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Officer's death somber end to 2010

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- The year 2010 opened with a brewing controversy over the selection of a new Dougherty County school superintendent and ended with the tragic death of a Dougherty County police officer.

In between, a spirited election season piqued voters' interest for a sizable portion of a year that also featured a state investigation into possible cheating on standardized tests in Dougherty County schools, a magical pro baseball season for Leesburg native Buster Posey and the firing of an Albany civil rights leader by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The year also saw a surprise conclusion to Albany's hospital battles when HCA agreed to sell Palmyra Medical Center to the Hospital Authority of Dougherty County for $195 million.

Southwest Georgia had a rare blanket of snow in February, both Albany and Lee County saw changes announced in their top administrators and aggressive Africanized honeybees showed up in Georgia for the first time, killing a Dougherty County man in October.

POLICE OFFICER SLAIN

Lt. Cliff Rouse, an 18-year veteran of the Dougherty County Police Department, was killed Dec. 23 while trying to apprehend an armed robbery suspect in East Albany.

Rouse, also a veteran of the U.S. Army, was shot twice below his protective vest with a 9 mm handgun near the Pitt Stop convenience store on Sylvester Road. He was the first to die in the line of duty in the history of the department, according to Chief Don Cheek.

The man now thought to have killed him, Dontravious Thomas, 20, has been charged with murder, armed robbery and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. Before the shooting that killed Rouse, Thomas was charged with burglary and two counts of theft stemming from an incident at the same convenience store -- and had twice violated the terms of his felony probation.

Hundreds attended Rouse's funeral in Albany and a fund has been set up for his wife and children at Regions Bank.

SCHOOL BOARD SUED

The Albany Herald, WALB-TV and WFXL-TV sued the Dougherty County School Board in February to force the board comply with the Georgia Open Records Law. The board contended Joshua Murfree was the lone finalist candidate for school superintendent, though two board members admitted there were other finalists.

Dougherty Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall issued a temporary restraining order against the school system, the School Board and its seven members. The suit was filed in an effort to get the court to require school system officials to provide information on other finalists for the position.

The Herald discovered the identity of one of the finalists -- Roy Brooks of Arkansas, who later accepted the job as superintendent of the Sumter County School System in Americus, and uncovered a longtime nonprofit business connection between Murfree and board member Anita Williams-Brown. WFXL tracked down a second finalist, Valya Lee of Clayton County.

After public outcry and packed meetings from concerned citizens, the board eventually agreed to release to the public identities and information on three candidates who were under consideration. The suit is dropped but the board never reveals any other names, stating the other finalists -- who knew Murfree was a lock for the position -- withdrew from consideration.

Murfree replaced Sally Whatley, who had served as the district's school chief for nine years. Whatley, who retired June 30, worked for the Dougherty School System for 15 of her 33 years in education. She announced in August 2009 that she would retire at the end of the next school year.

The school system lost both of its two top administrators that day, since it was also Deputy Superintendent Carlos Keith's final day on the job. The 40-year educator had served as deputy chief for nine years. He was replaced by Kenneth Goseer, former principal of Terrell County Middle School.

LONG FEUD ENDS

The Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County authorized Phoebe Putney Health System to purchase Palmyra Medical Center from Hospital Corporation of America. Phoebe officials say the deal will cost $195 million.

The authority voted unanimously to approve the deal at a Dec. 21 meeting. The acquisition will include all assets and property owned by Palmyra. Closing of the purchase is expected to take place in late January, at which time the 248-bed hospital will convert to a not-for-profit facility and be known as Phoebe North.

Phoebe officials say that the recent buyout, if finalized, will help them expand services at their existing Albany facility. Joel Wernick, the health system's CEO, has said the deal will not have an impact on the area's tax digest.

In a survey posted on albanyherald.com before the slaying of Rouse, the purchase of Palmyra ranked first among voters.

STATE PROBES TESTING

The state of Georgia launched a probe of the Dougherty County School System's 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test results as state officials determine the number of erasures in changing wrong answers to right were abnormally high.

Gov. Sonny Perdue called for a special investigation in August after the results of previous investigations into Atlanta Public Schools and Dougherty County's CRCT scores were thought to be "woefully inadequate."

Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson were appointed to head the investigation, with Richard L. Hyde to assist. An executive order came down shortly afterward allowing the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to provide its resources for the probe.

The investigation is ongoing now.

SHERROD FIRED

Shirley Sherrod of Albany was forced to resign from her job as a state director official for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in July after a video surfaces on YouTube in which she made comments that sparked a controversy.

The remarks, which were made at a Coffee County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People event in March, were regarding her reluctance to help a white farmer, who was seeking help from the government 24 years ago.

After the tape was shown in full and the context gave the statements a different meaning, President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack both apologized to Sherrod. She was offered another position with USDA, but declined it.

A MAGICAL SEASON

Lee County native Buster Posey had a dramatic rookie season with the San Francisco Giants. After being called up in June, Posey, 23, had a 21-game hitting streak, helped his team win a World Series championship and then won the National League Rookie of the Year award.

He was the second player with a Southwest Georgia connection to win Rookie of the Year (the first was Cairo's Jackie Robinson), and was the sixth Giant, as well as the sixth catcher to, be tapped for the honor.

He capped off the year by serving as grand marshal of Leesburg's Christmas parade last month.

RISING STAR

Leesburg's homegrown country star Luke Bryan officially became the top new artist in the genre in April at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas.

Bryan was quick to acknowledge his hometown in his acceptance speech. "To my hometown of Leesburg, Georgia, I love you!" he said.

Top new artist was a category that was decided by fan votes. Three categories, top new solo artist, top new duo and top new group, were decided by online voting in February and March. The winners in those three categories, Bryan, duo Joey + Rory, and group Gloriana, competed for the top new artist award that Bryan ultimately won.

ELEVEN HOMICIDES

Eleven people were victims of homicide in Dougherty County in 2010.

The list of slaying victims included Walter Phelps, a former Lee County commissioner. He was fatally shot July 2 at his business, P&P Garden Center, on North Slappey Boulevard. Four people have been charged with his slaying.

Also slain during 2010 were Dominic Lamar King, LaShelton Kernard Stanford, Beverly Jean Williams, Shandreka T. Watson, Malcom Todd, Christopher Donald, Frankie Carr, Thelma Carter, Sentos Vicente and DCP Lt. Cliff Rouse.

In 2009, there were eight murder victims in the Albany-Dougherty County area.

AFRICANIZED HONEYBEES

Africanized honeybees showed up in Georgia for the first time when Curtis Davis, 73, was attacked and killed while clearing land in Dougherty County in October.

The bees that killed Davis were confirmed to be of the Africanized strain roughly a week after the attack. A month later, a local beekeeping group was established by Kathy Brinson and Richard Grebel.

This month, Georgia agriculture officials confirmed that they had found two more colonies of the aggressive bees in Dougherty.

CARNEGIE HERO

In June, the late Gary "D.J." Vinson of Sylvester was recognized as one of 23 Carnegie Medal winners for his heroic act in trying to help save two youngsters who were trapped in the Flint River in 2008.

Vinson and 11-year-old Joshua Perry perished when Joshua fell back into the swift river current and Vinson dove into the water to save him. Joshua's younger brother, Matthews, was successfully rescued.

Vinson, who was nominated for the award by The Albany Herald, was the 17th Southwest Georgian to be recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund since 1904.

EXPENSIVE FAILURE

A failed low-cost housing project by Cutliff Grove Family Resource Center forced the city of Albany to reimburse the federal government $364,000.

Dougherty District Attorney Greg Edwards said his office would investigate the situation after the City Commission rejected a settlement proposed by the center that would have allowed the city to claim title to the land in exchange for first refusal rights.

The FRC applied for Community Housing Development Organization status in January 2004, which came through the following October. It was decertified as a CHDO in October 2009.

UNIQUE PROJECT

In May, Dougherty County and Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany broke ground on a pilot energy project that is environmentally friendly.

MCLB-Albany will pipe gas created by decomposing trash in a nearby county landfill and use it to produce energy for the base. The system will be used around the clock to power the installation as well as serve as an emergency power system for the maintenance center.

It will also allow the base to produce electricity on-site, which will offset the purchase of electricity as well as natural gas for steam production.

The $22 million undertaking is expected to bring MCLB's total renewable energy use to 22 percent overall, which exceeds congressional mandated standards.

CHANGES AT THE TOP

Albany City Manager Alfred Lott announced that he was resigning effective June 30, 2011.

After roughly five years on the job, Lott tendered his resignation in July.

He requested time to go through another budget process with his department heads and to continue refining spending controls through Fiscal Year 2011, as well as get some vital leadership positions within the city filled before his departure.

Lott says he is planning to relocate to either Maryland or Northern Virginia. The City Commission opted to recruit Florida-based Colin Beanziger & Associates this month to replace him.

In Lee County, officials are looking for a replacement for the man who has been instrumental in helping make it one of the state's fastest-growing counties.

Alan Ours, who had served as county administrator since May 2005, accepted the job of county administrator for Glynn County. He took his new position in August. Ours said the opportunity to head up a larger organization and the cultural amenities of the Glynn County area attracted him to the position.

Al Grace, one of the finalists for the Glynn County job, was hired by Lee County as its interim administrator while county officials search for a permanent replacement.

PUBLIC PERSONNEL

Albany Deputy Police Chief Wilma Griffin ended her tenure with the Albany Police Department after 35 years. She earned a number of milestones to her name during her days in the department, including first black officer to be assigned to the narcotics division, first female detective lieutenant, first female captain and first female assistant chief of police.

She also served as interim chief of APD before Chief John Proctor was hired in 2009.

On June 30, Albany City Manager Alfred Lott fired assistant city attorney Kathy Strang at the recommendation of City Attorney Nathan Davis, who cited unprofessionalism, improper behavior and negligence.

The decision came down following an appeal hearing and a period during which Strang had been on suspension with pay. Strang contended the dismissal was in retaliation for her reporting earlier that Davis had a pistol in the desk drawer of his city office, which resulted in Davis being suspended for three days.

Albany Civic Center Director John Mazzola left that job to manage facilities in Dodge City, Kansas. City officials were back at square one to find a new director when negotiations with Albany businessman Lane Rosen failed Thursday. It was the city's second effort to land a finalist after its previous choice, Shannon McCullough, currently the operations director of the Classic Center in Athens, withdrew from consideration in September.

Aaron Blair, an executive administrator and project manager for Living Word Family Church in Naples, Fla., was hired as Albany's new downtown manager. His predecessor, Don Buie, was released from jail in June after serving six months for pleading guilty in December 2009 to fraud.

In Lee County, Uel Kemp was named general manager of Grand Island Golf Club, a county-owned facility that turned its first profit in Fiscal Year 2010.

WAL-MART BREAKS GROUND

After years of rumors, Wal-Mart began construction on a new supercenter in East Albany, which has been starving for positive economic news.

Ground was cleared for the project in April, a month after officials confirmed that closing had ended on the property -- which is located on Clark Avenue at Cordele Road.

The store is expected to open early this year. Dougherty County officials estimate that the facility could create 400-500 jobs and will generate more than $2.2 million annually in sales taxes.

ELECTION SEASON

The Tea Party flexed its muscle this year by gaining more influence in the political arena. In the meantime, the 2010 election season turned out to be an exciting one overall for Southwest Georgia.

Despite public skepticism, Dougherty County voters approved an extension of its special-purpose, local-option sales tax. When all the ballots were counted, SPLOST VI had passed with a vote of 17,265-7,792.

Dougherty School Board member Milton Griffin, who was embroiled in the Murfree hiring controversy, easily defeated both a Democratic and Republican challenger to win a new four-year term in the School Board.

Other new faces on the board this year will include Carol Tharin, who replaces Emily Jean McAfee, and Darrel Ealum, who replaces Michael Windom. Neither McAfee nor Windom stood for re-election. The County Commission also will get a new member as Ewell Lyle replaces Chuck Lingle, who did not seek a new term. Jack Stone, the board's longest serving commissioner, and John Hayes won new terms.

Former Dougherty County prosecutor Ken Hodges, meanwhile, lost his bid to be state attorney general to Sam Olens, a former Cobb County Commission chairman.

Leesburg voters on Nov. 2 approved two alcohol consumption referendums. The first allows restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages and the second allowed those sales also to take place on Sundays.

BISHOP VS. KEOWN

A safe congressional district suddenly came into play as state Rep. Mike Keown, a Republican from Coolidge, challenged nine-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, an Albany Democrat, for the Second Congressional District seat.

Keown, who attracted GOP attention when he proved he could raise funds for a credible race and easily defeated two other candidates for the Republican nomination, was erroneously declared the winner in the race shortly after 11 p.m. on election night by The Associated Press. A few hours later, Bishop came back to claim a 10th term in Congress.

When Keown conceded the race on Nov. 3, the Georgia Secretary of State's office had Bishop holding a 4,756-vote lead. The returns showed the incumbent had received 72 percent of the vote in Dougherty and Muscogee counties. Keown carried the majority of the total votes cast outside those two counties.

SIAC CHAMPS

Albany State University claimed the SIAC football crown and made it to the third round of the playoffs in 2010.

The team's season ended on Dec. 4 with a 28-7 loss to Delta State University, finishing the year 11-1. It was the second time in school history ASU had reached the quarterfinals.

Albany State's SIAC championship, which was won after defeating Fort Valley State University on Nov. 6, was the first obtained by the institution since 2006.

STATE CHAMPS

Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany and Westwood School in Camilla each had undefeated seasons, winning state championships in the GISA for their respective classifications.

Both teams ended their seasons with perfect 13-0 records. Deerfield-Windsor won its third Class AAA title, while Westwood won its first title since 2001 in Class A.

Also, Deerfield coach Allen Lowe and Westwood coach Ross Worsham were named Coach of the Year in their respective classifications.

COLD WINTERS

A cold winter turned Albany and much of Southwest Georgia into a rare winter wonderland when snow blanketed the area on Feb. 12.

The white stuff started coming down after 3 p.m., and was accumulating by 5 p.m. The winter weather caused multiple entities to close down, including the schools in Dougherty County. By the end of the snowfall, Albany had close to two inches on the ground.

On Dec. 8, the area got a few pre-Christmas flurries, but nothing stuck.

HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT

Unemployment stayed in the double digits for the metro Albany area, with the state of Georgia also exceeding the national jobless average all year.

The latest numbers available from the Georgia Department of Labor indicate that metro Albany's unemployment rate was at 10.8 percent in November. The state and national rates were 10.1 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.

In December 2009, the unemployment rate in Albany was at 10.2 percent.