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Stories topping the news in 2012 in west central Minn.

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The results of the November election were the No. 1 news story in the region, as voted by members of the Tribune news staff. Two Democrats now represent the Willmar area, following a statewide trend as the DFL Party will now hold the majority in the state House and Senate.

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Drought was a big story nationwide, and its impacts were felt in west central Minnesota. The drought was voted the No. 2 story of the year.

The 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War was marked across the state, and many events were conducted in this region, both to recognize that dark chapter of the state’s history and also to promote reflection and healing. The commemoration was voted the No. 3 story of the year.

There was a tie for ninth and 10th among the staff voting: iPads in Willmar Schools and the opening of the Highway 23 bypass at Paynesville.

Following is a look at all of the stories the Tribune news staff voted into the Top 10 for 2012:

1. Election sends message and new lawmakers to Capitol

When voters went to the polls in November, they sent a message, and some new legislators, to St. Paul.

In a complete turn-around from the Republican-controlled House and Senate of the past two years, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party will have the majority in both houses when the legislative session begins Jan. 8, led at the top by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

It’s been two decades since the DFL controlled state government.

Willmar Republican lawmakers Sen. Joe Gimse and Rep. Bruce Vogel were both defeated by DFL’ers.

Newcomer Mary Sawatzky, a Willmar teacher and community volunteer, was elected over Vogel to represent District 17B.

Redistricting put Gimse in a race with Sen. Lyle Koenen of Clara City, with Koenen coming out on top in the new District 17 that includes all of Kandiyohi, Swift and Chippewa counties and most of Renville County.

Incumbents fared better in the Willmar City Council election where Councilmen Tim Johnson, Jim Dokken, Denis Anderson and Steve Ahmann were re-elected.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners will see two new faces because of the retirement of Dennis Peterson and Richard Larson. New London businessman Roger Imdieke and Willmar City Council member Doug Reese were elected to those posts.

The retirement of Kandiyohi County Auditor Sam Modderman and the departure of Jay Kieft as family services director launched the county into efforts to redesign its operations, which could eventually lead to the appointment, rather the election, of some county officials, including auditor and recorder.

In Meeker County, all five commissioners will be new to the job. Four incumbents were defeated and one retired and didn’t run for re-election.

— Carolyn Lange

2. Even as drought gripped the nation, west central Minn. fared rather well through a year of extremes

Eighty-degree weather in March? One of the earliest starts ever to the boating and motorcycle season?

The weather of 2012 seems destined to go into the record books as historically warm and dry. An early spring gave way to a hot, rainless summer that deepened into drought across parts of the United States.

West central Minnesota fared better than many locations. Adequate moisture resulted in good crop production, and area farmers benefited from rising prices. But a lack of rain through the fall has many worried about the prospects for 2013 and the possibility of continued drought.

— Anne Polta

3. Remembering a tragic history with hope for healing and understanding: 150th anniversary of U.S.-Dakota War

Commemorative events were conducted throughout west central Minnesota to mark the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, described by many as the most difficult chapter in the state’s history.

Some of the events — such as a gathering hosted by the Norway Lake and Monson Lake Associations — included descendants of the settler victims. Other events, including a gathering at the Camp Release Monument hosted by the Chippewa and Lac qui Parle Historical Societies, encouraged reflection, healing and understanding of the harms suffered by both sides.

A day of hope and healing at Ness Church in Meeker County included prayers for reconciliation.

The 150th anniversary was a time to remember not only the harms suffered during the conflict, but also to tell the often suppressed history of the injustices inflicted on the Dakota preceding it and afterward.

— Tom Cherveny

4. Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission settles lawsuit with former general manager who was terminated

WILLMAR — The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission ended a several months-long simmering dispute between the commission and general manager Bruce Gomm when the commission voted Feb. 27 to terminate Gomm, effective March 28. The termination was based on policy violations and findings in a report of an investigation into allegations of misconduct by Gomm.

On March 2, Gomm filed a lawsuit against the city of Willmar and the utilities alleging discrimination, breach of contract, fraud and violation of the Open Meeting Law, and seeking damages and reinstatement.

In early July, the Willmar City Council and Municipal Utilities Commission reached an agreement to resolve Gomm’s lawsuit after the Minnesota League of Cities Insurance Trust realized the lawsuit was going to be expensive to litigate.

In exchange for Gomm ending his lawsuit and dropping all claims against the city and the utilities commission, the commission agreed to pay Gomm $200,000.

In late January, a terminated coal handler filed a discrimination charge with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Nefi Ibarra, 31, of Willmar claimed he was treated differently and less favorably because of his Mexican origin and his Mormon religion. The utility said Ibarra was fired for failure to fulfill the expectations in performing a coal handler’s job.

The results of an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the EEOC have yet to be announced.

— David Little

5. Delbert Huber gets 30 years for Larson murder, case against Huber’s son proceeding through court

WILLMAR — Delbert Huber, 82, of rural Paynesville, pleaded guilty in August and was sentenced in September to the maximum allowed sentence of 367 months, more than 30 years, in prison for his role in the October 2011 murder of Timothy Richard Larson in northern Kandiyohi County.

According to the Department of Corrections website, the elder Huber is in the Minnesota Corrections Facility at Faribault. The sentence was on a second-degree murder charge and, as part of a plea agreement, the first-degree murder indictment against Huber was dismissed.

Huber and his son, Timothy John Huber, 46, were both indicted in Kandiyohi County District Court on first-degree murder charges, along with second-degree murder. Larson, 43, of Albertville, was killed Oct. 8, 2011, on his father’s rural Belgrade property after a confrontation with the Hubers that apparently stemmed in part from the Hubers’ farm equipment being parked at the Larson farm.

The younger Huber’s next hearing is Jan. 15 before District Judge Donald M. Spilseth. Huber has been held in the Kandiyohi County Jail on $1 million bail since the day of the shooting. He faces the possibility of spending life in prison, if he is convicted of first-degree murder.

— Gretchen Schlosser

6. Remembering a ‘soft-spoken giant’: Sen. Gary Kubly dies at age 68 after suffering with Lou Gehrig’s disease

GRANITE FALLS — State Sen. Gary Kubly was eulogized as a “soft-spoken giant with a heart that truly cared and a life that truly sang’’ following his death at age 68 on March 2, 2012.

Kubly, a DFL state legislator for 16 years from Granite Falls and an ordained Lutheran minister, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, on Dec. 9, 2010.

He continued to serve in the Legislature until being hospitalized for a cardiac event just a few days before his death.

Gov. Mark Dayton and political leaders from both parties attended services to celebrate his life. He was remembered for his compassion and as a voice of reason.

It was his determination to make a difference that may have defined him most of all. When originally diagnosed with ALS, he said he and his wife, Pat, made a decision: “Let’s not look at what you can’t do. Let’s see what you can do.’’

— Tom Cherveny

7. Group cites concerns over Willmar City Council ‘dysfunction’

WILLMAR — At the Dec. 3 Willmar City Council meeting, a group of 15 business people and citizens calling themselves Moving Willmar Forward expressed concerns about the state of affairs inside and outside of city government. The group said it was coming forward united to demonstrate public concern for the need to improve the manner in which elected and appointed officials conduct city business.

The group said it had formed within the last 30 to 35 days to discuss concerns they and others had heard in the community. The group said there were no particular council actions or inactions. Some concerns were the health of the mayor, micromanagement by council members, a strained relationship between the mayor and city administrator, and the perception of lack of trust.

The group issued a “white paper’’ citing concerns and recommendations, which included requesting proposals from firms to conduct an organizational review of the city. At the Dec. 17 meeting, the council voted to request proposals from firms to do the organizational study. Proposals for a compensation study will also be requested.

Council member Ron Christianson called Moving Willmar Forward a special interest group and an arm of the Willmar Chamber of Commerce, and he said the group should bring its concerns through the council’s committee process.

— David Little

8. Kandiyohi County, local stakeholders put themselves in the forefront of fight against aquatic invasive species

WILLMAR — As a growing number of lakes in the state were listed as infested with zebra mussels in 2012, Kandiyohi County put itself in the forefront of the effort to keep aquatic invasive species from its waters.

The effort is multi-faceted, starting with efforts by the Green Lake Property Owners Association to secure more inspections and the use of a power washer at the lake, to the creation of a newly formed county task force led by Mike O’Brien, a retired conservation officer.

Zebra mussels were confirmed in Lake Minnewaska in 2012. Worries about the spread of other invasive species grew through the year too. Asian carp continued to make their way up the Mississippi River, and are expected to eventually migrate up the Minnesota River and its tributaries.

Transport by humans remains the main cause of the spread of zebra mussels, and consequently efforts to slow their spread have focused on education and tougher penalties.

— Tom Cherveny

9./10. State Hwy. 23 bypass at Paynesville opens

PAYNESVILLE  — The $32.2 million state Highway 23 bypass project around Paynesville opened July 20. The project began in 2010 and was finished about a month ahead of schedule.

The 7.5-mile, four-lane bypass skirts the town’s north side. That gives motorists a faster route around town but also means a loss of traffic and customers to businesses along the old route.

The project was in the planning stages for years and brings the Kandiyohi County area a little closer to a four-lane link to the Twin Cities.

Gaps in the four-lane route exist, however, and it may be decades before there is finding to finish it.

— Carolyn Lange

9./10. Fundraising helps put iPads in hands of Willmar students in junior, senior classes

WILLMAR — IPads for Cardinals: A community fundraising effort raised more than a quarter of a million dollars to help provide an Apple iPad tablet computer for each student in the junior and senior classes at Willmar Senior High. About 600 students are now using the iPads, which help them do research, make video presentations and do homework. It has given all students access to technology, even those whose families don’t have computers.

Teachers throughout the district are using the tablets, too, and students in other schools are able to use iPads in classes. The Willmar School District hopes to be able to provide individual iPads to sophomores and possibly freshmen next year.

— Linda Vanderwerf

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