The 10 top stories of 2013

“Our agency made mistakes. We will learn from them, and we will take measures to ensure it does not happen again.” Sheriff Sid Gautreaux

Writers and editors for The Advocate took a look back at 2013, another 12 months packed with tragedy, controversial issues that are sure to carry into 2014 and happenings that bolster hope for the future. Below is the list of Top 10 stories for 2013.

New city of St. George?

Those who think creating a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish must be done for the future improvement of schools in the St. George area continue to search for neighbors willing to sign a petition to put the incorporation initiative on a ballot.

Following in the mold of the city of Central, which went through the same process a decade ago, St. George city backers claim they have more than half the names needed on petitions to force a vote.

But as St. George city backers dream of seeing the proposal on a ballot, some officials in Baton Rouge have said the dream is a nightmare that will drain the city government and parish school system of needed revenue. The battle lines are beginning to be drawn.

“While we understand that the incorporation organizers have issues that they think will be solved by this effort, we believe that it will lead to disastrous, unintended consequences,” said Chris Stewart, president of Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237. “We have made great strides in the war on crime in recent years, and the incorporation of St. George will harm those efforts.”

Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation took no position on the St. George movement but commissioned a financial impact study that found the new city would take 40 percent of city-parish revenue but only 25 percent of the population it serves.

St. George proponents said they were expecting opposition.

“We are literally fighting City Hall,” said Lionel Rainey, a leader in the incorporation effort.

Rainey has stressed that the incorporation effort came about in an attempt to create a breakaway school district after the state Legislature previously killed the effort.

“I can assure you that this didn’t start out as a group of people who said, ‘Let’s go create a new city,’ ” Rainey said. “Nobody wanted to go into this fighting to create a new city, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.”

If St. George supporters succeed, the new city would cover about 85 square miles and have more than 107,000 residents.

Baton Rouge Police Department chief problems.

Police Chief Dewayne White’s tenure came to an end in 2013, but the veteran lawman didn’t go quietly. Far from it.

In 2011, White stood side-by-side with East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden as the newly selected chief. White was Holden’s choice to stem the ever increasing crime problem in the parish.

On Feb. 6, though, building tensions led Holden to fire White.

Holden claimed in a dismissal letter that White violated 14 items, including “statutory law,” department policy and directives from the mayor-president.

The police union also joined Holden in the fight against White.

White denied the accusations and mounted an appeal in an attempt to get his job back via the Police and Fire Civil Service Board, which he dropped after a protracted fight over evidence.

“I became chief with the very clear mission of ending corruption, cronyism, crime, and making Baton Rouge a better and safer city,” White said in the statement. “It is clear to me that in my attempts to accomplish these goals, I have ruffled feathers and stepped on toes.”

Chris Stewart, the union president, called White’s decision to abandon his appeal “a great day for Baton Rouge, for the citizens, for the Police Department, for the police union, for the administration.” He called White’s tenure the “worst era in BRPD history.”

Holden appointed Carl Dabadie on July 31 as the provisional police chief to run the office until White’s successor could be found.

CATS upheaval.

Less than a year after voters agreed to dedicate a tax to provide a steady income stream to Baton Rouge’s public bus company, questions of mismanagement attracted new scrutiny and prompted change.

A legal challenge to throw out the tax vote failed, but those pushing for management change had much more luck.

Riders as well as Together Baton Rouge, a group that helped get the bus tax approved by voters, chastised CATS management and its board for not meeting the promises it made to voters.

In April, CATS’ embattled CEO Brian Marshall resigned.

“It is my opinion that the current environment is not conducive to building a sustainable system,” Marshall wrote.

Months later, the CATS board recommended that a local engineering firm with no transit management experience, SBJ Group, receive an 18-month CATS transit management contract — a move the board backed away from after harsh criticism.

City-parish leaders questioned whether the board could do the job.

“I call on you to take immediate action to assure that the CATS board fulfills the commitments it made to the voters of East Baton Rouge Parish when they approved a millage specifically for the implementation of a new and improved transit system,” Mayor-President Kip Holden said in an email to the Metro Council.

Members of the board did step down, for varying reasons.

Montrell McCaleb resigned after he was accused of using CATS’ funds to pay personal bills. Board President Isaiah Marshall resigned amid allegations of misconduct at the bus company.

Later in the year, board member Jared Loftus resigned, claiming that some CATS board members were inept and unethical.

Councilman Ryan Heck also resigned, but he left with hope for the bus company’s future.

“In the past 8½ months, CATS has been through some turbulent times, for sure,” Heck wrote. “Most, if not all, of that turbulence was well-deserved. However, I believe the house at CATS has now been significantly cleaned up due to the efforts of many working feverishly to do so, and I look forward to hearing some positive news about CATS in the future.”

Port Allen mayor recalled.

The year 2013 was quite a tumultuous one for residents of Port Allen. Less than a year after the city’s new mayor, Demetric “Deedy” Slaughter, took office, voters were back at the polls to recall her.

Questions about Slaughter’s leadership began when she asked taxpayers to cover the $2,500 cost of traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

She also caught heat from some in the West Baton Rouge Parish town for boosting her own salary by $20,000 a year to $84,960 annually without getting council approval.

Slaughter also raised eyebrows when she hired her brother-in-law, Ralph Slaughter, as a nonpaid chief of staff.

As the mayor and City Council fought over the city’s 2013-14 budget, meetings in Port Allen became raucous.

The budget debacle only deepened the divide between Slaughter and some members of the council. Slaughter proposed slashing the annual salary for Chief Administrative Officer Adrian Genre from $64,867 to $44,867, and sliced Chief Financial Officer Audrey McCain’s salary from $73,034 to $33,034.

“It’s a blatant, childish retribution to these employees,” Councilman Garry Hubble said.

The budget battle continues to linger, even after voters removed Slaughter from office.

Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed Lynn Robertson as interim mayor because the council could not agree on a person to serve in the position until Slaughter’s replacement is chosen by voters.

In the final meeting of the year, council members learned there could be some lingering issues, including an audit report that chides the council for not amending the budget to reflect Slaughter’s $20,000 pay increase and questions about whether the public should have to pay for Slaughter’s attorneys in several lawsuits while she was mayor.

The Advocate sold.

The stakes were raised in Louisiana’s newspaper war when New Orleans businessman John Georges purchased The Advocate from the Manship family, owners of the newspaper since 1909. The Advocate’s history goes back to 1842 when The Democratic Advocate, a weekly paper, was first published.

“The Advocate is a strong brand with dedicated employees and a supportive community,” Georges, who serves as publisher, said. He named Dan Shea as general manager and Peter Kovacs as editor, and he announced that The Advocate’s main office and printing plant will remain in Baton Rouge.

During the months that followed, The Advocate launched The New Orleans Advocate and pushed forward with an aggressive sales campaign, picking up subscribers in a market where The Times-Picayune angered its customers by giving up daily home delivery.

The Advocate also hired some of the biggest names in Louisiana journalism, including Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Walt Handelsman and columnists James Gill, Stephanie Grace, Nell Nolan and Steven Forster.

Late in the year, the newspaper also launched The Acadiana Advocate and brought on columnist Patricia Gannon, who covers Lafayette’s social scene.

At a time when the business is declining, the moves made The Advocate one of the few newspapers in the United States to enjoy circulation growth, both in its original markets of Baton Rouge and Lafayette and also in the New Orleans area.

IBM chooses downtown Baton Rouge.

IBM has started work on a first-of-its-kind software development center at the former site of The Advocate on Lafayette Street, creating 800 new jobs and helping transform downtown Baton Rouge.

Once complete, IBM will be housed in an eight-story building and an adjoining residential tower, which will contain 95 apartments and nine luxury town houses. The project is expected to cost about $55 million and should be complete by spring 2015.

Downtown Development Director Davis Rhorer said the March 27 announcement by IBM created a buzz in downtown: “Once the announcement was made, our office was inundated with phone calls” from current and prospective downtown businesses and developers.

“The hope for everybody is that there will be businesses that feed off of IBM and it actually becomes a hub,” Branon Pesnell, a broker with Beau Box Commercial Real Estate, said.

The city-parish allocated $4.5 million over three years that will flow through Louisiana Economic Development to be combined with the state’s $78.5 million contribution.

By the end of September, the impact of the project was already being felt in Baton Rouge. IBM Senior Vice President Colleen Arnold said the center has exceeded its employment schedule. Richard Koubek, dean of the LSU College of Engineering, said the plan is to triple the number of computer science graduates at the university from 30 to 90 and to increase the size of the computer science faculty from 13 to 25 in the next three to five years to provide IBM with a steady pipeline of potential employees. He said the number of first-year computer science students at LSU increased by 125 students, or about 55 percent, in the fall semester.

IBM already has more than 100 employees locally, working out of a temporary location in the Essen Centre office building. Dima Ghawi, manager of talent development, said the service center is expected to open April 15, 2015.

Sheriff’s Office ends practice of targeting gay men in BREC parks.

An anti-sodomy law in Louisiana had been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago, but East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies were still enforcing it.

At least a dozen arrests were made on men who had agreed to have sex with an undercover deputy away from the public park where they met. There was no exchange of money that ever took place.

District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office refused to prosecute each one of the cases because his assistants found no crime had occurred.

“The Sheriff’s Office’s intentions are all good,” Moore said. “But from what I’ve seen of these cases, legally, we found no criminal violation.”

Advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community were outraged.

“It’s really unfortunate that police are continuing to single out, target, falsely arrest and essentially ruin the lives of gay men in Baton Rouge who are engaged in no illegal conduct,” said Andrea J. Ritchie, a civil rights attorney.

Sheriff Sid Gautreaux remained quiet on the issue for a number of days before issuing a statement.

“Our agency made mistakes,” Gautreaux said, adding it was not the Sheriff’s Office’s intention to target gay men. “We will learn from them, and we will take measures to ensure it does not happen again.”

A push ensued to remove the invalid laws from the books.

“I believe from a convenience standpoint for law enforcement officers around the state, we should remove it from the books or modify it to be constitutional,” said state Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, chairman of the House Committee of Administration of Criminal Justice, which oversees criminal laws.

The law remains on the books, but Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said repealing the law “would be good, but the real issue is that the sheriff apparently has not been properly training his staff to know what laws are enforceable and which ones are not.

“Courts strike down laws either in whole or in part all the time,” she said. “The root of the problem is that they should have known better.”

Parents and teachers in parish after parish call for changes in Common Core.

In the education world, no two words seemed to evoke more passion than Common Core.

Louisiana and 44 other states adopted the more stringent standards in 2010, but the program was not to be fully implemented until the 2014-15 school year. Parents, teachers, administrators and state education officials fought and haggled over whether to leave the tough standards in place.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, the hottest Common Core issue arose over which firm should instruct the teachers on the new standards. Superintendent Bernard Taylor had hoped to have a firm or firms in place before the Thanksgiving break.

In the end, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board decided to go with Center for Development & Learning of Metairie to train Baton Rouge teachers how to handle new educational standards. That decision wasn’t reached until November, meaning the training wouldn’t begin until 2014.

On a statewide level, state Superintendent of Education John White in late November proposed some changes to Common Core, including teacher evaluations, public school letter grades and promotion policies.

On Dec. 3, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved several changes — which included changes to letter grades for schools, promotion policies and teacher evaluations — that are meant to soften the transition toward full implementation of Common Core.

Despite the changes, talk remains that Common Core could become a major issue during the upcoming legislative session.

The 2014 regular session begins on March 10, and Common Core is expected to be a key issue.

Plant explosions in Ascension Parish.

Employees at Williams Olefins ran from a huge fireball that ignited the sky at the Geismar plant June 13 when a ruptured reboiler released a vapor cloud that ignited.

Two people died in the blast: Zachary Green, 29, of Hammond, had been with the company less than a year; and Scott Thrower, 47, of St. Amant, a company supervisor of operations, died in a Baton Rouge-area burn unit a day later, officials said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said there were 80 injuries in addition to the two deaths, while the company and others have previously reported more than 100 injuries.

Thirty-six hours after the explosion at Williams Olefins, an overpressurized vessel ruptured at the CF Industries chemical plant in Donaldsonville, killing one person, Ronald “Rocky” Morris Jr., 55, of Belle Rose in Assumption Parish. Seven others were injured.

Lawsuits have been filed by injured workers or the families of those killed in the wake of both explosions.

In December, OSHA proposed fining Williams Olefins $99,000 for safety violations in a finding that, under agency rules, could lead to a criminal investigation. The five serious violations against Williams include failure to provide appropriate pressure relief for the ruptured reboiler and failure by Williams to promptly correct 12 of 32 safety deficiencies that an internal company compliance audit team found in 2010, OSHA said.

Williams Partners, of Tulsa, Okla., said it expects to finish the estimated $102 million in repairs by April and also a $450 million to $500 million ethylene production expansion that had been underway at the time of the June 13 explosion and fire.

YouTube fugitive arrested.

On March 25, Wade Lohse waited in a Lafayette courtroom while his lawyer and prosecutor discussed a plea deal that would have combined a weapons charge with felony burglary and vehicular homicide charges.

In a seemingly mundane act that would become far from that, Lohse told his attorney he needed to deposit coins in an outside parking meter.

He never came back.

Instead, Lohse went on the run and began using YouTube to rail against prosecutors and the judiciary.

Wearing a gray T-shirt and standing amid a grove of trees, Lohse appeared on YouTube but didn’t disclose his location during an 11-minute, 18-second video.

“The problem is that you people (police and prosecutors) are going to make me look like a bad guy,” Lohse says in nonstop, run-on sentences in the YouTube spot, “because you want them (the public) to be on your side when really the problem is that you’re the bad people because you’re going after people for no reason.

“You’re wasting your resources on stuff that is inconsequential at this point because you just want to put me in prison …” he said during the rambling video.

The 43-year-old Youngsville man was ultimately captured in Philadelphia on April 17.

“May justice be served,” said Cindy Barras, whose daughter, Cacie Barras McGrew, was killed when her car was rammed on the Youngsville Highway in June by a Jeep Cherokee driven by Lohse.

Lohse, after he was returned to Lafayette, escaped a probable life sentence when he pleaded no contest to driving drunk and killing the 29-year-old mother in summer 2012.

Judge Kristian Earles sentenced Lohse to 20 years in prison the day before Lohse was to stand trial for vehicular homicide.