil Counsel Chris Forsyth was named deputy administrator last month.
Alger’s hire came after commissioners interviewed several applicants last year following former Administrator Tom Menzel’s resignation. They offered the job to a candidate who declined the offer, prompting Vicki Uppal’s hiring. She resigned after less than a year.
Sheriff Tom Bensley picked former Detective Mike Shea to replace Alger as undersheriff in October.
Voters additionally revamped the county board.
District 1 and 2 commissioners — Dan Lathrop, a Republican, and Tom Mair, Green Party — were ousted by Democrats Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley. Newcomers
Brad Jewett, Gordon LaPointe and Robert Hentschel will also join the board, featuring just two incumbents in Republican Commissioners Addison “Sonny” Wheelock Jr., District 4, Ron Clous, District 5.
Opioid epidemic continues
The opioid epidemic continued through 2018 in the region, sending some people to their death and others to jail.
Medical examiners continue reviewing date to determine how many deaths can be blamed on opioids — four opioid overdose deaths were recorded through March in Grand Traverse County, according to Grand Traverse County Health Department officials.
Law enforcement officers did their part to help with the issue, including using Narcan to help reverse potentially deadly overdoses and bringing drug dealers to justice.
Members of a family known for spreading drugs through the area all went to jail and now continue prison sentences after their cases concluded this year.
Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer sent Melissa Medina to prison for at least 21 years and her daughter Xena Medina continues serving a 16 to 24 month prison sentence. An 11-month jail sentence with credit for 107 days served on one drug charge will run concurrent to the prison sentence, followed by five years on probation on a second drug charge.
Her brother, Jeremiah, got two years in prison and the following nine months in jail.
Investigators said Melissa worked with Xena and others to deliver more than 1,000 grams of heroin from January 2016 to April 2018. Xena Medina was arrested after a Traverse Narcotics Team probe where a detective arranged for a confidential informant to buy heroin from Melissa Medina in March, according to court records. Investigators tied the pair to another deal in April where authorities found about 23 grams of heroin, fentanyl, scales and drug paraphernalia in their hotel room the next day, according to court records.
Jeremiah Medina was charged and sentenced after authorities said they found him with drugs and weapons in a hotel room booked using a credit card that belonged to Rachel Ovalle, 19, Medina’s former girlfriend, after she died of a suspected overdose. Deputies additionally found a semi-automatic pistol and bags of narcotics in a bag that belonged to Medina, according to court records.
A former Traverse City doctor’s prescribing methods also came to light.
Three patients died of overdoses under James Leete’s care. State officials suspended his medical license in 2014 after the deaths and growing accusations he knowingly prescribed opioids to patients with addictions from his former Eight Street office for his family practice drug treatment services.
State board of medicine members reinstated his license in January 2016. He since resumed work at a Grand Rapids occupational medicine clinic.
Drama at Film Fest
TRAVERSE CITY — A court spat between the Traverse City Film Festival and founding partner Boston Light & Sound raised questions of the beloved event’s finances this summer.
The Boston complaint claims Film Fest failed to pay the company $159,055 of a $250,000-some bill for work and equipment in 2017. The festival followed with a countersuit, claiming Boston owed Film Fest for unfinished work on the Bijou by the Bay several years ago. Boston lawyers, though, challenge the validity of contracts entered by Film Fest to court record.
Court-ordered mediation ended unsuccessfully between the parties in August.
The trial, after a delay, should come before a jury in early summer 2019.
Fest Founder Michael Moore told reporters the festival operated at a deficit for the first time in 2017, though tax filings show a stark drop in assets and revenue from 2014 to 2016, the most recent year available.
The case also comes with turnover at the top — former Film Fest Director Deb Lake left the role under conflicting circumstances in December 2017, and her replacement Joseph Beyer followed suit just weeks after accepting the job.
Current Fest Director Susan Fisher claims any financial issues were results of Lake’s management, and that pursuing the countersuit is a way to determine what each party owes to the other.
Relations between the parties have been contentious, with Moore offering vague threats during a town hall event at the 2018 festival. Unnamed festival officials threatened “to distribute false and defamatory stories to harm BL&S’ good name and business relationships” in response to collection efforts, Boston court documents allege.
Moore, Lake and Fisher have each been named as major witnesses in the suit.
PFAS contamination concerns hit home
A concerning new contaminant began being discovered in drinking water around the state — the Traverse City area was no exception.
Michigan’s PFAS action-response team, MPART, convened in 2017 to test municipal and school water systems for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. They found the chemical tainted more than 11,000 sites in the state to test, like airports, fire stations and wastewater treatment plants.
Officials found a PFAS plume in Blair Township — remnants of a firefighters work to douse a nearby 1995 tire fire using a firefighting foam containing the chemical that seeped into the ground. Several homeowners learned small amounts of PFAS made it into their water supply.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sampling efforts on Aug. 6 confirmed nine wells tested positive for PFAS in amounts well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s 70 parts per trillion cutoff. Anything higher would be considered a health hazard.
DEQ officials tested 26 homes total, including the nine that tested positive. They agreed to come back and test more homes near the plume in the future.
The discovery still prompted Grand Traverse County Health Department workers to provide bottled water and filters to affected residents.
Officials confirmed additional PFAS in Leland Public School water at levels of 7 parts per trillion.
PFAS concerns spread across the state, including in the city of Parchment and Cooper Township residents living near a former paper mill were told to stop drinking municipal water or using it in any food preparation July 26. More PFAS was found in the Oscoda County fish and water supply near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base and in other places statewide.
State officials formed an advisory panel to consider the “emerging science” of PFAS to determine the dangers of consuming it and what the next steps of the response should be.
Big box stores close
Big-box retail mainstays Sears, Toys R Us and Younkers left the Traverse City marketplace in 2018. They’re just the latest casualties in a years-long string of established retail chains that sank after failing to adjust to a changing marketplace.
The internet, particularly online mega-retailer Amazon, frequently comes up when people ponder why so many big-box chains are struggling. But analysts agree that several factors contributed to each chain’s decline, including management choices and changing consumer habits.
Local consumers may not care about the reasons behind national chains’ struggles. The net effect, though, is fewer places to shop in northern Michigan.
Sears’ location in Cherryland Center was one 2018 casualty of Sears Holdings’ continuing decline. The company earlier had closed both its area Kmart stores.
The Traverse City Toys ‘R’ Us store was one of 182 across the country that were shuttered in 2018 as part of that company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy organization plan announced in January. The Traverse City location had opened at the Grand Traverse Crossing Mall in 1996. It had 19 employees when it closed in February 2018.
One local bright note rang loud in 2018, months after the Gander Mountain outdoor store in Traverse City — along with 161 other stores in the chain spread across 27 states — closed in 2017. The Gander name was purchased by Camping World Chairman and CEO Marcus Lemonis, who in 2018 reopened several stores — including the Traverse City location — under the name Gander Outdoors.
Munson nurse contract dispute goes public
Munson Medical Center administration and nurses spent 2018 negotiating a contract — one that still hasn’t been reached.
MMC nurses voted 489-439 to unionize with the Michigan Nurses Association following a two-day election in August 2017. Nurses and administrators inked an agreement the next week and the first bargaining session took place Dec. 7, 2017.
The two sides have reached more than 20 tentative agreements since then, according to updates by MMC and the MNA, but nothing is finalized until nurses vote to ratify the contract. All agreements reached thus far have been on non-economic issues. Economics include thing such as wages, benefits, health insurance and retirement. Initial economic proposals have been exchanged, as have revised versions.
Throughout the bargaining process, both sides have engaged the community in various ways.
The MNA has held a rally and march attended by about 400 people, a town hall and, most recently, a candlelight vigil for health care — current topics of negotiation with MMC include nurses’ health insurance.
The MNA on Aug. 28 filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against MMC on behalf of its nurses. Current allegations, according to the NLRB’s website, include: discipline; coercive actions, rules and statements; and refusal to bargain/bad-faith bargaining.
MMC in late July and early August held seven community forums and has been reacting to MNA activities by speaking to the media. When administration is not at the table, staff are working to understand the ripple effects that any decisions regarding the nurses’ contract might have on other members of the MMC health care team.
Mark Johnson, Brooke Kansier, Sheri McWhirter, Dan Nielsen, Brendan Quealy, Jordan Travis, Alexa Zoellner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.